“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.”
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.
[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.
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.
It seemed a harmless enough—if strange—request, and Gabriel swore readily before pouring out the story.
“Aren't you who I came here to find? At least answer me. Do you have the power to turn back the waste?”
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.
He turned and, without meeting Gabriel's eyes, reached for tablet and stylus once again and wrote hurriedly.
“What should I call you?” He watched as the man hastily jotted down his name and shoved the tablet across the table.
“You never told me how you plan to revive the waste.”
“I'm not doubting you....” Only a little, only because doubt was natural under the circumstances. “I just....”
[I can do what I promised.]
“Nothing you can give.” Jack's voice was a rusty croak, but the sound of it was nothing to what accompanied his words.
“Just keep your end of the bargain, and I'll keep mine.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“Why didn't they sprout?” he asked, alarmed at the possibility of having to stop when they'd barely begun.
“If they can't take root immediately, the magic loses some of its potency?”
“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.
“What in the—” Momentarily distracted, Gabriel watched it drop to the ground where Jack's hand slapped down over it.
“I only wanted to check on you,” he said quietly.
They traveled on. Jack talked himself hoarse within the day, whispered through the next, and was mute the following morning.
Jack glared, reaching for his writing supplies.
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."
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.
“Your body needs rest to heal. If you wear yourself out, you'll only be hoarse longer. You might even do permanent damage.”
“No.” Jack crossed his arms, resolute.
“It would give you more privacy. Don't you miss your solitude?”
“What about it is necessary? You have a gift worth celebrating.”
“Promised my privacy,” he said suspiciously.
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?
“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.”
“It suits you,” he said, grinning.
Jack went red.
“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.
“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?”
There was something unsettling in the way he said it that hid an ugliness he didn't want brought to light.
“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.”
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./
With a sigh for the lost chance, Gabriel joined him. Truth would be his surest bet.
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.”
“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.”
He told Gabriel about how an old woman had come up to him at a well and asked for a drink of water.
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?"
A sharp huff of laughter escaped Jack at that. "Trying to lull me into a false sense of security?"
"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 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.
It was a simple and effective distraction. They sparred until they were worn out, then collapsed near the fire.
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.
"You already have it," Gabriel replied.
Jack nodded and said nothing more about it that day.
"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."
"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.
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."
"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.
“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?”
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“Thank you,” he said, quietly. The deep red rose that formed with his words filled the air with its scent.