Flight

by Kikuna Matata (菊菜 瞬)
illustrated by noodlenoggen

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/227134.html)

1. Rockdale.

Oliver’s halfway through his third pint of lukewarm and watery ale when he half-hears, half-feels, “You’ve been following me,” warm and a little damp against the side of his neck. He can’t quite check his half-smile; Edward obviously takes this as an invitation and slides a knee between Oliver and his right-hand neighbor (a half-troll with uncomfortably broad shoulders and beautiful table manners), then sits sideways on the bench.

“I know I am, of course,” Edward says, “an almost irresistibly attractive man,” still very close and more than a little yeasty-smelling, “but after four towns in a row without you so much as saying hello—”

“Six,” Oliver corrects, then takes a sip of his ale. “I’ve been following you since Lowencaster.”

“Hm.” Edward isn’t pulling back. His breath tickles Oliver’s neck. “That is, of course, not at all creepy.” His thighs are bracketing Oliver’s ass and leg, which is a position that Oliver would’ve found horrifying in Farrain and uncomfortable in Serpent Ridge but by now is mostly sort of tantalizingly illicit. Edward’s very warm. Oliver’s really had kind of a lot of ale. He clears his throat and takes another sip.

“No explanation?” Edward asks, nosing at the hollow behind Oliver’s ear. “I feel like you owe me an explanation. Come upstairs and tell me.”

“Hm.” Oliver leans back from the table. “I remember what happened in Stelville, you know.” Edward’s mouth is brushing against his throat, nothing like accidental, and Oliver drops his hand under the table and squeezes Edward’s knee. He says, “Stop.”

“Hm?” And that’s a tongue. Oliver squeezes harder. Edward murmurs, “Why?”

“Because I remember what happened in Stelville,” Oliver says, turning. He doesn’t mean to, really, but he does, and then Edward’s mouth brushes the lobe of his ear, Edward’s breath catching against his skin. Oliver reminds him, “You threw him out the window.”

“Well, yeah, but I threw his clothes out after him,” Edward murmurs. “Come upstairs with me.” The words are hot against Oliver’s jaw, and his fingertips brush against the small of Oliver’s back, his knees pressing against Oliver’s body, just a little. Oliver shivers.

“He hit his head on the cobblestones,” Oliver replies, turning. Edward’s lips brush his, rough around the edges. “He was knocked unconscious.”

“Oh.” Edward’s fingertips curl in the back of his tunic. “That’s terrible. I should sent him an apologetic fruit.”

Oliver is startled into laughing.

“I like your freckles,” Edward says, and his fingertips hit Oliver’s skin, scalding hot. Oliver’s ale splashes over the rim of his tankard. “Come upstairs with me.”

Oliver takes a breath, a little too fast.

“What’s your name?” Edward murmurs.

“Oliver,” Oliver says, breathing out, and Edward nods and murmurs, “I’m—” and Oliver interrupts, “Edward Brewer. I know.”

Edward ducks his mouth down to Oliver’s shoulder. “Definitely not creepy at all,” Edward says, half-laughing.

Oliver tosses back his ale. “Still want me to come upstairs with you?” he asks.

“Yep,” Edward says, and Oliver pushes up to his feet, and pulls Edward after him.

Edward doesn’t waste any time; not surprising, given that Oliver suspects he has an appointment with the window in an hour’s time. Edward’s handsy, too. That, Oliver doesn’t mind. He breaks away for long enough to lock the door, while Edward is mouthing at his throat, his bared collarbones; his tunic has come untied and is flapping open around his neck—it hasn’t been his for long, and it fits poorly. Oliver gets the flimsy inn latch to catch, finally, then sticks his hand down Edward’s pants.

“Oh, good idea,” Edward says, and pushes Oliver back down onto the rickety bed, yanking his pants down as he goes.

Oliver dislikes strangers—intensely, in fact—but Edward doesn’t feel much like one, not after this long of watching him, and Oliver’s tiny sliver of panic at being so suddenly exposed washes away under the first wet press of Edward’s mouth against his thigh. Edward keeps his head shaved in the summers, Oliver knows, when the yard of the tavern in Aspenfall is bright with too-hot sunshine and sweat would run down over Edward’s spine, sticking his shirt to the coppery skin of his back while Oliver watched, trilling against his will, from the branches of the old oak at the edge; but it’s not even a week until the winter solstice, now, and Edward’s hair is fuzzy-soft beneath Oliver’s fingers. It makes Oliver feel hot all over. Edward’s mouth moves up his thigh and then keeps going, stubble very nearly painful against Oliver’s oversensitive skin. Edward has long fingers and elegant bones and a broad, warm palm, which he wraps around the root of Oliver’s cock as he licks at the slit, less dextrous than Oliver would’ve expected if he’d allowed himself to expect such a thing. Edward pulls Oliver into his mouth and Oliver tries to catch his breath and can’t. Edward doesn’t give him a chance. His mouth is very hot and very wet and cruelly persistent, and Oliver wants it to last forever so of course he comes before he’s had a chance to do more than rub his palm over Edward’s hair, his fingertips over Edward’s cheek. Edward gags, a little, and Oliver gasps, “Sorry, sorry,” as Edward is opening his mouth over Oliver’s belly.

“What for?” Edward’s voice is rough. He runs his fingertips through the mess on Oliver’s stomach and smiles up at him, eyes half-closed.

Oliver shakes his head, mute. His heart is pounding everywhere. “Come here,” he says instead, and Edward wriggles up to press his face to Oliver’s shoulder.

Freckles,” Edward murmurs, and then sighs, and opens his mouth against Oliver’s skin as he presses his body all along Oliver’s body, his cock brushing against the backs of Oliver’s uncertain fingers. Oliver turns his hand.

“Um. Okay?” Oliver asks. His throat feels heavy and sticky inside. Edward’s skin is velvety and hot.

“Lovely,” Edward sighs, and tucks his face into Oliver’s throat. Oliver almost doesn’t mind that Edward will try and throw him out the window, later.

Edward doesn’t, though—at least not right away. After Edward has come against Oliver’s fingers, he breathes against Oliver’s neck and then lets Oliver kiss him with desperate and helpless intensity and then sits up with Oliver on the bed, sharing the battered copper cup of water between them. They’ve finished off half the pitcher. Oliver has put his tunic back on. He was blushing, he knows, but Edward didn’t say anything. Edward hasn’t bothered to put anything back on, and Oliver can’t seem to stop looking at him. Edward doesn’t seem to mind.

“Why are you following me, anyway?” Edward asks.

“I know—” Oliver stops, uncertain, and then clears his throat. “Seems like you’re in trouble,” he says instead, and Edward smiles. It makes Oliver uncomfortable.

“And you’re my knight in shining armor, are you?” Edward asks.

“No-o,” Oliver says slowly, “but I’m. Useful, I think. And I’m, you know.” He rubs at his eyebrow. “I’m traveling too,” he says, very awkwardly. It’s not a lie, exactly, but he doesn’t like being dishonest.

Edward is watching him, very closely. “How old are you?” he asks finally.

Oliver blinks at him. “Twenty-seven,” he says. “Why?”

“You seem younger,” Edward says, and Oliver can feel it coming up, tugging at the shape of his spine in fear and humiliation and hurt, and he pushes it down in horror: No, no.

He takes a deep breath in, then lets it out again. “I’m not,” he says, very carefully. He has to pause for a second to remind his spine that it is a spine. “I’m not a very social person,” he says finally, then tugs his tunic down over his knees.

“Never been away from home before?” Edward guesses, and Oliver opens his mouth, then closes it again.

“No,” he says finally. “But… not the way you mean it.”

Edward twists to put the cup back on the shelf by the side of the table, then tucks his index finger under the hem of Oliver’s tunic.

“You should tell me all about it,” he says, which is when the knight kicks in the door.

“My prince!” shouts the knight, broadsword raised, gripped in both hands.

“Shit!” says Edward, then jumps out the window.

Oliver grabs the blankets and pulls them up to his chest. He’s not wearing any pants.

The knight roars and lunges towards him, and Oliver gives a manly yell (he hopes). The knight is blocking the doorway. Oliver has never been a fighter. His options thus limited, he takes a split second to think a very jumbled and somewhat irreligious prayer, then jumps out after Edward.

Hawk, he thinks, with all his might, hawk, then turns into a sloth and plummets into the cobblestones.

Above him, the knight roars and crashes about in Edward’s room. Edward is nowhere to be seen.

Ow, Oliver thinks; Cold. And ow. And cold. Sloths are tropical. It’s barely above freezing. Sloths are also not well-adapted to quick escape. Oliver closes his eyes. Hawk, he thinks, disconsolate. It doesn’t do any good. He thinks harder, about the feel of the updrafts under his wings, making high, easy circles in the sunshine, and turns into a bucket.

The knight has managed to come crashing out into the yard, armor rattling everywhere as he calls for the stableboy, his horse, the heavy tramp of his enormous, armor-encased feet shaking Oliver against the ground. Oliver hates being inanimate objects. It makes him slow, getting slower; it takes him forever just to work up enough focus to remember what he was trying to do. H a w k, he tries again, h  a  w  k, h   a   w   k, h    a    w    k—

It takes all at once, without warning, and without Oliver being able to tell what he did differently. Oliver fluffs himself, feeling inexplicably offended, then peers about the yard. The sky is lightening in the east. The knight is gone. Edward is long gone. The knight, at least, appears to have gone in the wrong direction, judging by the tracks of Edward’s bare feet, into the stables, and then soft shoes (a little too small) and long strides heading into a half-visible hunter’s trail into the woods. The knight and his heavy horse went for the road, which—Oliver thinks—runs direct to Heldenburg. If Edward is smart, he’ll keep to the woods. He would’ve stolen whatever the stableboy wasn’t wearing, which—in this weather—probably doesn’t amount to much. He’ll go to Falshire, maybe, or the farms outside Weatherby, and he’ll take what he needs. Maybe Oliver can help. Neither of them has many qualms about stealing.

He fluffs himself again, then takes flight.

2. Weatherby.

Edward runs. He’s in a nightshirt and a pair of worn-out leather shoes made for a still-growing adolescent and he’s freezing his balls off, but he can’t stop to care; there’s a motherfucking knight after him, and every time he thinks he’s lost him—well. He’s been wrong a lot lately, that’s all. He should’ve known not to take that kid (kid, kid, definitely a kid, and it matters not a whit that Edward is two years younger) up to his room. Freckles may be his downfall yet; it’s terrible to see your own end coming and find yourself unable to stop it.

Edward knows these woods, and he knows how to run; he’s certainly been doing it for long enough, off and on. He runs until he hits the river, then stops in an autumn-barren hollow to catch his breath. He’s starving. The stew in the tavern was ages ago, and he’s had more than his fair share of exertion since then. He’s still freezing. He hates running in autumn; it’s even worse in winter. He rubs at his face and tries to call up the terrain in his mind.

He hasn’t been out near Weatherby for a long time, but his heart still clenches when he thinks about it. He hasn’t forgotten much, and he knows it’s not far. When he was thirteen and the first messengers came to their village, he and his mother came out this way, but back then they had a cart and she posed as a fortune-teller and a hedgewitch instead of an overeducated chemist and made up both their faces to distract from the minor family resemblances tracing vague lines between Edward and his dad. Edward, for his part, has never been able to see it; his eyes are a little greenish and his skin is darker than his mom’s was, but otherwise, he looks just like her. He doesn’t remember his dad.

He and his mom passed through Weatherby a few times, before the end.

There was a big stone house up the river, he remembers; across the Weatherby bridge. The town itself is long gone and overgrown, but the farms on the other bank sleep beside one another, vast and green and drowsy, all up and down along the rolling hillsides, blanketed with sheep. The stone house was owned by an old friend of his father’s eldest brother’s wife, a matron with white-gold hair curling out around the corners of her veil, who spun wool so fine he could barely feel it when he reached to touch.

He cups his palm in the river and drinks deep, even though it’s cold enough to burn; then yanks out a handful of pond-weed and stuffs a wad of it into his mouth. It’s terrible, but there’s not much edible and quick to grab in the woods this late in the season. It’ll have to do for now, but hopefully not much longer: Mistress Spinner will feed him, maybe even voluntarily. He stuffs another ball of pond-weed into his mouth and chews hard as he sets off running again, his stolen shoes pinching across the balls of his feet.

In the pink-washed sky to the east, a hawk cries. The dirt thumps under Edward’s feet, and he focuses on his breathing. He can’t afford to slow down. He reaches Mistress—the Widow Spinner’s door not long before noon, and he can be a charismatic person, he knows, when he wants to be. He talks her out of a worn set of her eldest son’s clothing and her husband’s old boots. They fit beautifully, so Edward doesn’t mind embellishing on his memories of the area a little: the greasy flesh of the river fish, the wildflowers in spring, the quality of her—he eyes the kitchen shelves—cheese. Her cheese is, in fact, mediocre, but it’s filling, and he sleeps for an hour or two in her barn, just enough to sharpen up his wits again, then steals two skins for water, stuffs an old flour sack with all her most wrinkled and unhappy-looking vegetables, and, feeling a little guilty, quickly takes his leave.

As he makes his way through the hills, the grasses crush under his boots, warm and sweet-smelling, and the sheep that occasionally appear in his path are horrible and ornery but not, at least, particularly violent. In the midafternoon, he hears the hawk again: high in the air, and looks up, then reaches up and shields his eyes.

Hawks are supposed to be good luck, usually, but this one seems to be having a bad time of it. Instead of turning in broad, effortless circles, it wavers, dipping wildly as it flies. Must be sick, or maybe injured. Edward resists the temptation to make the warding sign; it’s nonsense. Just superstition. His mother would be disappointed in him even for the urge.

The problem with cutting through Weatherby is that it’s a stopgap measure, not a solution. To be safe, he needs to make it onto a ship, which means getting to the coast; to get to the coast, he’ll have to pass the mountains, which means either rejoining the road at Heldenburg and stealing a horse or talking his way onto a coach, or taking the Holy Road as a pilgrim, and Edward thinks a lot of himself, but not enough to risk that path. Dire Need Will Lift Your Feet is embossed in looping gold script above the Holy Road on all official maps, but their need had been dire, and they still hadn’t made it through. He could stay a night or two in the temple ruins, but he’d be lost if a storm hits, and the knight is patient. Today, tomorrow, or seven weeks hence, the knight will be waiting. With his huge, hard broadsword thrust out before him, because military types are all the same. Edward sighs. The sun is already setting, and he’s still cold. He needs a better cloak. Fresh bread. He should go up to the spring, probably, refill his skins—

He hears the hawk again, plaintive and eerie, and looks up, startled, just in time to see it swoop drunkenly down and to the right, lift up weakly, and then plummet, in a blur of red and gold and brown and white and fur and feathers and pale, speckled skin. It’s probably just Edward’s imagination, but it seems like all of the earth shakes, when the body hits. He can’t be sure. He’s already running.

South, down by Dyer’s Creek, running goldenrod and jade and magenta; bounding across someone’s sleepy-looking vegetable garden—a cloak on a clothesline and then in his hands, whipping around his shoulders. The ground is hard and cold, and his boots unfamiliar; he slips a little in the mud by the fence around the old burial yard and keeps running. Must be up, just past the temple ruins; what’s left of Weatherby’s not big on religion. The forest has crept down from the mountains and taken over the temple spring, crumpled the stones of its foundations and ground its old bones in its claws. It is Oliver; Edward wasn’t wrong. Recent evidence aside, Edward is very rarely wrong. He drops down onto the ground and pushes Oliver’s bright orange Northman’s hair out of his face and prods at the stream of blood soaking the back of his ear. Oliver moans and tries to raise his arm and then gasps. The angle of his wrist is entirely wrong.

“Broken,” Edward tells him, terse, as he prods at Oliver’s neck and the back of his skull and his freckled shoulders and his ribs and his belly and his thighs and calves and feet. “I think you cracked a rib or two, too,” Edward says, “but your head and back feel all right. Lucky. Can you sit up?”

Oliver makes an indecipherable noise, but he nods. He’s crying, Edward realizes, surprised; tears are streaming out of the corners of Oliver’s eyes and washing red and watery where they mix with the blood from his scalp, but he’s completely silent about it, blinking to clear his vision but sensible enough not to wipe at his face. Edward gets him sitting up then wraps the cloak around him.

“Thanks,” Oliver says, thick, and then gasps, flinching.

“Ribs?” Edward asks. Oliver nods, once, jerky. “We better get you into the temple,” Edward says, “before it gets dark. I can set your arm for you.”

“Knight,” Oliver whispers, and then closes his eyes.

“Don’t worry about him,” Edward tells him. “He’ll go to Heldenburg and wait; he’s not going to try and follow me up through the hills.”

Oliver nods, and Edward helps him up to his feet. Oliver is nude. He’s still freckled all over. He seems a little warmer than he ought to be, and when he stands, brown and white feathers fall away from his skin.

“So,” Edward says, escorting him over the mess of encroaching greenery and crumpled stone. “I have this funny feeling you’re a sorcerer—shit, don’t—your ribs.”

“Ow,” Oliver gasps, and Edward says, “I know I’m hilarious, but try not to laugh.”

3. Heldenburg.

Once upon a time there was a noble-born lad who served his Prince and served him well. He had not become a knight to seek fame, or make his fortune; he had no thought for glory that was not for his Lord’s glory. He wasn’t terribly clever, or particularly handsome, but he was strong and brave and very, very loyal. He made it through Page School with top marks, leading his class in Horsemanship and Introductory Walloping, and was made a Squire to the Companions of the Heir at thirteen.

Then, his Prince died.

It wasn’t just the Prince. It was the Prince, and his mother the Heir Apparent and father the Prince Consort; his aunts and uncles and his long-ill grandfather, whose wife had died many years before; all seven of the licensed blacksmiths in the city and three-quarters of the household maids and all of the stableboys. The plague spread and spread and spread and the new squire watched in fear, but said nothing, because knights were brave and strong and he wanted to be a knight, still. He wanted to serve the Prince. His Prince was dead, his Prince’s mother was dead, his Prince’s grandfather was dead, but his Prince’s great-grandfather still sat upon the throne, and the Line of the King had reigned unbroken for centuries. There was magic in their blood. They could purify water, cure madness, lift curses. Their hearts beat with the Earth, and the Earth knelt before them. There would still be another Prince, or a Princess. The surviving scholars were scouring the annals. Messengers raced out into countryside, to track down distant cousins, long-lost seventh daughters of seventh sons. And the Squire grew and studied and grew, and the plague withered and then vanished, as suddenly as it had appeared. The kingdom began to rebuild; new blacksmiths were licensed; new maids were hired in from the countryside. The one who cleaned the squire’s wing was named Amarantha and had bright yellow hair.

On the day the Squire was made Knight, a messenger returned: the last, and for the first time, successful. She was weak and ill. She had been traveling for five and a half years. She had almost drowned crossing the Smokeyfall in full flood; she had brought herself to the Oracle of Far Mountain and bet her soul for guidance; she had nearly frozen in the mountains above Heldenburg in a vicious early-spring blizzard. But she had found the Heir. The Knight was still newly anointed, robed in white, his sword still bare across his knees as he bowed his head and listened to her report to the agéd and exhausted King. She had found the Heir, she told him, but he was ensorcelled, driven mad, under some terrible and inexplicable spell; and he would not come.

The Knight had lifted his face to his King, and the King had nodded and lifted his greyed and gnarled hands. The words had rolled between them, washed over him like a summer thunderstorm, as he had listened in gratitude and relief. He was made the newest Companion to the Heir. They would ride out, two by two, all sixteen of them, and they would, together, face the evil magics that held their Prince ensnared, and they would free him, and bring him home to take the throne amid joy and jubilation.

19 Thirdmoon of Autumn, he writes in his journal, huddled in his cramped inn room in Heldenburg. I find myself waiting. I regret to record that I again have lost the Heir my Prince. At Rockdale, I at last caught sight of the Vile Sorcerer who I knew to hold him in sway, but the Sorcerer flew and the Heir my Prince ran into the wilds, so that I was unable to follow on horseback. However, I anticipate that the Vile Sorcerer’s Evil will drive the Heir my Prince towards the Sea, as it has yet these past several months. To reach the Sea, he must by necessity go through the Pass, where I will be waiting, at last, to rescue him.

It’s been nine years. The Knight will not give up.

4. The Temple.

That first terrible night, Oliver thinks that they are going to die.

What’s left of the temple creaks and shakes in the wind, plaster sifting down from the top of the half-collapsed southern wall, and Oliver huddles in Edward’s stolen cloak in the ruins of the vestry while Edward splints his arm.

“Sorry,” Edward whispers, when Oliver flinches.

“It’s fine,” Oliver says, shaking his head, “thank you—I’d never be able to do it on my own,” and then Edward’s hand presses down just wrong and Oliver flinches again.

“Sorry,” Edward repeats.

Then Edward goes out into the last shreds of daylight to gather wood and remains absent well after dark. The moon is waning. Oliver’s thoughts feel mushy and badly formed; he keeps seeing beasts in the shadows, and he wants to tell himself they aren’t there, but can’t. He huddles deeper into the cloak. He’s not cold, but he can’t stop shivering.

Oliver hears footsteps and goes quiet and still and quiet and still.

“Oliver?” Edward asks, and Oliver’s breath catches. “All right?”

“Yeah,” Oliver manages, thick.

Edward’s quiet for a second. He’s crouched by the old hearth, a blur of shadow on shadow. “Can you make a fire?” he asks.

Oliver swallows. “I can try,” he says, even though every inch of him hurts, and inside, he feels like a spring run dry. He’s exhausted. His eyes feel gritty and sore.

Edward is quiet, and then Oliver hears him striking his flint, and sees sparks.

The fire catches, eventually. It barely gives off any warmth, but Edward will need it, and the light is nice. They eat cold turnips and mediocre cheese, and then Oliver lifts up his arm so that Edward can tuck under it, so that Oliver can wrap his arm loosely around Edward’s shoulders and the cloak around them both. Better.

“If I’d known you were going to be naked, I would’ve stolen more clothes,” Edward tells him, and Oliver can feel his own shoulders hunching together. “Stop,” Edward says, knocking his knee against Oliver’s. “You’re very… sensitive, for a sorcerer.”

“I’m—I’m just not usually this helpless,” Oliver says. He hates finding himself unable to contribute. He’s been helping since he was small enough that he couldn’t do more than milk the goats in the morning and help carry the water; the monastery had had more than its fair share of orphans, and little to no use for the useless.

Edward is quiet. “You’re really warm,” he says finally, and Oliver laughs.

“I’ve spent a lot of time as a dragon,” he explains. “Some of it. Stays.”

“Well, right now, warm is.” Edward pauses. “Very not useless.”

Oliver licks his lips. “You can come closer, if you want.”

After a second, Edward curls closer, his weight pressed lightly against Oliver’s side. “Tell me if I… push on something broken, or anything,” Edward says.

“Yeah,” Oliver says, blinking. He’s almost too tired to hurt. The wind howls, making the wall at his back tremble, and Oliver pushes his aching body closer to Edward’s, hoping that the building won’t collapse around them, and blinks, and blinks, and then wakes up in daylight.

In the cool, grey light of morning, most of the temple is still standing, but the fire is out. Edward’s cheeks are a terrifying purple-grey, and he is shaking Oliver’s shoulder. He’s shivering, so Oliver grabs Edward’s wrists in his good right hand and drags them against his chest, then bites down on his lip as pain follows motion. Edward is gasping, bending forward, tucking his face against Oliver’s shoulder and huddling in against Oliver’s chest. Oliver tries to ignore the grinding ache in every inch of his body and radiate as much heat as he can, but in this, as all things, he doesn’t have all that much control. He holds Edward’s wrists until Edward stops shivering.

“Can you walk?” Edward asks. His voice sounds thick, like his tongue is numbed. When he pushes back, he looks better, but not by much. “We’ve got to get up to the caves,” he explains.

Oliver blinks. “The Holy Road?” he asks.

“You’re hurt.” Edward rubs his hands together, tugging himself into his clothes, like they’re enough to do any good. “Can you walk?”

“I think so,” Oliver says.

He can, but not well. “Stay here,” Edward says, and then vanishes for an hour to look for a cart. He doesn’t find one, but he does come back with a half a wheel of cheese, two smallish loaves of brown bread, another cloak, two horse blankets, a pair of pants, heavy stockings, and a pair of green shoes, which Oliver regards with what he considers to be perfectly reasonable suspicion.

“Couldn’t find a tunic,” Edward explains, “and boots are always hard.” He is lacing up Oliver’s new pants, because Oliver can’t, not with his arm in a splint. Oliver’s belly keeps twitching; he can’t help it. Edward has nice hands.

“Thanks,” Oliver says. He still hurts all over, and he’d hit his head; he always feels foggy in the morning, but today, it’s not wearing off. Edward has very nice hands.

“Don’t worry about it,” Edward says. His voice is weirdly flat. “You solved a problem for me.”

“A problem?” Oliver asks.

“Yes,” Edward says. “The Holy Road. It’ll save me the pass.”

“It’ll—what?” Oliver stares at him.

“The Holy Road is intended for carrying the ill and injured,” Edward says. “To beg for help. Isn’t it?”

“Yes, but—”

“And you’re injured,” Edward says quickly. “If I can take you to a doctor, he can check that arm, but the closest real doctor is four days up the coast.”

“I’m not that badly hurt,” Oliver says. “It’s supposed to be—”

Dire Need Will Lift Your Feet,” Edward says, and Oliver falls silent.

Edward meets his eyes.

“Please,” Edward says. When Oliver ducks his chin, Edward adds, “Besides, I’m allergic to being rescued, anyway.”

“Who said anything about rescued?” Oliver says, and Edward’s mouth curves up as he presses his icy fingers flat against Oliver’s stomach, just above his pants.

Oliver wraps the cloak around Edward’s shoulders. Warm, he tells his skin, warm. Warm. Warm.

Edward breathes out, and settles against his side. Oliver settles back against the ruined wall, blinking up at the canopy of low-hanging branches, the patches of crisp blue sky between. He still hurts everywhere, sharp in his splinted arm and the ribs along the side away from Edward’s body, dull everywhere else. The grotesquely large number of badly bruised parts of him feel hot and mushy, swollen and uncertain. Edward’s breathing is going slow against his throat.

Oliver turns his face towards him. Edward has very long, very dark eyelashes. Oliver thinks that the word for them would be beautiful, if Edward were a girl. He’s not sure what the word actually is, since Edward isn’t. Edward has high cheekbones and a good start on a beard and his skin is dark and smooth and lustrous, like a new bronze penny, and Oliver is a little bit embarrassed by how sick with desire Edward makes him. It’s never been something he’s been able to properly incorporate into his plans.

“Edward,” Oliver whispers.

“Hm?” Edward curls closer.

“Do you know that you’re going to sleep?” Oliver whispers.

Edward kisses his cheek, sleepy and content, but doesn’t answer.

“It’s just,” Oliver says, “you said something about the Holy Road.”

“Mm,” Edward mumbles.

“The Holy Road,” Oliver reminds him. When he says it, he can feel the name prickle up his spine.

“Mm,” Edward agrees. “Get you to a doctor.”

Oliver pets Edward’s back. He licks his lips. He probably doesn’t really need it, but it’s a good idea, he thinks. The magic on the Holy Road is strong, but with Oliver in the state he’s in, the spells should let them pass, whatever they think of Edward’s other motivations.

“We’d better hurry, then,” he says. “I heal fast.”

Edward nods, but doesn’t move. Oliver swallows and kisses his temple, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

“You’re kissing me,” Edward mumbles.

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” Oliver asks. “To wake the sleeping prince?”

Edward tenses against him. “I’m not a prince,” he says, sounding much more awake.

Right. “But you were sleeping,” Oliver says, after a pause, and Edward pushes up to his feet.

5. The Holy Road.

Edward’s heart is jittering. He can’t hold any part of himself still. Above them, the opening to the caves is narrow and black. It’s farther than it looks. He remembers that. He remembers darkness, and cold, and fear.

“Water?” Oliver asks. He’s been quiet. Edward didn’t want him to talk in the morning, and Oliver has been quiet since. His face is drawn and grey. His breath hitches whenever Edward has to help him up over a rock. Edward doesn’t want to keep going, and Oliver needs to stop.

“We should rest for a minute,” Edward says. Oliver nods, so Edward helps ease him down to the ground, then crouches next to him. Oliver holds up the waterskin, wincing as his splint tugs at his skin. Edward takes a swig, then gestures at Oliver’s arm. “Swollen?”

“Itchy,” Oliver says, and then sighs, and leans his shoulder against Edward’s shoulder. His head droops forward a little. The terrible purple-black bruise on his back and shoulders is already turning green and fading at the edges, but it’s still gruesome. He fell out of the sky, Edward remembers, and reaches up, to brush his fingertips against the narrow patch of unmarked skin beneath Oliver’s freckled ear. Oliver turns towards him.

Edward touches the very edge of the bruising, as lightly as he can. Oliver blinks at him, but doesn’t flinch.

“Are you all right?” Edward asks.

Oliver nods. “I heal fast,” he says.

“Because you look like shit,” Edward says, and Oliver’s mouth quirks.

“Thanks,” Oliver says, and then puts his hand on Edward’s shoulder and tries to push himself up. Edward puts his hand alongside Oliver’s hip, standing quickly. Oliver doesn’t fall.

“Sure,” Edward says. Oliver’s cheeks are pink, flushed, and he feels hot. Edward’s mouth is against his cheek.

After a minute, Edward says, “Sorry,” pulling back.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Oliver says. “We should keep going.”

“Yeah,” Edward says, sliding his arm around Oliver’s waist, as gently as he can.

They do need to keep going. It’s a long walk, and Oliver gets tired easily, and the temperature is dropping fast, the wind sloughing what little heat the hike can loan him off of Edward’s body. Neither of them is properly dressed. They have to stop two more times before they even get to the first signpost, a plain wooden marker, with a star carved into the top. The sun is slipping down, the western sky catching fire, before they climb up onto the peak, Edward’s hand under Oliver’s good elbow, giving him as much help up as he can. Edward can feel the cave behind him, little and unassuming, heavy for its size. The back of his neck is prickling; he’s spent most of his life out in the wilder bits of the countryside, and religion, on the rare occasions he encounters it, makes him uncomfortable. Holy magic is even worse; it’s not like Oliver, who smells a little bit like the air after a lightning storm and runs hotter than Edward’s average bedmates. Whatever might be unusual about Oliver, the feel of him is comfortable and everyday, like a familiar quilt or good socks. Edward wonders if it’d be different if Oliver was a better magician, if the forces of nature and the will of the gods actually could bend to the curve of his palms, but it’s hard to imagine. Oliver has freckles, and is a little soft over his belly and the backs of his arms, and his nose turns up. He looks fresh-faced and harmless, like he ought to be herding goats somewhere, or something.

Edwards swallows. “We should stop for the night,” he says, helping Oliver down.

Oliver’s throat works. “We can’t,” he says.

“You’re dead on your feet,” Edward says, and Oliver tilts his head to the side, tugging at the collar of his tunic.

It takes Edward a while to figure out what he’s looking at, but then a blob of bruise around a particularly engaging cluster of freckles fades to green and yellow while he watches, and he straightens up. “Oh,” he says. “Right.”

“I just mean,” Oliver says. He sounds apologetic about it.

“No, no.” Edward shakes his head, and then takes a deep breath, reshouldering their bag. “All right. Well, it’s not like we have any kind of shelter, anyway. Maybe it’ll be warmer inside.”

“Oh, yeah.” Oliver nods. “Yeah. Definitely.”

But it isn’t warmer. Edward had remembered the cold, and it turns out to be sharper even than that: hard and edged, sinking into his hands as he eases himself down into the darkness. He goes feet first, his palms, and then his forearms, bracing his weight against the inky and invisible walls, as they close in around him. He has to stop a few times, to listen to Oliver’s breathing, until it evens out again behind him.

“Are you all right?” Oliver asks, the fourth time.

It’s dark, so Edward shakes his head. Oliver can’t see him. Edward’s legs have cramped lock tight and stiff and he can’t move them. He can’t see anything. His chest is about to explode.

“Edward?” Oliver asks, and then nudges his knee against Edward’s back, sliding himself down until his legs are bracketing Edward’s sides.

Edward takes a breath. “I hate the dark,” he says. “And I hate—it gets broader, down a ways, and—it’s high enough we should be able to stand, and it—it’ll be better, then.” Oliver is very warm.

Oliver is silent for a long, long minute. Then he says, “I can try to make a light,” and Edward swallows.

“What happens if it doesn’t work?” Edward asks.

Oliver doesn’t say anything.

“Save your energy,” Edward says. “For now, at least.”

“All right,” Oliver says.

Edward nods. He needs to move. He means to move, but—

“Let me try for a torch,” Oliver says quietly. “Spell lights are hard, but fire isn’t, particularly, and it’ll be warmer, too, if I can manage it.”

Edward swallows. “All right,” he says.

“Close your eyes,” Oliver says. “And. Cover your face.”

“Why?” Edward asks.

“Because there’s more than one way that I might not get it right,” Oliver says, voice flat.

“All right,” Edward says. He closes his eyes and covers his face with his hands.

“Ready?” Oliver asks.

“Yeah,” Edward says. He keeps his eyes closed, hands up. He holds still, and he waits, but nothing happens.

After a while, he asks, “Can I open my eyes again?”

“I’m not having much luck,” Oliver says, voice strained.

Edward opens his eyes. “It’s all right,” he says.

“It isn’t,” Oliver says, and Edward shakes his head.

“It’s all right, Oliver,” Edward says. “Just—I didn’t think we’d have a light when I said we should come this way, and we don’t.”

“We should,” Oliver says, and Edward says, “We don’t, so. Let’s just. Keep moving.”

Oliver takes a deep breath.

“All right?” Edward says.

“Yeah,” Oliver says, so Edward moves again, so Oliver moves behind him.

“Still with me?” Edward asks, farther in. His teeth clank together, so he grinds them.

“Yeah.” Oliver’s voice is strained. “This is… isn’t easy going, is it.”

“No,” Edward’s palm slides on a rough edge of rock, and he flinches.

“I know you’re right in front of me, but I can’t see you,” Oliver says. “And I keep worrying I’m going to hit you, or something, and you’ll slip.

Edward shakes his head. “It’s not that steep,” he explains, then adds, “You could keep talking, if you wanted.”

Oliver is quiet for a moment. “About what?” he asks.

“Anything,” Edward says, and behind him, Oliver hums.

A minute later, Oliver asks, “How long’s the knight been following you?”

Edward shrugs. Oliver’s can’t see him, though, so Edward says, “A while.”

Oliver doesn’t say anything. It’s possible that that was, as answers go, a little bit unfair.

“There was more than one, originally,” Edward explains. “Lost them for a few years. Went back to the village where we lived when I was little, took over for the tavernkeeper. He wanted to retire. I thought it was over.”

“But it wasn’t,” Oliver says, quiet.

“No.” Edward slides forward. “What about you, anyway?”

“What about me?”

“You were a hawk,” Edward reminds him.

“Yep,” Oliver says.

“And then you… weren’t.”

Oliver is silent again, for a long, long while. “I’m under a curse,” he says, finally. “I’m a little clumsy at the moment.”

“Right.” Edward nods. “You said you’d spent a lot of time as a dragon, though,” he says. “Seems like that’d be useful.”

“Yeah.” Oliver clears his throat. “I haven’t been able to change for a while, though.”

“You were a hawk,” Edward reminds him.

“But not a dragon,” Oliver says. “Not—dragons are big, and hot. It’s not the kind of thing you can do unless you have, um.”

Edward prompts. “Unless you have?”

“Control,” Oliver says, quiet.

Edward swallows. He worries, sometimes, about Oliver. He wonders what possessed him to come out adventuring, as vulnerable as he is: a sorcerer with no magic is a waste of everyone’s time, and a sorcerer with uncontrolled magic might as well be a bomb.

“What kind of curse?” Edward asks, because he’s curious.

“You know,” Oliver says.

“No,” Edward says.

Oliver’s quiet. Edward puffs his cheeks out, blowing steadily as he eases himself down around a narrow turn.

“Well, you know,” Oliver says, and then laughs. “Once upon a time.”

Edward grins. “There lived a charming and handsome sorcerer?”

“No, actually, he was sort of a chubby, reclusive little twit,” Oliver says, and Edward laughs.

“Long, long ago?” Edward guesses.

“Oh, yeah, ages.” Oliver falls silent.

Edward keeps moving.

“Once upon a time there was a sorcerer who made a mistake,” Oliver says finally. “And he was punished for it.”

Edward waits, but Oliver doesn’t say anything else. “Well,” Edward says, “that’s a crap ending,” and Oliver laughs.

Edward thinks if he were warmer he might laugh, too. Oliver’s got a good laugh. But the temperature all around them just seems to keep sinking, and sinking, and sinking. Edward will never be warm again.

“Edward,” Oliver says, quiet.

“Mm.”

“You’ve stopped,” Oliver says, and then presses himself up against Edward’s back.

Edward closes his eyes. “Warm,” he hears, in his own voice, and Oliver wraps his solid burning arm around Edward’s waist, and pulls him close.

“We have to keep moving,” Oliver says, quiet.

Edward knows. He tries to nod, and can’t.

Oliver nuzzles the back of Edward’s neck, up under his ear. “When we make it,” Oliver is saying. His voice is low, almost as warm as the rest of him. “When we get out, on the other side of the mountain.”

Edward takes a breath. It hurts. “Yes,” he says, with difficulty.

“We’ll come out above Maplebrook,” Oliver says, and it takes Edward a minute to realize it’s a question.

“Yes,” Edward says, and then his whole body starts to shake, helpless. He’s so cold. He’s never been this cold. It was late summer when they tried to take this path before, and it was cold. It’s nearly the solstice, now, and it’s freezing. Oliver’s mouth burns against his neck.

“We’ll come out above Maplebrook, and then we’ll just have to make it down to the village,” Oliver murmurs. “And then we can get a room, and something to eat—”

“We don’t have any money,” Edward manages. His mouth is numb.

“Oh, wait, is that important?” Oliver says, and Edward does laugh, then, but it burns in his throat. He shivers, and draws his body back closer to Oliver’s.

Oliver’s arm tightens around his waist. “I’m going to try for a light again,” Oliver says. “Close your eyes.”

Edward wants to ask why, but he can’t, so he closes his eyes, just in time for a huge, silvery flash to half-blind him anyway. Edward yelps, putting both his hands up over his face. “Ow! God!”

“Sorry!” Oliver is saying, “Sorry! Sorry!”

When the flash has faded enough through the gaps in Edward’s fingers that he can risk squinting one eye open, Oliver is holding a sparkler out over Edward’s shoulder. Edward stares at it, then twists too look at Oliver, whose mouth is flat.

“Not a torch,” Edward observes.

“No,” Oliver says, voice strained, “Or a spell light, but it’s—damn it,” as the sparkler goes out.

“Were you trying for a spell light?” Edward asks.

“I was trying for a torch,” Oliver says. He sounds—worn out. He hasn’t sounded that worn out all day, and it hasn’t been an easy day for either of them. “You’re shaking so hard I’m amazed you haven’t fallen apart. Let me try again.”

“Don’t,” Edward says.

“I—I’m not going to set you on fire, probably,” Oliver says. His voice shakes.

“As reassuring as that is,” Edward says, “I—I do actually need you on your feet, if we’re going to make it to the end of this.”

Oliver’s quiet. “One more try,” he says. “If it goes out, it goes out.”

Edward swallows, and then nods, and when Oliver says, “Close your eyes,” Edward closes his eyes.

A tiny bubble of heat bursts in front of his face, and he takes a breath, deep, and opens his eyes.

“Thank you,” Edward says, blinking at the candle, and Oliver says, “Don’t thank me yet,” without inflection. “I’ll hold it as long as I can.”

Edward nods, and starts creeping along again.

It’s faster with the light, but they’re still in the narrow and low part of the path, and it’s a while before the cave starts sloping upwards and widening out. By the time they can both stand up straight, Edward is having a hard time keeping track of time. The cold is slowing his wits. Every time he blinks it seems to last at least half again as long.

“How long,” he manages, teeth chattering. “Have we.”

“A couple hours, I think.” Oliver stops and sets the candle into a niche in the rock, then tugs the blankets up higher over Edward’s shoulders. “You need to take a drink.”

Edward shakes his head. He can’t face it. The thought of drinking cold water is unbearable.

“Please,” Oliver says.

Edward shakes his head, and Oliver pushes up against Edward’s chest and Edward doesn’t pull back. Oliver is incredibly warm. Edward tucks his hands against Oliver’s belly and Oliver gasps.

“God, you’re an icicle.” He wraps his arms around Edward’s shoulders, tugging the blankets up over the collar of Edward’s cloak. Edward pushes his face into Oliver’s neck. Oliver turns his head to press his face in against Edward’s hair, and Edward gasps. He’s so warm. Edward slides his hands along Oliver’s warm sides, over his back. He could sleep, he thinks. He’s almost there. He could sleep just like this with Oliver propping him up and if he pulled the quilts up to his ears he would be warm. Feet on the hot water bottle.

“Don’t.” Oliver ducks his head, pushing his face against Edward’s, nudging him up. “Don’t, don’t—you can’t fall asleep. Wake up.”

Edward nods, and ducks his face down to Oliver’s throat. Oliver takes a breath and puts his warm palms on Edward’s cheeks and tilts his face up, pressing. his lips against Edward’s. They burn. “Wake up,” Oliver is whispering. “You have to stay awake.”

“Cold,” Edward whispers, his mouth moving against Oliver’s mouth, and Oliver makes a noise Edward can’t understand and puts his weight into Edward’s weight, enough that as little as he wants to, Edward has to take a step back. Oliver’s thigh is between his, hot; Oliver’s mouth brushing against the corner of his mouth, over his numbed cheeks. Oliver presses his whole body up against Edward’s, as though he can melt into him. Edward gasps, and starts to shake.

“Kiss me,” Oliver whispers, his breath sinking in through Edward’s skin, and Edward twists and presses his mouth to Oliver’s mouth, which opens. In another life Oliver breathed fire and Edward can feel it. There is a moan trapped in his throat and then it is escaping. Oliver’s body is hot even through his clothes, and they fit together as though they were carved for this shape. Edward’s fingertips are curled around the laces of Oliver’s pants. Oliver’s thigh is pressing up against him, solid and warm, and again, and again, and Edward arches up against him, trying to absorb him. Edward can feel his heart pounding. He’d forgotten about it. Oliver pushes closer as he holds Edward in place, so Edward can’t stumble back, and Edward throbs between them. Edward can’t get Oliver’s laces undone, but he can feel it, Oliver’s prick hard and burning hot, just parted from him by worn-thin fabric and a tangle of knotted string. Oliver’s skin is hot and velvety all over, he remembers. Edward would be warmer if Oliver would just put himself inside. Edward yanks at the laces, impatient. His face feels hot and Oliver is panting against his mouth, licking into him—Oliver could lick into him, it’d be enough; Oliver could lick him open and then push—the laces snap, and Oliver gasps, “Fuck!” as Edward stuffs his hand inside.

Oh, God. Edward bites down on Oliver’s lip. Oliver’s skin barely feels real. Nothing in a dozen royal palaces could be so soft. Edward can feel all his fingers for the first time in ages.

“Fuck,” Oliver gasps, and Edward nods, eyes fluttering shut. “I’m not sure this is—it’ll be wet.” Oliver sounds breathless and embarrassed.

“Then put it in my mouth.” Edward feels desperate, but Oliver won’t let him kneel. “You’re just so warm,” Edward explains. “You’re—”

“Please kiss me,” Oliver whispers, and Edward moans and kisses him. Oliver’s fingertips slide down over Edward’s chest, brushing against the fabric bunched up over Edward’s belly. Edward doesn’t want to pull away, but Oliver’s splint is hopelessly in the way. “Fuck,” Oliver gasps, sounding frustrated. Edward would offer to undo his own laces but both of his hands are busy. He can’t stop petting Oliver, like he can’t pull his mouth further away from Oliver’s mouth than Oliver’s cheek and Oliver’s jaw and the hot, salty planes of Oliver’s throat. Oliver groans and tugs clumsily at Edward’s laces, right-handed, and then Edward’s pants are falling loose around his hips.

“I hate laces,” Oliver tells him, “I hate—kiss me,” and wraps his good hand around Edward’s prick, so Edward gathers what little is left of his wits, and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him. Oliver’s hand is just as hot as the rest of him. Sweat is springing up at the back of Edward’s knees, along his spine. Oliver jerks him off, rough and desperate and painfully good, with Edward feeling as though all of his most essential parts are trying their level best to escape into Oliver’s body.

“You’re left-handed,” Edward gasps. He wants—he wants Oliver to not stop, but he doesn’t want to hurt him, he doesn’t—

“I’m flexible,” Oliver counters, and Edward groans and fucks into his hand. “Shit, shit,” Oliver gasps, and Edward swallows and manages, “Close, I’m really—” and Oliver pulls back from Edward’s body, leaving him bereft and cold, and drops down onto his knees.

Fuck!” Edward presses his hands against Oliver’s burning-hot face, and Oliver moans around him, and Edward comes, totally helpless, blinking back sparks. Oliver pushes back up to his feet, lacing up Edward’s pants before Edward’s even managed to catch his breath, and then Edward says, “Let me, you—” and Oliver grits out, “It’ll keep—are you warm enough to keep going?” and Edward shakes his head and whispers, “No, no, no,” and kneels.

Oh,” Oliver gasps, heartfelt.

His hand is on Edward’s cheek. It tends to make Edward sick to swallow, so he spits on the floor, as Oliver runs his hands over Edward’s cheeks and temples and the crown of his head, like he can’t pick to focus.

Edward presses up to his feet, a little unsteadily. He doesn’t think it’ll last, but he feels flushed, his blood finally flooding back into his skin. Oliver hands him the waterskin, and Edward drinks and drinks and drinks. When he finally can stop, Oliver is trying to twist a knot in the the waistband of his pants one-handed.

Edward feels a little guilty. “That really wasn’t intentional,” he says. “With, um. The laces.” His breath is puffing out in thick, heavy clouds.

Really, totally fine,” Oliver says, and then shakes his head, laughing. “Can you tie it for me? This is not something I can do right-handed.”

“Yeah.” Edward ties the fabric: not pretty, but it ought to hold. “But you’re okay?”

“I’m… fantastic,” Oliver says, and then straightens the blankets around Edward’s shoulders. “But we need to keep moving. That was—I mean, dire need, and everything, but that was probably not what they meant.”

Edward laughs, but when Oliver gathers up the candle in his bad hand and puts the good one on Edward’s back, Edward takes a step.

Within ten, his breath hurts.

Within fifty, he’s shivering again.

Within a hundred, the only warm spot on his body is Oliver’s hand on his back.

“Do we need to take another break for inappropriate fucking?” Oliver asks him, at one thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two. Fifty-two? Fifty-three.

Edward laughs, but it sounds wrong, and Oliver sucks in a breath, and the candle goes out.

“Shit.” Oliver’s breathing is noisy. “I—damn it.”

Edward blinks into the utter, inky dark, and then narrows his eyes, and takes another step.

“Edward, wait,” Oliver says, and Edward says, “No, look.”

It’s not his imagination. It’s not he takes another step, and another, and breathes in deep, sharp air, threaded through with fresh wind and pine.

“That’s the way out?” Oliver says, and Edward’s heart expands in his chest.

“Must be,” Edward says, and stumbles forward toward light and shelter and warmth—

But it’s not, of course. The Holy Road opens up onto the other side of that day’s narrow mountain path, and it’s long past midnight, days before the winter solstice, and it’s snowing.

Edward draws his arms in towards his body, and Oliver says, “God, I—no, Edward, don’t—you can’t sit, not now.”

“We’re almost there,” Edward manages, shivering, and Oliver says, “Yeah. Come on. We’re almost there.”

6. The Pass.

Once upon a time there was a Knight who served his Prince and served him well. He’d received his orders from his King and followed them, to the letter. He’d set out in among fifteen strong men, with bright red-and-white banners whipping and cracking in the light summer wind. But the rains came, and the snows, and the horses grew sick and lame; Sir Gordon caught a knife to the back breaking up a tavern brawl in Arrowfell and they lost three more men to starvation in the fens. When, at the end of the second year, they stumbled upon the fortune-teller’s cart abandoned by a cairn in the woods, just south of the Weatherby river, and the trail vanished into nothingness in an instant, they’d split up into twos and threes and communicated by pigeon, until the messages eventually only went one way and Sir Frederick had, at last, succumbed to the last haven of forgotten illness that they had found in the ruins of the fishing villages at the northern shore, and the Knight was left alone.

He’s lonely. He knows that. His Lady’s token had once been pink, but after the better part of a decade tied to his staff, it has faded and muddied to a sort of dingy brownish grey. She had had soft, golden skin, sweet with beeswax cream beneath his half-opened mouth the one time that she had let him kiss her cheek. He wonders if she has married another, borne children; he can’t bear to discard her token if there’s any chance she hasn’t. Once upon a time there was a Knight who served his Prince and served him well, and tried not to wish to serve another. It is a weakness, and he can yet recall a time when he did not see the two in opposition. He would return home. He would be rewarded. He would be given titles. He would collect his pay. And then he would marry; set up a household; raise upright sons and daughters. His own blood would mingle in among the Court, and even at the edge of death he would see himself woven into the future.

In Heldenburg, he waits.

He waits and waits. Once upon a time there was a Knight who served his Prince and served him well, by sitting in a cramped and dingy tavern room in a cramped and dingy half-copper town and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. It’s not long, really—three nights—but it feels longer. Then, at last, he hears the news: two men, young men, come through the Holy Road.

“Not one in a century can pass the Holy Road,” the abbott is saying, laughing. His ale sloshes over the edge of his tankard. “And now two together, come down through the mountains and walking dead into the village, just before we were to close the gates for the night, staggering through of the first snow of the season, half-dead with cold, nearly carrying each other—”

But the knight doesn’t hear the finish. He is already calling for his horse.

7. The Barn.

By the time they make it to down to the village, Edward is barely conscious and even Oliver is freezing, and Oliver suspects that it’s only Edward’s good looks that convince the matron at the inn to let them shelter in her barn without handing over a single coin. That’s definitely the only reason that Fern, the adolescent barmaid, sneaks out without her mother’s knowledge to bring Oliver a warm if somewhat worn shirt, a sack containing three rolls and a wedge of cheese, and a bowl of stew that was probably hot before she carried it through the storm. Oliver’s put Edward in with the goats to warm up, and Fern keeps pushing up onto her toes to try and look at him over the door to the stall, her hands fisted in her smudgy apron. They’re bound to be a topic of lively conversation, Oliver knows, but his stomach still sinks when Fern, wide-eyed, tells him that the abbott is so impressed that he’s bound to talk of nothing else, as he takes the morning coach back through the pass.

It takes Oliver a while to get rid of her.

He’s tugging on the new-to-him shirt when he hears Edward, sleepy and somewhat muffled, saying, “Um. Hello?”

Oliver tugs the shirt down. “You awake?” he calls.

“…Oliver?” Edward sounds confused.

“Yeah.” Oliver grabs the sack of food.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Edward is saying, “but if we could possibly postpone this until—”

Oliver pushes himself up over the stall door, and Edward looks up at him, then down at the goat nibbling on his tunic collar.

“Uh, sorry,” Oliver says, dropping down into the hay. “Just give him a shove, they’re pushy, but not violent, or anything.”

Edward shoves at the goat, who gives a disgruntled, “Maa!” but stops nibbling on his tunic.

“You thought that was me, didn’t you,” Oliver says, sitting cross-legged next to Edward and his heap of cloaks and blankets and passing him a roll.

“Don’t be stupid,” Edward says, raising an eyebrow. “Your tongue is not that big.”

Oliver laughs, digging the cheese out of his sack, elbowing the second goat, who is rapidly becoming inquisitive, out of the way.

“Where are we, anyway?” Edward asks.

“Maplebrook,” Oliver says. “Barn at the inn. The barmaid—cute girl, at least thirteen—I think she has a crush on you.”

You have a crush on me,” Edward grumbles, and Oliver looks up. Edward is stuffing roll into his mouth and looking studiously away.

“Well, yes,” Oliver says, because it seems like it’d be a little dishonest not to.

Edward swallows, with some difficulty. “I’m not very awake,” he admits.

“It’s all right,” Oliver says. “Rough night last night.”

Edward nods. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” he asks.

“Um.” Oliver tries to think. “Four or five hours past sundown, maybe? The taproom was open when we got in, but it was slow. It’s still snowing.”

Edward rubs at his face. “I’m still tired,” he admits.

“I don’t think passing out in a blizzard counts as real sleep,” Oliver tells him.

Edward snorts.

“The knight,” Oliver says. “Fern—your girlfriend—”

Edward kicks at him.

“—the barmaid,” Oliver corrects, grabbing Edward’s ankle. “She says the abbott’s headed to Heldenburg, full of news of our heroic exploits.”

“Fuck,” Edward sighs, and drags the blankets back up to his head. Oliver rubs at the arch of his foot, and Edward wriggles his toes.

“So,” Oliver says. “That’s. A thing. Which we should probably worry about.”

“I promise to worry about it with you in the morning,” Edward says, muffled by their heap of cloaks and horse blankets. “Come to bed.”

Oliver stretches out on the hay next to him, and Edward tugs him under the covers.

The light in the main area of the barn filters in through the fabric in red and purple, washing warm over Edward’s skin. Oliver touches his throat.

“You could take my clothes off,” Edward tells him sleepily.

“Could I?” Oliver asks, quiet.

Edward nods, blinking at him, and Oliver swallows, and curls his fingers against Edward’s belly. Edward exhales, stretching, and Oliver pushes the blankets off their heads so they can breath a little better. Edward’s starting to warm up. He feels like a person again, instead of an unusually mobile block of ice. Edward wraps his hand around the back of Oliver’s neck and pulls him close.

“Or we could sleep,” Oliver says, “and save it for morning,” because he feels obliged, but he’s already working on Edward’s laces again, so it’s probably kind of transparent.

“No, in the morning we have plans,” Edward says. “We’re worrying about the knight, remember?”

Oliver snorts and lets Edward roll him onto his back.

“How’re your ribs?” Edward asks, propped up above him.

“Fine,” Oliver says, tugging him down. Edward gives a pleased sort of hum and unties the knot in Oliver’s waistband. “I need to get some string, or something,” Oliver says, and Edward says, “I don’t know, I like this; it’s easy access,” and Oliver starts laughing. Edward bends down and kisses him. Oliver forgets what they were talking about.

“What I wouldn’t give for a real bed,” Edward whispers, with his face tucked in alongside Oliver’s. Oliver rubs his thumb along Edward’s mouth. Edward’s hand is resting on Oliver’s hip, moving with each slow thrust as Oliver rocks against him, his thigh tucked between Edward’s, slick with precome and sweat. “Clean sheets,” Edward says, “Real blankets. This is—prickly, and hot, and—”

Oliver pushes all of the blankets down to their knees, and they both gasp, their skin shocked cold quickly, everywhere except where they’re touching.

“Oh, fuck, that’s… excessive,” Edward says, laughing, and Oliver tugs the blankets back up to their shoulders, and pushes him back down into the hay. Edward presses his hips up against him, and Oliver settles them together, so that Edward can get his hand around them both.

“I’d help if I could,” Oliver whispers. His elbows are braced on either side of Edward’s head. He’s getting awfully tired of the splint; it itches and it’s always in the way.

“Make it up to me later,” Edward says, and then grins up at him. “In a real bed.”

Oliver licks his lips, ribs clenching. “I have to tell you something,” he says.

“Right now?” Edward asks, arching up, and Oliver groans and grinds down. “Fuck.”

“Um.” Oliver licks his lips, and then Edward’s, because he likes them better. Edward’s hand tightens, and Oliver blinks, hard. “If you really don’t want me to—”

“Oh my God, shut up,” Edward says, laughing, and Oliver feels something bubbling up under his ribs, and tries not to panic. It’s not the transformation, he doesn’t think; the transformation doesn’t feel like that, and then Edward kisses him dead-on, their noses bumping, and Oliver sighs into his mouth, and closes his eyes.

Edward’s hand doesn’t stop moving. Oliver keeps feeling like they ought to be rushing, and then forgetting. At least the goats have lost interest. He feels like he is drowning, wrapped in warmth and Edward’s hot, hot breath. Edward seems so much better. Oliver had been so worried. Edward presses his mouth to Oliver’s temple, and Oliver gasps, his arms shaking as he pushes them together and togetherer.

Edward’s hand is warm and slick. He wipes it on Oliver’s belly, then on the hay. Oliver doesn’t care enough to protest. It takes years for him to remember how to breathe. In the dim light from the lantern, Edward’s eyelashes tremble with his pulse, long and inky-dark. Oliver wants to kiss them.

“I really do have to tell you something,” Oliver whispers. He’s still breathless. His pulse is throbbing hard enough that Edward must be able to feel it—or, no. That’s Edward’s pulse; it matches the pulse in his eyelashes. Oliver is just confused.

“Well, if you have to,” Edward says, low and sleepy-sounding. He rubs at the small of Oliver’s back.

Oliver swallows. “I know who you are,” he says, as apologetically as he can.

Edward goes still.

“I mean,” Oliver says. He feels terrible. “I know—I know who your family is, and I need your help. I followed you because I need your help. I didn’t mean to. Um. Well, I didn’t think we’d—but you’re so beautiful. And. So.”

Edward swallows. Oliver looks down at him, watching his throat move.

“Edward,” Oliver says, desperate.

“Are you going to give me over to the king?” Edward asks.

“You are the king,” Oliver says.

“I’m a brewer,” Edward corrects. “I make beer.”

“The entire royal family died in the plagues,” Oliver says. “Except for King Leon, and—”

“Well, he’ll just have to find a very patient and determined young noblewoman, won’t he? Ideally with plentiful access to potions to flame whatever passions a hundred and six year old man might still happen to have.” Edward rolls away from him, his shoulders hunching up.

Oliver’s heart twists in his chest. “He died just before the equinox,” he says, and Edward slings his arm up over his face.

Oliver swallows, watching him. Edward is a strong man, but his spine seems bizarrely fragile, all its glistening bumps and shadowy hollows visible beneath his smooth skin. Oliver doesn’t know what to do, but he’s letting the cold in, which can’t be good; so he settles down and wraps his arm around Edward’s waist. Edward breathes in. Oliver does, too. The hay smells dark and sharp and salty, like musk and sweat, like the two of them together. Oliver doesn’t know if he’s supposed to find that attractive, but he does.

“Edward,” Oliver whispers, and Edward shakes his head.

“He killed my mom, you know,” Edward says, very low. “He—he chased after us, he sent his agents after us, he wanted me, but not her, and I was still just a kid and she was—she’d been sick, you know. For—for months. You know what it was like.”

“Yeah.” Oliver curls his hand over Edward’s belly, and Edward breathes out and curls his back, pressing his spine against Oliver’s chest.

“I had a life,” Edward says. “At one point.”

“Yeah,” Oliver says, aching.

“It wasn’t fancy, or anything,” Edward says.

“But it was yours,” Oliver says, and Edward nods. Oliver kisses the back of his neck.

Edward wraps his hand over Oliver’s, lacing their fingers together. His breathing sounds heavy, like the air weighs more where he is, and Oliver wonders what it must be like, to have things to lose. The thought makes his chest seize up in a way he doesn’t enjoy at all.

“You need my help, huh?” Edward says, quiet.

Oliver swallows. “Yeah.”

“Royal blood.” Edward nods. “Purifies water, cures madness, lifts curses.”

“Yeah,” Oliver says.

“I’m really not royal, you know,” Edward says unhappily. “My dad’s—his mom’s side, I think, some great-great-great grandfather was a third son of the king.”

“I know,” Oliver says.

“Ran off and married a weaver’s daughter,” Edward says. “Whatever magic I was going to get from him, it has to be pretty dilute.”

Oliver is startled. He presses his mouth to Edward’s shoulder for a minute, thinking how best to explain. “It doesn’t work like that,” he says, finally. “Magic isn’t—it’s not like watering wine. You can dilute it all you want; you’ll still end up with magic on the other end.”

Edward shifts. The blankets rustle against their skin.

Edward asks, “What do you need me to do?”

Oliver swallows. “Did you ever make anyone a blood brother when you were little?”

“Yeah,” Edward says. “Or—well, blood sister, really. Bianca. She took over the tavern when I left.”

“Right,” Oliver says. “Same idea. Just a little cut. It doesn’t have to bleed a lot, or anything.”

“You have a knife?” Edward asks.

Oliver’s quiet for a second. Then he says, “Hey, roll over.”

Edward hesitates, but eventually, he rolls over. “What?” he asks.

“You really don’t have to do this,” Oliver tells him.

“You didn’t have to carry me halfway down a mountain in the snow,” Edward says.

“I was hardly going to leave you,” Oliver says. “You didn’t have to haul me around after I fell, either. We’re even.”

Edward shifts. “Not really about that,” he says. His voice is very, very quiet.

Oliver takes a breath. “You have a crush on me,” he says. He’s aiming for levity, but he misses. Edward wraps his arms around him and pulls him closer.

“I know you don’t like it,” Oliver whispers. “I know—I’m sorry. I know you don’t want to be—for. For your family to matter.”

Edward presses his mouth to Oliver’s cheek. “Do you have a knife?” he asks.

Oliver swallows. “I know where we can get one,” he says.

Edward nods. “Lead the way,” he says, and Oliver bends to kiss him, his heart pounding in his ears.

8. The Kitchen.

Once they’re dressed again, Oliver takes Edward’s hand and leads him out into the wall of snow and wind that passes for air, just at the moment. Edward swallows a gasp and scrambles after him, and Oliver tugs him through the blinding white and up to a square of dull, orange light, and then inside.

“Kitchen?” Edward whispers, blinking. The candles are out, but the fire is banked in the vast stone hearth, reddish-orange and warm. If the kitchen is deserted, the house must be asleep; it must be later than Oliver thought.

“Your hand is probably easiest,” Oliver says, looking through the knives on the work table. “If it won’t be in your way.”

“Left okay?” Edward asks. There’s a bucket of water near the hearth; he touches the top, quick. Not warm, but not iced over, either. He pours some out into a shallow bowl. He saw a bar of brown soap in the laundry tub by the back door, so he goes to grab it.

“Yeah,” Oliver says. “Just—I’ll have to do my left, too, or I won’t have any useful hands, so. Don’t squeeze too hard. Bandages, we’ll need bandages.” He’s pulled a candle down, and he waves his hand over it and it springs to light. Edward blinks at it, then back up at Oliver, but Oliver isn’t paying attention.

Edward nods and washes his hands quickly, then, after a moment of reflection, his face, scrubbing the soap in around his beard. He can’t really reasonably consider it stubble any longer. “Don’t suppose there’s a razor anywhere that you’ve seen,” he says, rinsing it off.

“What?” Oliver looks up from the flour sack he’s tearing into strips. Edward points at his chin, and Oliver scratches at his own. “I bet we could find one,” he muses. “After, I mean.”

Edward nods. “Maybe we could break into one of the rooms,” he says. “Sleep in—”

“A real bed?” Oliver is smiling, pink across his cheeks.

“Well, we were interrupted,” Edward says apologetically. “In Rockdale.”

“You were going to throw me out the window,” Oliver points out.

“Well.” Edward clears his throat. “Not until much, much later.”

Oliver laughs, then holds out his arm. “Help me off with the splint,” he says, so Edward does.

The room is chilly, even with the fire, and in the time it takes Edward to get the splint unfastened, he’s started to shiver again.

“Maybe I should take you upstairs,” Oliver says. His breath is steaming. Edward is too cold to steam, but, well. Dragon. Edward checks Oliver’s arm: the swelling’s gone down, but it’s still badly bruised and obviously tender.

“Maybe we should get this over with and then I should splint your arm again,” Edward suggests. “And then you should take me upstairs.”

Oliver giggles as he washes his hands. It’s… absurd, and charming. Edward is probably smiling stupidly at him, but who’s to see?

“A dragon would be convenient about now,” Edward says, as Oliver makes a neat cut on his own palm. “You could get the fire really going.” Edward holds his hand out.

“Yep.” Oliver cuts him quickly enough that Edward doesn’t even feel it until the blood is already welling up. “A really roaring blaze. Bring the whole house down.”

Edward laughs, almost against his will, as Oliver grasps his hand. Edward squeezes, feeling the blood squelch uncomfortably between their palms. He tries not to think about it.

“When Bianca and I did this,” Edward says, “I had to promise not to steal her bow and arrows anymore, and she promised to give me half of whatever she shot.”

“Mm.” Oliver’s eyes are half closed. “Which was…”

“Squirrels, mostly,” Edward admits. “We were nine.”

Oliver smiles, and ducks his head, and is silent.

It’s strange. There is a kind of magic to it. It feels a very little like stepping onto the Holy Road: a sense of pressure everywhere, without much of an obvious purpose to it. Oliver seems like he’s focusing, his breath going steady and even and impossibly slow. The candle dims, then burns a little brighter, and Edward gets kind of bored, and then Oliver breathes in, very deep, and breathes out, and opens his eyes.

He looks the same.

He lets go of Edward’s hand, turns his palm up. The cut is still bright red, but it’s not bleeding any longer. That, at least, is definitely not natural. Oliver makes an approving sort of a noise. “We should wash off and then bandage it up,” he says, so Edward shuffles back over to the basin alongside him, and their hands bump as they wash their hands. Then Oliver rubs something green all over the cut in Edward’s hand and wraps it up, and then Edward does the same for Oliver, and then ties his splint back on, careful.

“So?” Edward asks, when he can’t reasonably put it off any longer.

Oliver swallows. “I’m nervous,” he admits, and then takes a breath and closes his eyes.

Edward watches him. Oliver seems suddenly smaller, and then suddenly larger, and then the skin of his face ripples weirdly, but then it passes, and Oliver is just… Oliver.

Edward’s stomach sinks, even before Oliver opens his eyes.

“It didn’t work,” Oliver says, sounding bewildered. “It didn’t work.”

Edward is quiet. He’s thinking about the candle.

“You lit the candle,” Edward says.

“What?” Oliver stares at him.

“Before,” Edward says, “you were talking about bandages and you lit the candle, just with a wave of your hand.”

Oliver takes a breath and the candle goes out.

Edward swallows, shifting. “Sorry,” he says.

The light from the hearth is only just enough to see by. Oliver rubs at his face and steps back. “It should’ve worked,” he says, very quietly. The hollowness of his voice makes Edward’s throat hurt.

“Oliver,” Edward says, quiet, and reaches out. He expects Oliver to pull away, but he doesn’t, just lets Edward tug him over and wrap his cloak up over around Oliver’s back. “Oliver,” Edward repeats, and presses his mouth to Oliver’s cheek.

“It should’ve worked,” Oliver repeats, and then, “I’ve hurt you for nothing,” and Edward shakes his head.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Edward says. Oliver’s breathing is all wrong, awkward and inadequate and uneven. Edward kisses the plush center of his bottom lip, and Oliver inhales.

“I would’ve taken you,” Oliver whispers, “and flown away,” and Edward says, “Shh, shh, we’re practically to the coast,” with a kiss, “we’ll take a ship,” and another, “we’ll find another way,” and another, until Oliver’s breath pulls at all parts of him, steady and deep, with his arms wrapped tight around Edward’s waist.

“In the morning,” Edward murmurs.

“Yes,” Oliver whispers.

“We’ll head down the road,” Edward says. He touches the back of Oliver’s head, and Oliver sighs, and rests his head on Edward’s shoulder.

“It’s too cold to walk,” Oliver says. “We’ll have to steal a horse.”

“I’m not much of a rider,” Edward admits.

“I’ll help,” Oliver says.

Edward nods. “And then—the coast.”

Oliver takes a breath. “Yeah,” he says.

“Even in winter, there’re ships every few days,” Edward whispers. “To Duranth.”

Oliver nods.

Edward swallows. “You’re coming with me, right?” he asks.

“Of course I am,” Oliver whispers, and tightens his arms around Edward’s waist.

9. Amber Cove.

Once upon a time there was a Knight, the last Knight Companion to the Most Holy House of Royal, who followed the demands of his Quest for year upon year until, at last, at the Winter Solstice in the Ninety-Seventh Year of the Reign of King Leon the Just—he refused to term it in any other way—he came to the edge of the world.

It had been snowing for days, in the mountains, but as he came down into the foothills above Amber Cove the snow gave way to a blanket of icy and near-impenetrable fog, which gave way to wispy and intangible mists, which gave way to the village, sleepy and grey, listing against the rocks at the edge of the sea. He had two gold pieces, nineteen silver, a handful of copper and bronze. He paid to stable his horse, for information, for a mug of tea with brandy and half a bowl of unappetizing bean stew, and then he set out, his boots clanking against the cobblestones. There were six taverns in Amber Cove, all affiliated with some varying degree of inn; the Knight had gone directly to the Scarlet Goose, the largest and most prosperous, but there he had found no sign of either his Prince or the Vile Sorcerer, his Prince’s Abductor. Nor at the Pleasant Ploughman, nor the Rusty Dagger, but in an alley behind the latter, he sees a matron just pulling in a clumsily painted sign. Room available, it says, as she drags it in alongside her floury apron, the door slamming shut behind her.

Once upon a time there was a Knight who had been taught to always trust his instincts.

The Knight clanks down the alley and into the woman’s shop.

“Oh! Hello! The currant buns are fresh, if you like,” she says, smiling at him, pink-faced and friendly. “Always one free for a soldier.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, which she takes as acceptance, beaming before she turns to pull one out of the basket. “I couldn’t help but notice your sign,” he says, as she wraps it up in paper.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but it’s taken,” she says. “But the Scarlet Goose will be more to your taste, I think. It’s not a real inn—just my sons’ old bedroom, from before they went away to sea.”

“No, no,” the soldier says. “I meant—was it let by two men? One is well-built and very handsome, and the other is fair, with orange hair and freckles?”

She stares at him. “Why, yes,” she says, “but—you’ll never make me believe they’re in trouble with the law. Those nice young boys?”

The Knight nods. “The orange-haired man has kidnapped the other,” he says. “I suspect Vile Sorcery. Is it possible for me to go up without alerting them?”

She eyes him. “Only if you take your boots off,” she says. “You’ll rouse the whole street, with all that clanking. You can use that stool in the corner.”

He nods and sits, somewhat awkwardly, on the stool indicated; it’s very small, probably intended for a child, and pushes his knees nearly up to his ears, but he gets his boots off, and, after some reflection, his breastplate and gauntlets. He keeps his mail, and his sword.

The staircase is narrow. He treads lightly. He can hear voices above him, and then laughter. The attic room, the baker had said, the door doesn’t lock. He creeps up the stairs until they run out, and then listens. They have fallen silent. He wonders if they are waiting for him.

He holds his sword at the ready, and kicks open the door.

In the weeks and months that follow, he will ask himself over and over what he expected. He’ll never have a very clear answer, but he is fairly certain that it didn’t involve anything remotely like what he actually finds. The Knight Companions to the Most Holy House of Royal have always been close to their charges, but not that close. At no point that the Knight can recollect was he instructed in the appropriate use of oil, or in the correct handling of the Heir his Prince’s manhood.

The Heir his Prince stares at him. The Vile Sorcerer turns red in his skin, all over.

“Get out!” roars the Heir his Prince, all at once, pushing up to his feet, and—and blatantly excessive nudity or no, the Knight knows his purpose. He charges towards the Vile Sorcerer, blade raised, and behind him, the Heir his Prince gives a wild and mighty cry, and jumps upon the Knight’s back; before him, the Vile Sorcerer snatches up the blue-and-white quilt from the bed to cover his nakedness. The Knight’s training commands that he incapacitate his attacker without damaging the Heir his Prince, so he turns quickly, throwing the Heir his Prince from his shoulders and then spins with his hands out, to catch the back of the Heir his Prince’s head with the pommel of his sword, though not nearly so hard as he could.

This, possibly, is a mistake.

“Edward!” the Vile Sorcerer is shouting, as the Heir his Prince falls, and then—

—then the Knight sees white—and blue—

—and fire.

The Knight raises his arm before his eyes. The light is blinding.

“Get away from him.” The air all around him echoes and trembles and snaps, and the Knight falls to his knees. Before him, a Mighty Serpent uncoils—and uncoils—and uncoils. The Serpent’s wings snap wide. He is vast. The roof is gone. The walls are gone. Beneath them, the lower floors tremble in fear. The air above them is still dark with the threat of storm and the remains of the attic, falling all around them in hot and stinging ash, and the Knight tries to catch his breath, and to see without burning his eyes.

Edward,” he feels, in a voice too large for hearing, and the Dragon bends over the Heir. His Prince. The Prince pushes himself up to sitting, elbows shaking and weak, and then, in a moment that the Knight sees but cannot comprehend, the Dragon delicately lifts the discarded and somewhat singed blue-and-white quilt with the very edges of his enormous lips to drape it around the Heir his Prince’s shoulders, and the Prince lifts his arms, and wraps them around the Dragon’s neck.

illustrated by noodlenoggen

The Knight blinks. The Dragon bends. The Prince pulls himself up, and in a wave of wings and superheated air, they are swallowed by the sky.

10. The Wide Blue Yonder.

Oliver soars.

The air slips around his body, icy and quick, torrential beneath his huge wings. He feels weightless. Beneath him, the ocean stretches out blue and silver, glittering, to the edges of the sky. Edward presses flat against his back, his breathing quick, his arms tight around the sides of Oliver’s neck.

“Are you all right?” Oliver calls back. It always feels strange, talking like this. It feels bigger than he is.

“Yeah,” Edward says. “This is—this is amazing.”

“I know,” Oliver says. “I love to fly.”

Edward presses his face against the heavy scales on Oliver’s neck. “You’re like a furnace,” Edward says. He sounds delighted. “I haven’t been this warm in months.”

“Good,” Oliver says. He feels warm, too, even with the wind growing icicles on his face.

“Are we still going to Duranth?” Edward asks.

“I was headed that way,” Oliver says, suddenly uncertain. “Why?”

“I mean, I was only headed that way because that’s where the ships go,” Edward says. “But. If you’re feeling all right.”

“Yeah,” Oliver says. He does. He feels fine. He feels wonderful. Edward is safe and clinging to his back, and his spine is his spine, shaped like a dragon’s spine, and it doesn’t seem to want to be anything different. “Why?” Oliver asks. “Where do you think we should go?”

“Anywhere,” Edward says, and then laughs. “We can go anywhere we want.”

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