Hansel was starting to think his sister was unhinged.
The spellbook was thick, bound in white leather, written with a close hand on thin parchment. Rare as they were, normally any book – much less their mother’s book – was a source of reverence, but Gretel apparently didn’t have time for that; she paged through the leaves at an almost furious pace, skimming the titles of each section briefly before moving on, seeking, seeking, until she landed on a page floridly written in gold.
“Okay, I think this is right,” she said after reading it closely twice, and pushed the large mug at Hansel.
This was the development he'd been dreading, all those weeks of secrecy and sidelong looks she thought he hadn't noticed, all came down to this: a mug and his sister watching him with expectant eyes. The end result was also as he’d expected; like most potions, he wasn't expecting anything particularly appetizing, but this liquid was beyond the pale, probably best described as muddy sludge, dirty gray-green and smelling faintly of old socks. It hissed and steamed as it sloshed sluggishly against the sides like molten lava, and he could swear it looked at him.
Despite his dismay, he kept his voice as laconic as he could. “This looks like shit. Smells like shit. Probably tastes like shit.”
She gave him a cool stare. It wasn’t a kind or patient look; it was a look that told him plainly that he was going to lose this battle and the only thing up for debate was whether he’d leave claw marks in the floor as he went. “Just drink it.”
“Sorry, my mouth is full.” He gave her a crooked grin before taking a big, showy gulp from a different stein, this one brimming with the inn’s best brew.
She seemed about to say something particularly cutting, then caught herself. “Fine,” she said with that sweet smile that she had that he knew gilded a will of iron, “I spent the last few months collecting these ingredients, and spent the last week trying to make this potion in a cauldron. I don’t know if I even needed a cauldron, or if a cauldron is just what witches call a cook pot. So fine,” she said again and slapped the tome shut. It slammed closed with a satisfying thump and a billow of book-musty air faintly scented with lavender. Hansel refused to flinch. “Be a baby. See who helps you the next time you forget an injection, because that is just so much fun.” She flicked a peanut at him, hitting him just above the right eyebrow.
He grunted. “I didn’t ask you to cure me,” he muttered, because her guilt-trip was working, but he was still damned if he was going to drink that poisonous-looking brew. His sugar-sickness – what Gretel sometimes called magic diabetes if she was in a particularly sarcastic mood – was under control. And would stay that way, as long as he took his scheduled injections. As long as he didn’t get distracted on the hunt or forgot to wind his watch.
Which, okay. Those things happened kind of often. And yes, Hansel was a big enough man to admit that maybe his sister was just a bit justified in being irritated that she had to stick him with needles under combat situations quite a lot.
“You maybe wouldn’t get so sick if you watched what you eat, you know,” a younger voice piped up.
Hansel turned to glare at him, but once again demonstrating that his sense of self-preservation was thoroughly and permanently on the fritz, Ben pressed on resolutely. “Remember, what that doctor told you? You should eat less sweets. You know, sugar? You didn’t need to eat that entire bar of chocolate today. I mean, that thing was massive.” He faltered as the muscles of Hansel’s jaw bunched up into a walnut-sized knot and began a lateral grind.
Hansel tried his best to remember that Gretel, anticipating its necessity, had firmly placed Ben on the People You Are Not Allowed to Punch list.
“Er. Also beer? Beer is sugar. And fattening, too.”
“Nobody asked you.” Hansel grated out with every last ounce of his self-control. He liked chocolate. He liked candy. He liked beer. It wasn’t his fault everything he liked was on the embargo list, and he didn’t need a kid who was practically bursting with unspent energy and health to point that out. “Why are you still here? Don’t you have anybody else to stalk?”
“Be nice,” Gretel chided, and smiled kindly at Ben. The undeserving whelp. Hansel had caught him peeking at her in the bath just the week before. “And Ben’s right, your diet really is crap.”
Hansel was about to tell Ben just where he could cram his unsolicited advice when the inn door slammed open hard enough to shake the building. Dust sifted down from the ceiling and the mug rocked. A lap of thick liquid sloshed over the rim onto the table. The sludge hissed against the worn wood tabletop, bubbling and steaming, and began to eat its way through the wood.
Hansel stared at it for a long moment. Then he raised his eyes to give Gretel an expressive look, which was totally wasted as she was studying the ever widening blackened hole with more interest than horror.
"Maybe I used too much pennywort," she mused, which, in Hansel's ever so humble opinion, was absolutely not the correct response considering she'd just been about to make him drink it.
"Seriously?" he demanded.
The noise he made as he gestured at the table could probably be better described as strangled.
Fortunately their attention was drawn back to the ruckus outside before they could pitch into their version of arguing, which mostly consisted of long, unblinking stares with occasional eyebrow twitches. Twin telepathy, Ben called it.
He also called it creepy, so what did he know.
Through the door they could make out torches, unsteadily held by very angry, very drunk people, and – pitchforks. Lots and lots of pitchforks.
“Great, a mob, I love mobs,” Hansel muttered. He took another swig from his stein and motioned for more. “Who’s the poor sack this time?”
“You!” The leader, a portly man shaped rather unfortunately like a barrel and who looked like he hadn’t shaved or bathed since the Crusades, pointed a thick finger straight at Gretel. “Witch!”
“Well, that’s rude,” Gretel said calmly.
“Aw, fuck,” Hansel said less calmly, and reached for his gun.
“What did I tell you about that cauldron and cooking shit in it in the middle of the woods at night?” Hansel shouted a very short while later, catching his breath from slamming the ringleader’s face repeatedly into a wall. Judging from the hollow sound like an overripe melon the man’s cranium made with each impact, the man didn't have much to lose in the brain cell department to begin with; in fact, Hansel figured this exercise might very well improve matters.
“If you forgot,” Gretel panted, horse-kicking a beak-faced woman through a window, “I'm trying to cure you.” They’d barricaded the door with their table and several benches, but now the table and benches jumped as something hit the sturdy door with massive force.
“And, I told you, I’m dealing with it,” Hansel snapped. “I’ve been dealing with it. Knock that off,” he turned and snatched his gun out of Ben’s hands. “I told you not to touch my guns.”
“But–!” Ben protested, launching into a litany that Hansel had heard many times before, of how he was a witch-hunting apprentice and other apprentices got to carry weapons, at least in self-defense, blah blah blah.
Hansel disagreed. In his view, Ben was only an apprentice by dint of proving impossible to get rid of, like a tick or a tape-worm or a bee, or any other simile that involved something small and annoying and a pain in the ass. Sure, the kid could handle himself in a fight, but Hansel also had strenuous objections to the kid handling his weapons except in very fucking dire circumstances, because those guns were his babies and the kid shot off Hansel's specially designed, hand-made ammunition like it was going out of fashion.
The door surged again, bowing outward and then blowing apart, the heavy table and benches flying across the room.
“Dedicated,” Hansel observed.
“A little too dedicated,” Gretel murmured.
They shared a dark glance. A head witch, perhaps, it said. Since Augsburg, the witch attacks had been increasing in frequency and complexity beyond the standard ‘barge in, start blasting.’ Using humans as weapons was a new wrinkle. Hansel found this somewhat flattering, if more than somewhat worrying.
“Out the back?”
“Blocked!” Ben shouted, brandishing a bread knife he'd scooped up at another group that had come up behind them.
They crowded back to back against each other on a tabletop as they were surrounded by what seemed a literal sea of unwashed humanity. Sometimes – sometimes, in the dark night, when she lay awake, unable to sleep, Gretel whispered to Hansel that she could hate them in their mindless fear and ignorance, these people they’d devoted their lives to saving.
Hansel got it, he really did, but above all, he was a practical man; he could ignore people's idiocies as long as they had gold. If the townspeople paid, Hansel and Gretel worked. But at the end of the day, Gretel — and Hansel too, deep down in his heart that he would never admit – did it because it was right.
But in moments like these, Hansel totally understood.
People were fucking assholes.
In perfect synchronicity, Gretel and Hansel turned and made for the stairs. The tightly packed heads of the mob provided convenient stepping stones across the room. The bald ones provided more traction, so Hansel aimed for those. Ben, demonstrating an eerie agility born of youth and a total disregard for falling on his ass, danced lightly across the women's heads, chivalry clearly going out the window with each hand that clawed at his feet and ankles.
Gretel balanced like a cat on a particularly portly man’s shoulders while Hansel kicked away a rake swinging at her before it could connect. She leapt into his arms and they crashed backwards into the stairwell. "Go, go!" she shouted, and they started scrambling up the rickety stairs.
There was a scream and a triumphant roar from the crowd that froze them in their tracks.
Looking back, Hansel saw that Ben had lost his balance and fallen. The mob was swallowing him up like live quicksand, too many grasping hands and nightmare screaming faces to escape. Ben was about two seconds from being stabbed or strangled – or if the mob got its shit together, trussed up like a holiday turkey and burned at the stake.
Honestly, the stake thing.
Although, Hansel supposed, if he lived out here, where the only entertainment was weeks of gossip if someone's haystack went over, a little barbeque would likely get his jollies going, too.
"Hansel!" Ben screamed, looking at him white-faced with terror, his eyes hopeful and despairing at the same time. Out of the corner of Hansel's eye, he could see Gretel whipping out her single-bolt cross-bow, as if that would make any discernible effect on the writhing mass of bodies.
Optimist, he sighed internally.
The deafening blast of his shotgun interrupted the melee. Everyone froze. The ones who actually knew what the noise was and had any sense of self-preservation, dove for cover.
"Okay," Hansel said very firmly and loudly into the ringing silence. "Let the kid go, and—" Nobody gets hurt was such a cliché, so he revised it quickly to "—maybe you won't get an ass full of buckshot." This only got him blank stares. Ben took the opportunity to scrabble to his feet from the dirt floor and start squeezing his way through the crush to Hansel's side.
Hansel mouthed his words back to himself and gave his brain a slap. "I mean," he amended as Ben clambered to safety behind him, giving him big starstruck puppy eyes that made him wince internally. "It'll hurt. A lot. You won't be able to sit down for a very long time."
"Really?" Gretel hissed at him.
An unbelieving titter came from the crowd that morphed into a chuckle, then magnified into full blown contemptuous laughter. "Come on!" Gretel snapped louder, grabbing Ben by the wrist and yanking him up just as the crowd turned deadly again, surging after them like the tide.
It turned out that there was indeed an (evil) witch behind that entirely too organized and determined mob that had burned them out of the inn several weeks previously. She had been Muriel's cousin’s sister’s third child’s nephew’s daughter.
They'd been close.
Hansel knew this because he was tied to her bed at the moment, mostly naked. ‘Mostly,’ because he still had a few shreds left of his trousers to protect his virtue, but that was it.
It was cold.
This was Hansel's fault. You need to let go of Mina, Gretel had said and Hansel had tried, but the long and short of it was that Hansel was hopeless when it came to women. It wasn’t an issue of not having enough practice either; in general there'd been nothing to practice. According to Gretel, many women would love to go for a roll in the hay with a famous witch-hunter, and goodness knew she had no corresponding problems with finding any number of willing men (and women) to find some private time in the bushes with, but where Gretel wasn’t interested, Hansel was totally oblivious.
By the time he realized that someone was flirting with him, that person had already flounced away in a huff or drifted off, heartbroken.
The direct approach (which usually manifested itself in the form of an ambush) was the best way to get his attention, and then it required a certain amount of tenacity to ride out the following period of Hansel flailing around like a beached manatee as he got over his surprise. Only a handful (less than a handful, maybe half a handful) of people in his entire well-traveled life had ever figured that out.
The serpent witch, for one.
That one had involved entirely too many tentacles. Hansel didn’t like to think about it.
The second had been Mina, and thinking of her made him go all tight and lonely. Lonely wasn’t an emotion he was used to, considering he'd never been alone his entire life except for those first fifteen minutes where he lay on a table squalling until his sister joined the world and was laid next to him. Maybe it was thinking of what could have been. Maybe, Hansel sometimes thought before he locked the traitorous thought away, it was that his budding romance with Mina had been the first thing he'd never had to share, Gretel having had no contact with her whatsoever beyond that first meeting in the town square, Mina half drowned but eerily serene and beautiful in the face of her own death.
The third had been –
“The heart of the child of a Grand White Witch is quite valuable,” she – her name was Ariel – informed him with apparent satisfaction. She was twirling a silver knife with elaborate filigree on the handle between her fingers, its sharp point glinting ominously in the firelight. She wasn’t that pretty close up, Hansel saw now, but he'd been half-drunk and thinking about Mina's soft curves and unusual coloring – all expanses of pale, freckled skin and red, red hair with golden highlights that he'd only been able to plunge his hands into once – and this one had sat down next to him and smiled. Not that much later, she'd put her hand on his thigh.
And now she'd dropped her façade, and yeah. Corpse-pale skin, crunchy-looking hair, and black veins outlining deep fissures in her flesh.
“Okay, that's nice," he said. "But I'm a guy."
“Believe me, I know.” She cast an appreciative eye down his body. He tried to draw his knees closer together. "Spells aren’t that picky. You've got the genes. Not as good as a daughter who's matured into her powers, but close enough.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” Hansel muttered to himself, then tried to squirm to the side as she drew closer with the knife pointed downward at his heart. "Hey. Hey."
She paused. "What."
"Don't you have to wait until the red moon of Turing or whatever?"
"You're assuming I want your heart for anything other than eating." She advanced again, but this time more slowly, apparently pondering a matter of great import. "You know, maybe I'll have your sweetbreads too. No sense in wasting perfectly good delicacies."
"Right, because there are starving children in France." He yanked frantically on the ropes binding him to the bedposts, which were elaborately carved out of what looked like an entire tree trunk. The ropes were reinforced by magic, so there was no give.
The first sparks of alarm started blooming in his chest, only firm control keeping it from flowering into full panic.
Hansel had long accepted that he was probably going to die a violent death. He'd even been expecting it, ever since he and his sister had been left in the woods to die when they were eleven (okay, he knew now that it hadn't been a deliberate abandonment, but the lesson had been learned and couldn't be unlearned), but he would really rather not die like this: mostly naked, trussed to a witch's bed like a plucked chicken at the world's grisliest buffet.
The knife point was less than an inch above his heart and descending fast. Hansel smelled her dry cinnamony, mummy-like smell of old dust and ancient herbs and closed his eyes, praying he'd die a good death with a minimum of screaming.
Suddenly, there came a series of loud bangs, the shattering of glass, the drum of pounding feet, then the door burst open with a crash.
Hansel's eyes popped open just in time to see Gretel striding through the door, all dark eyes and cold fury, crossbow cocked and loaded, held at the ready.
She took one look at Hansel on the bed and her eyes narrowed. With one booted foot, she kicked the door closed behind her right in Ben's face before he could see.
Hansel grinned at her, too limp from relief to care at the moment how he looked. She'd seen him naked plenty before, and he definitely appreciated her excellent timing and her even better talent for making an entrance. Nobody could go slamming into a witch's hovel better than Gretel.
"Mind your manners," Gretel said primly over the shrieks of an exceedingly angry witch. Hansel momentarily forgotten, the witch drew herself up and hissed like a snake at her, mouth gaping wide to reveal rows of blackened, rotting teeth. Unhurriedly, Gretel brought up her crossbow with a graceful, practiced movement, and as the witch coiled to spring, blew the top of her head off with an explosive quarrel.
The witch was thrown backwards, all bony, spidery limbs asprawl and unkempt hair.
Gretel carefully wiped blood and viscera off her face with a moue of disgust that was aimed more at Hansel’s general predicament than the gore having gotten into her mouth. “Really?” she asked, cocking a hand on her hip. "Your weakness for candy houses I knew about, but I didn't know breasts were so irresistible. Witch breasts."
"Long story, but no," he told her because that was only part of the truth. The witch's magically enhanced cleavage hadn’t hurt anything much of course, but most of it had been that craving loneliness and what Hansel had mistaken for a sweet smile very like Mina's. For a horrific moment he thought he'd said it aloud, but the fond exasperation softening Gretel's face didn't change a jot as she moved towards the other side of the bed, flicking out her dagger to cut him free.
The witch, black blood streaking down her face from the gaping wound in her forehead, groped blindly up from the floor, using the bed as leverage, and quick as a snake, sank her dagger into Hansel's gut.
It didn’t register at first, the gilt knife handle sticking out of his abdomen just under his ribs a surreal unreality that he couldn't wrap his mind around. But the pain caught up to him then in a high hot wash, gouts of blood welling up in a bright crimson flood, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.
Through the red haze he saw Gretel seize the witch by what was left of her hair. With one sure stroke, she hewed off her head. Then his sister was by his side. His arms and legs fell free of their bindings, but somehow he couldn't seem to get them to work, couldn't even get his lungs to work.
His breath came in soupy gurgles, all the while waves of sharp singing pain throbbed through every nerve ending, even as black and gray dots rushed in from the edges of his vision.
Well, I was ready to die anyway, he thought.
Gretel was shouting something, Ben’s white moon face in his own, brown eyes wide and panicked, frantically mouthing something Hansel couldn't understand.
He spared a moment of regret for leaving them – Gretel – like this, and then urgent hands seized him, shocking him momentarily from his deepening stupor. Something – something was happening to Gretel, her hands growing warmer and warmer on his skin as her eyes seemed to grow larger and to glow.
He tried to summon enough concern and strength to sit up, but he couldn't. Strangely, it didn't feel menacing, whatever this power was.
His vision flared white.
He floated away.
Hansel hated nights. It wasn’t just that he was a morning person (though he was) or that nights were automatically associated with evil. Nothing good happened at night, be it witches riding with the full moon or people, fortified with self-righteousness and liquid courage after the pubs let out, spoiling to burn themselves some misfits because lord knew the actual witches who deserved it were too savvy to allow themselves to be caught.
Nights were when the thoughts came, the thoughts Hansel kept locked away down in the deepest recesses of his heart.
Gretel stared at the flickering fire, unblinking. He knew she was thinking of welling blood, shockingly bright against tanned skin, that trailed in bloody smears over the bed, her hands, her clothes. The power that had flared in her hands, beyond her control.
He padded with leonine grace out of the dark where he’d been outlining the perimeter with salt, and sat next to her. He nudged her shoulder with his. “Quit thinking so much,” he said bluntly.
"I can't," she replied. Ben was a motionless lump at the other side of the fire, a tuft of dirty blonde hair poking out of his blanket. Abruptly, Hansel missed Edward, Edward of the surprisingly civilized name. It was a matter of survival to hide Edward in the deepest woods if they had business anywhere near town; having a troll in tow was an instant invitation to be burned at the stake, not to mention bad for business. But now he wished Edward were here, risks or no. Edward's simple, almost-childlike worldview was…refreshing. And good for Gretel.
Maybe good for Hansel too. He wasn’t a man of many words, and could spare only a few for discussing feelings or things that no amount of talk would change. Things that could be controlled, was his preferred subject matter. The what of things. The who, when, and where. But the how and especially, why – no.
They'd never had to distinguish between good or evil magic before. They hadn't even known 'good' witches existed before Mina, having never encountered one before in all their years of hunting.
But nothing like that warm white light that had filled him like being submerged in a warm bath could be evil. He’d woken up a day later, completely healed without even a scar. Even his old scars were smoothed over as if they'd never happened, some of the gray that had been slowly creeping into his hair in the past few years had diminished. Even the lines of his face, hard-earned with long years of going without sunscreen, had smoothed out.
It had even cured him of the sugar sickness.
Gretel had cured him of the sugar sickness. The innate, raw power of her. The knowledge of this shook him down to the core. He’d long resigned himself to a lifetime of lurching from injection to injection, his thighs eternally bruised like he spent all his time running into tables. Now that the curse was gone, he realized just how much of a pall it had cast over his life.
“You okay?” he asked her, joining her in staring at the flickering embers.
His sister hummed thoughtfully. “We might have to leave the country.”
Hansel could see it now: blaring headlines like Famous Witch Hunter Exposed! and Conspiracy of Witches?? What You Can Do to Protect Your Own! that the national tabloids loved to trumpet at any provocation about pretty much any woman of note, particularly if she was beautiful and still had all her teeth.
“We’ll manage,” he told her. They always had since that first night scrabbling through the dark, Hansel retching and dizzy behind his sister. Neither had known what sugar sickness was then, had never even heard of it.
Bewitched candy houses were a thing, it turned out, but not common enough.
He would have died that first month, if not for his sister dragging him to the closest town and bullying the doctor out of bed, and then, when the doctor hadn’t known what was wrong with him, stole a horse and made off for the nearest city and bullied that doctor out of bed, and afterward decided no one was ever going to hurt either of them ever again.
She turned her head to look at him. In the dying light he could see sheen of unshed tears in her eyes. “Sorry,” she whispered.
This frightened him more deeply than he would ever admit. His sister was the strong one, the brave one, the one who threw herself into the line of fire, that sweetness of her expression no less lessened by its equal determination. She didn’t cry.
Wordlessly, unable to think of anything else to do, he reached out and pulled her close. She gave a discreet sniff, turning her face away from him so he wouldn’t see the single tear that traced its way down her pale cheek, and leaned into his shoulder.
He squeezed her tight. Hansel wasn’t a man of many words, so he let the strength of his arms communicate what he couldn’t say: I'm here. You saved me again. And, thank you. He kissed the top of her head, the tangled mess of it tickling his nose. She smelled of lavender and of burnt pitch.
"I don't even know how I did it." Her voice was muffled. "What would you do if I were a witch?"
Hansel was taken off guard by this question. "Dunno. You're just…you," he said uncomfortably, thinking of that moment when Gretel had grabbed Muriel's wand after that final fight. There'd been a look. Hansel had never seen that look on his sister's face before, and honestly, he’d be happy never to see it again. He thought about it, remembering the sickly stench of decayed candy and burning hair. Then his mind shifted to the sensation of peace and healing, and added with conviction, “If you are, then you’re one of the good ones.”
She shifted at that as if it had never occurred to her before, but when she pulled back she was smiling faintly.
Hansel refused to read their mother’s spellbook on principle, as that fell firmly in the range of the how and why and was a reminder of a past that was both painful and immutable. But Gretel did. He knew enough to know that it was frustratingly unhelpful on the most important subjects, including whether the polar orientations of witch-hood were inherited or mutable traits. He also knew Gretel dwelled on this far more than was strictly healthy.
“It doesn't matter,” Hansel said finally. “We’ll go on like we always do.” He cast about, then nudged Gretel with his shoulder, giving her a crooked smile. "But I promise that if you start looking like a toddler went at your face with a trowel full of wallpaper paste and a black pen, I’ll bring you back. No matter what it takes."
It was a joke, albeit a gruff one, but beneath it he was deadly sincere. Gretel was his sister, his twin, his other half. He knew her down to the very marrow of her bones. No matter how she worried – and perhaps because she did worry – he knew Gretel would never become like Muriel or Ariel or any of the legions of twisted women and men who existed only to sow destruction and woe upon humankind for no discernible reason whatsoever.
But just in case, it would be a cold day in hell before he let her go without a fight.
She reached out, placed cool hands on both sides of his head, leaned forward and rested her forehead against his. They shared a moment together, quiet, breaths mingling.
"Anyway, your hair's already halfway there," he added as he pulled back, indicating the matted mess piled on top of her head that she hadn't had the chance to wash in nearly a week.
At that, she gave a watery snort that brought a corresponding grin to Hansel's face.
“Yeah, okay.” Her voice was rough, but she was smiling. She leaned in and bumped her nose into his, something she hadn't done since they were kids, and gave him that affectionate quirk of her eyebrows that said, Dork.