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Whisht! Lads, shut your mouths.

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“Hey hey, Princess Bradley.”

Brad looks up as he hears the cheerful sing-song tone and frowns repressively, but that never stops Ray speaking. Unfortunately. “Hey, so, ready for your big speech? Is it gonna be about me? Is it gonna be about how much you love me? It is, right? Hey, you could tell that story about the time your horse almost threw you and I had to save you. You know, just in case you need ideas.”

“You’re suggesting that my twenty-first birthday speech, the speech in which I am supposed to announce the quest that will prove me worthy for the throne, that speech, be about you? Is that what you’re suggesting, you evil-featured little gnome?”

“You’re so sweet, your highness.” Ray bats his lashes.

“Go away, Ray,” Brad says, looking back down at the paperwork he’s doing. Being prince of the realm involves a revolting amount of maths.

Ray doesn’t go away. In fact, he hovers over Brad’s shoulder, and says after a moment, “You should have carried that two.”

“Go away.” Brad carries the two, though. And then he elbows Ray in the stomach.

“Bradley, you’re so cruel,” Ray says, on a huff of expelled breath. “I’m not going to help you anymore.”

“You weren’t helping,” Brad says, tallying a column of figures neatly. Ray retreats from elbow-range to go and sprawl over Brad’s bed, and Brad ignores him.

Until he starts singing. “It was pleasant and delightful, one midsummer’s...” The note hangs invitingly in the air, and Brad knows if he turns around Ray will be looking appealingly at him. He does another sum, and hears Ray’s sigh. “Morn. And the fields and the meadows were all covered in...” Brad turns a page. “Corn. And the thrushes and songbirds sang on every green...” Brad rolls his shoulders. “Spray. And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day. And the larks they sang melodious, and the larks they sang melodious, and the larks...”

Finally, Brad cracks, with a rough, “They sang melodious, at the dawning of the day,” twining underneath Ray’s voice.

“Fuck, finally!” Ray says, before continuing, “A sailor and his true love were walking one day.” Brad’s reluctance eases away as the song continues, until he’s finally swivelled his chair around, and is joining in with Ray’s ridiculous overexaggerated gestures. They finish together on a triumphant, “I will make you my bride!”

Brad smiles at Ray for about half a second, and then says, “Now go away, Ray.”

“Fine. But I’ll be wearing blue to your party, princess, make sure we don’t clash.”

Brad waves a less-than-polite hand gesture at him, and hears the snort of amusement as Ray leaves the room.

***

“...it is traditional, as you all know,” Brad says, glancing down the candlelit hall at everyone who has gathered for his birthday, “that the heir to the throne announces a quest to prove that he is fit for the throne at this time.” He looks to his right, to see Ray smiling at him, eyes gleaming in the candlelight, and to his left to his parents, watching him with pride in their eyes. “Our neighbours to the south have recently has a rather unwelcome guest move in, menacing their citizenry and depleting their livestock. Killing this dragon will not only prove my fitness, it will also serve to bond our sometimes antagonistic kingdoms more closely together. Thank you.” He bows, and waits for the applause to subside and the chatter in the hall to go back to its more normal volume before he sits down.

His father leans over and says, “Obviously avail yourself of the palace armoury. When will you leave?”

“Tomorrow morning,” Brad says. “Ray, are you packed?” He turns to look at Ray.

“To face a dragon? No, I am not packed to face a dragon. I am packed for a spiritual vision quest in the desert. I am also packed for a voyage to discover the fountain of youth. There are many things I’m packed for, but at no point in the process did I consider which of my clothes were most flame-retardant.”

That’s a yes, and Brad lets the corner of his lips twitch a little, an abortive smile which Ray sees and returns with warmth in his eyes, even as he continues to gesture wildly. Brad turns back to his parents. “Tomorrow morning,” he repeats.

“It’s a good choice, dear,” his mother says. “A little more dangerous than expected, as Raymond indicates, but within acceptable parameters. Remember that you’re allowed to fail, though, please?”

“Yes, of course,” Brad says, with complete insincerity. He technically is allowed to fail, the quest hasn’t been considered the defining qualification for kingship for centuries, but there is a long shadow cast on any reign which begins with an incomplete quest. Brad is one hundred per cent not intending his to be one of them.

“And give my regards to the king and queen – they’ve a boy your age. You used to play with him, actually, before that whole unfortunate affair with the soup spoons. I always felt we should have mended bridges a little sooner.”

***

The next morning dawns bright and fair, as befits the morning on which a prince of the realm will set out on his quest, and Brad oversees the packing of the saddlebags with a spring in his step. It’s been a long couple of months of paperwork, and paperwork is not what he’s made for. He’s a warrior, hunting a dragon is something he should have done years ago. Maybe not years ago, he would have been quite an ineffective hunter at age fifteen, but definitely sometime sooner than this.

Ray makes an appearance when the packing is almost finished, hair tousled and eyes still sticky with sleep. He’s clutching a mug of coffee between both his hands, and there’s a messily rolled cigarette in his mouth. To complete the picture, he’s managed to get porridge on his jerkin. “You’re a revolting sight,” Brad informs him cheerfully, noticing that the cigarette is a little thin – he makes a mental note to look into extending the trade routes in the south.

“And you don’t care,” Ray says, slumping down on a stool and relinquishing one hand’s grip on his mug in order to suck viciously on his cigarette. “Because you’re too delighted over our impending deaths to care.”

“Precisely, Ray, the thought of being fried to a crisp is making me almost too happy to speak,” Brad tells him, letting his mouth twitch into a smile.

“I know,” Ray says mournfully. “Everyone knows. You think the idea of trying to kill a dragon is the best fucking idea you’ve ever had, you pea-brained royal giant. And you’ve barely spared a thought for your dearest Ray-Ray, your bosom companion, who has to accompany you on this moronic quest, and whose aged mother is crying into her pillow right now.”

“No she’s not. She came by earlier, said how grateful she was to be rid of you.” This is not strictly true, but Brad is sure that it’s what Ray’s mother would have said. Probably.

“Oh, I must have missed her, I was too busy bedding your mother.”

“Hello, Ray,” Queen Isabel says from behind him. Ray twitches miserably, glares at Brad, whose shoulders have already started shaking, and stands up and turns around to deliver a courtly bow.

“Your majesty.”

“I didn’t notice being bedded,” Brad’s mother says, in a tone of contemplation. Brad recognises the glint in her eye.

No, mother,” he says. “No endowment-related jokes. We can all fill in the blanks, and we’re all appropriately horrified.”

“I may never speak again,” Ray agrees. “Out of horror.”

“On second thought,” Brad says, eyeing Ray, which makes his mother laugh.

“Is everything ready?” The queen glances at the steward, who’s technically in charge of provisioning expeditions, before looking at Brad.

“His highness did most of the planning personally,” the steward says.

“But you checked it over, Jankrow, I assume? I have more faith in you than I do in my son, I have to say.”

“Yes, he did,” Brad says. “We’re not actually going that far, anyway.”

“Only to our deaths,” Ray mutters.

“I hope not,” the queen says, and she’s looking at both of them, a little more serious than she was last night. “You’ve chosen a large task, Bradley, but I do think you can do it. I would be less than delighted were it to lead to your being damaged in any way, however.”

“I’ll bring him back,” Ray says softly, and more sincerely than his usual tone. The sincerity falls away a moment later with, “I mean, we all know he was lying when he said he’d remember that it was okay to fail, but I am more intelligent than he is, I can keep these sort of small details in my head, like avoiding death, that kind of thing.”

“Thank you, Ray,” Isabel says, smiling at him warmly. “I will take your words in the generous spirit they were intended, rather than falling into the common trap of listening to what you are actually saying.”

Over Ray’s outraged squawk, Brad says, “You’re a very fine woman, mother,” with deep appreciation.

Isabel leans over to kiss his cheek, and says, “You’re a very fine young man, son, and I mean it about not getting damaged. I’ve not wielded a sword for a good long while, I will be less than happy if I have to charge to your rescue.”

“Understood.”

***

In the end, after Brad has made his formal farewells to the palace staff and posed in the town square with his shiny sword unsheathed while Ray lurked in the background making faces, the group which waves goodbye to them is small. Brad’s parents are there, obviously, both smiling broadly and pretending that no one can tell that their faces are tight with worry, and Ray’s mother, who has less need to preserve a stiff upper lip and whose eyes are therefore shiny with tears, and Ray’s younger sister, who bade them goodbye by kicking Ray in the shin and saying, “If you lose to a dragon everyone at Madam Terafino’s will make fun of me,” and then hugging him hard around the midsection. Brad just got the hug, for which he was somewhat grateful. He’s a warrior, yes, but Persons, even tiny Persons, kick hard.

Brad keeps his dignity with a nobly upraised hand and a face set towards the path ahead as they ride forwards, but Ray has twisted almost fully around in his saddle to wave wildly, calling to his sister, “Remember what I told you about boyfriends. Or girlfriends. Remember it either way.”

“What did you tell her?” Brad asks, when they’re out of sight of the little group.

“That she’s not allowed them yet, not until she’s tall enough to reach the bowls down from the top cupboard,” Ray says, ferreting some nuts out of his saddlebag. “And that if anyone tries, she’s to punch them in the face. Or tell me, and I will.”

“She’s been getting flowers from the smith’s son for three months.”

“I know, but she doesn’t know I know.” Ray tips his head back to pour nuts into his mouth. “It’s not like I’m actually going to punch him in the face, Bradley, I don’t want to get put in the stocks for assault. She can do it herself if she needs to. I’m just making her life difficult, which I assure you is part of my genetic duty. You wouldn’t know, being a lonely only child as you are.”

“That was almost coherent, particularly the part about not wanting to go in the stocks. I’m impressed.”

“Your erudition must be rubbing off on me. How far is it to this backwards, goatfucking little kingdom?”

“I think,” Brad says, holding his hand out for some nuts, “that we’re actually the backwards goatfuckers.” He nods his thanks as Ray pours a few almonds into his hand. “They’re about six times our size.”

“We are never the backwards goatfuckers, Bradley of the Colberts, in any equation. Unless there’s something about your tastes that you want to share, now that we’re on this manly bonding expedition.”

“No, I’m good. And to answer your question, a few days’ ride.”

“Do they know we’re coming? I mean, you only told me where we were going yesterday, but I assume that’s because of your so-called respect for tradition, not because you actually hadn’t decided on your quest until yesterday.”

“They do. They’re not entirely thrilled. Apparently their son is twenty-one in a few weeks and everyone was hoping that dragon-slaying would be his quest, but I think they’ll respect the quest anyway.”

“Bet they won’t.” Ray offers some more almonds, and Brad takes them. “No one else in the world thinks the coming-of-age quest is as sacred as you do. And how will that help diplomatic relations, stealing a dragon from under the nose of the crown prince? Juicy quests are hard to come by in these benighted modern times, the poor boy will have to go and sit on the top of a pole in the desert for a few weeks to gain enlightenment or something. That’s the sort of resentment that will linger.”

“It’s the crown prince I’ve been corresponding with,” Brad says, feeling a very faint heating of his cheeks that he prays Ray won’t notice. He’s not even that embarrassed, he just has very fair skin. “We’ve agreed that his quest will be a corresponding boon to our kingdom, which we hope will bind us together, particularly when both of us rule.”

“What boon will it be? Can he come and sort out the palace plumbing?”

“Nate’s not sure yet,” Brad says, and then curses himself, because Ray is absolutely, unquestionably, not stupid.

Sure enough, he’s looking over at Brad now, and there’s a leer slipping onto his face. “First-name terms? Blushing? Brad, you’re an astonishingly smooth goatfucker. Have you seen a picture, though? You don’t want to end up like your great-great-grandmother, have you seen the portraits of your great-great-grandfather?”

“He was a very wise man and a great warrior,” Brad says primly. “They were very happy together.”

“Uh huh, but he looked like the back end of a mule. So? Have you seen any pictures of Prince Nate?”

“Yes.”

Reeeeally.”

Brad ignores the inveigling tone to Ray’s voice. “I was thinking that we should aim to stop for the night in Machiton.”

“This isn’t over.”

“You’re going to meet him in a few days,” Brad says, nonchalantly. He really, really hopes Nate and Ray get along, it’s going to be awkward and a little sad otherwise.

“I am indeed,” Ray says, and the smug tone of his voice should probably make Brad worry. A few moments later, he starts singing about alcohol.

***

It’s a gentle two days’ ride later when they approach the capital city of Nate’s kingdom, which is gleaming white and festooned with flags. Ray leans over and says, “Okay, I concede your point, we may be the backwards goatfuckers,” because Brad’s capital city is about a quarter of the size and much more comfortable-looking.

They were clearly sighted from a distance - Brad approves of the kingdom’s use of watchtowers - because there’s an honour guard waiting at the gate, sleek and shining in the sun. They have approached fairly close before Ray sees fit to introduce himself to the soldiery of closest neighbours by loudly saying, “They’re a lot better-looking than your military, Brad, you ought to do something about that. Instate some sort of square-jawed quota, it would make inspections far more sightly. Or lips quota, look  at that cap-”

That’s the point when Brad finds it absolutely impossible to do as he normally does with Ray and let the words wash over him, because the final word is about to be ‘captain’ and the captain of this particular guard is a face he knows intimately well but has never seen in person. He reaches out with immoderate haste to slap the back of Ray’s head. “Shut up, you dimwit, that’s Na - that’s the prince.”

“Weeeeell,” Ray drawls, and Brad doesn’t need to look to know that he has a shit-eating grin on his face. “Mayday, abandon ship, I’m pretty sure he heard me.”

The very slight twitch of Nate’s mouth implies the truth of that assertion. “I honestly hate you,” Brad says, facing stonily forwards.

“Prince Bradley,” Nate says, as Brad and Ray rein in their horses. His men salute perfectly, but most of them are eyeing Ray, either with amusement or suspicion. Ray salutes lazily, two fingers to his brow. Brad tries to pretend he doesn’t know him, and sharpens his own posture.

“Prince Nathaniel,” he says, and then bows to the inevitable and waves a reluctant hand at Ray. “May I present the Honourable Raymond Person, my... acquaintance.”

“Dearest friend, I think you’ll find you meant to say,” Ray says. Brad grimaces.

“I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance, Raymond,” Nate says, with a shallow bow. Ray returns a deeper one.

“Likewise, your highness,” he says, tone smooth.

“And delighted to see you at last, Prince Bradley,” Nate continues, and leans up to shake Brad’s hand. The clasp is brief and firm and more impersonal than Brad had hoped, and Nate turns away almost hastily, saying to them both, “If you’ll follow me, Anderson will take your horses.” Ray shoots Brad a quick glance from under slightly lowered brows, and does as he’s told. Brad follows suit.

***

They are hustled up to the castle with impressive efficiency and a display of synchronised drill from the honour guard which leaves Brad thinking about how quickly he can get onto the parade grounds with his own kingdom’s troops when he gets back. He doesn’t get a chance to talk to Nate alone before they are shown to their room by a pressed and neat servant.

Room, singular.

“Well,” Ray says, after a moment of silence while they both stare at the double bed. “Nice.  Those rumours are still alive.”

“Of course they are,” Brad says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “They’re very exciting and very plausible.”

“No, no, the plausible one is the one where you only keep me around because of my great beauty and the fact that I haven’t succumbed to you yet. The one where we’re actually tupping? That has the ring of falsehood. I can do better.”

“There are so many things wrong with everything you’ve just said that I won’t even begin enumerating them, except to say that you’re a backbirthed runt with the manners of a bullock, and I dearly wish your mother had drowned you before the evil-featured day that we were introduced.” He glances over to see Ray grinning at him.

“See, Bradley, shit like that, that’s why I can do better. No decent person would say such filthy things.”

“I’ve met some of your previous hayrides, Raymond, they were without exception the type of people who would say such filthy things.”

“I think you’ve warped me,” Ray says mournfully. “I can’t accept affection unless it comes with a heaping of vehement hatred. I should warn Prince Nate, you’ll probably do the same to him.”

“Affection? Affection?” Brad begins, and then sighs, running out of steam. “Fine, there’s probably some affection, you horrible pygmy. Somewhere.” He closes his eyes and rubs his forehead, and opens them to find a slightly softer look on Ray’s face.

“So your grand romance of letters was a bit of a failure,” he says. “Don’t despair, Bradley. Actually, not necessarily a failure, just hamstrung by some clearly faulty intelligence - you should tell your prince his spies need to step up their game a bit. So actually, the romance of letters may have been a resounding success; he’s probably writhing in unrequited love right this moment, imagining the athletic endeavours we could get up to in that giant bed.” Ray looks a little speculative. “You should install bigger beds at home, Brad, I could do with one.”

“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says, his equilibrium restored.

“So, new mission,” Ray goes on, starting to grin again. “Slay the dragon and woo the prince. I can be your go-between, would you like me to whisper in his ear about how well-endowed you are?”

“Ray, from the bottom of my heart, please, please, please don’t.”

“Isn’t that how you court princes?”

Brad decides that silence is his best weapon, and escapes to the corridor to find someone who will give him a separate bedroom, or at least a separate bed.

***

It’s not long after Brad has finally obtained an assurance that he will be moved into a separate room with all haste, and is waiting in what is now solely Ray’s room for people to come and tell him where to go, that there is a firm knock on the door. “I’ll get that,” Ray says sweetly. “As this is my room.” He opens the door to Nate, standing on the other side with a pleasant smile on his face. “Your highness,” Ray says, dropping a credible curtsey, and Brad manfully resists the urge to cover his face with a hand and groan.

“Hello, Raymond,” Nate says. “I’m sure you get asked this frequently, but are you feeling quite well? In the head?”

Ray grins in appreciation, and Nate grins back at him. “Entirely, your highness.”

“Good. Ah, I was hoping to talk to Prince Bradley.”

“I’m here,” Brad says, rising from the bed. “Uh, hello.”

“Hello,” Nate says.

Ray looks between both of them for a moment, and then snorts and says, “Okay, so, Nathani-”

“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says urgently, but in vain.

“The thing is, Nathaniel, that Bradley here would like a lock of your hair to hold close to his bosom at night. He blushes when he hears your name. He probably - I can’t claim to be privy to his every perverted thought - has dreams of skipping across a meadow of flowers hand in hand with you.” Brad gives in to the urge to drop his face into his hands as Ray’s voice drones earnestly and horrifyingly on. “What I’m trying to say, Nathaniel, is that Brad would like to go steady with you, and he’s a little upset that you seem not to have picked up on that, given that he wrote every letter to you in a spirit of manly pining, and sealed each envelope with tears.”

There’s a ringing silence after Ray finishes. Brad risks the very tiniest sight of Nate’s face through the net of his fingers, and sees wide eyes and a flush rising in his cheeks. “Uh,” Nate says. “So.”

“So I seem to have broken Brad,” Ray says cheerfully. “Enjoy fixing him!” And then he leaves with a wave, and Brad is never going to speak to him again.

Brad drops his hands and stands up straight after a moment or two, because warriors of the Colbert line stare hideous life experiences in the face. Nate is still gaping, but he meets Brad’s eyes. “So you’re not,” he says finally, and waves vaguely towards the bed which was intended to be shared by Ray and Brad.

“Really not,” Brad says. “Uh.”

“Okay,” Nate says vaguely. “I - okay. Great. Good.” Then he seems to snap himself together, stands up as straight as Brad is. His cheeks don’t lose the flush.

“Yes,” Brad says. “Good.”

They stare at each other, and Nate says, “I came to tell you that I’ll be guiding you to the dragon’s lair tomorrow.”

“Great,” Brad says.

“Good, well.” Nate looks at a loss, hands clasped behind his back and shoulders straight. “You intend to fight the dragon alone?”

“To prove myself worthy of the kingdom,” Brad says. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes Ray mock him and groan and sometimes pelt him with nuts, but Nate only nods as though it is the most obvious, most sensible answer. He is handsomer in the flesh than the portrait Brad has seen, solid and warm and still slightly flushed with embarrassment.

“I have no doubt that you are worthy of the kingdom, you have always seemed a most suitable candidate. In your letters. I have admired your commitment to your duty.”

“Thank you.” This is probably the most awkward conversation Brad has ever had.

“We could discuss your intentions for tomorrow, if that would be helpful,” Nate says. “I think the thing to do will be to beard it in its lair.”

“I agree.” Brad nods solemnly, and tries to pretend that nothing untoward has happened. “Less room for it to manoeuvre.”

“Yes, they tend to sleep in rather tight spaces.”

“Yes.” Brad tries a polite smile, but suspects it comes out as more of a grimace.

“Yes.” Nate nods decisively, and shuffles his feet. Another silence settles. Finally, Nate says, “I had hoped - your letters have always seemed - I find you a most engaging correspondent.”

“I - likewise,” Brad says.

“The report about Raymond, when it arrived, was - disappointing.”

“It’s all untrue,” Brad says, clasping his hands behind his back in a mirror of Nate’s stance to stop himself from twitching. “I think Ray starts a lot of the gossip himself.” It’s plausible enough, Ray starts a lot of rumours.

“Well,” Nate says. “Well, goodnight.”

“Yes,” Brad says. “Goodnight.”

***

Ray has clearly decided that discretion is the better part of valour, because he doesn’t come back to the room until Brad has been moved out of it.

***

The next morning is grey and drizzling with miserable rain as they gather in the palace courtyard, which suits Brad’s mood. “The lair is not far,” Nate says from under his rain hood, greeting them with a small smile which Brad returns with an awkward twist of his mouth and Ray returns with a beaming grin. All of Brad’s icily calm attempts to make Ray aware of quite how awful he is in the five minutes they had before Nate appeared have rolled off him like water off a duck’s back.

“Good, because right now I’d consider an attempt to burn me alive to be a kindness,” Ray says, shivering. Brad says nothing, just nods and mounts his horse. Ray and Nate follow suit. “So, Nathaniel,” Ray says, as the drawbridge is lowered for them and their horses walk down the city’s main street, towards the gate Brad and Ray entered by yesterday. Hardly anyone is awake yet, although they get encouraging waves from those who are. Brad had made his desire for their leaving to go unnoticed clear to Nate weeks ago. He’s superstitious enough to want to keep the pomp and circumstance until after he has successfully killed the dangerous beast, not before.

“Ray,” Brad says, aware that the tone he uses when he wants to be foreboding generally only amuses Ray.

“I didn’t get a chance to really talk to you last night,” Ray goes on innocently. “I’m sure you’ve chatted to Bradley about all this, but care to share with the class any tactical dragon-related details?”

“We did only a small amount of strategic planning,” Nate says quietly. Ray leers, Brad glares, and Nate goes on, “Unfortunately the dragon appears to be of the southern strain.”

“Small and fast and lacking a convenient vulnerability on the underbelly?” Ray says.

“That’s the one,” Nate says. “Not such an accomplished firebreather as their northern cousins, luckily, but we can’t do anything from a distance.”

“Neither can they,” Ray says, pulling his hood further over his face and hunching against the rain. “Not that we’ll be doing anything anyway, I’m certain Brad has explained how even the slightest bit of help would rob him of any legitimacy and right to the throne and ensure that he ends his days as a poverty-stricken swineherd, most probably one with plague.”

“He mentioned his desire to work alone,” Nate agrees, and they both glance at Brad, who rolls his eyes. “At least the southern dragons sleep on their gold during the day, so the advantage is with us at the moment.”

***

The dragon’s lair is set deep into a green hill, with a yawningly dark entrance drawing Brad’s eye with a sick sense of fascination. “Alright, Bradley,” Ray says, and the muscles around his eyes are tight, “this is where we will wait, swooning in awe at your manly skills, and you will go and kill that dragon. And if there is even the slightest hint that the dragon may be refraining from similarly swooning in awe at your manly skills, you need to let out some kind of yelp, do you hear me? I’m not going back with any kind of bad news, I refuse.”

“I hear you,” Brad says, and he looks at Ray until Ray meets his eyes with a twitch of a smile.

“Good luck,” Nate says, breaking the silence.

“Thank you,” Brad says. He hesitates for a moment over the proper way to say goodbye to Nate, finally settling on an awkward sort of wave which makes him wince internally even as he does it. It has the dubious benefit of making Ray crack a smile, at least, and Brad is sure that by the time he comes out, which he is definitely, no question, going to do, Ray will have kept both of them busy by giving Nate a rundown of the most embarrassing highlights of Brad’s life, most of which Ray created or precipitated.

***

The inside of the cave is dark as pitch, with a faintly darker shape in the middle, and the gentle sounds of snoring emanating from the dragon-sized bulk. Brad puts his hand on his sword and treads forward, mind suddenly clearing of the tendrils of fear which had begun to weave around him despite his best efforts. He is a warrior, and he knows how to do this, knows how to kill things without getting killed himself. The dragon may be bigger than anything he’s ever killed, but the principle hasn’t changed.

He looks up into the dragon’s face, and sees the very faintest gleam of red coming from under its nearside eyelid. His throat clenches, dry, as he realises that it’s not asleep, not safe, but then his focus narrows and his heart beats again, and he shifts his grip on his sword and moves forward, slowly. The eyelid opens a little wider, and they regard each other solemnly, him and the dragon, for an odd, frozen moment, suspended on either side of a battle unjoined.

The dragon breaks the silence with a low, reverberating growl, which makes the hairs on the nape of Brad’s neck stand on end.

The impressions of the next few minutes come in snatches, most of his brain taken up with the cold logic of calculating angles and space and escape routes, of dodging a claw here and a bite there, and occasionally not dodging. He notices, but doesn’t really take in, the smell of his own blood mixing with the acid of the dragon’s, the pain throbbing from his side, the way the dragon’s glowing eyes leave splashes of red light dancing through his vision, the smell of rotting meat and the thunder of his own breathing.

The silence after it dies is absolute.

***

The sun is starting to break through the drizzle when Brad comes out of the cave, watery rays shining greyly. Brad sways slightly on his feet, sword still in hand and dragon blood burning a little on his skin, as he forces his eyes to focus on Ray and Nate, far closer to the cave now than they were when he left them. They both have weapons half-drawn, slightly guilty expressions on their faces, and they were obviously on the verge of abandoning their positions and joining the fight. He catches Ray’s eyes first, sees the softness and relief and manages to nod, accepting all the friendship and warmth in them, before looking across to Nate, who has the tiniest of smiles on his face. As they stare at each other, caught for a second, Brad hears Ray saying, “This is nauseating,” and the whine in his voice only makes Brad’s smile widen.

“Well done,” Nate says, softly and sincerely.

“Thank you,” Brad says, and manages to walk forwards to join them.

“I wanted to, last night...” Nate says. “But it seemed inappropriate. Do you want – I think – I would be most pleased to...” His voice fades, and he frowns for a second, frustrated, before squaring his shoulders and saying firmly, “I would be interested in courting you, Prince Bradley.”

“Weird place to ask,” Ray says, with glee in his voice. “Daddy, how did you meet Daddy? Well, son, he’d just killed a...”

His voice fades into the background, the comforting murmur that has underscored so much of Brad’s life, and Brad stands up straighter, takes a deep breath, and says, looking at Nate, “Likewise.” And then no one says anything else because Nate reaches up to kiss him, soft and sweet and tentative, and Ray stops talking and just whistles. Brad’s hand comes up to cradle the side of Nate’s face and Nate fists his hands in the front of Brad’s jerkin, his lips sliding along the line of Brad’s jaw until he’s breathing hot against Brad’s ear. “Last night was excruciatingly embarrassing,” he murmurs.

Brad flicks a glance towards Ray, and says, “I might be planning to have Person decapitated, if it helps.” Ray just grins at him, bright and happy and wide-eyed.

“I like him,” Nate says, with a soft laugh that raises goosebumps on Brad. “I - I like you too. It’s been nice to meet you at last, Prince Bradley of the Colberts.”