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Suspicious Popsicle @flufandnonsense
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Once upon a time, there was a prince named Gabriel who lived in a shrinking kingdom. A blight had swept in from the east, withering plants, sickening animals, and fouling the water. It left behind a great waste where nothing would grow and no one could survive.
For years, the king held audience with anyone who claimed to be able to halt the spread of the blight and restore life to the waste, but no one—from farmers with knowledge of the land, to sorcerers with arcane magics—could find a solution.
Rumor held that a powerful faerie had cursed the kingdom over a slight, real or perceived, and that was why no human magic could reverse the devastation. People were forced from their homes. Some fled west, toward the capital at the foot of the mountains, some to other countries.
One night, Gabriel dreamt that he went alone to climb the southernmost mountain—an arid, lifeless peak that led to nowhere—and discovered a lush valley. The pull of the dream was so strong, that he began dressing for the journey when he woke from it in the middle of the night.
Too rational to go haring off on such a tenuous possibility, Gabriel tried his best to put the dream out of his mind. It returned to him a second night, however. This time he dreamt of returning from the mountain with a green banner that covered the waste and revived the land.
The third night, the dream came with a warning. It began the same: his trip alone to the valley, the banner that covered the waste. Then, he dreamt of leading a retinue into the mountains. This time, the valley was lifeless, and a terrible wail of despair arose from the kingdom.
Hope won out. There was little Gabriel could do by remaining in the palace, but at least his dreams offered a chance. He left that day, taking the dream's warning to heart and making sure to avoid being seen leaving the city.
It took three days to reach the top of the mountain from the city, and, in that time, his hope flagged and faded into doubt. He was certain that this was a fool's errand, that he had wasted his time and worried his family for no reason. Then a hint of green caught his eye.
It was the first bit of color he'd seen aside from rocks and sky since beginning his climb, and when he investigated, he found a crooked pass just wide enough for him to squeeze through sideways. Reaching the far side, he paused and stared, feeling hope stir anew.
A small valley had been almost completely hidden through the pass. It was lush and green with life, filled with birds and the rustlings of small animals. Across the way, nearly hidden in the shadow of a tiny glen, was a hut just big enough for a single person.
Gabriel started for the hut, excitement building until he was racing across the grass. Halfway there, the door opened and a man stepped out, an unsheathed sword in one hand, and a scowl on his scarred face. Immediately, Gabriel slowed, raising his hands to show he meant no harm.
“Excuse my intrusion!” he called. “I've come seeking help.” He took another step forward, but halted when the man lifted his sword in warning. “Please! My kingdom is dying. I was desperate enough to be led here by a dream. At least hear me out.”
Surprise seemed to flicker briefly across the man's face. His hostility eased into uncertainty.

“I can't leave without answers,” Gabriel pressed. “My people are suffering. If you can help us—if you can even advise me—you can name your price.”
The man scoffed, but when he turned to go back inside, he jerked his head for Gabriel to follow.

Inside, the hut was dimly lit, warmed by a fire in the hearth. The wood burned with an oddly fragrant scent, and bundles of drying herbs hung from the roof to add their own aromas.
A small table and stool, both covered with decorative carvings, sat in the center of the room. The man fetched a wax tablet and stylus from a cabinet taking up one wall. As he began to write, Gabriel studied him.
He was younger than Gabriel had first taken him for. The bright sunlight had bleached his blond hair almost white, and the harshness of the scars cutting across his face had been misleading. He couldn't be much older than Gabriel was himself.
It took him only a moment to write his message, and he held it up for Gabriel to read:

[how many people know you're here?]

Weighing the risk posed by the stranger and his sword against the need of his people, Gabriel answered honestly.
“None. The dreams gave the distinct impression that secrecy was essential.”

Again, Gabriel saw a flash of surprise cross his face. His blue eyes glinted like steel as it passed and he rubbed the wax smooth to write his next message.
[the price just to listen to you is your silence. no one can find out you've been here or spoken to me. swear it and I'll hear you out. I'm not promising to help.]

It seemed a harmless enough—if strange—request, and Gabriel swore readily before pouring out the story.
The man grew increasingly dour until, as Gabriel neared the end of his plea, he stood abruptly and turned away. Crestfallen, Gabriel wondered where he had gone wrong.

“Aren't you who I came here to find? At least answer me. Do you have the power to turn back the waste?”
He hesitated, then nodded once, sharply.

Steeling himself against what he was certain would be a rejection, Gabriel asked: “Will you help us?”

The pause was longer this time, then the man sighed heavily and nodded once more.
Relief left Gabriel sagging where he stood. “Thank you. If you can save us, I'll owe you more than I can say. Ask anything you want as a reward, and I'll see you get it.”

He turned and, without meeting Gabriel's eyes, reached for tablet and stylus once again and wrote hurriedly.
[I want my privacy. no one else is to know about me or how I revive the waste. when it's over, I want passage to this valley forbidden. go back on this bargain, and I'll let the waste consume everything.]
“There's nothing else you want? No gold? Jewels? A title?” The man shook his head vehemently, and Gabriel couldn't help but smile with the end to years of fear and suffering suddenly within reach. “Understood. You have my word.”
More than ready to be on the move, to hurry and begin reversing the damage, Gabriel only belatedly realized that he had overlooked something important.

“What should I call you?” He watched as the man hastily jotted down his name and shoved the tablet across the table.

They left within the hour. It was a three day trek back down the mountain, and then several days' travel further through the country to the edge of the waste. Jack had indicated that he would need to travel the entire waste, and Gabriel had made his plans from there.
The gold he had thought to bring as a sign of good faith went to pay for horses and supplies. Jack insisted that they avoid cities as much as possible, and kept his hood up when they passed travelers, but was otherwise a tireless and not unpleasant companion.
Despite his dreams, despite Jack agreeing to help and asking only privacy in return, despite the fact that he grew friendlier as they traveled, doubt still began to cloud Gabriel's heart. For all that Jack was somewhat unusual, there was nothing apparently exceptional about him.
Gabriel couldn't help but wonder what, exactly, Jack could do to bring life back to the waste. He tried to suppress his uncertainty, but only found himself watching Jack all the more, looking for some sign of the magic he'd promised.
One night, as they made camp for the last time before they would reach the edge of the waste, Gabriel finally couldn't stand keeping quiet any longer.

“You never told me how you plan to revive the waste.”
Across the small fire, Jack looked up from where he'd been dressing the rabbits he'd caught for their dinner, and fixed him with an impassive stare.

“I'm not doubting you....” Only a little, only because doubt was natural under the circumstances. “I just....”
Jack returned his attention to his work, clearly dismissing Gabriel and his concerns. Gabriel didn't speak again for the rest of the evening, and, for the first time, the silence between them was brittle and uncomfortable. He noticed Jack watching him, though he pretended not to.
For all that his doubt plagued him, Gabriel slept soundly that night. When he woke, it was to a surprise so great that he thought for a moment he was still dreaming. The entire circle of their campsite, which had been barren dirt the night before, was covered with living plants.
Flowers, vines, bushes with ripening berries, even a few seedling fruit trees filled the small space. Gabriel sat up, gaping, hardly able to believe his eyes. Across the smoldering fire pit, Jack was snoring, but he'd left a note on Gabriel's chest.

[I can do what I promised.]
Gabriel questioned him, of course. How could he not? It was incredible! Something about his excitement surprised Jack, but he quickly schooled his expression, and gestured that they ought to get moving. Gabriel gave up asking. He would find out once they reached the waste.
They saw it before they reached it, a vast, gray-brown smear across the horizon, punctuated by abandoned homes and dead trees. Entering into it, they were met with an eerie silence. It was completely lifeless. Even the air was dry and stale.
Gabriel had seen it before, and merely grimaced. Jack, however, was frozen in shock. He stared at the devastation where there had obviously been homes and farms until recently. Finally, Gabriel nudged his horse forward and broke Jack from his trance.
“You see why we need you. Now that you realize how small a price privacy is for what I'm asking, I'll make my offer again. If there is anything else you want—”

“Nothing you can give.” Jack's voice was a rusty croak, but the sound of it was nothing to what accompanied his words.
Flowers spilled from his lips. Tea roses and jasmine and starry bluets tumbled to the ground, where the curse of the waste seemed to suck the life from them. However, as Gabriel watched in awe, the withered petals curled back, plumping into seedpods that burst across the soil.
Seeds of all shapes and sizes scattered across the barren ground and took root in moments. Within a minute, the ground was patchy with greenery, and stems were still stretching toward the sky, leaves were still unfolding. Gabriel couldn't look away from the miracle.
A rain of cornflowers, primroses, and poppies accompanied Jack's next words, and, just as the other flowers had failed to take root, these transformed their magic into a multitude of seeds that lay claim to the waste.

“Just keep your end of the bargain, and I'll keep mine.”
Thus began their journey across the waste. It was slow going. Jack didn't want to rush and risk leaving too thin a cover of seeds. He refused to explain the magic, although he did assure Gabriel that fruits and grains would sprout along with the trees, grasses, and flowers.
Mostly, he recounted old tales. Rusty from disuse, his voice grew stronger as he talked, but never lost its roughness. Gabriel remained spellbound by the flowers that fell ceaselessly with every word, staining his clothes with pollen, and leaving a lush, green trail behind them.
Jack talked steadily for hours, pausing only to drink. Entranced as he was, it wasn't until they stopped for the night that Gabriel gave any thought to what that might mean for him. He noticed Jack rubbing his throat as they ate, and remembered his long silence.
“Your throat's bothering you?”

Jack shrugged and gestured at the waste. “It's dusty. And I'm not usually much of a talker.” Flowers pinwheeled down his tunic, and he absently brushed them away, smiling at his little joke.
“This is why you should have explained the magic to me at the start,” Gabriel grumbled. “Wait here. I'll go back to the last town we passed and get something to help.”
“Don't make such a fuss. I don't need to sound pretty, I just have to keep talking. We're going slow enough as it is without any other delays.” He made for an odd sight, glowering fiercely up from the growing circle of vines and flowers surrounding him.
“I'm not letting you talk yourself hoarse just because you're a stubborn bastard. Rest your voice and wait for me. I'll return as quick as I can.” He mounted up before Jack could argue again, and called back as he rode off: “Slow as we've been going, it shouldn't take long!”
Gabriel spurred his horse into a gallop and followed alongside the trail of seedlings Jack had created. The further he rode, the taller and fuller the growth became until he was seeing bushes with ripening berries, and wheat stalks with heavy, nodding heads.
The magic didn't seem to be enough to grow trees to their full height, but the saplings scattered along the path were still a reassuring sight. By the time he reached the edge of the waste, creepers and grasses had expanded Jack's path to three times its original width.
They still had their work cut out for them to travel the entire waste, but at least the task no longer seemed hopeless, or even quite as monumental.

It took him some time to reach an actual town, and the honey and ginger root he bought cost him more than their weight in gold.
He made no complaint, and packed them carefully in his saddlebag before turning his horse around for the return journey. It was long past sunset at that point, and Gabriel resigned himself to slow going in the dark. Even so, it took him longer than it should have to reach Jack.
When he reached the new campsite, he swung out of the saddle, and frowned for a moment at the curled up bundle that was Jack in his bedroll.

“You know, despite not having a whole lot of landmarks out here, I could have SWORN I left you a couple hours closer to where we started.”
Jack shrugged, but offered no comment. Really, Gabriel couldn't complain. It wasn't as if anything lived in the waste, so traveling alone wasn't dangerous, and it was important that they cover as much ground as possible. With a sigh, he laid out his own bedroll to get some sleep.
The next morning, Jack barely spoke aside from a quiet “Thanks” as he savored the ginger and honey tea Gabriel brewed for him. A single marigold fell onto his bedroll as he spoke, and scattered seeds that couldn't take root through the cloth.
He brushed them onto the ground moments later, but, although he was watching—still amazed by the sight—Gabriel saw no new plants grow.

“Why didn't they sprout?” he asked, alarmed at the possibility of having to stop when they'd barely begun.
Calmly, Jack dug a small hole in the earth with one finger, picked up a seed, dropped it in and covered it up. In a few moments, a pale green shoot appeared, although it grew more slowly than the others.

“If they can't take root immediately, the magic loses some of its potency?”
Jack nodded, then cocked his head to the side at Gabriel's considering look.

“Next time we make camp, if you speak, will you catch the flowers in a handkerchief? I want to help, and having some seeds to plant would be a good start.” He smiled, pleased when Jack smiled back.
The plan was to circle the waste and spiral inwards, skirting the edge of their path to allow the plants to fill in the gap as they spread. It was going to take months. Although Jack didn't seem entirely happy about it, he never once seemed to consider going back on his bargain.
A few days in, however, and the constant talking had left him with a painful sore throat. He took small sips of water almost constantly during the day as he talked and talked and the flowers fell and scattered and revived the barren waste, but it was no cure.
When they camped at night, Gabriel brewed ginger and honey tea and forbade him to speak. He backtracked along the path to gather soothing herbs that could be added to the tea or made into a poultice. Watching Jack spit blood that welled from his raw throat, guilt gnawed at him.
It was a small sacrifice, he knew. Nothing compared to all that had been lost and all that might still be lost should they fail to bring life back to the waste. Still, none of it had been Jack's concern before Gabriel had gone to find him, yet now he was the one suffering.
One morning, Gabriel was woken by the sound of Jack coughing. The fit had him hunched over, one hand clamped over his mouth, eyes squeezed shut. Immediately, Gabriel got up to make him some tea. When he went to check on Jack, however, he noticed something strange.
A tear was forming in the corner of Jack's eye. It glittered oddly as it fell...hit the blanket...and bounced.

“What in the—” Momentarily distracted, Gabriel watched it drop to the ground where Jack's hand slapped down over it.
“What are you looking at?” Jack's voice was wrecked from days of nonstop talking, and there was a ferocity in his expression that Gabriel hadn't even seen on their very first encounter.

“I only wanted to check on you,” he said quietly.
“I'm FINE.” Something in Gabriel's expression gave him pause. He subsided, gaze sliding away as he forced his scowl to ease. “I'm fine,” he repeated, more quietly this time. His fingers had dug furrows in the dirt where he had clenched his fist around the tear.
Gabriel nodded and stepped back. “Tea will be ready in a minute.” He went to tend the kettle, pretending not to watch as Jack jammed his fist—trailing young roots and bits of soil—into his pocket, then pulled it out empty. Gabriel couldn't help but wonder what Jack was hiding.
Privacy was Jack's price and Gabriel had sworn to pay. He did his best to put his curiosity out of his mind. Jack's secrets weren't worth losing his help.

They traveled on. Jack talked himself hoarse within the day, whispered through the next, and was mute the following morning.
They'd fought over his stubbornness the morning he'd woken up with only a whisper of voice. Gabriel had collected quite a number of seeds from the flowers that landed on Jack's blanket. Then Jack had cut the argument short by the simple means of mounting his horse and riding off.
Proven right for having argued for Jack to take it easy, Gabriel's bedside manner was tinged with smugness. "Looks like you'll have to rest, now," he said, offering Jack a bowl of hot vegetable broth. "No point in traveling today."

Jack glared, reaching for his writing supplies.
"I know you're frustrated by the delay. So am I, and there's much more at stake for me than a hermitage."

When Jack flinched, Gabriel laid a hand on his shoulder. "All I meant is that it's important to both of us to complete this task. But you need to take care of yourself too."
There were still times when Jack looked at him with surprise. It had happened enough that Gabriel had noticed the pattern, though it cut him every time he saw how unaccustomed Jack was to kindness. He wondered again what secrets Jack was he had come by his scars.
The impulse to ask was born of curiosity and sympathy. He quashed it each time it arose, but the need to know only grew. To escape temptation, he left Jack resting, and went to plant seeds. It was tedious work that made his back ache, but the sight of new growth was rewarding.
Jack spent most of his first voiceless day resting while Gabriel planted seeds and occasionally checked on him. He was a huffy patient, clearly loath to sit still, but his cheeks flushed amusingly when Gabriel thanked him for his restraint. It was actually somewhat...cute.
Gabriel gave him small tasks to keep him still: mending rips in their clothing, and watching over the stew they would have for supper. Jack was a clumsy hand with a needle, and wore his frustration openly, but his stitches would hold, and the work didn't overtax him as he healed.
Silence was strange after days of listening to Jack talk, and Gabriel found himself filling it, first with songs as he worked, then with stories he hadn't heard Jack tell. He chose funny ones mostly, pleased when he could make Jack smile or throw his head back in wheezy laughter.
The day passed pleasantly, for all that time weighed on them both. After supper, after darkness fell and they were both bedded down, Gabriel gazed at the stars and told stories he'd learned from one of his tutors about the constellations until nostalgia brought him back to earth.
He told Jack about his childhood, about growing up as the youngest of three brothers. Although he was careful about exactly what he said, something in Jack's expression, in the way he watched so intently as he listened, suggested he'd picked up on the feeling of being unneeded.
With two heirs already, his father never had much time for him. His brothers had begun to regard him with mild suspicion as he'd grown older and smarter, though he didn't want the throne. It occurred to Gabriel that he could unburden his frustrations onto Jack. Who would he tell?
Laughing off the idea, he rolled over to put his back to Jack, mumbling: “You're too good a listener.”

He thought he heard Jack try to speak. After a moment, there came a harsh sigh, the rustle of a blanket, and then silence. Eventually, Gabriel's thoughts quieted and he slept.
Jack's voice was only just beginning to return the next morning. He was still hoarse, however, and his speech dropped off into abrupt silences more often than he managed to speak a full word and bring forth a flower. Gabriel was forced to declare another day of rest.
The honey ran out that morning, and they were low on ginger. Leaving Jack mumbling rebelliously over a blanket spread to collect seeds, Gabriel backtracked along their trail in the hope of finding some fresh ginger root among the magical plants.
Although he had foraged for their meals many times before, recalling how quickly the plants around him had grown could still leave him awestruck. Unlike elsewhere in the waste, where the very atmosphere seemed to sour the rain, the dew that collected on Jack's plants was sweet.
They had already begun attracting small animals back to the area, as well. Gabriel had seen mice, squirrels, and rabbits among the leaves, and heard the rustling of unseen creatures numerous times. He set a few snares, hoping for fresh meat for their supper.
The plants had to be fae-touched. He could think of no other explanation for the sheer magic of their nature. It made him all the more curious as to how Jack had come by his gift, since the man seemed otherwise about as magical as mud.
When Gabriel returned with a bundle of fresh fruits and vegetables, he found Jack several yards distant at the head of a new and still visibly growing stretch of green. Setting his burden down next to the banked embers of their campfire, Gabriel went to bring him back.
“Trying to force it isn't going to do you any good in the long run,” he said, reaching out to pat Jack's shoulder. “Come back and rest. You've done more good for us over the past few days than every expert we've asked in as many years.”
“Need—” His voice squeaked like a rusty hinge, and he cleared his throat to try again with no noticeable improvement. “Need to keep moving.”

“Your body needs rest to heal. If you wear yourself out, you'll only be hoarse longer. You might even do permanent damage.”
“More important,” Jack managed, gesturing at all the new growth. His voice was broken and pathetically weak, a strange contrast to the determination in his expression. Even as he let Gabriel guide him back to their camp, he was scowling, fingers flexing with impatience.
“It is important,” Gabriel agreed, “but I'm not willing to sacrifice your health if all it takes in trade to accomplish our goal is a bit of patience.” He considered for a moment, then asked: “What if we change our strategy?”

“You stay put. Talk as much as you can, and collect the seeds. I'll plant them myself. It'll take longer, but if you aren't traveling while keeping the magic flowing—”

“No.” Jack crossed his arms, resolute.

“It would give you more privacy. Don't you miss your solitude?”
Jack's lip curled, his sneer made all the more fierce by the scar cutting across it. “Necessity,” he said. “Not choice.”

“What about it is necessary? You have a gift worth celebrating.”

“Promised my privacy,” he said suspiciously.
“I promised to keep your secrets. I never said I wouldn't ask questions.” They stared each other down until Gabriel gave in. He threw up his hands with a sigh. “Never mind. We'll continue on once you're well again. If you're in that much of a hurry, then I suggest you rest.”
The argument weighed on Gabriel's mind for the rest of the day. He was genuinely grateful to Jack, and wanted to spare him as much hardship as possible, yet Jack seemed to insist on making things harder on himself. Gabriel's curiosity blazed, kept in check, but only just barely.
By the next morning, Jack's voice had returned enough to whisper. Still reluctant to push and delay his complete recovery, Gabriel insisted they take it easy again. He stood firm as Jack expressed his displeasure in a flood of furious whispers as flowers cascaded to the ground.
Gabriel waited until he ran out of curses, then politely informed him that he'd noticed a strawberry bush yesterday, and asked if Jack wanted to come pick some with him. Jack's incredulity melted into a rude gesture, which Gabriel correctly interpreted as a firm 'No.'
Certain he'd return to find Jack further down the trail again, Gabriel left him alone. He'd stated and re-stated his feeling about Jack's health and their progress, but it wasn't getting through. Jack was driven to complete their task, and Gabriel didn't know what else to say.
He mulled it over, wondering how to get through. Jack was giving so much. If Gabriel could only provide him some peace of mind...

Bursts of blue amid the green pulled him from his thoughts. Staring at the cornflowers, an idea came to him. When had anyone last given Jack flowers?
Jack was actually behaving himself when Gabriel returned. He didn't look up, which made it easy to drop the crown of cornflowers and daisies onto his head before he could get a look at it. He startled and snatched it off, looking for all the world like an offended cat.
“What's this?” His whispered words were no longer shredded by the loss of his voice.

“It's to thank you.” Gabriel sat down to look him in the eye. “Whatever happened in your past, you're saving the lives of everyone in my kingdom. For that, you have my gratitude and my loyalty.”
Dropping his gaze to the flower crown, Jack fidgeted uncomfortably. He didn't seem to know how to respond. Gabriel took pity on him and reached out, taking the crown and settling it back on his head before breaking the silence.

“It suits you,” he said, grinning.

Jack went red.
He moved as if to yank the crown off, stopped, huffed, and accused Gabriel of being out of his mind. Then, as roses spilled from his lips, he said: “It would suit you better.” He scowled at the flowers as they fell through his fingers to wither and burst on the ground around him.
Caught off-guard, Gabriel found himself speechless. Clearing his throat, he fumbled with the pouch he'd made of his handkerchief and offered Jack first choice of the berries he'd picked. They ate in silence, waiting for the awkwardness to pass, and stealing glances at each other.
Jack's voice wasn't completely returned the next day, but neither of them had the patience to wait much longer. They set out with Jack whispering different versions of the stories Gabriel had told him, and smiling to see the land turning green as they passed through it.
As a compromise, they stopped to rest frequently, and Gabriel paid much closer attention to how much water Jack was drinking. They talked with each other more during breaks, laughing as Jack brushing flowers aside became Gabriel batting them away to cover more ground.
When it wasn't Gabriel filling in the silence left by Jack's refusal to speak, or Jack telling story after story to fuel the magic, they quickly struck a balance. Jack was easy to talk to, and Gabriel found himself lingering in those still minutes between stretches of traveling.
Jack noticed the change as well. At night, as they watched the stars before falling asleep, he began to tell Gabriel about his life. He started with distant things—his childhood, his time as a page and then a squire. It was only a little bit at a time, but it was a show of trust.
After a week, he told Gabriel about becoming a knight. He talked about being given command of a squad of men, about being trusted with important missions by his king. He told Gabriel about the knights that had served under him, and about his own squire.
Jack didn't continue his story the next night, or the one after that, and Gabriel didn't push. He'd meant what he'd said about giving Jack his loyalty, and he'd meant the promise he'd made to respect his privacy. Gabriel left him his secrets, pouring his own voice into the quiet.
When Jack picked up his tale again, it wasn't what Gabriel expected to hear.

“I'm forsworn,” he said quietly one night. “I disobeyed my king. When knights—my knights—were sent to bring me back to court...I killed them.” He spoke evenly, simply reciting facts.
When the silence stretched out longer than he could stand, Gabriel spoke up. “I assume you had your reasons.”

“I did. At the time, I thought they were good ones. But...if it weren't for me, those men would still be alive.”

“And if you hadn't fought and killed them?”
Jack was silent long enough that Gabriel began to doubt he was going to answer at all. Then, with a peculiar lack of feeling, he said: “My king would not have killed me.”

There was something unsettling in the way he said it that hid an ugliness he didn't want brought to light.
Jack wept in his sleep that night. As he lay trapped in dreams, his small sounds of protest woke Gabriel. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes, then fell with a soft patter to land as diamonds on his pillow. Gabriel picked one up and studied the flawless gem in the moonlight.
Flowers when he spoke, and diamonds when he cried... Jack hadn't said a word about the second part of his magic, and Gabriel wondered if he ever would have. He reconsidered what Jack had told him, with the assumption that he hadn't guarded his secret carefully enough in the past.
Like water flowing downhill, Gabriel's gaze had been drawn back to Jack. His expression was troubled in his sleep, his pale hair askew. A ready supply of diamonds was a tempting prize. He'd taken a big risk, leaving the safety of his solitude.
Carefully, Gabriel returned the diamond to Jack's pillow and went back to his own bed. When he woke again early that morning and heard furtive rustling, he pretended to be still asleep as Jack hid the diamonds. He said nothing about what he'd seen, and they traveled on as usual.
For almost a week, Jack said nothing more about himself. Anytime Gabriel even hinted that he should continue the story, he turned the conversation aside, asking about Gabriel's family, about life in his kingdom, about his plans once their journey was over.
A cold snap overtook them. Jack's magical plants were hardy and kept growing despite it, but the two men began to huddle close at night to share warmth. Silences slipped in between them, feeling more like an absence than the comfortable quiet between two friends.
Gabriel watched Jack and felt the change building. He watched his expressions—how his scars tugged smiles and frowns askew, and lent him an air of ruggedness and mystery. He watched his gestures—the graceful movements of his hands, the roll of his shoulders, the lift of his chin.
He heard Jack's voice rough and low in his dreams, and woke up aching for touch and reluctant to move with Jack sleeping soundly next to him, close enough that the heat of their bodies mingled. He let himself wonder how Jack would touch him, and how Jack liked to be touched.
The magic was no longer the most mesmerizing thing about Jack. The implications crystallized in his mind as he lay awake in the predawn chill, listening to Jack's snoring. He'd grown fond of Jack and, while he didn't have the whole story, he had enough pieces to guess the rest.
Gabriel wondered how Jack would react if he expressed his interest. He wondered if he ought to keep it a secret of his own. After all, Jack had always said that he wanted to be left alone after this was all over. Maybe it would be better not to get too attached.
Good intentions or no, once the thought had caught Gabriel's attention, it was hard to ignore. He caught himself not only watching Jack, but staring. His focus wavered, and, before he knew it, he goaded Jack into racing on horseback through the waste.
It was a trivial delay, though Jack still scolded him for it later on. As far as Gabriel was concerned, however, Jack's happiness as his horse had galloped across the dry, cracked ground had been worth it. Jack's laughter had been loud and full. His grin had been breathtaking.
They backtracked, picking up their task again. Jack kept them riding until after sunset, trying to make up for lost time. He tended the horses when they made camp, muttering to them and shaking his head, scattering flowers beneath their hooves, and growing them a place to graze.
Gabriel built up a fire and made dinner from their stores, noting that he would need to forage again soon. Jack had been going with him lately. The cold night air wasn't so bad with Jack at his side, veiled in starlight and surrounded by the rich scent of green, growing things.
Lost in his thoughts as he crouched by the fire, he didn't hear Jack approach. A tap on his shoulder made him jump, and he overbalanced, tumbling into the dust. Jack stood above him, almost as surprised, then snorted and began to laugh.
“I'll give you something to laugh about,” Gabriel muttered. Grinning, he got his feet under him and lunged, tackling Jack to the ground. They grappled, shouting and laughing, crushing plants and raising clouds of dust until Jack finally got the upper hand.
He managed to flip Gabriel onto his back and pin him. Panting, flushed with exertion and grinning, he was briefly triumphant. Then, something changed. His smile faded. His eyes lost some of their shine, and he suddenly looked far older.
“Gabriel, what are you doing?” The scent of flowers filled the air between them as they fell with Jack's words. Their petals brushed against Gabriel's face and caught in his hair as he smiled stupidly up at Jack, imagining what it would be like to kiss him.

“Losing, apparently.”
Jack heaved a sigh. “I know you found out. Why not say something? Why act like this?”

“Found out about what?” He knew what Jack meant, of course, but it wasn't a secret he'd been trusted with. “All I know is that you've got a hell of a green thumb.”
“You...” He stared at Gabriel, trying to puzzle him out, then sighed again and started to get up.

Gabriel caught his wrist, looking up to meet his eyes. “Jack, I promised you your privacy. I will protect your secrets. I swear.”

/Trust me,/ he thought. /Please./
Shaking his head, Jack pulled away. “Easy enough to break an oath,” he muttered. “I'm proof of that.” He took a seat near the fire and stared into the flames, fingers laced in front of his mouth.

With a sigh for the lost chance, Gabriel joined him. Truth would be his surest bet.
“I saw you cry diamonds,” he admitted. “You were having a nightmare, and the noise woke me. I didn't take any of them.”

The lines at the corners of Jack's eyes deepened. “Never said you had. Now you know why I didn't need payment in coin.”
Gabriel nodded. “When I saw that...I took a few guesses to fill in the gaps in your story. I'd like to hear the rest of it, if you're willing to tell me.”

“I suppose the 'how' doesn't matter, now that you know the 'what.'”

“It's up to you, Jack. I won't force you to talk.”
Jack was quiet for a minute, then sighed and let his hands fall to his lap. “It was meant to be a blessing,” he said, making no move to brush away the flowers that fell onto him.

He told Gabriel about how an old woman had come up to him at a well and asked for a drink of water.
After Jack had fetched the bucket up and helped her get a drink, she had revealed herself to be a faerie, and had used her magic to reward him. Whenever he spoke, flowers would fall from his lips. Anytime he cried, his tears would turn into diamonds.
Trusting in the loyalty of his people, and having faith in his king, Jack had returned to court and told the story to his liege. His faith had been badly misplaced, and he nearly lost his freedom to the king's greed. His own knights had been sent to hunt him down when he fled.
Shaken by the betrayal, he had traveled as far from home as he could, eventually coming to the barren southern mountain where he had used the magic of the flowers to bring life enough to his small valley to sustain himself. Gabriel was the first person he'd spoken to in years.
"Thank you," Gabriel said quietly once he'd finished. "For trusting me."

Jack's lips twisted as if he'd tasted something bitter. He took up a twig to poke at the fire. "Why'd you keep quiet about it? Why not say something right away?"
"Probably...because you didn't want me to know. Since I wasn't supposed to find out about it, I thought it would put you at ease if I said nothing."

A sharp huff of laughter escaped Jack at that. "Trying to lull me into a false sense of security?"
His words dug under Gabriel's skin. "I don't know how to convince you of my sincerity. Way I see it, you've got two choices. You can either trust me, or you can try to kill me. Make up your own mind as we go, because you'll have to choose before we part ways."
"I would be sorry to have to kill you." He smiled, tentative and almost sheepish, as if Gabriel might not accept the teasing in his words.

"I said you'd have to try. I doubt you'd manage it."

Jack sat up straighter. "I was a knight, if you recall."
"A knight once upon a time. Lately, a hermit."

A bemused smile tugged at the corners of Jack's lips, and his words conjured monkshood and larkspur blossoms. "You think I'm out of practice." The tension between them had faded like raindrops falling onto parched earth.
He didn't bother trying to hide his smirk. “The possibility had crossed my mind. Fetch that pig-sticker of yours. Let's have some fun, and find out if I'm right.”

It was a simple and effective distraction. They sparred until they were worn out, then collapsed near the fire.
For the rest of the evening, their talk turned to swordsmanship, to technique and style, to critique and bragging. Each recounted noteworthy duels or fights he had participated in. Neither mentioned Jack's fight against the knights that had once sworn loyalty to him.
The quiet friendship that had been growing between them blossomed. Jack still did most of the talking out of necessity, but they made time to take breaks, to spar or race or soak up the silence. Jack turned out to be a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades, and he talked about everything.
Gabriel's attraction to him only grew. From the way he sometimes caught Jack looking at him, he felt that it might be mutual.

When it came to sparring, they were fairly evenly matched, and that quickly became their favorite way to pass the time. Gabriel relished the challenge.
At the end of one match, with Gabriel's blade aimed at his heart while his own lay yards away in the dust, Jack said: "I've been thinking about that choice you mentioned--to trust you or to kill you. I have questions."

"Ask away."
Eyes never leaving Gabriel's despite the tip of the sword resting against his chest, he asked: "Will you give me your loyalty, knowing what I've done...and what I can do?"

"You already have it," Gabriel replied.

Jack nodded and said nothing more about it that day.
Jack won their next fight. He sunk his blade deep into the ground next to Gabriel's head as he knelt straddled atop him.

"I've been thinking about that choice. Will you promise me your protection?"

"You don't need anyone to protect you, Jack, but I'll fight at your side."
The next time they sparred, they fought to a draw. Across their locked swords, Jack met Gabriel's eyes.

"I've been thinking about my choice." An odd smile played across his face. "A lot of people want me. Will you say that you love me?"

Gabriel smiled crookedly back at him.
"Too soon to tell. Are you going to give me a chance to find out?"

Judging his timing carefully, Gabriel leapt back to disengage, tossing his sword aside as Jack stumbled forward into his arms.

"I could have skewered you," Jack said, acid in his tone.

"Trust goes both ways."
"You're an idiot."

"Do you want to insult me, or do you want me to kiss you? Because—"

With a growl, Jack pressed his lips to Gabriel's. "Shut up," he muttered as he pulled back.

Gabriel couldn't help but laugh even as Jack yanked him roughly into another kiss.
Jack's kisses tasted of flowers—of roses and honeysuckle, nectar and pollen. His skin was salty with sweat, and gritty from the dust they rode through daily. He smelled of earth and horse and herbs, and Gabriel couldn't get enough. He needed Jack like the waste needed his magic.
They undressed each other hastily, begrudging any moment that kept lips from skin, that delayed the heated touches that raised sparks like steel on flint. Jack pulled Gabriel down into a bed of new-grown ivy and periwinkles, and all that spilled from his lips were wordless moans.
How long had it been since Jack had been touched? How long since he had felt the heat of a lover's body? Gabriel showered him with affection, kissed every inch of his skin, touched him until Jack broke and begged and flowers burst into bloom only to be crushed between them.
He was gorgeous in starlight and shadow, all eagerness and need. Tears welled in his eyes and fell to glitter as diamonds among the leaves. His nails scored Gabriel's skin. His gasps filled the air. He quivered beneath Gabriel's hands, letting himself come undone.
“Something ought to know,” Jack managed between heaving breaths. He moaned as Gabriel stroked him, close, so close. Gabriel hushed him, kissed his throat to feel it flutter like a bird, brushed away the diamonds crystallizing at the corners of Jack's eyes.
They moved together slow and sweet as honey, until Jack suddenly arched beneath him and came with a groan that nearly hid an odd pattering sound. Gabriel finished a moment later and sagged atop him, warm and sated...and curious about what was digging into his stomach.
Reaching between them, he groped for what felt like a pebble. Jack huffed and laughed, shoving at him as Gabriel delighted in his ticklishness. They tussled playfully, giving up when Jack kissed him and Gabriel savored the easy rhythm of it before looking to see what he held.
It was a pearl, oblong and creamy white, almost glowing with reflected starlight. Dumbstruck, Gabriel looked from it to the plants around them where he saw more gleaming pearls among the leaves. Tiny seed pearls were even caught in the hair on Jack's chest and stomach.
“Did you...?” Even in the darkness, he could see Jack's cheeks flush red with embarrassment. “That—” He broke off with a laugh. “That is damned inconvenient! Once this is over, we've got to get that spell broken.”
Jack's smile was slow to start, weighed down, Gabriel suspected, by disbelief. But it grew and shone, and his heart twisted in his chest at the realization that he'd never seen Jack happier. Unsure of what to do, of where they now stood, he pulled Jack close and kissed his hair.
“May I see you after this? I know I promised to forbid passage to your valley, but—”

“I'm not going back.”

The world seemed to fall out from beneath Gabriel. “What do you mean?”

“You didn't really think I could, did you? With all this to tell the king where to search for me?”
“Then why ask me to guard your home?”

Keeping his face hidden against Gabriel's chest, Jack shrugged. “It was a way to throw them off the scent, give me a bit more of a head start.” Petals tickled against Gabriel's skin as he spoke, at odds with the roughness of his voice.
Jack had known from the start that he would never return to the home he'd made for himself.

“Let me come with you,” Gabriel breathed. “If you were willing to give up the life you were leading to help others, I can hardly expect less of myself for being the one who found you.”
Jack snorted. “You're a prince, Gabe. You've got more important things to do.”

“A third son. I won't be missed with two capable heirs available.” He pulled back until he could tilt Jack's chin up to meet his eyes. “Let me be your voice.” Gently, he stroked Jack's throat.
“I don't need—”

“You want to break the spell, don't you? Without being caught by those who know about it? How will you even know where to start looking for a way to do it if you can't talk to people?” He pressed their foreheads together. “Take me with you.”
Jack's hesitation left the air heavy with tension. Then, just as Gabriel was sure he would refuse, he sighed and relaxed.

“Thank you,” he said, quietly. The deep red rose that formed with his words filled the air with its scent.
It took weeks to blanket the waste in living green. Once finished, they left Gabriel's kingdom behind to search for a means of breaking Jack's curse. Where they traveled, flowers bloomed, and every grassy hollow where they made their bed was left strewn with diamonds and pearls.
aaaand just for funsies, a screenshot of the original scene this entire thread was created for. the end.
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