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ever just the same (ever a surprise)

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There are those who say the raven boy was not born. That he hatched from an egg or fell from the sky, dark and fierce and ready to kill. But that is an untruth, and a foolish one at that. He had a mother, as all things do, and she was a queen. That is one way to start the story. But it is not truly the start.

Perhaps we should begin here: there is a story told of a queen whose heart was poisoned with bitterness. No one tells why she was so unhappy; perhaps her king had disappointed her, or she found the climate of her kingdom disagreeable. It would not be a story of particular interest if not for the fact that her bitterness was noticed by a witch.

This witch had long sought a home for her most wicked curse, and in the queen she found the perfect host. The queen had already let hate claw deep inside and take root in her belly. All the witch did was give her a touch of dark magic, and the bitterness found a life of its own, grew and fed, until her belly was swollen, gravid with her hatred. At midnight on the Feast of All Hallows below the full moon, the queen gave birth to a tiny, dark-haired infant: the raven boy, a living hoard of venomous hatred.
Now, the witch would wait until the time was right to take the babe and unleash her curse on the world.

But the queen's hate had been borne from her, and she felt tenderness for her new son. She clutched the babe to her breast, but he would not suckle. The fruits of her body held no interest for him. When he refused to nurse, she tried to feed him fruit or porridge, but he turned his nose up at all her offerings.

One morning, in desperation, she pried his mouth open to offer a morsel of meat, at a loss for how to sustain him. He accepted the mouthful and, within his mouth, she found a perfect, fully-formed set of tiny pointed teeth.

The babe never fussed or cried. He only stared up at her from his bassinet with dark eyes, only the slightest ring of green around fat black pupils. The curse within his blood leeched through his skin, leaving ominous black symbols on his little arms, another on his chest. In shame and despair, the queen hid the child away. She was frightened of the babe, the very rage she had nurtured for so long. She wore her mourning gowns and secreted him in her private rooms; it was not very hard to hide him, for he made no sound.

One night, when the moon was full again, the witch returned to the palace to take the cursed boy back with her. She crept into the queen's chambers under the pale glow of the moon and passed her bed to find the bassinet which held her prize.

But the cradle was empty, for the queen had returned to her senses at last; this demon was no child of hers. So she bundled it in old blankets and gave it to her guards to take deep into the woods, where nothing could survive. The witch's screech echoed throughout the stone walls. Even some in the surrounding villages heard the rage of her shriek, all her wicked work thwarted.

The queen rejoiced, privately, the only one who knew how narrowly disaster had been averted. For a time, the world seemed safe again. But they say that on the Feast of All Hallows, the witch still roams the forest, searching for her lost curse.

*

When Gerard was young, he sat on the old wooden floor of Elena's shop and tinkered with her leftovers. She always had scraps of twine, the twiggy remnants of rue and ash branches, occasionally a bit of ribbon or very rarely a shiny glass bead set aside in a crate next to her workbench. He would settle there cross-legged, tying together tiny misshapen runes, an awkward mimicry of the full-sized charms he watched her make. Customers would come, and some would greet him and some would ignore him, but he paid little attention to them. In those days, people bought frivolous things - a charm to always be asked to dance by the object of your affection or one to keep your neighbor's dog on their own side of the fence.

Elena had the most nimble fingers Gerard had ever seen or has seen since. She wove each charm like it was breathing, pulling the threads from the air and working them into her materials as she shaped it. They varied in size, some almost as tall as Gerard and some small enough to fit in your pocket, but she approached each with the same set to her mouth, the little crease at the center of her forehead.
She was the only weaver in the village, but there were always traveling tinkers with carts full of smooth charms from city weavers: two, three, four for a copper. The villagers walked past the flashy cart into Elena's shop to hand her their hard-earned silver or perhaps a share in the next season's crops in exchange for dark stained pieces of elm twined with hair, to ensure loyalty between partners. It was her charms that they hung in their windows to frighten away bad luck or wore around their necks for fertility.

But not even a charm can ward off death forever (freshly cut willow, a raven's feather, and black stones from the dark northern beaches will hold it for a while), and now Gerard sits on the stool at the workbench instead of on the floor. He remembers Elena's warm hands on top of his, guiding him, whenever he weaves. He keeps a stock of her old standards, for clean homes and warm hearts, because it soothes him to recreate the shapes she taught him, but they tend to go dusty on the shelf. It's oak, for stalwart hearts, and green glass, to deflect ill intentions, that he traffics most in now. These are darker times, and there are darker things in the woods than when he was a child.

At noontide, Michael comes to the shop with a metal pail for lunch. Gerard looks up before the little brass bell Elena hung at the door rings. He can feel the charms start to itch when someone is coming, even someone they know as well as Michael.

The bell jingles, and Gerard smiles at Michael. "What did you bring me today?"

"Cold porridge," Michael says, setting the steaming pail on the edge of the workbench. Gerard pushes aside his chisel and the bark he's been working with to lean in for a smell.

"Venison stew?"

"Freshly made." He leans against the bench, resting his elbows carefully away from the little piles of sawdust. "It would serve you right if it were cold porridge."

People forget, sometimes, that Michael is the younger brother, because he has the air of authority that comes with being a schoolteacher, and Gerard has the air of half-mad chaos that comes with being a bit of a mess. Luckily, a weaver is expected to be something of an eccentric. Gerard pulls the lid off the pail and smiles at the escaping steam before turning to the sill to pluck a spoon from an old beer stein. He uses them sometimes for measuring or working with clay, but mostly it's nice to have one around when it's time to eat.

"Did Marnie get this one herself?"

"She always does." Michael smiles a little private sort of smile, and Gerard is sure that by the end of the year he'll be working on a charm to bless their marriage. He's already done some special work for Marnie - a glass pendant filled with mountain ash for safety in the natural world, with all the time she spends in the woods. He offered to make one to help her bow shoot true, but she turned him down. A charm would only get in the way, she said. "How has your morning been? We've been struggling through multiplication."

"Quiet." Gerard eats a mouthful of stew; it's rich and gamey and delicious, and it means Marnie will have a new set of bones for him to work with once she's done prepping what she can use. There aren't many standard charms that require bones, but the few that do are very popular these days. He'll leave some whole for larger protection charms and grind some to be mixed with soil for safe journeys home. "I'll be closing up after this, I need to go herb-hunting."

Michael frowns, like Gerard knew he would. "I wish you would wait for Marnie to go with you."

"I have a protection charm too," Gerard says. He hooks his thumb under the chain that disappears under his shirt; a personal charm is most effective worn directly against the skin. He'd given himself quite a few splinters in the early days of his apprenticeship, before Elena helped him master sanding the wood down to a buttery smoothness.

"She has arrows," Michael points out. But he knows as well as Gerard does that it won't stop him. The only person he ever went into the woods with was Elena, during his apprenticeship. Now that she's gone, he goes alone, just as she went alone before she had him. True, there are more things to be frightened of than in her days, but Gerard happens to be the best (and only) charm weaver in the county. A charm you weave for yourself or someone you care for is always stronger. It's why Gerard will never go hungry or be without nubby knitted socks in the wintertime; everyone wants to get a little closer to the weaver.

They're able to move on to different topics while Gerard eats his stew, what children in the class are particularly clever and whose cows are wandering into fields they don't belong in. It's easy for Gerard to curl up inside his shop, his world of weaving and crafting, and forget about the world of the village that goes by without him. Michael has always helped him stay part of the outside world.

Luncheon is only so long, so far too soon Michael must return to his students. Gerard bids him farewell with a kiss on the cheek and a promise to, as always, return the pail to Marnie once he's finished with it. He helps himself to some more stew once Michael goes, able to eat without the risk of needing to add to the conversation. But the sun will set before long, and not even Gerard is foolish enough to be in the woods once the moon rises.

His cloak hangs alone on the rack next to the door. Woven from thick green wool and a shining web of charms, it was Elena's gift to him upon completion of his apprenticeship. It is her masterwork, the finest thing he owns, and though he's never traveled beyond the village he is certain it has no equal anywhere in the kingdom. The charmwork is intricate, with individual charms sewn into the lining as well as a casting set into the very fiber.

Gerard sets the pail aside; he will wash it for Marnie later. He uses Elena's old kit when he goes gathering, a roll of soft buttery leather holding together the tools he'll need. He tucks the kit into his bag, then tugs on his cloak, fastening it with the iron closures at his throat (a man-forged metal to frighten magical beings). His hair is probably still a mess, and there's usually dyed stains from the natural things he handles, but with the cloak on, he feels like a proper charmweaver. Like he can stand tall, like he's doing Elena proud. He wonders if she charmed it to do that, but he'd have to tear it apart to find out

The path out to the woods is familiar to him now, though it is seldom trod. Only a few hunters will enter the forest, and even fewer will enter unaccompanied. He works best in quiet, though, with time to commune with his ingredients. Having a chaperone along, though soothing to Michael's mind, would only distract him.

He is as deep in the woods as he dares go, scanning the speckled forest floor for mushrooms, when he gets a glimpse of pale flesh instead. It's just a flash, fast enough to make him think that he must have imagined it; he can't think of anyone from the village who would be out in the woods this close to dusk. And even if they were, they would be covered, wearing thick cloaks, gloves, scarves, all the charms they could muster. It was too late in the year, too much of a bite in the air to be exposing more skin than necessary.

But he keeps his eyes open, and he sees it again, slipping behind a tree. Gerard comes closer, trying to be steady and nonthreatening as the underbrush cracks below his feet, and so slowly comes around the side of the tree.

And gods, it's a child, a pale boy with dark hair wearing nothing but a pair of ripped and ragged trousers that barely reach midcalf, obviously long outgrown. There seem to be some strange dark marks on his torso - bruises? - and he is entirely uncharmed; Gerard can't feel any humming on him. He reaches for the chain around his own neck; in his haste, he fumbles the clasp and tugs the whole thing over his head, pulling the smooth wooden charm out from under his shirt. It's still warm from his skin, and the chain is easily large enough to put it closed over the boy's head. It isn't much, but at least it's something, to keep the boy safe until they make it back to the village.

As the charm hits the boy's chest, he visibly stiffens, and tips his head back against the tree to look up at Gerard. His eyes are black, all the way through.

He's confused, for a moment; the boy steps away from the tree and faces him. Then he changes. Gerard isn't quite able to comprehend it, though it happens before his very eyes. The boy is growing, shifting and changing, and what Gerard once took for bruises prove to be black symbols in his skin that spread and shift as he grows, curling over his arms and even up on the side of his throat.

He's not merely growing taller, but older, his frame filling out, his features becoming more defined, until he stands before Gerard, of a height with him and, to all appearances, of an age. Gerard's protection charm hangs around his neck, and the boy, now a man, carefully picks it up, holding it up to inspect it before he flicks his black gaze back to Gerard.

The man reaches out to him, curves his hand around Gerard's cheek. His skin is a little cool, like the chilled bite in your cheeks from being out in the wind for too long. "I won't forget this," he says. And then he turns, giving Gerard a glimpse of inky black wings that seem painted on his back, each individual feather impossibly clear. But only for a moment, for with each step he takes, he fades until he is gone. As though no one was ever there at all.

But Gerard's shirt is still rumpled from when he reached inside, and it's amazing how keenly the absence of even such a small thing can be felt. He rubs his hand against his chest and rearranges his cloak around himself. It isn't his first encounter with something dark and unnatural in the woods, but by far the strangest. And the first that hasn't shied away from him, as heavily charmed as he is.

*

News travels slowly to small villages, which is why, just over a week later, Gerard awakes in the night with a jolt to find the dark stranger from the woods standing over him. He shouts, grabs pointlessly for his blankets, as though they could protect him. The man is no longer clad in too-small trousers. Even by the light of the moon and the candle at his bedside, Gerard can make out a crisp white shirt, a dark waistcoat. And his charm, the one he gave the boy, hanging around his neck, glowing slightly in the darkness.

"I told you I would remember you." The man smiles, and Gerard can see that his teeth are sharp as daggers.

"Who are you?"

Somehow, his grin gets wider, pointed teeth so white that they practically glow in the moonlight, like the charm. "I'm your king."

Gerard's village is far from the capital, and he has never seen the king's image and is not quite sure of his name. But he knows that this strange, wild man cannot be the same man that he has thanked on feasting days.

"And as your king, I will have you at my court." He extends his hand to Gerard. There are black runes on his fingers, symbols Gerard doesn't recognize curling around his palm and up his wrist to disappear beneath his sleeve. "Will you come or must I force you?"

Gerard thinks of Michael, of what this creature's idea of force might mean for his brother or even their village. Gerard is a clever man, steeped in the old ways, and he can see now that this is no human man. He takes the marked man's hand and is faintly surprised to find it as soft and warm as any man's flesh. "I will come. But I am not dressed to travel."

"Nonsense," he says, and the world tips sideways.

Gerard scrabbles to hold onto his bedclothes, only to find that they are no longer below his hands. There is nothing there, just a mute grayness and the sound of a rushing wind. There is no breeze on his skin or in his hair, but he can hear it howling all the same. He stands now, still holding the hand of the creature who calls himself the king's, and when this strange king starts to walk, Gerard follows.

"This is a far better means of transport than your carts and ships." They walk through nothingness, with the roar of the wind filling Gerard's ears in the stillness. He cannot say for how long they walked, only that his bare feet slowly begin to ache.

Then the man squeezes his hand and says, "Brace yourself," and everything shifts again. Gerard's stomach roils, but he presses a hand to his mouth and manages to keep his dinner down. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the real world, with all its color, although it is still dark. The moon has moved across the sky, and it must be getting close to dawn, but it is still the night. And Gerard is somewhere that he has never seen before, certainly more than a few hours' travel from his village.

This place is far too fine to be anywhere near his village. They are out under the moon in the night air, but there are no trees to be seen, no grass on the ground. It is a fine courtyard built from grey stone. Some attractive flowering vines do crawl up one of the walls, the tallest that Gerard has seen. It must be the palace. To the right there is an open doorway filled with light, and Gerard can hear chatter and laughter from inside. It doesn't sound entirely human.

"And what should I call you?" Gerard looks over at the man. "You must have a name."

The man rolls his shoulders. There's a set to his mouth, the smugness gone for now. "I was never given one. But I have taken the name Frank."

"Frank?" It is foolish, he knows, but Gerard can't help but frown.

"You do not approve?"

"It is...not so kingly a name. Your highness," Gerard adds, hoping to soften his words. He learnt of kings in school, when he was young. They have fine, lengthy names, like Nicodemus the Merciful and Coriander the Fourth. There is, he thinks, a butcher in the neighboring village by the name of Frank.

"Your kings are not my forefathers." Frank spits on the ground. "I am the first of my name, the first and last of my line, lord sovereign of both mortal and fae. You would do well to forget what notions of royalty you have. I am nothing that you know."

Gerard shivers at the venom in his voice, but at last, he is able to start to piece the truth together. "You are fae, then."

"I told you. I am nothing you have known." The charm still glows against Frank's chest; it must be reacting to his magic. No charm has ever been woven to be worn by fae, and Gerard wonders what, exactly, his simple protection amulet is doing. But Frank looks towards the light streaming out of the door as though noticing it and the spill of noise for the first time, and holds his hand out to Gerard again. "Come. It's time to greet my subjects."

Gerard takes his hand and a step before the cold cobblestone under his toes reminds him of his undress; he wears only a voluminous nightshirt, his knobby pale knees sticking out from underneath and a span of his chest visible where the buttons at the throat are undone. His hair must be even more of a bird's nest than usual. "I'm not dressed, your highness."

Frank looks him over and grins. Gerard isn't sure if he'll ever get used to seeing those sharp teeth on display. "True enough. Allow me."

The charm at his chest glows brighter and his hand squeezes tight around Gerard's. As he watches, Frank's simple waistcoat is joined by an oversized cloak of shining dark feathers, fanned in a great ruff around his face and down to the floor, slowly coming into existence. Gerard thinks of the wings emblazoned on his back, and he realizes what a fool he has been, to not know from the first glimpse of a strange boy in the woods. How many stories, whispers has he heard of the raven boy, not mortal or fae, the living curse?

He is distracted by the tingling of magic on his own skin, and he looks down at their joined hands to see his nightshirt replaced by proper clothes, finer than anything Gerard has owned apart from his cloak. Thinking of the cloak makes his stomach jolt; he hopes that Michael will find it, wear it himself. It will take a few days for the charms to adjust to their new master, but brothers are certainly close enough for a smooth transfer. Gerard has no illusions that he will wear it again, that he will ever return to the village. It is a cold knowledge in his stomach, that he will never see home or his brother again, but he has been abducted by the raven boy who is calling himself the king, and there will be no escape. He is unsure why Frank has brought him here, is bothering to transform his nightclothes into a pair of trousers, a shirt, a jacket, as fine as any courtier Gerard could imagine. The fabric is rich, a deep purple that makes him look even paler.

It also ties him to Frank, in all black.

"Now," Frank says. "Are you satisfied?"

"Yes. Of course." Gerard imagines that he will be offered up for slaughter inside, to what must be a ravening fae horde. Perhaps the fae prefer pretty things to kill; it would not surprise him. The creatures are dark and twisted. He will cooperate as long as he can, and perhaps he will be spared a painful death. He is no hero, only a weaver. He is meant to protect others from danger, not face it himself.

But that is what he must do now, for Frank is leading him forwards, through the stone archway into the palace. It is only a side corridor, but the stone here is well-hewn and clean, unlike the careful but rough stonework of home. He can hear the rabble and laughter more clearly inside, and it only gets louder as Frank takes him down the hall, through a tiny alcove that must be some sort of secret entrance. For a moment, they stand side by side, and Gerard can hear how hard Frank is breathing. For a moment, he seems human. Then Frank is pushing a hanging tapestry aside and dragging him forward into the light and noise.

It takes a moment for Gerard's eyes to adjust, and when they do, he's still not sure if what he sees can be true. This must be the grand hall, for it is the largest room Gerard has ever seen in his life. Soaring ceilings, glittering marble, intricate marble and all of it swathed in black. But the true size of the room is masked by how crowded it is; from wall to wall, the room is packed with fae creatures. Some are smaller than children and a few stand at the height of at least two full grown men stacked on top of each other; a sea of mottled skin, claws, tails, and all manner of horror, everything from a child's nightmare. Everything that Gerard has woven charms to stave off. And now he stands here before them all, his hand clasped in that of the most terrifying fairytale of them all, completely unguarded.

Frank's hand is tight and a little sweaty around his; if he were anything else, Gerard might say that he was nervous. He still looks ferocious, the light making the blue-black feathers in his cloak shine as they surround him, as though he might take flight at any time.

"You," he says, and though he is not speaking so loudly, the rabble dies down until his voice is the only that Gerard hears, "stand in the hall of the human king, where no fae has ever trespassed. Until tonight."

Gerard scans the crowd, looks at the red, gold, green eyes fixed on Frank. They are unsure too, he realizes. This is a night that no one had expected, not even the fae.

"You have come here," Frank continues, "to welcome a new era. The human king is dead. I took his heart with my own hand, and I swallowed his name. This kingdom is mine. And I share it with you. We will not be subjugated by humans any longer. And this--" he raises Gerard's hand in his. "--this man is the reason that we have conquered."

The gathered fae begin to cheer and applaud, and their hungry eyes move to Gerard now, and his chest feels incredibly tight. He has done nothing to aid this monster...except that he has. Except his charm hangs around Frank's neck, and for some reason it seems even stronger than before. Frank is the first fae creature to wear a charm, as far as Gerard knows, and it seems its power was enough to bolster him to this. Bring him out of the woods he has hidden in since he was a babe, and back to claim the throne he was once born to.

This is what he has done with Elena's legacy. She would be so disappointed in him.

Frank releases his hand, and someone comes from behind to take his elbow and guide him away. He knows he ought to struggle, but all he can do is follow. He is taken out of the hall, away from the shouts, and up a twisting back staircase. The fae who escorts him is tall and broad, with a mane of tightly curled tendrils of hair. There is a greenish cast to his skin, like moss on the trunk of a tree. He looks mostly human, enough that Gerard finds the courage to catch his arm once he's been delivered to a sumptuous bedroom.

"What will happen to me?"

"It's the king's pleasure," the fae says, shifting from foot to foot, almost awkward. He gives Gerard a small smile. "Sleep, for now."

The telltale click of the door being locked is loud and obvious after the fae leaves the room. Gerard is not sure why they would even bother; where do they think he will go? He is too far from home to ever find his way back, and it's not as though he could hope to hide from them.

He pulls off the clothes that Frank magicked him into and crawls into the bed. It's feather-soft with cool sheets, not at all like his simple straw-stuffed pallet at home. He rolls from side to side, but his body's discomfort is nothing compared to the hammering inside his head. He lies on his back, resigning himself to a night of misery with his thoughts. Around they run, making him sick with anxiety until his body can hold out no longer and he sinks into an uneasy sleep.

Gerard is used to being awakened by the old rooster crowing next door, the sun coming through his window. This morning, he awakes disoriented, aching and unsure of where he is. The room is still dark, the bed unfamiliar. He realizes, slowly, that there are thick curtains over the windows, keeping the sun out, because a guest at the palace certainly couldn't be disturbed by something as mundane as the sunrise.

He sits up and looks around the room. It's cavernous, like every aspect of the palace he's seen so far, and even in the darkness he can see plush fabrics and intricate carving. This is a room for someone far more important than himself. He considers settling back under the covers to await his demise, but he hasn't spent days in bed since just after Elena died. He's already done enough to shame her memory, if it's true that his charm allowed Frank to take over the kingdom. He won't disappoint in this too.

As he shifts to climb out of bed, he realizes that all he has are the clothes that Frank made last night. He pulls the trousers and shirt back on, doing the small jeweled buttons up with clumsy fingers. Once he feels decent, he goes to the door and knocks softly on it. "Hello? Is someone out there?"

He hears shuffling, then the key turning in the lock. The door opens to reveal the same fae who brought him here last night. Gerard waits a moment, but the fae just looks down at him with a vaguely pleasant expression. He doesn't seem inclined to speak.

"Good morning," Gerard says. Politeness seems like the best course of action, when in doubt. "We weren't introduced. I'm Gerard."

The fae nods, smile broadening. "I know."

"Yes, well." Gerard fights the urge to turn around and flop back into bed, his honor and pride be damned. "I don't know your name."

"Oh! Right. It's...difficult." The fae frowns for a moment before brightening again. He never seems to be solemn for long. "You can call me Ray."

"Nice to meet you." It's almost as though he's in a pantomime of some kind, playing out a normal conversation with some strange creature as though they were strangers met on the road. He looks behind him at the darkened room. "Do I have to stay in there?"

"Actually, Frank will want to see you." Gerard's stomach goes cold, and the fear must show on his face. Ray shifts his weight from foot to foot, as he did last night. It's a surprisingly human gesture. "I wanted to let you sleep as long as I could."

"Thank you." Gerard takes a deep breath through his nose. There's little sense in delaying the inevitable, although what exactly is inevitable seems to have gotten less clear since last night. "I'll see him now, if you'll tell me where he is."

"I can take you." Ray straightens up immediately, and Gerard is left with the indisputable knowledge that Ray is here to guard him. As nice and normal as he may seem, he's still one of them, and Gerard cannot trust him.

He nods and closes the bedroom door, letting Ray guide him through the halls. To be honest, he's almost grateful that Ray is apparently to be his constant companion; the palace is like nothing Gerard has ever seen, and he's sure he would get most abysmally lost if left to his own devices. There are no familiar markers, like a tree downed in last season's lightning storms or a brook that makes a sharp turn for the north a few lengths outside of the village. Just endless smooth stone walls, broken occasionally by slender windows filled with alternately clear and colored glass. They do not go down the staircase from the night before, so they must not be returning to the grand hall. Instead, Ray takes Gerard up a tight spiral staircase to a small room behind a dark wooden door. It is there that Frank is waiting for him.

He is sitting at a desk made from what looks like the same wood as the door, but he looks up when they come in. The impressive raven cloak is gone; he is left in the crisp white shirt and black waistcoat he wore when he appeared in Gerard's bedroom, though now he's added a pair of blood red gems at his cuffs. And, of course, around his neck is Gerard's charm.

"Should I go?" Ray takes a half-step back towards the stairs, but he stops when Frank shakes his head.

"Only if you have something else that demands your attention." He turns his attention to Gerard while Ray settles into place near the doorway. "And you came to find me, did you? Intrigued?"

"Not exactly." Gerard looks at his bare feet, the hem of the rich purple trousers at his pale ankle. "You brought me here for a reason, I'd guess. Not just to...show off in front of your friends."

"Subjects." Frank holds up a finger. The rune on his knuckle means spite. "But I do have a use for you." There is a valise on the desk next to him, and he pushes it towards Gerard.

Will it release poisonous gas when he opens it, or some other cruel prank? It sounds like the sort of thing a fae might do, but Gerard assumes there would be a grander audience for his death than just Ray. So he steps forward and unlatches the buckles on the front, flipping the cover back. Inside is a carefully organized assortment: a length of thin but strong string, a few vials filled with some crushed substance, a little pile of bark, some beads.

It's a rudimentary weaver's kit.

Gerard looks back up at Frank, a heavy chill settling in his stomach. "You want me to weave for you?"

Frank grins and hooks his thumb under the silver chain around his neck, lifting it up so Gerard's charm dangles in front of him. He could reach out and snatch it, pull hard enough to break open the clasp. If he thought he would survive, that it would do any good, maybe he would. "I do have an appreciation for your work."

"I won't. I mean...I can't." Gerard swallows around his dry tongue. The look that Frank is giving him with those flat dark eyes makes it hard for him to find his words. "No one's woven for fae. It...it can't be done. It won't work."

"I am not fae," Frank says. He sits straighter in his chair, puffs out his chest and raises his chin. "I am different. Unlike any creature living. And your weaving has worked on me. It can only be stronger if you make one that was meant for me. Isn't that how it works?"

"Maybe? I don't know." Gerard pushes his hand into his hair. The frustration is doing wonders for his mortal terror, especially now that it appears Frank has no intention of killing him outright. "There is no 'how it works' for fae charms. Like I said, it's never been done. You have your own magic."

"But no one else has yours." Frank leans on the desk, pushing the valise closer to Gerard. "You will weave for me. Don't make me come up with a threat."

Gerard swallows hard and stares down at the kit. He's right; there's no sense in threatening, because there is no threat that Gerard could withstand. He will obey, no matter what his heart tells him is right. But if he must do this, he will retain whatever of his pride he can. "Fine. But I cannot work with this."

"Oh, you cannot?" Frank's lip quirks, and his amusement just makes Gerard angrier. It is nothing to him, clearly, to take Gerard's life away from him and make him a slave. "What are your demands, then, weaver?"

"I want my own tools." Gerard sets his resolve and his jaw. "And my supplies. Your people will be careful bringing them to me. And I want a letter delivered to my brother. He has to be safe, or I won't do this. I don't care what you threaten me with."

Frank smiles. "Fine. I accept your terms. Write your letter, and I'll send the sprites to fetch your things. And then you will work."

Gerard nods and, on a whim, holds his hand out. Frank looks down at it but makes no move to take it. "Humans shake hands, when a bargain is struck."

"Bargaining with a human is a strange past-time for a king." But Frank reaches forward and curls his hand around Gerard's. Gerard has to pump it, shaking up and down once before he lets go. Frank is still smiling, obviously amused. It's bitter on Gerard's tongue, but he knows that amusement is safe. At least he has that, as he tries to discover how he can live in this life.

Ray takes him back down the stairs and through more empty halls, to a room that must have been someone's office, before Frank took over. He wonders who worked at this desk. And the valise, the weaver's kit—it was either a basic traveling kit or one belonging to an apprentice, just starting on their craft. What happened to that weaver? It's better, he thinks, not to wonder, but he cannot empty his mind of these ghosts. Not yet.

Still, there are things he must do. He sits at the desk and easily finds parchment and ink. The owner of the office was very organized. Ray stands a respectful distance away, turned towards the wall as though he is deeply interested in the books there. Gerard appreciates this small courtesy.

He dips the pen in ink and writes. It writes smoothly, fluid with none of the splatters he's used to at home. He tries to make a few, just so Michael will believe it truly came from him.


Michael -

I hope that you are well and that you are safe, and that you will remain so.

As you know now, I've been taken. The fae control our kingdom now, and I am at their king's command. All I want to tell you is that I am fine, and that I don't want you to come for me. Marry Marnie. Teach your classes. No good will come of it if you try to find me, and I just want you to be happy. The cloak Elena made me is in my cabin, next to the door. It's yours now. Wear it for at least a week before you do anything dangerous, to let the charms adjust to you.

Don't do anything dangerous, Michael.

All my love,
Gerard

He looks down at the words. They look stark and short, not nearly enough to offer to Michael when he'll never see him again. But he doesn't know who else will read this letter and, even more than that, for once he doesn't want to obfuscate his feelings with more words. This is his last missive for his brother. Michael deserves nothing but the truth.

Gerard folds the letter carefully, and looks to Ray. "I need my brother to get this letter. Will you make sure the...sprites know that it's important?"

Ray turns around. "I'll do what I can. You...did very well. With Frank."

"Oh, did I?" Gerard huffs out a tired laugh and sets the folded parchment down on the desk, leaning back in the chair. "Did you enjoy that?"

"No." Ray frowns. He looks a bit greener than before to Gerard's eyes, but maybe it's the light in the study. "I know what you think, but I'm not a monster."

As monsters go, he's a friendly one, at least, but that's really all Gerard can say for now. He looks back down at the desk. "Just my captor. Is he ever going to let me go?"

There's a long pause that says all Gerard needs to know. When Ray speaks again, he sounds tired. "I don't know. But Frank...he isn't what you think. Not exactly."

"So he says. Unlike anything I've known, right?" Gerard shakes his head. Frank may be a unique creature, but he is as arrogant as any king in a story destined for a comeuppance. He only wishes he knew where Frank might get the one he deserves.

Ray makes a face. "Yes, that's...he can be like that. But there's more to him."

"I don't care." Gerard smoothes his hand over his letter, tightening the creases. "I'll obey, if I must. But that's all."

"Very well." Ray still looks conflicted, as though there's something more he wants to say, but all he offers is, "I'll show you where meals will be served."

*

Gerard eats in a nook of the kitchen, amongst the terrified human staff and away from any of the new fae courtiers. He wishes he could speak to the servants, at least see if they know any more than he does, but they all saw Ray bring him here. They know who he is, and none of them want anything to do with him; whether they think that they'll draw Frank's wrath or they think he's a coward for how he's given in to the fae's demands he can't tell.

The bread is good and warm, and the generous slices of beef are tender and flavorful. It's too good, and Gerard finds himself yearning for the misshapen rolls of his own table, of meat somewhat chewy because he'd gotten distracted by a new charm while it cooked. He still eats his fill, since he isn't sure when he'll eat again. It still isn't entirely clear what Frank is asking of him, and though he has no real plan to refuse, who knows if he's even capable. He has a feeling the fae king won't take failure lightly.

Once he's finished, he climbs the stone steps out of the warm, slightly rough-hewn kitchen back to the gleaming marble of the palace. He's almost certain he can find his way back to his room from here; he recognizes a portrait of a somewhat wall-eyed duke at the end of the hallway. He turns a corner and finds Ray waiting in front of the door, and feels some small sense of victory. He almost expects some encouragement from Ray, has come to expect his easy smile even when he knows he can't trust it, but instead Ray looks serious.

"Frank wishes to see you."

"Now? I thought he would be...reveling." There had certainly been enough noise reverberating from the dining hall down in the kitchen. The fae, it seems, are not so different from celebrating humans, although there are rather more screeches.

"He said immediately." Ray's mouth twists up a bit, and he turns away before saying anything more. "Follow me."

Gerard expects to be lead to the study, or perhaps the workshop where Frank had shown him the charm kit, or even the grand hall, but instead Ray takes him to a wing that he's never been in before. They come to a pair of massive, ornately carved double doors, and Ray turns back to him. He looks like he's about to speak, but he turns away again and raps on the door.

"Send him in."

Ray nods and rests his hand on the handle for just a moment. "Good luck," he says, quickly enough that Gerard almost doesn't understand, and then he's opening the door and ushering Gerard through.

The door shuts behind him. These, Gerard quickly realizes, are the royal quarters. His own room, so much finer than anything at home, seems embarrassingly plain compared to this. The bed at the center of the far wall, flanked by two massive windows, is equally huge. Frank looks tiny and pale lounging on it, almost delicate. Then he smiles, and in an instant he's a predator again, sharp teeth and black eyes.

"Come closer."

Gerard obeys, and Frank shifts closer, meeting him at the foot of the bed. He stands, and Gerard looks down at him. It's hard to remember that Frank is small, even compared to Gerard who was never a picture of strapping manhood. It's hard to think of something so dangerous as being diminutive, even though Gerard knows that the smallest nettle can easily have the sharpest sting. This is what he is thinking of when Frank reaches forward to take his hand. It feels almost normal at this point, and Frank squeezes it once, then looks into Gerard's eyes. "I would have you for my consort."

Gerard's mind goes blank. "Your what?"

"My consort." Frank smirks a little, rubbing his thumb over the side of Gerard's hand in a mockery of seduction. "My lover."

"Your...no." Gerard pulls his hand away, staring down at Frank. He cannot deny that Frank is beautiful, but many fae are. It's meant to trick you, pull you in until you drown in a shallow pond or eat the enchanted fruit or take their place sealed inside some sacred tree. "No, I won't."

"Why not?" Frank's face has gone stormy, but Gerard is too nonplussed to be frightened. "I know you had no lover in your village. It would give you great honor and power to be the king's consort. Unless--" he lightens a bit, that spark coming back into his black eyes, "--you have never been with a man before? There is no need to fret. I will be careful with you."

"It's not that." Gerard folds his arms across his chest so Frank cannot reach his hands again. It is true that he has not lain with a man, beyond some youthful experimentation behind the barn, though not for lack of wanting. But Frank is not a man at all, or not more than half a man. "I don't want to."

Frank huffs, and it sounds distressingly like the frustrated sighs Michael made as a child not getting his way. Except young Michael didn't have this kind of power over him. Frank, Gerard realizes with a sick twist in his stomach, could easily overpower him, with magic or with threats. He's been blasé, when he should have been clever. In all the stories, the only way a human ever comes out the winner in a confrontation with the fae is by outwitting them.

He tries to think of a way to salvage this, something he can say, when Frank reaches over and kicks his foot against Gerard's. "I've done my research. A charm's power is exponentially increased by a close relationship between the wearer and the weaver."

Gerard almost laughs from the sudden rush of relief. He should have known that Frank has no sexual interest in him; what fae, especially a self-styled king, would pick a human as his partner? It is Gerard's usefulness that Frank lusts after, not his body.

He manages to remain serious. "True. Which is why you should respect my decision and not question me further."

Frank opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. Gerard, briefly, giddily, feels like one of those clever humans in the stories. He has left the creature speechless, emerged victorious in a battle of wills with the fae. Of course, his triumph cannot last for long.

"Fine. But even if you will not be my consort, you will share my bed."

"But--" Gerard needs to think for a moment to phrase his next volley. "Surely your highness will take another consort. I would only be in the way."

"No," Frank says. There is a firmness in his tone that Gerard is not sure how to argue with. Frank sits on the foot of the bed and looks up at him, challenging. He hasn't missed that Gerard thought himself a trickster. "No, it will take much time for me to select an...appropriate consort from the court. Until then, it will be safest for you and most pleasing for me to have you here."

Gerard casts for another excuse. "I keep terrible hours, your highness. I would keep you awake."

"It's no matter. I would still rather have you here, where I can...protect you."

Heart heavy, Gerard finds himself yearning for the bedroom he found so foreign. At least there he had a semblance of privacy. But he has lost this battle of wits, and he is forced to nod stiffly. "As my king commands."

Frank's smile leaves little doubt how much he enjoys hearing that. "Indeed. You may prepare for bed."

"For bed? It's hardly late enough to go to sleep."

"I prefer to conduct some business from bed in the evenings." Frank arches a perfectly shaped eyebrow at Gerard. "And I would have your companionship. To improve our personal relationship."

It's tempting to tell Frank that spending more time with him is deeply unlikely to improve Gerard's opinion of him, but he's learned his lessons about tempting fate now. He sighs and puts his hand to his collar before remembering that he's slept in just his underthings the past night. "I don't have any nightclothes, your highness."

"Do you need them?" Frank leers, and Gerard goes pale. Luckily, Frank laughs and pulls from the empty air a white cotton nightshirt, not unlike the one Gerard was wearing when he was taken. Taking it from Frank, Gerard can see that it is the same nightshirt, complete with a missing button and a small ink stain on the sleeve. "And as flattering as it is, if we're to be bedfellows, I think you can call me Frank."

"I will," Gerard says, with no intention to do so. There's no private place for him to change, and he's afraid Frank will make him put on a show if he asks for one, so he goes to the corner instead, facing the wall. He's sure he feels Frank's eyes on him, crawling over his skin, but when he turns back around, Frank is sitting in bed under the covers. He leans against the headboard with a book open in his lap.

Left without any other ideas for stalling, Gerard is forced to join him. He walks around the foot of the bed to his own side and awkwardly clambers in. The bed is even taller than the one in the room he's been using, and he wonders how Frank got into it so smoothly. He doesn't want to get under the covers with Frank, but he knows that he'll end up there somehow even if he resists now.

He's expecting to be ordered around some more, asked questions, perhaps subjected to more seduction attempts. But Frank is silent; he seems genuinely absorbed by his book. Which leaves Gerard sitting next to him, hands clasped in his lap, staring around the room. It is a well-decorated room, but it's not enough to keep Gerard's attention for the long-term. He looks over at the book; the writing is dark and scratchy, but he can make out enough words to tell it's a history.

"May I help you?"

Gerard starts and brings his gaze up to meet Frank's, who is smirking. He plans to demur, go back to his staring, but Frank has already forced him into bed. He doesn't seem likely to murder Gerard with only minimal provocation, so instead he says, "I was bored. You have a book, but I don't have anything to do."

"My apologies. I'm a terrible host." Frank places his hand over the book to hold his place, turning his attention to Gerard. "Would you like a book? Some paper to write on?"

"Paper, please." Gerard still feels a little odd when Frank plucks a few sheets of paper and a fat pen out of the air for him, but not as much as the first time. He wonders how long it will take for it to become normal for him. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. I only ask that you don't get ink on the sheets." And he goes back to his book. It's as though they were just two men sitting beside each other in the tavern and he'd passed Gerard the salt. It's bizarrely normal, and Gerard brings his knees up to plant his feet flat on the bed, so he can use his thighs as a writing surface. He's unsure what to do at first, then starts making a list of the essential ingredients he'll need retrieved from his workshop. It's a long list, and by the time he's finished, he's started to yawn. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Frank stretch.

"Is it an acceptable hour to sleep now?" Frank is smiling again, eyes a bit soft and heavy-lidded from sleepiness, and with his lips closed over his teeth he looks entirely human and even a little delicate. He really is unreasonably beautiful, and Gerard bites the inside of his cheek for a spark of pain to remind himself who this truly is.

"I suppose so," he says, blowing carefully on his paper before setting it on the table next to the bed. "If you're tired."

"Then we'll say goodnight. And I'll see you in the morning."

Immediately in the morning, Gerard adds mentally, and all through the night. But if Frank is going to treat this like a normal, platonic arrangement, he isn't going to challenge it and get something worse. Instead, he nods. "Good night."

"Good night, Gerard." Frank waves his hand and the candles in the room go out, plunging them into blackness. Gerard slides down under the sheets, pulling the pillow back into place, and he can feel Frank doing the same behind him, the mattress shifting under them. When they were young, Gerard and Michael shared a bed, so he isn't entirely unused to having a bedmate, but sleeping besides the raven boy is entirely different than curling up next to his little brother. Still, when he closes his eyes, the faint warmth behind him and the steady sound of breathing could just as easily be anyone. He latches on to that, telling himself that this could be normal, and it isn't long before he drops off to sleep.

Gerard wakes a few times throughout the night, but Frank is always asleep and safe on his own side of the bed. And in the morning, he is alone.

The sheets are rumpled, but Frank is gone. Gerard looks around the room to see if he's moved to one of the chairs; no sign of him. He rolls over and finds that the list he made is also missing.

He climbs out of bed and changes from his nightshirt back into his shirt and trousers, somewhat worse for wear. It's lucky that he's never been one to be picky about his clothing or cleanliness of any kind, really. The door is not locked, and when he opens it, Ray is not waiting outside for him.

The kitchens seem the most logical place to go. Gerard slips past the open door to the hall, where the fae are breaking their fast, and down the stairs to the kitchen proper. As soon as he enters, one of the scullery girls starts pulling together a plate for him and thrusts it, without a single word, into his hands. It's a fine spread, toasted bread with jam, fat sausages, eggs speckled with pepper. He takes it to the nook to eat, staying out of the way; he is already falling into a routine here, he realizes. How he will spend his days apart from meals has yet to be determined...weaving, once Frank's minions retrieve his supplies for him, and spending the nights lying awkwardly beside his captor. It is not much of a life, but, in truth, it is not so different from the one he left behind. The crowd of dark creatures, even Ray, is no replacement for Michael or Marnie, or even farmers who never gave him a second glance but whose wives brought him fresh preserves when they came for their charms. He often felt quietly alone at home, keenly feeling Elena's absence, but here he is surrounded by fae and the only humans left will not speak to him.

Still, he lingers in the kitchen. At least here he can be soothed by the familiar sounds of food being prepared, knives chopping vegetables and the rhythmic thud of dough being kneaded. It's on a much grander scale than it ever was at home, but it's still something.

As soon as he reaches the top of the stairs, Ray appears from another corridor to escort him somewhere. The speed means he must have known where Gerard was, but still let him have some time to himself. A small kindness is a kindness a nonetheless. It quickly becomes apparent that Ray is taking him back to the workshop, up the twisted staircase to what was once a nearly empty room.

The room has been transformed, but not by magic as far as Gerard can see. The dusty shelves are now full to bursting, every inch covered in ingredients. His roll of tools, his standbys, has been laid across the work table. Although he knows that his workshop has been recreated so he can help an enemy, he can't help but feel at peace. It smells right, like home, for the workshop was always the place closest to his heart. His bones know that it's familiar, reminding him of long afternoons with Elena.

"Will this be sufficient?" Frank leans against the doorframe, watching him closely. Gerard isn't sure what reaction he is looking for.

"It should be." Gerard looks around the room once more, picking out his best and most treasured ingredients and tools with his eyes. They are all here. And now, Frank stands here as his clients in the village once did. He tells himself that this is no different. "What charm do you seek?"

Frank shifts, standing up straighter, his arms crossed tight over his chest. "Protection against magic."

Gerard wrinkles his nose. "Magic? But surely you--"

"Not fae magic." Frank's mouth goes tighter and Gerard thinks his eyes dart to the side, as though he wants to look over his shoulder. "Human magic."

Humans who practice magic are rare, and Gerard cannot recall ever having woven a charm against them. He almost says as much, until his mind catches up to his mouth. "The witch."

He can see how tense Frank is getting, more tightly wound with every word, like a bowstring pulled taut. "Yes, the witch."

Gerard remembers the story, the end of the tale. They say the witch who cast the curse that became Frank still searches for him. He always thought of it as closer to folklore, a dramatic end to a tale, but if Frank fears her it must be true. Frank is frightening; someone who created Frank, someone who frightens him, is not a person Gerard would like to meet.

"I'll try." Gerard crosses to the far wall to look through a basket full of wood, lengths of elm, willow, cedar. Something to tie him to the natural world might help. "I've never weaved for fae, and I've never weaved against witchcraft." He looks up, and Frank's expression is still taut and upset. "I'll do my best."

"See that you do." And with that, he's gone. No footsteps, which means he isn't storming down the stairs. He's vanished, and Gerard is finding himself weary with all of the disappearing and reappearing things around here. Ray, at least, still stands on solid ground.

But thoughts of Ray or even of vanishings are fleeting once Gerard starts to settle into his work. This is entirely new, the most challenging weaving he's ever done. It's slightly terrifying, but there's a very real pulse of exhilaration running through him. He had fallen into a rut, weaving for the village. It's unavoidable in the life of a small-town charm weaver; you craft the things people need, day in and day out, and their needs seldom vary from basic patterns, the classic protections. Frank's needs are unique, and Gerard's heart flutters a little from the adrenaline of a new puzzle.

When he was young and still learning, before he even could hold the rank of apprentice, Elena would test him with little riddles. She'd give him an array of ingredients, perhaps, and tell him to figure out what charm they made. Or give him three objectives that seemed like they could never work in harmony and ask him for a charm that would suit all of them. This puzzle is more like the latter; he must find a way to protect Frank from magic, when Frank is inherently magical. Frank is a contradiction, both human and fae, not human and not fae, and Gerard has no idea how to effectively weave for him. That his own charm worked so well on Frank has to have been a fluke...or was it?

There's parchment in the desk, as well as a thin piece of charcoal, which he much prefers to work with when he's weaving and not writing. He can sketch out his ideas and see the flow so much better this way. Whoever Frank sent to pack up his workshop did a very thorough job.

He keeps a length of ash under his thumb while he sketches, mapping out a classic triangular form. The triangle is sturdy, a good shape to hold heavy weaving, but multifaceted like Frank is. It'll be a solid base for the charm.

It has always been the case that Gerard gets lost in his weaving, even when it's only a standard protection against illness or bad magic. An intriguing, maddening puzzle like this roots deep in his mind, keeping him at the desk going through page after page, planning and discarding potential creations. Some ash from an ebony tree would be strong protection, more heady than the sort Gerard usually used, but it could easily be too strong, wrenching Frank's spirit apart in an effort to defend his human side from his magic.

There are no windows in this room, so Gerard could not have tracked the passage of time even if he were not so distracted by the problem of the charm. It is finally the aching hunger in his belly that breaks him from his reverie and reminds him that hours must have passed since he began.

A little light-headed, mind buzzing from so long spent in tight focus on his work, Gerard makes his way down to the kitchens. He's so distracted that he doesn't notice Ray standing at the top of the stone stairs until he grabs his arm. Gerard jumps and tugs his arm free, more out of instinct than anything; Ray lets him go easily.

"You don't have to eat alone down there, you know." Ray smiles at him, and Gerard is fuzzy enough to wonder who else would eat down in the kitchens with him before Ray nods toward the hall. "Come join us."

"Us?" Gerard glances at the door. This is where the fae eat, and he's never imagined that he would be comfortable there. Or welcome, for that matter.

"Please." Ray is still smiling; Gerard can't think of a sensible excuse at this juncture besides his mistrust of the fae, and it isn't something he's eager to admit. He nods, and lets Ray lead him into the hall.

He can't say what he expected. Some sort of bacchanalia, he supposes. In truth, it reminds him of communal feasts on celebration days back in the village. There are two long tables, each with groups of people gathered around it, passing food between them and laughing. Except these are not people. There are wings on display, claws and paws, a long forked tongue curling around a spoon. Frank sits at the end of one of the tables in an ornately carved chair, deep in conversation with a woman with a shock of pure white hair and blue lips. Gerard expects Ray to take them towards Frank, but instead he walks to the end of the other table. There are two free chairs there, and Ray pulls one out for him before sitting in the other. Gerard suspects it isn't coincidence that Ray offers him the seat on the end, so the only fae he's beside is Ray himself.

There is a short man seated across from him with two small horns protruding from his curls, and next to him a tall scaled creature who is carefully wielding a knife and fork with heavily clawed hands.

"Pass that over here," Ray says, reaching for a platter of some kind of greens, as though bringing Gerard along is unworthy of comment. The satyr pushes it towards him with a smirk.

"Not enough sunshine today? You have your...petals unfurled."

Ray pats at his hair and shakes his head, taking a hearty serving of the salad. "I've been working, unlike some. You seem to have a fine appetite regardless."

The scaled fae snorts, and the satyr elbows it. "Can't all be part of the king's inner circle, can we? I'm just one of the lowly subjects, uprooted from my nice glen."

Gerard reaches for a roll from a basket in arm's reach. He knows that none of these fae were here before Frank took over, but he hasn't considered where these had come from, or how long they might stay. "Are all the fae here, then?"

The satyr rolls his eyes, but Ray just turns towards him. "There are as many fae as there are humans. We could never fit in even a palace at once. But most fae are trying to come, to pay their respects."

Gerard nods and focuses on his roll. It's fluffy and peppered with black seeds, and far easier to face than a room full of fae. He knows so little about any of this, and now it's his world too. But back in his old world...he thinks of Michael, and he sets the roll on his plate, turning back to Ray. "What about us...the humans? What's happening out there?"

Ray is quiet for a moment, then sets down his fork. "Nothing should have changed, really. Frank has little interest in meddling with human lives."

Perhaps it's that Ray is close and Frank is out of earshot, but Gerard doesn't hold back a derisive grunt. "Clearly."

"You're different."

"I suppose I must be." Gerard rips the roll in half and spreads both sides with butter. His annoyance is overtaking his fear, and suddenly he's starving again. "If his royal highness had enough interest to meddle."

The satyr and scaled fae exchange glances across the table, and Ray sighs.

"This isn't the time, Gerard."

"Don't be shy on our account," the satyr adds cheerfully. Gerard hasn't spent much time amongst fae besides Ray or Frank, and most of his time with Frank is while they're both asleep. This one, at least, seems to be very much like some of the more boorish villagers.

Ray shakes his head and leans in a little closer to Gerard. "If you want to talk about it, come and find me. I'll tell you what I can."

Gerard doesn't respond. He fills his plate from whatever he can reach, and focuses on his meal. After a few moments of silence, Ray and the other fae fall into conversation. He only half-listens to them. Instead he eats, and he looks along the length of the table, down to where Frank is sprawled in his chair. He's still talking to the fae sitting closest to him, but he leans back while they all lean in to him. These are supplicants, Gerard realizes. Not friends.

After the meal, Gerard returns to his workshop. He doesn't excuse himself from the table, just lets his feet carry him back up the staircase to a place that smells familiar, and buries himself in his work. He doesn't return to the bed that he shares with Frank until long after nightfall, and the room is dark and quiet when he slips inside.

*

The following days pass in much the same way. He works until his eyes feel as though they might cross, and he often joins Ray and his company for lunch. Then he continues in his work until it's time for bed. Oftentimes, Frank is already asleep by the time he returns.

A week after he started his work on the charm, he is filled with a rush of wanderlust in the middle of the afternoon. He's been living in the palace, and all he's seen are a few bedrooms, the kitchens, his workshop. So he begins to walk when he cannot think, taking stairways and passages to new rooms. Many of the halls are occupied by fae, who occasionally greet him but more often silently watch him pass. On the way to the kitchens, he takes an unfamiliar turn and finds himself inside the library. The stacks are huge, lined with more books than he's ever seen in his life.

And Frank is there, sprawled on a couch near the entrance. He looks up when Gerard enters. "Did you have need of me?"

"No. No, I was just...exploring." Gerard looks around the room, admiring the many bright spines. "What are you doing?"

Frank holds the book up so only his nose and eyes are visible above it. "Reading."

Gerard sighs. "Why?" Frank always seems to be buried in some book; reading before bed seems a sensible enough hobby (so sensible that it's odd a creature like Frank would be so devoted to it), but does he read all day as well?

"I grew up alone in the wilderness." Frank lowers the book, closing it in his lap. There's a challenge to his voice, even though he's smirking. "There's a lot to learn."

Perhaps it is the return to his work, a sense of purpose, that makes him bold, or perhaps he has simply reached the limits of fear. "I didn't think you would care much about petty human things."

Frank arches an eyebrow, leaning back. But he answers, which is more than Gerard expected. "I'm responsible for two worlds. I think you would rather I know something of them?"

It's a distressingly good answer, and Gerard sighs. "I suppose. Books will only teach you so much."

"And would you like to fill in the blanks?" Frank's smirk is venomous, and Gerard's stomach turns over. "Teach me to feel like a human?"

That is a task that is even more daunting than the one already set before him, but Gerard tips his chin up. "If you want."

Frank looks...not startled, precisely, but certainly contemplative. Gerard thinks he's managed to surprise him. After a moment, he picks up his book again. "That won't be necessary."

Gerard waits for a moment, to see if he'll speak again, but Frank keeps his eyes on the page. He hasn't been dismissed, so he heads for the wall to examine the books on the tall shelves. He had a small shelf with a few battered volumes on it at home, picked up by Ways from peddlers over the years. They may not have been as fine as these, with worn spines and drips from ink or ale on the pages, but they were well-loved.

The breadth of options is staggering, and after browsing for a while, Gerard takes a random book with gold lettering on the spine. He's never had much of a choice for reading material, and so far he's managed to find enjoyment in what he's had. This one catches the light. He takes it back to the workshop with him; Frank does not speak to him as he leaves.

That night they both read in bed, side by side and not touching. Gerard's book turns out to be a collection of poems. It's very beautiful, and he feels strange, almost dirty, reading it beside Frank, who could never understand this depth of emotion.

He finishes the book after a few days; the carefully crafted words of love and longing are a welcome relief from day after day of stagnant failure. He begins to suspect that this charm cannot be made, but he has no choice but to soldier on, wasting energy and ingredients on charms that snap or shudder apart in his hands. He sets the book aside and, still with hours to wait before Frank will turn out the lights, retrieves the paper and pen that still wait by his beside.

The feel of the pen is not as good as the charcoal in his workshop, but he still finds satisfaction drawing it across the page, sketching idly. He sets his hand and his imagination free, savoring the opportunity to draw something besides plans for yet another charm that will fail.

He's already finished the head and sketched out the shape of the body, wings, when he realizes Frank is watching him. He ignores it, filling in the feathers on the wings and going back in to add darker shading to the curve of the beak.

"I didn't know you were an artist."

Gerard stills his pen and looks over at Frank. "I'm not, really. Just...this, sometimes. It's relaxing."

Frank is still looking at the paper, the mostly-formed inky raven perching on the vague outline of a branch, so Gerard goes back to it. He colors in a dark claw, giving the bird a solid grip.

Once he's finished to his satisfaction, it's time to sleep. He sets the drawing on the table and slides back under the covers, adjusting his pillow. Frank watches him the whole time, his own book already closed and set aside. Finally, he turns off the light.

They lie in their usual silence in the warm darkness, but then Frank speaks. It's the first time he's ever spoken to Gerard in the dark like this. "Why did you draw that?"

Gerard considers not answering, pretending that he's already asleep, but there's really no reason to. He keeps his eyes closed, though. "I just wanted to. Not everything has a reason."

"Hrm," Frank says, then falls silent. Gerard rolls onto his side, facing away from Frank, and tries to ignore the slight tightness in his chest, the images of dark birds in his mind's eye.

In the morning, when Frank is gone, Gerard takes the book of poetry and sets it by Frank's side of the bed, on top of the thick tome he's been reading. It sits in the back of his mind, at the pit of his stomach through the whole day, and he isn't sure if it's a good or a bad feeling. He's easily distracted, joins Ray for a long lunch and then goes for a walk in the courtyard instead of returning to the workshop or to the library, where he knows Frank is likely to be waiting.

When he returns to bed, Frank just holds the book up to him with an arched eyebrow.

"Histories won't teach you everything." Gerard crawls into the bed and keeps his eyes down, even as he can feel a slight flush coming to his cheeks. "That...that is what being human is like."

"Thank you for your input," Frank says, a little mocking, but he sets the book in his lap even so. Gerard picks up his pen again. He's deep into a portrait -- not of Michael or Elena or his parents, those things would hurt too much, just of a farmer from home -- when Frank suddenly says, "What do you want?"

Gerard curls his fingers tighter around the pen and looks sideways at Frank. "My freedom?"

Frank's lip curls. "Not what I meant. I...for your help. For the book."

"Nothing," Gerard says. He looks down at the craggy but smiling face he's drawn. "I didn't give it to you because I wanted something."

"But there must be something I can give you." Frank sounds frustrated, and Gerard remembers the stories. Fae are notorious tricksters, true, but they are also obsessed with deals and debts. They don't do favors, or, it seems, gestures of kindness. At least not with humans.

Gerard has no interest or patience for this. "There's nothing I want that you'll grant me. You don't owe me."

"I can get you paints," Frank continues, as though Gerard hasn't spoken at all. "Or gold."

"I don't want your gold." Gerard sets the pen down and pinches the bridge of his nose. He'll have no peace, it seems, until Frank is convinced that there is no debt between with him. He casts about for something, anything that he lacks. The clothes Frank had created for him that first night never seem to dirty, feel fresh every morning when he puts them on, but the fact remains that he has only one shirt and pair of trousers, one nightshirt. "I'm sick of wearing the same clothes every day. I want new clothes."

"Fine," Frank says, satisfaction rich in his tone. "Done."

"Wonderful." Gerard shakes his head and picks his pen up again, back to his drawing.

When he wakes, he instinctively looks around the room for Frank, though Frank is never there. It is still empty, but now there is a piece of parchment propped between the crystal knobs on the wardrobe against the wall. Gerard climbs out of bed to investigate. Written in a steady and blocky hand, the page reads: Your repayment.

Inside, he finds a veritable rainbow. There are shirts and trousers, of course, but there are also waistcoats, elaborate jackets in rich fabrics. The kind of clothing he's pictured from stories Elena told that her mother, who apprenticed with a capital city weaver, told her, that he's quietly sketched a few times. It's ridiculously unnecessary, far too much frippery for a simple village boy like himself, but he can't help trailing his finger over gold braid, velvet cuffs, fat shiny buttons.

He considers for a while, afraid he'll look vain and foolish in something so dandified, then realizes that he doesn't care what anyone here thinks of him. He puts on a grey waistcoat with big black buttons and a brilliant crimson jacket piped with black that almost reaches to his knees.

The fey he passes on his way to the workshop ignore him, as usual, but when he comes to lunch, Ray makes him turn to show off his new wardrobe. He blushes a bit, quietly pleased, and meets Frank's eye once he's seated. Frank gives him a smirk that Gerard doesn't know how to interpret. It doesn't do anything to quell his flush.

He finds himself spending time in the library when he can't think, can't focus on the charm any longer. Frank always sits on the same couch, generally surrounded by books. Since Gerard left him the volume of poetry, he's noticed that Frank's selection varies widely, anything from a compendium of trade agreements to a book of fairy tales.

"Learning our perspective?" Gerard asks on the day he sees Frank reading the fairy story book with the filigreed cover, going to the small pile on the floor that he's been cultivating of intriguing books. It often grows faster than it ought to, and really, there's only one potential suspect. He picks out a book and settles in his usual armchair.

"These stories are ridiculous," Frank says, though he doesn't look up from the page. Gerard has learned that means he's truly captivated by a story. "And patently untrue. No wonder all of you act like frightened rabbits."

"It's not as though your people have been forthcoming." Gerard folds his legs. He hasn't opened his book yet. "This is all we know."

"It's nonsensical." Frank shakes his head, and there's a little furrow of concentration in the center of his brow that Gerard can't help but find charming.

They don't usually talk, instead just reading in a silence that Gerard might even dare to call companionable. It's a welcome distraction from the stress of the workshop, a comfortable oasis for his mind. He has never asked Frank for permission to join him, but it isn't as though Frank has ever been shy. If he wanted Gerard to leave, he would certain say so.

*

Gerard is close, he knows it. So close and then it all unravels in front of him. He's finally gotten the proper ratio of cedar to ebony, notched together into a smooth triangle, a polished metal disc hanging in the center to reflect bad intentions back upon the intender. It should be perfectly balanced, but every time he tries to weave, it all falls apart when he tries to lay it over the charm, disparate threads of magic unraveling.

Elena taught him how to vent his frustrations, that to destroy his own work would only set him back farther. But he has never been so vexed, and he has to hold onto the edge of the worktable to stop himself from flinging the fucking thing against the wall.

He can't stay here any longer, looking at the accursed failure.

The air is freer once he reaches the bottom of the stairs, but it means he can more acutely feel the pounding in his head. He doesn't know why it won't just work. A glass of water might be just what he needs.

On the way to the kitchen, Gerard passes the hallway that leads to the library. He pauses, and...perhaps talking to Frank would help him with the project. A deeper understanding of the subject is the best course to improve a charm. It's a sensible decision.

The door is partially cracked, and Gerard leans closer to peer inside at Frank's usual couch. And...Frank is there. But he isn't sprawled amongst a variety of open books or focused on just one, his feet tucked in tight. He's curled up in Ray's lap, his head on Ray's broad chest. Ray's fingers card through Frank's dark hair, and Gerard feels a sick twist in his stomach. He turns on his heel, before either of them can notice him, and walks back to the main hallway as quickly as he can without making too much noise. His head aches worse, suddenly, and he feels a bit unbalanced.

He leans up against a column, letting his head fall back to hit the marble and closing his eyes. He should have known. Since he's gotten here, it's been clear that Ray is Frank's right hand, his lieutenant. And every night, Frank has slept beside Gerard and not once tried to press his advantage. He wonders why Frank hasn't taken Ray to his bed officially, made him his consort. But there will be some obscure fae political reason that it can't be, of course. It makes sense now, why Frank has kept Gerard in his bed. It's an easy excuse, to divert attention from where his true affections lie.

There's no reason not to continue on to the kitchen for his water, like he planned in the first place, so he does. And once he's finished, well. He could return to the workshop and look at the charm with fresh eyes. Or he could go back to the library. That thought makes him want to go crawl into bed, but his bed is Frank's bed and that's enough to bring his headache back.

Instead he goes nowhere. The palace is massive and most of it is still a mystery to him, so he wanders. There are shining halls and locked doors, and he passes a few fae who eye him with either distrust or intrigue. But for some reason, he isn't frightened of them. The inside of his chest feels like it's been hollowed out, and any fear he once had just disappears, like a pebble slipped into deep black lake, carefully so not even a ripple shows.

He climbs another staircase, crosses an elaborate mosaic laid in marble, and enters another wing. This one seems empty; he doesn't see another fae or human, and it smells slightly musty. There's dust here; he hasn't seen a speck of dust since Frank first brought him into the palace.

Everything is decorated in white and gold, with delicate filigree instead the ornate carvings that fill the rest of the palace. His footsteps echo through the empty hall, past closed doors and windows hidden by thick damasked drapes.

At the end of the hall there are double doors, like the ones on the room he and Frank share. But these are inlaid with gold, and the handles are gracefully curved. He opens the door; it's surprisingly light, but it screeches as it opens. This part of the palace has clearly been neglected by the servants who keep the rest of it still glistening.

The room inside is lavish, like every other room, but also deeply feminine. The bed is smaller than the one in his and Frank's room, though still massive, and covered in pale blue silks. The drapes are a slightly deeper blue, a sumptuous floral pattern, and there is a dressing table where the desk and chair in Frank's room are. Gerard crosses to the table and picks up a curvy glass bottle of what seems to be perfume. Everything here is just-so, not a thing out of place; he wonders if Frank's coup was the last time someone was in here, or if it had been even longer than that.

He turns around, and sees another piece of furniture in the far corner of the room; it was out of his line of sight when he entered. It's small and white, dwarfed in this room, and it isn't until he takes a few steps closer that he realizes what it is.

Gerard knows he should leave. Keep walking straight out the door, out of this empty hall and back to the world that he's come to know as normal. He can go back to his workshop now; his headache is gone, and perhaps he could finish the charm so Frank will finally release him. This is not something that he was ever meant to see. This is not something that should be here, couldn't have been here, which means Frank brought all this back to recreate a memory that he never intended anyone to find.

But he is enraptured, unable to resist, and though he should flee, he finds himself resting his fingertips on the edge of the bassinet.

In an instant, Frank is there, beside him, and he shoves him out of the way. Gerard forgets that Frank is strong, too. He doesn't have to depend on magic to push Gerard up against the wall.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"I just went for a walk." Gerard isn't used to being physically threatened, hasn't been pushed around since he was a child. He's a weaver; the position commands a certain respect, even if he personally doesn't. His breath is coming faster, panic rising. "I just wanted to clear my head."

"Does this look like a place to clear your head?" Frank's voice is low and venomous. Gerard hasn't been this afraid of him since the first night, when he appeared in Gerard's home to take him away. And even then, he was confused. Now he knows exactly what Frank is, what he is capable of, and he knows that Frank is furious with him. His black eyes and mouth full of sharp teeth hasn't seemed threatening for weeks, but now they make his heart pound. "This is private."

"I didn't know." Gerard stares down at him. He doesn't know if trying to push himself free would help or harm.

"But you stayed. You wanted to see. You wanted to touch." Frank is practically snarling now, lips drawn back in a sneer. "Come to gawk at where the raven boy spent his first days?"

Gerard swallows hard. He tries to remind himself that he did nothing wrong, nothing to deserve Frank's ire. It's less comforting than he'd hoped. "I was curious. I didn't hurt anything."

"Curious." Frank hisses at that. The dark rune on his neck is pulsing, shifting on his skin. "What's there to hurt? It's not as though I'm a person, right, Gerard?"

"I didn't say that." Gerard shudders, trying carefully to extricate himself from Frank's grip, but he just holds tighter. He stops trying to struggle, unsure of how much more tightly Frank would grab him if pressed.

"You didn't have to. I know how you think." Frank lets go of him, but Gerard stays still anyway. Frank turns slightly, away from him to look down into the cradle. "Humans. She didn't think I could feel either."

Gerard is torn. Keeping his mouth shut would be wise, but Frank looks half broken, and it makes Gerard's ribs ache to see him like this. "The Queen?"

"The Queen. Except to me, she was Mother." Frank runs his own hand over the side of the cradle, what Gerard intended to do before he appeared. "She was my mother, and she abandoned me in the woods, like an unwanted dog. But that would be too cruel for a dog, wouldn't it?"

"It's cruel," Gerard agrees quietly. Frank gives no indication of having heard him; he's still staring into the bassinet, as though transfixed. Transported, perhaps, to another time. Gerard knew, of course, that the queen in the story had her demon babe sent to the woods, but it had always seemed like a heroic gesture. A moment of triumph.

The slowly blooming feeling in his stomach, thinking of Frank as a baby, left to die in the woods, doesn't feel like triumph.

"You should go back now." Frank doesn't look at him, and Gerard doesn't chance waiting or speaking again. He leaves, not running but walking fast enough that he's out of breath when he finally stops at the foot of the stairs to his workshop. Now he craves the serenity of a project, to set his mind to work and not have to think about any of this.

But sitting at his workbench, he finds it is impossible not to think of Frank, the scene he witnessed. To see Frank so raw and exposed like that; he never considered that side of the story, of Frank. Frank was a child, once, if a child born out of darkness. He's powerful now, come fully into what Gerard would have easily called dark powers, but still, he acts and speaks like any other man. He has been petty and callous, but he has also been kind, clever, charming. He read Gerard's book of poetry. He contains multitudes that Gerard never could have guessed a fae could, and he...he is not a creature.

Gerard stares down at the charm left half-finished on the table, his fingers almost tingling with the realization. Frank is not a beast or a dark thing; he is a man, whatever his origins. Perhaps they all are. He was raised to think of the fae like especially deadly animals, but they have their jests, their prejudices, their culture. Their races have mistrusted each other for centuries, and to what end? Pain and trickery on both sides, keeping every man on his guard. Frank has taken the throne to change that; balance is what they both have been seeking.

The charm is balanced. Gerard knows that. He's tinkered enough to bring it to perfection, at a loss for what more he could do to make it take the magic. It occurs to him, picking it up and holding it in his hands, that maybe the error was never in the weaving. It was in the weaver.

He thinks about Frank, not as a man twisted by dark magic or as a fae lightened by a human side, but as a whole and complete person. He truly is both and neither, but he is not unlike anything Gerard has seen before. Weaving for him is no different than weaving for any of the villagers back home.

Slowly, the glimmering threads start to come together, taking shape. Gerard breathes through his nose the way Elena taught him to remain steady, keeps his hands constantly moving and guiding, coaxing the magic into the shapes he needs. He weaves for protection from magic and enemies, as Frank requested, and he draws from the fortitude of the cedar and weaves in a thread for wisdom and good judgment. The things a king needs.

The charm comes together, delicate and shining in the air, and slowly Gerard lowers it to the triangle of wood on the table before him, tucking in the ends so that it all fits together, blending until the weaving has sunken into the wood, joined in harmony. Gerard slowly lowers his hands to rest on the table on either side. His work is done; the charm is complete.

Complete, and now perhaps he'll be freed, sent back to his village to pick up where he left off. Back to weaving the same charms day in and out, living alone in his quiet house. Away from Frank, who is both familiar and a mystery, terrifying, fascinating, and in love with someone else.

He sets the charm inside one of the drawers of the workbench before he goes back to his room. Frank is not there, but Gerard can wait here for him. He uses the parchment stashed in his bedside table to try to write a letter to Michael, but he doesn't know what to say. After too many abortive starts, he returns to the bed.

The sun is gone and the air cool when Gerard wakes up to find the bed and room still empty. Frank has not returned.

He sleeps fitfully, waking up every hour and rolling over to see if the other side of the bed is occupied. It never is. In the morning, his head aches from exhaustion but he cannot sleep any longer. There is a twist in his stomach that he did not expect, though he was a fool to think he could avoid it. Now that he's allowed himself to really think of Frank as a man, he can no longer ignore his own feelings. The warmth he's felt when Frank is near, the jealousy of seeing him with Ray, the ache of his bitter childhood. What he feels is not fear, and has not been for a long time.

None of the fancy clothes Frank made for him seem right, so he dresses simply in a shirt and trousers as he did that first week.

Gerard finds Ray coming out of the hall after breakfast, catching him by the elbow. "Could we speak?"

Ray nods, and they move away from the normal path, into a side hall where Gerard doesn't think they'll be overheard or interrupted.

"I...upset Frank," he starts. He's practiced this in his head all morning, but it's still hard to get the words out. "I didn't intend to, but he's angry with me. He didn't come to bed last night."

"Gerard, I--"

"I know you can't fix it," Gerard interrupts. "And I'm sure you...you would rather I left his bed, but this isn't about that."

Ray stares down at him, and for a moment Gerard thinks that he's angry too. Then Ray is leaning in close, frowning, voice low. "Why would I want you to leave his bed?"

Gerard stares back and looks from side to side, but no one is there. "So that you could be in it?"

An expression passes over Ray's face that Gerard cannot interpret, and then he's laughing, full-throated hoots that reverberate through the hallway. Gerard takes a step away from him, and he suspects his eyes are bugging out, because Ray waves a hand at him. "No, no, sorry. Sorry. I...don't want to be in Frank's bed. At all."

"But I saw you." Gerard feels a hot flush of guilt, for spying, for all of this, but they're talking about it now. "In the library, the two of you were...close."

That sobers Ray, though there's still crinkles around his eyes. "That wasn't what you're thinking. He's...has Frank ever told you who I am?"

Gerard shakes his head. He's never been able to identify Ray as any sort of fae from stories, though he is clearly far from human.

"I'm a forest spirit. A guardian, really." Ray folds his hands together, like a schoolteacher. "The forest I care for is just outside the palace walls."

It only takes a moment for Gerard to understand, though he has to voice his question, to be sure. "The forest where they left Frank. You found him?"

"He was a baby." Ray sighs and shrugs. "A little fiercer than usual, maybe, but still. I had the birds make a nest for him, watched over him. I taught him how to change his shape. He's like a brother to me. You have a younger brother, don't you?"

Michael is the only thing Gerard really misses from home, even though he knows that he's safe and at least has Marnie. But he'll always be his brother, and he nods. It makes sense. Selfishly, deep inside his chest, he feels relieved. He's a fool, to lust after Frank, but after the cutting jealousy he felt yesterday it's impossible to deny it any longer.

"It's good that he had you." Gerard swallows hard. "Will you talk to him for me, please? Tell him I didn't mean to upset him. And--" This is the part he doesn't want to speak, but he thinks it might be his only chance. "--tell him that his charm is ready."

"Really?" Ray's eyes light up, and Gerard wishes he could feel the satisfaction of a finished job. It's usually a release, especially a charm that's needed as much care and effort as this one, but now he finds that he doesn't want the work to be over. He could become a weaver for the court, he supposes, but there's little reason for Frank to keep him in his bed.

Gerard nods. "It's in my workshop. He can come and test it if he'd like."

"I'll tell him that." Ray looks like he wants to say something else, and eventually says, "He'll be glad."

Gerard hopes he will be, but on the way back to the workshop he finds himself imagining Frank scoffing at the charm, demanding Gerard weave him another. Something even bigger and stronger, with plenty of exotic ingredients that will take ages to procure. A charm that will give Gerard time to sleep beside him and show him that he's not afraid, that he wants more than this.

By the time he gets to the shop, Frank is waiting there. He shifts his weight back and forth, clearly full of anticipation, but he doesn't meet Gerard's eyes.

"Let's see it."

Gerard passes him to the bench, opening the drawer. He can feel the charm humming, eager for his touch; they don't like to be left alone with no one to guard, especially ones that were specially crafted for a specific person. He picks it up and holds it out to Frank.

He's almost certain Frank can feel the hum too by the careful way he approaches, stretching out his hand to take it. His fingers brush against Gerard's palm when he takes the charm from him.

The charm comes to life once Frank is holding it; Gerard can feel it buzz, satisfied, covering him. Frank's fingers curl around it, holding tight, and finally he looks up at Gerard. His eyes are wide. "This is strong."

"It's what you asked for." Gerard forces himself to shrug, instead of saying it's strong because I love you, because I put my heart into it, isn't that what you wanted me to do all along?

"Good. You did well." Frank weighs it in his hand, then reaches up behind his neck to fiddle with the chain on the charm he already wears, Gerard's charm. For a heart-stopping moment, Gerard thinks he's going to take it off and give it back, but no -- he threads the end of the chain through the loop of the triangle so both charms lay side by side on his chest. Gerard knows it will take them a few minutes to get used to each other, adjust, but they'll do it. And Frank will be safer than ever.

Gerard inclines his head. "Thank you, your highness."

"Tonight, we will celebrate." Frank's voice is even, and Gerard can't bring himself to look at him. After a long pause, he continues. "And tomorrow, I will return you to your village. You've served me well."

"Yes, your highness," Gerard says, hoping his voice stays even, when his heart is fluttering like a trapped frightened bird in his chest.

The celebration will be a raucous one, surely. Gerard dresses for the occasion, choosing one of the gorgeous jackets Frank had created for him once. He bypasses the long colorful coats he'd favored before for a cropped black jacket with engraved silver buttons down each side. It doesn't feel as good to wear it now, knowing that his work is done. He wonders if the clothes would disappear at the palace gate, like leprechaun's gold in the stories. Not that he'll have much of a reason to wear such flamboyant and fine things back in the village.

By the time he reaches the great hall, the carousing has already begun. He's used to interacting with the different sorts of fae now; he even exchanges a nod with the satyr he's often dined with. This will be his last night amongst them. It seems right to be friendly.

A woman with blank milky eyes presses a mug into his hand. It smells deeply alcoholic, and he just takes a sip. As tempting as it is to erase his worries, he's in no mood to make a fool of himself. Knowing him, by the end of the night he would be flinging himself at Frank's feet, begging to be allowed to stay, to be his consort in truth. It's an ugly scene to imagine, and Gerard is very interested in keeping it from coming true.

The rest of the fae have no such concerns, it seems. More than a few couples are already entwined along the outskirts of the room, and a pretty male nymph sits across the laps of two women with black curling horns. The rest of them are laughing loudly, leaning close, and he has little doubt this could degenerate into an orgy by night's end. Gerard takes another sip of his drink.

"Gerard!" Ray cuts away from a group of fae; his cheeks are flushed and there are green leaves in his hair - it looks as though they might have grown there. "Congratulations, wonderful work. Just...superb."

"Thank you." Despite his concerns, the compliment does warm him. Ray has been a fine companion to have, keeping him steady in this strange world. He hopes Ray will still guide Frank well now that he's king. "I'm glad to have been useful."

Ray claps his shoulder with a hearty hand. "More than useful. You've been great. I wish you could stay and make something for me."

"Yes, well." Gerard forces the smile to stay on his face. "I wouldn't want to overstay my welcome."

"Nonsense." Ray's face crumples easily, and Gerard is fairly certain he's more in his cups that he initially appeared. He shakes his head. "Frank told me how eager you were to get home. I'm glad that he's decided not to be...difficult."

"He did?" Gerard's chest tightens, but Ray is already drifting away, called back by his friends and leaving Gerard with a cheery wave and a sloshed toast. Ray might be drunk, but he has no reason to lie. Why would Frank say that? He knows he's never said any such thing to Frank. And to be difficult about Gerard leaving? His traitorous heart jumps to the thought that Frank doesn't want him to leave, anymore than he wants to go. It's a foolish notion, but one that takes root like a hook in his gut.

If he could talk to Frank, maybe he could find out the truth, even obliquely, but Frank is the center of attention. Even more than usual, he's mobbed by loyal subjects and courtiers. His new charm lays thick and unmistakable on his chest. This is his night to show it off, Gerard supposes, even if it seems tacky to him. A charm is something intensely personal; besides, you hardly want to alert your enemies to what you are and aren't charmed against.

In the midst of the celebrations, Gerard feels a shiver, like someone dragged a fingernail down his spine. He only has a moment to wonder what caused it when he feels like his chest has been filled with ice. Everyone around him has stopped too, the cheerful cacophony vanished in an instant. The only thing he can think is she's here.

Slowly, he turns, and he sees her. The witch is tall and inscrutable, her face smooth but wizened, as if she could be both young and old at once. Her features are sharp, and her pale hair is wrapped up into a knot at the base of her neck. Gerard isn't sure if it's white or blonde. She wears a talon around her neck; rudimentary as far as charms go, but then she has her own magic to protect her.

"There you are," she says. "Right where I left you." Gerard tears his eyes away from her to look to Frank, who is stricken. He is pale, with a sheen of sweat on his forehead. HIs black eyes are wide, and for the first time they look dull, almost absent of light. The witch takes a step toward him, and the fae part like the sea before her. Gerard wants to shout at them to do something. They have magic, tricks and claws, they could help him. But this witch is a legend even to them. If Frank can't survive her on his own, he could never rule them.

"I." Frank's voice is weak, and he swallows hard. Silently, Gerard prays for him to find his voice. When he speaks again, he is stronger. Lacking in his usual bravado, but not wavering. "I am not waiting for you. I am not yours."

The witch laughs. It's a terrible sound that sets Gerard's teeth on edge. "What else would you be? A king? This is a fantasy, pet. I made you, and now I've found you. You've been clever, hiding away, but you got greedy. You wanted attention." She grins. "You have my attention."

"I wanted to help my people." Frank shifts his weight slightly, settling into what Gerard can tell is a stronger stance. He's ready to fight if necessary, though Gerard isn't sure how his magic will stack up against hers, if he can even turn his magic against the woman who created him.

"You don't have a people, you pathetic little creature." The witch almost sounds sorry for him. Gerard's stomach turns. "I made you. You are a curse, you are a thing. A tool. A rebellious one to be sure, but now I will make use of you."

Frank flinches visibly, and Gerard imagines sending all of his strength to Frank, whatever pitiable amount he has. But Frank stands his ground and meets her eyes. "I have protection."

"A charm?" The witch looks around the room, through the crowd until her eyes land on Gerard. They bore into him, and he is frozen. "Made by this little one, it seems. Unfortunately for you, this boy is far from a master weaver. I can taste amateur on him." Slowly, she raises her hand, palm extended to Frank, but she keeps her eyes on Gerard. She is staring at him, only him, when he hears the unmistakable crack of wood.

The charm has broken.

Gerard's breath vanishes from his throat. He has failed. Frank will be taken, forced into servitude. What will happen without him? No king at all can hardly be good for the country. And more than that, this means all the hours Elena spent with him, teaching him, were a waste. He's nowhere near the weaver that she was. He can talk endlessly, tell Frank and all these gathered fae that a charm is never foolproof, that they can only withstand so much, but Elena could have done it. He knows she could have, and he's tried to live up to her memory but he can't. And now his failure will cost all of them.

He tears his eyes away from the witch and looks to Frank, and Frank is staring at him with such betrayal. He thinks that Gerard did this on purpose. There's a thick crack going through the charm where the wood cleaved apart. It makes him feel as though the crack is in his own chest to see it. He can't tear his eyes away and...he sees the other charm. Still nestled behind the broken charm is his old charm, the one Frank took from him. The one that once gave Frank the power to take over the kingdom. It must still be worth something.

That charm was his for years, worn against his skin, next to his heart. Elena had watched with a smile while he wove it, cupped her warm hands around him once it was done. A charm will adjust, to be sure, but it never forgets its original owner. I love him, Gerard tells the charm. He stares at it and thinks as hard as he can, feels as hard as he possibly can. Opens up his heart to everything he's done his best to keep tamped down. I love him, I love him, please help him, I love him.

He doesn't realize that he's spoken aloud until the witch laughs again. "Poor sad human boy. Do not worry, your beloved will remove your pain very soon."

Gerard ignores her, but he does pull his gaze from the charm to Frank's face. There's an openness to his face that Gerard only ever glimpsed on long afternoons in the library, or occasionally just before they fell asleep. He meets Gerard's eyes, and just barely, he nods.

His heart swells, even in this moment of terror, and he hears a gasp ripple through the crowd. His charm has started to glow again, like it did when it first hung around Frank's neck. Brighter, ever brighter.

"What is this?" The witch reaches her hand out again, but this charm will not shatter. It has been imbued with years of love and protection, caring from Elena and Michael, and now his and Frank's love for each other. Gerard knows, somehow, that it is too strong, and the thought makes him giddily happy. The charm glows stronger.

"This is what my human boy gave me." Frank cocks his chin up, some of his old daring in his stance and voice. "A gift of love, freely given ."

"It is impossible." The witch bares her yellowed teeth to him. "A curse cannot love or be loved."

"Then I--" Frank grins back, showing off his own pointed teeth. "--am not your curse. Not anymore."

Gerard has never heard anything quite like the shriek she let out, and he hopes that he never will again. He flinches away from the sound, and when he opens his eyes again, she is gone.

The entire hall is silent as a grave for only a moment, and then, as though someone has brought sound back to the world again, they start to cheer and holler. Gerard feels as though he's surfaced from underwater, not sure quite what's happening. He can't understand most of what they're saying, but hands are clapping his back and shoulders, ruffling his hair. He smiles instinctively at them, but all he can think of is pushing forward, trying to get to Frank. No fae stand in his way -- at this point, he suspects none would dare to -- and finally, finally their mouths meet, twining desperately together. He can feel the hard lump of the charm, slightly warm against his chest.

Frank kisses as though he's starving, and Gerard wonders for a hysterical moment how different a kiss after avoiding doom and destruction is from the everyday sort before he stops thinking all together. He's too happy to be cautious either, and Frank nicks him with a tooth as they part. Gerard pulls away with a fat drop of blood welling on his lower lip, breathing hard. Frank stares at it until Gerard licks it off with a quick dart of his tongue, then Frank is moaning, capturing his lips again. The cut stings, but the pain only serves to sharpen the pleasure.

When finally Frank relinquishes his mouth again, Gerard can see the gawking fae on either side of them. He flushes, curling his fingers against Frank's side just to touch. "We seem to have an...audience."

"I don't care." Frank's voice is so rough, thick with lust. Gerard understands. Frank reaches for him, then pauses, glaring at someone over Gerard's shoulder. "No, I do care. I want you all to myself."

"Take me then," Gerard whispers, breathless. Frank groans, and he turns even darker. "Back to the room, I meant."

Frank grins. "Of course you did ."

No one tries to stop them as they drag each other out of the hall, whoever gains the forward position tugging the other along. Gerard catches Ray's eye. He looks pleased and not even a little surprised.

"Wait," Frank says once they're out of the room, the door shutting out the light and sound to the darkened hallway. "What are we doing?"

For a moment, Gerard's heart seems to stop, but then Frank is squeezing his hand and they're there, back in the bedroom within the span of a blink.

"Fuck." Gerard wraps his hands around Frank's jaw and pulls him in for a hard kiss. Frank was almost taken from him, but if the witch hadn't come, he would have left. He would have walked away from all of this, and that thought makes him almost grateful for her.

"You have no idea how much I've wanted this." Frank's words are almost lost into his mouth, spoken a mere inch from his lips, but Gerard catches each one. "I've imagined you in every possible way."

"You made me share your bed." Gerard can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it when he speaks it aloud. Here, pressed tight against Frank, it all seems so funny. "And you never tried to seduce me, not once."

"I was being courtly," Frank says, affronted. But it's not enough of an affront to make him move away or stop touching Gerard, so it must not be too bad. "It's not as though you gave any indication you wanted to be seduced."

"Too much wasted time." Gerard slides his hand down to Frank's hip. He feels incredibly daring, but secure at the same time. He doesn't have any reason to think that Frank would let him down. "Let's not waste any more."

"Never." Frank pushes him back. Grinning, he shrugs out of his jacket and starts fumbling with his buttons. "I thought you'd like this the old-fashioned way."

"You mean the human way." But Gerard follows his lead, stripping down until he's left with only a pair of shorts to conceal his modesty. Not that he feels particularly modest, with the way they're clinging to the bulge of his cock.

Frank hooks his thumb into the waistband of his trousers, smirking back at Gerard. "I think I'm going to like it the human way."

Gerard flushes, grinning back despite himself. "Show me, then."

In a smooth motion, Frank shoves his trousers down, leaving him completely nude. He steps out of the pants and holds his arms out to Gerard, presenting himself for inspection.

Gerard only glimpsed Frank's torso when he first met him out in the woods, but now he can look as long as he wants. His pale skin is painted all over with the dark runes and symbols that he knows now are the physical manifestation of the curse in Frank's skin. The thought turned his stomach once, but now he can see the beauty in the steady black lines. Especially when Frank turns to walk towards the bed, showing his inky wings.

Frank climbs onto the bed and rolls over onto his back, flopping in the center of the bed and watching Gerard. "Are you planning to join me?"

He doesn't have to ask twice. Gerard wriggles out of his shorts so he can join Frank in bed. This is nothing like sleeping a respectable two feet away from Frank at night. This is flesh on flesh, hot and needy. Gerard gasps when Frank grinds against his hip.

"We were so close," he murmurs, kissing Frank's jaw. "All this time."

"I know." Frank's arm wraps tight around his waist, holding him close. "But now I'm free."

"I was so afraid." Gerard closes his eyes. He doesn't want to think about it; it feels like only now his heart has stopped pounding. Imagining what would have happened if all the charms had failed, if the witch had taken Frank back...it gives him shivers. But that didn't happen. He's here now in Frank's arms, and that's what he wants to focus on. He leans in to kiss Frank again, then moves away so he can kiss Frank's collarbone. Then his belly, his hip, until he's close enough to see the eagerness beaded at the tip of Frank's cock.

He has never sucked a cock, though he's often fantasized about it. Back home, he was too shy to seek out a partner for such experimentations, resigned to living a hermit's life. Michael could carry on the family line; he would be content with his work.

Now that he's here, about to take Frank into his mouth, looking up at his beautiful dark eyes, he has no idea how a life of abstinence ever seemed satisfactory.

Gerard takes his time. He wants to remember every second, the way Frank gasps, the way he tastes. He licks the head first, familiarizing himself before sucking it carefully into his mouth. Frank moans over him, and the sound emboldens Gerard, makes pleasure curl thick and warm in his belly. He goes down further, taking as much of Frank as he can into his mouth. With his hands, he pets over Frank's thighs, teases his fingers over Frank's tight swollen balls.

He can't take much, but Frank doesn't seem to mind. Frank's hand is warm and heavy on his head, stroking his hair. Gerard whines around Frank's cock, tipping his head up to the touch as much as he can without grazing Frank with his teeth. Frank obliges, curling his hand in Gerard's hair and holding him steady. The control is a relief, allowing him to close his eyes and just focus entirely on Frank.

"Gerard, I can't last." Frank's thighs flex under his grasp, shifting and tensing. Gerard feels incredibly powerful, and he won't give up now. He keeps sucking, running his tongue along the underside of Frank's cock until Frank spends in his mouth. Gerard swallows the bitterness down and lets Frank's cock slip from his mouth. It looks beautiful, spit slick and softening.

Frank looks somewhat dazed when he looks up, and Gerard smiles. He has to swallow again to clear his throat. "After all your beautiful fae lovers, this is enough for you?"

Frank snorts, reaching down to cup Gerard's jaw. "I've had my share of partners. But never a lover. And none as beautiful as you."

Gerard flushes, ducking his head. "You are a flatterer."

"It's only the truth." Frank grins down at him. "I'm afraid it would be ill-advised to return the favor. But I'd like to touch you."

Gerard thinks about Frank's sharp pointed teeth around his dick and a shudder goes through him that isn't entirely fear, but he's too desperate to figure out how to negotiate that now. It will have to wait for another time. Instead he crawls up so he can curl alongside Frank's body, pressing his needy cock against Frank's hip. "Please."

Frank doesn't allow him to rut for his pleasure like an animal. He pushes Gerard onto his back so he can watch as he strokes his cock. Gerard wriggles, but Frank keeps him steady with another hand on his stomach. Frank toys with him, petting and teasing until he thinks he might explode from the sensation. He reaches for Frank's wrist, squeezing as hard as he can.

"Frank, I need it, please." Gerard tries to guide Frank's hand, force him to go faster, tighter, whatever it takes. But Frank resists, tugging his hand out of Gerard's grip.

"You got to have me as you wished. I only want the same."

"I didn't tease you." Gerard whines, pushing his hips up.

"Then you missed your chance." Frank snickers. But Gerard can feel him giving him, starting to stroke again. His hand is so warm, his palm soft, nothing like the blistered farm boys who touched him back when. None of them were as confident, as deft as Frank. Once he decides to touch for real, it takes only a few minutes for Frank to bring him off. He moans as he comes, arching up off the bed with the force of it.

Frank lets him up then, and Gerard eagerly rolls onto his side, curling in close to him. Frank grunts and mirrors him, wrapping his arm around him. The lights go out, thanks to a thought from Frank, plunging them into the darkness.

They lie together like that. It's so quiet that Gerard thinks maybe Frank has already fallen asleep, until he speaks, his voice small in the darkness.

"I'll still take you back."

Gerard's stomach flips. "What?"

There's a moment of silence before Frank speaks again. "If you want me to take you back in the morning, I'll do it. I couldn't keep you here against your will."

The words bring so many feelings fluttering up through Gerard's chest, he isn't quite sure which one to land on. In the end, after much deliberation, he says, "You're an idiot."

Frank relaxes in his arms. Gerard hadn't realized that he was so tense. "Watch your mouth. I'm still your king."

"And I'm your consort now, officially. Aren't I?"

"If you like," Frank says, off-hand, but there's a warmth in his voice that makes it clear how much he likes that idea.

"I do want to see my brother." Gerard yawns, resettling himself against Frank's chest. "And there are...personal effects at home that I'd like to get. But that's all. I want to be here with you."

"Well, Prince Consort." Frank squeezes Gerard's hip. "It's a lofty title. I understand why you wouldn't want to give that up."

"Prince Consort and Royal Charm Weaver," Gerard adds. He can fix the charm the witch broke, if he works hard enough. Or he could make a new one, a better one. Ray had mentioned a weaving; there's so much that he could experiment with, weaving for fae. And eventually, humans will come back to the palace. He'll use fresh wildflower seeds, he decides through the fog of oncoming sleep, for harmony and beauty: the resilient kind that grows in unsuspecting places.