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It can’t be intentional, Marc thinks. Must be near the hundredth time he’s thought it. It can’t be intentional, or the big guy would just say something, right?

“Here, friend Marc!” Angelo swings his arms up, draping the thick, heavy material of his cloak around Marc’s shoulders. He beams as Marc furrows his brow in confusion, squawking half a protest as Angelo’s hands lift the hood to pull it over his head, shielding Marc’s face from the driving rain.

“Wh- wha- why?”

“You looked cold up upon the delightful Dampierre, friend Marc,” Angelo says, his face open and sincere. “I find myself quite warm despite the rain, and so I imagined that you might benefit more from my cloak than I myself would.”

Marc reaches a hand up to grip the clasp of the cloak, intending to pull it off, but-

It is much warmer with the heavy, sturdy cloth around his shoulders like a hug, and… the cloth, strangely, smells like baking, sugary and friendly and sweet. How-

“That’s very kind of you, Sir Angelo,” Talfryn says, in that particular tone of voice that means he’s chastising Marc for being rude. Judging by the unwavering grin on the knight’s face, though, he isn’t bothered by that rudeness, so Marc doesn’t feel too awful about it either.

“Yeah,” he says instead, his thumb still brushing over the clasp of the cloak as Dampierre whickers softly beneath him. “Uh. Thanks, Angelo.”

 


It’s weird, traveling with Sir Angelo. It was different when it was the two pairs of men traveling sort-of together to find Rilla. Even after the Nymphs, when they reached enough of an understanding that they weren’t at each other’s throats anymore, it still felt like two different groups of people who just happened to have the same goal, who happened to be in a position to be watching each other’s backs. They weren’t really one collective group, at least not by the time that Dampierre lost a shoe and Marc had to fall behind.

This time, there’s less pressure on the whole thing. No one in deadly peril, no dire threat looming large over the Citadel. It’s as simple as the three of them taking the scenic route (as in, not by magical portal) to visit Sir Damien and Rilla and Scales.

Actually, in technicality, Sirs Angelo and Damien are supposed to be traveling to “assess the level of danger presented by the monstrous occupation of the area known as the Swamp of Titan’s Blooms,” but obviously, that’s… not exactly a real issue, even if it would be impossible to explain that to the Queen.

Marc wasn’t there when Rilla heard the assignment her fiance and friend were saddled with, but the way he understands it she wasted no time in grinning wide, grabbing Damien by the wrist, and sing-songing something about a month’s vacation, totally justified.

Apparently, since Angelo went all puppy-eyed at the prospect of not having his joined-at-the-hip best friend for the little trek, and he’s too damn dutiful to sit on his haunches for the few weeks it should take to pretend to walk to the swamp and back, Rilla had also suggested Marc and Tal as traveling companions before she and Damien slipped into her hut and then, uh, disappeared. And, despite some initial grumbling, Marc is actually kind of excited for the opportunity to get back to that swamp and maybe get another look at Scales’ cool self-defending castle, and for Tal to have the chance to do a little more exploring in the swamp proper.

What Marc is surprised by, though, is how much odder it is to spend time with Sir Angelo without the buffer of Sir Damien. Angelo seems… genuinely delighted to get to know Marc and Tal better, he’s a courteous and generous traveling companion, and he has this habit of just- catching Marc’s gaze and smiling.

Which shouldn’t be a big deal, Marc thinks. But it’s the way he smiles that concerns Marc. It’s this wide, slow-blooming sunflower grin, like remembering that Marc exists is enough to smack the knight full of joy. Which is totally bunk, because when most people remember that Marc is there, he usually gets more of a roll-the-eyes response.

Angelo smiles at Tal, too, which is nice, but Marc… Marc has this strange feeling that it’s different from the way Angelo smiles at him.

Anyway. It’s weird, and it makes Marc feel a little like his stomach is doing cartwheels, and it’s been distracting enough that Dampierre has needed to sputter at him to keep the both of them on the path more than once already.

He should be able to stop himself from staring when Angelo smiles. So far, though, the effort has proven to be a total pain in the ass.

 


It can’t be intentional. The knight is just nice to everyone.

The reason he keeps giving Marc more cookies than Tal (where does he keep getting cookies from?) is because he knows that Tal has less of a sweet tooth. He just- pays attention! That’s all!

Marc takes an aggressive sort of bite from a soft, sweet piece of shortbread, and he pretends that the delighted grin that Angelo shoots his way doesn’t make his face feel hot. Because, and Marc cannot stress this enough, it doesn’t mean anything.

 


Angelo gently strokes Dampierre’s neck, smiling in an awestruck sort of way as the horse snorts and then nudges his nose into Angelo’s other hand, snatching up the wild berries the knight has collected along the road today.

“Such a clever beast you have, friend Marc!” Angelo says with a wide smile, eyes sparkling, and Marc feels his heart do something swooping and strange.

“Y-yeah,” Marc says, and Angelo won’t notice that Marc is staring so long as he’s preoccupied with Dampierre, right? “Best horse in the whole damn world.”

“And lucky to have such a brave and caring partner in yourself, my friend!"

Nope. Angelo swings his eyes up towards Marc, warm and fond and to hell with this, actually. Marc presses his heels into Dampierre and the horse knows to skip forward a few steps, whickering softly and startling that look off of Angelo's face enough that Marc's fists can unclench.

"Got a mind of his own sometimes, though," Marc says casually, apologetically, and when he pats Dampierre’s neck Angelo smiles again, soft and understanding.

"As a good partner should!" he says. "I've been learning much, lately, about the benefits of consulting many perspectives rather than limiting oneself to the viewpoints one is familiar with-"

Angelo continues as he keeps pace with Dampierre's slow walk, and Marc listens. He listens, and Angelo’s smile gleams as bright as his armor, and Marc feels a little bit like he could do this forever, actually.

Which is ridiculous, because Angelo is like this with everyone, right? Marc swallows uncomfortably, tearing his eyes away from the knight. Angelo is just like this with everyone. He’s just trying to do exactly what he’s talking about- getting different perspectives. It’s not about Marc at all. He tears his eyes away from the knight again. He’s not treating Marc special. Of course he isn’t.

 


The cooking is a nice surprise.

Normally, Marc and Tal switch off cooking meals back and forth while they’re on the road, though usually it’s Tal that has to remind them to stop regularly to actually do any cooking instead of just gnawing on hardtack and jerky as they ride. Marc tends to get distracted, tends to focus more on whatever is right in front of him until his stomach is rumbling and he finally remembers that yeah, his body needs stuff like food and probably a quick nap or whatever. Tal’s a slightly better cook, though neither of them are really good at it. Marc can skin a rabbit caught along the way, can skewer some meat to roast over the fire, and Tal can usually find some edible greenery nearby to make the food suck slightly less, but it’s never enjoyable like a good hot meal in a tavern would be.

Traveling with Angelo, though, mealtime is a different story.

The guy seems to have a weirdly endless supply of treats, little candies and baked goods that he pulls from his pack and carefully unwraps and never hesitates to share, but beyond that he never seems to treat any meal as perfunctory. He can take whatever ingredients they have in their combined packs and make something that could actually be called dinner out of it. What would have just been slightly burnt skewers of rabbit and wild carrot in Marc and Tal’s hands turns into a surprisingly flavorful stew when Angelo gets ahold of it, when he gently asks if Talfryn would be so kind as to find him a few more edible roots, mushrooms, sprigs of herbs. Angelo carries little jars of seasoning blends in his pack with him, too, that he inevitably smiles when he opens. He has a habit of sniffing the top of the jar and then sneezing aside, because of the spice, obviously, but he always just grins wider as he adds a few pinches to the pot, filling the air around their campfire with a different sort of warmth than just woodsmoke.

He makes it feel- homey, honestly. Comfortable. Marc doesn’t know what to do with that feeling, but he’ll enjoy it while it lasts, at least.

Maybe when they’re done with this little trip, he’ll get up the nerve to ask the big guy if he can borrow one of those jars of spices. He can’t cook like Angelo can, obviously, but- it’d be a little something, anyway. To keep, when Angelo is gone again.

 


Briefly, madly, Marc thinks that maybe Angelo is more aware than he lets on. He thinks that maybe, maybe, Angelo is doing this on purpose. Being so nice and friendly and- all touchy-feely or whatever. To mess with him. To make Marc feel guilty about the way the four of them butted heads at first, or something.

But when Angelo offers to clean up after dinner (again) and Marc reacts with suspicion, Angelo seems so genuinely confused that Marc knows he isn't faking it. Angelo is… he's just that nice. Marc feels guilty enough about confusing the knight that he winds up doing half the cleanup with him anyway, resolutely ignoring every time their shoulders bump together.

 


Marc wakes when he feels hands upon him, but the touch is so gentle that the waking is too. He knows it isn’t Talfryn, because when Talfryn moves him to bed from whatever random spot he drops in, his brother always whines at him the whole time, and he does more pushing and shoving than this soft sort of…

It’s Angelo, obviously. It’s not like a monster would have crept into camp just to make sure Marc didn’t get a crick in his neck falling asleep somewhere stupid, and Marc has been hit by enough monsters to know that they usually don’t have big, strong, sword-calloused hands. And there’s no reason to make the big guy feel awkward about it, Marc reasons, so he keep his eyes closed and tries not to change his breathing as Angelo slowly shifts him to horizontal, and there’s a pillow waiting beneath his head before it hits the dirt, which is nice.

Angelo drapes a blanket around his shoulders, and Marc usually thinks of the guy as clumsy but there’s nothing clumsy about the careful, gentle attention of his hands tucking the cloth around his shoulders.

Then, he feels those fingers feather-light on his face, brushing the hair that must’ve come loose from the tie at the back of his head away from his forehead, and-

There’s a strange sort of moment then. Angelo’s hand lingers, or Marc imagines that it does, and he feels something like a static charge, like anticipation.

But the moment breaks, and Angelo moves away. Marc is alone, then, still not warm enough beside the fire as he curls the blanket closer and tighter around his shoulders, and he tries to bury all the stupid wildfire confusion that burns through his idiot body whenever Angelo actually touches him. He tries to bury all of it, because Saints know that’s the only way he’s ever going to get back to sleep with the tingling echo of Angelo’s hand still lingering on his brow.

 


They rescue a young woman separated from her caravan of traders, lost in the jungle. They find her stuck in a monster-made snare that looks years old, half rotted through but still just solid enough to keep a hold on the lady. She’s grateful for the help, and even more grateful when Angelo lifts her up onto his own horse when they realize that the snare cut her ankle. Talfryn wraps the injury, but none of the three of them are physicians, exactly, and it’s probably better for her to be off of her feet until they find her companions again.

Sir Angelo is absurdly chivalrous throughout the whole thing. He leads the horse at an easy pace, asking the gal questions about her friends and attending to the answers with quiet attention, his expression diligent and serious, like a schoolboy trying to impress. All in all he acts a perfect knight and a perfect gentleman about it, while Marc and Tal follow behind until Marc kicks Dampierre forward enough to walk side-by-side with Angelo’s horse.

And yeah, Marc flirts a bit.

With the lady. Obviously.

Part of it is just habit. She’s pretty enough, with amber skin and soft grey eyes, but Marc doesn’t actually expect anything. He’s not even really trying, and when she scowls at him all he feels is a twinge of relief, because her irritation with him seems to be distracting her from how upset she was before, at least. Distracting her from the pain in her leg, too. He may not be a knight, yet, but he can still be at least a little bit useful, even if it’s only as a convenient annoyance. He says as much, and that finally startles a laugh out of her, and she rolls her eyes but she’s still smiling, which Marc counts as a win.

Angelo frowns, then, just slightly, and Marc’s hands tighten on his reigns though his own smirk doesn’t budge. Talfryn, behind them, frowns as well, but Marc pretends not to notice.

They have her safely back with her group in less than an hour, and Marc clenches his jaw far too hard when Sir Angelo oh-so-gently lowers the woman back down from the horse, the very goddamn picture of gallantry. Tal hisses at him, asks him what’s wrong with him, and Marc has to look aside, muttering something vague about Angelo glory-stealing the rescue. Which is stupid on multiple levels, but Marc doesn’t need to defend his position because the whole caravan of traders pull all three of them to join their group for the evening as thanks, offering dinner and the safety of other eyes and booze, and even music to entertain while they all sit together.

It’s comfortable, and warm, and a hell of a relief. And Marc barely enjoys a second of it, because he can’t stop the way his eyes keep drifting towards Angelo in the firelight. The woman they rescued sits beside the knight all evening, laughing and leaning too close, and Angelo smiles so damned kindly that it makes Marc want to just-

Nothing. It makes him want to nothing. Marc scowls at the fire and ignores Tal’s questioning look. Angelo is probably the nicest person that Marc has ever met. He deserves- he deserves for someone to laugh and lean too close around some safe and happy fire, while a pot of fragrant stew bubbles up towards done. Angelo deserves that, and he deserves to smile that kindly at someone smiling back.

And despite his reputation, Marc isn’t actually stupid enough to hope that he could be that someone.

 


Angelo likes to sing to himself as they ride.

His voice is a little scratchy, frequently off-key, often dips into the territory of too loud, and he has a habit of forgetting words and just sticking nonsense syllables or switching phrases around mid-line.

Marc can’t for the life of him understand why he finds it so comforting.

 


Angelo slices the wriggling, screeching vine monster in half with a clean, skillful slash, but the vines twine back together almost the same moment that his blade passes all the way through.

Blast,” Angelo cries as the creature writhes around his blade, and dammit dammit dammit the thing is climbing up the hilt towards Angelo’s arm entirely too quickly, and Talfryn could maybe get the thing with his spear but chances are it would just reform again and they’d be risking stabbing Angelo’s arm at that point too-

“Throw the sword!” Marc shouts, and without a second of hesitation Angelo does, flicking his wrist and sending the blade in a spinning arc with the creature squealing along for the ride. Marc launches his newest modified net-bomb (now including a literal bomb) in the same direction, and the mass of the monster tangles wildly with the ropes of the net for only a half a second in midair before the entire mess ignites in a blaze of blue and white.

By the time the sword hits the ground, the monster and the net are both nothing but ash, dirtying the steel.

“We did it!” Talfryn cries.

“Of course we-”

Marc is interrupted as Angelo wraps his arms around him and lifts him into the air, beaming bright.

“A spectacular maneuver, friend Marc! Such quick thinking and strategy!”

Angelo squeezes him in a tight hug and Marc’s heart squeezes too, his body entirely too warm.

“Ah,” Marc manages in a strangled sort of voice, and Angelo doesn’t seem even remotely burdened by Marc’s weight.

“And such a skillful deployment of your invention, as well!” Angelo booms, and his beaming face is almost too close to focus on, and he still smells like cookies somehow, and either Marc is going completely insane or Angelo’s cheeks are flushed. Which is- almost certainly just from the strain of the fight, right?

Marc-

Marc panics.

“Put- hey! Put me down, will you?” he says, squirming against Angelo’s sturdy and gentle grip. “I didn’t say you could grab me up like a- like some sack of fruit or something, did I?”

Angelo’s grin disappears, and he blinks in confusion for a moment before he lowers Marc back to the ground, ducking his head.

“I… I apologize, friend Marc,” he says, chagrined. “I simply wanted to ho-” he pauses, purses his lips for a moment, and then continues, “I was caught up in the moment, I’m afraid. I did not mean to overstep.”

“Just-” Marc notices Talfryn shoot both of them a funny look as he retrieves Angelo’s sword from the dirt, carefully wrapping the hot metal in a cloth before he grabs the hilt. Marc looks away from his brother, and he keeps his gaze away from Angelo, too. “Just- don’t pick me up unless I ask you to, alright?”

“Of course,” Angelo says, his tone completely and totally abashed. “I am terribly sorry.”

“Stop-” Marc winces, then motions for Dampierre to come close enough that he can pull himself up into the saddle. “Stop apologizing already. It’s not- it’s not a big thing or anything, just-” he scrambles for words, pretending to readjust the straps of Dampierre’s saddle around his legs for longer than he really needs to. “Just don’t do it again unless I ask.”

Angelo purses his lips, probably to keep from apologizing again, and nods before he turns to Talfryn to take back his blade.

As soon as no one is looking at Marc again he sags in the saddle, biting his lip and feeling like the biggest idiot in the damn world.

Stupid battle high. Stupid touchy-feely knight. Stupid blinding smile.

Stupid beating heart, pounding hard against his stupid ribs as his stupid brain tries to puzzle out why those stupid strong arms aren’t still wrapped around him, warm and safe.

 


Angelo laughs at all of Marc’s more straightforward jokes. If they’re too complicated or layered the knight might get lost on the way to the punchline, but on the whole he actually seems to think that Marc is funny. And- every time he can make Angelo laugh, every time he can get him to give that big, energetic guffaw, it makes Marc’s stupid heart skip and thump like a rabbit in a trap.

He’s been telling a lot more jokes, lately. It makes Tal give him a look somewhere along the path from confused to frustrated almost every time, but it’s worth it.

At least he knows that Angelo doesn’t laugh like that for everyone.

 


Sir Angelo is asleep first tonight. The farther they get from the Citadel, the more dangerous the jungle is going to get, and since Angelo is gonna be taking second watch, he’s getting in his sleep early. So, it’s just Marc and Tal left sitting by the fire as the stars brighten one by one, and there isn’t anything besides Marc’s own self-control to keep him from saying something stupid.

So.

“Hey Tal,” Marc says, and he tries very hard to sound casual as he fiddles with the trigger on one of his net-bombs. “Do you think- do you think the big guy-” he bites his lip, tries a different question instead. “What d’you think of the big guy?”

“Sir Angelo?” Talfryn asks, and Marc nods. “I mean, he’s been okay to travel with, I guess. I think he’s been trying really hard, y’know? To be more considerate, to listen better and all that. And I think he appreciates that you’ve been acting nicer to him too.”

Marc flinches, dropping the mechanism in his hand. “Wh-what?”

Tal blinks. “You’ve been trying to be nicer to him, too, right?”

“Uh.” Marc flushes dark as his fingers scramble through the leafy jungle floor, trying to scrape up his device. Tal noticed? He’s been noticeably nicer to the knight? That’s- that doesn’t seem- “Ah, I guess so,” he stammers. “I mean, it’s not like I’ve been- have I been? I don’t think I’ve been acting weird.”

“I didn’t… I didn’t say that you’ve been acting weird, Marc,” Tal says, his brow furrowing in confusion. “I said you’ve been acting nice.”

“Nice.” His fingers finally brush across metal, and he snatches the mechanism back up. “To Angelo?”

“Who else?” Tal says, and then he laughs. “Seriously, Marc, I know we got off on a weird sort of foot and all, but I’m glad we’re at least getting along with him. This would’ve been a pretty rotten journey if you two were fighting the whole way.”

“Yeah,” Marc says. “Uh, yeah.” He jams the net bomb back into the bag with the rest of them.

“Marc…”

Marc perks up to hide the way he wants to flinch at the worried sort of tone in Tal’s voice. “Yeah Tal?”

“Is something… is something wrong?”

“Why would anything be wrong?”

“Because,” Tal says, in a mostly-patient voice, “you are acting weird, now.”

“What? No I’m not-”

“Marc,” Tal half-whines, and Marc winces more visibly.

“It’s nothing, Tal,” Marc insists. “I just- I mean- he’s- I wasn’t expecting him to be so nice to m- to us, like this, y’know? It’s not like the knights have ever been… I figured this whole thing would just be us tolerating each other until we met up with Rilla and Scales and Damien, y’know?”

“So you’re acting weird… because Sir Angelo is being too nice?”

“Not- no,” Marc shakes his head. “Is it- is he just being nice? Or does he actually…”

“Does he actually what?”

“Like.” Marc’s words falter. “Does he actually like me? I mean-” he shakes his head quickly. “Does he actually like us, I mean.”

Talfryn frowns, tilting his head slightly in confusion. “It… it is Sir Angelo, Marc. Do you think he would fake something like that?”

“No.” Marc shakes his head, rubs the back of his neck. “Nah, it’s not that, he’s- he’s sincere and all, it’s just-”

“It’s just what?”

“I mean, he’s nice to everybody, Tal, he’s just- he’s just nice. And if he’s so enthusiastic about everything, how am I supposed to tell how he actually feels about me? How am I supposed to tell if this is just his normal nice or if- uh-”

Tal’s eyebrows are climbing towards his hair, his expression slipping towards incredulous.

“You…” Tal narrows his eyes. “You really care what he thinks about you, don’t you?”

“Wh- no I don’t.” Marc laughs, but it sounds strained even to his own ears. “That’s ridiculous. You’re being ridiculous. Don’t- don’t be ridiculous, Tal. I just- like to know where I stand with people.”

“Marc-”

“Usually I don’t have to dig too hard, y’know? If folks don’t like me I tend to get the picture pretty quick, even if I pretend not to. I just- wanna know what he’s thinking. That’s all.”

“Well…” Tal says, and he sounds nearly patient, “I think you just answered your own question, then.”

Marc blinks. “Come again?”

“You just said that you think he’s sincere, and Sir Angelo has been going out of his way to make sure that we’re comfortable with him, so don’t you think you should just, I dunno, try to take him at face value? He likes you enough to be nice to you. I think that’s enough, don’t you?”

It’s a decent point. Marc’s stomach still feels a bit like a butter churn in the hands of an enthusiastic kid, though.

“Yeah,” he says, looking at the fire instead of at his brother. The earnest concern on his face is just- a bit much to try to deal with. “Yeah. Thanks, Tal. You’re probably right.”

 


Dampierre keeps walking too close to Angelo’s horse, no matter how many times Marc scowls at him and tries to urge him forward or back or at least another foot to the side. The horse just flicks an ear, sputtering lightly and smugly sticking his nose in the air as Marc is left helplessly close to the knight, who only ever grins and either doesn’t notice the closeness, doesn’t care, or is just too damn polite to comment.

Makes it easier for Angelo to hand him his share of Angelo’s apparently endless supply of sweets as they ride, at least. Marc certainly isn’t complaining about that.

 


Once they actually cross the border into Arum’s territory, the swamp itself is surprisingly easy going. Marc suspects that it’s pulling punches these days, at least when it comes to humans who might be friends of the lizard lord’s paramours. It’s nice in that it means they get to relax a little bit more, but less-than-nice in that relaxing gives Marc way too much time to think. Thankfully, that doesn’t last too long. Apparently, this big swamp thing and slash or the bug-lizard’s big castle was keeping an eye out for them, because they’ve only been traipsing through the muddy mottled green for a few easy hours before there’s that wild song again, and a literal magic portal pulls itself out of the mud.

Rilla’s got her arms around Tal’s shoulders in a laughing hug before Marc even realizes that she’s bolted through, and Angelo is laughing too, a booming, ridiculous sort of guffaw as he and Sir Damien clasp hands for only a moment before Angelo decides that just isn’t good enough and he’s lifting Damien fully into the air, making him squawk and kick his legs and laugh as well, and Marc’s cheeks hurt from grinning already before Rilla is patting Dampierre’s nose and gripping his wrist and smirking up at him.

“You boys have a good trip?”

Marc shrugs, feigning good old fashioned nonchalance as he watches Angelo smile like the sun at his best rival. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I guess it was alright.”

 


Tal loves the Keep, once he gets past the initial anxiety about hanging around inside something sentient. Marc really thinks he should have predicted that, actually. It’s a big weird plant. Tal loves big weird plants. He can’t seem to stop talking about how cool it is, and Scales doesn’t seem to know what to do with that exactly, and he settles somewhere between obviously pleased and puffed up indignation, but even Marc can see that the lizard is… mellower, now. He still snarls and rolls his eyes and complains kind of nonstop, but with Rilla and Damien around, he just seems… happier?

Or, y’know, maybe that’s just in contrast, considering Marc really only hung out with the big lizard before when his house was getting marched on by a bunch of weird animals, so what the heck does he know?

Angelo seems delighted by the structure too, and Marc gets a little ego boost when the Keep greets him personally with a strange little vine-hug, apparently remembering him from his little siege sleepover with Scales, and Angelo blinks at him in surprise at their familiarity.

“What?” Marc says with a feckless sort of smile, patting one of the vines with a hand. “Big cool castle and I go way back.”

 


Marc can’t figure out if it’s difficult to sleep in the Keep because it’s the Keep (like, he’s literally sleeping inside of a giant plant monster, seriously), or if it’s just because he’s gotten too used to Angelo’s snoring.

Either way, Marc thinks as he rolls over for just about the hundredth time tonight, it’s too damn quiet and he can’t say he likes it.

He can’t sleep. He’s making himself miserable, and for what? For some big ridiculous grinning-

For some knight, he’s wallowing in insomnia. It’s completely stupid, and completely untenable. He can’t- Marc can’t-

The trip is over, he thinks suddenly. This little experimental excursion is over and done, right? There’s no reason to stick around anymore, is there? Ta da, the knights on their quest to lie to the queen are reunited, and Marc and Tal are free again to go do… whatever. Whatever they want, wherever they want, with no random tag-along knights making Marc’s stomach do hourly backflips with his stupid smile.

Marc rolls over again, stomach feeling sour.

In the morning he’ll talk to Tal, and then they’ll both say their goodbyes to Rilla, and then they’ll get the hell out of here.

No point in hanging around where he’s not needed, anyway.

 


“And then, brave friend Marc called out for me to throw the sword, and when I did as he advised, he most skillfully intercepted my blade with one of his clever net traps, and the beast and sword were both consumed by the most brilliant flame - friend Marc is forever improving his tools and traps, you see, he often works upon them as we ride, or while we sit around the fire before the day’s meal is ready - oh, and of course the creature was utterly destroyed, leaving the blade quite easily reclaimed, with not a one of us so much as suffering a scrape. It truly was an incredible fight, my friend, I wish you had been there to see-”

“I feel you have described the skirmish quite adeptly, Sir Angelo,” Damien says with a warm smile. “I feel as if I were there to see it, as I can picture it that well.”

“Oh.” Angelo gives a pleased little grin. “I appreciate the kind words, Sir Damien, though I know my storytelling is not nearly as deft or skillfully dramatic as yours.”

“The true heart of a story, my friend, lies in the enthusiasm of whomever tells it, regardless of the verbal decoration.” Damien lilts, and Angelo is pleased, so pleased and proud of how happy and how settled his best rival looks. “I can tell how thoroughly you have enjoyed your journey with the brothers, and I am delighted that you were not unhappy in my absence.”

“I had no reason to be unhappy!” Angelo cries. “I missed you, of course, my friend, but I did not feel lonely for a moment on the road. Friend Talfryn is a clever and kind man to travel with, and friend Marc-”

Angelo pauses.

Damien raises an eyebrow. “Did he give you some trouble, Sir Angelo?”

“Oh, Saints above, no! Of course not! Quite the opposite, in fact, he was- that is- the journey was quite enjoyable by his side. He- well, I cannot say that I have ever laughed quite so much upon a journey as when he and I rode beside each other.”

Damien looks at Angelo, his brow furrowing just slightly. “Is that so?”

“Quite!” Angelo says with a soft sort of smile. “And he is rather knowledgeable about a great many subjects! And he has a sense of justice befitting the greatest of knights! And his skill with the blade has improved even further since our first encounter of single combat, when already he was a skilled opponent, and he is brave and clever and he always smiles so grandly and- oh, well, I suppose that I have set to rambling again, haven’t I?”

Damien stares at his rival, as Angelo laughs at himself and shakes his head, his cheeks distinctly pink.

“Sir… Sir Angelo…”

Angelo blinks, resettling his attention on his comrade. “Yes, of course! I apologize, my mind was elsewhere for a moment, my friend.”

“It is… quite alright.” He pauses, and then turns more fully to face the other knight. “Now… Sir Angelo, you do know that I support you in all things, yes?” Damien starts.

Angelo grins, wide and boisterous, and slaps a hand on Damien’s shoulder. “Of course I do, my friend, and I support you in all things as well! I would not be your best rival if I did not, now, would I?”

“Er- right. Yes.” Damien winces, just a little, and reaches up to rub at his shoulder where Angelo slapped it. “Well. What I mean to say is-” he pauses, and takes a deep, steadying sort of breath. “You know that I am not particularly… fond of… Marc-”

“You aren’t? Why ever not, Sir Damien? He is not anything like we were told-”

“I know,” Damien says with a grimace. “I know, Sir Angelo, and I am still- adjusting to that knowledge. But- what I am trying to say is… whatever my feelings are, towards Marc, I want you to know that you…” he pauses to sigh, then places his hand on Angelo’s shoulder gently, giving his friend a small smile. “I want you to know that you have my full support and loyalty in whatever direction you happen to aim your romantic endeavors.”

“Romantic… endeavors?” Angelo furrows his brow, blinking curiously for a moment. “Sir Damien, I am not sure what you mean. What could my growing friendship with Marc have to do with the idea of ro- oh.” Angelo’s entire expression flickers out, like a candle beside a door that opened too fast. Then, dawning in his expression is obvious shock. “Oh. Oh! Oh my Saints, Sir Damien- oh goodness, but I think I may have developed romantic feelings for friend Marc!”

Damien blanches, his expression falling open in dismay. “Y- you mean to say that you didn’t- you didn’t- realize? You didn’t know?”

Angelo doesn’t seem to hear him.

“Oh, Saints, oh mercy, this- I will- I must-” he pauses. “What… Sir Damien, what- what do I do?”

“Wh-what do you mean, Sir Angelo?”

“I have never- that is to say- I do not believe I have ever felt-”

Angelo pauses again, fidgeting in place, and his expression is something close to a grimace, his eyes gone wide.

“Sir Angelo-”

“Is that what this feeling is, Sir Damien? This- this strange warmth, his smile, the way I- I wish to h-hold him.” Angelo squeezes his own arms around his chest, tense and uncertain. “What- Sir Damien, what is one supposed to do, when one feels this way?”

Damien stares at his rival for a long moment, mouth agape. “Sir Angelo, have you never… no, no, certainly you must have, we... I am certain that we have discussed romantic intent in the past. There have been fair maidens of which you have spoken quite fondly-”

“Of course,” Angelo says, but his eyes are still shocked and he shakes his head. “But- but that was merely- that is how knights speak, is it not? I was simply-”

“Oh,” Damien says, his heart pulling. “Oh, Angelo…”

“Sir Damien, you know everything there is to know about following one’s heart,” Angelo says, seizing Damien’s hand. “Upon this subject, certainly you are the expert to whom I may turn. What- what do I do?”

“Er-” Damien goes wide-eyed himself, then. “Well, er, does he- do you think that he feels-” Damien stops short as Angelo flinches. “Right,” he says. “Right, you are unsure. And- and the idea of simply asking- of course it is a frightening prospect. I understand that, of course, Angelo.” Damien ducks his head, thinking hard. “What- Angelo, what do you want to do? Do you wish to… to court him?” he asks uncertainly.

“I… Sir Damien, I don’t know. I don’t know what is- what is supposed to happen next. If he does not feel as I do- I am very fond of h-his company, I would not wish to- to cause him to dislike my presence if these feelings are unwelcome. And certainly- friend Marc is deft with words, and quite outspoken. If he had any such affection for me in return- surely he would have spoken so, would he not?”

Damien opens his mouth, then closes it again for a moment before he sighs deeply. “Marc is… I very much doubt that Marc would… treat you in a judging way for your feelings, even if he does not feel romantically towards you in kind. That is… that is not the way that he is.”

Angelo’s shoulders sag. “You are… probably correct, Sir Damien,” Angelo says. “But somehow that does not make me feel any more sure, or any less afraid.”

“Sir Angelo…” Damien’s expression flickers, his concern clear and open on his face. He steps closer, flinging his arms around Angelo’s shoulders in a fierce hug. “I meant what I said. You have my support, in whatever way you need it. And…” he pauses, pulling back and giving a wry sort of look. “I know you as I know myself, and I know you well enough to say that you are not the sort of man to shy away from a difficult situation. You are brave, Sir Angelo, and bright, and undeniable as the dawn. I know that you will face this, and whether or not Marc is smart enough to see how brightly you glow- I know that your light will not be doused, not by this, and not by anything.”

Angelo’s arms tighten around Damien in return, squeezing until Damien’s breathless laugh cuts off in a squeak. When he sets the other knight back on his feet, Damien gives him an earnest sort of smile, gripping his arms.

“I think you know what you must do now, my friend.”

Angelo pauses. “… Continue to act as a stalwart friend, but now with the knowledge of my own feelings more clear within me?” he suggests, and it is only partially a joke.

“Speak your heart, Sir Angelo,” Damien says gently. “If you speak your heart, you may learn what lies in his own, and then take whatever step is next with that knowledge. And I will be here for you, and I will dearly love you, regardless of that outcome.” Damien’s smile goes a little tearful, then, the force of his emotion overtaking him for a moment. “I wish you only happiness. If there is any possibility that Marc can make you happier- Sir Angelo, you must attempt to find out. It is worth some risk, is it not?”

Despite his fears, despite his confusion, Sir Angelo finds that he agrees.

 


It takes a bit of time to find him, but eventually Angelo catches Marc outside the Keep’s walls, waiting by the treeline with Dampierre’s saddlebags packed and full. Angelo’s heart flips, then, and sinks, and his stomach wraps in anxious knots, but still he steps towards the other man. Still, he moves forward.

“Friend Marc!”

Marc’s shoulders go stiff, and he turns slightly in the saddle to glance back towards Angelo.

“Heh… hey, big guy,” he says, and then he turns towards the swamp again, his hands fiddling with the straps around his legs. “Just barely caught me. Tal’s just grabbin’ a little more from inside, and then we’ll be off.”

“You are- leaving so soon, friend Marc?” Angelo’s heart flops over in his chest again, nerves and disappointment crashing together. “I thought that perhaps… rather, I was hoping we would all spend some time together, at least a meal eaten side by side before…”

“Nah, sorry, big guy. We’re just gonna skip to the part where we get out of your hair,” Marc says, his smile tight and flat. “Tal wants to get a better look at the swamp since we kind of skipped most of it with that portal, and it’s not like Scales wants us hanging around his castle any longer than we need to, anyway.”

“But you were simply going to- leave? Without a proper farewell?”

“Figured that we’d be seeing you again soon anyway, Angie.” Marc is decidedly not looking at Angelo, now. And his hands are fidgeting on Dampierre’s saddle, not doing anything but simply pressing awkwardly and picking at the seams in the leather. “And goodbyes are always too damn sappy for me.”

Angelo does not know what to say. If Marc wishes to leave- of course he should not stop him. Perhaps their time traveling together has worn on the other man, perhaps he has grown tired of Angelo’s presence. Angelo has been told, before, that he can be wearisome. Too loud, and possessed of too much intensity, and too clumsy in body and mind and word. Angelo looks up, and Marc is still looking away.

… but Sir Damien is right, and even if Marc is determined to take his leave… Sir Angelo still must say what he has come to say.

“Before you- before you leave, Marc.”

Marc tenses, oddly, when Angelo says his name, but he finally looks at him after that, his smirk firmly set and his eyes- careful. “Yeah, sure, what’s up?”

“I- I- Marc, I… I quite like you,” Angelo blurts, and his cheeks feel hot as embers.

Marc laughs, then, and the embers all go out. Angelo feels like he has been dipped in ice, now.

“Yeah, Angie, I know,” Marc says, his tone high and tight between chuckles. “We’re friends, big guy, you don’t have to point it out or anything.”

“No, no that isn’t-” Angelo stops, feeling too large, feeling utterly foolish. “R-right. Yes. Of course. My apologies, I am- I know that I can be-”

“You don’t have to-” Marc’s smirk cracks for a second, goes strange like a grimace, but he waves his hand in between them and it flickers back. “Don’t apologize, Angelo, I know you’re just- being nice. Being you.”

“Er- y-yes.” Angelo pauses. “No,” he corrects, wringing his hands awkwardly in front of himself. “To be perfectly honest, no. I am not simply being nice, friend Marc. I- I do not know how to…” he trails off, brow furrowing in deep concentration, and Marc looks distinctly nervous as Angelo comes closer, and Angelo automatically pats Dampierre’s nose, though he keeps his eyes set on Marc.

“Angie-”

“I am not the most… skillful, friend Marc, when it comes to expressing my thoughts and feelings clearly. Or- or even in properly understanding them, at times. And I am- I am well aware that the feelings I have only very recently recognized may not be- returned, but I feel that it would be both cowardly and dishonest if I did not at least attempt to explain myself to you before you- before you leave.”

“Angelo, bud, you’re not getting all serious on me, are you?” Marc says lightly, but there is clear panic in his eyes.

“I intend to be precisely as serious as the situation and my feelings dictate. I apologize, also, if that is uncomfortable for you, friend Marc, but I am determined to say what I must.”

Marc fidgets in the saddle, his shoulders tense and his lips curved into a shape that isn’t really a smirk and isn’t really a frown either, and Angelo is a little bit overwhelmed by the understanding he feels. At last, he recognizes how very often his mind is preoccupied with the lines of Marc’s face, with the very casual sort of beauty that hangs upon him. How had he not noticed?

“Ah…,” Marc says, “I mean- if you’ve gotta get something off your chest I’m not gonna stop ya, Angelo.”

“Thank you,” Angelo says, and then he realizes that he is going to have to continue speaking, now that he has convinced Marc to hear him out. And- he had been laboring under the impression that I quite like you was going to be sufficient to reveal his feelings, so he had not planned well beyond that. His words are- he is not skillful in expressing himself, not compared to someone as poetic as his best rival or someone as quick and clever as Marc, so how can he show how he feels?

Angelo summons up from his reserve of courage and reaches out, and Marc’s eyes go wide when he settles his palm over Marc’s wrist, his thumb brushing against the skin there. “I think, perhaps, that you misunderstood the nature of my- my words. When I say, Marc, that I- that I like you, what I mean is- well-”

He hazards a glance upward, and Marc is staring at him, eyes still wide and cheeks flushing dark and something like-

Something like hope in his expression. Hope looks like a flare of sparks, on Sir Marc.

Angelo very gently shifts his grip, watching Marc watch him as he takes the other man’s hand. Marc’s fingers flex, his breath escaping in a very small ha, and then Angelo lifts his hand, calloused and scattered with scars and exactly as lovely as Angelo imagined. He lifts Marc’s hand, and brushes his lips over Marc’s knuckles in a kiss.

Angelo’s cheeks are hot, and his heart is warm, and when he raises his eyes again Marc is still staring down at him, and all he looks is stunned.

“A-Angelo,” he says, but he does not say anything more past that, and Sir Angelo is afraid, yes, of being mocked, of losing the camaraderie that he and Marc have eased into together- but his fear is not useful. Even if the worst potential outcome is realized, honesty is more befitting of a knight by far, and more befitting of Angelo himself, as well.

“I understand, of course, if you seek my company in the bonds of friendship and nothing else,” Angelo says, “I expect nothing from you. I only wish to be honest.”

And now that he has been honest, he knows he should not linger. If nothing else, Marc clearly requires time to- to overcome his surprise. He releases his grip on Marc’s fingers-

Marc, however, does not release his grip on Angelo’s.

“You-” Marc pauses, his throat working as he swallows. “Hang on. Angelo. You- like me? Like- kissing, like? Like you want to- to- with me?”

The idea of actually kissing Marc seems- distant, like a fable. A fable that makes his cheeks heat again instantly.

“Y-yes, yes indeed.” Angelo swallows roughly, dropping his eyes. “I apologize if- if this shall be a source of discomfort, between us. I value your friendship quite highly, Marc, and I do not wish to-”

Marc pulls on Angelo’s hand, and Angelo is surprised enough that he stumbles a step closer to Dampierre, blinking up at the strange new determination in Marc’s expression.

“Hey, catch me?” Marc asks, squeezing his fingers as his free hand quickly undoes the straps around his legs.

“Um. Yes?” Angelo nods, though he is quite confused by the suddenness of this turn. “Of course. If that is what you would like-” he lifts his arms, and then Marc is swinging himself out of the saddle, landing sideways in Angelo’s grasp with one of his arms slung around Angelo’s shoulder, and Marc’s face is very close, then. Very close, and his cheeks seem darker than usual beneath the scattering of his freckles.

“Angelo,” Marc says, breathless, and Angelo realizes that he quite likes the way that his own name sounds, in Marc’s voice. He quite likes Marc’s weight in his arms, as well.

“Marc,” he says in response, because he is still not sure what Marc intends, exactly, and he finds it is often most helpful to take his cues from those around him.

Marc’s hand is on Angelo’s cheek, then, his rough fingers only gentle, now, and that is already so very stunning that it takes Angelo a stuttered heartbeat to realize that Marc is leaning closer, leaning up, the hand on his cheek carefully angling his face towards Marc.

And then Marc is kissing him.

Kissing him.

His hand slips from Angelo’s cheek to his hair, tangling there and pulling him just a little bit closer, and the press of Marc’s lips is warm and tingling and wonderful and Angelo was right, before. Kissing Marc is like a fable. Like something out of a soft, safe dream.

Marc pulls back, eventually, and Angelo blinks his eyes back open, though he does not remember closing them.

“I, uh,” Marc pauses to clear his throat, and his crooked smile looks shy, of all things. “I like you too, Angelo.”

“Oh,” Angelo says, stunned past other words for a long moment. “Oh. Truly? You- truly you do?”

Marc laughs then, knocking their foreheads together. “Saints, Angelo, yeah! Obviously! The kiss wasn’t enough of a clue for ya?”

Angelo feels his cheeks heat. “I- I don’t- I’m sorry, friend Marc, I am very- unpracticed in-”

“Hey.” Marc leans up again, pressing their lips together quick and soft. “Relax, Angie, you’re fine, we’re fine. I don’t- I just can’t believe you actually- I can’t believe you like me too.”

“I,” Angelo pauses to laugh as well, something warm and bright bubbling up in his chest. “Yes. I feel precisely the same.”

Marc grins, squeezing the arm still wrapped around Angelo’s shoulder, and as Marc is leaning forward for another kiss, they both hear footsteps.

“Marc, I couldn’t find your bedroll. Are you sure you didn’t already... pack… it?”

Angelo glances to the side, where Talfryn is standing and staring, his pack slung around his shoulder and his horse following behind him.

“Suh, uh, yeah, sorry Tal,” Marc says. His voice is bright and flustered, but he makes no move to remove himself from Angelo’s steady grasp as they turn to address his brother. “I think we’re actually gonna- maybe stick around another night or so before we- y’know.”

“O-oh?” Tal says, his eyes flicking back and forth between the pair of them, dawning with slow realization. “Uh. Is that so?”

“Yeah,” Marc says. “I think- I think me and the big guy here have some stuff we gotta talk through together before we go running off again.” Marc looks up into Angelo’s eyes, smiling a lopsided, eager smile, and Angelo feels like he could sing. “Does that sound good, Angelo?”

“Yes,” Angelo says, holding Marc close and warm in his arms, and he feels just brave enough to press a kiss to Marc’s freckled cheek, smiling automatically when that causes Marc to stutter out a laugh. “In fact, I think that sounds absolutely perfect.”