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Witches, warlocks, wizards, and weres: dominion over people, elements, items, and animals. Every kid grows up hearing the stories of how the old gods died and gave their powers to humans, even though the Godlings account for only about twenty-five percent of the world’s population. Rarest of all are witches-- one percent, and most of them in positions of power, hidden far away from Standards as they bewitch the world and shape the future of humanity-- followed by warlocks and wizards at nearly five percent each, and the lowly weres rounding it out somewhere barely south of fifteen percent. To be any kind of Godling is a blessing, but to be a witch is special.

(The problem with being special is that people usually find out.)

------

Moving is not a new experience for Sid. In fact, it’s effectively a yearly occurrence, because that’s about as long as he can successfully keep his head down in a neighborhood. Sitting across from a stern-faced Homeowner’s Association board, however, is definitely a new experience, and one that he’s mostly decided he doesn’t like. He keeps his eyes lowered and his palms firmly clasped together as Mr. T., the president of the HOA, continues to drone on fifteen minutes after he started.

“Finally, Mr. C., we must cover the farming terms. You are not required to work your land yourself, but it must be put to appropriate use. We suggest a yearly rotation on your crops as well, in order to prevent soil depletion. We also suggest that you discuss with your nearest neighbors their crop rota so you minimize the overlap and potentially co-grow for mutual benefit. Mr. F. is our on-site agriculture support, and he and his staff can handle many of these items and more if you are not capable.” Silence finally falls, and Sid glances up hopefully to see Mr. T. shuffling his papers. “Unless you have any questions, Mr. C., I believe that will be all for today,” Mr. T. finishes, and Sid nearly weeps with relief.

“No, Mr. T., I understand everything,” Sid says, and there’s a great scraping of chairs as the HOA board stands, Sid hurriedly following their lead. “Thank you for your time today, and I look forward to being a member of this community.”

“We welcome you to our host; may you bring us joy and benefit as we bring you happiness and goodwill,” Mr. T. says as he bows, painfully formal, and Sid bows back and picks up the papers Mr. F slides across the table towards him. Mr. T. pushes out of the room, most of the rest of the HOA filing out after him, but a sympathetic-faced woman-- Mrs. S., perhaps?-- veers towards Sid on her way out. She offers him a business card, politely pinching one corner between her fingers so that Sid can grasp the opposite corner without any chance of brushing hands. She says lowly, “I think you might find a discussion with Mr. F. an important first step, Mr. C. Welcome to our host.” She slips out as Sid examines the card; the front says Marc Flower: Environmentally conscious landscaper and farmer. The paper is rough and off-white, and Sid flips it in his fingers to feel the texture. He’s surprised to find a handwritten note on the back: Clover and alfalfa are beneficial and easy to maintain. Good luck and welcome.

This isn’t the first time Sid has moved, but it is the first time he’s become a farmer.

------

It’s good manners anywhere to introduce oneself to one’s neighbors, and Sid ignores the twitch of his muscles and the thrum of his nerves as he knocks on the door of his neighbor across the street. He takes slow, deep breaths and pushes down the susurrations that twist through his body and threaten to find a target until someone answers the door. Sid bows, and when he straightens up, he has to keep going for longer than normal before he can meet the eyes of his neighbor.

“Greetings. I go by the name Sid,” he introduces himself formally. Names have power, especially in his case; it’s far safer to use the ancient wording that indicates a use-name.

“Greetings, I'm go by Geno,” the man-mountain says, and even through the foreign accent, Sid can hear the howl of the were. It's no surprise, given the goats and chickens calmly grazing and pecking about, careless about their safety as if they sense the animal kindred of a were nearby. Sid is similarly entranced by Geno, his warm face as open and inviting as his scent. Awareness of Geno crawls across Sid’s skin, gliding smooth and sensual like silk, and Sid swallows hard, forcing down the butterflies in his stomach. His attention is brought back into focus as Geno’s nostrils flare and jaw drops while he draws in a deep breath. “You’re witch?” he asks, astonished, and Sid jerks back.

“Excuse me?” Sid says stiffly, face surely aflame as he boggles at the transgression, and Geno ducks his head in shame.

“I’m sorry, most sorry,” Geno says. “I’m not think-- um, how’s I’m help?” he stumbles to a stop, accent growing noticeably thicker with nerves. Sid holds out his basket loaded up with home-baked nanaimo bars in precisely-wrapped cellophane bags and a growler of beer from an insanely popular local brewery run by a cookery-wizard.

“I’m your new neighbor, just across the street there,” Sid says as he proffers the basket. “I wanted to bring a gift of peace and goodwill.” Geno delicately takes the basket, lifting it with his broad palms beneath the weave of the base so that his hands stay politely distant from Sid’s on the handle.

“Thank you,” Geno says, peering excitedly into the basket and humming. “Beer from Cultivate, IPA?” he asks hopefully, and Sid nods. “Most good! And… brownies?”

“Nanaimo bars,” Sid corrects him, and when his confused look doesn’t dissipate, adds, “They’re from Canada, they’re like a brownie but different? There’s a layer of custard, sort of, in the middle, and the bottom is more of a chocolate crumb than a brownie.”

“Sounds good! Thanks, I’m excited to try.” He steps back, gesturing Sid in. “Come in, I’m show you house.”

Sid hesitates but ultimately steps in, trailing Geno to an enormous wood-paneled kitchen where he’s shoving the growler in the fridge and leaving the basket on the counter. He shows Sid around proudly, his house a massive open-plan filled with the most astonishingly eclectic belongings. He bounces energetically from room to room, gently teasing Sid like he’s known Sid forever, and Sid is smitten, feeling himself practically glow from Geno’s attention and little jibes. Geno ends the tour by taking Sid out back to see a massive, well-cared for garden in front of wide fields of some kind of crop interrupted by copses of trees. “That copse, it has beehives,” Geno proudly tells Sid as he gestures, and Sid takes that as his signal to leave.

Sid practically runs away after giving Geno a thousand excuses for his rush homeward; he’s sweating and shaking as he collapses onto his living room carpet, nearly screaming as he blows the rising energy in him through the floor and into the heavily-warded concrete foundation. When he can stand again, there’s a burnt-out blast star fully through the carpet and scorching the wood underneath, a palm-sized chunk of charcoal centering the whole mess. Sid sighs and roots up an old towel, tossing it over the mark until he can be bothered to call a contractor.

Even with his witching burnt out, a longing tickles at his arms, crying out for the touch of another. It’s a craving he’s long denied in order to protect those around him, and he’s not about to change that, so he sits on his couch and hugs a pillow until he can concentrate again. It’s harder to recover from the blow-out with Geno so close to the top of his mind, the shy interest and quiet potential burning brighter with the sadness of his magic behind it.

Being a witch isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, especially when you refuse to bewitch.

------

Marc comes by the day after Sid calls him; he looks nothing like Sid expected, tall and smiling and tidily dressed in a button-up with the sleeves rolled up and dark wash jeans. He’s accompanied by a woman Sid guesses to be his wife that has a French accent equally as strong as his, and they each tout a painfully adorable baby girl up Sid’s walkway and to his porch.

Sid bows as Marc is extending a hand to shake, and Marc hastily withdraws and bows along with his wife. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. F.,” Sid says. “I go by the name Sid.”

“And you,” Marc returns. “Please, call me Marc. I brought with me my wife, Vero, and our children Estelle and Scarlett.” Sid bends a little to wave a Scarlett, who wags a chubby fist back in his direction, and then aims a smile at Estelle, who tucks her face into Marc’s neck. “We thought to come and look at your fields and discuss your options.”

“Front yard first?” Sid suggests, and steps out on the porch to stand next to Marc. “I thought-- what’s the most similar to grass that we could do?”

“Clover,” Marc says immediately. “It will attract the pollinators, and it’s much kinder on the soil than grass.”

“Pollinators… like bees?” Sid asks, and Marc nods. “There’s no other option?” he asks desperately, and Marc shrugs.

“There’s many options, but they will require much work, and it would be your work, as the crop fields keep me too busy for yard work.”

“Alright,” Sid sighs. If he has to, he can raze the whole thing and make it into a sand garden later, he supposes. “Let’s look at the back, I guess.”

Marc recommends alfalfa, just as Mrs. S. did. “It’s easy for us to maintain and keeps the soil happy. It’s selling well right now too, nice and sustainable business. If we want to switch to corn or other crops, it’s healthy for a three year rotation.” Sid agrees to the alfalfa and the clover and sends Marc and Vero off, as Scarlett is beginning to fuss, but he worries through the rest of the day.

The problem with clover is bees. The weres and the occasional wizard always tend to such beasties; warlocks and especially witches have little to do with animals, and Sid doubly so when the animals in question are bees. They've always been omenous to Sid, and he learned early to pay attention when he sees bumbling golden bodies about. A beehive formed overnight above his parents’ door when he was born, and for years they assumed he was wizard or were to earn the bees’ blessing. The hive sat empty, protected from being taken down and destroyed by superstition alone, until a queen returned with a swarm on the day Sid manifested as a witch.

To be fair, both good and bad in his life have been signed by a bee omen, but only the bad stands out in Sid's mind. He's jumpy for weeks after the clover is planted, watching over his shoulder for tragedy to strike over the background buzz of tiny bee wings. After all, he broke up his family rather than allow tragedy to strike them, and he’s not above burning his life to the ground again to protect others. Once he learned the extent of his bewitching, he left his parents and Taylor behind rather than subject them to being beguiled by him. His touch could change their minds against their will, and so he vowed to himself to keep others safe from his witching for his life, at whatever cost.

So the bees buzz through Sid’s clover, and he lives with one foot out the door, ready to run before he bewitches someone into loving him-- and worse.

------

Not too long after Sid’s fields are planted, he opens the door first thing in the morning to find a tiny jar waiting on his welcome mat. He bends over to pick it up and discovers it’s one of those reusable jam jars with a metal lock and a rubber seal, filled to the brim with what looks like honey. There’s a note tied around the throat of the jar, and Sid flips it over to see From Geno. Come say hi today! He tucks the jar under his arm, attempting to ignore it as he goes to get the mail, which today includes his monthly stipend. He tosses the check onto the foyer table, making a mental note to go to the bank, and drops the honey on the kitchen island. Despite all his efforts to pay attention to anything else, the honey and the offer that came with it constantly taunts him.

He gives up and heads over to Geno’s mid-afternoon. He doesn’t particularly want to grow too close to his neighbors-- that’s always how he’s found out, it seems-- but it doesn’t sit right with him not to thank Geno for the honey. He pretends that it has nothing to do with the whisper in the back of his mind begging to see Geno again, pleading to hear Geno’s little jokes and feel the weight of Geno’s dark eyes on him. Sid shifts from foot to foot as he waits for Geno to open the door; after five minutes and five evenly-spaced and increasingly insistent rings of the doorbell, he’s more than a little frustrated. There’s a tiny half-overgrown path around to the side of the house, so Sid turns and tiptoes from paving stone to paving stone, pushing through a gate into something more like a field than a backyard.

He freezes half-way through his curious investigation of the yard, finally recognizing the deep thrumming hovering at the edge of his hearing. He turns slowly and spots the four giant towers of hive frames through the nearest copse of trees, as Geno had pointed out on his tour. There’s something else there, tall and brown and poking through the hives, likely Geno in some kind of special beekeeper suit.

When Sid nears, though, the brown thing straightens up on its hind legs, and Geno is definitely not that tall. Sid freezes again, this time in fear of whatever damned beast is in front of him, and it turns to reveal a pleasantly bemused bear face smeared in honey.

“Hello?” Sid tries and the bear huffs at him, shaking its head until its ears flop and then dropping to sit on its butt with its hind legs sticking out in front. “I’m looking for Geno,” he tries again, and the bear heaves a long sigh, sticking a front paw dripping with honey in its mouth. It gnaws inelegantly until the fur is matted more with slobber than honey before rolling forward to all fours and sauntering to the other side of the copse.

Geno saunters back, hands red and spitty and face visibly sticky over a shameful expression. “Hi, Sid,” he says, and Sid tries very nobly not to laugh. He’s so distracted by not cracking a rib from stifling giggles that he doesn’t notice at first what’s happening, until Geno’s eyes rove down and his mouth drops in surprise.

Sid panics. “Is there a bee on me?” he whispers, practically vibrating with the need to escape. “ Geno ,” he hisses, and Geno licks his lips, nodding slowly. “Oh my gods, why--” Sid says, increasingly louder, until Geno starts waving frantically at him.

“Shh, shh,” he shushes, and another bee bumbles up and lands on Sid’s other arm. “Quiet, quiet means happy bees, Sid. You’re okay, just be quiet and they’re smell you and go away.”

“Why do they want to smell me?” Sid practically wails, though at a whisper level. His skin pebbles in goosebumps at the rare sensation of something living touching him. The bee’s antennae tickle as they brush against his arm curiously, and Sid’s resultant shudder is born half of fear and half of wonder.

“Bees like you, probably,” Geno says, shrugging. “I’m not know, I’m werebear, not werebee.”

“Well, turn back into a bear and tell them to buzz off,” Sid says, shuddering as a third bee lands on him. “Bees are my omen, I need them to go away before something bad happens.”

“Omen happen for good thing too,” Geno offers hesitantly after a long pause and a fourth bee.

“Not for me,” Sid grits out, trying not to brush at his neck from the tickle of one crawling along his nape.

“Bullshit,” Geno says mulishly. “How you’re know it’s not omen I’m ask you out?”

“What?” Sid squeaks. “What do you mean ask me out ?”

“You know, eat dinner and see movie. Ask you out, go on date.” Geno’s definitely close to babbling now, and Sid swallows dryly-- dates and bees are too much to handle at once.

“Um, yes?” Sid says. “Now will you help me with the bees?” But the moment that yes crosses his lips, the bees trundle off, presumably to terrorize Sid’s clover again.

“See, it’s omen!” Geno says smugly, face creasing with relief.

“No, it’s not,” Sid insists on principle, and to forestall the argument he senses brewing, he says, “When do you want to-- go out? Where should I meet you?”

Geno purses his lips thoughtfully and says, “Wednesday, five o’clock? Meet here, my house?”

“Okay, great,” Sid says, and tries not to look like he’s running away. His options are either leave or wipe the honey off of Geno’s face, though, and the second only leads to ruin.

------

Sid’s life is-- desolate, to say the least. The Godling stipend is enough to comfortably live on without a job, and he takes every advantage of that fact to stay away from others. He whiles his days away in his new house much like he has in all his other houses, tinkering in the kitchen as he bakes or cooks extravagant meals for one, reading whatever new WWII tome he’s ordered in, and chatting on his favorite internet boards, where touching isn’t even an option.

This also means he has a lot of time to consider his date with Geno. It’s risky, and frankly out of character for him, a man who once hid underneath a bush for an hour and a half to avoid speaking to a previous neighbor that flirted endlessly with him, but it’s impossible to deny the draw he feels to Geno. He justifies it to himself that he’s older and wiser now, better at resisting temptation, and so perhaps now he can get a little taste to ease the ache in his heart without risking Geno’s safety.

With all of that bubbling under Sid’s skin as he putters around, Wednesday arrives with a mounting sense of dread and excitement. Sid spends far more time than he would prefer to admit in his closet, picking out shirts, tossing them away in a fit of pique, and then picking them up to consider them again. It also takes more time than he realizes; by the time he emerges to dive into the bathroom and attack his hair, he only has five minutes until he’s supposed to be meeting Geno.

Sid knocks at Geno’s door ten minutes late with too much gel in his hair and his shirt untucked because he couldn’t find the belt he wanted in time so he grabbed the closest one at hand, a ratty old brown monstrosity that’s better off hidden by his shirttails. “Hi,” he says breathlessly, and then “Sorry I’m late, I--” right over Geno’s greeting. They both stop awkwardly mid-sentence and then say at the same time, “You first.”

They stare at each other, lips stubbornly pressed closed, before Geno slowly says, “I’m think we go eat dinner first, then see movie?”

“Okay,” Sid says, relieved, and backs up as Geno slides out his front door and turns to lock it. Belatedly, Sid takes the opportunity to examine Geno’s outfit, and it’s distressingly pleasing-- close-cut jeans and a trim black shirt-- until he turns around and reveals a mass of sparkling golden decorative scribbles across the front of the tee. Sid considers it as they silently walk down the front path to Geno’s car together only to realize it’s not nearly as horrible of an effect as it should be, and honestly it’s very nearly charming. Fuck.

He’s chanting a litany of keep your distance stay away you can’t touch him as Geno unlocks his car and they settle in. An uncomfortable silence reigns as Geno starts the car and exits the subdivision, finally broken as Geno says, “I’m think we go downtown, eat in Salt of the Earth and then go see movie?”

“Sounds good,” Sid says, and he probably shouldn’t be surprised that Geno picked the most popular farm-to-table place in town run by a were and her Standard husband.

He should also not be surprised that Geno knows the owner, who comes sprinting out of the kitchen when they arrive and personally escorts them to what Sid would guess is the best table in the house, already complete with a long-stem candle and a bottle of wine in a marble chiller. She winks through the wide ring of dark makeup around her eyes, chittering as she flicks a hand at them before saying, “Don’t you two worry, we’ll take good care of you tonight!”

They settle in as she pours them each a glass of wine and disappears, Geno curling into himself and sinking his gaze into his own lap in what can only be described as shyness. “Um, aren’t there menus?” Sid says tentatively, and Geno picks up his napkin and settles it on his lap.

“Rafaella, she agree to make special meal for us, I’m hope it’s okay?” Geno says, and Sid shrugs.

“Sure, I’m excited to see what it is,” Sid says, and waits for Geno to say something. He’s still struck by some strange bashful mood, though, so Sid adds, “So, um, how’s your garden going?” It works better than expected; Geno perks up, eyes sparkling as he details the lives of his plants. A salad appears somewhere in the middle of Geno’s earnest explanation about the correct watering habits that snap peas require, and Sid dubiously forks up a mouthful. It’s a mix of greens he’s never seen before, with tiny seeds and nuts scattered through, but it’s as delightful as it is mysterious, and Sid tucks it away without further suspicion.

But Sid can’t keep Geno distracted by gardening talk forever, and not long after their salad plates are cleared, the dreaded question comes. “So, you’re like garden too? Or you do other things?” Geno asks, back to hesitancy, and Sid tries to avoid too much of a guilty expression.

“I bake a lot, actually,” Sid says. “I prefer to do pies, but I’ll try to bake pretty much anything at least once.”

“Pies?” Geno breathes, eyes wide. “Fruit pies?”

“Yeah, my favorite are berry pies. I do lots of blueberry and blackberry pies when they’re in season.” Geno’s eyes half-close, and Sid swears he can hear the edge of a moan from him. Sid clears his throat, ears burning, and says, “I do some breakfast pastries kind of often too, croissants and--” he stops himself just in time.

“And?” Geno asks eagerly, leaning over the table. “What else?”

“Um…” Sid says faintly, but his brain is totally devoid of anything except the one thing he doesn’t want to say-- “Well, you know, bear claws.” The last words are barely whispered, but of course Geno picks it up-- damn weres-- and he gapes at Sid for a few seconds before bursting out laughing. “It’s true,” Sid says defensively, because it is. He loves bear claws.

“Bear claw,” Geno chokes, finally relaxing into his chair as he howls, and Sid is saved from further teasing by the arrival of dinner. It’s salmon, served on the cedar planks they were presumably cooked on, and a thought twigs at Sid’s mind but runs away too quickly for him to hold onto it. The conversation flows a little more quickly after that, either the wine or the unintentional joke loosening both their tongues.

Dessert-- some kind of berry and honey mixture that is indecently delicious for how simple it is-- comes with Geno describing the suburb to Sid. “Neal and Paul, they’re my neighbor five houses away, very nice. Neal is lazy but he’s fun, Paul can cook most good.”

“Who else do you know?” Sid asks, and gets an avalanche of information in return. He learns that their weather wizard is Patric, who lives with Phil, and they grow sunflowers. There are also two Chris’ (one with a K, Geno sagely informs him), both with their own families. The Kris-with-a-K works for Marc in the fields with Pascal and several other French-Canadian transplants, all of whom live in the neighborhood. Geno paints a lovely picture of a community as he gossips shamelessly, and Sid tries not to be too wistful about the distance he must impose between himself and them. But to grow close would risk the possibility of Sid brushing against one of them, irreparably changing the course of their life because of Sid’s power, and so he will content himself with enjoying their happiness from afar.

As they finish their dessert. Rafaella comes to bus their dessert plates and they assure her everything was excellent. “It’s not our normal fare, you know,” she flutters, clever hands stacking and balancing their dishes. “But for Geno, of course we could go fishing for a day! Some things are just important."

Of course,” Sid agrees, though he’s sure he’s missing out on some kind of a joke, given how Geno is flushing, half-proud and half-embarrassed.

“But Sid like, yes?” Geno says, and the expectant looks that Rafaella and Geno are giving Sid seem a little too expectant for asking if Sid liked a dinner he had already expressed profuse appreciation of.

“Yeah, of course I did,” Sid says, because it was a nice dinner even if they’re acting weird now. Maybe it’s a were thing? It’s probably a were thing, he assures himself.

Geno checks his watch and flies up out of his chair. “We’re miss movie, time to go!” Rafaella-- so short that the top of her head doesn’t even reach Geno’s chin-- gives him a firm but one-armed hug around her handful of dishes.

“Go, go! Don’t want you to be late, I know how you love the previews,” Rafaella urges, and Sid stands reluctantly.

“Um, the check--” he asks awkwardly, but Rafaella waves her free hand at him.

“No, no, you boys run along, it’s all settled,” she says, and Sid wants to protest but Geno is coming around the table and threatening to grab Sid by the shoulders in order to get him to move, so Sid flees for the door. Geno catches up with him quickly, and Sid tries not to think too hard about how long Geno’s legs are.

“How you know we’re go to Strand?” Geno asks playfully as he falls into step with Sid. “You’re read my mind, hmm?”

Sid, already off-kilter from the inability to offer to contribute on the check, nearly stumbles to a halt as a chill runs through him. A thousand panicked excuses run through his mind-- witches can’t read your mind like that, we don’t hear your thoughts, it’s something different, I promise I’m not listening -- before he remembers that Geno doesn’t know.

“Well, I just figured, it’s the closest theater,” Sid hedges.

“I’m think it’s like saying, great minds think alike, you know?” Geno says, sidling closer to Sid. His arm swings close enough to Sid’s that their skin might brush, or worse, Geno could grab his hand. Sid tucks his hands in his pockets, trying not to notice as Geno steps away again, a disappointed frown on his face. It’s better this way, safer.

When they reach the box office, Geno swoops in front, and Sid helpless to stop him from buying two tickets to Allergic to Love. Based on the poster, it’s-- oh jeez, it’s a romcom about a werecat. Sid sighs to himself. He’s starting to get the picture that Geno is always this unsubtle.

They’re able to get Sid’s favorite seats in the middle of the theater, as Wednesday apparently isn’t a busy night. Sid settles in, tucking his elbows close to his sides and keeping his knees together. His skin burns; he can feel Geno so close to him and his magic is waking up, reaching out and trying to twine around him. Sid grits his teeth, stubbornly forcing the rising tide down, until all that’s left is the ever-present quiet longing for someone to touch. It’s not a magic instinct but a human one, but it’s better to deny for the safety of everyone around him.

It’s a fun movie, albeit missing the gravity and depth of Sid’s more usual movie-fare of WWII flicks. A career-minded man in PR quits his job and moves when he gets dumped by his girlfriend. He trips-- literally, because it’s a romcom-- into the arms of the seriously buff barista serving him his morning coffee. True to the name, the PR guy is allergic to cats, and the barista guy is a werecat.

When they make up at the end of the movie and kiss, there’s a suspiciously loud sniff from Sid’s left, and he glances over to see Geno crying. “Are you okay?” Sid whispers.

“Fine,” Geno warbles lowly. “I’m just like happy endings, always cry.”

The urge to wrap an arm around Geno and soothe him slaps Sid and tingles through his fingers. He scowls to himself and tucks his hands between his knees instead. It’s better this way.

They laugh over the plot on the way back to the neighborhood, returning to an easy back-and-forth filled with Geno cracking silly jokes that have Sid howling. Geno turns into his drive and turns off the car, Sid darting out of the door as soon as the engine stops. Geno unfolds himself, and before he can come around to Sid’s side of the car, Sid blurts over the roof of the car, “Um, I had a really nice time tonight, thank you. How about something on Saturday?”

“I’m have good time too, Sid. Saturday is good for me.” He’s closing in on Sid, looping around the hood, and Sid needs to go now.

“Great, see you then,” Sid says, and tries not to sprint back to his house or think of the mixture of pleasure and disappointment on Geno’s face. Witches can’t read minds, but Sid didn’t need any kind of witchy advantage to know what Geno’s intent was.

He goes straight to his bed and curls around a pillow, soaking in the aching disappointment of avoiding Geno’s kiss. There’s no need to burn energy into the foundation of the house; it bubbles and evaporates under Sid’s loneliness. Not even the realization that Rafaella and Geno’s joke was that they fed Sid bear food-- leaves and fish, berries and honey-- is enough to rouse his spirits.

------

Leading up to Saturday, Sid nearly cancels on Geno four times; each time, though, he picks up his phone and scrolls through to Geno’s number and can’t go any further. He thinks of how Geno had a bear meal put together for Sid, how he cried at the happy ending of the movie, how he respectfully backed off every time Sid shied away from his touch. So each time he puts his phone back down and steps away to agonize over where he wants to take Geno for their second date.

Eventually he settles on a bowling alley; it seems safely neutral, there’s food involved, and he’s not averse to a little competition. Neither is Geno, it turns out; one game turns into two when Geno insists Sid cheated to win, and two games turns into three when Sid declares one win each means there is no winner. Sid ekes out the final game on the backs of three pins, and Geno is a less gracious loser than he should be on a second date.

Sid doesn’t mind at all. The poorly-concealed pouting is just childish enough to distract him from all of the other aspects of Geno that have been too difficult to deal with all night: the curve of his ass every time he bowls, the sheer size of his hands, even on a ball a size bigger than Sid’s, the gleeful smile that erupts on every good frame. He’s not sure if Geno does it intentionally, but there are a few moments he has to sidestep or else they’ll be too close, near enough that their arms might brush. Despite the heat in the alley, Sid feels a constant chill deep in his chest that begs for a gentle embrace, and he ignores it just as he ignores the power tickling through his bones. They’ve always come hand-in-hand, the magic and the loneliness, and Sid is used to refusing both their satisfaction.

Sid calls it another successful date, though he dodges Geno at the end again as he closes in. Geno leaves him a pot of honey on his doorstep the next day with a note tied around the throat of the jug: Day after tomorrow? Sid sends back the jar, empty after using the contents for a loaf of challah and a batch of fig-goat cheese tarts and with a simple Yes written on the other side of the paper.

Geno comes to his door and orders Sid into tennis shoes and shorts; Sid complies, baffled, and tries not to run away in terror as Geno starts to lead them along the paths that wander through the fields surrounding the neighborhood. There’s nothing to do but talk, and Geno’s long stride eats up the ground as they take a long, rambling circle along streams and edges of fields. Geno seems restless, staring intently at trees and breathing deeply at odd times, but the conversation doesn’t suffer from whatever is distracting him.

And the conversation-- Sid is helpless, so drawn in that he halfway wonders if Geno figured out how to bewitch him instead of worrying about the other way around. Afterwards, Sid couldn’t say what they talked about for so long; all he remembers is the gentle warmth glowing in his chest, the ache of his face as he smiled and laughed and the ache of his heart as Geno smiled and laughed in return.

When Geno’s stomach rumbles so loud Sid can hear it, Sid remembers abruptly, “I made goat cheese and fig tarts with the honey you gave me. Do you want to head home and have some?”

Yes ,” Geno says, before Sid is done speaking, and suddenly they’re running back to Sid’s house, giggling breathlessly as they race each other. The tarts taste even more delicious today as they scatter crumbs all around the kitchen together, Sid laughing through a mouthful of tart and Geno goading him on. They gorge on half the batch before collapsing into the chairs at the kitchen island.

“Most good, Sid,” Geno says approvingly, and Sid tries not to preen too much. “I’m want to try your baking since you’re tell me you make bear claws. I’m think, smart baker know anything about bears is best!”

“Oh please,” Sid says, spinning in his chair instead of shoving at Geno with his foot like he wants to. “Bear claws have nothing to do with bears!”

“Yes they do!” Geno insists. “It’s name, so obvious! Named after best animal!”

“No, it’s because it looks like a paw with claws,” Sid argues. “You could call it-- I dunno, lion claws instead, and it wouldn’t be any different!”

Lion? ” Geno says, scandalized. “No! Lion is stupid! Bear is best, name pastry after bear always.”

“There’s only one way to settle this,” Sid declares. “Next date, you come here and we’ll make bear-- animal claws. Then we can decide what they’re called.”

“Yes, it’s good,” Geno says. “I’m show you, bear is everything best!”

------

Sid makes the dough ahead of time, because he’s pretty sure he’d die if he was around Geno for four hours waiting for the dough to rise without any distractions or sufficient willpower to refrain from touching Geno. He’s rolling the dough out, testing that it’s warmed enough, when the man himself knocks at his door. Sid hurries to get it, ignoring the floury handprint he leaves on the knob. “Hey,” he says, trying to tamp down the beaming smile splitting his face, and Geno’s face is equally joyous as he replies, “Hey is for horses!”

“Come on in,” Sid says, shuffling to the side to allow Geno to pass and yank off his shoes while Sid closes the front door. Geno’s dressed down in highly distressed jeans-- Sid should be equally as distressed as said jeans, but it’s illogically attractive on Geno-- and a worn, faded shirt covered in Cyrillic.

“So we’re bake bear claw today?” Geno says eagerly, shoes tumbled on the welcome mat, and Sid angles a smile at him as he gestures.

“Well, you said you’d show me why anything named after a bear was awesome, didn’t you?” Sid says, and Geno laughs.

“It’s t rue , don’t have to show anything,” Geno insists as he trails after Sid. “I’m make best bear claw ever, you see!”

They mix the almond filling up together, Sid trying very hard to not backseat bake too much as Geno works the food processor. He has to banish himself to rolling out the dough and cutting it into rectangles until Geno comes over with a bowl of probably-smooth-enough almond filling. Sid shows Geno how to curl the dough over the filling and cut the trailing end into five sections. He pokes almond slices into the “toes”-- normally he doesn’t, but it seems appropriate for Geno’s sake-- and steps back. “See? It’s a bear claw!” He looks at Geno, but Geno is frowning, lower lip pouted out.

“No,” Geno says firmly. “Even if it’s good, it’s not bear claw! Much too small, you know. Bear claw is so big, so maybe this is lion claw like you say.”

“How do you know it’s too small?” Sid asks indignantly, and pretends it was a purposeful joke when Geno bursts out laughing.

“Okay, I’m show you,” he says, and Sid says, “Oh gods no --”

Now there is a bear standing in Sid’s kitchen. Sid feels faint; Geno is large as a human and enormous as a bear, and his size seems impossible within the confines of a house. Geno plops his butt onto Sid’s floor to bring his head down to Sid’s level, seemingly oblivious to Sid’s open-mouthed distress, and props a paw up onto one of the barstools. Sid has to admit Geno’s point; his paw is almost a foot wide and topped with five razor-sharp claws over two inches long apiece. Next to the tiny pastry, the resemblance is laughable.

“Look, it’s got five little pieces like toes, and it’s wider than it is tall too, and there’s almonds just like your claws--” Sid tries anyway, because he’s not really into accepting defeat. Geno huffs at him, his round ears bobbling backwards as he squints at Sid. He slaps the paw against the chair, grunting as he wiggles his toes and points his nose between his paw and the counter full of sweets. “Okay, so maybe it’s not perfect,” Sid admits grudgingly, and Geno gives a satisfied grunt before melting back into his human skin.

“If it tastes good, maybe it’s still bear claw,” Geno cedes magnanimously. “But only if it’s good!”

They lean over the kitchen island and gossip about the neighborhood while the claws bake, and Sid lets Geno handle the glaze, to which he proudly adds his own honey as the finishing touch. Sid doesn’t mention the lumps that the powdered sugar leaves behind because Geno opted not to use the sifter.

The bear claws are good, lumps and all. Sid hovers on the far side of the island from Geno, ready to run at a moment’s notice, but Geno stays to his side. Sid ignores the downward tilt of Geno’s mouth and how he doesn’t even try to touch Sid when he says goodbye.

------

Another pot of honey appears on Sid’s doorstep the next day with a note that says, Saturday lunch, meet in my house , so Sid dutifully writes 12PM, date with Geno on his calendar. It gives him a tiny thrill even as he has to tamp down the desperate tingle twisting in his muscles and reaching out into the air warmed by the heat of Sid’s body. He has to go sit cross-legged in the basement, in a wizard’s circle ground into the concrete by the previous owner as he clenches his fists and dumps his power into the house’s foundation. By the time he’s done, his skin is crawling; the air feels swampy around him, thick and heavy and sick, and the floor is nearly rolling under his feet from the power fighting to break free.

Sid flees to the top of the house, collapsing in his bed and curling around the body pillow he keeps on the other side of the bed. He thinks-- he doesn’t remember what a hug feels like, but he always wonders if it feels a little like this, when his heart gives a tiny sigh at the sense of something held tight within his arms.

He’s a little steadier by the time Saturday arrives, or at least he thinks so. The illusion shatters when Geno opens the door, hair slicked down and clad in a button down and a tie. “Hi,” Sid says, suddenly throbbing with nerves and the need to touch. “I um, didn’t know I should dress up?” He’s wearing jeans and a plain tee, and he curls his bare toes as if the bands of the flip-flops he’s wearing can hide his casual dress beside Geno’s nice clothes.

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Geno says. “Just wait, I’m come right back.” He shuts the door into Sid’s surprised face, wafting a rich, earthy smell from inside the house towards him. He breathes deeply-- it smells halfway familiar and strangely enticing-- and then the door flies open again, Geno popping out with a wicker basket in hand. “Okay, let’s go!” he says, bowing and waving in an overly grandiose manner until Sid laughs and backs off the porch.

Geno leads them around the house and into his fields, past the copse that holds the beehives and to a more distant copse next to the stream. He stops to set down the basket, and Sid’s eyes are drawn to the tree behind him. A massive patch of bark is shredded off just above the height of Geno’s head, revealing the pale and sap-sticky inner flesh rent into stripes and with slivers still hanging loosely. A nervous question is on the tip of Sid’s tongue when Geno announces, “Okay, it’s ready, what you’re think?”

Sid turns to see Geno standing over a cloth laid out on the springy clover, a full picnic spread neatly out across the gingham. “Wow,” Sid says faintly. “It looks really great, Geno, thank you.”

“Most welcome,” Geno says airily, dropping to sit on the gingham as his shoulders relax and his expression opens up. “Come here, time to eat,” Geno orders, and Sid obligingly steps closer and sinks onto the picnic cloth, hiding his toes underneath his crossed legs as he surveys the dishes.

Geno leans towards Sid to spear some pickled beets, and Sid says, “Oh, there’s bees on your tie!” They’re tiny, arranged in a sort of grid pattern so that they look like something more subdued from a distance, but close up it’s unmistakably bees. Geno leans back and brushes absently at the tie, looking down and frowning.

“No bees, Sid,” he says, and then he laughs. “Oh, you’re not mean real bees sit on tie, you mean little bees that come on tie!”

“Yeah,” Sid says, trying not to giggle, even though his stomach sinks at the mention of real bees. He takes a surreptitious glance about, though, and there isn’t a bee in sight, even though they’re in the middle of a stretch of clover. He thanks the fickle mercies of the gods and sets to his lunch.

Sid puts his plate down after cleaning it twice, and he realizes with a start that somehow Geno has slid closer to Sid, moving from the other end of the blanket to the edge nearest Sid, easily within arm’s reach.  As Sid glances up he catches Geno’s eye, devoid of playfulness and oddly serious as he leans in and extends a hand towards Sid’s face, moving slowly but with clear intent.

Sid can’t resist the instinct to lean in; every atom in his body screams for contact, his power twisting and thrashing as it tries to reach out and ensnare Geno. It’s that last sensation that goads Sid into withdrawing at the last second; he jerks back like he’s about to be burnt, scrambling backwards awkwardly off of the cloth and into the clover, a safe distance away from Geno. He can’t bewitch Geno. To lo-- to care for Geno, and to never know if what’s returned is freely given rather than the product of his magic-- no. Sid can’t. Not even the hurt that floods Geno’s expression is enough to deter him; he does this to protect Geno, so he forces his heart to stay firm and resolute as he drills his surging power into the ground, wilting and killing the clover beneath his palms.

“Why?” Geno asks in an explosion of sound, too loud as he points an accusing finger at Sid. “Every time I think you’re want, every time you come close and then you run away. Why you’re run? I’m not good enough? You’re ever let me touch you? Or I’m have to always stay at arm’s length?”

“It has nothing to do with you,” Sid says weakly, though it’s the furthest thing from the truth. “I’m just-- you don’t understand--”

“Of course I’m not understand, you’re never explain!” Geno says.

“It’s just not safe for you, Geno,” Sid says, hands dropping to twist in the hem of his shirt. “I’m-- I have to-- I can’t touch you, Geno, I need you to like me for me.” Sid can hear the echo of his father’s wisdom in the words: witch or wizard or standard, Sidney, if you’re a good person, people will like you for you, and that’s what matters in the end.

“Of course I’m like you for you,” Geno says, face pinching even more. “How’s you touch me change anything?” Sid wants to run away, he wants to throw up, he needs to be anywhere but here, any moment but now when Geno finds out he’s in danger of being bewitched.

“That’s why I can’t,” Sid says, a last desperate bid. “I want to touch you but I can’t, Geno, not ever. It’s better this way.”

Geno goes terrifyingly quiet; he tips his head back, staring at the beaten-up tree and lifting a lip like he’s snarling at it. Eventually he heaves out a sigh, and Sid’s lips press firmly together to prevent a tremble; he knows what’s coming, because as always he don’t need a witch’s senses to read the expression on Geno’s face.

“Better for you maybe, but not for me,” Geno says sadly, and Sid bites his cheek until his mouth floods with the tang of blood. “I’m sorry, Sid, but-- I can’t do like this. If it’s how you need, that’s okay, but it’s not right for me, you know? I’m want to hug, to kiss, to touch, and if you’re never okay with that, I’m not happy. And then you’re not tell me why you’re not touch, so I can’t help fix. It’s never work out this way, you know?”

“I know,” Sid says faintly, so quiet that the words nearly disappear into the breeze trailing its fingers through his hair. “Thanks-- thanks for lunch, Geno, and for everything.”

“You’re welcome,” Geno says hollowly, eyes still fixed on the tree, and Sid stands and walks away. His pace is even and steady all the way back past Geno’s house and into his own; his front yard is totally devoid of bees for the first time since he had the clover planted, and he feels vindictively pleased that he was right about them. When he sits in the wizard’s circle in the basement, nothing more than a trickle of power winds out from him, tasting of endings and death. Curling around his body pillow gives little comfort, and eventually he pushes it aside, stretching spread-eagle on the bed and wishing for the justice of the gods to strike down upon him. The only justice he gets is that which he created already, and he admits to himself that right now, there’s few punishments worse than losing Geno.

------

Sid retreats, and he does what he always does when he retreats: he bakes. Soon, there’s pies cooling across every counter, eclairs waiting on cooling racks to be filled and macarons growing their feet in his oven. All he can hear as he rolls out dough and mixes fillings is the jeers of children: Su-zy likes Crai-ig! Craig bewitched Suzy! The taunts of children were aimed at anyone, regardless of if the target was actually a witch, but they cut Sid deepest of any. He counters the memory of tiny cruelties with his own youthful resolution that he’s held tight to for years: I’ll never bewitch anyone. They’ll like me for me, without my powers involved. If he doesn’t touch, he can know for sure that everyone is free from his bewitching.

It’s Tuesday evening and his freezer is drowning under stacks of pies. He’s trying to figure out what to do with the lingonberry ones he just finished-- he could put them in the chest freezer, but that way lies madness because then he’ll just keep baking until the chest freezer is full. He starts and nearly drops the pie pan in his hands when the doorbell rings, the chimes bouncing harshly through the silent halls of the house. He sets the pie down and pads to the front door. When he peers out the window, he doesn’t see Marc like he halfway expected, but instead a sharply dressed man somewhat worse for the wear, hair mussed and shirt tugged free of his pants.

“I know you’re there,” the man calls, and Sid freezes as he feels a bewitching on the words curl through the glass and into Sid’s heart. Sid has already turned away from the door, frantic plans to run bubbling up half-formed in his mind, when the man adds, “I want to talk about Geno, okay? I can hear your power crying out from miles away and all it’s saying is his name, I couldn’t ignore it if I tried.”

Sid whips around, furious, and throws open the door. “Who are you to comment on my witching?” he hisses, holding his ground as the man steps into the foyer, barely a fingers-width away from Sid as the door swings shut.

“That’s how you treat your guests?” the man asks, smoothing his jacket as he smirks at Sid. “Now I see why Geno dumped you, he likes a polite boy.”

Sid howls, the feelings gone fallow in his chest springing to furious life. It’s not even a conscious thought to throw himself at the stranger; he grapples on instinct, grabbing at the man’s face to cover his mouth and cut off his witching. The man yelps out of proportion to Sid’s grasp and he twists away desperately until Sid lets go and steps back. They look at each other for a long moment, Sid’s chest heaving with fury and the man’s eyes even and evaluating, and the man says, “And now I’ve felt in my heart how your magic screams. We need to talk, little witch, and you know it.”

“You don’t know shit,” Sid snarls and stalks back to the kitchen, shoulders tense with the simmering fear and rage within him. Is this man going to take him away, make him go and be with other witches? There’s too many horror stories of government agencies that kidnap Godlings to force into terrifying top secret missions, and Sid wonders if this is how the end comes.

“Pies?” the man says curiously as they enter the kitchen. “You get dumped and bake pies?”

“What do you want?” Sid asks rudely. “And what’s your name?”

“I’m Alexander Ovechkin, you can call me Sasha,” he says, tugging out one of the barstools at the island and sitting, leaning over to sniff a cooling pie appreciatively and eye the rack of eclairs. “I’m Russian Consul to America, but more important, I’m Geno’s best friend.” Sid’s back is turned to Sasha, so he can incredulously mouth best friend to himself. Adults have best friends?

“Well, then I’m sure you’re very aware that he dumped me , so I don’t know why you’re here.” He slams the bowl of pastry cream down next to the unfilled eclairs, forcing Sash to withdraw his hand hastily from where he was attempting to poach one.

“I’m here because you’re being so stupid,” Sasha says sharply. “A witch by himself, no family, no bewitching? I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it’s very stupid, so stop. Go home, wherever that is. If you don’t settle your magic, you’re going to hurt someone, and if you’re unlucky, it won’t be yourself.”

“I didn’t ask for your stupid-shit opinion,” Sid snaps, shoveling cream into his pastry bag aggressively enough that it starts to drip from the tip. He swears, moving it so it leaks into the bowl and twisting the bag shut before picking up an eclair and filling it. “What I’m doing now is protecting people from getting hurt. Bewitching Geno into being my husband and making a family with me is fucking wrong , okay? Regardless of what your shady morals are, I   refuse to force people into things they don’t want to do.”

Sasha stares at him, mouth agape, before throwing his head back and laughing so hard that he nearly falls off of the stool. “Bewitch Geno into anything he doesn’t want?” Sasha finally says once he catches his breath. “No. Never. I try all the time, and it never works, not when we’re kids and not now.” Sid frowns stubbornly, jamming the piping tip into another eclair silently. Sasha watches him silently, a too-knowing look dawning on his face as he says, “You stay away from witches, you don’t use your magic. Do you even know how it works?”

“Of course I know how it works,” Sid says, moving back to the bowl to push the last of the pastry cream into the bag. “I touch people and then they love me, it’s not that complicated.”

“What the fuck ,” Sasha says, horrified, and Sid petulantly flicks pastry cream at him with his spatula. “Hey!” Sasha says indignantly, scraping at his tie to pick up the cream and suck it off his finger. “I like this tie!”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sid says with false sweetness as he goes back to filling the eclairs. “That was an accident.”

“Accident my ass,” grumbles Sasha. “Now stop distracting. You’re worse off than I thought, little witch. That’s not how bewitching works.”

“So I’m supposed to trust a politician on that?” Sid says, jamming the pastry tip into an eclair too aggressively and collapsing the end of the pastry. “Yeah, don’t think so.”

“Here, I’ll show you,” Sasha says. He sits straighter, leaning over the counter, and his words glow with power as he says, “Sid, I need you to give me one of those eclairs.”

“Fat chance,” Sid says. “They’re for me.” He doesn’t need to eat two dozen eclairs, but like hell will he let this-- this punk have one.

“But I really want one,” Sasha says, and the words are like syrup dripping through the air, so sweet and slow as they sink into Sid. The magic on Sasha’s words sparkles in Sid’s lungs as Sasha continues, “Can’t you just give me one?”

“Nope,” Sid says, popping the p. He drops the bowl and the pastry bag into the sink, washing his hands and pulling out the double boiler to melt the chocolate.

“I can’t bewitch you into doing something you don’t want to do,” Sasha says triumphantly. “See? So how you keep your magic bottled up, it doesn’t matter. You can’t save people from something that won’t happen, but you will hurt yourself.”

“I want people to like me for me,” Sid says evenly, forcing himself to gently place the double boiler on the stove. “Geno didn’t, and I know that for sure because I never bewitched him, and that’s the end of that.”

Sasha sighs, frustrated. “I just told you, bewitching doesn’t change that! You can only make stronger what a person already feels.” Sid remains stubbornly silent as he fills the boiler with water. “Do you know what happens when a witch has a family?” he asks, apropos of nothing, and Sid dumps the chocolate into the bowl of the boiler. “A witch’s magic is different with family. It’s not about bewitching, influencing people. It brings the family together, so you get to be the center of the family, protect them from harm.” Sid’s lips tighten; he tries not to think about how he always knew when mom and dad were fighting growing up, how he could prod one or the other into doing what they needed to do to make up with each other. Sometimes, he would just smile or say a simple sentence or two, and he could feel their whole day turn around, and he always knew what Taylor needed, even before she could speak. “You need a family, Sid,” Sasha says. There isn’t a trace of bewitching in his tone, just solemn worry. “You’re going to hurt yourself if you don’t make one. You might even hurt other people.”

“Why do you care?” Sid bursts out. “What does it even matter? I just want to live my life in my own way, why are you so intent on changing that?”

“Because you’re hurting yourself, and witches have to look out for each other,” Sasha says. “But more than that, you hurt Geno because you wouldn’t be honest with him. I don’t like that.”

“Well, good for you,” Sid says. “Now get the fuck out of my house and don’t come back.”

Sasha stands, sliding a business card onto the counter before holding up his hands placatingly. “Just think about it,” he says as he backs away. “Wouldn’t you like to have a family? When you stop being scared you’ll see that it’s possible for you to have one. If you change your mind and decide you want to live a good life, call me up, okay? You’re not alone.”

Sid tries to put it all out of his mind after Sasha leaves, mechanically drizzling the eclairs in chocolate, but too much chocolate ends up on the counter as his hand shakes from his thoughts. He wants-- he needs so desperately, and the sliver of hope that Sasha has given him opens the floodgates. When the eclairs are done, he doesn’t even bother with freezing them, just flees the wrecked kitchen and the business card on the island to curl up on the couch, hugging a pillow tight and wondering breathlessly if there’s something better just waiting in his future.

------

Sid hides in his house for three days, obsessing over the possibility of having a family again. He swings wildly back and forth from extreme optimism to realistic pessimism. On one hand, Sasha couldn’t get him to so much as hand over an eclair, let alone fall in love with him. On the other hand, it still makes Sid’s skin crawl from the risk-- what if he overdoes it, what if his bewitching works differently than Sasha’s, what if, what if, what if?

There’s only one way to get an answer. He sits at the kitchen island, staring balefully down at the business card that Sasha left as he fights with himself. He hasn’t so much as touched the slip of paper, afraid that contact alone would drive him mad, but still it calls to him. Baby steps , Sid thinks to himself, and he slides his cell phone out of his pocket, places it on the counter next to the card. Five minutes later he unlocks it, letting the screen go dark again; after another ten minutes of unlocking it and letting it sleep, he types in the number and lets it sit, undialed. He moves to pick up the phone four or five times before he can summon the courage to do it, pressing the call button and listening to it ring.

“Da?” Sasha says, and Sid’s mouth dries out, his brain freezing in fear. “Hello, anyone there?” Sasha says.

“This is me calling you up,” Sid finally says into the silence. “I want to talk.”

The line goes quiet again before Sasha says, “I’ll be there in five hours. Don’t go anywhere.”

The temptation to run is strong so he cleans instead, pacing restlessly through the house as he polishes windows and sweeps floors. His doorbell rings at seven thirty, five and a half hours later, and Sid opens the door to Sasha, rumpled and windswept in his suit.

“You’re late,” Sid says, because it’s easier than everything else he’s feeling, and Sasha snorts, stepping forward and forcing Sid out of his way to enter the house and close the door.

“You’re lucky an important man like me can drop everything and run when you ask for me,” he says. “Don’t think I’ll do it again, but I owe Geno one, and I pay my debts."

“Do you want anything to drink?” Sid offers nervously, falling back on old habits, and Sasha gives him an unimpressed look.

“I’m not here to drink water, Sid. I don’t have much time, what do you want from me?”

“It’s easy for you to say what it’s like to have a family,” Sid says, shoving his hands deep inside his pockets. “I want you to prove it to me. Make me believe it’s okay, it’s safe, that everything I’ve done for years to protect everyone around me isn’t necessary.”

Sasha sighs explosively. “Don’t ask for much, do you?” he says sarcastically. “Fine, there’s one way to do it, but maybe you won’t like it.” At Sid’s raised eyebrow, he says, “If we form a coven, you can feel my magic like I do, and if that doesn’t make you believe, nothing will.”

“No bewitching anyone while we’re linked,” Sid says instantaneously.

“You know that a coven can’t do anything unless all members want to,” Sasha says, exasperated. “Now are you in or am I leaving?”

“Fine, let’s do it,” Sid snaps, hunching his shoulders up to his ears. He’s scared, so scared, but he has to do this, he has to know one way or the other.

“In the wizards’ circle in your basement, I think,” Sasha says after looking around with his nose wrinkled. “Come on, let’s go, I’m a busy man.”

“You’ve said,” Sid mutters as he follows Sasha down to his basement. They settle in the circle together, legs folded as they face each other, and Sasha reaches out to grab Sid’s hand. Sid pulls back instinctively, and Sasha gives him an unimpressed look before reaching out again. Reluctantly, he takes Sasha’s hand, closing his eyes and swaying at the smack of Sasha’s emotions against his heart. Sasha takes his other hand, muttering ceaselessly in what Sid presumes to be Russian, and then suddenly--

He’s not Sid anymore, but Sid-and-Sasha, and their first instinct is to gag at the foul tang in the air, the slimy drag of sick magic against their skin. That’s what your house feels like to me , Sasha says, except it isn’t words, just knowledge that pops into Sid’s head as their magic swirls together. Don’t tell me you think that’s right, that’s how you should live.

Focus , he sends back to Sasha, and Sasha settles, dragging Sid closer, deeper into his magic.

Feel this? Sasha asks, and within their magic Sid can feel-- harpstrings? No, maybe piano strings-- emanating from Sasha, being plucked gently from their other end and vibrating all the way down into Sasha’s heart. When pulled, though, they don’t create a single note but rather a song winding around their lengths, unscored by quiet rhythms like heartbeats. The songs tell Sid-and-Sasha happy happy good day today he’s so kind to me I miss him but he’ll be home soon can’t wait til he gets home from a thin, high string, and little sad little lonely what’s wrong I still don’t get it but I have to keep going, keep going from a gnarled, rumbling string.

Sid follows the strings down, to a quiet glowing node in Sasha where they all meet at the center of his magic. This is family, Sid, Sasha tells him, and Sid dives in, soaking into the feeling. He can’t even put words to it, but distantly, he feels his eyes welling up, his body aching in response to the warmth and caring, like an embrace about his soul. Flecks of memories pass through him, leaving behind tastes of Sasha’s life: a woman’s laughing face, a scolding-but-loving voice, bear-Geno devouring dog treats as Sasha laughs. Here in this heart of hearts, Sasha keeps the best of those around him, Sid realizes. His magic thrums about Sid, whispering back up the song-cords to nudge at bad feelings to find their core or blossom good feelings to enjoy them fully. It’s not bewitching like Sid knows, swaying opinions to fit his desires, but a softer, gentler bewitching, to keep his family happy and healthy.

That’s it , Sasha whispers, and Sid rockets back into his body, curling into a ball and rocking as a wave of loneliness, of terror, knocks him off-balance again. He feels the empty space in his heart that was so full in Sasha’s and how his magic reaches desperately to fill it, to help anyone and everyone it can after years of sitting idle.

“Okay, I get it,” Sid says, voice cracking, and Sasha stands, looking down at him kindly.

“Follow your heart, Sid,” Sasha says. “And not what you think your heart should want, but what it actually wants, okay?”

“Yeah,” Sid says, and Sasha steps out quietly while Sid reels from a lifetime of mistakes.

------

There’s nothing else to do next but start to make his family. Sid is staring out over the backyard a few days later, worrying yet again over all the things that could go wrong when he spies Marc bent over in the alfalfa fields. He hovers inside the sliding glass door, not sure if Marc would tolerate an interruption, but thankfully Marc looks up, catches sight of Sid, and warmly gestures for Sid to join him.

“How’s it looking?” Sid asks as he comes to a stop next to Marc, trying to slide his feet in between the rows of alfalfa and being somewhat thwarted by the width of his crocs.

“Very nice, very happy,” Marc says, running his fingers along the stalk of a plant as his fingers spark green. “Geno has lots of young bees, the sun is bright and the soil wet. It’s very good for growing, so they’re happy.”

“That’s good,” Sid says awkwardly, shifting as Marc bends to commune more closely with the alfalfa again.

“Sun is good for people, too,” Marc says when he straightens. “Vero and I, we’re having a nice dinner outside today and you are welcome to join us, Sid.” The offer is sincere as always, but Sid can feel Marc’s resignation to Sid’s refusal bubbling along his skin. He nearly says no from the force of Marc’s expectation, but he forces himself to remember the feeling of Sasha’s heart-node until he can screw up the courage to say, “You know, I don’t have any plans for today. So, um, I’d love to join you, if that’s okay.”

Marc’s head jerks around, eyes wide with surprise, before his expression morphs into a wide beam and he says, “Of course, of course! Estelle is always looking for new friends, and we are happy to host. I have to go look at the other fields, but come around at five, okay?”

“Okay,” Sid says, and Marc smiles so brightly at him as he waves and wades out of the alfalfa.

Sid nearly backs out at the last second; he waffles while standing in the doorway with his keys in his hand before forcing himself to step down from the threshold and onto the porch. He has to juggle the lingonberry pie he has in his other hand in order to close and lock the door, but he’s successfully on his way without any pastry casualties. He tries not to make a face as his dress shoes pinch at his toes as he walks over to Marc’s house, and he’s sure that a blister is well on its way to forming by the time he’s ringing the doorbell. His compulsion to dress in nice slacks and a polo seems silly when Vero opens the door, clad in an apron and a plain dress, but she clucks kindly as she takes the pie from his hands.

“You didn’t need to bring anything, Sid,” she says softly, leading him through the house and into the kitchen.

“It’s lingonberry pie,” he says, instead of attempting to protest. “I had it a lot in the summer when I was growing up, and I had a couple extra pies, so. You know.”

“Well, thank you,” Vero says, turning to smile at Sid. “I am sure it will be lovely.”

“Maman, what’s that?” a tiny voice chirps, and Sid looks down to see a mischievous smile and a tiny button nose attempting to sniff at the pie.

“It’s not for now, Estelle,” Vero scolds gently, pushing the pie out of reach. “Would you introduce yourself to our guest?”

Estelle turns the full force of her charm on Sid, and he’s immediately helpless. “Greetings, I go by Estelle,” she says, and Sid crouches down to her eye level.

“Greetings, I go by the name Sid,” he returns, and Estelle smiles, a tiny dimple dipping into her left cheek.

“I’m learning how to do cartwheels today!” she tells him, enthusiasm bubbling over. “Do you want to see?”

“Estelle--” Vero starts, but Sid barrels over her. “Sure, I’d love to!” he tells Estelle, and she squeals and grabs his hand, pulling insistently.

“We have to go outside, maman said no cartwheels in the house,” Estelle informs Sid solemnly when he hasn’t moved. He can’t tear his eyes away from Estelle’s tiny hand wrapped around his; it’s a little sticky in the way of children, but warm and gentle where it curls around the side of his palm. Sasha’s touch when they formed the coven had been professional and clinical; this is instead the simple gesture of a child, the connection they make so effortlessly with adults. It shakes Sid to the core, the simple trust he feels in her grip and in her heart, and something indefinably Estelle settles into the core of his magic.

“Oh-- okay,” Sid stutters, and she tugs again, so he follows. He sits on the porch and watches, dazed, as she flops across the lawn in spirited but ultimately failed attempts at cartwheels. He cheers her on as much as he can, but Marc arrives to a mostly silent yard, Sid still shocked.

“Ah, ma petite fleur, you’re practicing again! No, don’t let your legs-- here, let me show you--” Marc turns in an enormous cartwheel, Estelle clapping and laughing as Marc spins around the yard. He talks Estelle through another try, and another, and another-- “Keep your legs straighter! No, too slow, you must go fast, like the wind!”-- until she turns a perfect, round cartwheel. Marc sweeps her up, both of them laughing together as they drown in a sudden gust of dandelion fluff, whipping up out of nowhere and surrounding them, fluffs tangling in their hair and clothes as they swirl about the yard. Sid waves off the floating seeds as Estelle drops from her father’s arms and comes running to Sid.

“Did you see? Did you see?” she demands, rocketing into Sid’s lap, and he gives an oof at the impact before saying, “I did see, you did really good, Estelle!”

“I did so good that I got an omen!” she says, snuggling into Sid’s lap and wrapping her arms about his ribs.

“I saw,” he tells her, lifting a shaking hand and letting it drop softly in her head, smoothing her hair down where it’s grown unruly from cartwheeling. She’s so warm and heavy in Sid’s lap, and he aches with the fierce happiness that floods him, the need to keep her safe and happy. He can feel where her ribs expand against his chest with every rabbit-fast breath, and his magic thrums in time with her heartbeat. Sid knows down to his bones in that moment that he could never, ever hurt Estelle; whatever his magic does, it must be for her, not for his gain. As part of that, he knows could never force her into anything she didn’t want, and something deep in Sid’s chest begins to unwind.

“Dinner!” Vero calls gently from behind them, startling Sid from his breathless epiphany.

“Let’s go and eat, Estelle,” Sid bends his head to tell her, and she clutches her arms tighter around him.

“Carry me, carry me!” she squeals, and Marc is halfway through a protesting, “No, Sid, it’s okay--” when Sid tucks his hands under her bum and stands with a bounce, startling a giggle out of Estelle.

“She’s like ivy, you’re never going to get rid of her now,” Marc says as he pulls out a chair for Sid.

“I think I’ll survive,” Sid says, smiling and wiggling his fingers at Scarlett in her high-chair, eyes downcast and mouth pouty, presumably from being woken up for dinner. “So dandelions are her omen?”

“Yes, she’s going to be such a good plant wizard,” Marc beams immediately, spooning brussel sprouts onto Sid’s plate as his hands are busy holding Estelle from falling onto the ground where she hangs upside-down and backwards off of Sid’s lap. “This year she has her own spot in our garden, and she’s learning how to listen to the plants.”

“Mr. Hornqvist’s sunflowers are my favorite to talk to,” Estelle informs Sid once she rights herself on his lap. “I can’t hear trees yet, they talk too slow but papa says maybe next year I’ll hear them.”

“Is that right?” Sid asks her, handing her a fork. “Come on, eat up, aren’t you hungry?” She sets in on her food like she’s been left in the wilderness for a week. Sid chats idly with Vero and Marc about the neighborhood in the silence left in Estelle’s wake.

By the end of dinner, Sid is constantly swallowing a smile, suffused in an internal glow as he tucks Estelle against his side while she dozes in the late-evening sunshine. He hasn’t felt this way in so long, cradled not in the protective silence of his house but rather the gentle warmth of a family. Already he feels a bond forming with Estelle, and he instinctively pulls her closer as he picks up on her sleepy contentment. She drops her head against Sid’s shoulder with a tiny sigh that gusts across his neck, and he looks up to see Vero and Marc smiling softly at him.

“We’re very happy that you joined us today, Sid,” Vero says in her calm way, and Sid tucks his chin back down in awkward embarrassment, pretending to rearrange Estelle.

“Thanks for having me,” he mutters eventually. “It was-- um, it’s really nice to have company.”

“Whenever you need company, you are welcome here, Sid,” Marc says, and Sid’s power is exhausted but he can still feel the shattering sincerity in Marc’s words.

“Thank you,” he blurts, desperate and grateful, and their eyes go soft. Estelle wraps a hand in Sid’s shirt, mumbling sleepily, and he manages to not dislodge her as he eats his slice of pie. It tastes like home, like it always does (his mom loves lingonberry pie, he thinks, before turning away from the memory) but today it feels like home as well.

He wonders-- how did he go so long without this? The thought follows him home and into his bed, and quietly he begins to think of the future.

------

Thanks to Marc’s enthusiastic meddling, Sid’s calendar is chock-full of social engagements practically overnight. His freezer, stuffed full of pies and baked goods of all stripes, slowly empties as Marc invites him over again and again, introducing him to Pascal and his family, Patric and his husband Phil, and Kris and his family. He has enough invitations to meals that he would never eat dinner in his own kitchen again if he took every one up.

He learns quickly that what holds this group together is their mischievous spirits. Pascal, once he discovers Sid’s fear of black cats, takes to dropping his in Sid’s lap and watching him squirm. Marc always has some prank or another going, usually in tandem with Patric, as his weather magicking often comes in handy for Marc’s plant tricks. Sid hasn’t caught Kris amid any dastardly plans yet, though he suspects it’s merely good planning rather than good behavior. Mostly, though, Sid amuses himself with their children, slowly relearning what to say, when to shake hands, how to hug.

They’re good at scheming in other ways, too. Though Sid knows they’re all friendly with Geno, there’s never any mention of him in conversation, nor are there any crossing of paths for a long time, intentional or otherwise. Sid forms a fragile little family that strengthens quickly even as he hides from the one he wants most in that family. If there’s anything he realizes from his conversation with Sasha, it’s that Geno deserves a better Sid than the one he got, so Sid throws himself into making a family and relearning the dance of his power and putting all else aside.

The tide turns at the end of July. Sid goes for dinner at Marc’s, a delicate clafoutis in hand, and receives in return an invitation to Scarlett’s second birthday party the next week. “Of course,” Sid says, a little confused, “I’d love to be there.”

Marc clears his throat, exchanging a glance with Vero. Her look is no-nonsense, apparently leaving him to the delicate duty of saying, “Well, you know Geno will be there, so-- if you would rather join us at a different time for a celebration--”

“No,” Sid says firmly, pushing down the flutters in his stomach. “This isn’t high school, it’s fine, Marc.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Marc says, pursing his lips. Sid survives dinner with aplomb and a lot of focusing on Estelle and Scarlett, but he collapses against his front door once it closes, shaking. He’s scared , he admits to himself. Maybe-- maybe there is no second chance, maybe Geno is done with him forever. For a wild, heart-pounding minute, he thinks about going back on his word, telling Marc he’s taken sick or has been called out of town. No, he tells himself firmly, and though he waffles back and forth through much of the night, his last thought before he sleeps is, I have to know.

When Sid looks out his bedroom window the next morning, he sees one little bee bumbling through his clover, wandering through and visiting each and every bud. He tries to put it out of his mind, because-- well, omens are good or bad. It’s too much to try and figure out which this one is.

Sid arrives early to the party, because Vero had asked him to make a cake and he figures the cake shouldn’t show up late to a birthday party. She fusses-- “You’re so early, Sid, it’s no worry if you came at two!”-- but lets him in, and he pitches in to the cleaning while she hands Scarlett off to Marc to be soothed and corrals Estelle into calming down and not sticking her finger in the icing.

“Sid!” calls Marc from the yard, and Sid hustles out, cleaning supplies in tow in anticipation of a mess. Instead, he gets a handful of seeds thrown into his hair. He sputters, surprised, and Marc grabs his hand before he can brush out the seeds. There’s a suspicious rustle atop his head, and he can feel his hair moving more than the gentle breeze warrants. “There,” Marc says, satisfied, and lets Sid raise his hand to his head.

“Are there flowers in my hair?” he asks incredulously, though looking at Marc and Scarlett is all the answer he needs. Marc has a crown of a mix of flowers, some yellow and daisy-like and others pink and rose-like around a broad yellow center. Scarlett’s is a ring of tiny red rosebuds, and Sid imagines that not a single thorn grew on the stems under Marc’s influence.

“It looks very nice, Sid,” Marc assures him. “Scarlett wants everyone to have crowns, don’t you?”

“Fleur!” she chirps, clapping her hands gleefully, and Marc lifts her up and swirls her around, letting her grab at his crown as they laugh. Sid smiles as he sets to cleaning up a spill on the porch, enjoying their happiness as he tidies for the party. Busy hands keep busy thoughts quiet, and he’d rather scrub at hardwood that would be cleaned just as well by the next rain than think about the possibility-- certainty -- of seeing Geno today.

When Sid goes inside to put away his cleaning supplies, he passes by the bathroom and pauses long enough to look at his hair. His head is ringed by a mass of tiny white flowers, each with five petals in a star arrangement, and his heart pangs with memories of the bouquets he would gather for his mother growing up. There’s a few bright yellow flowers mixed in, similar to sunflowers but much smaller, with little centers and longer petals, and Sid shakes his head and continues on his way.

The house is bustling in no time at all. Every guest gets seeds in their hair and a crown, and some take to it better than others. Sid sees Patric and Phil with matching crowns of actual dwarf sunflowers, and while the look on Phil’s face is sour, he bears his crown with aplomb. Sid makes the rounds of the guests, accepting compliments on the cake with no little embarrassment and settling into the feeling of family wrapping around him. He’s not actively avoiding Geno, and he firmly tells himself the motion of the crowd has moved him away from Geno the few times they’ve neared each other.

Sid can only sustain the charade for so long. He excuses himself from the cheerful argument between Marc and Kris and liberates a cherry soda from the refrigerator before stepping out on the porch for some fresh air and nearly bowls over Geno. “Oh, um, hello,” he says, trying not to giggle inanely at the shocked expression on Geno’s face. It’s topped by a wild, massive crown of clover, and a handful of bees are unsurprisingly buzzing through the flowers, some settling in for a nap in Geno’s hair.

“Hi,” Geno says warily, settling back against the porch railing he had been leaning on. “How’re you?”

“Good,” Sid says, and it feels truer than it’s been in a long time. “You?”

“It’s okay,” Geno says. He’s still eyeing Sid, seemingly waiting for something. Sid doesn’t know what to say, though, so he mimics Geno’s position against the railing, crossing his arms and tucking his soda bottle in the crook of an elbow. “Sorry for Sasha,” Geno says eventually, fingers tap-tap-tapping on his own bottle. “He’s not know when to keep big nose out of my life.”

“It’s fine, Geno,” Sid says, and swallows his heart down out of his throat. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what he said. He was pretty right about a lot of stuff.”

Geno snorts. “That’s first time Sasha ever right,” he says, tipping back his head to take a long swallow of soda and inciting a tiny avalanche of bees off of his head. Sid’s mouth goes dry, and he very carefully does not look at how Geno’s lips wrap around the lip of the bottle. He wonders wildly how Geno’s skin feels, how hot it would be under Sid’s fingertips as he teases--

“I’m a witch,” Sid blurts, trying to quiet the curious voice in his head before he loses all ability to think. “You were right, when we met. But I don’t like being a witch, so I’ve hidden it for a long time. And when I said it wasn’t safe for you, I meant that I was afraid that if I touched you, I’d bewitch you, and that would be the only reason that you’d like me. And I couldn’t-- I had to protect you from getting bewitched.” Sid stares stubbornly at his feet; he feels exhausted, suddenly, drained by honesty.

Geno is silent for a long moment. Sid can’t bring himself to look directly at him, so he stares out the side of his eye. He thinks Geno’s expression is maybe pensive, maybe a little hurt, and Sid’s heart aches. What a mess he’s made. “Don’t have to protect me,” Geno finally says. “Sasha, he try to bewitch me all the time growing up. I’m never do anything I’m not already think about agreeing to, you know.”

“That’s what Sasha said,” Sid says, limbs gooey with relief that Geno doesn’t up and walk away. “So I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you. Or trust myself either, I guess, to do what we both wanted. I’ve been working on, um, I guess you could say making a family, to help fix my witching too, because I didn’t realize how badly I was doing.” Sid stops to swallow through his dry throat and gather his thoughts, and Geno stays stubbornly silent through the pause. “Basically, what I’m saying is, I haven’t figured it all out yet, and sometimes I’m still scared of touching, of what I could do, but-- I’m finally ready to be who I want to be, and I think you’d like that me too. So if you’re ever interested in trying again, if you could be patient with me, I wouldn’t say no.” The tiny bond between them, so weak from lack of touch but still alive from the sheer force of feeling between them nudges at Sid, and he takes one final mental leap. “Because, um, I’d really like to know what it’s like to kiss you someday.”

Sid exhales a long, trembling breath, and the universe must be feeling kind today because it provides a distraction in the form of Estelle sprinting out of the house towards Sid, demanding, “Sid, Sid! Tell Monsieur Dupuis how I did three cartwheels in a row and you saw it!” He grabs her and sweeps her up off the ground and around as she giggles, settling her back down on the porch as Pascal steps outside. Pascal winks at Sid with a broad smile, and Sid gives a tiny nod back.

Three cartwheels?” Sid says incredulously, tipping his head to the side as if he’s thinking. “Wow, Estelle, that’s a lot. Are you sure I was there? I don’t think I remember…”

“Yes you were!” Estelle cries, stamping a foot, and as she berates Sid for forgetting something so important and then cartwheels about the yard, Sid can feel the weight of Geno’s gaze on him. His magic swirls, restless, reaching out for a connection and prodding Sid to touch, feel, know , but eventually Geno steps away.

Sid assumes that’s the last he’ll see of Geno for a long time, but Geno’s back out on the porch as Sid passes out cake. He takes the last slice Sid has, casually waving away the bees that dip down to investigate the plate.  “Thank you,” he says, too serious and weighty for the thanks to be entirely about the cake.

“You’re welcome,” Sid says, shrugging and dipping his chin bashfully.

“You’re busy on Tuesday?” Geno asks, and it takes a second for Sid to realize it’s a question.

“No?” Sid says, stabbing his fork into the cake to conceal how his hand shakes.

Geno nods firmly. “I’m come get you after dinner, okay?”

“Are you sure?” Sid asks breathlessly.

“You just say you’re trust me now, then you ask stupid question?” Geno scolds playfully. “Of course I’m sure, don’t be dumb.”

“Okay,” Sid says, biting at his lower lip to conceal his smile and failing. They grin at each other for some timeless moment before a bee lifts off from Geno’s head and bobbles towards him. “Sssh, bee want to say hi,” Geno says as Sid freezes, and the bee sinks into Sid’s flower crown, investigating the blooms for pollen. Sid’s eyes are crossed from trying so hard to watch the bee, and Geno laughs at him a little. “It’s okay, bee just looking at pretty flowers,” Geno assures him. “Oh, no, now he’s take nap,” Geno reports, and Sid squeezes his eyes closed, fighting the instinct to brush at his hair until the bee falls out.

“It won’t sting me, will it?” he asks breathlessly, opening one eye to see Geno, who shakes his head.

“No sting, unless it gets scared,” Geno says. “You’re bee friend now, it likes you.” Sid walks stiffly the rest of the afternoon, doing his best not to upset his new bee friend as he smiles shyly at Geno.

------

Geno shows up at Sid’s door at eight o’clock Tuesday night, carrying a single fishing rod and a cooler with a tackle box attached. “I wonder what we’re doing,” Sid jokes as he opens the door. He’s wearing a polo and nice jeans, so he gestures Geno in. “Let me go change really quick, make yourself comfortable.” Sid sprints upstairs to change into more outdoorsy jeans and a tee, and grabs a hoodie as an afterthought-- while it’s summer, the nights have been cool lately. He sprints back downstairs to find Geno perched on the edge of the couch where he left him. “Okay, I’m ready now,” Sid says, a little breathless. “Do you have a fishing hole in mind?”

“Of course,” Geno says, a little indignant as they weave through the house and out the back door. “Most special fishing place, we’re catch all of the fish, you’ll see.”

“I’m excited to see it,” Sid says shyly, and Geno seems to understand what Sid means. “I hope it’ll cool off tonight like it did yesterday, I bet that’ll get the fish up.”

“Even if not, I’m show you most special fishing technique,” Geno says smugly. “I’m always gets fish, even if they’re at bottom.”

“How are you going to do that with only one rod?” Sid asks, and then stops. “Shit, Geno, should I have grabbed my rod? We can go back--”

“No, no, only need rod for you,” Geno says, waving him forward, and Sid starts walking again. “Special fishing technique doesn’t need rod.”

“Really,” Sid says, drawing out the word, and he doesn’t say what comes to mind in order to let Geno feel like he’s kept his secret.

“Really,” Geno says, flashing a grin at Sid. They exchange little glances and smiles as they walk, and when they pass into the shade of the trees around the river and start walking down the bank, Geno says, “It’s a funny thing for weres, witches can’t affect them when they’re animal.”

“What?” Sid says, a little stunned. “Are you sure?”

Geno laughs. “Of course I’m sure,” he says. “Sasha try all the time to bewitch me when I’m bear, but it just-- goes away, he says. Magic just disappear into were, I’m not feel anything at all.”

“Wow,” Sid says. “That’s pretty cool, I didn’t know that.”

“Now you’re know,” Geno says, sticking his tongue out a little, before stopping to set the tackle box down. “We’re here! You okay to get rod ready?”

“I think I can tie a hook,” Sid says wryly, and Geno nods before saying, “Ready to see special fishing technique?”

“Can’t I get my rod ready first?” Sid asks, and Geno gives an exaggerated sigh but nods, crouching to flick his fingers through the stream water as Sid picks out a hook and lure and deftly ties them to the rod. “Okay, now I’m ready to be amazed,” Sid says, and Geno steps forward and melts into a bear. “I don’t see how this is a fair competition,” Sid teases, and Geno snorts, barreling into the river and finding a rock to stand on, peering down into the water. Sid casts his line and settles on the bank, legs stretched out before him, and lets the gentle sounds of the river sink into him.

Fishing lulls him into a gentle, drifting state, broken abruptly by the enormous splash of Geno lunging head-first into the river, paws spread wide as he smacks into the water. He emerges, drenched from nose to stubby tail, but with a fish clamped victoriously in his jaws. He splashes through the river back to Sid-- undoubtedly disrupting the fish that Sid had been slowly luring to his hook-- to drop the fish, which gives a few final pitiful wriggles, at Sid’s side. Geno gives Sid a wide, bearish grin, plopping his butt to the ground and watching Sid closely.

“Very nice,” Sid says, trying to suppress a laugh at Geno’s obvious pride. “Do you want me to put it in the cooler?” Geno gives an exaggerated nod, dipping his shoulders along with his head, and Sid pops the cooler and tosses the fish on the ice within. “Is that all you got?” Sid challenges him, and Geno gives a belligerent little roar, popping up and going back over to his hunting rock. They pass a quiet couple of hours that way, Geno bringing Sid his fish and Sid occasionally heckling Geno or sharing a story of his life, from baking his first pie to learning to fish in the ocean.

When it grows too dark to see more than the outline of Geno, Sid pulls his line in. He’d caught three fish, none particularly impressive, and all were thrown back after he unhooked them. It was more about the passing of time than the fish for him, not having a bear’s appetite for fish. He struggles into his hoodie at the first too-cool breeze of night before calling to Geno, “Come on, it’s time we head home, don’t you think?”

Geno snorts, apparently unwilling to give up fishing, but obediently picks his way to Sid’s bank, moving a polite distance away before vigorously shaking himself off. He slinks back over to Sid, dipping his head lower and lower as he approaches, and Sid stands his ground, puzzled. Geno sidles up to him, nudging Sid’s hand gently with his nose before looking up beseechingly at Sid.

“Oh-- do you want to be petted?” Sid asks as comprehension dawns, and Geno’s ears stand up straight before lying back as he sneezes, lips pulling into a silly pout. “Look, I don’t know what else to call it,” Sid says, to mask his nervousness, and stretches out his hand. Geno delicately extends out his neck until his broad muzzle is just below Sid’s hand, and Sid lets it drop. It’s a little cool and wet under his fingers, but Geno’s skin quickly warms the damp fur as Sid smoothes his hand back over the bridge of his muzzle and back onto the roundness of his skull. The fur is thick enough for Sid to really sink his fingers into, stepping closer and bringing up his other hand to tangle in the ruff of fur around Geno’s neck. Geno sighs gustily into Sid’s stomach, inching closer and twisting his head for Sid’s hands to fall on the itchy spots.

It’s a little like petting an enormous, friendly dog, and Sid wonders for a moment what it’d be like to have Geno curl around him in the dead of winter, maybe in front of a fireplace. Sid can’t help but feel-- safe around Geno in his were form, and he suddenly remembers Geno’s comment from earlier. Tentatively, he tries to twist his power around Geno, sink an invisible brand into his skin in the pattern of his palms. It’s like shouting into an abyss; his power sinks away, sparking in his skin and then disappearing. “My gods, you’re right,” he whispers, astounded, and pushes harder until he’s shaking and exhausted, drained in a way he hasn’t been in years.

Sid collapses forward, slinging an arm around Geno’s neck as he tries to get his feet under him. Geno gives an alarmed, throaty sound, shifting sideways under Sid and nearly dumping him on the ground. “I’m okay,” Sid says, gripping firmer around Geno’s shoulders as he sways. “Just need to rest up a second.” Geno huffs, clearly displeased, and sinks to the ground slowly so that Sid collapses draped across his back. They rest there as the chill of the night sets in, Sid kept warm by the solid heat of Geno. Finally, Sid takes a deep breath, pulling himself upright. “You were right about bewitching not working,” he says, and the second the contact is broken between them, Geno is melting into a human, red-faced and frowning as he half-shouts, “You scare me so much, Sid! Fall over in middle of woods, I’m think how to carry you back while I’m still bear!”

“I’m sorry,” Sid says, shamefaced. “I-- I couldn’t help trying bewitching you and I went a little overboard.”

Little overboard,” Geno snorts, crossing his arms. “Give me little heart attack, Sid.”

“It’s just nice to know that no matter how hard I try, you won’t get bewitched,” Sid says, and Geno’s expression softens.

“You’re still worry about bewitch?” Geno asks.

“Yeah,” Sid admits after a pause. Honesty seems like the best policy, even though he feels guilty for the answer, and Geno’s shoulders relax.

“Okay,” Geno says peaceably, and Sid tenses for something else, but it doesn’t arrive. “Next time, tell me before you make big stupid, okay?”

“Okay,” Sid says, relieved. Geno nods, apparently satisfied, and stands up to fetch the cooler and rod. They walk home side-by-side through fields beginning to teem with fireflies, and the empty spot in Sid’s chest left behind by his power starts to fill with something else as Geno tells outlandish stories of his and Sasha’s childish exploits until Sid nearly chokes laughing.

------

Sid is nearly late to their next date. The day before, he’d had dinner at Marc’s, who gently pumped him for information on his date with Geno while Sid equally gently avoided answering. Once Marc gave up on that, he says, “And I have a friend who would like a cake for an anniversary, Sid, she would like to know if you will bake one for her.”

“What?” Sid said, pausing in his dishwashing that he had insistently relieved Vero of.

“She was at Scarlett’s birthday party, and she was very impressed by your cake, and now she would like a cake by you for her anniversary with her wife,” Marc explained.

“Oh, well, sure?” Sid said, a little off-kilter. He’d never really had someone ask for his baking before; usually he’d just...bake something, and takes it with him, and nobody ever seemed to complain so he hadn’t stopped.

He spends the next day baking up a storm of different cake types. He doesn’t do cake often, and he doesn’t want to screw it up, so it’s just sheer chance that he glances up at the kitchen clock and sees the time is five minutes before he’s supposed to be at Geno’s for their date. “Shit, shit, shit,” he chants, pulling the half-cooked cake from the oven and looking at it sadly. The edges are firm enough to try for taste later, he decides, and sprints upstairs to change out of his flour-stained shirt. He makes it to Gen’s door only a few minutes late, panting lightly as he tugs his shirt into place. “Hi, Sid,” Geno says as he opens the door, stepping aside to let Sid in. He wrinkles his nose and asks, “You bake today?”

“Yes?” Sid says, wondering how Geno could tell. “Is there flour in my hair?” he demands after it occurs to him, and Geno obviously tries to bite away a smile as he nods. Sid scrubs his hands through his hair, looking to Geno for approval, but Geno shakes his head and says, “You miss it.”

Sid deliberates and then says carefully, “Can you help me get it?” Geno looks at him, wide-eyed, and Sid has to nod reassuringly before Geno will reach out carefully. Sid’s hair is thick enough that Geno’s first few tentative brushes don’t do anything. He steps closer to work a little more vigorously-- it must be closer to cake batter than flour trapped in there-- and on a downward stroke, his fingertips graze the tender skin of Sid’s scalp. Sid gasps; it’s like an electric shock, half magic and half pure desire zinging down his spine. Geno’s gaze is steady on Sid as his hand pauses, and Sid swallows and nods for him to continue. There’s one more brief, electrifying second of contact before Geno steps away and says lowly, “Okay, it’s all gone now.”

“Thanks,” Sid says, voice as shaky as his knees, and takes a deep breath. “It smells nice in here, are you cooking something?” he asks, half distraction and half honest question.

Amazingly, Geno blushes, puffing his chest out. “No,” he says with evident pride, and Sid blinks, a little taken aback.

“Well, it’s...nice,” he says, for lack of a more coherent answer, and Geno smirks.

“What’s date today?” Geno asks, because it’s Sid’s turn.

“I was thinking it’d be nice night for a walk?” Sid offers, remembering the rambling walk they took the first time around.

Geno perks right up. “Yes, it’s very nice for walk,” he agrees, motioning for Sid to turn around and head back out the front door. Sid steps down from the porch and Geno bounds down, leaving the porch as a human and landing as a bear. He gambols around Sid until Sid laughs helplessly and then laughs along with Sid with an odd, fluttering purr.

Geno is a ball of gleeful energy, running away from Sid to investigate mysterious things before running back, walking alongside Sid for fifty feet before sprinting off again, nose in the air. On one return trip, Geno shoves his nose into Sid’s belly, snuffling up and down the expanse of Sid’s tee. Sid laughs, twisting away from the tickling sensation, and Geno paces around Sid, sticking his nose into the back of Sid’s knees and the side of his arm and eventually balancing on his hind legs to snort into Sid’s hair. “Is that really necessary?” Sid asks through his smile, and Geno drops to all four paws and sneezes outrageously and blessedly not in Sid’s direction. “Whatever you say,” Sid says magnanimously, and has to hurry to catch up to Geno, who already paced forward and rapidly begins to disappear into the gloom.

They’re far afield when Sid says, “I had dinner with Marc yesterday,” because he can’t help but share his nervous excitement with Geno. “He has a friend that wants me to bake a cake for her anniversary. I’ve never baked anything for someone because they asked-- I mean, other than you, with the bear claws--” Geno grunts, satisfied, and Sid play-swipes at him. “Hush, you. But I’ve never had someone ask for me to bake for a special event! I hope she likes it, I’ve been trying new cake recipes all day to find the right kind for her.” Geno stops, so Sid follows suit and turns. Geno’s balanced on his hind legs, front paws spread, and he waddles forward inelegantly until he can wrap his paws around Sid’s shoulders. It’s a hug, he realizes, a bear hug, and Sid says through the lump in his throat, “Thanks, I’m really-- I hope I do well.”

Geno makes a wet, derisive sound in his ear, and Sid smiles. “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” he says, reaching up to wipe as his ear, “But can you aim it somewhere else next time?” Sid yelps in shock as something wet and cold and suspiciously tongue-like leaves a trail across the outer shell of his ear, and he shoves at Geno until Geno drops down and gives another bearish laugh. “That’s rude,” he tells Geno primly, using his shirtsleeve to scrub the wetness off of his ear. Geno rolls his eyes so hard that his entire head follows before taking a few steps to the side and collapsing down into the field next to them.

Sid follows him, sitting a polite distance away. Geno rolls onto his back, groaning dramatically, and Sid sigh and scoots over until he’s tucked up against the thick fur of Geno’s belly. The stars are shining bright in the clear night, so Sid tips back against Geno’s bulk to stare at their chilly twinkle. “I bet I know what your favorite constellation is,” Sid says into the stillness, and Geno makes an inquisitive, lazy sound. “Ursa Major, right?” Geno purrs approvingly, and Sid pats his belly.

They sit quietly together for a while, and Sid marvels at how comfortable he is with the silence between them. He’s still surprised by how safe and happy he feels when he touches Geno, and the sensation swells in his chest until he’s nearly bursting with it.

“I’m sorry I scared you last time,” he says, because he still feels pretty bad about that, and Geno shakes his head a little, lifting a paw to pat at Sid’s leg. “I know, I just had to say it again. But also-- I feel so happy with you, did you know that? When we’re together like this I feel so safe, and I haven’t felt that way forever.” He turns to bury his face into the warm fur of Geno’s belly, embarrassed by the frank confession, and Geno purrs again, this time long and sustained. It rumbles comfortingly through Sid, and it helps him work up the courage to turn his face to the side so he can speak again. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says, running his hand through the fur above Geno’s heart. “I hope that someday you can say the same about me.”

They don’t speak for the rest of the night, though they really don’t need to, and Geno has to let Sid ride home on his back because he’s so tired. When Sid goes out to get the paper the next morning, he nearly trips over a pot of honey on his doormat. He picks it up and flips over the slip of paper tied to it; all it says is I already can.

------

Sid is glowing with pride as he heads over to Geno’s with a basket in tow for their next date. He’d given the anniversary cake to Hilary yesterday, and she’d insisted he stay at the anniversary party to receive all of the glowing compliments on his baking, which he did with a lot of blushing. Hilary and Julie were fun, too, irreverent and playful, and instead of making Sid wistful like it use to, it tinged the rest of his week with hope that he might too have the same relationship soon.

Julie even approached him at the end of the party. “Thanks again,” she said with a smile, and Sid felt like he was overflowing with champagne bubbles, happy and effervescent. “You know, we have that monthly farmers market for people in and out of the neighborhood. Have you thought about baking up some treats for that?”

“Oh, I haven’t,” Sid said, taken aback.

“Well, maybe give it some thought,” Julie suggested. “I can’t imagine anything you bring would last long, given how quickly that cake disappeared.”

There was a letter waiting in Sid’s mailbox when he got home, written in a strange angular hand to “Geno’s friend.” He ripped it open to find a picture, one he’d never seen before but yet is still familiar, a reminder of something he saw when he was covened with Ovie. He laughed at the memory and flipped it over to read, “A little suggestion to get on his good side,” written in the same hand on the reverse, and hell, why not? As he steps up onto Geno’s porch for their date, he decides it was worth the late night of researching recipes and baking up something totally different than usual, now tucked in the bottom of the picnic basket for dessert.

Geno answers his door quickly when Sid rings the bell, and Sid smiles, holding up the basket. Geno laughs and says, “We’re redo all dates from before?”

“Just the ones I wish I had done better at,” Sid says honestly, and Geno’s mouth snaps shut. Sid leads them around into Geno’s backyard as Geno quietly follows, steeling his spine before detouring towards the beehives rather than striking out towards the further trees.

“You’re not worry about sharing dinner with bees?” Geno jokes, and Sid tries to hide his nervousness with a snort.

“I think you’re the one that’s not gonna wanna share what I cooked up,” Sid challenges, dragging out the old, nubby blanket he packed and spreading it out with a flourish. He’s more of a baker than a cook so he played to his strength in going all out for Geno, glass bottles of infused water on top of carefully arranged insalate caprese on top of two crusty baguettes stuffed with prosciutto and parmesan. He unpacks it carefully, leaving the final special treat in the bottom of the basket, and Geno looks impressed when Sid glances up. He notices above Geno a large, ripped-up chunk of tree trunk, just like the one on their previous picnic date and, as of two nights ago, just like every tree in Sid’s yard.

After Geno bites into the caprese and groans appreciatively, Sid asks casually, “Oh, by the way, do you know what happened to my trees? It’s the strangest thing, but overnight they all got beat up by something, just like the tree behind you, so I thought you might know something about it.”

Geno chokes, and Sid scrambles across the blanket, panicked, before Geno waves him off. “Just-- grumpy were, probably,” Geno chokes out, tears beading at the corners of his eyes from the force of his coughs.

“I hope I don’t run into grumpy weres anytime soon, jeez,” Sid says, munching thoughtfully on his sandwich.

“Never hurt you,” Geno says fiercy, and Sid blinks and turns toward him.

“I didn’t say that?” he says, confused, and then it clicks. “A grumpy were, yeah? Are you sure you didn’t mean grumpy bear ?” Sid finally notices how flushed Geno’s ears are as he ducks his head. “What did the trees ever do to you? And why did you have to scratch up everything in my yard in particular?”

“It’s just bear things,” Geno mutters stubbornly, shoving a massive bite of food into his mouth.

“Bears hate trees?” Sid presses.

“Yes,” Geno snips, and Sid resists the urge to make a comment about grumpy bears. He stares, trying to wait him out, and finally Geno adds, “Bears mark trees, to show their territory, you know.”

“My house is your territory,” Sid says flatly. Geno gives him a sullen look out of the side of his eyes.

“Marc will fix, I’m already talk with him,” Geno mutters, stabbing his fork into his food.

“Uh-huh,” Sid says, pausing to take a bite of his own meal. “And is Marc aware of why the trees are in need of his attention?”

Geno curls up on himself. “Everybody know why all trees in neighborhood are sad,” he says.

“Everybody?” Sid says, alarmed. It’s kind of funny that Geno destroyed his trees to make a bear statement, but tearing up the whole neighborhood seems a bit… excessive.

“Bear like to roam outside of territory sometimes,” Geno says. “I’m say sorry, Marc promise he’s fix for everybody.” Geno is saved from more needling as a bee bumbles close to Sid. Sid looks at it askance, Geno making shushing noises before saying, “It’s okay, bee just want to say hi.”

“Hello,” Sid says as it alights on his arm. The bee’s little legs tickle where they touch Sid’s arm and he tries not to shiver as goosebumps erupt on his skin. “Okay, we said hello, you can go now.”

“Don’t hurry bee, it’s look for sweet things, maybe it’s find something,” Geno says, and Sid swallows.

“It tickles,” Sid says weakly.

“It’s nice, yes?” Geno says, edging closer to peer down at the bee. “I love, little legs touch arm so gentle.”

“Yeah,” Sid breathes, unable to think of any other possible words. He’s just imagining touching Geno’s skin like a bee, soft and light, or Geno returning the favor, and he nearly jumps out of his skin as the bee brushes up his arm. He feels himself flush as Geno looks at him curiously. “It’s like, um--” he swallows, licking his lips, unable to finish the sentence.

“It’s like little kisses,” Geno says, quiet, and Sid nods as much as he can. “Guess I’m have to let bees do kissing now, until you’re ready,” he says, and Sid gasps, trembling. The bee takes its leave at Sid’s movement, and Geno watches Sid a little too long after.

Sid is saved by the memory of what’s in the bottom of his basket. “We haven’t had dessert yet,” he says, reaching out to dig in the basket, swatting at Geno’s hand so he doesn’t poach it before Sid can get it. “I got a package from Sasha last night, so I wanted to give you something extra special.” Geno’s face goes from skeptical to what is best described as uh-oh , and Sid holds up cellophane wrapped, homemade dog treats, cut into enormous bone shapes.

Geno groans before catching himself and choking out, “Thank you, Sid, it’s very nice,” even though his face belies the sentiment.

“You’re welcome,” Sid says cheerfully. “Come on, have one!” Geno gives him a deeply betrayed look but melts into bear form, delicately reaching over the blanket and curling his lips back to accept the treat. He crunches the treat, crumbs flying all over the blanket, with a flat look that morphs into interest. He snuffles at Sid, stretching his neck out to nose at the treats, and Sid hands him another and another until they’re all gone. Geno gives a happy sigh, galumphing off to roll around in the grass before trotting back and sliding into human shape.

“Thank you,” he says, before pulling a grossed-out face. “They’re okay, you know.”

“Just okay?” Sid teases, laughing, and Geno pouts at him.

“There’s no dessert for you,” Geno says, and Sid shrugs. Geno doesn’t need to know that he had pie with his breakfast, so he says, “It’s fine, Geno, I wanted to make sure you had a nice treat.”

Geno winces at the word treat but says, “Then I’m get treat for you! Come here, to hives, bee give you treat.”

“No, it’s alright--” Sid protests, but Geno gives him a firm look so he stands and follows Geno over to the hives, trying not to shiver as bees pass him and they approach the quiet hives. Geno pulls apart the hive, removing a wooden frame filled with honeycomb, and the bees swarm around them but settle as Geno talks to them quietly in another language. Sid wonders, a little hysterically, if Geno is speaking Bee, before remembering that they communicate through dance.

The frame is thick and heavy with comb, and Sid watches as Geno pokes a finger into a corner of the comb until it comes away dripping with honey.  He holds his finger aloft as he says, “See? It’s easy to get honey, come and try.” The sight of the honey wrapped around Geno’s finger is too much for Sid; he leans forward, mesmerized, and opens his mouth. Geno makes a quiet, urgent noise, but when Sid looks up, his eyes are wide and hopeful as he breathes harshly through his mouth. Sid wraps his lips around Geno’s finger, trying not to groan as the sweetness of the honey mixed with the warmth of Geno’s skin. Goosebumps race across his skin as the feeling of Geno’s finger against his tongue floods his senses, the elation of his own daring amplifying the quivering passion deep within him. Sid sucks, cautiously curling his tongue over the tip of Geno’s finger until the rich honey flavor disappears and something musky and fundamentally Geno replaces it. He pulls away reluctantly, Geno still staring dumbly at him. The foolishness of his action strikes him, and Sid moans, “Oh gods I’m so sorry, what was I thinking--”

“It’s okay, Sid,” Geno says, voice gravelly and throaty. His hand convulses before he withdraws it, and suddenly the distance between them is too much, Sid’s skin itching and tingling as it cries out for Geno.

“Wait--” he says, and Geno freezes. Sid reaches out, stretching his fingers wide and curving his palm under Geno’s hand. It’s still rounded into a loose fist, so Sid has to wiggle his fingers between Geno’s before he gets it and gently opens his hand and brings their palms together. Geno’s hand is warm-- slightly sweaty, even-- but broad enough to nearly engulf Sid’s hand, even as he cradles it so delicately. Sid is buzzing from head to toe as Geno tugs at his hand and leads him back to the abandoned picnic spread. They don’t speak as they awkwardly sink back down to recline on the blanket, Sid dizzy and panting as sensation shivers up his arm, Geno watching him carefully and soaking in every half-suppressed groan or tremble that courses through him.

------

The farmer’s market is always a joyous and social event. There’s a small, central field to the neighborhood where they set up tables and sell the fruits of the community’s labor, some to each other and some to visitors. Patric always brings them fair enough weather, and today he’s able to conjure a full sun sparkling down on the dewy, slightly chill morning.

Sid revels in the fresh air as he loads up a garden cart with stacks of pastries and walks them down to the field. He looks eagerly about for Geno and his table of jarred honey and boxed honeycomb and beeswax products, but the man in question is missing, so Sid takes the nearest empty table and begins to set up. He’s neither the first there nor the last, and he responds to friendly “good mornings” with smiles and nods, greeting newcomers in turn once he’s set up his table.

“Uncle Sid!” squeals a tiny voice, and Sid turns just in time to sweep Estelle up and around. “What are you selling?” she asks curiously, clinging onto his hand, and her excitement and energy bubbles into Sid, bright yellow champagne bubbles erupting in his heart-node.

“Cakes and pastries and pies,” he tells her and she squeals again, this one wordless and pleading, but Sid holds strong until he can get Vero or Marc’s approval.

“Good morning, Sid,” Vero greets him, and he turns to return the sentiment and wave to Scarlett. Scarlett reaches out, patting Sid on the chin as she grins a wide, gaping smile, and Sid nabs her hand, bops it against his cheek until she laughs, kicking her feet delightedly. Having this part of his family so close makes his sense of them grow, tiny embers flaring up into warm heat in his chest, the textures of each of their connections running in phantom sensation across his skin.

“Are those croissants?” Marc asks, longing in his voice. Sid can feel the question brush against him just as he spies Marc’s enormous thermos of what is hopefully coffee.

“With chocolate in them,” Sid answers, and he feels all of them focus in. It takes him a moment to realize that the knowledge-- the f eeling -- was whispered to him through the glow of power in his soul. You need a family, Sid, Sasha had said, and apparently he’s found his family. “Trade you for a cup of coffee,” Sid wheedles once he regains the ability to speak, impossibly lightened by this, his family.

“Deal,” Marc says instantly, plunking the thermos down on the table so he can waffle over the display of croissants until he picks out the largest one.

“Thank you,” Vero says crisply as she sweeps it out of his hand, and Marc’s face is so lost that Sid cracks up.

“I think I can spare another,” Sid says as Vero splits hers to share with Scarlett. Marc snatches a second croissant, instantly wilting as Estelle aimes a perfect puppy-were look at him. “Only if you share,” Sid adds belatedly, and Marc huffs but splits the pastry with Estelle as Sid poaches a cup from the Kunitz kids’ lemonade stand next to him. He gives the thermos back to Marc once he’s taken his cup of coffee, though he has to nudge Marc to open his eyes and accept the thermos, as he’s clearly thoroughly enjoying his croissant.

It’s a simple moment, but when they move away to set up their table, Sid has to crouch down and take several steadying breaths. For the first time in too long, he feels at home, like he’s part of a family. He doesn’t have to fight his witching; it works for him now, tells him how his family feels and what they need. It’s overwhelming enough that he nearly sprints back to his house, to curl up back in the loneliness he knows best, but even the thought of giving it up is far more terrifying than the thought of keeping it.

Visitors start to arrive, poking sleepily through the wares, and Sid finds himself swamped as everybody scrambles to grab the breakfast pastries he has on offer. A lull comes just as Paul arrives at the table, and Sid leans forward with a sigh.

“Busy morning, huh?” Paul asks, inspecting Sid’s pies with an evaluating eye.

“You could say that,” Sid agrees. “Surprised to see you here without Jamie-- I assumed he’d be over here for sweets the second I unloaded my cart.”

Paul gives him a strange look before saying, “I assumed you’d be the first to know why Jamie had to run damage control on Geno today.”

“What?” Sid asks, alarmed. The tiny thread inside his chest that leads to Geno is tenuous at best, especially when compared to the thrumming connections to others, but he doesn’t feel any looming sense of dread, just...impatience? Protectiveness? “He’s okay, right?”

Paul’s mouth twists wryly as he says, “I’m sure he’s fine, Sid. He’s just been rowdy since he went back to tearing up everybody’s trees, Jamie went to distract him so he didn’t try to attack every visitor to the neighborhood in the name of defending his territory.”

“Is he always this territorial on market days?” Sid says, because he still can’t understand what the crisis is. “He was here last time selling honey, wasn’t he?”

“Sure he was,” Paul says comfortably. “And you two weren’t talking then, right? But-- well, bears are very territorial during, you know--” Paul pauses significantly, but Sid isn’t able to fill in the blank. “Special times of their lives?” Paul suggests, and Sid shakes his head. “Significant moments?” he tries again, and Sid shrugs. Finally, Paul sighs heavily and says flatly, “Mating season.”

“What?” Sid squawks and Paul laughs, though at least it’s kind.

“It’s none of my business, but I think the trees would appreciate if you could consider putting him out of his misery sometime soon,” Paul adds, and Sid was wrong in thinking that he was already the most embarrassed he could be, because now he’s melting away under the horror of what Paul is insinuating.

“Um, I’ll uh, I’ll see if I can, uh,” he stammers, attempting to pretend he’s not trying to say I’m going to bang him like a drum and failing miserably.

“You do that,” Paul says comfortably, though his wink is mischievous. “I’m sure Jamie has it handled. It’s not the first time he’s played bear control, after all. How much is that peach pie, by the way?”

Sid is limp as a noodle when he escapes home, garden cart empty and money handed off to Marc to be put back in the neighborhood’s coffers. All he can think about is Geno protecting their neighborhood to keep Sid safe, to keep Sid his , and it’s a little more than a little too much.

------

Geno appears at Sid’s house the next day for their date as planned, dressed in a simple dark grey v-neck with brutally acid-washed jean shorts, bubbling with enough excitement and shy happiness that Sid can nearly taste it. Geno looks a little gaunt, he realizes suddenly, and he wonders if losing weight is a bear mating thing too, if he spends so long protecting the neighborhood and Sid that he can’t find time to eat.

“Hi?” Geno says eventually, after Sid has opened the door and stared dumbly at him for a solid twenty seconds.

“Hi,” Sid says belatedly, “um, come in.” They’re supposed to be going out, into town for the first time since their first two dates, but Sid needs Geno to himself for just a little longer. While Geno kicks off his shoes in the front hall, he detours to the kitchen like he’s got some kind of plan other than selfish desire, bending and digging through the fridge as if he’s going to discover his self-control behind the celery.

“Where we’re go today?” Geno asks comfortably from behind Sid, and Sid straightens and turns to look at him. He’s perched on a barstool, hands resting on the counter and fingers tapping restlessly on the marble. Sid can’t look away from the motion of Geno’s fingers, entranced by the sense-memory of them wrapped around his hand. His magic brushes invisible fingers like bear fur across his skin, transmitting the warm contentment within Geno to his skin, and he feels faint. “Sid?” Geno prompts again, standing and moving nearer to peer into Sid’s face. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Sid says, remembering to kick the fridge door shut behind him when a gust of cold air hits his back. “I’m just, uh, a little distracted, I guess.”

“If you’re too busy, we’re have date on different day, it’s okay,” Geno says, concerned, and Sid panics.

“No!” he says-- well, shouts, probably-- snatching up Geno’s hands with both his own as if he’s going to run away otherwise. “Don’t go,” he finishes weakly, fingers convulsing around the broad shape of Geno’s palm. Geno’s watching him closely, and Sid swallows dryly. It feels like everything that’s exploding in his chest must be clearly displayed on his face, but Geno’s look is still gently puzzled. “Let’s stay in tonight,” Sid says in a rush, and Geno nods and shrugs, though it’s a careful movement that doesn’t disrupt how Sid’s hands wrap around his.

“Go sit down,” Geno encourages gently, and Sid follows as Geno leads them to the living room, settling down in the corner of the sectional and tugging Sid after him. They perch on the cushions side-by-side, Sid angled towards Geno so that he can keep both hands around his to preserve their connection. He can feel Geno deep inside his soul, warm and comforting and threaded with a flavor of excitement that Sid’s only tasted in their bond once or twice before. It calls to the longing in Sid, the nervous need to touch every inch of Geno and learn what brings him pleasure.

“I still want to know what it’s like to kiss you,” Sid tells their entwined hands, and he hears rather than sees Geno’s gasp, clasping his hands tighter around Geno’s in response to the spasm that went through his fingers.

“What about bewitch?” Geno asks in a low, rumbled voice.

Sid squirms, wishing he could hide his face, but he summons all his honesty and says, “I think I’m a lot more under control, now that I’ve made my family. Anyway, I promised you that I’d trust you, didn’t I? If you say you’re not bewitched, I believe you.”

“I’m not bewitch,” Geno says immediately.

“Then you aren’t,” Sid says firmly. He glances up just as Geno licks his lips, staring obviously at Sid’s, and Sid gathers his courage and leans forward. Geno meets him halfway, his hand that isn’t trapped by Sid’s rising to cradle Sid’s cheek and line them up. Sid nearly cries at the first touch of their lips, swamped under the soft dips of Geno’s head as he flutters kisses onto Sid’s mouth. Sid whimpers, leaning forward in his desperation for more, and Geno flicks his tongue whisper-light against Sid’s lower lip until he cries out. Geno pulls back and Sid practically dives head-first into Geno’s chest, drawing in deep, shaky breaths filled with the rich honey smell of Geno as he tries to collect himself. His hands have gone slack around Geno’s, so Geno shifts, delicately wrapping his arms around Sid’s shoulders and burying his nose in Sid’s hair, pulling in equally deep breaths to Sid’s own.

It doesn’t take long for the hunger growing in him to outgrow the nervousness. Sid picks his head up, looking hopefully at Geno’s lips and then wincing at the strain on his ribs from twisting so much. He shifts, getting one leg under him in order to straighten his spine, before realizing he can swing the other over Geno’s lap. Geno watches him with dark eyes and wet lips as Sid settles in his lap, and Sid asks, “Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Geno says, lifting his hands to rest on Sid’s shoulders. Sid shivers, and Geno squeezes reassuringly before running his hands all the way down to grasp Sid’s again. He raises Sid’s hands, dropping them over his own shoulders and pulling Sid forward by the elbows until he’s looming over Geno. “Much better,” Geno says, satisfied, head tipped all the way back on his neck to look up at Sid. Sid drops his forehead against Geno’s as he catches his breath; he’s surrounded by touch, tears rising up in his throat from the sweet relief of the contact he’s craved for so long. When he’s gathered himself, he tilts his head to drop his own light kiss to Geno’s lips. He squeaks when Geno licks at his lower lip again and moans breathily when Geno nips, mouth falling open helplessly as he squirms in Geno’s lap from the sensation, seeking pressure against his rapidly hardening dick.

Time disappears when Geno licks tentatively into Sid’s mouth. as they kiss, Sid twists his hands into Geno’s hair, runs them down Geno’s back, shifts restlessly until his cock grazes against Geno’s stomach and he cries out. He needs more , everything that Geno will give him, and he’s whimpering in a constant stream when Geno tries to pull back. Sid dives forward, seeking after Geno’s mouth, but Geno tilts to the side to avoid him, sliding a hand up to cradle the back of Sid’s neck.

“What you want to do, Sid?” Geno asks, Sid shivering under the hand placed so firmly around his neck, skin-to-skin except where his shirt has ridden up.

“Everything,” he says desperately, running his hands down the strong plane of Geno’s chest. “Gods, Geno, please, I need everything.”

“I’m give you everything,” Geno promises. “But not on couch, okay? It’s most uncomfortable for sex.” Sid’s breath catches at the bald-faced acknowledgement of what’s about to happen and then again at the surge of desire that follows.

“Let’s move upstairs?” Sid offers hopefully, and he climbs off of Geno after receiving an affirming nod. It doesn’t feel right to not touch him, so Sid reaches out and captures his hand again, twisting his arm behind his back so they don’t have to let go as Sid leads them up the stairs to his bedroom.

Geno spins Sid around as they step past the doorway, turning Sid away from his embarrassingly unmade bed and towards Geno instead. “Stay,” Geno orders before letting go of Sid’s hand and yanking his shirt off, tossing it off to the side before unbuttoning his jeans and shucking them. The removal of his shorts reveals a pair of well-loved and extremely shabby briefs, and Geno shrugs at Sid’s half-suppressed giggle. “I’m not think we’re do this,” Geno offers. “Next time I’m wear nice underwear.”

“It’s fine,” Sid says, oddly soothed by the raggedy briefs even as his blood thuds through his veins at the sight of a rather naked Geno in front of him.

“You next?” Geno says, and Sid nods, twisting to reach for his shirt collar. Geno curves his hand around Sid’s elbow and shakes his head. “No, I do it,” he says, and Sid’s arm goes nerveless and drops. He’s frozen in place, trembling in anticipation as Geno slides his hands around Sid’s waist and tucks his palms under Sid’s shirt, pushing up to ruck the fabric and slide it up his torso. It catches under Sid’s armpits, and Geno gently raises each of Sid’s arms to guide them through their sleeves individually. He pulls the collar wide as he slips it over Sid’s head, careful to avoid catching it on Sid’s nose or ears, and tosses it aside. Sid swallows, panting shallow breaths as Geno rakes his eyes up and down Sid’s chest.

Geno dives forward, shoving his nose into Sid’s armpit, and Sid yelps. “What are you doing? ” he asks as Geno takes in deep breaths through his nose and exhales wetly back into Sid’s armpit.

“Smell good,” Geno says thickly, nudging his nose further into the crease of Sid’s armpit, until Sid twitches and giggles. The shock of feeling goes straight to his dick, and he’s abruptly reminded of how hard he is, how much he needs just that little bit more--

“Geno,” he whimpers, hands twisting as he resists the urge to press his palm against his cock and relieve just a little bit of the need. Geno steps back and drops his eyes as Sid’s hips twist, seeking relief. He shushes as his hands land on Sid’s jeans button, popping it and pulling the zipper in just the right way so that his hands don’t so much as graze against Sid’s cock. “Evil,” Sid breaths and Geno chuckles, kneeling to guide his pants to the ground.

“It’s not bad to wait for something good,” Geno says, wrapping his fingers around Sid’s ankle and guiding him to step out of his pant leg. They’re so long that they wrap all the way around Sid’s ankle and then some, Sid realizes dizzily, and he goes easily as Geno leads him over to his bed and pushes until he sits on the edge of the mattress. “Lie down,” Geno encourages, and Sid scrambles backwards and reclines, trying to resist the embarrassed urge to cross his arms over his chest. Geno crawls on the mattress above him, and Sid twitches and hisses as their limbs graze together.

Sid is achingly hard; he’s catching his breath, so to speak, as Geno just looks at him, and he realizes he’s waiting on the edge, ready to tip over it the second Geno asks him to. “Come on,” he says, propping a leg up so that he can bounce his knee gently off of the side of Geno’s ass.

“So impatient,” Geno says but settles onto Sid’s hips and his own elbows, dipping down for a quick kiss that Sid bullies him into extending. Geno drops until their bare chests are pressed against each other and Sid bucks, goosebumps erupting as Geno lets his weight press down on Sid, skin sticking together a little. Geno makes a considering noise and pushes himself back up on his elbows, ignoring Sid’s whine in favor of running a hand down Sid’s chest until his fingertip skims over Sid’s nipple. Sid arches and cries out, dick twitching urgently as Geno trails his finger around and around the edges of the darkened skin and then firmly thumbing the peak of his nipple with an insistent rub. The sensation builds heavily in his sack as he pants for breath, and when Geno drops his hips snug against Sid’s, the pressure is enough to throw Sid into a shattering orgasm.

When his vision comes back, Sid finds Geno curled around his left side and idly smoothing his hand up and down Sid’s belly. “Jeez,” Sid says weakly, and Geno snorts into Sid’s armpit where he’s tucked his head. “Would you get your face outta there?” Sid asks, afterglow gone, and Geno grunts something that sounds like disagreement, buries his nose deeper into Sid’s hair and sticks his tongue out to lick. “Geno!” Sid shrieks, and Geno laughs, licking until Sid starts to wrestle with him. They both stop as Sid’s wet briefs slide sloppily against Geno’s half-softened dick, staring at each other with wide eyes. “I guess it’s your turn, isn’t it?”

Geno looks thoughtful. “No, I’m think I’m want your cock again first,” he says, and Sid groans, melting into Geno and all the places they touch.

“You’re gonna kill me,” Sid says, because he’s not nineteen anymore, despite his dick doing its level best to spring youthfully up for another round.

“It’s good way to die, though,” Geno says, and Sid tickles him for that, in the soft sides of his ribs where he’s discovered Geno will thrash and shriek. Sid wants to push Geno, wants to see what he does when he’s not being soft and delicate, and he finds out when Geno pins him down and bites gently at the shell of his ear. If it was meant to chastise Sid, it backfires, because he shivers and clutches at Geno’s sides as his oversensitive dick twitches again.

Sid pushes at Geno, who goes willingly over onto his back. It’s Sid’s turn to explore now, and he does so leisurely, sitting on the tops of Geno’s thighs and running his hands everywhere, fascinated. There’s a patch of chest hair between Geno’s pecs that Sid runs his fingers through again and again before fitting his fingers between the ridges of Geno’s ribs. His arms are bigger around than they look thanks to their length, and Sid fits his hands around Geno’s biceps, testing the latent strength with his hand. Geno lets him explore without much comment, watching as Sid goes about with quiet purpose. Sid feels like he needs to absorb every inch of Geno, bring them together in the way he’s only dreamed of until now. He feels addicted to the heat of Geno’s body, the thought of having to ever separate slashing painfully through his chest.

Sid’s interrupted by his briefs beginning to stick uncomfortably. He grimaces and rolls off of Geno, grabbing the waistband and wriggling inelegantly with a wince as some dried come pulls at his skin. Nervousness floods in again, but when he turns back to Geno, he’s also shucking his briefs, and Sid’s mouth goes dry for an entirely different reason. He barely resists the urge to say Wow , though he can’t help but stare at Geno’s dick in terrified wonder. Is that normal sized? Is his own cock a lot smaller than he had thought? When he drags his eyes up to Geno’s face, though, it’s twisted with a half-proud smirk, so Sid guesses it’s just a monster.

There’s only a handful of inches of sheet separating them, but it feels like too much, so Sid flops closer, propping himself up on his side and tangling his legs with Geno’s as he obligingly rolls onto his side as well. They’re close enough now that they’re breathing each other’s air, and Sid bends forward for a kiss as Geno’s hand lands on his chest. They kiss lazily, hands roaming freely as Sid grows harder and harder. There’s still that edge of oversensitivity, but it just serves to coil him tighter, hitching his hips towards Geno as he whines into the kiss. Geno groans, breaking away, and slides his hand lower and lower on Sid’s stomach. “Okay?” he asks, and Sid says instantly, “Gods, please, it’s perfect, keep going.” Belatedly, he adds, “Can I--” and Geno spits “ Yes ” before Sid can even finish the question. Geno scratches idly through Sid’s pubes as Sid slides his hand lower and lower, finally wrapping his hand around Geno’s cock.

Sid is instantly addicted. The angle is odd compared to jacking himself off, but the feeling of Geno’s cock heavy in his palm and the knowledge that it’s all for him has Sid nearly drooling in anticipation. He curls his hand into a loose fist and slides it down Geno’s dick, testing the different texture and the new glide of a foreskin. Geno grunts and pushes forwards as Sid pulls back up, tugging lightly at the foreskin, and Sid files the reaction away just before Geno slips his hand around Sid’s dick.

Everything grows a little fuzzy after that point. The sheer hedonistic pleasure of holding Geno’s cock in his hand combined with Geno’s gentle strokes on his own dick build too quickly, and Sid is twitching and useless within minutes. When he comes, it’s all over Geno’s lower belly, and Geno gently works him through the end before letting go. Sid relaxes his hand around Geno’s dick where he started to clench too tight, but Geno bucks forward searchingly.

“Guess it should probably be your turn, huh,” Sid mumbles through half-numb lips, pleased that at least this time he didn’t black out.

“Please,” Geno says, and wraps his hand around Sid’s to pull it gently from his dick. “I’m have idea, it’s okay if I do?”

“Go for it,” Sid says, pitifully grateful that he’s not on the hook to figure out how to get Geno to come after two earth-shattering orgasms of his own.

“Lube?” Geno asks, and Sid sighs, trying to remember where he dropped it after he last jacked off.

“End table drawer?” he guesses, and Geno leans over him to dig around. “Oh, under the far pillow,” Sid remembers, and Geno mutters something at him but shifts to dig around under the pillows, making a triumphant noise when he emerges with lube in hand. Sid holds out his hand, assuming Geno will want to slick him up, but Geno makes a negative noise.

“Roll over, face other way,” Geno instructs, and Sid rolls bonelessly. He sighs in contentment as Geno tucks up right behind him, a long line of heat from neck to knees. His cock rests in the small of Sid’s back, a thrill dancing through Sid’s stomach as he again remembers it’s all due to him.

The lube cap pops, and Geno says, “It’s cold, sorry,” before sticking a hand between Sid’s thighs. Sid is too tired to yelp at the chill as Geno spreads the lube around, and he can’t help but fuzzily wonder why Geno’s putting the lube there. Geno pulls back briefly, and then Sid gets his answer as Geno slides his cock between Sid’s thighs.

Technically, it’s not a whole lot different than putting his hand on Geno’s cock, but he shudders anyway at the feeling of Geno’s cock on his skin. It feels like the richest indulgence, the smoothest silk on his skin, as Geno wraps his arms tight around Sid’s chest and begins to pump his hips. Sid is moaning as much as Geno at the feeling, though his cock remains stubbornly limp, and he tightens his thighs together to better feel Geno’s cock. That causes Geno to drive faster and it becomes a feedback loop of pleasure. Impossibly, Sid shudders through another orgasm as his dick remains stubbornly limp, a few drops of precome oozing out as the orgasm spreads throughout his body. Geno follows soon after, driving his hips deep and spurting all over Sid’s thighs and the sheets.

Geno tries to pull away, but Sid mutters a petulant “No!” and grips onto Geno’s arms. “Move away from wet spot,” Geno whispers, and Sid grumbles as Geno pulls up the corner of the sheet to wipe Sid down and then rolls them both over to face the other direction.

“Now you know how it’s like to kiss me,” Geno rumbles, Sid half-hearing and half-feeling the words. “It’s okay, you think?”

“I dunno,” Sid says slowly, gripping at Geno’s hands so he doesn’t withdraw his embrace. “It seems pretty okay, but I can’t base my opinion off of doing it just once, you know? Gotta gather some more data.”

Geno laughs, a huge, shaking sound. “More data, yes?” he says into Sid’s ear, amused. “You coming three times isn’t enough data?”

“I just want to be thorough,” Sid says primly. He can barely speak the words through the smile cracking his face in two; being able to tease Geno even as he’s held tight is everything he thought he’d never get in life. It’s too soon to say the words that are lurking in his heart, but he does snuggle back against Geno and say, as sincerely as he can, “Thank you for a second chance.”

“You’re welcome,” Geno says, satisfied. “See, bees don’t lie. they’re like Sid, and Sid is good,” Geno says, tucking his face into the back of Sid’s head. “So of course I’m give Sid second chance, and of course it’s good.”

“Are you sniffing me again?” Sid asks suspiciously, distracted by the feeling of Geno nosing through his hair, and there’s a long silence before Geno says unconvincingly, “No, I’m not.”

When they pick themselves up out of the mess of sheets to scrounge up dinner, Sid glances out the window to see hundreds of tiny golden bodies bumbling busily through his clover field. “Sid!” Geno calls from the stairs, and Sid shakes his head at the bees before stepping out of his wrecked bedroom and into Geno’s arms.