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Le Beau et la Bête

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The boy is arriving today.

Kiro lets out the candlestick equivalent of a deep sigh and hops off the window ledge and onto a low table full of knickknacks, avoiding them with the ease of long practice. He jumps to the ground and begins making his way over to the guest quarters, where Emily and Maria are still fussing.

“Is he here?” Emily asks when she sees him, bustling over to him and flicking out to catch imaginary bits of dust as she goes. Kiro shakes his top candle and Em deflates a little. “Oh,” she says, and looks back at the room. “Masha, do you think he's going to need anything else?”

Maria somehow manages to shrug, despite her lack of shoulders. Kiro has been an enchanted candlestick for over two years now, and he still isn't sure how she does it.

“The wardrobe will do clothes and shoes, the kitchen will do food, and David will do company,” she says, and Kiro bites his metaphorical tongue at the last. Davidson has been in a truly foul mood ever since he found out what Dave did, and Kiro is a little worried that Davidson will try to throw the boy out when he gets here.

“I should go back to the entrance hall,” Kiro decides, hopping over to give Em a peck on her handle as best he can. “First person he meet should be friendly.”

Emily laughs a little, sadly, and the three of them carefully avoid the elephant in the room - that they're running out of time, and this could be their only chance.

“I think Oleg and Dave were planning on distracting David today,” Emily says instead. “Were you going to try and get him settled in before David tries to throw him out?”

“Hopefully, Dave and Oleg will convince him to give the boy a shot,” Maria says gravely. “But if they cannot, take him out through the gardens and we'll keep David away until it's too late to send him away tonight.”

“And tomorrow?” Kiro asks, his heart hurting a little. It's for Davidson’s own good, but that doesn't mean Kiro likes plotting against him like this.

“We'll deal with tomorrow tomorrow,” Maria says, and shoos Kiro out the door.

Jake frowns down at his phone. Something’s wrong with it - he plugged in the address he was given, just to double-check he was at the right place, and his GPS is insisting that it doesn't exist. He's pretty sure it does exist, though, because he followed the directions his dad gave him, and there's definitely something here - a large, intimidating gate.

He hesitates for a moment, but the instructions say to go through the gate and up to the house, so he goes over and pushes open the gate.

As soon as the gate swings shut, his phone chirps at him to inform him that “GPS signal lost,” and when he checks, his phone has no signal.

“Ugh,” he mutters, shoving his phone back into his pocket and looking around at the gigantic freaking forest that’s suddenly surrounding him. He sighs. A high-magic area - he should have figured. He can feel the slight edge in the air as the extra magic swirls around, just concentrated enough that he can feel it. He glares at the forest and heads down the path, trying not to feel as though he’s leaving civilization further and further behind.

The path curves and winds through the forest, so Jake doesn’t even get a glimpse of the house until he’s there, just round a last bend and suddenly the forest ends and a clearing opens out in front of him, containing the house.

“Jesus,” he says involuntarily, taking in the sprawling structure. Jake’s not an architect, but even he can tell that it looks like someone built this house haphazardly, sticking things on seemingly at random. All of it looks fancy, though, and as he heads over to the wide steps sweeping up to a many-columned entrance, Jake can see how this guy can afford to pay Nat and Allie’s college tuitions in exchange for a “domestic companion.”

He hesitates a little at the door, feeling especially shabby in the face of all of - this. He’s suddenly incredibly conscious of the fact that his jeans are starting to wear through at the seams, and that his shirt’s ever so slightly too small for him - but he said that he would come, and anyway, Nat and Allie deserve this. He squares his shoulders and lifts the big, old-fashioned brass knocker - shaped like a lion’s head - and then raps on the door.

There’s a moment of silence, and then the door creaks open by itself. A little unsettled, but still determined, Jake steps through the door and into the house. There doesn’t appear to be anyone there. He frowns, and turns in a circle. “Hello?” he calls.

Kiro had gotten bored at the window and is dozing off by the time the boy shows up. He’s startled awake by the sound of someone rapping on the door and almost trips over his own base in his hurry to get down. He glares as best he can and gestures at the door, which creaks open reluctantly. Kiro makes a mental note to have a word with Dave and Oleg about the house - if it’s started misbehaving again, they’ll need to know - then feels his flames quiver with excitement as a stranger steps into the hallway.

“Hello?” the stranger says, and Kiro takes a moment to look him over.

He’s over six feet tall (Kiro suddenly and fiercely misses being human - he’s maybe a foot and a half tall these days), with thick, wavy hair and finely sculpted features, including a strong, stubborn jaw. He’s broad and well-muscled - built like an athlete, Kiro thinks - and he seems to be curious and a little wary, but not afraid. Kiro likes the look of him, and he thinks Davidson will too.

“Hello?” the stranger says again, sounding uncertain, and Kiro hops forward, making sure to clear his throat so that the stranger looks down and sees him.

“Hello!” he says, and gives his best smile. “Welcome. We’ve been expecting you.”

The stranger’s eyes go wide, and he lets the bag at his side drop to the ground. “Uh,” he says, after a long moment of silence. “You. . . have?”

Kiro frowns, a little worried. “You come because of advertisement, yes?” he asks.

“Yeah,” the stranger says, and oh, he was just expecting a human-shaped person. That’s better, then - Kiro had a brief, panicked thought that they’d gotten another lost hiker. “Sorry, I guess I just wasn’t expecting...” he gestures at Kiro, who shrugs, resigned.

“You’ll get used to it,” he says. “Now. I am Kirill Volkov. Who are you?”

“Jake Lourdes. And hang on - my dad said he talked to someone named Dave-”

“Dave is busy right now,” Kiro cuts in smoothly. At least, he hopes Dave is busy right now. “You can talk with him at dinner.” He starts hopping down the hallway to the guest’s wing. “I’ll show you where you’ll be staying, and then if you like I can give you a tour of the castle.”

Jake doesn’t move for a moment and Kiro turns around, looking up at him inquisitively. He’s staring at his surroundings, his brow furrowed like he’s thinking hard. Kiro holds his breath - but then Jake shakes himself and smiles down at him and says, “That sounds awesome, thanks.”

“Right this way,” Kiro says, and makes for the guest wing again, mentally crossing fingers he no longer has that this will work.

Oleg and the rest of the staff have just finished introducing themselves to Jake when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye and mentally steels himself. David takes two steps into the room and then freezes, every line of his body stiff. Oleg - well, he doesn’t hold his breath because clocks don’t breathe, but he comes close. They’ve all got a pretty good idea how David’s going to react, but Oleg can’t help but hope. . .

“Who are you?” David growls in his rudest tone, and Oleg closes his eyes briefly. Nope, just about what he expected, then.

There’s a moment of silence, and then the boy gets up from the table. “Uh, hi,” he says. “My name’s Jake. I’m the new domestic companion.” He smiles, and holds out his hand. He’s not panicked by David, then, which is promising. Oleg knows that Kiro did his best to prepare Jake, but the first time anyone meets a creature that’s over eight feet tall, with giant teeth and claws and horns, it can be a bit much.

“No  you’re not,” David says, which is not. Jake’s smile fades, and his hand falls to his side as he looks around, confused.

“I’m not? But I thought - Kirill said - “

“My staff have been playing a joke,” David says. His voice doesn’t really do monotone anymore - the new shape and vocal cords don’t really allow for it - but Oleg can tell when he’s trying. His heart sinks, because David’s still stiff and uncomfortable, standing in the doorway. He’s given up, Oleg thinks to himself, as Kirill speaks up.

“It is not a joke, Davidson,” he says, and Oleg does his best to ignore the betrayal that flashes in David’s eyes. “We asked Jake to come because we need his help.”

“I fail to see how he could be any help at all,” David snaps, and looks over at Jake. “I want you out of my house.”

Oleg clears his throat and hops forward. “David, it’s too late for him to leave now,” he says. “Let him stay for dinner, at least. And I did want help, actually, in the garden.” He looks Jake up and down. “He’ll do.”

I can help you in the garden,” David growls.

“Not with what I need,” he says, and David looks hurt. Oleg’s heart breaks a little, but they decided that this had to be done. They all talked about it, and came to the conclusion that they just need someone from the outside to break the curse. David doesn’t agree with them, of course, but Oleg and the rest of them are sure that if they can just get David to give someone else time. . .

“Fine,” David growls, and stomps out of the kitchen. Mary Anne and Emily droop slightly in relief, and Kiro’s candles flicker. Masha comes up and nudges him, and he smiles down at her.

“Uh,” says Jake, which reminds Oleg that there’s another person in the kitchen. He glances over at him, and sees Jake looking between where Oleg is standing on the floor and the door that David just closed. “Can someone explain to me what just happened?”

Jake jumps down from the ladder he’s been standing on all morning and takes a second to pull his shirt up and wipe at his face. Sweat has been stinging his eyes for the last minute or so, but he wanted to finish cleaning out this part of the gutter before he got down.

He looks over at the ladder and sighs. He doesn’t like cleaning the gutters - no one would, with a house this size - but it’s not like anyone else in the house can help with this. Oleg explained, a little, that first day - the staff can’t really help very much with the big outdoor stuff, because they don’t have any limbs. David can’t really help in the garden because he’s just too big, or he’s the wrong shape. His paws, or hands - Jake isn’t really sure what he has, since he’s pretty sure it’d be rude to stare - are too big and clumsy to handle tools, and he’s too big to fit on the ladder without falling off. So Jake’s the handyman, which he doesn’t mind, exactly - it’s just not what he was expecting.

Everyone’s pretty obviously suffering from a curse - he got that on day one, honestly. He’s not always the smartest guy around, but it doesn’t take a genius to put together talking, moving household objects and a giant horned bear/lion combo and come up with “curse.” But like, he’s not sure why he’s here - or why no one’s mentioned the curse at all, or told him how to break it, if that is why he’s here. He’d be happy to help, if he could just figure out what they want. Besides him being here - he’s got that part.

Well - at least the staff wants him here. David doesn’t seem very happy about his presence, and every night at dinner he says that once Jake is done with his current task he can leave. The second night, Jake said that he couldn’t do that, because his family needs the money to pay for Nat and Allie’s college. David got really quiet for a while, and then said that Jake’s family could keep the money, and he didn’t need to stay. But Mary Anne had spoken up and said that she was really hoping that once Jake was done cleaning out the dead things in the garden, he would have time to fix the stove in the kitchen. David offered to help her with it, and she’d seemed very apologetic as she’d explained why he wouldn’t be able to.

Jake’s a little uncomfortable staying when David clearly wants him gone, but the staff has been very insistent. Any time he finished a chore for someone, someone else has another chore waiting. And whenever they bring these up, David gets really quiet and withdrawn and says that sure, Jake can stay until the thing is done. And then he goes away and doesn’t come down until dinner time, when he tries to send Jake away again. Rinse and repeat, every night.

Jake does his best to put all his questions out of his mind. Oleg said the gutters needed to be cleaned, so Jake is cleaning gutters. And probably will be tomorrow, and the day after that, what with how enormous this house is. And surely at some point, someone will explain what they need from him, and then he can fix it. He’s pretty good at fixing things - they should have learned this by now.

Around noon he breaks for lunch and trudges back to the kitchen, shivering a little as he walks into the cool of the house. It’s always nice and cool inside, even though they don’t have A/C - Kiro muttered something about the designer of the house being “old-fashioned” when Jake asked, and honestly the high concentration of magic here probably killed most of their electricity. Mary Anne hops over to him and directs him to where she’s got lunch set out for him, then shoos him back outside. “You need to cool off, and I don’t want you climbing ladders out there during the heat of the day. The pool is out behind the gardens - take a left at the broken fountain and keep going, and it’s just past the outbuilding. You can’t miss it.”

Jake sets off in the direction of the fountain, because a swim sounds really good right about now. He’s sticky all over with sweat, and the sun is bright and hot in the sky as he wanders through the gardens. They’re completely overgrown, and he wonders how long they’ve been like this, without anyone to take care of them. He doesn’t think it’s been too long, but it’s hard to tell - he’s not much of a gardener.

He reaches the fountain and takes a look at it, wondering if he’s going to be out here fixing it once he’s done with the gutters. But it’s too hot to worry about it for long, so he takes the turn and starts heading for the pool. He’s walking past the outbuilding when he passes a window that’s open and feels cold air blow across his face, and is caught off-guard by the distinctive smell of an ice rink.

He freezes for a moment, and turns to look at the building. It’s about the right shape and size, and it has the right smell. . .  Almost in a daze, he walks over to the door and pushes it open.

It’s shadowy inside - if there are lights in here, no one’s turned them on - but Jake doesn’t bother looking around for a switch. There is a hockey rink here, the ice almost seeming to glow in the dim light from the high windows. Jake moves towards it, entranced. He hasn’t played since winter, when the season ended, and just looking at it makes him itch for his skates.

He tears his gaze away from the improbable ice surface and glances around. Something glints at him through a doorway, and he finds what looks like something out of a daydream: an equipment room filled with rows and rows of skates, in every size, and a wall of every kind of stick, and shelves and shelves of helmets, and more racks of pads. It’s like the inside of a hockey supply store, everything pristine and untouched, and Jake knows he shouldn’t but he can’t help himself. He’s never played in equipment this good, not since his dad lost his last job.

He doesn’t bother with the pads or the helmets, just finds a pair of skates and gloves that fit and grabs a stick that he likes the look of from the wall, picks up a bucket of pucks and heads out to the ice. It’s perfect, perfect, and he does a couple of laps for the sheer joy of skating again, then dumps the pucks on the ice and starts taking shots at the net, testing out the new stick.

He’s not sure how long he’s been out here - it’s been a while, he knows that, but he’s lost track of time - when something catches his attention. He’s not sure what, but something makes him turn back toward the entrance and he sees David standing there, looking, somehow, small and a little lost.

Jake swallows, and pushes down the feeling that he’s done something very, very wrong. He starts gathering up the pucks, keeping an eye on David as he does. He’s almost done when David finally speaks.

“What are you doing here?” he says, and his voice sounds hoarse even through his usual growl. Jake straightens up slowly, feeling something drop out of the bottom of his stomach.

“I was just - “ he tries to explain, but David interrupts him.

“Who said you could come in here?” and now he sounds angry, furious in a way that Jake hasn’t ever heard him, not even the first night he was here. “How dare you come in here?”

“David, I’m - “ sorry, Jake tries to say, tries to explain that he hadn’t known, that he didn’t mean to, but David isn’t listening.

“Get out,” he says, and then “GET OUT!” in a roar that bypasses Jake’s ears and goes directly to his monkey hindbrain, and Jake is fleeing the ice rink before he can stop to think about doing anything else. He doesn’t realize until he’s stepping into the kitchen door that he’d forgotten to take any of his gear off in his haste - but that doesn’t matter, apparently, because he’s no longer wearing it.

Huh, he thinks, and then goes to track down Dave and Oleg, because it’s high time he got some answers.

Kiro doesn’t have lungs - he doesn’t think, anyway - so he shouldn’t need to breathe, but somehow he’s still out of breath by the time he makes his way down the last bit of the path that leads to the rink. He doesn’t come out here very often, because he’s a candlestick and he doesn’t move that fast, but he knows where the rink is.

Davidson was supposed to meet him after lunch to try and look through some more spellbooks, but he didn’t come. And when Kiro had been waiting for fifteen minutes, he started to get concerned, because Davidson wasn’t usually late. He hopped up to the office, to see if Dave knew where he was - and found Jake grilling Dave about the curse. He heard enough of the conversation to know where to find Davidson, now.

He hops over to the door and gives it a very stern look. “Open,” he tells it, and it creaks open very reluctantly. He frowns and hops inside, turning up his light so that he can see better.

Davidson is sitting hunched over on one of the team benches next to the rink, brooding. Kiro hops over to him, his base making little clinking noises as he goes, so he knows Davidson can hear him. Davidson ignores him, so Kiro has to bully open the door to the benches, too, before he can make his way over to where Davidson has folded himself up in a way that looks extremely uncomfortable and is staring at the ice. Kiro gathers himself and leaps up - and barely makes it up onto the bench. He wobbles a little, on the edge, but manages to stop himself from falling. He turns and looks out at the ice as well, a little wistfully.

There’s a stick, there, and a couple of buckets of pucks. One’s been overturned, and there are pucks scattered everywhere across the ice. The ice glows temptingly, and Kiro swears that he can hear the curse laughing softly in his ears. He sighs. This is exactly what they didn’t need.

“Davidson,” he says, and Davidson shifts slightly, turning away from him.

“Go away,” he says. Kiro winces a little but doesn’t go anywhere, just stays where he is and hums a little, getting comfortable. He’s good at reading Davidson, and no matter what he thinks he needs, he needs Kiro right now.

After several long minutes, Davidson shifts so that he can see Kiro out of the corner of his eye. Kiro doesn’t move or say anything, just keeps looking at the ice. He misses hockey too, of course, but there are other things he misses more about being human, so he doesn’t have the same reaction to this place that Davidson does. Of course, it’s not his curse.

“He couldn’t even be bad at this,” Davidson says, finally, and Kiro doesn’t flinch, exactly. Davidson’s voice is full of so much pain and frustration, and Kiro looks up at him.

“Couldn’t even be bad?” he asks, and Davidson turns away and gestures at the rink.

“I saw him - he was pretty good,” and that’s a tiny thread of grudging admiration mixed in with the resentment and bitterness. Kiro would be hopeful, but it’s a very tiny thread. “So he can play hockey, too.”

And now, finally, Kiro catches the important word, and feels his flames flicker as he understands what’s been going through Davidson’s mind. “Davidson,” he says, feeling horrorstruck, and then stops, because he’s not quite sure what to say. I’m sorry that none of us realized that you would feel usurped by the outsider we brought in to try and break the curse? I’m sorry that the way we’ve been acting has made you feel useless and small? We still love you?

“Davidson,” he says, after a moment’s thought. “If I were human right now, I would be hugging you.”

Davidson hunches in on himself further, but Kiro presses on.

“We don’t want to replace you,” he says firmly. “We love you. We want you to be happy. We thought he could help, but if he’s not helping - if you think you can be happy this way, without him here, I’ll talk to Dave and Oleg and we’ll send him away.”

Davidson turns away from Kiro, but not fast enough to hide the hurt in his eyes, which have gone suspiciously shiny. Kiro doesn’t have a heart, but it’s breaking anyway, and he thinks a few inventive curses at Charlotte and at whoever tried to curse her. He snuffs out all his flames and leans up against Davidson’s back as hard as he can, giving him an anchor.

“I don’t know if he can help,” Davidson says finally, softly. The words have the tone of a confession, and Kiro’s nonexistent heart breaks even more. “I don’t want to disappoint you if I can’t - if he won’t. . . “ he trails off, and Kiro leans against him even harder, trying to simulate the hug he would be giving Davidson if he had arms.

“If he can’t help, it’s not your fault,” Kiro says, getting angry again - at himself, at Charlotte, at the person who cast the curse. “None of this is your fault, Davidson.”

Davidson shifts in a way that Kiro knows means he doesn’t believe it, and he hates it, he hates it, but he can’t do anything. Maybe if Jake manages to break the curse he’ll believe it, but Kiro isn’t sure. He sighs, and hops off the bench and around so that he’s standing on the floor in front of Davidson, looking up at him.

“It is not your fault,” Kiro repeats. “But maybe give Jake a chance? If he can’t help, we’ll find something else.” Davidson makes a face, and Kiro rolls his eyes. “Not like you, giving up,” he says, and Davidson looks away in an attempt to make Kiro think he doesn’t care.

“Spellbooks,” Kiro says cheerfully, and Davidson seems confused. “We were supposed to look at spellbooks this afternoon, figure out what’s wrong with house.”

“Right,” Davidson says, after a long moment, and Kiro bumps up against his knee in a friendly way.

“Carry me back,” he demands. “Is a lot of work for someone with no legs, coming out here.” Davidson looks like he’s taking that the wrong way for a moment, so Kiro flops down on his face dramatically. “Can’t. . . move,” he moans. “Too . . . exhausted,” and he hears Davidson’s reluctant chuckle as he’s picked up and carried back out into the sun.

Jake’s still running through the conversation he had with Dave and Oleg as he opens the gigantic gate that stands between the house and the outside world. He closes it carefully behind him and starts walking down a perfectly ordinary suburban street, noting absently that it looks weird, now.

Apparently the curse hadn’t been intended for David at all, but for his mom. His mom who wore a very expensive, very good deflector charm as a matter of course. Well, it couldn’t have been too good, or the curse wouldn’t have hit David at all. Jake doesn’t think that deflectors are supposed to deflect curses at other people.

He pulls his phone out of his pocket once he’s far enough away from the gate and turns it back on. There are a bunch of missed calls and texts from his family - he winces, a little, even though he’s been calling home as often as he can. Dave is happy to put him through, but it’s more than a little weird talking into a phone who used to be a person, and Jake’s been keeping the calls short. He’s also got a couple of missed texts from Gabe and Joe, and one missed call from Gabe - oops.

He texts his family first, letting them know that he’ll be dropping by in a bit, then calls Gabe. The phone rings long enough that Jake worries he’s going to go through to voicemail, then Gabe picks up.

“Lourdy, you fucker,” Gabe says, and Jake winces. “Where have you been?”

“Hey, Marksy,” he says. “It’s a long story. Can I swing by your place and tell you in person? Are you home?”

“I guess,” Gabe says. “Why in person, though?”

“Like I said, it’s a long story,” Jake says evasively. “Um.”

“Spit it out,” Gabe says with a sigh, after Jake has utterly failed to follow that up with anything more informative.

“Is, uh. Is the little lady around?”

Gabe bursts out laughing. “Oh, man. You need to talk to Stephen?

Jake scowls. “Yes. Look, man, is he there? Or could you get him there? It’s  . . . important.”

Gabe stops laughing. “Shit. What happened to you? Is it serious?”

“No, it’s not me, it’s just - I’ll explain when I get there. If he’s around.” Jake glances down at his watch. “In an hour or so? I have to stop by my place first.”

“Yeah, fine, we’ll be here,” Gabe says, and Jake lets out a little breath of relief. “See you in an hour, Lourdy.”

“See you,” Jake says, and shoves his phone back into his pocket. He’s been getting a barrage of texts from his family, but he ignores them in favor of walking a little faster, in a hurry to get home. He’s missed them.

A little over an hour later, Jake pulls up at Gabe’s place, still feeling a little overwhelmed by the full-family inquisition. Even his dad got in on it, despite his usual policy of staying out of stuff like that. He was finally able to convince them that he wasn’t being mistreated, no, really, Mom, and everyone’s been really nice (he crossed his fingers a little bit because David hasn’t been nice but now Jake understands why and he forgives him) and he likes it just fine, and yes he’ll come home to see them more often because he’s not a prisoner. He still feels a little guilty about that.

Gabe opens the door and gives him the standard bro-hug of greeting that Jake returns with relief. “Marksy, good to see you,” he says, and follows Gabe into the house. Stephen’s sitting in the kitchen, making that face he always makes when he sees Jake - like a cat that’s just accidentally put its paw in water.

“Lourdy, good to see you too.” Gabe crosses to sit next to Stephen, nudging him. Stephen grunts something and nods at Jake, which is about as good a response as he’s ever gotten from him. “Now, you gonna tell us what’s up?”

So Jake explains - the curse aimed at David’s mom, the deflector charm, the fact that it stuck to David, and then the changes for everyone in the house besides Mrs Deflector Charm. By the time he’s done explaining, Stephen’s lost the wet cat look and is leaning forward with his elbows up on the breakfast bar, frowning.

“So once I got the whole story - or well, most of it anyway, I thought I should come and talk to you,” Jake says, winding down. “I mean, I’ve never heard of a deflected curse taking hold like that, so strongly?”

Stephen tilts his head to one side, considering. “Me either, unless - do you happen to know the wording on the curse?”

Jake shakes his head. “No, I don’t - I got the story second hand, none of the staff were there when it was cast. Just the one guy, and he doesn’t want to talk to me.”

Stephen’s eyebrows lift, and Gabe laughs a little. “It sounds like I’d like this guy,” Stephen says, voice utterly bland, and Gabe shoves at him gently. “But without the wording on the curse. . . “ he shrugs. “I can’t really help.”

“I wasn’t even really thinking about that,” Jake says honestly, although now that it’s been brought up, it’s definitely a good idea. Stephen’s pretty powerful, and could probably help. Both Gabe and Stephen frown.

“If you didn’t want Stephen to help break the curse, what did you want?” Gabe asks, and Jake feels his face heat up a little.

“The guy - the one who got cursed,” he says. “He - well, I’m pretty sure he was a hockey player, before, and, like. “ He shrugs. “None of the skates will fit his feet, and I don’t know if he’s able to hold a stick, and gloves. . . “ he trails off. Both Gabe and Stephen are wearing understanding expressions, Stephen’s a little more pained than Gabe’s.

“Well, I could probably do something about that,” Stephen says after a moment. “Gabe, you got any spare gear I can borrow?”

“Uh, Oleg,” something about Jake’s voice has Oleg turning even before he finishes his sentence. “Do you - know where David is?”

Oleg eyes Jake suspiciously. He cornered both Oleg and Dave in the study a few days ago and interrogated them about the curse. They told him everything they knew, and then he vanished the next day without a word to anyone about where he was going. David was even quieter than usual that day, and Kirill was oddly grim. And then he was back in time for supper, and still hasn’t told anyone where he went.

Oleg has a pretty good idea where he was now, though, because Jake has a hockey stick tucked under one arm and is holding a pair of gloves and a pair of skates in his hands. They almost vibrate, the magic on them is so strong. Something that might be hope unfurls in Oleg. If the boy already cares this much - surely it can only be a good thing.

“I believe he is in the library,” Oleg says, and trades a meaningful look with Dave before hopping down off the desk and heading towards the door. “I’ll show you where it is.”

He can hear David and Kirill talking before he reaches the library, and sees that the door has been left slightly ajar. He gestures forward and says “The library is right there,” then hangs back as Jake almost bolts past him, clutching the gear tightly. Oleg follows slowly, and as quietly as he can when he ticks softly every second.

“Um, David,” he hears as he creeps closer to the door. “So, I saw you had a - and I thought you might like. .  .” The boy is stumbling a little, which Oleg knows is unusual for him.

“Oh,” David says just as Oleg reaches the door and looks around it. David is standing there with an expression on his face that is wondering and utterly broken open as he stares at the equipment that Jake is holding out.

“The skates will adapt to fit your feet, and the gloves will adapt to fit your - hands,” Jake says, and Oleg is . . . impressed. This is a very thoughtful gift. “And you can’t break the stick, you should be able to use it just fine, and it’ll adapt itself to you as well. Um.” He hesitates. “Do you like them?”

David is silent for a moment, just looking at what Jake has brought him. Then he looks up at Jake and smiles, the unselfconscious smile that he uses only when he’s so caught up he forgets to care, and he takes the offered gear.

“Yes,” he says, and Oleg can tell that it’s an understatement. “Thank you,” David says, polite to the end, and Oleg catches Kirill’s attention and gestures for him to come find him later before he withdraws. He heads off down the hallway to the south wing, where he knows Masha usually is at this time of day, eager to share his news.

Kiro can’t remember the last time he heard Davidson laugh this much. He, Emily, Mary Anne and Oleg are clustered in a huddle behind the glass by the net, watching Jake and Davison play keep-away. Davidson’s still a little clumsy on his new skates, but he’s getting better all the time.

“That’s cheating,” he says, his voice a little choked with laughter as Jake skates away with the puck, grinning. Kiro is impressed - normally that might come out surly, but Davidson is apparently so happy to be back on the ice that he’s not getting angry about dirty play just yet. Kiro gives it maybe another day.

“I don’t hear a whistle,” Jake says, and shifts to shoot the puck the length of the ice just as David comes up behind him and shoves at him. Unbalanced, Jake falls on his ass with a startled sound, and Kiro has never been so proud of Davidson in his life.

“Well, they seem to be getting along better,” Emily says, cautiously optimistic. Mary Anne lets out a noncommittal sound, still watching the ice. David has stolen the puck from Jake, who’s still sitting on the ground, and is skating around with it, practicing his stickhandling.

“Jake seems like a nice boy,” Mary Anne says finally. “And it’s not that I’m not glad he’s here, I just. . . “ she trails off and Kiro silently agrees with her. They all wish that they’d been able to help Davidson without having to bring someone else into it.

“He’s helped,” Oleg says, and this time the sound Mary Anne makes is agreement. They all sit there for a moment, watching as Jake skates quietly up behind Davidson and tries to steal the puck from him. There’s a brief shoving match, and then Davidson skates away with the puck again. Jake looks thrilled.

“We’ll see,” Kiro says, finally, as this time Jake emerges from the shoving match with the puck and streaks down the ice, intent and focused. Davidson looks a little shocked -  but in a good way - when he roofs the puck into the net, a pretty little backhander that Kiro is duly impressed by. Jake fishes the puck back out of the net and skates back towards Davidson, seemingly unaware of the effect he’s having.

“Yes, we’ll see,” Oleg says, and they settle down to watch the rest of the game.

David’s been avoiding him.

Jake isn’t sure why, or what he did, but he feels. . .  off-balance. He’d gotten used to David being part of his routine, someone he saw a lot every day, and now it’s back to how it was at the beginning. David shows up for meals and awkwardly talks around Jake, answers questions in as few words as possible, and leaves as soon as he can. Jake tried asking the others what happened, but Kiro seems just as mystified as Jake is, Oleg has been inscrutable, and Emily and Mary Anne both just said to ask David. Which Jake will, as soon as he can find David.

The house is just too big. Jake has known this for a while - hard to not know it, when he spent several weeks cleaning gutters and washing windows - but it really hits home when he’s looking for someone and there are too many places he could be. He checks everywhere he knows about - the library, the rink, a couple of spots in the garden where he’s seen David before, Dave’s study (Dave had also said to talk to David, but he was a lot more emphatic about it). And then he just starts wandering.

The house is really cool, if weird - Jake ends up in a gallery full of old suits of medieval armor, and then a room that contains a small, bubbling fountain. He wanders past portraits of people he doesn’t recognize, and wonders if any of them are related to David. He lingers in front of one of them for a while - a boy who looks like he’s around Jake’s age, with dirty blond hair, blue-green eyes and a solemn expression - before moving on.

He finally ends up in what looks like a garage, filled with antique cars. He’s about to turn around and head back into the house when he sees something shift out of the corner of his eye and takes a closer look. David is sitting hunched up on the floor near a bright red car, not looking at him.

“Hey,” Jake says, walking over towards him. David grunts a little but otherwise doesn’t acknowledge his presence. Jake perches on the hood of the bright red car and looks down at him. David is picking at the floor with his claws, his face turned away.

“So, you’ve been avoiding me,” Jake finally says. “And I thought maybe it was something I did, but I asked Kiro and Oleg and Maria and Mary Anne and Emily and Dave, and they all said that I should ask you what was up.”

“Did they,” David says, very flat, and Jake sighs.

“Look, if it was something I did, I’m sorry,” he says. “But I can’t fix it or stop unless you tell me what’s wrong.”

David laughs, and Jake doesn’t like it. It doesn’t sound anything like his usual laugh, the one that Jake hears when they’re on the ice and Jake’s just done something dumb. This one sounds bitter, like something’s eating at David.

“It’s nothing you did,” David says. “It’s not your fault. I thought maybe you could fix it, but I was wrong.”

Jake gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “I haven’t even tried to fix the fountain yet,” he jokes weakly, but David doesn’t laugh. “David - is this about the curse?”

David flinches, and Jake bites his lip. “What do you know about the curse?” he asks, finally looking up at Jake.

“Just what Oleg and Dave told me,” Jake says. “That your mother is some government official, and someone tried to curse her but she was wearing a deflector charm, so it bounced and hit you instead.” He hesitates for a moment, then says, “I have a buddy - well, the buddy of a buddy - who’s good with magic, and he thinks it’s weird for a deflected curse to take as strongly as this did. And I asked Dave and Oleg, but neither of them was there, so they don’t know what the wording of the curse was. Is. I don’t know. Were you there?”

David looks away. “Yes.”  He swallows. Jake waits, consciously stopping himself from tapping his fingers against the car, drumming his heels. He’s quiet for several long moments, then David takes a hitching breath and starts talking.

“My mother was having a work dinner party. I wasn’t even supposed to be there - I just happened to be passing through the dining room on my way out. My mother said something to someone - I didn’t see who, I wasn’t paying attention. And then someone else stood up and said that my mother should be ashamed of herself, and ‘Let this be a lesson to you, until you have learned to love others more than yourself.’”

His voice is choked, and without thinking about it Jake slides off the hood of the car and onto the floor next to David, throwing an arm around him. David stiffens momentarily, then leans into Jake as he continues, still staring at the floor.

“There was a bright flash of light and a sound like something shattering. And it hurt. And then it was over, and I looked like this.” He gestures down at himself. “My mother’s colleagues left very quickly - I think they had charms as well. My mother stayed for a while, but she said that she had to get back to work, and the curse was distracting.” Jake squeezes him a little tighter and stays quiet, not wanting to stop David. “I think she was disappointed that I couldn’t break the curse quickly,” he says, and Jake almost chokes on all of the things he wants to say to that. “So like I said, it’s not your fault - you can’t do anything about it. I’m sorry you came all the way here for nothing.”

“I’m not,” Jake says. “God, David, I’m not sorry. I like you, and Kiro and Emily and the rest of them. And you deserve better than to be stuck like this because someone was shitty enough to curse your mom and you got hit.”

David ducks out from underneath Jake’s arm and stands up, turning his back on Jake. “But I’m still cursed. Even after two years, I still can’t break it.” In a miserable whisper, he adds, “I don’t think I can.”

Jake stands up too, but doesn’t move otherwise. “I don’t believe that,” he says. “David - what if something got screwed up with the curse as it deflected?”

David turns around and stares at him. “What?”

“What if the curse got screwed up when it deflected? Magic’s weird, and curses are weirder. They aren’t always predictable. Or that’s what Stephen says, anyway. My buddy’s buddy who’s good with magic,” Jake explains when David looks blank.

“What if it didn’t?” David asks. Jake shrugs.

“It might not have, but still - I think it might be a good idea to get Stephen to take a look at it. He’s really good with magic,” he says when David looks hesitant. “He might even be able to just take it off, I don’t know - but no matter what he’ll have a suggestion.”

David still seems hesitant, but Jake thinks he looks hopeful underneath that. “I guess it couldn’t hurt,” he says, and Jake grins in relief.

“Let me go get Dave and I’ll call him now,” he says, and dashes off before David can change his mind.

“It pains me to say this, but I think Jake was right.”

Kiro turns to look at Emily, who is huddled with him just outside the door to the library, where Davidson vanished with Jake’s friend Stephen. “What was Jake right about?” he asks, and she shushes him.

“Lesson spells in particular are super unpredictable, because you have to set really specific conditions for them to break, but the spell itself has to be almost sentient, because lessons don’t look the same for all people, and the caster doesn’t want to stick around to micromanage. Well, most of the time, anyway. So this,” there’s a shuffling sound, like a chair scooting on carpet. “If I had to guess, this spell was supposed to bounce around off of any deflector charms, getting stronger as it went, until it could break through. You said you’re the only one there who wasn’t wearing one?”

“Probably,” Davidson says after a moment’s thought. “They were my mother’s colleagues. They would have been issued deflector charms.”

Stephen makes a noise of disgust. “Sloppy,” he mutters, and there’s some more shuffling around. “And you said the wording was ‘learn to love someone more than you love yourself?’”

“Yes,” Davidson says and Kiro frowns, because if that is the curse, Davidson should have broken it in about a second.

“Huh.” Some more shuffling, and then Stephen makes a satisfied noise. “I thought so. Hang on a second - can you see magic?”

“Sometimes,” Davidson says, sounding wary.

“Well, look here - can you see that? Those are the two variables that the spell is working from.”

A long silence, and Kiro and Emily trade glances again. Kiro desperately wants to be able to see, but he’s aware that Davidson is mortified enough that they brought in not one but two outsiders, and Kiro doesn’t want to make it worse.

“They’re inverted,” Stephen says in response to something Davidson has said or done. “So I’m pretty sure if I just - “

There’s a sudden flash of light, and a feeling like a noiseless thunderclap. The next thing Kiro knows, he’s flat on his back on the floor, panting. With a sense of mounting wonder, he looks over at Emily and finds her gorgeous, human eyes staring back at him.

David resists the urge to shove his hands in his pockets. Kiro, standing beside him, leans into his space and the hard ball that has been forming in his stomach eases a little. He turns to Kiro. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

Kiro nudges him. “Relax, Davidson,” he commands. David scowls at him, and Kiro grins. “I am sure Jacobson will be happy to see you.”

David isn’t so sure. It’s not like Jake’s tried to make contact since they thanked him and sent him home after the curse was broken two weeks ago, and David thinks that should count as a sign. Kiro and Emily and the rest of them disagree, so David is currently standing on Jake’s front doorstep, waiting for someone to answer the doorbell.

“Maybe no one’s home,” David says after they’ve been standing there for a long moment. Kiro scoffs, and reaches towards the doorbell.

“Don’t, that’s rude,” David hisses, but Kiro ignores him and rings it again. David feels a dull flush of heat start at the back of his neck and creep up the sides of his face as they finally hear someone moving in the house. The door opens, and David and Kiro are face to face with a short, curly-haired brunette, who seems deeply unimpressed with both of them.

“Hi,” Kiro says, when she just arches an eyebrow at them expectantly. “We’re here to see Jake?”

She huffs and rolls her eyes, but turns back into the house. “Jake! People to see you!”

David’s hands are clammy now, and he again resists the urge to stuff them in his pockets as footsteps sound from inside the house and Jake appears. He’s dressed in a pair of threadbare sweatpants and a tight white t-shirt and he looks sleepy and tousle-haired, like he just woke up.

He stares blankly for a moment, clearly not recognizing them, and David feels the hard ball in his stomach expand rapidly. Then his eyes widen and his face splits into a disbelieving grin. “David?”

David nods, a little jerkily, and lifts his hand in an awkward wave, but Jake ignores that and steps forward to pull him into a hug. David lets out a startled sound, but hugs back, feeling the hard ball in his stomach almost disappear.

“It’s so great to see you,” Jake says, finally stepping back and turning to smile at Kiro, who echoes David’s wave before stepping forward to hug Jake as well. “What are you guys doing here?”

David looks at Kiro, who looks back at him expectantly. David takes a deep breath and turns back to Jake, marvelling a little at how strange it is to have to look up to Jake now. He’s not sure whether or not he likes it.

“The house is almost back to normal, now - the changes the curse made have been wearing off slowly. But I thought - well, the rink is still there, and the gear room, and I was wondering - we were wondering,” he corrects himself at a nudge from Kiro. “Do you want to come and play a little pickup?”

“I’d love to,” Jake says, and turns to the woman who’s still standing there. “Tell Mom and Dad where I’ve gone, Nat?”

She sighs longsufferingly, but nods as one corner of her mouth curls up. Jake beams and pecks her on the cheek, grabbing his keys and bouncing out to meet them.

As the three of them head back towards the house, David feels something uncurl inside himself at the sound of Jake’s eager chatter and Kiro’s laughter. It feels a little bit like what he felt when Jake had brought him the skates, but deeper, somehow. He thinks it might be happiness. He smiles at both of them and lengthens his stride to keep up.