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Careful the Tale You Tell

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In Ronan's fifteenth year, his mother falls asleep and doesn't wake up.

The doctor arrives from town with a series of increasingly dubious treatments. By the end of the day Ronan's patience has vanished; he throws Matthew out of the room and threatens the doctor until he admits he has no idea what's wrong. Declan dismisses him and vanishes into town, returns an hour later with a priest and the news that he's sent for another doctor.

If the priest has any effect, it's not one Ronan can see.

"There are some things that we cannot change," the priest tells Matthew, somber and not fucking helpful. "But we can always pray for her soul, that she can enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

Ronan does not want his mother to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He wants her to take care of Matthew. He wants her to tell him stories about his father. He wants her to wake up.

The new doctor makes no progress, nor the doctor after that, except to warn them that her strength is wasting away the longer she sleeps.

"She can't sleep forever," the doctor says, and Ronan leaves the house without a word, stands and stares into the distance, until long after the sun has set.

Declan steps outside, pulling on riding gloves. "I'm leaving for the city. There has to be a doctor somewhere on this continent who isn't useless."

"They're all useless," Ronan says. "You're not going to fix anything by making this someone else's problem."

"And what do you expect me to do about an illness I don't even recognize?" Declan asks. "What do you think you can do?"

Ronan doesn't answer, just keeps looking forward, and Declan follows his gaze: away from town, out to the woods, the ones that the road goes around instead of through.

"Don't."

"I can handle myself," Ronan says.

"In a fight, sure," Declan agrees. "Even in a battle of wits. That isn't the same thing. Those woods aren't natural."

"We need something unnatural."

"If you won't stay for my sake, then do it for Matthew's. He needs you."

"He needs his mother."

Declan waits for a long time. Ronan waits longer.

"Stay home tonight," Declan says. "Wait until dawn. If you're lucky the path will become clear."

Ronan shoots his brother a dark look, suspicious, surprised, angry for being surprised. "What do you know about it?" he demands. Declan had always been more interested in the town to the south, with its people and its power and its money, than in the woods to the north, and all of its mystery.

"I know you're going to have to give something up," Declan says. "Don't let it be something you can't afford to lose."

And that's the problem with Declan, when you get right down to it: he thinks that there could be anything more important than the family.

Declan leaves. Ronan goes back inside to sleep. He'd rather not waste another second, just leave now and screw Declan and his ambiguity and his commandments. But it's so rare to see Declan compromise; Ronan is reluctant to throw it away.

He wakes Matthew up before dawn and tells him he's going for help. Matthew is too sleepy-eyed to ask any questions. Ronan wouldn't have answered anyway.

And then he goes into the woods.

They've lived a few miles from the forest his whole life, as close to it as they are to the town, but he's never gone more than a few daring feet into it. He's seen people go. Sometimes they stop at this last house on the road, looking for a meal, or asking about the path ahead, or just wanting to talk about what they're looking for. Ronan had never understood why they'd talk so long instead of just going.

"They need to be sure they're doing the right thing," his mother said, and that made sense, too, why sometimes after a morning or an afternoon or an evening they'd leave the way they came. They weren't sure.

Ronan is sure.

He steps through the trees as the first light of dawn is breaking, and a raven flies past him, so close her wing brushes his ear. She perches in a tree and cocks her head, looking at him.

He steps forward.

Th raven launches off the branch so suddenly that he think he's scared her away, but she only goes as far as the next tree, where she perches and stares at him again.

The path will become clear, Declan had said.

"If you're playing a trick on me I'm going to pluck you like a chicken," Ronan tells the bird.

She hops along the branch and poops, just missing Ronan's head, and then flies ten feet and lands again.

Ronan follows.

There's not a proper path. The trees aren't so close together that they're hard to get through, but the brush between them is overgrown, vines and bushes and moss-covered rocks slippery with morning dew. Ronan wades through it all, thinking vengefully of forest fires, while his guide flits through the air and then watch intently as he trudges after, like she's mocking him.

Under the forest canopy it's hard to tell the direction of the light. Ronan has no sense of how long he's been walking. He tries to whistle a song to keep track of time, but the woods swallow the sound, and the raven circles back like she's asking what he thinks he's doing. He stops whistling.

They reach the edge of a clearing, and the raven flies over it and out of sight. There's a small house in the clearing. He doesn't have to wonder who lives there. Even the boring children in town, who never go anywhere they aren't supposed to, would know a house you found in the middle of the woods had to belong to a witch.

Ronan knocks on the door.

A boy answers it -- or, he looks like he's Ronan's age, but Ronan is an adult and everyone else his age is a kid.

"Come inside," the boy says.

Ronan stands tall. "I'm here to see the witch."

"Then you should come inside, first," the boy says. "Or didn't you think there'd be a ritual?"

"Your ritual means you can't talk to me outside?"

"You need to pass the threshold," the boys says, "and anyway, this is rude."

Ronan steps through the door. There's two cups on a table, and the boy sits down with one cup in front of him and gestures for Ronan to take the other seat -- like the cup is meant for him. Ronan doesn't like that.

The boy is watching him with a look of active patience, so Ronan sits. He does not take the cup.

"I need to see the witch," he says again, when the boy shows no sign of going to get anyone else.

"I'm a witch."

"No you're not."

The boy looks annoyed. It does nothing to make him more witch-like. "I know my qualifications better than you do."

"You're a kid."

"I'm old enough."

"I've heard about the witch that lives here," Ronan says. "She's not a boy."

"She's also not here right now."

"Fine." Ronan crosses his arms. "I'll wait."

"You've heard about the witch that lives in these woods, and you think she's going to come at your beck and call?"

Ronan has no argument for that. He tries to hold the boy's gaze, but there's nothing there to argue with, either. He casts his eyes down and tells the table, "I need her."

"You got me instead. What is it you need from a witch, Ronan?"

He startles and looks back up. He hadn't noticed before how eerie the boy's eyes were. He thinks maybe they weren't, before.

"If you know my name," Ronan says, "then why don't you already know what I need?"

"You have to ask for it."

Ronan needs to breathe a few times before he can speak. "My mother's asleep. She won't wake up and no one knows why." The boy doesn't say anything, so Ronan forces the rest of it out: "I need her to get better."

The witch boy shuts his unnatural eyes, and when they open again they look normal. Ronan could almost think he'd imagined it.

"I need to know more before I can promise you anything." Ronan opens his mouth, because he still remembers every last unhelpful thing that every last doctor has said. "Not from you."

The witch boy goes moves around the large room, collects leaves and sticks from bundles of dried herbs. He lights three candles and frowns at them, goes over to the hearth and stokes the fire there until it's grown to twice its size, and then he tosses the herbs into the fire and sits, staring straight into it.

It's -- unnerving, how closely he's watching the flames, how his eyes are completely still, how he isn't even blinking. Ronan is creeped out for about two minutes, and then he gets bored of being creeped out and goes poking around the room.

On closer inspection, a lot of the herbs are things he recognizes, rosemary and mint and sage, not strange magic plants at all. There's a row of jagged crystals in the window. One deep purple rock is holding down a stack of papers; Ronan flips through them, but the writing is in a language he doesn't know.

The witch boy is still staring into the fire.

Ronan is bored enough to drink, not the cup that was left for him, but the one that was meant for the boy. It's just tea, gone cold, and he's annoyed that he'd been scared of a cup of tea.

He pokes around the rest of the house. There's a small bedroom off the main room, an even smaller bedroom next to it. On the opposite side of the house there's a narrow room that's half-pantry, half-library. When he sticks his head out the back of the house, there's a tidy little garden and a chicken coop and a stack of firewood. And that's -- it. That's the whole house. If you took away the books and added five dirty children this could be any house in town. So much for the unnatural, unholy, terrifying witches of the woods.

The witch boy stirs, blinks repeatedly and leans away from the fire. He unfolds his legs slowly and pushes himself up with one hand on the ground like he's a tired old man.

"I can wake your mother up," he says, so the whole wait was worth it. "But it'll cost you."

"I can pay." Ronan pulls out a sack of coins.

The witch boy doesn't take it. He's looking at Ronan like he's something distasteful -- more distasteful than staring into a fire unblinking, somehow.

"And what does that money cost you, when you have so much of it?"

"So you just want me to suffer."

"It isn't my decision. The cost is what it is, or the magic won't work."

"Fine," though it isn't. He doesn't have anything else, and he's sick at the thought of waiting, longer, to go and find whatever the witch wants. "What is it, then?"

The boy says, "I need your first child."

Well. That's going to be an even longer of a wait than Ronan thought. "What?"

The boy doesn't say anything else. As though what he said doesn't need any explanation, which is not true.

"How old do you think I am?" Ronan demands. "I don't have kids."

"I'm aware of that. A promise will do."

"You want me to promise you a kid. A kid that I don't have."

"That's what it will take to wake your mother up."

It doesn't make any sense, but it keeps not making sense in the same way, forcing itself past Ronan's confusion.

Declan told him not to give up anything he can't afford to lose, but Ronan has suspected for some time now that he's never going to have a life where children are a possibility.

What's easier to lose than something he's never going to have?

"Fine."

"You have to say it."

"More ritual?" Ronan asks, although he thinks the witch is just being a dick.

The boy nods.

"I promise you my first child," Ronan says, and it has to be the result of breathing in all the weird smoke from whatever the witch put into the fire, but for a second he feels light-headed.

"I accept as payment your first child." The witch boy sounds really solemn. Too bad. He can take this as seriously as he wants to, it isn't going to make a kid appear out of nowhere.

"And my mom?"

"Go home," the witch says. "Sleep. Leave her alone in her room with the window open tonight. She'll wake up in the morning."

Ronan says, "If she doesn't, I'm going to come back here and wreck this place."

"Then it's very lucky for you that she will."

Ronan gets home long after dark. He chases the deacon's wife out of the kitchen where she's apparently been making casseroles all day, like she thinks soggy chicken cures hibernation. He kicks Matthew and the latest doctor out of his mother's room and opens the window; lays another blanket over her before he leaves for his own room, where he crawls into his bed certain he won't fall asleep.

When he wakes up in the morning, he can hear his mother singing.

It's easy, in the sunlight, in the glow of Matthew's smile and Aurora's laugh, to forget about a deal that he hadn't really made.

-

In Ronan's twenty-fifth year, someone steals from him.

At first it's a nuisance more than anything. A feed bag for the goats is torn open, the feed junked across the barn floor. Bites go missing from the cheese aging in the cellar. It's only when he comes back from a hunting trip and finds his pantry raided and a knife left in the jam that he's sure it's a person and not a particularly ambitious rat.

He takes extra care in locking up, walks the perimeter of the house and the barn to check for other disturbances. There aren't any. He wants to know who it was more than he cares about another break in, so he sets a few subtle traps by the doors to the house and barn and leaves to spend the night in the forest.

When he comes back, the rope from his trap has been lovingly wrapped around the knob of the open front door.

He doesn't go into the house, doesn't check what's missing, just follows the trail away from the farm. Whatever this person has in guts, they lack in skill.

Which makes sense, when he finally tracks the thief down to her den and finds that it's a little girl.

She runs away the moment she sees him, leaves him with just an impression of her -- filth-smeared, dressed in rags, half-feral -- and a pile of his own belongings. Nothing of value, nothing she stole to sell, just food and a blanket and a bottle of wine he'd left half-full because it was terrible. It's still half-full; he pulls out the cork and takes a swig while he thinks.

She hadn't run far. She hadn't even left his property, although she probably doesn't realize how much of the surrounding forest he owns. She wouldn't be the only one; he doesn't care about hunters or travelers as long as they leave quickly, as long as he doesn't have to talk to them, as long as they don't break into his house and steal his shitty wine. He walks the boundaries of his property every few weeks just to check on everything, but he walks it more frequently now, more thoroughly, and finds traces of her all over the place: old campfires, a nest of torn blankets, clumsy attempts at fishing and trapping.

The second time he finds the girl, she runs away. The third time, she tries to attack him. He picks her up off the ground and sticks her in a tree. She clings to it and hisses at him like a cat.

"Stop stealing my stuff," Ronan says. "You just end up wasting food when you make a mess." He opens his knapsack, enough to let her see the food inside, and then he sets it down by her pathetic campfire and walks away. She's still up the tree; she may or may not be able to climb down.

The next time he comes back from a trip, the knapsack is on the doorstep, pointedly open, look at how easy it would be to fill this with food.

He does, and leaves it back on the doorstep. It's gone the next morning.

He starts to feel eyes on him as he goes about his business. Mostly when he looks he can't see her, so he mostly doesn't look. But he spots her across a clearing as he chops wood, and leaves some of the smaller logs for her pathetic campfire. She watches him fishing for a while, makes a noise when he tosses one back, clearly mad about his squandering. "It's not worth eating the little ones," he explains, "even for puny little runts like you."

She stands in the door to the barn while he's milking the goats one morning, and even comes inside to scoop up a double handful of milk when he steps away. She sips at it and makes a face.

"So don't drink it if you don't like it. You can just stay short forever."

She kicks the pail over and runs away.

Summer turns into autumn while Ronan's wild little shadow follows him around, hiding in his woods, sometimes demanding food without saying a word, sometimes disappearing for days and days at a time. That's okay. There's things you can find in the forest to eat, if you're not stupid, and the girl's not stupid: rude, mute, spiteful, but not stupid.

But autumn starts to fall away to winter, and Ronan leaves things on the doorstep besides food: a hat, gloves, a heavy coat that he had to travel a day's walk each way into town to get because anything he had would drag along the ground behind her if the irritating little imp tried to wear it.

He keeps aggressively busy, doesn't let himself think too much about the weather changing, and then one night he's lying sleepless in bed listening to the rain pounding on the roof, and he swears and goes walking through the forest.

He checks all the places she's let him see her. By the time he finds her she's soaked though and shivering violently. He picks her up and carries her as far as the house, but then she squirms and kicks until he puts her down.

"Fine," he says, after ten excruciating minutes where she steadfastly refuses to come inside the house. "Will you sleep in the barn or do you want to freeze to death?" He's half-surprised that she does run into the barn. At least she's under a roof.

When he peeks inside the barn that morning, she's still asleep, curled up next to one of the goats.

She follows him around everywhere after that. He gets used to one-sided conversations, explaining what he's doing or asking questions he knows she won't answer or just saying what comes to his mind. It's funny; he'd lost the ability to live with Declan and Matthew and his mother, somehow, had forgotten how to exist beside them even though he loved them. He'd left home and constructed a life where he could go days at a time without seeing another person. Having someone at his side every waking moment should drive him insane; it doesn't.

"Are there people missing you somewhere?" he asks one day, after they spot someone far down the road and she goes and hides in the barn for an hour.

He's expecting at most a head shake, and more realistically for her to go hide in the barn again.

Instead:

"I don't have anyone."

"Okay." Ronan hopes that none of his shock comes through. He hadn't been sure she could speak. "Go get a hammer, these nails are coming loose," and he has to ask her three more times before she bothers to listen to him, so she must be feeling okay.

It's snowing the next morning. Ronan gets cold and cranky just stopping in the barn to check on the animals. The girl sits in her nest of hay, curled up in a ball, and doesn't follow him around or help him or "help" by getting in the way.

"Are you coming?" he asks, standing in the doorway.

She doesn't move.

Ronan stomps off back to the house. He props the door open, and when that makes the whole house drafty and cold he just swears and leaves it. It's still warmer than the barn.

It's almost noon when he looks up to find her standing in the front hall, looking at him.

"You going to shut the door?"

She shakes her head.

"So you just want me to be as cold as you are," Ronan says.

She smiles.

"Ungrateful brat," but he's smiling too.

The afternoon is an epic battle of curiosity and caution. The girl explores every inch of the house like she has to see every single thing in it; but she tiptoes when she enters a new room, until she's looked around and made sure it's empty. She never once comes within arm's reach of Ronan. He moves as slowly and loudly as he can to avoid surprising her, and keeps away from the fireplace, so she can get up close to it.

By the time the sun's set, she gone and shut the front door. She sits down, for whole minutes at a time. She doesn't startle when Ronan knocks over the fire poker with a loud thud and swears at it, though she does look at him with something between judgment and pity.

She eats dinner with her hands, so Ronan does too, regretting that he'd made soup. After, she heads straight for Ronan's room and climbs into the bed before Ronan can yell at her to use the spare room. She shuts her eyes and drops right off to sleep, like she isn't afraid of anything, like she isn't afraid of him, and Ronan has to go stand in the snow for a while to shut his brain up.

The next morning dawns with a silent blanket of snow on the earth, and Ronan wakes up in the spare room knowing that something is wrong.

He runs straight to his bedroom. The girl isn't there.

He throws open every door in the hall and curses when he finds them all empty. Of course they are, she probably -- panicked, went back to the barn, went back outside, left, and maybe if he leaves now --

He stops. There's a man in the front hallway, in the same place Ronan had looked up and seen the girl, just yesterday morning.

"You can stop looking for Opal," the stranger says. "You won't find her."

Ronan curls his hands into fists. "What did you do to her?"

"I took her," he says, like this is obvious, like he doesn't care that Ronan is advancing on him, like he doesn't realize how close he is to death -- "like I promised you I would."

Ronan stops short. There's a light in the stranger's eyes, eerie, and he finally recognizes the witch boy from so many years ago.

"Give her back."

The witch says, "our business is done. Goodbye."

He leaves and the door shuts behind him. When Ronan throws it open again, he's nowhere in sight. There's not so much as a pair of footprints in the snow.

-

It's a week's walk from Ronan's home to the town he'd grown up near, a calculated balance between how far he was willing to travel to visit Matthew and his mother, and how far would discourage Declan from showing up unexpectedly. The distance has mostly worked for him. It doesn't work for him now.

He pushes himself, makes the walk in four days instead of seven, keeping warm with anger and exertion. When he's nearing the woods he walks the whole night through, ends up at the edge of the trees just as the sun is rising.

He spots the raven as soon as he steps into the woods. The trees are all bare. Her black feathers stand out starkly against the thin coat of snow.

"You haven't found anything better to do?" he snarls at her, even knowing it can't be the same one. Although he has to wonder, when she flies over his head and shits on the toe of his shoe.

She doesn't come to rest on a tree, but she's not flying so fast Ronan can't follow. He doesn't have the patience for a game of tag, anyway.

The house, when he finds it, looks exactly like he remembers -- except this time, there's a pale face in the window, for a split second, and his heart stops even as the door flies open, because she's okay, she's still okay.

She comes running out of the house straight for him. He kneels and she throws her arms around his neck, so it's easy for him to stand and lift her clean off the ground.

The witch followed her out; he's standing a few feet away, watching with an annoyed look on his face.

"You can't take her."

Ronan holds Opal tighter with one hand, reaches down with the other and pulls the knife from his belt.

"I can, and I am, and you're not going to threaten us or come near us again."

The witch takes a long second to look from Ronan's face to the knife, not afraid and not impressed. Ronan has the belated thought that magic probably trumps a knife, but he's committed now. If he has to -- he can strike fast, before the witch has time to do anything, before Opal can look up and see --

And then the witch steps backward and bows, with a sarcastic flourish of his hand.

Ronan takes one second to realize that he isn't going to try to stop them, and then he runs.

He doesn't slow down until the clearing is far behind them. There's no raven in sight, but Ronan has practice at finding his way through forests. He figures out which way is south and just pushes on, even as the trees press in around them, claustrophobic.

Opal starts to fuss. Ronan sets her down and lets her walk ahead of him, in sight, even though he's screaming internally about how much that slows them down.

As soon as she starts to flag, short little legs tired from picking their way through snow and mud and decaying foliage, he picks her up again. She grumbles but falls asleep on his shoulder in less than a minute.

It's night by the time they escape the woods. Ronan's mother's house is up ahead, just down the road. Close, and inviting, with its wide airy windows.

He passes it without slowing and walks the extra distance into town, to the large and well-appointed house where Declan keeps his wife and his servants and his fortune behind thick doors with strong locks.

Declan is shocked to see him, more shocked to see Opal, but he hides it pretty well in front of his household. It isn't until they're alone that he asks "who is this?"

There's a tightness in his heart, in his throat. He hasn't said it before, even to himself. But the witch had known.

"My daughter."

And he thought Declan was shocked before. "Where did you get a daughter?"

Ronan doesn't even know Opal's awake until she answers. "The woods."

Declan twitches; at least they were both caught off guard.

He lets the matter drop, but Ronan can tell that he's not happy. It's only after he's shown them to a room that Ronan realizes -- Declan thinks Opal came from the witch.

He doesn't clarify. It feels dangerous to talk too much about it.

"You missed dinner," Declan says on his way out. "I'll have the cook send something up."

Opal falls asleep again before dinner arrives. Ronan wakes her up and badgers food into her cranky and ill-tempered mouth. She makes a huge mess as she eats, probably on purpose, but it's Declan's house, so what does Ronan care.

He drags her to the washroom and bullies her into washing her hands, to the covert amusement of two of Declan's servants, and then while she sulks and refuses to go to bed he leaves her in the guest room and goes to find Declan.

Declan pours him a glass of whiskey and lets him get through most of it before he pries.

"I don't suppose you're here to introduce me to my niece."

Ronan looks out the window, with its a beautiful clear view of the street that runs through town. The street is empty. Ronan doesn't feel better.

"There might be trouble," he says. "We need to stay somewhere safe for tonight."

Declan tops up his drink, and then Ronan's.

"Have you thought this through?"

"No," Ronan admits. Declan just shakes his head.

"You can stay as long as you need to," Declan says. "I'm not going to turn a kid away because you're an idiot."

Declan offers him another room, but all Ronan can think about is waking up four mornings ago with the knowledge that something was wrong. He turns the offer down and lies on the floor in Opal's room, an extra layer between her and the witch. When he falls asleep, after a long, long time, it's to the thought that no one could get past him.

When he wakes up, the room is empty.

-

The witch comes out first this time, and there's no sign of Opal, although Ronan's not looking too hard considering he's grabbed the witch by the collar and is threatening him with every terrible fate he can think of. And maybe Ronan isn't the most creative guy in the world, but he thinks he's making his point pretty clear, so it's infuriating that the witch isn't even bothering to listen. He shakes him, hard, to drive his point home.

"Are you done now?" the witch asks. Ronan only growls. "I told you, you can't take her. You made a deal, Ronan, your mother for your daughter. I couldn't give her back to you if I wanted to."

"What the hell are you going to do to her?"

"I'm going to train her to be a witch." There's no hint of malice or subterfuge; he says it like it's obvious.

It isn't obvious; it throws him, enough that his anger falters.

"I want to see her."

"And I suppose if I don't let you, you'll stab me."

"I'm thinking about it."

"I'm not inclined to bargain with people who take facts as threats. Or people who attack me."

Ronan lets him go. The witch looks him over for a long second before returning to the house.

He comes out with Opal, at his side instead of running on ahead. Ronan ignores the witch and squats down to look her in the eye.

"Hey, brat."

Opal doesn't react. He feels all the time he's lost, not just the four days she was gone but the months of work it took to get to where she trusted him.

There's no way he's leaving her here.

"It's gonna be okay," he says.

Opal doesn't react to that, either.

"Hey. Look at me." She looks up, stubborn, and he knows that he's not lying when he says, "you're going to be fine."

He wraps her up into a hug that she doesn't return, that he can tell she hates, but it's the only way he can think to get close enough to whisper in her ear, too quiet for the witch to hear:

"I'm going to come back. I'm going to come back, and then we'll give him hell."

Chapter Text

Adam had never looked forward to having an apprentice, but even with ten years to get used to the idea, he hadn't anticipated it happening like this.

In the four days before the attempted kidnapping, Opal: broke three of his windows and all of his chairs; spoke exactly zero words to him; dashed into the woods every time he took his eyes off her; ate not a single bite of any food he gave her, so that he stayed up all night panicking that she was going to starve -- and when he gave up on sleep and came out to the main room to work, he caught her sneaking snacks out of the kitchen. She'd run out into the night again, a piece of bread still hanging out of her mouth.

And then her idiot father tried to take her back. She re-appeared the next day, of course, summoned back by forces that Adam sometimes only tolerated because the alternative was losing his sanity -- the magic would call her back once she'd been here, but he'd still had to trek all the way out to get her in the first place, great -- but the damage was done. She crawled into bed after Ronan left and just -- laid there, like this was too much to even fight against, and Adam felt like the biggest monster in the world. It wouldn't help to tell her, I'm not the villain here, I'm not the one one who sold you. It didn't even help when he said it to himself.

He stays up way too late that night -- in his room, to leave Opal's path to the kitchen free -- and starts a dozen letters to Persephone. He gives up on all of them. If there was any chance in the world that Persephone could take the girl he'd hand her over gladly. Persephone would be a much better guardian; she already knew what to do with broken children. But he couldn't give Opal to Persephone any more than he could give her back to her pain-in-the-ass father.

So he listens, and watches, and waits for an idea to come to him.

Opal stays in bed all the next day, too, but she emerges from the bedroom unprompted the morning after that. Adam grimly decides to take that as a good sign.

"Good morning, Opal."

She stares at him, dead-eyed.

He holds her gaze. If she thinks she's so unsettling, maybe that's a good thing. He's been unsettling since before she was born. It can be something they have in common.

Opal looks away.

"Will you go feed the chickens, please? And collect the eggs while you're out there." That's almost guaranteed to get him a basket full of broken shells, but he has to give her something to do besides dwell on her abandonment. "Do you remember how?"

She scowls and stomps out the back door.

He forces himself not to watch through the window. He'd like to trust her. He'd like her to trust him even the tiniest bit back.

She's out in the backyard for a long time.

Adam shuts his eyes. Maybe she's having some trouble. Maybe he should go help.

The door opens and Opal returns. The eggs are all whole and accounted for.

"That's very good, thank you." He hopes he doesn't sound surprised. "Please go wash your hands."

Opal dashes straight off to her room and washes her hands in the little basin there.

The rest of the morning passes with Opal being obedient and friendly, or at last as friendly as someone who refuses to speak can be. Adam's suspicious, and then feels bad about his suspicion. This is progress. They're going to be stuck together for a long time. It's better that she doesn't spend the next several years resenting him.

A series of loud knocks rings out.

Adam frowns. It doesn't sound like it's coming from the front door, but his ear plays tricks on him sometimes. He goes to answer it. There's no one there.

The knocking starts up again, louder from the outside, and Adam follows the sound around to the back of the house to discover Ronan in his backyard, hammering a nail into a piece of lumber.

"What are you doing?" Adam demands.

Ronan doesn't even bother to look up. "Getting a shelter up."

"You can't build something in my backyard."

"I don't want to get snowed on."

"Then go away."

"You said I can't take Opal." Ronan delivers this with the dry reasonable demeanor of a lawyer laying out a case. "You didn't say I couldn't stay."

"Well, you can't!"

"I think you're just making this up as you go," Ronan says. "Give me one good reason I can't stay."

Because I don't like you, because the woods are temperamental and you're drawing their attention, because you used your child like a bargaining chip --

There's a movement inside the house: Opal's face, pressing up against the window to watch them.

"Because," Adam says, "you're trampling my garden."

Ronan follows Adam's eye line, to the window and then down to the soil under his feet. He drops his hammer right on one of the potato plants.

"I could come inside," he offers, like this is some sacrifice he's graciously making. "If that's more convenient for you."

Adam goes back in the house without a response.

Opal steps away from the window. She is no longer feigning respect; the smirk on her face looks downright demonic.

Adam takes a second to swallow down his irritation with Ronan. That's not Opal's fault.

"We're going to need to plant some seeds," he says. He's been at a loss for how to teach her all the things she needs to know; he'd been older than her when he'd come to Persephone, and she'd never really taught him anything. She'd just made him do things while he screwed up and waited to be punished, until he got it right, until he realized that he was never going to be punished, until he realized that was the real lesson, and then he mostly taught himself by watching her.

He's been walking softly around this underfed, silent child, but clearly she's not as fragile as she looks. He might as well put her to work and let her learn as she goes.

"There's clay pots in the library, and a bag of soil. Go fetch them for me, please."

She looks confused, but she brings him back what he asked for, so she must have understood.

He starts to explain to her what he's doing, when the hammering begins again. Opal's eyes turn to the window.

Adam waves a hand. The curtains snap shut. Opal's eyes flick back to Adam, wide.

"We'll start them in here where it's warmer," he says, "until they're strong enough to transplant to the garden."

Opal watches him intently, even as the hammering goes on outside. She doesn't hesitate for a moment to get her hands dirty.

-

Adam feeds the chickens himself the next morning, to thwart any plot Ronan thinks he has.

Ronan used his solitary day well: he's attached a little annex to Adam's house, a roof and a couple short walls nailed right into the back wall. It's only about twice the size of a horse stall in a stable, and it's hideous, but it's got a little cot and a little camp stove under it. There's a cart that Adam had somehow missed yesterday, despite the fact it's enormous. That might explain how Ronan got his construction materials all the way out to the clearing, except no, that doesn't explain anything.

"Am I supposed to believe you pulled this yourself?" Adam asks. It isn't possible, even before he considers the problem of how Ronan found a path through the woods wide enough to allow for it. Which he isn't going to consider, because the only explanation is that the woods let him find one, and just the suggestion makes Adam's head hurt.

"I turned the horses loose," Ronan says. "They can find their way home. Probably."

"You set your horses loose in a magical forest."

Ronan shrugs. "They're not my horses, so it's not really my problem."

The problem is less what the woods will do to the animals than what the sudden chaotic intrusion of a foreign element will do to the ever-shifting balance of energies that makes up the woods, but Adam doesn't think the guy who trampled half of his garden is overly burdened with compassion.

"Of course," Ronan continues, "if you want them so bad, I could track them down. What do you think? Swap you for the kid."

A spike of incandescent fury stabs through him. Ronan has already sold Opal once, and now he thinks he can buy her back with a couple of horses.

Adam goes inside before Ronan can provoke him a response. It would only be one he'd regret.

Opal is standing in the middle of the room. There are ashes from the fireplace smeared across half the floor, the length of both her arms, her face, the whole front of her body.

She stares at him, daring him to say something.

That challenge, he can't walk away from.

"Ashes are very useful for protection spells," and he has her run her filthy hands along every door frame as high up as she can, while he finishes the parts that are too high for her and traces the windows, "you've already covered the hearth pretty thoroughly." Once they're done he renews the wards around the house. He pays particular attention to the part about keeping unwanted visitors out.

-

It's a fairly simple matter to keep Ronan outside, though it means resigning himself to debris strewn all about his yard and noise at all hours of the night, stomping and singing and hammering, what does he even have left to hammer. But it isn't a solution; Adam has work to do, and anyway he hates being confined. Opal does too, or he thinks she does. It's a little hard to tell how much of her acting out is Ronan's influence and how much of it is boredom.

They leave the house the next morning, early, on the off chance Ronan is a late sleeper.

He isn't.

"Going somewhere?" he asks as he immediately falls into step next to Opal. She grins up at him instead of watching where she's walking.

"The woods." There's a reason the woods need a witch in them; without regular attention their power stops up, twists in on itself, bursts out in dangerous and uncontrolled ways -- and that's when everything is normal. Given they've just had two new residents dropped on them, one uninvited, he's expecting to find a lot that needs mending. "Don't let us take you away from your construction."

Ronan laces his fingers behind his neck and looks pleased with himself. "I could use a walk."

They pass the raven, perched on a tree at the edge of the clearing. Adam glares at her: you couldn't have let this one get lost?

She flicks her wings twice and flies off. She's a creature of the forest, she doesn't answer to him. He thinks she might be under the impression that he's there to serve her. She wouldn't exactly be wrong.

The second they're out of the clearing, the woods settle in around Adam, louder and more discordant than he's used to. He keeps his face from grimacing, at least, but he can't make his feet keep walking.

"Problem?" It's hard to make out Ronan's voice from under all the senseless undirected need of the forest. He would be drowned out, except -- except Adam is trying to hear him, and that realization is far more galling than Ronan's taunts. "You can stay here and Opal and I will go face down the monsters in the forest."

Adam snorts a laugh. For a second the world is much more manageable. "Right now the monsters in the forest have you outnumbered two to one," and when he stops focusing so hard the answer finds him. There's an ash tree up ahead that needs to be felled; they'll start there.

"Here's our first ferocious monster," he says, deadpan. He holds out his axe to Ronan, who is not amused. "Are you going to face it down, or is Opal?"

Opal actually grabs the axe handle before he can stop her. She moves fast when she wants to.

Ronan snatches it away from her. "Go away," he barks, and Opal goes all of five feet and watches, agog, as Ronan chops down the tree.

Adam is only slightly less agog than Opal. He hadn't figured he could get Ronan to be useful, even on accident. He does wonder if Ronan isn't going to screw it up, either from incompetence or spite, but it quickly becomes clear that he knows what he's doing. It's easier to appreciate Ronan's strength like this than when it's being used against him.

Ronan helps again when it's time to shuffle rocks around at the bottom of a gully, and when Adam starts digging a small outlet off what has become a pond but really ought to be a stream.

"How far are you planning on digging?" Ronan complains as they take a break about ten feet in. Opal splashes happily in the mud behind him. Adam winces. He can't see Opal willingly washing up before going back in the house. Maybe she'll let him throw a bucket of water over her head.

"It needs to stretch out to the mountains on the other side of the wood." Ronan's face just then, aghast, is possibly the most beautiful thing Adam has ever seen. "In another hundred years it'll get there on its own, now that we've got it started."

After that Ronan is impossible to taunt, trick, or coax into helping. Adam finds smaller tasks, things Opal can handle, and does his best to explain the work to her as they go. Not what the woods needs or why -- that can't be explained so much as felt, and she isn't going to have that connection to the woods for a long time yet -- but what the plants around them are called and what they're good for, the different bugs they see crawling through the underbrush, the way that new things grow up out of the remains of dead ones.

Opal listens. Adam hopes it's to him; she might just be listening to Ronan's snide commentary.

Adam turns them around to head back so they'll be home by dark, and after a thought angles them so they pass the ash tree. He stops and hoists one end up. "You get that end?"

Ronan crosses his arms. "You can carry any damn thing you want."

"It'll be a bit lopsided if Opal gets it," and Opal does manage to lift the other end six inches off the ground. Ronan scowls at both of them and shoves her aside.

"What magical properties does this have," Ronan grumbles, "back pain?"

"It has its uses." Adam refrains from telling Ronan he still needs to repair the chairs that Opal broke.

They're most of the way to the clearing when Ronan comes to an abrupt halt.

"What the hell?" He steps forward again. A deep ravine has opened up in the ground, sometime since they passed this way in the morning. Ronan gets right up to the edge of it and peers down before getting an answer to his question, which is the kind of stupid bravado that Adam would expect from a man who pulled a knife on a witch.

"Ecosystems depend on balance," Adam tells Opal, pointedly. "When a new element is introduced recklessly, changes spiral out through the whole system."

"Oh, but it's not going to wreck your stupid forest that you dragged the brat in here?"

Opal beams up at Ronan. She's still too young to understand that not all attention from a parent is good attention.

"The woods know who belong to them," Adam says. "Squatters, on the other hand, should be worried," and Opal looks back at him, so he lets her see the gesture he makes, right before dirt under Ronan's foot shakes. Not enough to dislodge, but enough that Ronan yelps and darts back from the edge.

Opal claps her hands over her grin.

"Don't drop the tree," Adam says, "we're going to need it," so of course Ronan drops his end. It lands on solid ground, at least. Adam sets his end down and slides it forward, until it reaches the far edge, spanning the ravine.

Ronan glares at him. "I don't care what your stupid magic told you, I'm not walking across that."

"Do what you think is best. You've got a good sense of direction, I'm sure you can find a way around eventually."

"What, you aren't worried I'm going to disturb your precious ecosystem?"

Ronan wandering the woods on his own for hours would be disastrous, but it'll never come to that. Those would be hours that Adam could be productive and at peace, which Ronan clearly has no intention of allowing.

"I couldn't possibly worry about you any more than I already do," Adam tells him, "you are thoroughly disturbing." He steps onto the trunk, and when it doesn't immediately wobble he keeps walking, all the way across, before he can think better of it. Opal follows so close behind him she nearly runs him off it, at the end.

And then it's the two of them together on one side, and Ronan alone on his own, glaring. He isn't going to waste any time going around.

He isn't going to do anything Adam does, though. He takes a running start and jumps the ravine, falls just short, so that his hands scramble at the edge.

Opal grabs one hand, as though she has enough ballast to do anything except get pulled down with him.

Adam contemplates how inconvenient it will be to save both of them from the bottom of a ravine, but before he can make a decision either way Ronan gets a proper handhold. Then it's just a matter of pulling himself up, and it's not like he lacks the strength.

He stalks off as soon as he's got his feet on the ground, doesn't stop to help Adam pick up the tree.

Adam whistles a few notes, less because it helps with the spell and more because it makes Opal turn around, curious.

The tree jumps up and hangs on its own in mid-air, and he walks the rest of the way to the clearing with it floating in front of him.

-

It would be impossible to miss the way that magic fascinates Opal. Adam doesn't want to give her the wrong idea -- Persephone had always told him that witchcraft was mostly knowing and listening and waiting, and magic was only a very small part of it -- but if this is the tool he has to get her to look up to him, to get her to look at him at all, then he'll use that.

Every spell has a cost to the person it benefits, but they're proportionate. He lights candles with his finger tips and flips the pages of a book from across the room and dances a breeze through the chimes in the window, and endures the little aches and pains that come from it. It's worth it, to see Opal from the corner of his eye, copying his gestures and seemingly undeterred by the lack of results. A small joy, for a small price.

It's a slightly greater joy to find spells that bother Ronan. Nothing truly malicious -- Ronan isn't worth compromising himself, and anyway Opal wouldn't find that funny. But she does laugh when a fir tree drops half its needles on him, when the ice he steps on cracks and his foot plunges into a puddle of cold mud, when the end of his scarf wraps itself around a branch and he has to stop and unwind it so he doesn't strangle himself when he walks. There's a cost to those, too, but compared to the enormous cost of having to put up with Ronan's constant glowering intrusion into his life, Adam hardly notices.

He's not exactly subtle, so he's a little surprised it takes Ronan so long to object. It's nearly two weeks after Ronan takes up residence in what used to be his garden before he follows Adam and Opal up to the house at the end of the day, like he intends to follow them in even though he knows he can't. As soon as Opal is inside he grabs Adam's arm and pulls him away from the house.

The touch is jarring. Adam isn't used to people touching him. His instinctive response is to burn Ronan's palm. He stops himself -- he has no intention becoming that person -- but that leaves him with no idea what to do until Ronan lets him go.

"Did you want something?"

"I want you to knock it off with the magic tricks."

Adam doesn't answer straight away. He's found that unsettles people, not to give them the reaction they're expecting.

"You built an addition to my house," he says. "Are you pretending that I'm somehow inconveniencing you?"

"I was pretty fucking inconvenienced when you stole Opal," Ronan says. "And that was before you decided to make me look like a clown."

"I wouldn't worry about that if I were you. There's nothing I can do to make you look any worse than you already do."

"You don't get to judge me."

"Yes, I do," Adam says. "Any person in their right mind would. You are a bad father."

"Why, because I didn't let a stranger disappear with my kid?"

"Because you sold her!" The fury crashes into him, overwhelming. He doesn't think he could stop himself from scorching Ronan, if they were still touching. "People who are willing to sell their children don't deserve to have children."

"I took the deal that you offered me. What does that say about you?"

"That's what the spell demanded."

"Right, you didn't have a choice, that's a nice excuse." Ronan rolls his eyes. "I didn't have a choice either."

"You had a choice. You could have walked away."

"And let my mom die? What kind of choice is that?"

"An awful one," Adam says. "Sometimes those are the only kind you get."

"My mom was sick," Ronan says, "and I knew I wasn't ever going to get anyone pregnant, it was a pretty easy call to make."

Adam tries to absorb this. No matter how he looks at it, he can't.

"You tried to cheat fate," he says. "Your defense is that you're too stupid to be a bad father."

"I tried to cheat a know-it-all brat," Ronan says, "anyone in their right mind would've."

"Has it occurred to you that if I know more than you do, you could listen to me?"

"No, and it's not going to occur to me, either."

There's something shifting inside Adam, anger transforming into something else. He doesn't like that he can't tell what he's feeling. He doesn't like that he couldn't tell Ronan was lying to him the first time they met. He doesn't like the fact that Ronan and Opal aren't related by blood, because it means this same stubbornness developed in two separate places and he finds that disturbing.

"Okay," Adam says grimly. "You're not going to listen to me, you're just going to camp out here and live off the woods, until -- what exactly is the goal, here?"

Ronan doesn't answer right away; Adam doesn't let that throw him.

"There used to be another witch here, right?"

"Yes," Adam says, wary.

"If she left then at some point it wears off. Being stuck in the woods."

"You're planning on waiting until Opal finishes her training."

"If that's what that means, yeah."

Adam could point out that Ronan has a life, a home that is cluttered with belongings, livestock that need tending, a mother he cared about enough to do something terrible. That there's no way he's going to abandon all of that for the next several years to live in a shack in Adam's backyard. That no one could possibly want to make that sacrifice.

If he challenges Ronan, then Ronan is going to have no choice but to do exactly that.

The best thing for all of them is for Ronan to leave as soon as possible, so Opal can get used to the life that she has and Adam can stop cleaning all the messes that Ronan 'accidentally' makes and fixing all of the things that Ronan 'accidentally' breaks.

But for one shining second it's really, really tempting to challenge Ronan anyway.

He says, "it's late. Go to bed."

Ronan hesitates. Adam knows what he feels, because Adam feels the same way: uncertain, about what was gained, what was lost, what just changed.

He waits until Ronan walks out of sight around the house before he goes inside.

-

The weather worsens. Temperatures stay below frozen, and without time to melt the snow piles up higher and higher.

Adam waits for Ronan give up and leave. He waits for Ronan to complain about the cold, to demand a blanket or a heat spell or passage inside the house, to claim it as payment for Adam stealing his child. Adam would get to tell him that he'd already paid for that, and shut the door in his face. It would be so satisfying.

But if he asked as a favor, out of need, out of desperation, Adam would -- he would -- well, it doesn't matter. He doesn't ask.

The snow picks up one night. Opal looks out the window more and more frequently the heavier it comes down. As early as he thinks he can get away with it, Adam puts her to bed, but by then he's gotten in the habit of staring out the window, and he can still see the reflection of her face in the whiteout.

Ronan nearly falls off his cot when Adam rips the blanket off him. He's fully dressed and huddled up, so much smaller than he should ever look.

He snarls, "what," but Adam just snarls back at him, "get inside."

Ronan doesn't even get up, just stays on his stupid cot in his stupid shelter with its three stupid walls in the middle of this stupid blizzard.

"What," he asks, "you're going to let me past your precious threshold?"

"Not if you don't get up right now."

Ronan gets up. Ronan follows him inside, and makes no attempt at brushing the snow off his coat or shoes when he enters. Adam takes a very small solace in the irritation on his face, when Adam opens a door off the pantry and reveals a cozy little bedroom with a stacks of blankets on the bed and a small fire already going in the fire place.

"How long has this been here?" Ronan demands.

"The house is what I need it to be."

"You could have made this room appear at any time."

It isn't exactly that simple, but why make himself sound less powerful? "Yes."

"An owl shit on me last night."

"Maybe the woods don't like you very much," Adam says as obnoxiously as possible. He doesn't want Ronan to feel comfortable talking to him. He doesn't want Ronan to ask outright why didn't you let me in before now; even the indirect questioning makes Adam feel ashamed. He goes to his own room and tries to figure out where he messed up, where was the place he should have done something different. He can't find an answer.

-

Opal is ecstatic at finding Ronan inside the next morning, and Adam's terrible first thought is to throw him back out into the blizzard.

He never got to have parents who loved him, but he'd learned slowly, painfully, to value having a teacher who protected him and cared for him and was proud of him, to let that stand in for the huge gnawing hunger in his heart -- and now, he was never going to have a student who would value him that way, because she does have a father who loves her, and it's so unfair he could choke on it.

But he keeps going; it's what he does. He gives them space and sticks to the kitchen to make breakfast. When he dares to look at them again, plates of food in hand, Opal is showing Ronan the pot where one of the jasmine seeds has just sprouted. The table is covered with pages of her wobbly attempts at an alphabet.

Adam clears his throat. "Can you please make some space for me, Opal?"

Chapter Text

"We're going to have a visitor," Adam announces. "Can you help me get the house ready?"

It's stopped snowing so hard that they're trapped inside, and just in time, because Ronan is sick to death of hearing the way Adam asks Opal to do things: please and thank you and could you just, like she isn't a prisoner here, like she doesn't have to do whatever he tells her to.

Not that anyone can make Opal do anything she doesn't want to. But still.

Ronan doesn't help get the house ready. He sits in the center of the main room, feet kicked up on the table, hands behind his head and elbows out, as in the way as he can make himself be. It's not a satisfying rebellion. Adam goes to do something in the kitchen that involves the bundles of dried herbs he hoards. Opal just bumps into Ronan when she wants him to move, over and over again until he does. He sighs loudly and shifts his feet one scant inch so she can set a candle on the table.

As soon as she places it, the wick catches fire.

Opal gasps. She stares at the flame, mesmerized, and then her eyes screw up with a shrewd look. She picks the candle back up off the table.

It goes out.

She sets it down again, slowly, and it lights up. She places down a second and a third candle, grinning when they light up, too.

Ronan turns his head just enough that he can see the witch.

Adam has stopped what he was doing. If Ronan didn't look closely, he'd just think he was just spacing out. He wouldn't see the twitch of his finger, just as Opal puts the fourth candle down. He wouldn't see the way he suppresses a smile at her excited squeak.

Ronan spends too long looking, or maybe witches can tell when they're being watched. Adam's eyes flick over and spot him. The smile disappears. He turns back to his work.

Opal sets the rest of the candles down, makes a disgusted noise when they fail to light up on their own.

"Thank you, Opal." Adam sets a bouquet of weird plant matter on the table. Ronan's pretty sure that he's heard every last one of these plants explained at great length for Opal's benefit, but now all he can remember is he'd called the dark prickly one butt-weed and Opal had laughed. "Do you mind standing by the fire while our visitor is here? I might ask you for your help."

Opal nods.

"And what about me," Ronan drawls, "do you need my help?"

"Yes. You can help by disappearing."

If Adam wants him gone, then the only place Ronan wants to be is right here.

"Aw, come on. I'm useful."

"If we need to build any lopsided shacks, I know where to find you."

Ronan makes a sad face, the one that Matthew always fell for when they were kids. He must be out of practice; it doesn't phase Adam at all.

"You're going to kick me out?"

"Yes."

"But I'm your guest."

Someone knocks on the door.

Opal makes a distressed little noise in the back of her throat and grabs Ronan's hand.

Adam glares at all of them -- door, Ronan, Opal, though it's softened by the time he gets to Opal.

Ronan adds, "please?" so earnest-sounding no one could mistake it for anything but sarcasm.

The person outside knocks again.

"Fine," Adam whispers. "You and Opal can both stand by the wall, and if you say one word, you can both leave."

Opal drags Ronan off to the side of the room. That shouldn't even be physically possible; she must really want to see a witch's deal go down. Ronan would warn her how boring this is about to be, but Adam opens the door and Ronan has to shut up.

Their visitor is a scrawny man who maybe has ten years on Ronan. He doesn't look like he was worth the effort that went into getting ready for him, or any effort at all; he's twitching from nerves before Adam even says "welcome."

"Welcome, uh, hello," the visitor says. "Are you...sorry, I'm looking for -- I don't really know, I -- need help."

"You're in the right place," Adam says. "Please, step inside."

The guy does, looking all around him.

"Are you really..." but he doesn't finish that thought. "There's a lot of people here."

Adam gestures at Opal. "This is my apprentice." He gives no explanation for Ronan. The visitor stares straight at him, looking more nervous every second. And Ronan can't even say hello to put him at ease. He smiles instead, using all his teeth. Somehow that doesn't seem to make the visitor feel better.

"I just -- it's sort of personal, you know."

"Don't mind him," Adam says. "He's under a tacitus stultus curse, he won't tell anyone."

Ronan is outraged to discover that Adam has a sense of humor. A bad sense of humor, but still; how dare he do anything so human.

Ronan decides to keep it to himself that he knows Latin, too. He owes Adam a nasty surprise at some point in the future.

Adam ushers the visitor into a chair with a mug of tea in front of him -- so he hasn't gotten any better at being a big scary witch in the last ten years -- and then gets the guy to spill his story. It takes him a quarter of an hour to get through. When you strip off all the irrelevant details and self-centered justification, it boils down to I borrowed money from my father-in-law and forget where I put it. As far as Ronan is concerned, he is too stupid to help.

Adam doesn't share Ronan's opinion, because of course he doesn't.

"Do you have anything that belongs to your father-in-law?" he asks the guest. "Your wife?"

"I brought a few things," he frets. "I figured I'd have to pay somehow, only we really don't have the money..."

He lays out on the table a silver necklace, a silk shawl, and a spun glass ornament shaped like a snowflake.

Adam picks up the snowflake.

"She's had that since she was a girl," the guest offers.

Adam makes a thoughtful noise, hm, and slams his hand down on the table, crushing the snowflake under his palm.

Opal and the visitor both jump.

Ronan doesn't. He'd seen Adam's eyes when he looked at the glass; they'd gone eerie.

Adam lifts his hand. Opal and the visitor lean forward to look at the table. Ronan looks at the hand. There's a sparkling of glass dust sticking to his skin, but no blood. No marks of any kind.

Adam draws an aimless pattern through the remains of the glass. The thing was shattered, pulverized, like it had been struck over and over with a hammer; there's little more than dust.

"Opal," he says, his eerie eyes fixed on the glass. "Burn some juniper, please."

Opal has either has been paying attention to Adam's boring lectures or has an abundance of confidence, because she grabs a plant without hesitation and holds it up to the candle. The smell of it fills the room, not good, not bad, just getting under Ronan's skin somehow. Adam extends a hand without looking at her, and she hands it off to him.

"The quarry," Adam says, and then he's rattling off directions, thirty feet this way, twenty feet that way, while their guest looks around frantically. He gives up and starts repeating the words back to himself under his breath, visibly trying to hold them in his brain. Ronan could tell him there's ink and paper in a cabinet five feet away from him, but oops, Ronan can't talk, too bad.

"And it's -- all there?"

"Everything you didn't spend," Adam says, and the guy winces, looks over at Ronan like Ronan is going to judge him. Which he does.

"Thank you, thanks. I'll -- go get it, then?"

Adam doesn't respond.

The visitor reaches across the table.

"Leave the necklace," Adam says, just as his fingers are closing around it. He drops it again, immediately, grabs up the shawl and hurries out like he doesn't want to hear anything else Adam has to say.

The door shuts.

Adam is still staring at the glass on the table. The herb in his hand has burned down to his fingers. He doesn't seem to notice.

Opal stands up on tiptoe and blows on it. It takes a few tries but to it out entirely.

Adam blinks up at her.

"Thank you, Opal. Would you blow out the candles, too?" and she starts on those while he gathers up the necklace.

"Congratulations," Ronan says, "now you have a beautiful new piece of jewelry to wear."

"Silver's not my color," Adam deadpans, "I only wear gold." He pulls open a drawer under the surface of the table; Ronan frowns. He hasn't ever noticed that drawer before. He's not sure that drawer existed, before. "We'll trade it in town sometime, if we don't find a use for it first."

Opal walks up to Ronan with an armful of candles, pokes him until he takes them from her, pokes him some more until he lines them up on the window ledge. Adam gathers up the herbs from the table and returns them to the kitchen.

"It's not really a fair trade, is it?" Ronan observes. "You gave him a bunch of money -- "

"I didn't give him money," Adam says. "Magic doesn't work like that. I found a lost object."

"The lost object was a sack of gold," Ronan points out. Adam just looks at him like what's your point. "That he can use to go buy all the necklaces his wife could ever want."

"He's going to have to explain to his wife what happened to the necklace her mother left her," Adam says. "I don't think he'd agree with you that this was such a bargain."

Adam picks up a rag and puts it on the table. He looks down and just -- stops. Stares into the glass dust with his creepy eyes.

Ronan gets sick of waiting for the motion to resolve itself. He takes the rag out of Adam's hand and wipes the damn glass dust off of the table himself.

Adam jumps. They're close enough that Ronan can hear his sharp inhale. Good.

-

They get more visitors after that. "The end of the year makes people desperate," Adam explains, "after this it'll slow down until the weather warms up." There's a young woman that wants to escape her family, a couple that's having trouble getting pregnant, an old man who wants to know which of his sons to name as his heir.

Ronan glares at all of them, in silence but so fiercely that when Adam tells a nervous goatherd that Ronan is a hawk who was transformed into a man, the goatherd believes him. Ronan hates Adam's sense of humor, almost as much as he hates when visitors come by. He wants to yell at Adam, for taking the pathetic tribute that they bring him, when it's crap, when he doesn't need it, when they're so sad to lose it. And he wants to yell at the visitors, too, for not solving their own damn problems, for taking away time he could be spending with Opal, for leaving without looking back.

"Why do you bother with these morons?" he asks after the latest visitor leaves. Adam had spent ten minutes staring into the fire to answer her damn question, had all but collapsed after she was gone, and all he'd gotten for it was an old book.

"As opposed to what?" Adam leans up against the wall and shuts his eyes, like he could fall asleep there, standing up. "Throwing them out into the snow without hearing what they need?"

"As opposed to anything," Ronan says. "You're some kind of magic demon person and all you do is babysit idiots." All of a sudden he's furious, completely and totally at Adam. "Why aren't you making yourself rich or taking over a city or doing something better than this -- " and then you wouldn't need my damn kid.

Adam's eyes open. "The magic only works if it stays in balance -- "

"Oh, but you can trip me just fine, that keeps the magical balance," Ronan says. "I guess the world needs me to fall into a snowdrift, is that it?"

"I hate to disrupt your self-important delusions, but there's a difference in scale between ruffling your feathers and setting myself up as some kind of all-powerful overlord." Adam straightens up; he doesn't look tired anymore. "There's a cost every time you use magic, and if you use more than you can pay for, it goes badly, for everyone, including the witch," and then he heads out of the room.

At least Adam has been paying for it every time he makes Ronan suffer. That doesn't do anything for Ronan's mood, funnily enough; he's still surly the next day, when their latest visitor asks for a spell that will force a woman to fuck him.

Adam refuses.

The asshole doesn't phrase it quite like that, love potion, win her heart, and Adam doesn't say no outright. They just keep dancing around their fucking words until Ronan grabs the visitor by the scruff of his neck and throws him out.

It's the best he's felt in ages. He hasn't gotten to accomplish something in a while. Hell, maybe Adam will deign to give him one of those thank yous that he's always lavishing on Opal. Maybe Ronan will deign to let him.

Ronan turns around.

Adam does not look grateful. Adam looks deeply pissed off.

"What did you do that for?" He opens the door, but the creep is already running flat out for the woods, where he will hopefully get lost and emerge only once he's grown a soul. Or just never. Ronan would be fine with either outcome.

"Sorry, did you want to ruin some woman's life, just in case he had some useless junk he was going to pay you with?"

"I was never going to grant his wish," Adam says. "That doesn't mean you can assault him. He was in my house, he crossed my threshold."

"And now he's gone," Ronan says. "You're welcome."

"Do you have any idea the kind of power I have over someone who's in my house?"

"So you should have gotten rid of him."

"So I have to be more considerate with him."

"Why? Why fucking bother? Why not just zap him with a bolt of lightning?"

Adam stares at Ronan like he doesn't understand the words that are coming out of his mouth.

"Why should I not abuse someone that's under my power? That's the question you're asking me?" He waits long enough for Ronan to feel like an asshole, but not long enough to make Ronan regret anything. That would be a long fucking wait. "If you really have no problem with the ethics -- "

"I don't," Ronan says, for the sake of confrontation.

"You might consider that's the sort of thing that inspires vengeful mobs."

A pained whine cuts through the room. Adam jumps at the same second Ronan does, the same second that Ronan realize he forgot that Opal was in the room.

She was starting to clear away the usual ritual garbage; there's a candle in her hand, but she lifted it up to her face and bit into it at some point. Her breath is fast and shallow.

"Opal," Adam says, "that was just -- nothing is going to -- "

Opal runs out the door and across the clearing.

"I can see why you wanted a kid so badly," Ronan says, as fierce and horrible as he can, "you're a real natural with them."

Adam shuts his jaws so hard that Ronan hears his teeth clack. He shuts his eyes, and when he opens them he doesn't snarl back at Ronan, or kick him out, or tell him how this is all his fault. He just grabs his jacket and opens the door.

Ronan kicks it shut again. "Leave her alone," he says. "It's not like she can get away."

"Something could happen to her."

"What, in your precious forest that loves her so much? She'll be fine. She's survived worse than this."

The anger saps out of Adam, leaves him smaller than before.

"Right."

And just like that Ronan inherits Adam's anger: he doesn't need the sinister witch of the woods to tell him he's right. He knows he's right. He was the one who coaxed Opal back from the brink of wildness, who dug the human out from under the animal, who had to watch her run away from him a hundred times and just hope she'd come back. And now Adam's pretending he knows one goddamn thing about it, just because he'd had some creepy little vision, just because he'd known her name when Ronan hadn't. That doesn't fucking mean anything. Knowing isn't the same as being there.

He thinks about saying that, telling Adam that he's never done anything for her, that he doesn't know her.

Adam looks so fucking tired. It would be like kicking a dying man. Maybe Ronan's not a saint, but he doesn't need Adam and his ethics to tell him that would be wrong.

Which leaves him -- pissed off, alone with the witch, his daughter running around the forest scared or mad or both.

He walks outside and sits on his shitty little cot in his shitty little stable, where he would have frozen to death weeks ago if Adam hadn't invited him inside.

-

They make it through the end of the year by ignoring each other. Given how chatty Opal is, it's a quiet few days.

On the last day of the year, Adam keeps Opal up for half the night breathing weird smoke and playing with fire, because he claims it's a good time to "see." Not good enough; when Ronan asks Opal if she had any mystical visions of the future besides how tired she was going to be the next day, she shakes her head. She looks thoughtful, though, and she doesn't seem upset about the failure, even if she does take a long nap.

"Maybe it would have gone better if someone hadn't kept interrupting," Adam mutters.

"It's my family tradition," Ronan says. "We sing in the new year. You're not going to stop me from passing down my traditions to my daughter, are you?"

Adam looks exasperated. "There's no way singing suggestive songs is a New Year's tradition in your family."

"You haven't met them," Ronan says, pronouncing each syllable crisply the way Declan does when he's in town. "You wouldn't know."

Adam just shakes his head. Come to think of it, he hadn't been that annoyed last night either, even when he had shaped the sparks coming off the fire into a bird and chased Ronan out of the room with it. Apparently that didn't count as abusing someone who had passed his threshold.

Opal gets up from her nap, and Adam decides that witches are allowed to have fun sometimes. He passes around a bunch of sweets from a box that Ronan has never seen before and is determined to raid the moment he gets a chance, except then he takes his eyes off it and it's gone. They play in the snow outside and don't learn a single fact about anything. Adam even produces a bottle of liquor and pours two glasses, clinks his against Ronan's in a wordless toast.

Ronan silently wishes for Opal's happiness, and then wonders if he shouldn't have made it her freedom, instead.

Across the clearing, Opal yells a wordless battle-cry and stabs a snowman through the heart with a stick.

Same thing, Ronan decides, and drinks.

-

It turns out that when sad sacks can't be bothered to tromp through the snow to visit Adam, Adam tromps through the snow to visit the sad sacks.

"There's a dozen illnesses that flourish this time of year," Adam says, "and most of them are easy to treat, except no one knows how because they're taught superstitious nonsense instead of proper medicine."

"Superstitious nonsense, as opposed to go visit the witch."

"Magic," Adam says in his lecture voice, "is only one small aspect of being a witch."

"Really? Because you've been pretty horny for magic this whole time."

It turns out witches blush when they're scandalized. Ronan has clearly been slacking if he's only learning that now.

"You came to me," Adam points out, "if anyone's horny for magic it's you," but his ears are red.

"Seriously," Ronan asks, after they've walked most of the day just to get to the little village east of the woods. This night is going to end with him sleeping in a moldy barn, he can already tell. "Why do we need to come all this way just to treat some runny noses? We have runny noses at home." He's been sniffling for three days. Adam had pointed that out as a reason he should've skipped this trip. He'd ignored that the way he ignored all facts he didn't like, the way he was ignoring the scent coming off the baby Adam was examining.

"I don't know, I'm rather fond of eating," Adam says, his voice, like Ronan's, low enough that the baby's parents couldn't hear.

"It's easier to eat indoors."

"Uh-huh. In the last week alone we've eaten pork, beef, cheese -- where exactly did you think those were coming from? My huge herd of cattle?"

Ronan -- hadn't actually thought of that. He'd just been eating the food Adam prepared, because it was Adam's house, and Adam was holding his daughter hostage, so the least Adam could do was feed him.

Looking back on it, he kind of feels like an asshole, or worse, a child.

"So you, what, earn your living swapping snot cures for cuts of meat?"

"I'm impressed that you manage to sound both shocked and bored at the same time."

"It is boring. You're a witch," Ronan says. "You wake up sleeping damsels and steal children."

"I really don't want to feed into those delusions of yours, so please don't take this the wrong way when I say that our exchange was exceptional and not at all representative of my life's work."

"Aw, you think I'm special."

"Extremely," Adam says. "Here, you're the one who's good with kids, hold him for a second," and he hands the baby to Ronan just in time for it to vomit all over Ronan's shirt.

-

Ronan moans the whole way home that if he comes down with baby puke flu then Adam had better have a really good cure ready, but he feels fine the next day, and the day after that. His runny nose even goes away. He celebrates by sneaking Opal into the woods when they wake up before Adam one morning, lets her climb trees and harass squirrels and just run around for fun.

Adam still isn't up when they come back in. Ronan tries to think if the full moon means Adam has to stay in bed all day having visions or some crap, and then he realizes that he has no idea if it even is the full moon, and also that it's morning and the moon probably doesn't matter.

"Hey, brat," he tells Opal. "Go steal the eggs from the chickens."

She stares at him, coolly, and then sits down with no intention of standing back up.

Ronan feeds the chickens -- too much, but it keeps them too busy to attack him, fuck, he hates chickens -- and grabs enough eggs to make breakfast. Adam still hasn't shown his face by the time they're done eating, so Ronan cleans everything up and puts it back in the wrong place.

By the time he's done with that, he's terminally bored, and Opal refuses to engage with him; she's hunched over a stack of paper, quietly copying words out of a book. Adam had really oversold her on the whole literacy thing. Not that Ronan had anything against books, but he had everything against the snotty way Adam had told him off, "she can't read," so disgusted it wasn't even worth arguing that I was a little too busy making sure she got fed to shove books at her in the middle of a fucking forest.

Ronan gives up on tearing Opal away from her work and shuffles every last one of Adam's herbs around.

Adam finally emerges from the bedroom, greets Opal "good morning."

Ronan had left the remains of breakfast on the table, not quite enough food for one person. Adam skips over it entirely and pours some water into a glass, raises the glass and then freezes without taking a sip. He's looking straight at his newly organized kitchen.

Adam sighs and shuts his eyes.

And then he -- wobbles. Steps with one foot, wildly, catching his balance, and spills half his water.

It's the least graceful thing Ronan has ever seen him do. He laughs mostly out of surprise.

"You doing all right?" It doesn't sound particularly sincere, but it isn't supposed to.

"I'm great, thanks for your concern." This time when he speaks, Ronan can hear how hoarse his voice is.

"Don't tell me witches get sick."

"It's just a cold."

"Sure it is," Ronan says, "you're going to infect us and we'll all get leprosy, and then you'll charge us for the cure."

"Oh, there's an idea." The words are audibly causing him pain, but he keeps speaking. "Come closer so I can breathe on you." He coughs.

There's a small sound under the cough, and when Ronan looks over he sees Opal has set her pen down. Her eyes are wide and huge and staring through Adam.

It sort of takes the fun out of mocking a sick man. "Go back to bed."

"And give you free reign to redecorate? No thanks."

"Okay, stay out here coughing, you can get Opal sick. You really want to do that because you don't like -- " me is the obvious end to that sentence, but somehow he ends up saying "napping?"

Adam huffs, or tries to; it turns into half a minute of his lungs trying to climb up his throat. By the end of that even Ronan is feeling a little freaked out; Opal's gone bone white.

"Fine," he concedes, with as much dignity as anyone has ever fit into a croak. He goes back to his bedroom.

Opal disappears away into her little room. Ronan figures she's skipping out on work since her teacher is in no shape to check up on her, but she comes back out carrying the heavy quilt from her bed. Half of it trails on the ground behind her. Ronan's amused enough at the sight that she's already got the door to Adam's room open before he thinks to stop her.

She waddles right up to the bed and chucks the blanket up onto it. The bed's too tall for her to spread it over Adam, but she's clearly trying, poking at it and glaring.

Adam opens his eyes. "Thank you, Opal. But you should go so you don't get sick."

Ronan hurries her on out. She doesn't want to go, so he ends up half pushing her, half lifting her, until he can set her back down in her chair and shut Adam's door.

Opal hunches down over the table.

Ronan goes and washes his hands, because he really doesn't want Adam to get him sick.

Something rips behind him.

He turns around and sees Opal crumpling paper and flinging it across the room, before she grabs another handful of pages and tears them out of the book.

"Hey!" Ronan's too loud, but Adam doesn't emerge from his room and Opal doesn't even pause, just snatches what has to be several chapters and pulls, one tug, and then another, as they slowly split from the spine of the book.

Ronan swears -- quieter this time -- and snatches the book away from Opal. She clambers up on the table and tries to grab it back from him.

"Knock it the fuck off."

Opal smacks him in the face. He can't tell if that was intentional, or just flailing; he's not really inclined to let her try again and find out. He wraps an arm around her, pinning her arms to her side.

"What the hell got into you?"

She just squirms.

Ronan carries her outside and sets her down on the porch. "Go run around until you get over this," and he shuts the door in her face.

His cheek is stinging; when he brushes his hand over it, his fingers come away with a speck of blood.

He wipes them off on the book. Adam probably had to treat cow hemorrhoids or something equally gross for it, and now it's ruined.

The back door swings open and Opal storms into the house like the smallest of the Furies.

Ronan points. "Outside."

She growls at him and collapses onto the floor, sitting in a tiny curled shape, like she can make herself too dense for Ronan to pick up.

Fucking hell fuck. Ronan's just glad Adam isn't seeing this.

"Fine," he says, "be miserable," and he picks up all the ripped out pages and puts them, with the rest of the book, on a shelf that's too high up for Opal to get at.

She doesn't try. She doesn't do anything but sit there on the floor, so Ronan pretends to ignore her. He goes into the library, figuring she might make a break for it at some point to continue her literary critique. She doesn't. He gets bored just sitting there, starts taking books down and re-shelving them based on their color instead of whatever system they're actually sorted by.

That doesn't take long. Opal is still sitting by Adam's door. Ronan digs around in the pantry until he finds stuff he can turn into food. That doesn't get Opal to move, so he just brings a plate to her and sets it on the floor. She doesn't touch it, not until he leaves; when he checks later half the food is gone.

At least she's eating, even if she won't do it while he's watching. That hurts, all the more because he doesn't know what he fucked up to lose her trust. Because he grabbed her? Because he yelled? Because he didn't know what to do besides grab her and yell.

He waits until she's done eating, and then he grabs a book at random and sits on the ground with the wall against his back, several feet away from Opal. He makes himself focus on the book instead of on her. It turns out to be collection of classical mythology. Parts of it are pretty dirty. He's kind of glad that Opal's illiterate.

The next time he allows himself to look up, Opal has laid on her side, still curled up, and fallen asleep.

Ronan loses track of time without anyone else to talk to. He decides it's dinner time because he's hungry, and then it occurs to him that Adam hasn't eaten a damn thing all day. He pokes Opal awake to help him cook and then takes in a plate of food to Adam.

Opal rushes in the second Ronan opens the door. Adam doesn't wake up, even with the impossibly loud thumps her tiny feet make. The blankets are rucked up around him, like he's been tossing and turning. Opal tugs one corner, trying to create order.

"Leave it," Ronan says.

Opal looks at him with a level of hurt and betrayal she hadn't even had when he let her get kidnapped.

Ronan sighs and knocks her hands away, pulls the blankets up properly since he can actually reach the top of the bed.

"Come on, let's go," he says, not wanting to see what her face looks like now, and hurries her out of the room.

Adam hadn't even stirred. Ronan is aware of that on a sick, urgent level: Adam hadn't gotten out of bed, even when Ronan yelled. He's completely out of it now. This is the best opportunity Ronan will ever get. He can grab Opal and run, and Adam wouldn't even know for hours, wouldn't be able to do anything about it until Ronan had already found somewhere new and far away and hidden. If Adam was lying when he said that Opal couldn't be taken away from the forest, then this would be the end of it.

Opal drops back down to the floor outside Adam's room.

She's tiny. Ronan could pick her up, even if she'd hate it. Grab her and just keep a hold on her until they got away, until she realized this was for her own good. Until she decided to forgive Ronan for forcing her to do something.

Ronan picks up his damn book and grips it until he can't feel his fingers.

-

Mythology gets him through until noon the next day. He grabs another book at random, but it turns out to be an almanac. Even with Adam sleeping and Opal refusing to do anything but scrawl meaningless squiggles over her writing practice, Ronan isn't that bored.

He stares around the house for something to do and ends up in front of the dried herbs in the kitchen. There are a shit-ton of them.

"Some of these have to be good for a cold," he says, "right?"

Opal scrambles up and over to the kitchen. She stands on her toes to peer over the edge of the counter.

Ronan kind of regrets mixing them all around now; he doesn't know what half of them are. He grabs one that looks unfamiliar, because he figures the really magical shit has to be rare.

"This one stinks," he says, "it must be good for you."

Opal looks at him with a wealth of disapproval on her tiny face. She goes into the library and comes out with a book as big as she is.

"Oh, book recommendations from the girl who can't read, thanks."

"'m still smarter than you," she mutters.

Ronan grins at her. "Be quiet. I need to focus on this with my tiny idiot brain."

It's an encyclopedia of medicinal plants, so even if Opal can't read she's smart enough to be dangerous. He flips through and finds entries for colds, coughs, fevers, and he matches up the pictures with the things in front of them until he's reasonably sure they've pulled together a concoction that won't kill anyone.

He gets the water boiling, but he lets Opal mix all the herbs up into a tea that smells terrible -- Ronan was right about that -- and lets her carry it with tiny careful steps into Adam's room.

Adam opens his eyes. He's sweaty and flushed and, as he takes in the sight of Opal with a cup that's as big as her head, confused.

"Opal?" he asks.

She lifts it up to him. "Drink."

He sits up, slowly. "What is this?"

"Drink!"

Adam looks from her to Ronan.

"Your apprentice made you a potion," Ronan says. "It's good for you."

Whatever mystical powers Adam has, he can't kill a man with his eyes, or else Ronan would drop dead on the spot.

"How thoughtful." He takes the cup from her and takes one sip.

The face that he makes does tremendous good for Ronan's soul.

He puts the cup down on his nightstand, but Opal picks it right back up again and holds it out to him, fretful.

Adam takes it from her like it might bite him. He steels himself, and then drinks the entire cup in one long pull.

"Thanks, Opal. I feel better already."

Opal smiles at him, and when Ronan shoos her out of the room she goes. She even lets herself be coaxed outside. Ronan chops firewood, glad to have an excuse to move after a day in the house. Opal helps by stripping the bark off the wood and darting forward to stick pieces of it down his boots whenever he takes a break.

He tries to let the repetitive work push thought out of his head, but it doesn't. The third time he has to stop to dig a pointy bit of dead tree out of his shoe, he drags his thoughts out into words.

"Hey. You don't need to worry about him. Okay?" Opal gives him nothing to work with. "Witches aren't like normal people. Bad things don't happen to them -- " unless they deserve it, but suddenly that doesn't sound like reassurance; it sounds cruel, if she really has spent the whole day worrying about the witch that is keeping her prisoner.

"They don't get sick," he tries instead. Opal's expression says that Ronan is full of shit and everyone knows it. She sighs, and it sounds disturbingly like Adam's tired little sigh, when he'd been sick and exhausted and found his entire kitchen rearranged. "Not really sick," Ronan amends, because who ever heard a story of a witch dying of a fever or a plague. Who ever heard a story of a witch not wanting to take his medicine because it tasted bad.

"Besides," Ronan continues, despite the fact that he doesn't know what he's saying anymore. "You're the puniest witch in the world now, so if something goes wrong, you'll fix it."

That satisfies Opal, at least. She sticks a piece of bark in her mouth and chews on it, contented.

-

Adam is up from bed the next day, with a cough and a hollow set of his face that persists for the rest of the week. It clears up just in time for someone to come by the house and ask for a witch.

He's not bad, as far as visitors go, respectful and to the point. A plague had gone through his town last year, and he'd lost one child; the other had never fully recovered.

Adam asks Opal to bring him some items, and he grinds them up together while he describes how much to give the kid and when. The medicine looks an awful lot like the tea Opal made for Adam. Ronan smirks with vindication.

The only thing the visitor has to pay them with is an old baby blanket, faded and patched like it's been through a few generations. Ronan's gotten used to the weird detritus that people come to value; he's not surprised when Adam accepts that as payment.

But he does say, after the guest has left, "how come when he needs a cure it just costs him a blanket, but when I need a cure it sets me back a whole kid."

"Lifting a death curse is a bit more work than fixing a cough." Adam blows out the candles that he always sets out, even though he hadn't used them for anything this time. He returns the herbs to their places in the kitchen and grabs a rag to wipe down the table.

Only then does he look up and see Ronan, frozen.

"What's wrong?"

"My mother was cursed?"

Adam looks confused, but his voice comes out even, like he's going to see where Ronan is going with this before he reacts. "She was asleep for five days, what did you think had happened?"

Ronan shoves off the wall he's been leaning on, so quickly that Adam tenses.

"Who did it?" he asks. "How?"

Adam says, very level, "I don't know. It wasn't the work of anyone that I was familiar with."

"You were a child, how much were you familiar with?"

Adam just says again, "I didn't recognize it."

"Then what fucking good are you?"

He's gotten really used to the way anger builds up in Adam's eyes.

He isn't used to seeing him reign it in.

"I did as much good as I was able to."

Ronan walks outside and slams the door behind him.

-

It's obvious what he has to do, once he starts thinking, but he spends most of the day wandering the woods before he can think.

Opal runs up to him as soon as he comes inside. She tugs his hand and pulls him to the table, where there's odd little ruins drawn in chalk, clean and beautiful on Adam's side of the table, twisted and chaotic on Opal's side. Adam clears the whole mess away with one swipe of his hand.

"Do you need anything?"

Ronan winces. The words sound familiar, usual business for the witch in the woods, but the tone does not.

Opal looks back and forth between them, concerned. When no one gives her an answer she grabs Ronan's leg, hard, in something that approaches a hug. He must be pretty fucked up, that she'd do that for him. It still helps.

He puts a hand on the back of her head, a light and wordless thanks, and he's looking at her but he's talking to Adam when he says, "I need to go see my brother."

"When?"

"Tomorrow."

"We'll set out first thing in the morning."

Ronan shakes his head. This mess has already cost him Opal once; he doesn't want her any closer to it. She'll be -- safer, here, and he realizes that he means it. That he isn't worried at all about leaving her alone with Adam. His daughter will be safer with him than she would be anywhere else in the world.

"Okay," Adam says softly. "She'll be here when you come back."

Ronan goes to bed right after Opal does, lies in bed until the sky starts to get lighter, and then he gets up.

Adam is already up, sitting in front of the fire in the main room. There's a second where his eyes are wide open and eerie, and then he blinks and looks at Ronan.

"Good luck."

Ronan nods.

-

"Your animals are still being cared for," Declan says, and it takes Ronan a couple of minutes to figure out what the fuck he's even talking about. "Ashley has a cousin who got into a bit of trouble recently -- nothing serious, he's stupid but he's trustworthy. I asked him to stay at your place and keep an eye on everything."

"Great." Ronan has always hated other people being in his house. He should be furious.

"I thought you might not want to leave these behind, though." Declan sets down a wooden box in front of Ronan. He opens it. It's full of a half a dozen things that their father had given Ronan, gifts from his travels. They're toys and trinkets, not valuable except in the way that the things people bring to pay Adam with are valuable. These had been the most treasured possessions he had for most of his life, and he hasn't thought about them in months.

He shuts the box.

"Did you know that mom was under a curse?" he asks. "When she was sick?"

Declan doesn't look surprised. "I thought it was a possibility."

"Then why the hell did you waste all that time messing around with doctors?"

"Because I didn't know. Not that it was magic, not for sure, and not what to do about it if it was."

"You knew about the witch."

"It didn't seem like a solution."

"You didn't want to pay the price, you mean."

"Yes." Declan admits it outright, no sidestepping or excuses. "I had an idea of what would be asked of me and I didn't want to give it up."

"Why? What could possibly be more important than your family?"

Declan doesn't even look when Ronan yells at him. He's staring out the window, a long way away.

"Do you remember the house we were born in?" Ronan frowns, at the change in topic, at the question itself. They had always lived in the house on the road. "If you can even call it a house? Leaky roof and rats and it was always cold," Declan says, voice thick with the judgment of a man who lives in the nicest house in town.

Ronan shakes his head, but even as he does something comes to him. Not a memory so much as a feeling, one he doesn't like.

"We lived in shit," Declan says bluntly, "and dad couldn't find any job better than cheating people at cards, because everyone knew he was a small time con man who cheated at cards."

"People loved dad."

"Once he had money, sure. It's amazing how that changes people's minds."

"You'd know," Ronan says, his voice nasty.

"Yes, I would." Declan looks at Ronan. "Do you want to hear about the witch or not?"

"Sure, tell me all about it. I suppose dad went and asked for money, is that it? Magic doesn't work like that."

"That's what she told him, too," Declan says, looking back out the window. "That that wasn't something that magic could give him. But he spun it to her, oh, it wasn't for him, he was selfless. No, it was for his poor hungry family, what would become of them if he couldn't make an honest living."

They had never wanted for anything, even after their father died, even though their mother only ever worked when she wanted to, never had to sell things at market or watch other people's children or take a job in town.

Ronan asks, "what did he give up?"

For a moment it's like Declan doesn't hear him.

"The witch said, if that was how he bent words, then he didn't need the truth. That he'd make a living, but not an honest one."

"How can someone give away truth," Ronan demands. It's easier to argue than to consider it. "How would you even know, if he could only lie afterwards?"

"I was there, Ronan," Declan says. "He brought me with him."

Ronan just -- sits, and doesn't say anything.

Declan turns away from the window. "I'll tell Ashley's cousin he can stay on at your house for a while."

Ronan had told Adam he would live in the woods for years if that's how long it took to get Opal back. He'd meant it, but -- he hadn't really thought it would come to that. He'd thought that there would be some way out of it, or that Adam would give up, or most likely he hadn't thought it through at all.

Ronan wonders if he's ever been right about anything.

He stands up slowly and says, "he can have the place," and then he leaves.

He walks through town, doesn't stop when he passes his mother's house. He doesn't really see where he's going.

It's a long walk back to the clearing in the woods. He has time to remember every last word of every last story his father ever told him, each more incredible and impossible than the last. He'd always been able to read between the lines and know what his father was really saying with those stories, I missed you, I love you, I'm proud of you. But maybe he should have paid more attention to the actual words. Should have paid attention to all the times that his father didn't use words at all.

He can hear Adam shouting at him that people who would sell their children don't deserve children. Ronan had written it off as an attempt to make him feel like shit. He hadn't bothered to think that Adam might have a point, to ask where that anger came from. He feels like an idiot that he never wondered how Adam became a witch. He feels like an idiot that he never asked Declan why he warned him not to go to the woods. He feels like an idiot for doubting his father, and he feels like an idiot for believing in him.

He reaches the clearing without ever being aware of the woods, just looks up sees the house. The warm bright windows blur in his eyes. He just wants to be home.

As soon as he opens the door, a snowball flies out from inside the house and hits him in the chest.

Opal is giggling, and Adam is smiling with half his mouth. "We're learning about the states of water," he says, which explains why there's a bucket of snow on the floor and a kettle whistling on the fire.

Ronan barely takes those in, just strides forward and picks Opal up and holds her. She tolerates that for a pretty long time, a few seconds at least, before she starts to squirm.

Ronan opens his eyes. Adam has stepped back to fuss with the kettle. He's wearing that shuttered look he gets, but it's like Ronan is seeing it for the first time. Adam is pulling away: from Opal, from Ronan, from Opal and Ronan, hiding in the outskirts of his own home so he won't get in their way, and as soon as he realizes that Ronan shoves Opal into Adam's arms.

"Here," he says. Adam takes her from him out of reaction, not conscious decision. It's a start. "She can put her freezing hands on you," and he goes to hang up his outer layers. Takes a few extra moments to let his heartbeat even out.

When he turns around, Adam has adjusted his grip, and Opal is whispering in his ear.

"Yes, I think Ronan does need a cup of tea, why don't you pick one out?" He carries her over and lets her point at one of the jars. "Excellent choice -- no, I don't think you need chocolate, but nice try," he adds when she whispers something else in his ear.

Ronan watches as Opal measures out tea slowly and spills most of it anyway, as Adam holds her up with one hand and cleans up the mess with the other, and he thinks maybe there's one thing he got right.

Chapter Text

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."