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Careful the Tale You Tell

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Spring arrives.

The woods thaw, which is always welcome even though it means a drastic increase to Adam's workload, a thousand changes and arrivals and rebirths all clamoring for attention.

Ronan thaws, too, which is...complicated.

"Hey! Brat!" Ronan shouts.

Opal stops and looks back, through the woods' new growth she's been ducking and weaving around much more adeptly than either of her full-grown companions.

"Give me one second to -- oh, forget it," Ronan mutters, when Opal runs on ahead again.

"New idea," Adam says. "Opal looks like she has the forest covered, she can handle this while I go back home," and then he sneezes three times in a row. Stupid spring and its stupid pollen.

"Boring," Ronan says, but he doesn't try to run ahead to catch up to Opal.

When they do find her, she's hanging off a branch halfway up a strange, gnarled mass of three trees that have twisted into each other and started growing sideways.

"What the hell is that?" Ronan asks.

"Something that shouldn't be here," Adam says.

Opal hangs upside-down from a branch, her hair falling down below her head. "Ecosystem!"

Adam smirks at Ronan.

"Hey, I didn't make this happen," Ronan says. "Maybe the kid did it."

"No, this definitely feels like you."

"Yeah? What do I feel like?"

Adam can feel his cheeks heating up. "Abrasive," he says, and for lack of a better escape route he grabs the monstrous tree in front of him and starts climbing up toward Opal.

The three-part trunk makes an uneven platform where it bends to run parallel to the earth. Opal is already pacing back and forth along it, fearless. Adam gets back up on his feet and stands, rather more cautious than Opal.

"Either of you witches got a hand for a normal person?" Ronan demands. He's hanging off the edge of the trunk, right where it bends ninety degrees.

Adam can't see any reason why Ronan could climb that high but not be able to hoist himself up over the edge. He walks back over and gives Ronan a hand anyway.

Ronan pulls himself up, easily, with no sign of difficulty. He's slower than he needs to be about letting go of Adam's hand.

There's a moment where Adam thinks he has to say something, and then --

"What the hell?" Ronan asks, dropping to a squat. Adam follows his example, trying to get his center of balance low as the trunk under him starts shaking. Opal, standing tall and proud on the thinnest part of the trunk, just whoops.

A herd of wild horses runs along the forest floor, ducking and weaving through trees without losing any speed.

"Still think this is Opal?" Adam yells into Ronan's ear, over the thundering of hooves.

Ronan looks legitimately gobsmacked. "I only brought in two horses!"

"Ecosystem!" Opal crows.

"Very good, Opal," Adam says. "I appreciate that you're working hard at learning these things."

"Working too hard," Ronan mutters.

"A trait she clearly didn't get from you."

Ronan bumps Adam's shoulder with his own, not really hard enough to be a shove. He doesn't retreat out of Adam's space after.

-

Adam notices every time Ronan touches him. He notices every time Ronan looks at him, in that way he has like he's asking a question.

Adam doesn't answer the question. He doesn't encourage Ronan. But he doesn't reject him, either.

He has to consider the possibility that this is pragmatism. Ronan is committed to living with them until Opal's training is complete; that makes Adam his only option. Of course Ronan would at least consider it, before he resigns himself to celibacy. And Adam's existence is so solitary. He's not even sure he would say no to pragmatism, if that's what Ronan asks him for, but -- it doesn't explain the light in Ronan's eyes, sometimes, when he looks at Adam.

The best thing to do is ignore it, to not dwell on Ronan and his touch and his eyes, which is impossible because even on the rare occasions he isn't right there Adam has to think about him anyway.

It's late, so late that there hasn't been a sound from Opal or Ronan's rooms for hours, when Adam sits in front of the fire to scry.

Persephone had advised him to keep his expectations low: it was a fool's errand, she said, trying to get more information out of a vision he'd had ten years ago. After six attempts in two months he had to admit she might be right. She always was eventually. As a child, Adam had chalked that up to her being a witch; now he suspects it's just something special about her. He certainly hasn't achieved omniscience.

But fool's errand or not, he owes it to Ronan to keep trying. Maybe not technically, not according to the constraints of their bargain. The only thing Ronan had asked for had been a cure, and he'd delivered that. But Adam can't shake the feeling that he'd let him down, by not knowing more, by not doing more. It was hard to look Ronan in the eye and feel like he hadn't cheated, especially not when Ronan looked at him like --

Focus. If he could just have the same vision he'd had the first time, maybe that would be enough. He knows more than he had then. Maybe this time around, he'll recognize the curse.

Lowering his expectations seems to work. The fire fades away as the vision takes over, and he can see it again: Ronan, and the lines coming off of him, leading to his brothers, to his father, to someone who didn't exist yet, leading strangely to the woods -- and then the one leading to his mother.

The curse is lying over everything, slick like oil floating on water. He hadn't wanted to get too close the first time, but he'd made himself get close enough to understand it, close enough to see how he could pick it apart.

He doesn't want to get close to it now, either. It rings out just as wrong as it had when he was younger. But even from a distance he can tell that the magic isn't familiar. He doesn't know who did this, and he could scream at his own uselessness.

He sinks deeper into the vision, through the hateful glossy magic. It chokes him, but he keeps pushing through, chasing something, anything, that he can learn from this. Except -- there's nothing below, just darkness, like diving too deep into water and forgetting which way is up.

The vision disintegrates around him.

Opal is shaking him, and it's morning, and Ronan is making a smart-ass comment that doesn't hide the concern in his voice.

Adam doesn't explain. He still doesn't have anything to show for himself.

-

Spring brings warmer weather and more daylight, that keeps them all running around outside. It brings rain, too, that chases them back indoors, for long quiet days of peace: reading, studying, inventing weird new games, cooking, ignoring ignoring ignoring the way Ronan looks at him.

Ronan persuades him to give Opal the afternoon off one rainy day. Adam doesn't put up much of an argument. Opal goes to her room, and Ronan wanders off with a book that Adam is looking forward to hearing him complain about later.

Adam starts cleaning the windows before he decides, what the hell, everyone else is having a lazy day. He sneaks some of the chocolate out of the box that both Ronan and Opal are forever trying to get into while he mentally starts composing a letter. He goes to grab some paper and glances through Opal's door on a whim as he passes.

She's kneeling on the floor, playing with something that Adam can't see. He can feel it, though, the sliding slippery wrongness of it, like poison on water.

"Opal," he snaps, "drop that right now."

She scrambles up to her feet and backs all the way up to the wall. He's never raised his voice at her before.

He walks up to the thing slowly, angles himself once he's through the door so that Opal can at least see that he's not walking toward her. He stops over the abandoned object and squats low, reaches out and stretches his fingers wide, holds his palm several inches above the ground -- as close as he's willing to get to the thing.

This close, he can see it's a carved wooden snake, exquisitely made, with joints that bend and polished wood grain like scales. It's beautiful to look at.

Every other sense that Adam has is screaming at him.

"Where did you get this?" Adam asks.

Opal presses up further against the wall.

"Opal, I'm sorry if I scared you, and I know you don't like to talk, but I need to know where this came from."

"I gave it to her," Ronan says, somewhere behind him. "My dad gave it to me when I was a kid."

"Where did he get it?"

Ronan frowns, but it's thoughtful, not angry. "I don't know. He traveled all the time, he was always bringing us junk from weird places."

"Marvelous," Adam mutters. "Do you have any other charming little presents from your childhood?"

Ronan steps out of the doorway. Adam makes sure Opal leaves the room ahead of him.

There's a line of little trinkets on dresser in Ronan's room, carved animals and a granite cross and a harp the size of Adam's palm. Every last one of them is imbued with magic. Dormant, mostly harmless, some of it beneficial -- and then Adam's fingers, running along the dresser, come to a halt in front of a small carved wooden box, like something a piece of jewelry might be kept in. When he gingerly pries open the lid with the tip of a pen, there's a little mirror in the lid of the box. It would have to be mirrors. Adam hates mirror magic.

"Any chance that this used to be your mother's?"

Ronan goes still.

"Ronan," Adam asks, "what exactly happened to your father?"

-

Adam refuses to have Opal and Ronan in the house when he destroys the mirror. Ronan doesn't look as happy as Adam expected about getting to take Opal to stay with his mother, but he goes anyway, and promises to talk to Declan while he's in town. All Ronan knows is that his father died while he was away, traveling. There's something like shame on his face when he admits that he hadn't been able to ask anymore than that at the time. Adam wants to point out that Ronan had been fourteen and certainly not responsible for not finding out more, but he doesn't. He wants Opal out of the house more than he wants to assuage that guilt.

He sits up the whole night, not scrying and not even thinking, just waiting for dawn, and then he strips the magic off all of Ronan's trinkets. The mirror has too much death in it; it's going to have a nasty effect on the woods when it gets loose. He's hoping that releasing some of the benign magic will balance it out a little.

The odds are maybe half-and-half, whether that works to his benefit or whether more magic will mean a bigger impact.

He fortifies the house as best he can, shutters the windows and drags shelves and tables in front of the doors. He extinguishes the fire and blows out the candles. He wants to draw as little attention as possible.

Just as he's finishing, there's a furious knocking on the front door.

"Adam!" It's Ronan's voice, raised to a yell and still barely loud enough over the wind. "Let us in!"

"Oh, no," Adam whispers, "no, no," but he shoves the bookshelf out of the way and throws the door open to reveal Ronan, Opal in his arms and clutching him so tight she's leaving nail marks in his skin. "What are you doing here?"

"She said we had to come back!" Ronan shouts. "She had a dream."

Of all the times for Opal to develop foresight --

"It isn't safe!"

"So we should just walk back?" and Ronan's right, they can't; Adam can already see rain rolling toward the clearing. They'd never make it out of the woods. But it shouldn't have ever been an issue, they should have been in town, safe --

He steps out of the way and shuts the door as soon as they're inside. He leaves the bookshelf where it is and shoves a chair under the doorknob for expedience's sake. The storm has already started. He doesn't have the time to ward Opal and Ronan as thoroughly as he'd like to.

"Shut your eyes." He sticks a hand in the fireplace and smears ash across Opal's eyelids, her lips, her heart, and then does the same to Ronan.

They huddle together on the floor, against one of the interior walls. Adam sits on one side of Opal, Ronan on the other, both of them ready to get between her and any danger. If Adam's still furious and terrified that they're here, he does at least feel a little better about that.

Opal watches Adam, a tiny look of worry on her face -- not for herself, not for the situation, but for him, and by the time he's figured that out, she's smudged some of the ash off his fingers and reached up to brush it clumsily over his mouth.

He shuts his eyes and lets her smear ash on them, too. No telling if it'll have any effect. Most likely it won't. She had one vision, in a dream; that doesn't mean she can make the magic answer her call. His heart twists all the same when she touches it.

He opens his eyes and soundlessly mouths thank you.

The sky tears open.

It's wind and thunder and rain, so much noise they couldn't talk even if that were safe. The rain leaks in under the doors, until they're all sitting in a deep pool of freezing liquid that isn't quite water. Opal tries to stand up to get away from it. Adam pushes her ruthlessly back down. He wants them all low to the ground, innocuous, invisible, as much they possibly can be.

Ronan lifts her up onto his lap, with a look at Adam like he's asking if it's okay. Adam hesitates a second before he nods. Ronan crosses his arms over her, part embrace, part restraint.

Adam risks the movement to scoot close to them, until his whole side is pressed against Ronan's. It's barely any warmer together. Their breath turns to fog in front of them.

The storm rages for an eternity, and then it stops.

It's so sudden that Adam thinks something's happened to his ear, until Opal whimpers, like no noise she's ever made.

Ronan's hand comes up to cover her mouth, which muffles the sound. It doesn't stop her making it. She stares across the room, eyes darting to follow movement.

There's nothing there.

Adam scrambles to think of anything that he can do to help. He keeps drawing a blank.

Opal shuts her eyes, shaking her head furiously back and forth but falling silent.

The temperature rises, in one sudden savage spike. Instead of shivering they're sweating, and Adam's body feels confused, ill. The water around them is thick and viscous. It stinks of rot.

Ronan jolts. His head turns and tilts, focusing. Listening, to something that Adam can't hear. His mouth opens.

Adam shoves an elbow hard into his side before he can say anything.

Ronan startles again. He looks all around him before he finds Adam, and then he just stares, confused, like he has no idea who he is.

Adam can't tell him to ignore the sound, not without making a noise. He can't tell him that whatever he's hearing isn't real, because for all he knows it is. It's real enough to Ronan that there's tears forming in his eyes.

Adam reaches out and covers Ronan's ears with his hands, blocking out the sound as best as he can. There's a few excruciating heartbeats where he thinks it isn't making a difference.

Ronan folds in on himself, pulling Opal closer to him, and bites his lip.

Adam doesn't know how long they sit like that, except his arms are cramping and Ronan's lip is bleeding and they're soaked with sweat. There's no sudden change. He just realizes, gradually, that the water around them has gotten lower, that the temperature is sinking.

He carefully takes one hand off Ronan's ear.

Ronan's eyes open, and he sits back up, loosens his death grip on Opal.

Adam grimaces, an attempt at a question. Ronan nods.

Adam removes his other hand off Ronan's ear. He lowers his aching arms to his side and presses his back against the wall again. It feels solid, and real, and gloriously dependable.

He thinks, we made it.

And then there's the knock.

Adam's eyes are drawn to the door, helplessly.

There's a second knock.

There won't be a third one. This isn't a visitor you can keep waiting.

Adam stands up. Someone inhales sharply behind him. A hand closes around his wrist. He shakes it off without effort. He thinks -- he knows -- that he's been expecting this visitor since he was a child. It's almost a relief, that it's here now.

His hand removes the chair out from in front of the door. Places it gently to the side. Unlocks the deadbolt. Closes around the door knob.

Opal steps in between Adam and the door.

There's tears on her face and she's shaking and she's still so, so tiny, despite Adam's best attempts to feed her, and she's pressing her back against the door like she can keep Adam away from his fate with nothing but her own strength.

She says, "please."

The whole world holds its breath.

Adam stares. He almost made it. He almost got her through the storm, and now she's spoken, and the hungry thing outside heard her.

Adam has to open the door.

"Please," Opal says. "Don't."

He's shaking when he says, "get out of my way."

She turns her chin up, refusing to surrender. She isn't going to move, she isn't going to hide, she's just going to stand there and take whatever fate comes for Adam.

His hand tightens around the knob -- and then slides off.

Opal catches it and pulls him, guides him back across the room. Adam makes it halfway before his legs give out. He covers his face with his hands.

"It's okay," Opal says. "It's gone."

-

The inside of the house is a stinking fetid swamp, even after the storm has passed. Adam knows he ought to clean, that the filth the rain brought in is ruining the floors and starting mold cultures and doing who knows what to the pantry and the library, but it takes a renewed act of willpower at every step just to open the doors and sweep the standing water outside. He's exhausted.

Opal starts with the books on the lowest shelves, what ought to have been Adam's books on astronomy and anatomy, but instead is just everything with a blue cover, because he never got around to reorganizing the library after what Ronan did to it. She pulls the books off the shelves one at a time and places them, pages spread and spines cracked, on the table to dry. Adam doesn't have the heart to tell her he's going to burn everything the water touched as soon as he can stand a fire. He's still sweating.

He steps outside. Ronan's stable has vanished without a trace. The chicken coop is torn apart, the chickens dead. The cellar door hangs off its hinges in a way that promises flooding. The new seedlings Opal had planted with him are all washed away. Adam shuts his eyes. He feels absurdly like crying.

"Damn," Ronan's voice comes from behind him. "I thought I wrecked the place."

He turns around and tries to just look at Ronan. It doesn't work. He can't help but see the house that Persephone entrusted to him. Its roof is bare, shingles ripped off and strewn across the clearing. There's mud and plant matter splattered along every side of the house. Most troublesome of all, there are gouges torn into the walls, like some enormous clawed hand had scratched to be let in.

"What the hell was your dad up to," Adam says, "that he had something that powerful just lying around."

The words come out ugly, as ugly as Adam's home is now. Ronan will have to fight him about that. Adam's ready to fight.

Ronan offers him a glass. He's holding a second glass and a bottle.

Adam doesn't usually drink; the liquor is primarily for rituals. He takes the glass from Ronan without pointing that out.

"Declan's been looking into dad's death. The old witch -- "

Adam drinks. If he thinks about Ronan calling Persephone the old witch he's going to lose his last grip on sanity.

" -- gave him some kind of magical artifact, and he sold it and used the money to buy the house." There's the anger Adam expected flaring up, but not directed at him. "It was enough. We would have been fine. But he just kept doing it. Every fucking trip he went on, he was hunting down magic shit and finding people to sell it to, and ripping them off half the time because all he could do was lie -- "

Ronan downs his glass in one shot, then shuts his eyes, visibly collecting himself.

"Declan's tracked down some of the people he dealt with." Ronan's voice has gone dull. The pain has drained out of him and gone somewhere else; Adam feels like it's curled up in his heart, instead. "They say he had a lot of enemies. A lot of bad blood. They think -- it wasn't an accident. When he died."

"Someone killed him," Adam says. "They killed him, and they made sure that his family ended up with cursed artifacts, on top of that."

Ronan stands in silence.

"Yeah," he says eventually. "It looks like that's what happened."

"Ronan." Adam can hardly hear his own voice. His heart is too damn loud. "Are you okay?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" Ronan pours another drink, splashing some on the mud between their feet. "Nothing's changed. Dad's still dead, mom's still awake, everything's the same as it's been for ten years, so what's the problem?"

Adam doesn't know what to do for this kind of pain. He has no cure, no remedy, no idea where he'd even start without Ronan asking him outright for what he wants. All he has is blind instinct screaming at him to not leave Ronan alone, so he takes the bottle out of Ronan's hand and refills his own glass.

"Persephone always told me that most of witchcraft isn't magic," Adam says. "It's knowledge."

Ronan glares at him, but it's mostly confusion. "I don't need magic."

"It's a metaphor, Ronan."

"Well, it's a shitty metaphor." Ronan has strung up stubbornness and irritation over his hurt, but it does nothing to hide it. He looks so fragile that Adam wants to cup his face in his hands and hold him together.

"What you know matters," Adam says. "Things have changed. You're going to feel like it's happening again. It is."

"The last time this happened I made a stupid reckless deal," Ronan says. "I gave Opal away. I didn't even think about it. I would have ruined her whole life if you weren't you, and I didn't even think about it."

Adam burns. He doesn't know how to refute that, not after he's passed that same judgment on Ronan a hundred times. He takes a drink to buy time. That only spreads the burn down his throat, into his gut.

"Declan's still looking into this. He's going to find whoever it was, he doesn't give up. And then -- " Ronan falters. "Then I'll have to do something, and just hope I don't fuck it up."

"You won't," Adam promises him. "Now you know what you can't afford to lose."

Ronan looks at him, with that look of his, and Adam holds his gaze and doesn't turn away.

-

Their newest visitor looks like someone drowned Ronan in money.

"You must be Declan," Adam says.

Declan studies him before he responds. "And you're Adam."

"Ronan's out." Adam hadn't liked the idea of Ronan going hunting so soon after the storm. It wasn't safe, and the woods couldn't spare much; they had their own recovery to do. But Ronan had growled and blustered over every expression of concern for his personal safety, and he'd had zero sympathy for your haunted fucking forest that just tried to murder us, so Adam let him go. He couldn't deny that they needed the food. "You can wait inside."

Declan probably thinks he's inscrutable. He's not. Ronan clenches his jaw in that same way when he's upset. "I have no intention of crossing that threshold again."

Adam's just as glad not to host someone in his house, which three days after the storm still resembles a battlefield more than a home. He leads Declan around to the backyard instead. Opal's out there already, minding the fire they're using to slowly burn the items that were too damaged by the storm to repair. She gives Declan a cool, assessing look, like she doesn't think he can be salvaged either.

It's a fun dynamic. Adam escapes back to the house on the pretense of getting Declan something to drink.

Ronan comes back before too long. He spots Declan as soon as he's in the clearing, but he continues past him and into the house, dumps his prizes in the kitchen before he returns.

Adam shoos Opal into the house, where she promptly takes up a post by the open window, blatantly eavesdropping. Adam gets as far away as he can and focuses all of his attention on scrubbing the storm's noxious residue off the wall and swallowing down his nausea.

The door opens behind him. Ronan steps into the house and drops low, sitting on his heels in front of Opal. "Declan has a lead."

She says, "You're going away."

"I'm going to come back. But for now. Yeah." Ronan looks from her to Adam. "I have to know."

Adam nods. It's a relief when Ronan looks back at Opal. Adam doesn't have to keep his face under control. Opal presses a clumsy kiss on Ronan's cheek. His arms close around her. Adam steps outside to give them space.

Ronan comes out a few minutes later and pauses by Adam, waiting for something from him.

"I'll take care of her," Adam promises.

Ronan snorts. "You can try. She just told me she'd take care of you."

-

Ronan is gone for days that stretch into weeks, leaving the house empty except for Adam and Opal.

It's what Adam expected. It's what Adam wanted, when Ronan first showed up and wouldn't leave. Him and his apprentice, alone, and he absolutely hates it.

They work dawn to nightfall getting the house fixed up from the storm damage. Adam tries to work in lessons where he can, but it gets lost under the weight of necessity. At least they're too tired at the end of the day for regret.

They lost the chickens, the cellar, and most of the garden in the storm. There's a limit to how much Adam can take from the woods before the woods take back from them, and under the circumstances he wants to play it safe. So Adam gets the house fixed up to the point that he feels safe in it again, and then he wears himself ragged walking back and forth to every town and village and secluded little farmstead in a three-day range. He brings Opal sometimes, lets her watch as he treats coughs and chills and blights. But he's hesitant to push her as hard as he pushes himself. He leaves her at home as often as not, with strict instructions to stay inside and practice her reading.

He thinks he's doing well, bringing home enough that they can eat every night, and then one morning he wakes up with Opal literally sitting on his chest to keep him from leaving.

"Look," he says, when he's finally persuaded her to get off of him, though she's standing mulishly in the door like she can trap him inside the room. "I know this isn't ideal. But I was hungry all the time growing up, and I don't want that for you."

"Too late," Opal says. "I had less than this before Ronan."

"That doesn't make it okay. You deserve better than you had on your own."

"So stop leaving me!" The words tear out of her and tear into Adam.

"Opal -- "

She runs away.

Adam doesn't leave the woods that day. He barely leaves the clearing; there's plenty of work that needs to be done, re-digging the garden and restoring the passive spells around the house and writing to his contacts to find replacements for the books and artifacts he'd had to burn.

Opal emerges from out of the trees around noon. She doesn't come within ten feet of him the entire day. He doesn't push it.

-

Opal wakes Adam up again a few weeks later, in the middle of the night. Her fingers are digging deep into his arm and she's shaking him, hard.

"Opal?" He sits up, obviously awake, but she doesn't stop and she doesn't let him go. "What's wrong?"

Noises spill out of her -- distressed, horrible, half-formed noises. Adam is used to Opal's muteness, but it's always been a matter of her not wanting to speak, not trusting him to listen, not needing to talk to get her point across. He's never seen her try to speak and fail.

He'd ask what could have upset her so much, but there's only one answer.

"Ronan," he says.

Opal chokes on another word.

Adam swings his leg off the edge of the bed.

"We need something of his. Something important," and Opal's already racing out the door and to Ronan's abandoned room.

He follows a step behind her. He's reluctant to invade Ronan's space, for all that he hasn't slept here in weeks, for all that this is Adam's house. Ronan is such a private person. Adam isn't supposed to be here, but there's more important things than propriety, so he just looks around the room.

It's empty.

Adam kicks himself. Ronan had brought along a whole treasure trove of belongings, that he'd had for most of his life, that had been gifts from the dead father that still towered over his identity; Adam couldn't have asked for a better talisman, and then he'd gone and destroyed every last one of them. What are they going to find in this borrowed room that ties them to Ronan any better than that --

Opal gasps. She's crouched low, looking under the bed, and as Adam watches she pulls a out a knapsack.

He assumes there's something in the bag, but when she thrusts it at him it's empty.

She's hopeful, and insistent, and Adam has no other choices. He thinks he'd trust her even if he did.

"Come on." He takes the bag and leads her back to the main room. "Candles, please, and crystals; the white ones." He draws a large circle on the wooden floor with a stick of chalk, and a larger one around that, trying to go fast and be perfect at the same time.

Opal hands him the candles in one enormous armful. He sets them down between the circles, lighting as he goes. Opal follows behind him placing crystals down between the candles without being asked.

He hesitates for a second, but it feels right, and he wants all the help he can get. He opens all the doors and windows, breathes in the rich night air and tells the woods, something of yours is in trouble.

"In the circle, please," he says, and Opal sits inside the chalk before he's even gotten there. He grips her hands, and she grips back, the knapsack in between them.

"This is going to feel a little like going to sleep," Adam says. "Do you trust me?"

Opal nods.

"Follow me, and stay close."

They fall into the spell. Adam feels Opal there next to him, and the woods, too, in their ancient inhuman strength. Somewhere far away, his body breathes a tiny sigh of relief -- and then another one, because he'd been afraid they wouldn't be able to trace Ronan, but it takes no time at all.

There's dark slick magic, too, a heartbeat away from touching Ronan, but Adam doesn't feel any fear, even when he recognizes the slippery sickening flavor of it. Because they're better than this magic, and he knows it. He sets himself and Opal and the woods up as a wall around Ronan, until he feels the threat moving away.

He's never gone so deep into a spell before, never had anything as powerful as the woods backing him like this. It's beautiful, this deep inside of the magic. There's no sense of time, no limits. Maybe this is that elusive omniscience, the whole world is in front of him, the totality of all knowledge out there to find: magic he's never seen before, magic he can learn, magic he can become. All he'd have to do is leave behind one damaged little body. What would he even be losing --

Opal.

There's no way she could find her own way back without him.

Adam lets go of the magic, and pulls himself back out into the waking world.

His eyes flutter open, and he takes in the sight of Opal sitting upright in the circle across from him. He squeezes her hand to wake her up.

Opal stirs.

"Bedtime, darling."

She grumbles.

"You did a fantastic job tonight," Adam tells her. "You saved him, you did so good, I'm so proud of you," and Opal rubs the back of her hand forcefully against her eyes before curling up on the floor and putting her head in Adam's lap.

-

There's a gentle rain the next day. When it clears, the woods blossom into renewed life. Adam and Opal can scavenge food just by stepping out their door. They get a couple of visitors over the next week with easy unremarkable problems. One of them brings a baby goat all the way through the woods as payment, which feels like far more work than just figuring out the riddle his father made a condition of his inheritance, but Adam isn't going to refuse.

But the weather, the food, the simple and rewarding work -- that isn't what makes the days go so quickly. It's knowing that the wait is coming to an end.

They look up one morning and there's Ronan crossing the clearing like he never left it. Opal runs out the door as soon as she sees him. Adam has to actively work at walking and not running.

Opal tugs on the leg of his pants once, and then Ronan's already scooping her up like it's nothing. She hollers with joy, screams again when Ronan throws her into the air and catches her.

"You're so fucking needy, kid," Ronan says, grinning from side to side, "always trying to get a hug."

Adam forces himself to stop a few feet away from them, because he's more than a little worried that he's going to throw himself into Ronan's arms, too. Except then Ronan looks at him over Opal's head, and that feels just as intimate as any touch could be.

"Welcome back."

"You didn't think you got rid of me, did you?"

"No," Adam says. "I know better than that."

Opal has had enough separation from Ronan, apparently, because she doesn't try to squirm away from him. She doesn't let him put her down, for the entire day, just sits in his arms and points where she wants him to take her, and if he doesn't get there fast enough she pokes him in the face until he hurries up. Ronan has no problem with this arrangement, even when Opal nearly singes his eyebrows, holding up a candle to show him that she's learned to strike a spark with magic.

"You taught her how to set things on fire," Ronan says to Adam, "great, I feel so safe," but his smile doesn't waver.

They start a fire in the yard when the sun goes down, sit around it until late in the night. Adam makes sparks fly up from the fire, dancing them around and forming shapes and play-acting little pantomimes. Ronan tells them a story about a princess and a dragon that has Opal gasping and laughing and clapping when he gets to the end.

"My father told me that one," Ronan says.

"It's a good story," Adam tells him.

Ronan sits with that for a second. "It is, isn't it?"

Opal falls asleep eventually, much later than she should have. Adam should carry her to bed.

"If we move her, she might wake up," Ronan says.

"Right," Adam says, so they stay outside by the coals until the sky starts to lighten.

"You did something," Ronan asks, "didn't you?"

Adam blinks at him.

"When we found him," Ronan says. "Which took a lifetime because we kept missing him by this much over and over and over again, and I thought that was going to be the rest of my life, being stuck with Declan and hunting a fucking ghost. And I wasn't even -- I started to feel grateful for it, because when we did find him I was going to have to decide. If I was going to kill him."

"Ronan," Adam starts.

"And I kept thinking -- fuck, what's that going to cost me, to kill someone -- "

"Ronan."

"Except then when I did find him, he tried to put a spell on me. And it bounced right back on him."

Adam breathes out. "Yeah. Yeah, that was us. Me and Opal and the woods."

Ronan frowns at him. "The woods?"

"They like you."

"I thought I was trashing the balance of their shitty little ecosystem."

"Oh, you are," Adam says. "But maybe some changes aren't so bad, I don't know."

They can't put it off any longer. Ronan picks Opal up and carries her to her room. Adam watches from the door as he smooths the blankets over her.

"She missed you," he says.

Ronan smooths the blankets down again. "I missed her." He straightens up and runs a hand over his face. "Fuck, I need a drink," and Adam's just as happy for the excuse, for one more thing before he has to let the night end.

They end up sprawled out along the floor, against the wall, pressed together shoulder to shoulder. The exhaustion and relief are so thick they're nearly delirium, even before Adam pours a drink for Ronan and one for himself.

"You're really fixed the place up, huh," Ronan says. He sounds sincere, but Adam is keenly aware that for the second time in a year he has no chairs.

"Sure. I can barely teach Opal about magic, but I've taught her how to clean."

Ronan snorts. "I thought witchcraft wasn't about magic, anyway."

"Oh, shut up."

"Opal's -- six or some shit."

"She's seven," Adam hears himself say.

Ronan looks at him over the rim of his glass. "Do you know? Where she came from?"

Adam shakes his head. "I could find out, but that's...invasive. And irrelevant. The first time I saw her she was already in your house. She was already your daughter. That was the important part."

"You knew her name," Ronan says. "You know how old she is."

"It just kind of -- came out," Adam says. "I'm not trying. I don't want to trespass in her life, or in yours."

Ronan clears his throat. "Fine, she's seven. That's still nothing. How fast do you expect her to learn everything?"

Adam shakes his head, slowly. "I don't know. When I was new to this life, I picked everything up as fast as I could, but -- I may not be a good example."

"How old were you?" Ronan asks. "When your parents sold you."

He can see, like it's laid over the world around him, exactly what the house had looked like the first time he'd seen it. When he'd been brought here, knowing what was about to happen but powerless do anything to stop it. It's easy to remember. The house hasn't changed much over the years, not until the storm, not until Ronan and Opal had made it change.

"Eleven."

"I'm sorry."

Adam breathes out a laugh. He doesn't think he's ever heard Ronan apologize. Of course when he did it would be for something that wasn't his fault.

"The worst part wasn't when they sold me. The worst part was when I realized -- I was working so hard because I didn't want Persephone to change her mind and send me back."

Ronan puts an arm around his shoulders. Adam leans into it, counting on that strength to hold him steady when he's too tired to even keep his eyes open.

"I should have been happy that Opal didn't feel that way," he says into Ronan's shoulder. "Instead I was just hurt that she didn't want to be here."

"She's happy now."

"She would have been happy with you. I'm just glad I didn't screw that up."

Ronan says, "when I found him. The man who killed my dad. He tried to buy me off, before he tried to kill me."

"With what?" That's professional curiosity as much as anything; he's in the business of giving people what they want.

And then, of course, he knows.

"He offered to break the enchantment keeping Opal in the woods," Adam guesses.

There's an odd note in Ronan's voice when he says, "he thought he knew what I wanted."

Adam opens his eyes and turns his face up. He's tucked in the crook of Ronan's arm, pressed up against his body, soaking up his warmth, and Ronan is looking at him in that way he has. There's no child or visitor or disaster to interrupt them. This is only going to stop if Adam stops it.

"What do you want, Ronan?"

"You know what I want."

"I need you to say it."

"Is there a ritual for this?" Ronan puts his hand on Adam's face and brushes a thumb over his cheekbone, a circle closing in around him. "I'm not trying to make a deal."

"It might be easier if you were," Adam admits. "I know how those work."

"Yeah?" Ronan looks thoughtful. "If I made a wish, to live in the woods with the witch, and to raise our daughter together, and to have the witch fall in love with me -- " Adam forgets how to breathe -- "what would that cost me?"

It's a dozen rapid heartbeats before Adam can respond.

"You'd have to stay," he says. "You'd have to love the witch back."

There's a long, terrifying moment where Ronan doesn't answer; when he does, it's with a strange mix of humor and annoyance. "Yeah, I know, that's my wish, I asked what would it cost."

Adam kisses him.

Ronan kisses him back. His hand is soft on Adam's face, and his arm is steady around Adam's shoulder, and the soft morning sunlight is shining on them both like a blessing. Adam is too exhausted to do more than press himself into Ronan; at the same time he feels energy building inside of him, like fire, like magic, like life.

Ronan breaks off kissing him, lips straying from Adam's lips, to his jaw, to his neck, to his ear. Adam nudges his face against Ronan's, presses their foreheads together.

"Yes," Adam says. "To everything."

Ronan says, "I'm asking for a lot." Now he sounds nervous, absurdly, like he hasn't already done the hard part. It makes Adam feel suddenly confident; or maybe that's from answering the question Ronan has been asking him for months.

"So am I." He kisses Ronan once more. "Right now I'm asking you to let me sleep."

"Fine," Ronan huffs, "if I can come with," and that's not a request, that's the best idea Adam's ever heard. He pulls Ronan into his bedroom and down into his bed. Ronan complains about your bed is way more comfortable than mine, what the hell, but Adam is already falling asleep, curled up against him, completely at peace.

He isn't sure what wakes him up, but he isn't worried about it. He can feel a warm presence at his back, the solid weight of an arm over his side; Ronan is there, so whatever's happening can't be that bad.

He opens his eyes. Opal is standing in front of him.

"I made food," she says.

He smells smoke. "Is something on fire?"

"Only a little."

Ronan rolls out of bed first. Adam follows him into the main room, where a pan is burning in the kitchen.

Ronan tosses a pitcher of water at the fire, even as Adam tries to warn him not to. The water splashes the grease out of the pan and spreads the fire to herbs hanging in bundles on the wall.

Adam slashes a hand through the air. Every fire in the room goes out.

Ronan startles and pulls back to his full height, before he looks over his shoulder at Adam.

"I forgot you could do that."

"Do what," Adam asks, with all of the irritated sarcasm available to someone who was awakened from a couple of hours' sleep by a fire. "Use my brain?"

"Do magic and shit," Ronan says.

Adam blinks at him. "You forgot that a witch could do magic."

"You're hardly even creepy anymore," Ronan mutters. "You're just -- Adam."

Adam is struck by that, too flustered and warm to say anything in response. He looks at Ronan, asking a question that has already been answered.

Ronan looks back at him, an answer that's already been given.

"I'm the creepy one now," Opal says, and happily holds the frying pan aloft, where it once more bursts into flame.

"Outside?" Adam asks; Ronan is already nudging Opal toward the door.

They sit around the remains of last night's fire, picking at Opal's burned attempts at breakfast. Adam leans back and puts his hand on the ground behind Ronan, pressing his arm across his back. Ronan kisses the top of his head, leaves his face buried in Adam's hair, tickling him with every breath. Across from them Opal is trying to make the sparks from the fire move around the way that Adam had done last night. The fire does not respond to her. Yet.

"So." Adam tries out the words. "Our daughter starts fires and dreams the future. This should be an interesting life."

"Hell yes," Ronan says. "It'll be great."