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Mortal Jeopardy

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A week into his sophomore year at Halloweentown University, Dylan finally had his room set up exactly the way he wanted it. Books organized by subject, alphabetized by main author's last name. Clothing sorted by weather condition then color. Every pen in its holder, every stray piece of paper in its binder.

Now, he had a little time to relax before he had head to Marnie's room. Marnie and Aneesa were leaving for their semester studying abroad, but he had an hour or two before it was time to say goodbye. Settling at his desk, he figured it was a good time to get further ahead on his required reading. Instead the electric hum of magic started to crackle in the air around him and a flickering image started to coalesce in front of him.

When figure resolved itself into something recognizable, Sophie stood there, forehead wrinkled and hands on her hips while she peered around.

"When am I?" she demanded

"Uh? What?"

"When. Am. I?"

"Sophie, aren't you and Grandma Aggie on your way to Egypt to study hieroglyphic magic? I thought you were done with the timeline hopping?"

Dylan knew for a fact she was, because he'd spent the entire summer being jealous once he found out their plans for the fall. He never regretted his choice not to study magic, but sometimes he envied the training his sisters got for the chances it gave them to learn about history, culture, even geography. All the stuff that, so far, he'd only read about in books.

"I'm not timeline hopping, exactly. It's a slipstream and… oh, never mind, you wouldn't understand. I had to contact you and this was the only way."

Dylan lifted his wrist, and pointed at the portable witch's glass. "What about the—"

"Dylan, I don't have time," Sophie hissed, looking back over her shoulder at something he couldn't see. "What day is it? What time?"

"September fifth. About six at night."

"Good, I'm in time. It's still today." Her shoulders sagged in relief. "Someone is going to steal Merlin's Talisman from the pumpkin in the town square tonight. You have to stop them or something bad will happen on Halloween."

"Bad? How bad? Sophie, what's going on? Why are you telling me, not Marnie?"

The sound of Aggie's voice carried from where/whenever Sophie was.

"I have to go. Remember. You have to keep Merlin's Talisman from being stolen. If you can't then you have to stop it from being used on Halloween." The image started to break up but Sophie's voice remained clear. "Try not to hurt the thief, though."

"Wait. Sophie? Who will steal it? How…"

But she was gone, the room eerily quiet and still without the buzz of magic.

Witches.

Always so cryptic and mysterious. He'd have to go talk to Marnie before she left. Maybe she could figure out what Sophie meant.

#

Dylan hesitated outside the open door to Marnie and Aneesa's room listening to the giggles and watching multicolor sparks flashing. The two roommates sat on Marnie's rumpled bed surrounded by a pile of what looked like every piece of clothing both of them owned. Ethan was there as well, stretched on Aneesa's perfectly made bed laughing and offering his own opinion while the girls debated what clothes to pack and what to leave behind. The black t-shirt he wore was just tight enough to show off the smooth muscles of his arms and sleek breadth of his shoulders. Every time he laughed, the hem hiked up a little to play peek-a-boo with a hint of sculpted ab muscles. Dylan swallowed hard and tried not stare at Ethan while he waited for them to notice him.

He wasn't quite sure what Ethan's relationship was with Marnie and Aneesa. It had been obvious from the time the girls had started rooming together that they were more than just roommates. Yet Ethan continued hanging out and didn't seem to mind that Marnie had relegated him to 'just friends' status after a couple of dates. Not that Dylan minded either. Hanging out with the group was about as close as he'd ever get to his own date with Ethan.

After Julia, Natalie and the Sinister sisters, Dylan was tired of having crushes on the unobtainable, so he buried his feelings deep and tried not to notice how attractive the guy was. At least not when anyone else was looking. But stretched out on the bed, eyes warm with laughter, it was hard not to.

Of course, that was when Ethan looked up and caught him staring.

"Dylan, hey, how's it going?"

At least Ethan always seemed happy to see him. And hadn't once asked for help with his homework.

"Hey," he mumbled in return, fiddling with his glasses in hopes of hiding the blush burning his cheeks.

"Dylan, I was starting to worry you weren't going to get here in time to say good bye."

Marnie jumped up and hugged him, squeezing him so tight he had to wait for her to let go before he had enough air to speak.

"Of course I wouldn't let you leave without saying goodbye…" 

He was talking to his sister's back, however, as she scooted across the room.

"Where is it? Where'd I put it?" she muttered to herself sorting through what looked like a pile of miniature toys on her desk. "Aha!"

She came back and pressed a small wooden rectangle into his hand.

"I need you to take care of this while I'm gone. Don't lose it and don't let anyone get their hands on it."

He peered at it, brow furrowing. "A dollhouse sized trunk? Who would want it?"

"Don't be ridiculous. It's a regular trunk and it's filled with things like Aggies extra spell book, some rare potion ingredients I've collected and my witch's glass. I shrank it down to make it more portable because I was going to take it with me, but the stupid rules say clothes and toiletries only."

"Rules?" he smirked at his sister. "Since when do you obey the rules?"

"Since the Amazons only allow one group of exchange students every century. If I get kicked out of this group, I'll never have a chance again. This is way too rare of an opportunity. I've been looking forward to this all summer."

Dylan bit his lip, remembering the spontaneous fireworks over their house when she'd gotten word that both she and Aneesa had been accepted for the program. It was the chance of a lifetime and he couldn't blame her.

Dylan sighed and smiled at his sister. "I know. I'll hang onto this for you. Can't let anything stand in the way of learning the secrets of the Amazons."

After saving the world three or four times, Marnie had an over developed hero complex. If he told her about Sophie's cryptic message, she might stay and miss out on a unique opportunity.

So he'd deal with this on his own, for once, instead of depending on his sister to save the day. How hard could it be to stop one measly thief?

He swallowed hard but it was too late to change his mind. Professor P. arrived and the girls were hugging everyone one last time. Marnie lingered in Ethan's embrace, whispering something that made him flush and turn his head while she and Aneesa giggled. Then, with a last wave, the three women disappeared in rush of blue and pink

"Have you eaten yet?"

Dylan blinked, realizing he was alone with Ethan. Something he tried hard not to do, since he always got ridiculously tongue-tied around the guy. Not to mention the humiliating blushing.

"Huh?"

"It's getting kind of late, but I skipped dinner to make sure I got a chance to say goodbye. I figured, if you hadn't eaten, we could go grab something."

"Uh. Okay. If you want, I mean…"

He closed his eyes and willed his mouth to stop talking but Ethan just laughed and patted him on the shoulder.

"Let's go."

If Ethan noticed the way Dylan shivered and leaned into the brief touch, he didn't say anything, to the eternal gratitude of Dylan's pride.

#

The sun had already set by the time they sat down in the dining hall and the tables were mostly empty, except for a handful of nocturnal creatures grabbing an early breakfast.

Dylan stared morosely at his plate, pushing the literal blood pudding around more than eating it, trying to figure out how to stop a thief with no magic and no knowledge of what was really going on.

"Okay, what gives?"

Startled, Dylan looked up to find Ethan frowning at him in concern.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you've barely said two words to me, you've massacred your food without taking a single bite and you have your 'Marnie dragged me into another magical crisis' look. Only Marnie left an hour ago."

"I have looks?" he asked, not sure if he was more surprised that he was that transparent or that Ethan had paid enough attention to him to notice.

"Yeah," Ethan laughed a little. "You get tight around the eyes, your lips pinch into a permanent line. And you fiddle with your glasses."

Dylan dropped his hand from where he'd been about to readjust his frames and considered obfuscating. Ethan had already gotten embroiled in two of their crazy family dramas. Probably, the polite thing to do was leave him out of this completely.

On the other hand, Dylan didn't want to do this alone.

"Sophie," he blurted out.

"Sophie?" Ethan's frown deepened. "I thought she was off training with your grandmother somewhere."

"She is, I guess. She just popped in long enough to tell me I had to stop someone from stealing Merlin's Talisman from the pumpkin tonight at midnight."

"Okay, well, it's nearly nine. We probably want to get to the square ahead of time, to make sure we catch them before they get their hands on it."

"We?"

Ethan froze and leaned back in his chair, looking uncertain. "That is, if you want my help, I mean."

"Of course, I do. It's just," he pushed his hand flat on the table to keep from fidgeting with his glasses again. "It's just these things never work out quite as easy as it seems they should in the beginning. I don't want to drag you into anything dangerous. Again."

"Dylan, I'm not going to let you walk into anything potentially dangerous on your own, either."

Ethan smiled again, and reached out to pat Dylan's forearm where it lay on the table between.

#

Outside the dining hall, the moon was up and shining brightly over the campus.

"Well, I guess if we're going to make it to town before midnight, we should start walking," Dylan said and turned toward the front of the University. "At least it's a warm night."

"No broom, huh?"

Though he smiled when he asked, he sounded a little sad.

"No. I leave that to Marnie."

"Too bad," Ethan murmured wistfully. "I really miss flying."

"Have you considered petitioning the council? You gave your magic up voluntarily, they might help you get it back. You didn't do anything wrong."

Ethan tucked his hands into his pockets and ducked his head.

"I helped. I mean, I didn't know what he was really doing. How far he'd go. But I knew it wasn't right." His laugh, this time, sounded more painful than amused. "I did it because he bought me a new broom."

With a sigh and a shrug, he tilted his head to look at Dylan. "You have generations of good witches in your blood. Witches like Marnie and Agatha, who always do the right thing. I have generations of selfish pricks who sold their integrity for power. I just don't think the temptation is worth the risk."

Dylan didn't know what to say. He chose not to use his magic because there never seemed to be anything he needed that he couldn't get the other way. Except knowledge. Even then, he just needed to read faster, to get that. He'd never been tempted to break the rules by his power.

"Hey, is that Benny?"

Dylan twisted around to see where Ethan pointed and spotted the familiar cab stopped in front of the University, letting out a pack of fairies.

They jogged over before the car pulled away and Dylan leaned in the window. "Hey, Benny, can you give us a ride into town?"

"Sure thing, kids. Hop in."

"Hey, did you guys here who won the skeleton beauty contest?" Benny asked, once they were on their way. "No body. Get it? No body."

Dylan groaned but Ethan chuckled politely, which Benny took as encouragement to regale them with puns the entire drive.

The town square was already quiet and empty when the cab pulled up to let them out.

After he closed the car door, Dylan leaned in the window again. "We might need a ride back, later."

"No problem. Just give a whistle and I'll find you guys."

Once Benny pulled out of sight, Ethan and Dylan were completely alone in the darkened town square.

"Over there," Ethan pointed. "The doorway to the candy shop is pretty deep. We can sit in the shadows and no one will see us, but we'll have a perfect view of the pumpkin and anyone coming for it."

They settled in to wait and Ethan was right. The recessed doorway made them all but invisible in the dark square, yet the light from the pumpkin made it easy to see anyone approaching it. The opening was ridiculously narrow, however, and their bodies pressed tightly together from shoulder to ankle. The feel of Ethan's warm, sleek muscles leaning into him was torture enough, but somewhere around the second hour, Ethan dozed off, head drooping onto Dylan's shoulder. It took all the self-restraint he had not to run his fingers through the tempting blond hair.

It was a distraction, to say the least. Which was why he missed the appearance of the cloaked figure skulking through the square until it had already climbed halfway up the pumpkin.

"Hey, wait. Stop," Dylan shouted, struggling to get up with Ethan dazedly jerking awake next to him.

The thief paused, and turned to stare at them, the cloak's heavy hood shading his face from view. Then he hurried up to the top of the pumpkin, reached inside, jerked the talisman free and jumped down before Dylan made it even halfway across the square. He gave chase when the cloaked figure ducked down a side street and started weaving in and out of alleys.

It had been a while since Dylan had had to chase a villain or run for his life and he'd gotten a little out of shape. His lungs burned, his sides ached and his legs felt like lead but he refused to give up even though the thief was getting farther and farther ahead. Ethan, however, easily caught up to Dylan despite his head start.

Then the thief turned down another alley, Ethan pushed past him and put on a burst of speed to follow. By the time Dylan got around the corner, Ethan had launched himself at the cloaked figure and they both landed hard on the ground. Ethan quickly got the upper hand, straddling the thief's back and pinning him to the pavement. Dylan stopped next to the struggling pair and pressed one hand against the wall while he bent over to catch his breath. 

"Who…" he tried to wheeze around his gasping for air."Who is it?"

Ethan grabbed a handful of hood and yanked, revealing all too familiar red hair, wide ears and large goblin nose.

"Luke?" He and Ethan asked at the same time.

The goblin clutched the talisman like a child with a teddy bear. His eyes, wide and panicked, darted between Dylan and Ethan.

"Help," he croaked, voice raw with pleading. "You have to help us."

"What? Us? Us who?"

A violet mini-tornado whirled to life at the other end of the alley. Dylan crouched down, closer to Ethan and threw his arm in front of his face to protect it from the whipping wind, dirt and debris. When it chaos subsided, he dropped his hand to gawk at the creature now floating in front of them. Like Luke, it wore a heavy cloak that covered it completely. Unlike Luke, though, the hood didn't just shadow its face. The thing had no face. Only an empty swirl of violent mist. It carried a heavy, dangerous looking staff in one hand and lowered it threateningly at Dylan and Ethan.

"Who are you?" Dylan demanded, standing up and trying to channel Marnie's in your face brashness. Unfortunately, it came out more stuttering and pathetic.

"I am the end and the beginning."

The voice had a grating, metallic sound that made it impossible to tell if the creature was male or female. Or if it had any gender at all.

"Well right now is the beginning of the end for you." This time he didn't need to fake his sister's righteousness. His own irritation and anger bled away the fear and uncertainty. "You're not going to do anything to Halloweentown and you're not getting Merlin's Talisman."

The dark, echoing laugh that answered him wasn't really unexpected. Sometimes Dylan wondered if Halloweentown had a second, Villain University where they learned all the clichés.

"Who's going to stop me? You're the only Cromwell left in Halloweentown and you're not even a witch." The tip of its staff started to glow. "You're no threat at all."

"Dylan, look out!"

Ethan surged to his feet, twisting to put himself between Dylan and the faceless demon.

The violet streak hit them like a rampaging elephant, knocking them both back fifteen feet and leaving them in a bruised tangle on the ground.

"Come, Luke. As entertaining as this has been, we have other things to do tonight."

The goblin reluctantly got up and trudged toward the cloaked figure. He glanced back, silent pleading in his eyes, before they both disappeared in a violet mist.

Dylan let his head drop back to the pavement and sighed in resignation.

"Why is it never as easy as catching the thief and turning him over to the authorities before going home to a celebratory cupcake and a good night's sleep?"

"Because you're a Cromwell. I'm pretty sure an addiction to adrenaline is in your blood, even if you pretend to prefer books to potions."

They laughed, a little hysterically, then Ethan whistled and they limped to the mouth of the alley where Benny's cab met them.

#

After waving goodbye to Benny, Dylan sighed, shoulders slumping, and turned to trudge back toward his dorm. Ethan's fingers wrapping around his wrist stopped him, though, and he stared tiredly down at the contact. What was it with all the touching lately? No way it was what he wanted it to be. Probably his exhausted mind seeing things and making connections that weren't really there.

"Are you okay?"

Dylan looked up at Ethan, eyes blinking a couple of times in order to force himself to focus.

After a minute, he managed to gather himself and give a self-depreciating smile. "Bruised, battered and exhausted. I'm a Cromwell. It's par for the course for us at this time of the year."

"What are you going to do now?"

"Now? I'm going back to my room and getting some sleep. Tomorrow, I'm going to my classes. In between homework and papers and studying, I'll try to figure out who wants to destroy, enslave or take over Halloweentown, this time."

"Is that all?" Ethan laughed sympathetically and squeezed his wrist. "My last class is at one, tomorrow. I'll come find you and we can put our heads together to try and figure this out. Get some rest."

Rest was exactly what he wanted when he closed and locked his door. Instead, though, he opened the pumpkin face of his personal witch's glass and tried to contact Sophie. The irritating buzzing denied him the possibility. Whether she was ignoring him or somewhere beyond his ability to connect, he was on his own.

He considered trying to talk to Aggie, but, chances were, he wouldn't be able to make contact with her either. And the sixth sense he pretended not to have prickled with the suggestion that that wasn't a good idea.

Marnie was out, as well. Her bracelet was tucked away in the tiny trunk hidden in the bottom of his t-shirt drawer. Complete isolation was part of the 'experience' according to his sister.

That left his mother. She'd be in Halloweentown in a heartbeat, of course. But Dylan wasn't quite ready to go crying to his mommy, yet. He'd like to hold on to what little dignity he had left on campus after the Sinister sisters had tromped all over his self-worth.

Instead, he closed the pumpkin and a terrifying thought occurred to him. He crossed to his book shelf and plucked the thick book off of it, holding his breath while he flipped it open. The amulet remained nestled snuggly where it was supposed to be, and he let the air out of his lungs with a sharp exhale of relief. 

He and Marnie were the only two who knew for sure it even still existed, though their mother suspected. He hadn't really believed it was in danger, but it was a relief to know it was safe, anyway. He closed the book and put it back where it belonged. With an exasperated groan, Dylan flopped down on his bed and tried to turn off the thoughts spiraling in his brain long enough to get a good night's sleep.

He had a feeling he'd need all his wits about him in the days ahead.

#

The next afternoon, Dylan grabbed a quick sandwich from the dining hall for a late lunch. Then he met Ethan in the memorial garden separating the back of the campus from the ancient, nearly forgotten Halloweentown cemetery. It was the quietest place he could think of to talk. Most people avoided the garden because the whole area had an eerie, restless feeling.

Dylan actually found it kind of peaceful. Maybe because half the headstones belonged to Cromwells or close relations. He'd spent a lot of time studying there after the embarrassing first quarter of his freshman year. Marnie had regularly accused him of hiding. He preferred to think of it as strategic retreat.

"Hey," Ethan greeted him, shifting his own lunch out of the way so Dylan could sit next to him on the stone bench.

"Hey," Dylan answered and dropped down beside him.

"So, any ideas yet?"

"No. Not really. I don't even know what Merlin's Talisman does. Other than end the dark ages or break Kalabar's spell."

"Maybe someone wants to recreate Kalabar's spell? His son disappeared after his last, failed vengeance attempt, right?"

"Yeah. It doesn't explain why Luke is working with him, though. Luke has been close to our family since he helped Marnie stop Kalabar senior our first trip here."

"Yeah, when I work for your grandma in the summers, he's always hanging around. He and Sophie are practically inseparable," Ethan said, taking a thoughtful bite of his sandwich. "I can't believe he'd do anything to hurt her. Since the amulet's gone, he can't be controlled. Maybe he's being coerced somehow?"

"How, though? I mean. What could someone offer or hold over him? I don't think being made more human looking is important to him, anymore."

"No. Sophie seems to like him the way he is."

"What?"

Ethan blinked and looked a little guilty. "I thought you knew. That's what I meant by inseparable. If they aren't dating, they have pretty strong mutual crushes."

"Sophie's only fifteen," he blustered.

"How old were you when you had your first crush?"

Dylan swallowed and shifted his gaze to his hands. His first crush had been Julia at fourteen, who'd laughed so hard when he asked her out, milk came out her nose. As pathetic and unattainable then, as Scarlet and her sister's had been last year. He glanced under his lashes at Ethan. At least he'd learned not to put his heart out there to get stomped all over, anymore. Actually, at least he'd learned to have crushes on someone who'd probably let him down gently, if he knew. Dylan considered it progress.

"Well, if he's not doing it to impress Sophie maybe he's doing it to protect her somehow," Dylan mused.

"From what, though? Aren't your sister and grandmother somewhere in Egypt right now?"

"I don't know," he pushed his glasses up his nose. "They're supposed to be. Sophie never actually said where she was. I have no idea what's going on."

"Well, maybe we should go to Aggie's house. If they're still in Halloweentown, that's where they'd be. If not, we can see if we can find some kind of clue to where they went."

"That's a good idea," he jumped to his feet. "Let's go see if we can whistle up Benny."

#

Benny pulled up to the gates of Agatha's house with a whistle and chuckled. "You Cromwells, such practical jokers. That's a good one, though."

Dylan didn't answer right away, to busy staring at the large, empty square of dirt where the Cromwell house was supposed to be.

"Dylan?" Ethan murmured.

"Uh, yeah. Funny, Benny," he finally answered, pushing down the sick feeling in his stomach and got out of the car. Numbly, he pushed through the gate after Benny drove away. He walked the perimeter first then tentatively shuffled to the center of the wide open space.

He tilted his head back, but the blue sky and shining sun mocked the foreboding squeezing his heart so he squeezed his eyes shut.

"This is not good."

 Ethan stepped close, his arm slipping comfortingly around Dylan's shoulders. He wanted to stiffen up, move away and hide how pathetic he was, but he just didn't have it in him. Instead, he let himself sink into the warmth, let himself accept the strength and compassion Ethan offered freely.

After a few minutes of comfort, Ethan started talking.

"All right. Let's think our way through this. I was here a couple of weeks before classes began. Everything seemed pretty normal. Aggie was as chatty as ever. Sophie was a little quiet, but I assumed that was because Luke wasn't around and she was pining. How about you? When was the last time you were here?"

Ethan squeezed his shoulder and Dylan let himself absorb a few more seconds of his caring and his steadiness before he forced himself to step away.

"The night before we moved back on campus, Marnie and I stayed here," Dylan waved his hand over the depressing plot of ground, trying to indicate the vague shape of the house that used to stand there. "Grandma bustled around telling Marnie stories and offering last minute advice. Sophie seemed more agitated than usual, but I figured she was jealous of having to share our grandmother's attention, for a change."

He shook his head, thinking about his little sister. She and Marnie were so much alike, it was frightening sometimes. "If she knew something was wrong then, though, she'd have told Grandma. Or us. She'd have shouted it from the rooftops until somebody listened or roped me and Marnie into helping her fix it. She wouldn't have kept a secret."

"Okay, so what happened between then and yesterday?"

Ethan's calmness was contagious and Dylan felt grounded enough, again, to reach for the comforting shield of sarcasm. "Well, an evil, faceless demon-y thing possibly did something to Luke, Sophie, my grandma and a whole house. Before stealing Merlin's Talisman."

"Or, Aggie did this herself to protect the house and all her stuff. The way Marnie threw everything in a trunk, shrank it and gave it to you. Maybe your sister and grandmother are in Egypt, but Sophie stumbled on some ancient prophecy or something. Your family is a magnet for that kind of thing."

"She could have just had a hunch. We—" Dylan stumbled to a halt then quickly corrected himself. "I mean they, have weird feelings all the time. She could have just known the talisman was in danger and figured I was here, I could deal with it. That kind of thing is old hat."

"From what I've seen, you're mom is kind of, er…" Ethan's nose scrunched and tried to find a diplomatic way to say what he was thinking. "She seems kind of overprotective."

Dylan sighed and rolled his eyes. "That's putting it mildly. But you're right. If something was wrong, she'd have noticed. I'll call her, see if she's noticed anything weird."

It took a surprisingly long time for his mother to answer, and, when she finally did, she was whispering from somewhere dimly lit.

"Is everything okay, Mom?" Dylan's heart started hammering in his chest. If his mother was in trouble too…

"I'm fine dear. Just showing a house. They're in the kitchen now and I'm pretty sure they're going to make an offer. Don't want to scare them off by talking to myself."

"Oh, okay," Dylan let himself take a calming breath before plunging in. "Have you heard from Sophie or Grandma? I mean they've been gone awhile, so…"

"I talked to Mom this morning. She said Sophie's having the time of her life. She's made friends with a couple of mummies and a sorceress. I'm not sure I approve of her being introduced to the Book of the Dead at such a young age, but there's no stopping your grandmother. Why, dear?"

"Uh, well, the last time I talked to Sophie she seemed, uh, odd."

"Well, she's a teenager now. Unlike you, she wasn't born an eighty year old curmudgeon." Dylan flushed when he heard Ethan stifle a chuckle. His mom's eyes went wide then narrowed down into her 'I-see-through-you' look. "Oh. I get it. You're missing Marnie, aren't you? You're so use to being your sister's sidekick, you're getting lonely? It's perfectly normal for a middle child, dear."

Leave it to his mother to humiliate him in front of a hot guy, even when she was in a different dimension.

He closed his eyes and straightened his glasses. "No, mom that's not—"

"Mrs. Piper? Yoo-hoo…"

The sound of his mother's clients echoed through the connection.

"I have to go Dylan. Don't worry about your sisters, they're both fine." Her hand hovered over the image in his bracelet before pulling back so he could see her face again. "Try to make some friends of your own, dear. It will be good for you."

Then the connection ended and Dylan wished he could disappear to wherever Aggie's house had gone.

He dropped his chin to his chest and stared at his feet, unwilling to look at Ethan with the blush scorching his cheeks.

"Moms are humiliating," he muttered.

"Parents, in general, are. Look on the bright side. At least your mom was never part of a super-secret alliance bent on taking over Halloweentown."

Dylan winced with guilt at his thoughtlessness. "Ahh, Ethan, I'm sorry…"

"Nothing to be sorry about. I was trying to cheer you up. So it sounds like Sophie and Aggie are okay. Now where do we look?"

"Well, I guess we need to figure out what's going on. Maybe we can talk to Grandma Aggie's friends. See if they noticed anything strange in town the last couple of weeks or find out if they know more about the talisman than I do."

Ethan nodded. "Good idea. We can also talk to Luke's friends and family. Try to track him down, or at least figure out what he's got himself caught up in."

Chapter Text

Dylan's head was pounding.

He and Ethan were in the library. Again. For the past few weeks, every moment not in class they'd spent either interrogating half of Halloweentown or rereading the books on Cromwell history in hopes of finding something about the talisman he'd missed the first time he'd zipped through the library for Marnie. When he'd been through every page twice, Dylan scoured the artifacts dotting the room, looking for any hint or clue. The collection included a crystal ball belonging to a clairvoyant ancestor, a blown glass dagger used to slay a wraith, and a flute that supposedly charmed the savage beast.

Unfortunately the library hadn't offered any new information. Neither had any of his grandmother's friends. They'd talked to Gort and Astrid, Harriet and everyone else Dylan had ever met or remembered Aggie mentioning. None of them knew anything about Merlin or what his talisman might be for. Then again, none of them even seemed to notice it was missing from the pumpkin in the square.

Luke's parents hadn't seen him, but, apparently, once the little goblin left the hovel, they pretty much moved on with their life, so that wasn't unusual.

Dylan pulled his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose. He only had a couple of days left and no idea what to do.

Ethan gave him a commiserating half-smile and leaned into him, shoulder pressing companionably. The one bright spot of the exhausting last few weeks. He spent nearly every spare moment with Ethan. It was surprising how much they had in common, even if they came at it from different angles. They both were history buffs, though Dylan was fascinated by the way science, geography and politics influenced it while Ethan was a font of information about art and literature and culture.

They both enjoyed reading and both were wary and a little uncomfortable of the magic all around them.

And the touching hadn't stopped. It didn't take long for Dylan to realize Ethan was just a tactile person. He felt a little guilty for enjoying it so much when he knew Ethan didn't mean for it to be anything more than platonic affection. But there hadn't ever been much of it in his life from anyone not related to him by blood, so Dylan wanted to absorb every second of it he could.

Ethan knocked their shoulders together again, then reached over and firmly closed the book Dylan had been staring blindly at.

"Enough. We're not going to find anything new here and you're exhausted. Let's go get some rest. Maybe a good night's sleep will give us fresh ideas in the morning."

Dylan nodded exhaustedly, leaning into Ethan for a minute before gathering up his stuff.

The walk back was quiet, most of the campus already in their rooms for the night.

Ethan stopped abruptly, staring toward the edge of campus. "What's that light?"

A faint lavender glow glittered through the foliage of the memorial garden.

"Is that coming from the cemetery?"

"I think so."

"Let's go find out who, or what, it is." Exhaustion disappeared under the pulse pounding hit of adrenaline flooding Dylan's veins and he sprinted toward the light.

"Just like your sister," Ethan's voice was exasperated, but close enough that Dylan knew Ethan was right on his heels.

They rushed along the groomed paths of the garden then skidded to a stop when they burst into the knee-high weeds covering the ancient burial ground.

The demon-thing's violet glow was the only light illuminating the gloomy, overgrown plot of land. It hovered over three crumbling stones in the back corner, where the oldest graves were found. It turned and lowered its staff, dark threat in every line of its body.

"Well, you two again. I thought you'd have learned your lesson," the demon-thing's voice was even more grating and disconcerting than he remembered.

"What are you doing here?" Dylan demanded. Did this have something to do with Merlin's Talisman? Was there a clue here they'd overlooked?

"Just paying my respects." Despite having no face, it managed to convey a cruel, superior sneer with only its voice, then stretched out its free arm. "There's a lot of Cromwell history buried here. Are you so eager to join it?"

It floated forward and Dylan's mind screamed at him to run, but his feet were rooted to the spot. He could only stare, helplessly watching the threat approach, staff leveled at his heart and tip gathering dark violet power. He couldn't even raise his hands to defend himself.

"You should have stayed at home little boy. Safe with your mommy where the only things that go bump in the night are your imagination. I won't allow you to interfere."

Then dark purple light shot from the staff, wrapping around Dylan like an electric snake. His muscles burned and his lungs stopped, the rope of light a crushing weight slowly squeezing the breath out of him.

Black spots burst like bubbles in his vision and Dylan knew if he didn't do something soon, he'd never do anything again. But he was frozen, unable to move and his consciousness quickly slipped away.

"Let him go, you son of a bitch!" Ethan screamed. He bent, scooped up a fist size piece of broken gravestone and hurled it at the demon-thing. The stone rocketed at its head, passing through the violet swirl and disappearing with a sickening thud.

A surprisingly female cry of pain slipped out of the blank-faced figure and it jerked backward, pulling up on its staff in shock. The purple rope snapped and the part wrapped around Dylan disappeared. He dropped to his knees, body unable to hold him up while he shook with pain and gasped to get his breath back.

"This is not over," the voice screeched, back to its usual mechanical grind. "Soon, no one will ever be able to stand against me."

It disappeared in a swirl of cape and violet light.

"Dylan? Oh my god, Dylan. Are you okay?" Ethan knelt down and gathered Dylan in a close hug.

"Yeah," his voice sounded like he'd gargled gravel and he just nodded and snuggled closer instead of talking more. He dropped his head to Ethan's shoulder and wrapped his arms around his waist and hung on while he waited for his body to stop struggling and his breath to catch up to his heart.

Dylan had no idea how long they stayed in the dark cemetery wrapped around each other. Eventually, Ethan had gathered him and half-carried him back to his dorm room.

Once Dylan was settled cross-legged on his bed, propped between the wall and a pile of pillows, Ethan left him alone long enough to brew them both some tea. By the time he sat down on the edge of the bed, Dylan had stopped shaking and felt somewhat coherent.

"Okay, so now I remember why I always lectured Marnie about leaping before she looks." He tried to laugh, but it came out shaky.

"It's not funny. I thought you were…" Ethan shuddered and shifted a little closer. "I don't know what I would have done if the rock hadn't worked."

"It did. I'm fine. Thanks to you."

In all the weeks he'd been enjoying Ethan's casual touches, he'd never dared make the first connection. But Ethan looked pale and still shaken by the encounter. He took a deep breath and stretched out his hand, patting Ethan on the knee. Then he left it there, watching from the corner of his eye to see if he needed to snatch it back and pretend it was nothing.

But Ethan flashed him a shaky smile, and laid his own fingers on top of Dylan's.

"Just don't do anything like that, again. Next time, we try to plan ahead, okay?"

"I'll try. It would be easier, though, if I could figure out what that demon-thingy wanted the talisman for."

"There's nobody left to ask, is there? No books left to read."

"Actually, there is," Dyllan admitted. "Unfortunately, Grandma Aggie's spell book is in Marnie's trunk and I have so completely avoided learning anything about magic, I don't even know how to do a simple unshrinking spell."

He never regretted not knowing magic, and that really hadn't changed now, but it would be nice to have a simple solution for a change.

"We could ask someone to do it for you."

"Who? We don't know who's involved. I'd never have believed Luke would betray us, so I have no idea who I can trust. If that jerk finds out I have centuries of Cromwell spells sitting in my room, I don't think there'll be any stopping it."

Ethan squeezed his hand and they sat in silence. At first, Dylan tried to think of solutions but that devolved into just watching Ethan. Eventually, his eyes grew heavy and his body gave into reaction and exhaustion. The last thing he remembered in a vague, dreamy haze was slumping down and letting his head rest on Ethan's thigh while he drifted off to sleep.

#

Dylan woke up sore and stiff. And alone.

He swallowed hard against the suffocating disappointment. Of course Ethan hadn't spent the night on Dylan's narrow single bed when he had a comfortable place to sleep in his own dorm. They were friends, and no matter how much Dylan let his imagination get the better of him, Ethan wasn't going to suddenly want to spend the night wrapped up together.

With a sigh and bone-popping stretch, Dylan forced himself out of bed. He had about thirty-nine hours left to figure out what to do to stop the villain du jour from creating unknown havoc with Merlin's Talisman. These things always seemed to need to take place at midnight for some reason.

He trudged through a shower and skipped breakfast, instead he settled down to painstakingly comb through his notes for any hint or clue he missed the first three or four go rounds. Thank goodness it was Saturday. Despite all the shenanigans both now and his freshman year, he'd managed to make it to every single class. He really didn't want to break his streak because of the annual Halloween mayhem.

He'd been at it for about an hour when someone knocked on his door.

Not long ago, he'd have hollered for whoever it was to let themselves in. Recent events, though, left him paranoid and he'd locked his room tight against intruders.

"Who is it?" he asked warily, standing next to the door, the heaviest book he could find in his hands.

"It's me. I brought you presents."

Ethan's amusement was clear even through the thick wood. Dylan tossed the book on his desk and opened the door.

Ethan leaned against the jamb, white bag in his hand. He flashed his contagious grin and pushed himself up straight.

Dylan pinched his lips to keep from giving into the urge to smile back.

"Presents?"

"Breakfast is the first one. I know you well enough to know you skipped it this morning." Dylan pushed the white paper sack into his hands and stepped around him. Ethan didn't even need to peek inside to know what it was. The aroma of warm cinnamon and sugar told him it was donuts from the pastry shop in town. His favorite.

"Uh, thanks," he murmured and stared at Ethan's back. Pieces began to slot together in a new and exciting way. In a way that made Dylan think he'd been wrong this morning, and all the times before, when he'd brushed aside Ethan's affection as mere friendship.

Then Ethan turned around, gave the unopened bag a curious look. Dylan dropped his eyes and dug into the sweet treats. He wasn't quite brave enough to act on suppositions, yet.

When he'd finished off the first one and devoured a large chunk of the second, he asked, "You implied presents, plural. What else have you got for me?"

Ethan dipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a small, stoppered bottle and handed it over.

"What's this?" Dylan asked, holding it up to the light and shaking it a little.

"It's an Alice-in-Wonderland potion. One drop will unshrink the trunk. Another will shrink it back down."

"Where did you get this?"

"Celeste, the blue fairy, has been eyeing my dad's old scrying mirror. I traded it for this."

"You didn't have to do that…"

"It's not like I have any use for it. I don't have much of his stuff left, because it's more painful than comforting to have around."

With an unsteady inhale, Dylan uncertainly stepped forward and set his arm around Ethan's shoulders in a stiff hug. When Ethan leaned into it, he tightened his hold and relaxed.

"I'm sorry. About your dad," he whispered. "Thank you, for this."

Both of Ethan's hands came up, sliding around Dylan's waist when he deepened the hug.

"It's okay. It gets easier every day," he murmured, lips so close to Dylan's ear that his breath brushed against skin like a caress. He squeezed one last time then stepped back. "And it was no problem. Celeste thinks I wanted it for some practical joke, so no worries about anyone finding out."

"I don't even want to know what you told her you were going to do. Let's try it out."

Once he dug the trunk out from under a pile of t-shirts, he set it on a cleared space on the floor and step back. Carefully measuring out one drop in the stopper, he sprinkled the potion over the top.

For a second, nothing happened. Then the box began to shake, shimmying from side to side before giving one last, giant bounce and expanding to full size.

Ethan's exhale was loud and echoed his own sentiment. Relief was palpable in the air when he knelt down, pressed his fingers to the lock and the top sprang open. Marnie thought it was clever to use a spell to create a magic version of a sci-fi biometric lock keyed to their family. Dylan was just relieved it worked.

He unburied the spell out from under a pile of other books and bottles and soft frilly things Dylan didn't want to think too much about. He pulled it out carefully, sat down next to Ethan on the bed and opened to the front, where the oldest family history and spells were recorded. If there was anything about Merlin, or his cousin Marvin, that's where it would be.

Dylan chose to skim through the entries, rather than use magic to speed read the whole book. He'd rather not have that much magic knowledge in his head.

An hour of silence later he closed the book and stood up.

"We have to go back to the cemetery," he explained in a rush while securing the book in the trunk, reshrinking it and hiding it away.

"What? Why?"

Despite his questions, Ethan was following Dylan out the door.

"Because I think I know what's going on. I need to see something in the cemetery to be sure."

They raced across campus but Ethan pulled him up short before he ran blindly through the memorial garden.

"Caution, remember?"

"Right."

Their stealth, however, was wasted. The cemetery, even more decrepit looking in full daylight, was empty. They picked their way through the debris to the back corner, where they demon had hovered when they'd first arrived the night before. Dylan squatted down by the three headstones and brushed off the dirt until he could read the names.

"Viviane, Elaine and Niniane Cromwell," he murmured, certain now he knew what was going on. Unfortunately, he had no idea what to do about it.

"Who were they?"

"They were sisters. The three Cromwell sisters who created the Gift to begin with. Viviane convinced them to create it in order to stop some clan wars that were going on. She told them it would bring peace to their region." His lips quirked in scorn. "She did that all right. She brought peace by enslaving everyone to her will."

He stood up and brushed his hands over the top of the other two graves.

"Elaine and Niniane managed to stop her when they realized what she was doing but she had one last trick up her sleeve. She bound her spirit to the amulet."

"I think the combination of the magic of three Cromwell witches when we," Dylan paused and cleared his throat before pushing the lie out. "When we destroyed the amulet, I think we accidentally released her into the time slipstream."

The truth was, Dylan was pretty sure Marnie had passed the amulet through the time-space stream to get it from Aneesa's lamp to his book while their magic was acting on it.

"Where your grandmother and Sophie were. And the nature of moving between realities left them vulnerable to a malevolent spirit."

"Yep. I think the spirit possessed my grandmother."

"That was almost a year ago. Wouldn't someone have noticed?"

"Not right away. One of the books I read in the library mentioned how my great aunt's husband was possessed by the ghost of a Roman general. He would just spontaneously start shouting orders in Latin, but when he came back to himself, he had no memory of it. Viviane is smart, powerful and subtle. She probably hid herself better."

"Did your great aunt get rid of the general?"

"Yeah, as time got closer to Halloween, it started taking over more and more. Then on Halloween, when the veil between spirit and flesh is thinnest, the husband was drawn to the general's burial place. He managed to push the general out when the veil grew thin and slipping back and forth was easiest. My great aunt used a spell to keep the spirit from reentering him and when the clock struck midnight, the general returned to the spirit world."

"So what does that have to do with what's going on here?"

"I think Viviane is going to use the talisman to push my grandmother out, instead. If she's not in her body at midnight, she'll be pulled into the spirit world."

"Do you know how to stop it?"

"Not really. The only thing I can think of is we have to get the talisman away from Viviane. Or destroy it."

"Uh, how do you destroy one of the oldest magical artifacts created by one of the greatest wizards of all time?"

"The single passing reference I saw was that it was 'created with all four elements and could never be undone unless four act as one.'"

"What's that mean?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Dylan shrugged.

"What are we going to do?"

"I'm coming back here, tonight and try to save my grandmother."

#

Despite the sun having already set, the campus was bright and loud with the sounds of the party happening in the quad when Dylan walked out of the library. He'd almost forgotten that Halloween was a night of fun and celebration for most of the university. He touched the object he had tucked in his back pocket then let his jean jacket fall into place to cover it. It was a last ditch effort, more of a faint hope, but it was all he'd come up with after an entire day of trying. Time was ticking away and they had to get to the cemetery soon, if they wanted to stop Viviane.

Guilt made him flinch when he saw Ethan walking toward him, looking both nervous yet full of resolve. He should be out there, at the party, flirting with girls and having fun. He didn't deserve to be dragged into danger yet again. This was Dylan's fight. As much as he wanted Ethan with him, he knew he had to do the right thing.

Straightening his shoulders and trying to look full of confidence he didn't feel, Dylan looked Ethan in the eye.

"You don't have to do this, Ethan. You've already saved my life twice, I shouldn't drag you into danger again."

Ethan's lips just curled into a smile and he stepped closer. "That's exactly why I have to go. You're too important to me to let you go without me there to protect you."

Dylan's head jerk back, stunned by the soft way Ethan spoke and the bright, hopeful expression.

"I am?" Dylan asked, his own voice sounding strange and faint.

The blue eyes shuttered and the smile became strained and he moved half a step back. "We should go. It's almost midnight."

Dylan was totally confused. He'd thought, maybe, Ethan meant their feelings weren't as disparate as he'd believed. Then Dylan had opened his mouth and obviously said something wrong, because Ethan shut down like a startled Lemurian clam.

When Ethan turned and started walking, Dylan wanted to call him back, to ask the dozen or so question tumbling through his brain. Unfortunately, this wasn't the time for that conversation. He had to focus on stopping Viviane. Then he'd try to untangle his social life. If he still had one.

This time, they moved carefully and quietly through the garden, but their stealth didn't matter in the end. Viviane was waiting for them.

"Ah, there you are," the voice ground mechanically. "I was starting to worry you wouldn't make it in time to see the main event."

She hovered over her gravestone, power staff in one hand, Merlin's Talisman in the other and the violet mist still obscuring her face. Off to the side, Sophie and Luke clung to each other inside a glass-like bubble. Sophie tried to shout something, but no sound escaped.

"There's nothing you can do to stop me now. I have the talisman and soon I will rule the way I was always meant to."

"Not if I have anything to say about it. Get out of my grandmother and go back to hell, where you belong, Viviane Cromwell."

"So you've figured it out," her voice dropped the disguise and became soft, feminine and musical. "Surprising. It took your sister nearly a whole year and she lived with us. But I'm not going anywhere. There's nothing a magicless little half-mortal lump like you can do about it."

"I can stop you. I will stop you." Dylan shouted and started forward, Ethan right by his side.

His feet froze to the ground after two steps, and Ethan stopped abruptly next to him. Sophie and Luke's bubble erupted in blinding purple waves of energy.

"Uh, uh, uh. None of that now. If you interfere with me, little boy, your sister and her friend will be crushed like ants."

Dylan stopped struggling and watched while the bubble shrank until it barely contained the two figures inside. Next to him, Ethan reached out and tangled their fingers, squeezing in silent reassurance. Dylan squeezed back.

"It's almost time," Viviane announced, raising the talisman up high. The purple mist obscuring her face faded in and out, replaced sometimes by his grandmothers features and sometimes by that of a beautiful, cruel-looking young woman.

A silent struggle jerked the body like a badly strung marionette, the faces changing lightening quick. Occasionally, a gray, amorphous form would pop out of the body only to dive back in and start the battle all over again.

Gradually, Viviane's face took control and the gray misty form Dylan was sure belonged to his grandmother's spirit was pushed out to hover in the night.

Somewhere in town, a clock began to strike the countdown to midnight. Viviane spoke twisted words in a language Dylan didn't recognize and the talisman took on the purple glow of her magic, pushing Aggie's spirit farther from her body.

It was now or never.

Dylan reached behind him, his hand closing over the glass dagger he'd taken from the library. Already calculating angles, velocity and wind speed, he jerked it from his waistband, aimed and hurled it.

The dagger flew straight and true, unseen by Viviane until it drove point first into the globe of the talisman. The sphere shattered with a shower of blue and silver sparks, the handle melting, hot and fast. Viviane screeched with pain and fury, dropping the talisman's remnants and glared at Dylan.

"What magic is this?" she demanded.

Dylan let a smug smile float across his lips.

"Not magic. Physics."

It wasn't entirely true, of course. But he'd always wanted to use that line and he couldn't resist.

Then the gray spirit-form of his grandmother dove back into the contested body, no longer driven away by Merlin's magic. Limbs flailed and jerked even more violently. Features changed so fast the face became little more than a blur. Then like a slowing slot machine, it settled to a stop in the soft, familiar visage of Aggie Cromwell and a darker gray shape flew out of the body.

The clock rang its final strike, the tone echoing in the night air.

The ghost shrieked, high and painful, then the gray mist of its form sucked in on itself until it disappeared with a pop.

#

For a moment, nothing moved and no one made a sound.

Aggie waved her hand and the bubble around Sophie and Luke disappeared. Then they all ran toward each other, Dylan dragging Ethan along with their still clasped hands. It became a giant group hug, everyone trying to hold and touch and check over everyone else at the same time.

Eventually, though, reassured, the group eased back and the explanations began.

"I started noticing little things over the summer. Just quirks that weren't like Grandma Aggie, but nothing nefarious," Sophie explained. "But she kept putting off the trip, saying she needed to find this or do that. Then I overheard her talking to mom, acting like we were already in Egypt and I knew something was wrong. I snuck into her room and started going through the books and journals she had piled up."

Sophie sighed and took the hand of the goblin next to her.

"It's my fault Luke was working with her. I figured out from what she was reading that she'd need Merlin's Talisman. Luke and I, uh," glance at Aggie, "well, we had a way of sneaking him in. I knew she was watching me like a hawk, so I signaled him to come over. I wanted to get a message to you or Marnie or mom. But she caught us and told Luke that he was going to steal it for her."

"She made Sophie and the house disappear with a snap," Luke shuddered and Sophie leaned into him. "She said I'd never see Sophie again if I didn't do exactly what she said."

"I don't know where she sent the house, but I knew that those few minutes she was giving Luke instructions were the only ones I was probably going to have so I sent my consciousness into the slipstream and you were the first person I found. Then she came back, and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't tell you what was going on or help Luke."

"You did the best you could, dear." Aggie patted her hand, "Viviane took us all by surprise. Especially me. At first, I thought the memory lapses were just age finally catching up with me. But when the gaps got longer and longer, I realized something was wrong. I started trying to fight her. But then she got the talisman and she kept me locked up in a tiny corner while she took over. She had to release me to push me out, though, which gave me a chance to fight back. Unfortunately, she still had the talisman on her side and I couldn't do much until it was gone."

Aggie, Sophie and Luke turned to look at Dylan and he ducked his head, telling them about all the miss-steps and close calls that led him and Ethan to the cemetery that night.

"Then you destroyed Merlin's Talisman."

Dylan winced. "Sorry, about that, Grandma."

She patted his shoulder. "I'm not complaining. If you hadn't I'd be floating around the Underworld right now, worrying about all of you. I just didn't think there was any magic powerful enough to do it. What did you use?"

"It wasn't magic, exactly. Your spell book said it was created with the four elements and could 'never be undone unless four act as one.' So I, uh, borrowed the blown glass dagger from the library."

He glanced around looking to see if any pieces survived, and was surprised to see it, whole and unbroken on the ground in the midst of the ruined bits of the talisman. Picking it up, he wiped off the mud and debris before holding it up.

"It's made of sand, so earth. And the sand is melted in fire. Air is blown in it to give it shape and then it's cooled in water. I was the only thing I could think of. It was a long shot, but I had to try."

"Huh," Aggie said, reaching out to touch the tip. "I never thought of that. I always interpreted the line to mean four witches acting as one. Not that I ever gave it much thought. I never had need to before this."

Dylan's mouth dropped open. It could easily have meant that. If it had, they would have been in so much trouble right now.

"Good work, dear," she patted his shoulder and then yawned. She covered her mouth quickly. "Oh, goodness. It's been a long time since I've gotten a good night's sleep. I'm sure that's true for you children, as well. Let me get Sophie and Luke home. Dylan, you and your friend get some rest, too. You've earned it. Come by for dinner tomorrow and we'll celebrate."

He didn't bother to object to being called a child. Aggie still treated his mother like one, so he didn't have much hope on that front. Instead, he pointed out, "Uh, Grandma? Your house is gone, remember?"

"Oh, fiddle," she waved her hand dismissively, "That spell. It just takes a twitch of the nose and a snap of the fingers and the house will be back where it belongs."

She gathered up Luke and Sophie, one arm around each, and then three of them disappeared in a shower of pink and gold.

Dylan scrubbed his hands over his face. His grandmother was right, he was exhausted. But there was one more conversation he wanted, needed, to have before he got himself to bed.

He looked up at Ethan, ready to pick up where they left off outside the library. Only, Ethan looked ready to flee. He stood hunched, with hands in his pockets and lip caught nervously between his teeth.

Dylan opened his mouth but Ethan held up his hand quickly, shifting his gaze somewhere about five feet past Dylan.

"Could we just… What I said earlier. Could you just forget about it?"

Ethan felt like he'd stumbled even though he was standing still. The blood drained out of his face leaving him cold and uncertain.

"You didn't mean it?" Dylan forced the question past lips that didn't want to ask, because he didn't want to hear the answer.

Ethan looked surprised that he even had to ask and reached out to brush his fingers over Dylan's sleeve before letting his hand drop back by his side.

"Of course I meant it. But I know you don't feel the same way. I didn't want you to think I expected anything. Our friendship is too important… I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

"You don't think I feel the same way?" Dylan knew he should be saying something, doing something, but he had no idea what.

"Uh, I…," Ethan licked his lips, looking both hopeful and wary. "I touch you all the time. You don't seem to mind, but you never touch me first. I flirt, but you don't flirt back. When I tried to make it obvious, you looked like you wanted to run away."

Dylan took a deep breath, and stepped into Ethan's space, settling tentative hands on his hips. "I am terrible at relationship stuff. There was the troll who just wanted to be friends and Scarlet, who used her magic to twist what I felt into something she could use against Marnie. Not to mention a handful of very unrequited crushes. Subtle signals are lost on me. I looked stunned earlier because it didn't ever occur to me that you might be more than one of the unrequited ones."

"Oh," Ethan smiled, leaning in. One of his hands came up to brush along Dylan's cheek then slid down to curl around the back of his neck. "Mutual. Mutual crushes are good."

The last word whispered against Dylan's lips right before Ethan claimed them in a heart-searing kiss.