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the vagabond prince (sga fairy tale au, g) - McKay/Sheppard
Where science meets reality . . . naughtily.
the vagabond prince (sga fairy tale au, g)
Title: The Vagabond Prince
Author: Cesare (almostnever)
Pairing: John/Rodney
Summary: Fairy tale AU based on the story usually known as "Donkeyskin", modeled on the "Sapsorrow" retelling from Jim Henson's The Storyteller.
Ratings/Warnings: More or less G-rated.
Word count: ~7500


Once upon a time, a wealthy King had three sons. He loved them all alike, and what he gave to one, he gave to the others. But past their perfect smiles, their salutes and their finery, his elder sons were cruel where their younger brother was kind.

Prince Steven and Prince David might have become ambitious, brave men, but with no outlet for their ambition or their courage, they were like eagles who could never soar, but only scratch and claw.

As for the youngest, he suffered the brunt of their boredom and malice. They squeezed on his bright mind until he thought he was simple. They taunted his fair features until he believed he was plain. They mocked his crest of dark hair until he was embarrassed by his cowlicks. And they gave him a disdainful name that stuck, so that instead of being called Prince John, he was known as Shepherd.

His wife long dead, the King's sole joy had been that of a proud father. Now his sons were grown, soon to find their fortunes, and the palace would be empty. His thoughts turned to his own loneliness.

"I must find someone to comfort me," he thought, and unlocked the little box in which he kept the wedding pendant, passed on from ruler to ruler since Ancient times, for only when the pendant lit at a touch could the Crown marry.

The next morning, a crier hammered a proclamation onto the great wooden doors of the courthouse. "Whosoever in the land wakes the pendant to light will wed the King," he called out. From all around the city, the people gathered to read the notice.

From their window overlooking the square, the brother-princes looked down and scowled, furious at their father. They wanted no more rivals to the throne. King Patrick was too old, Steven and David told each other; he ought to be thinking about dying soon.

Shepherd joined them. "I think it's nice that Dad's out there looking for somebody," he said.

His brothers called him a half-wit. "Go away!" they shouted. "Are you simple? Get out of here!"

For when they were angry, which was often, when they were cruel, which was always, they took out their rage on their brother. So the more the brothers sulked at the prospect the King's remarriage, the more vile they were to poor Shepherd.

Soon after, their father set off on a tour of the kingdom to allow citizens far and wide to try their hand at the pendant. At home, Steven and David tormented Shepherd.

"You're too plump," they'd say, stealing away his plate, though he was thin as a rail. "All this rich food is making you stupider."

"You're too idle," they said, though he ran and sparred and studied every day, and they set him to work. He must shine their swords, polish their shoes, wash their feet, make their beds, however hungry he was, however tired, however sad.

But Shepherd was friends with all the creatures of the forest, those that crawled, those that flew; they lived in his pockets, hid under his table, perched on his chair. In happier days, he had shared his bounty with them. He'd cast crusts from his window, dropped seeds on the sill.

Now when he retired to his room, he would find berries, nuts and fruits waiting for him. For kindness repays in kindness, care with care. The boy did not starve while the King was away.

At length the King returned, weary, for the pendant was dark and none could light it, and he despaired of any solace in his old age. As he entered the palace, the two elder brothers accosted him. How sad they were, they lied; how much they'd missed him, they pretended; what a shame he'd found no one, they shook their heads, delighted.

"All for the best," said David.

"Fate," agreed Steven. "It just wasn't meant to be."

The elder brothers were determined to have the kingdom to themselves when the old King died. They wanted no royal successor, no spouse to outlive the King. Each day when the crowds came to the Great Hall to try the pendant, the elder brothers would sit suspiciously on the balcony, gazing down at the line.

We should be kings, they told each other. We should rule together. And that is why when the thought came that they should try the pendant themselves, it seemed such a clever one.

The King couldn't marry one of us if the pendant lit, they reasoned, but then he couldn't marry anybody else either! And they congratulated themselves on their briliance.

At the end of that very day, they crept down the great hall where the pendant lay on a velvet pillow atop a pillar. But here each brother's ambition got the better of him. Each imagined that he could light the pendant and, once this marriage business was disposed of, use its glow to claim the throne.

And so they fought, the elder brothers, right there a step away from their mother's pendant-- Steven's hands at David's throat, David's fists at Steven's ears, the princes grappling, struggling, careening closer and closer to the precious jewel.

Shepherd passed by and, hearing the scuffle, raced inside. Seeing his brothers battling, he pried them apart and separated them.

"Guys. Guys!" he said. "You're going to wreck mom's jewel if you keep this up."

Both elder brothers seemed to calm at that, and Shepherd released them. At once they flew for each other again, throwing Shepherd against the pillar.

The pendant slipped off its pillow and dropped, sure to shatter on the marble floor. Just in time, Shepherd snatched it from the air and saved it-- and the pendant glowed.

"What's going on?" asked the King as he rushed into the hall.

"Nothing, Father," replied the elder brothers, blocking the empty pillow.

"What was all the commotion?" their father asked. Just then the King spotted the empty pillow. "Where is your mother's pendant?" he demanded.

The elder brothers turned toward Shepherd, silently placing the blame.

"Son?" pressed the King.

Shepherd shook his head and stepped back, his fist wrapped tightly around the pendant-- but then, in a moment he would never forget, the jewel brightened still further, its light sneaking out between his fingers, blazing cold and bright in his hand.

And the King saw it too. "No!" he cried in horror. "It lit for you."

In no time the news was afire in the palace, sweeping the corridors, inflaming the people. The pendant lit for the King's son! The King's son, his own son!

The court's wise council said, "You cannot marry your father, but you cannot ignore the law. You cannot marry your father, but you cannot shame the Crown. You cannot marry your father, but the pendant lit for you alone."

Shepherd left the court and stayed in his room with only his creatures for company. At last he was summoned to the King's chamber where his father sat, his face heavy with sorrow, the wise council around him, somber and resolved.

"I'm afraid it's the law," said Prime Minister Weir. "This tradition is as old as the kingdom. The pendant lit only for you. There's no one else. You have to marry the King." Shepherd closed his hand around the glow of his mother's jewel, hung heavy now around his neck for safekeeping, and shut his eyes tight.

"You always took after your mother. Why did you touch the pendant? How could you be such a fool?" asked the King bitterly.

Prime Minister Weir said, "The ceremony should take place as soon as preparations will allow. The faster it's done, the sooner the embarrassment to the Crown will be forgotten."

The faces of the court stared sternly at Shepherd, waiting on his response. For long moments, he thought only of escape. If only he were free like his friends; if only he could scurry, if only he could fly!

At last he spoke, drawing himself up. "First get me a suit. It's got to be pale silk," he said. "But it can't just be white. So... really pale, but not white. In fact, it has to be exactly the color of the moon. No wedding til I have it."

The wise council turned to the King, who nodded. "Very well," said the Prime Minister dubiously. "We'll find your suit."

While traders journeyed for silk, while tailors cut and needles flew, Shepherd stayed in his room. He had a plan he shared only with his friends, the creatures.

"A suit like that's gonna take some time," he told his friends as they crawled and scurried and nested in his dark and spiky hair. "I just hope it's long enough. Please, guys, hurry."

But it wasn't long before a knock sounded at his door. The suit had arrived. The tailors wheeled a mannequin into his room to show off the marvelous garment. There it was, all of the palest silk, here reflecting the light in the softest, lightest shades of yellow, of blue, of grey. The King waited beside it, his brothers behind, the court in attendance.

"Okay, it's a beautiful suit," admitted Shepherd. "Looks just like the moon. But now," he continued, "I need another one, and this one's gotta be silver, sparkling like the stars."

Prime Minister Weir frowned.

Shepherd said, "Hey, it's for my trousseau."

The King was as desperate for delay as his son, and ordered, "Do as he bids. Another suit, all in silver, sparkling with stars."

Shepherd closed the door, leaving the court to ponder, his brothers to sulk, and the ateliers to wander the land in search of a silver cloth that would gleam like the stars above.

Little did they know that all the while, in Shepherd's room, another garment was being made, more marvelous and more magical. But its weaving was slow, its material rarer still than silk or silver. Before it was done, King and court were back again.

This time, Shepherd would not let them in, but stood blocking the doorway and looked down the corridor at the suit the royal tailors had sewn for him. It was dark silver, spangled all over with light, and to look at it was to gaze into a cloudless evening sky.

"Okay. Nice job, guys," Shepherd said. "Looks just like the stars."

Prime Minister Weir stepped forward. "The court waits," she said. "When will you marry?"

The King stared sadly into the suit's constellations, searching for a way to escape their fate, seeing none. "Son?" he asked, brow furrowed.

Shepherd nodded calmly from his doorway. "This suit is for the reception," he told them. "The white one's for the procession. So I just need one more for the courthouse. The third one should be black. But not just any black. The deepest black. Black like the darkest stormy night, a black that will never fade. You get me a suit like that, and the next day, we're on."

The court greeted his answer with satisfaction, and left him in peace.

While the tailors sewed with darkest thread, while the seamstresses buzzed, while the wedding feast was prepared, up in Shepherd's room the shutters stayed closed night and day. Only his creatures passed, flying in, slithering out, busily scurrying about.

And so it was that in the same moment that the tailors delivered a suit as black as night itself, the creatures finished their own secret task.

This time, Shepherd wouldn't emerge at all to view the suit. He peered out through a crack in the door, only one hazel-green eye visible. The entourage, charged with anticipation, waited while the suit was passed through the narrow opening for Shepherd's approval.

Prime Minister Weir coughed politely. "It's a suit like no other," she said. "Of darkest black. Twelve dozen times this velvet has been dipped in dye and washed and dyed again. A hundred hands have sewn it."

Inside the room, Shepherd touched the soft folds of the suit. Though the sun shone in spears through the shutters, its brightness could not illuminate the black suit. It was as if all the night had gathered into one place, as if no light could touch its darkness. It looked to him as deeply shadowed as his own heart.

"Okay," he agreed. "It's what I asked for."

"It's what he asked for!" Prime Minister Weir announced triumphantly. She turned to the assembled, her work done. "The wedding will be tomorrow!" she said, and with that a hubbub broke out, so loud that no one heard the King's choked sob.

And though the night seemed to last forever in torment and regret, the morning came too soon for the King. He dressed slowly, placed the crown on his head, and, accompanied by the Royal Guard, followed by his elder sons, he walked miserably to Shepherd's room.

No answer; not to a knock, to an order, to a plea. The Prime Minister ordered the door to be charged down.

Inside, the windows were open, the room was bare, and of the Prince there was no sign. A single feather floated to the floor.

Soldiers scouted the grounds. The Prince must be near, hiding to avoid the wedding. Sentries reported that no one had come or gone. Not a soul had left the palace, only a strange creature of fur and feathers, scurrying along the walls, flying over the hedges. One guard noticed and thought he'd seen a large cat, another described it as a dog, a third as a stag.

Though the search wore on, they never found the youngest Prince. And though the court was angry, though tongues wagged, the King's aching heart eased, and he was happy his son had escaped.


Three years later and in another land altogether, a creature known as the Vagabond, a poor thing of fur and feathers, tended sheep in another King's garden and scrubbed the pots in the kitchen.

No one knew his real name or where he came from, for he seldom spoke. A mess of fur and feathers from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes, he was hardly sweet to look upon. No one bothered with him, except when a job came up that was too dirty or too foul for any other. He never said no and he never complained, and the sheep adored him.

All things that scurried, all things that flew, all things that crept from the corners adored him. He shared his meager scraps with them, and he slept in a heap of cleaning rags near the stove.

And one day this Vagabond met a Prince.

This land's Prince was a handsome fellow in his own particular pointy-nosed way: blue of eye, broad of shoulder, and very proud. He came to the kitchens in search of the cook. No one was there but the Vagabond, crouching to polish the flagstones.

The Prince inspected the pots bubbling on the fires. It was the day of a Royal Ball in the Prince's honor, and the preparations were almost complete, the food only simmering and warming in wait of a turn on the table.

Finding no one else near, the Prince said to the Vagabond, "Look, you, whoever you are. Floor scrubby person. Give the cook a message when she comes back. I want mutton added to the menu, six roast sheep baked in cider, absolutely no citrus."

The Vagabond glanced up, gave him a look, then nodded and continued with his work.

"What's that look for?" the Prince asked.

"Just a look," the Vagabond shrugged, and put his back into his polishing. "If there were a tax on looking, we'd all be beggars. Sire."

"Oh, ha ha," said the proud Prince. "Yes, taxes suck, life as a vassal is so hard, whatever. It's still rude to go around giving people funny looks like that. You could at least tell me why."

"Okay, then... why eat sheep?" Vagabond asked the Prince. "They don't hurt you."

"Because I like them," said the Prince.

"So do I," returned the Vagabond, polishing. "That's why I don't eat them."

"What are you, a vegetarian?" asked the Prince. "Look, I have enough dietary restrictions already with my allergies, and the cook always dumps so much spice on most of the food that I can barely even tell what I'm eating half the time, which for someone who can die from a single bite of citrus? Is not very appetizing! So just keep your bleeding heart opinions to yourself and tell the cook what I said. I want roast sheep in cider, no citrus, half a dozen of them. If they're not on the table, I'll know who to blame, and you'll be fired." And with that, he stomped from the kitchen.

That night the sheep sat, six cold stares on the Royal table, while around them the gaily clad revelers danced. The Prince dined and presided stiffly, admired, sought after, and separate. He danced with no one, for in that land, each dance was a small promise.

The parents in the room looked on, each hoping a daughter or son of their house would catch the Prince's eye. But the Prince stood, awkward and alone, and did not dance.

And then late, unannounced, a stranger entered in a dazzling suit, all of pale silk, like the moon. The color set off his dark hair; the cut flattered his lean, long-waisted body; the collar framed his strong jaw, his handsome face. The room fell quiet at his radiance.

He didn't wait to catch the Prince's eye; he eyed the Prince, boldly, with something like a challenge in the corner of his smile. Lured, the Prince approached him. The stranger seemed to shy away, and the Prince hastily offered his hand. The stranger clasped it, circling him as if wary, until the Prince found himself following the stranger's steps, only slightly aware that their path had brought them to the floor of the ballroom, that their path was now bound to the music.

They danced.

But when the music stopped, the mysterious man bowed, smiled, and turned to leave. The Prince tried to stop him, called out, "Wait! Just wait one second! Hey, I'm talking here? Seriously! Don't go yet! Please?" as the man hurried away, but it was no use. As mysteriously as he'd arrived, he was gone, leaving the Prince puzzled, excited, transformed.

A week later, with no clues and no sign of the mystery man, the Prince announced a second Royal Ball. Downstairs, the kitchen staff had barely recovered from the first, and the sculleries and larders flew into action.

So when the Prince called down for clean towels, no one was free to oblige him save the Vagabond, whose sheep had again that day offered their necks to the chopping block. All fur and feathers, he crept to the Prince's room and knocked on his door. "Come in," shouted the Prince, and the Vagabond entered.

The Prince's room was bright, sunlight streaming through the smooth glass of the many windows. On the walls hung diplomas and certificates, portraits of the Prince with famous scholars from all over the land-- some had clearly been his teachers, and some, astonishingly, seemed to have been his students.

The furnishings mostly ran to tables-- a table here, a table there, another table beside it, each with just one chair. On each table was a reed mat, and on each mat was a spread of papers covered in ink, or a mess of clockwork, or an Ancient artifact, painstakingly disassembled.

As for the Prince himself, he was at none of these tables at present, though the ink on his fingers and cuffs showed he had not long abandoned them. Now, though, he stood before his looking-glass, combing and re-combing his hair, a fretful slant to his long mouth. Seeing the Vagabond in the glass, the Prince started and spun, grabbing the towels away gingerly.

"Oh god, you again? Thanks a lot, thanks for shedding fleas and lice and whatever else you're infested with all over the towels I'm supposed to dry off with after bathing. Not that I expect you to know what bathing involves, it's obviously a foreign concept," said the tactless Prince. "Seriously, why do they even let you indoors like that? They should at least hose you off first. Oh, ew, they don't let you touch the food, do they? Tell me they don't let you touch the food."

"I haven't touched the food," said the Vagabond. "Sheesh, what're you afraid of, anyway?"

"Look, I know nobody bothers to educate the peasantry for some reason, which I definitely intend to change once I'm in charge-- really, it's ridiculous to restrict knowledge to the inbred lunkheads in the nobility, since all they ever use it for is counting gold," said the Prince, rather startlingly all in one breath. "But if you knew anything about anything, you'd be familiar with a little concept called basic hygiene. Or how about animalcules, ever hear of those? Tiny creatures you can see with a magnifying scope? Need to be killed dead, dead, dead, preferably with boiling water? None of this sounds familiar? No? Of course it doesn't."

"What've you got against animals, anyway?" asked the Vagabond.

"I don't have anything against them, I just don't want to be contaminated with tiny ones! If you'd ever seen them at the other end of a scope, squirming, augh." The Prince shuddered. Then he frowned at the Vagabond. "Anyway, shouldn't you be busy doing something for the ball tonight? Get back to work, doing whatever you do. Just do it somewhere far away from the food."

"I usually tend the sheep," said the Vagabond, "but they're mostly dead now."

The Prince fidgeted. "Well, you were cleaning when I saw you before, what happened with that?"

"Maids clean most of the castle. Normally I only mop up in the kitchens," said the Vagabond, "and you just told me to stay away from the food."

"Oh, for--" the Prince threw up his hands. "What, so now it's my fault you decided to tend sheep for a living? You had to know there wasn't a lot of job security there. We aren't running a woolery. Actually, wait: why am I supposed to worry about what happens to you? You obviously don't care enough about yourself to clean up and dress presentably like a normal person. I don't even want to think about what's holding all that fuzz together."

"Nice," said the Vagabond. "You're just brimming over with noblesse oblige."

"Hey, I have plenty of oblige, okay," said the Prince. "I even let my sister marry a commoner just because she said she was in love with him and whined a lot. Also, it turns out banishing someone is a real hassle."

The Vagabond raised an eyebrow, though the draping hood of his fur and feathers mostly obscured it. "...And?"

"And, so-- so oblige only goes so far! Look, cats chase mice. Hens lay eggs. There's a natural order to things," said the Prince.

"Natural order. Right."

"And the natural order right now is for me to get ready for this stupid Royal Ball, and you to go downstairs and do something useful and probably disgusting. Look, fine, if they tell you the only work is in the kitchens, you can do it," said the Prince. "Just try to stay away from the food please, and wash your hands, okay? Wash them a lot. With the hottest water you can find."

"Okey dokey," said the Vagabond, and did as he was told.

That night, the second Ball hummed with rumors of the mysterious dancer. The Prince stood alone, restless, reserved, his blue eyes fixed upon the great doors of the ballroom. But nothing, no sign of his mystery man.

Then, suddenly, a hush fell, and there he was, in a suit of sparkling silver, beautiful as the stars in the evening sky.

If the Prince had been asked, he would have sworn nothing could become his mystery man more beautifully than his moon-pale suit. But the silvery suit made him even more handsome, more alluring, the graceful curves of the lapels calling to the curves of his mouth, the fabric's star-spangles bright as his hazel-green eyes.

In a moment they were dancing. There might have been no one else in the room, in the whole world, for all they knew. Just themselves alone, these two figures, taking the same steps, sharing the same touch, communing without words. Until midnight came, and again the mysterious man turned and quit the room.

"Oh, come on!" yelled the Prince. "We definitely have something here! Why do you keep running off? At least tell me where to find you!"

The man hurried on, but called back as he vanished, "I live where hens catch mice and cats lay eggs."

And he disappeared into the dark, his suit dissolving into the stars on the horizon.

The poor, proud Prince thundered and raged at his guards, for by his command, every gate had been locked and barred, every man called out to surround the castle walls-- and still not one had seen the mystery man enter, not one had seen him go.

Dawn found the Prince mooning around on the terrace, the royal gardens stretching out before him. Head aching, stomach hollow, skin tingling, heart stuttering... he could not sleep, could only suffer, for love is a sickness only kisses will cure.

"Hey, buddy, you're looking pretty peaked. What's the matter?" It was the Vagabond, walking back from the dairy, a pail in each hand.

The Prince gaped, amazed that this strange creature spoke to him so freely. "No one in the whole kingdom has the gall to talk to me like that!" he grumbled.

But he was glad of the Vagabond's company, feeling oddly comfortable with him. The Prince sat on the steps and took off his coronet, which was starting to weigh on him and aggravate his headache.

The Vagabond shrugged and fetched the milk up to the kitchen door, returning to sit on the terrace steps, a little below and away from the Prince. The Prince saw mice running through the Vagabond's matted furs, winced to see his torn rags and tatters; yet strangely, the Prince hoped he would not go.

"Sorry," said the Vagabond. "You looked kind of upset. Just wondering if I could help."

The Prince shook his head. "You can't. I'm a genius, the smartest man in the land. If I can't figure out where to find someone, nobody can."

"Huh. I heard about the big to-do at your party. Are you in love?" the Vagabond asked. "Or are you worried that you only like your gentleman caller for his fancy suit?"

"Didn't I specifically just tell you yesterday that I let my sister marry a commoner? Does sound even penetrate that, that thicket you've got going around your head? I admit I can be kind of shallow, but I don't care about suits. Look, if you saw this guy. He's so. I mean." The Prince swallowed. "He's got eyes like..." and he stared into the distance, trying to recapture that beauty, describe that color. But he was no poet, this Prince, and he said, "They're perfect, that's all. And his voice is like... well, it's kind of a little nasal and drawly, actually, but still, it's perfect."

The Vagabond gazed at him through his hood of tangles, and the Prince sighed. "Well," he said, "how can I expect you to understand?"

The Vagabond said, "You sound pretty sure. Maybe you should marry him."

"Well, yeah, obviously I want to!" the Prince said, exasperated. "I'd marry him in a heartbeat but I can't find him!"

And so they sat, Prince and Vagabond, musing on his problem. The Prince wished it were the mysterious man beside him, imagining how wonderful that would be. How strange instead to be confiding in this poor creature, the mice running though his furs, the sparrows pecking around his feet. But still they sat, and both, in their way, were peaceful.

"I have a problem kind of like yours," began the Vagabond after a little while. "A thing with a guy. Got any advice?"

The Prince looked askance at him. "Well," he said, taken aback at the thought, "uh, I guess it depends on the guy. What's he like?"

The Vagabond scratched at his rags as he said, "Handsome, rich, clever..."

"Really?" said the Prince. "What, seriously? You?"

"And proud," continued the Vagabond. "Not too tactful, either. Kind of obnoxious, but what're you gonna do, huh?"

"True," murmured the Prince, half-listening, half-dreaming of his mystery man. He liked sitting with the Vagabond; words passed so easily between them. If ever he found the man from the ball, perhaps he could clean the poor Vagabond up and make the creature a proper servant. His new husband would need attendants, after all.

"But I dunno," said the Vagabond, startling the Prince from his reverie. "Maybe I should stay away. When I think about him, it makes my head hurt and my stomach hollow. My skin tingles and my heart squeezes and skips. It kind of sucks."

"Me too!" said the Prince. "That's exactly what it feels like. Well, it figures. We're in love and it's terrible."

The Vagabond was thrown. "I don't think I'm in love," he said.

"Yes," insisted the Prince. "You're totally in love. Hollow stomach? Tingling skin? Definitely. Either that or you're finally getting sick from wallowing in filth and vermin, but you've lived this long like that, so you've probably built up an immunity. I'm calling it at least 70% likely that it's love."

"Oh," said the Vagabond, and so they sat, together and alone until their peace was shattered by an angry voice.

"Vagabond! Where'd you run off to?" It was the cook, full of impatience. The Vagabond stood and went to the pails.

"Listen," the Prince said, embarrassed. "Don't tell anyone about our talk, okay?"

"Fine, then," said the poor creature, stung.

The Prince squared his shoulders. "It's just, you know, I have a position to maintain, I can't be seen as someone who goes around pouring his heart out to random shepherds. I mean, I don't even know your name."

"Well, I don't know yours either," said the Vagabond. "Everyone calls you Your Grace or His Majesty."

"Yes, they do, don't they," the Prince puffed out his chest a little, but he wilted almost at once. "I made it kind of an order. I don't really like my name much, but, you know, you can't mess with tradition. Once I'm married and crowned King, I'll be able to change it to my middle name, Rodney. I think that sounds pretty good, don't you? King Rodney." His face clouded. "But I've got to see about getting married first. I guess I'm just going to have to throw another stupid ball. I swear, the things I'm willing to do for this guy."

"Vagabond!" cried the cook again.

"Well, don't keep the lady waiting," said the Prince. "Oh, and, uh, good luck with your, um, guy thing. You never know. Maybe it'll work out."

And so the Vagabond took the pails into the kitchen and the Prince took himself into the castle, and in another few days, there was a third Royal Ball.

Even before sunset on the night of the third Ball, the Prince was ready, tense and distracted on the balcony, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mystery man as he arrived.

Down below in the steaming kitchen, full dishes poured out and empty plates poured in. The Vagabond worked, scrubbing, soaking, cleaning, hurrying, desperate to finish. All around him the servants chattered.

"The mysterious man hasn't come," said one.

"Look at His Grace, poor love," said another, pointing to the Prince on the balcony. "He hasn't even gone inside to his own party."

The Vagabond doused the dishes. "Can I have them, please?" he demanded of the servant who lounged at the sink, clutching a tray loaded with dirty plates.

"What's the hurry? Meeting a sweetheart?"

"Maybe," muttered the Vagabond.

This sent the lounging servant into convulsions of amusement. "That's why the Prince is still waiting!" she explained to the others, "the Vagabond hasn't finished the dishes!" And they all laughed.

Upstairs, tables were cleared and guests departed, passing the Prince, who had not once left the balcony. His eyes searched the countryside near and far until he was dizzy with longing.

And then, at last, he saw something impossible, for surely coming slowly up the steps was the night itself, silhouetted against the stair. The mysterious man came to him, dressed in a suit as black as the very night.

As gorgeous as he had looked before, he was still more so tonight. The spare and elegant black suit had no special cut to flatter, no shining ornament to draw the eye. It did nothing to distract from the gently off-true line of his nose, the knobs of his wrists, the beginnings of wrinkles at the corners of his hazel eyes. It did nothing but display him just as he was, imperfect and human, handsome and real.

The Prince swept him up at once and they danced there on the balcony, the music distant and faint under their steps.

But as the music ebbed and the clocks chimed midnight, the mystery man turned to leave.

"Okay, this is ridiculous!" said the Prince, catching the man's arm. "What is this, torture? You come to my parties, flash the charm at me for a little while, and then what? You run off and laugh about it with your friends? Ha ha, stupid Prince Meredith, you'd think he'd catch on by now that this is all just some big joke at his expense. Well, I get it, okay? Really funny, asshole."

But far from the expected laughter, the mysterious man looked stricken. "No, Rodney," he said urgently, and he clasped the Prince's hand in both of his, leaning forward as if to bestow a kiss.

Just then the castle guard sprang forth from their hiding places, blocking every exit of the ballroom below.

"--Okay, what the hell," said the mystery man.

"What was I supposed to do?" shouted the Prince. "You keep running away! You had to know I was going to wise up and put a plan in place eventually!"

"Yeah, I was hoping you'd wise up, all right," said the mystery man. "So much for that."

"What's that supposed to mean? If you're not jerking me around, what's the big deal? Just stay! You were just about to kiss me a second ago, let's go back to that part."

"I don't think so," said the mystery man, jerking out of the Prince's grip. As he did, a glowing pendant dislodged from his collar. Against a moonlight suit it might have paled; against silver spangles its glow might have been lost. But against the black suit, the pendant shone bright as a beacon.

The Prince reached for it, his fingers delicate around the jewel. "What's that light? Is this Ancient? That's amazing! If you can make Ancient artifacts work, we could learn so much!"

"Huh?" said the mystery man, but he tensed, distracted. A few of the guards ventured closer, nearly surrounding them, hoping to gain favor with the Prince by securing the elusive man in black.

The man had no other escape than to yank backward from the Prince, who in shock tightened his grip on the glowing stone. The delicate chain snapped, the mysterious man spun deftly away from the guards, and with a piercing whistle, he launched himself right over the rail of the balcony.

As he'd seemed to appear out of the night itself, now the night seemed to flock to meet him, a thousand darknesses massing around his darkness, all vanishing into the hedges and shadows, melting into an inky blackness that no lamp could touch.

The Prince watched, hopeless, and then looked down into his trembling hand. There lay the pendant, now nothing but a faceted stone, lifeless, dark.

At first light, the notice was proclaimed throughout the kingdom. "The Prince will marry the man who lights the stone."

And so they came, droves of would-be husbands, to try their luck with the stone. The Prince sat at one end and watched them come and go, knowing before each nervous touch, each cautious stroke, that this wasn't the one.

Downstairs, the servants passed the time with tales and predictions. "Whoever heard of a stone glowing," said one the the next. "I don't know, I think I heard a story about something like that while I was traveling," said another. "I might try it," said a third. The others scoffed, "You! Your clumsy hands are more likely to break it than make it glow," they teased.

All the while, the Vagabond worked, cleaning, scrubbing, listening. "What about this fine fellow?" asked Clumsy Hands, prodding him. "Will you try?"

The Vagabond kept his head down. "I might," he shrugged, to gales of laughter from the servants.

"He might!" they howled.

He stood. "I will," he said, and left them.

Up he went, up the stairs, into the Great Hall where men lined up waiting their turn-- and then he stopped in his tracks, for approaching the stone was none other than Prince Steven.

The Vagabond hung back in the shadows, watching in disbelief at first Prince Steven tried the pendant and shook it once or twice, scowling in disappointment when nothing happened.

And then Prince David clutched the pendant, his rings clinking together furiously. A moment later he brandished it. "I've done it!" said Prince David. "It's glowing!"

Prince Meredith's jaw dropped. "Impossible!" he barked. "You're not him! You don't even look anything like him, not the merest resemblance, not in the slightest!"

"I'm the one!" insisted Prince David, showing off the gleaming pendant. "I most certainly am!" And with that he turned to the assembled and proclaimed loudly, "I claim this handsome Prince for my husband!"

Page Radek stepped forward. "According to the proclamation that our wise Prince set into law," he said, "the Prince will marry the man who lights the stone. That man has now come forward. Your name, sir?"

"Prince David," announced Prince David.


"From a kingdom, look, it doesn't matter," David rushed.

Radek hesitated again. "Son of?"

"Son of nobody! Get on with it!" David said crossly, and then, to Prince Meredith, "We have no parents. Our mother died years ago and Father went last year."

Prince Meredith nodded blankly, still reeling. "Uh, condolences."

"It was past time, really," said Prince David. "He was ancient."

In the commotion, no one heard the gasp from the shadows, no one saw the tears well up in the Vagabond's eyes.

The page announced: "So be it! Prince David will marry Prince Meredith on the morrow!"

Prince David beamed, showing quite a lot of teeth. "So I can put this thing down now, can't I?"

"Whatever," said Prince Meredith, flapping his hands in resignation.

Prince David grimaced and attempted to let go of the jewel, but strangely, he seemed unable to drop it from his hand. "All right then, I'll just... put it down now," he smiled again, very strangely and widely, and tried to pluck it from his palm with his other hand without apparent success.

Prince Meredith wrinkled his pointy nose. "What's that smell?" Suddenly alert again, he looked at Prince David's palm. "Oh my god, is that your hand? Are you burning? You idiot! What gave you the stupid idea to try hiding a candle stub in your hand? Are those rings made of flint? Okay, that's actually kind of ingenious, in a crude sort of way; you must've had help with that part of it." He looked up at Page Radek. "Call for the doctor, this moron's burned half his hand open with this stupid candle stunt. I can't believe none of you saw that! I have an excuse, I'm lovelorn and pining! And I still spotted it in time! Do I have to do everything around here?"

"Perhaps," said Page Radek through gritted teeth, "we were all blinded by our desire to see you happily wed, Your Majesty."

"Yes, well," Prince Meredith dismissed, and with a slight twist that only made Prince David howl a little bit, he freed the pendant from the wax that had stuck it fast to David's hand. Still slick with tallow, the jewel flew from Prince Meredith's fingers and skidded across the floor, coming to rest at the feet of the Vagabond.

The Vagabond swiftly palmed it and approached Prince Meredith.

"I claim my right to try the stone," he said.

"I think the proclamation was open to gentlemen, not creatures!" said Prince Steven in disgust.

"May I?" asked the Vagabond, looking levelly at Prince Meredith.

"Why not?" said he.

"Ugh!" and now it was not Steven alone who protested; several other waiting suitors shuffled away from the Vagabond. "Get that beggar out of here!"

But Prince Meredith nodded to the Vagabond to go ahead.

The Vagabond stepped forward, raising his fist wrapped tightly around the pendant-- its light sneaking out between his fingers, blazing in his hand. He opened his fist, and it was plain for all to see that the stone was glowing with its own true light.

The Vagabond asked, "Well? Will you keep your promise?"

The room fell silent. No one moved. Eyes traveled incredulously from the tangled straggle of fur, feathers and rags, to the gleaming jewel.

Prince Meredith said, "Okay, that proclamation? I'm now willing to concede: not my best ever idea. But fair's fair. I'll keep my promise. I'll marry you. Considering I almost got stuck with Sizzles McHandfry over there, it could've been a lot worse."

A murmur filled the room, a swell of outrage. But then, from every nook and cranny, creatures appeared, things that scurried, things that flew, rushing toward the Vagabond, engulfing him in a cloud of moving paws and beating wings.

While all looked on, bewildered, an extraordinary transformation took place. For before their eyes, the poor pathetic Vagabond became a handsome man, standing in a suit black as night, his hazel-green eyes brighter even than the pendant's glow.

"Shepherd!" exclaimed his two elder brothers.

"You!" said Prince Meredith. "It's you!"

For of course it was Shepherd, and of course it was the mystery man.

"Thanks, guys," Prince John bade his friends farewell, with fond caresses for the last of the creatures as they scurried and flew away. "And it's about time I got some good luck out of this thing," he said, stringing the pendant on its repaired chain and fastening it around his neck, slipping it down his collar, dropping its glow out of sight. He pressed his hand over the hidden stone in a silent salute to his father, in sorrow and in thanks.

"Oh, for-- right! Of course it was you," Prince Meredith put the heel of his hand to his brow. "You even called me Rodney on the balcony!"

"Sure, now you pick up on it," said Prince John. "Not like I dropped you any big, huge, gigantic hints or anything."

"Hey, I was not at my best, okay? You had me distracted!"

"Uh-huh. I'm a mysterious loner whose face you can't see, and who just happens to admit he's in love with a rich, handsome guy who sounds just like you, but how could there possibly be any connection?"

Distracted again, Prince Meredith beamed, "You think I'm handsome?"

Prince John swatted the side of his head. "I live where hens catch mice and cats lay eggs? That wasn't obvious enough for you? Jeez, Rodney, I gave you everything short of a sign saying Mystery Guy From The Big Schmancy Dance Party with a giant arrow pointing right at me."

"It's not my fault! Look, relationships aren't among my many areas of genius, I never said they were!" Prince Meredith-- or as he preferred, Rodney-- waved his hands in agitation. "Besides, you had me all turned around! I've never been in love before!"

John's face softened. "Yeah, well, me either. Sorry you thought I was only teasing you. I just needed to make sure it wasn't all about big parties and nice suits."

"Are you kidding? I hate big parties," said Rodney. "And I'm certainly interested in you out of those suits." Then he pinked a little, clamping his mouth shut tight.

"Gonna pretend you said that on purpose?" John nudged him.

"Yes," Rodney answered, blushing even more brightly, and leaned in, his blue eyes big with hope.

And John, his heart free of shadows at last, met him in a kiss.


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tarlanx From: tarlanx Date: October 6th, 2008 09:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, that was so sweet and romantic :-)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! :-)
(Deleted comment)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I loved it!

Thank you!
gaffsie From: gaffsie Date: October 6th, 2008 10:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I love how you managed to keep John and Rodney's voices so spot on even in this fairy tale setting. It made for a really charming story. :)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. :-)
lavvyan From: lavvyan Date: October 6th, 2008 10:42 am (UTC) (Link)
"Sure, now you pick up on it," said Prince John. "Not like I dropped you any big, huge, gigantic hints or anything."

Hee, so much love! Seriously, this reads just like them, and you retold the story so marvellously, and I think I'm a little in love right now. ♥
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yay! So glad you liked it, and naw, perfect icon, too.
lenyia From: lenyia Date: October 6th, 2008 11:06 am (UTC) (Link)
That was so sweet :)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! :-)
cupidsbow From: cupidsbow Date: October 6th, 2008 12:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's such a clever and delightful reworking. Thank you.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's so nice to hear! Thank you!
adafrog From: adafrog Date: October 6th, 2008 01:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
awww....Great story.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
anatsuno From: anatsuno Date: October 6th, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
*wraps in story like blanket of stars*

almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey, where's my star-blanket? Gimme half *tugs*

jessnick05 From: jessnick05 Date: October 6th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
This was a lovely reworking of this fairytale. All the hallmarks of classic fairytale but still somehow very true to John & Rodney's characters. Very cool. :)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! :-)
msilverstar From: msilverstar Date: October 6th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
"Guys. Guys!" he said. "You're going to wreck mom's jewel if you keep this up."

I adore the way you weave modern conversation into the story, a little jolt of surprise every so often. The trousseau one!
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
The trousseau line was in the original! I just John'd it up a little. But I did like the way it worked for him. :D

Thank you!
cindyjade From: cindyjade Date: October 6th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
this is so wonderful! eeei. i am completely charmed.

almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you trip!
luthien From: luthien Date: October 6th, 2008 04:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
This was a really cute and clever reworking, and really caught the feel of the Henson version. Thanks. I liked this a lot. :-)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:33 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you! :-)
anchiseswrites From: anchiseswrites Date: October 6th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Okay, this was absolutely superlative. I loved the juxtaposition between the archaic fairytale voice and the modern snark, and "Page Radek" and his gritted teeth made me actually guffaw. (Seriously, anatsuno can vouch.)

Considering I almost got stuck with Sizzles McHandfry over there, it could've been a lot worse.

SIZZLES MCHANDFRY. I am tempted to rename my LJ.

I now want a Sheppard action figure with the three suits, because mmm, pretty.

Prince John swatted the side of his head. "I live where hens catch mice and cats lay eggs? That wasn't obvious enough for you? Jeez, Rodney, I gave you everything short of a sign saying Mystery Guy From The Big Schmancy Dance Party with a giant arrow pointing right at me."

Big Shmancy Dance Party yay.

Thank you so much for writing this piece of genius, and for sharing it with us.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
I now want a Sheppard action figure with the three suits, because mmm, pretty.

Oooh. *hands*

Thanks for commenting! Yay. :D
badwolf36 From: badwolf36 Date: October 6th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
This was one of my favorite fairy tales as a kid. It was nice to see it re-imagined with my favorite characters and pairing. :D Thanks for sharing!
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Glad you enjoyed! Thank you! :-)
rawa_02 From: rawa_02 Date: October 6th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
That was just precious.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! :-)
unamaga From: unamaga Date: October 6th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Faj;giojwgawgjoajf, I adore this. I love how the prose is so formal and fits the idea of a fairy tale so, so well, but then they open their mouths and - ahaha. So lovely!
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
:D I'm glad it works for you, I had a good time with the dialogue vs. the prose. Thank you!
winter_elf From: winter_elf Date: October 6th, 2008 05:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thank you!
psyko_kittie From: psyko_kittie Date: October 6th, 2008 05:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
So lovely! Great fic. :D
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for commenting! :-)
helenkacan From: helenkacan Date: October 6th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
Call me oblivious (yes, I give you permission), but I'd never read/heard this fairytale before in my life. So I was enchanted. And worried how David had made the pendant light up. Whew! ::wipes brow in relief::

This was so delightful that I wish you would continue on in this AU.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm glad I could help introduce you to this fairy tale!

No more of this one, I think, but I may have to do another fairy tale AU in similar fashion. I have one I'm eyeing.

Thanks for commenting!
xela_fic From: xela_fic Date: October 6th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I started my day with a giant, sappy grin on my face! :-D

almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 6th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yay! Glad to hear it. Thanks for saying so! :D
antares04a From: antares04a Date: October 6th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's very lovely and funny!

Jeez, Rodney, I gave you everything short of a sign saying Mystery Guy From The Big Schmancy Dance Party with a giant arrow pointing right at me. *lol* Yes, he did everything he could - - but Rodney was a bit slow on the uptake.

almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 7th, 2008 04:02 am (UTC) (Link)
What can I say, I do enjoy an oblivious Rodney. :-) Thanks!
dimity_blue From: dimity_blue Date: October 6th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Awww, that was gorgeous! I love fairytales, and this was just perfect. Loved Rodney *not* getting the clue!

Thanks for sharing.
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 7th, 2008 04:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for commenting!
(Deleted comment)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 7th, 2008 04:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Glad you enjoyed! Thanks!
(Deleted comment)
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 7th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Nice.

Aw, you delurked for me. ♥ Thank you!
ceitie From: ceitie Date: October 7th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC) (Link)
Awesome fairy tale! I cracked up at so many lines!
almostnever From: almostnever Date: October 7th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay, glad to hear it! Thank you!
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