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CH. 1: a springtime witch born shouting

 


 

 

Alicia Margaret Owens is born at the end of May, the youngest of three daughters—and you know what this means. This means she ought to be the prettiest, the sweetest-tempered, the shyest, the easiest to love, the most eager to please—

Fortunate then, that she was born to a clan of witches, and witches have never held much with what ought to be.

 

 ___

 

Alicia Margaret Owens is born bald-headed and sallow-cheeked, with eyes as soft and sweet as bluebells. She is born in the last gasp of spring before it exhales exuberantly into summer’s passionate, full-lunged breath, and the stars that watch over her birth are both bright and transient. She is born with her beauty hidden, waiting to be unfurled years and years and years later, a full two decades at the very least. The only pretty thing about her is her eyes, because although beauty may hide, it cannot remain completely invisible.

Her Aunt Sarah casts a single discerning glance over her before flicking her blue-eyed Owens gaze up at Alicia’s mother.

“She’s a charmer, this one,” she pronounces, and it is true.

Aunt Sarah means it in the Owens way, though, means that any tiny bit or bob that Alicia picks up will catch the touch of her magic with ease. She means that all her words will slide like honey into the ears of anyone who listens. That heads will turn not to see her, but to hear her speak, but to catch her laugh.

Alicia Margaret Owens is not born lovely, and sweet, and eager to please.

She is born shouting. She comes into this world plain, and tart-tempered, and ready for the world to please her.

Fortunate then, that she was born to a clan of witches, who have always believed in going after what you want.

 

___

 

Alicia Margaret Owens is born the youngest of three daughters, an Owens witch through and through.

She grows up knock-kneed and squinty-eyed, with a shrill cat’s yowl for a voice that could be heard for seven miles in the summer when she put her mind to it. Her beauty stays hidden for a long, long time, and her honeyed charmer’s magic refuses to be used on either strangers or friends, so she grows up thinking she isn’t anything special. Her sisters, Amanda Mercy and Beatrice Mabel, are the pretty ones, the smart ones, the gifted ones, the ones everybody’s heads turn to look at.

They’re also the ones who took a baseball bat to Jacob Turner’s lemonade stand for calling their sister ugly and dumb. They’re the ones who pressed her between them on morning car rides to school, shoulders a bony ache where they were connected. They’re the ones who taught her all the songs, all the schoolyard rhymes, all the old aunts’ chants. They’re the ones who dragged Alicia to meadows lit by the full moon, and linked hands with her and swore oaths fierce and unbreakable—oaths of loyalty, oaths of love, oaths of sisterhood bound by both blood and soul.

Alicia Margaret Owens grows up loved.

 

___

 

Alicia Margaret Owens grows up in the sleepy town of Samwell, Massachusetts, known to locals for miles around as the town that time forgot. This isn’t entirely inaccurate—sunlight came early to Samwell, and lingered for hours long after it should’ve been dark. Spring and summer stayed their welcome for months and months, the autumn harvest stretched for an endless eternity, and the birds flew south for winter weeks past their neighbors in nearby towns. But when winter came, it fell heavy and quick, the whole town blanketed in snow, and everything so still and quiet it was like they’d all fallen asleep.

Alicia and her sisters were springtime witches, or had summer magic running strong in their veins, but Sarah Morgan Owens was a winter witch through and through. And as the acknowledged heir of the Owens coven, it was her magic that anchored the next generation’s.

Alicia grows up learning spells in deep December, frost blasting the windows and blizzards howling past the door. She learns to hum cantrips in January while her breath ghosted white, to whisper charms with icicles hanging outside the window in February, and put together a potion in five minutes flat, or wing it with a confident shrug if the listed ingredients weren’t on hand, thanks to the snow being eight feet deep outside.

Alicia Owens grows up a springtime sorceress under the watchful eye of a winter witch. Is it any small wonder that she’ll fall in love with a man who makes his living on the ice?

 

___

 

Alicia Owens’ magic blooms like a rash of golden poppies the spring she turns fourteen. One April afternoon, she simply smiles and opens her mouth, and the voice that could once peel paint off the walls comes out smooth and rich as caramel glaze instead.

Seventeen different people walk into doors, trip over air, or even crash their bikes into a nearby pond because they were too busy turning their heads to listen to her laugh as she walked by.

Alicia Owens is no beauty, not yet, but fourteen is the year she comes into her own.

 

___

 

The eldest of the Owens girls, Amanda is all sense and practicality. Her magic manifests itself as a knack for finding things, and she settles down in Ithaca, New York, at age twenty-two. She’s a sought-after research librarian, academics and lawyers banging on her door at all hours, though they are a tad more polite about it after the rudest one had howling dogs nipping at his heels for a week. 

Beatrice, the middle girl, specializes in both glamor and in glamours—at twenty-one, she’s working as a make-up artist for a theatre company in Boston. Her uncanny ability to grant beauty with a touch of her brush, or horror with a twist of her hand, or drama with the slow, easy line of her black pencil is enough to ensure that she is never without a job.

Alicia comes and visits Bea for the summer when she is all of nineteen, young and plain-faced and effortlessly friendly. She charms the crew within one hour of arrival. She charms the cast within half an hour.

The director swears he’s madly in love within five minutes.

Alicia Owens lands her first supporting role at nineteen, nothing but squinty eyes and frizzy hair and a voice like a sudden July lightning storm.

By the time the summer’s over, she’s nothing but bold, blue eyes and gorgeous, blond hair and a confidence that sizzles like city pavements in August. She’s still the supporting actress, but everybody tells her that soon she’ll be a star.

Alicia Owens throws her head back and laughs, says sure, why not? Acting’s been fun so far, let’s see how far she gets.

(Alicia’s not worried; she knows who she is.

An Owens witch is an Owens witch is an Owens witch for always. Whatever she may do, whomever she might become, she will always be an Owens witch first.)

 

___

 

Alicia Owens becomes an ’80s celebrity—she stars in a half-dozen movies, most of them rom-coms, though frankly she always has more fun in theatre. She turns twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, each year becoming more and more beautiful, all her saved-up glory finally spilling over. Between her pretty blue eyes and her charmer’s voice, she’s never without an adoring public should she want it. There are articles about her, magazine spreads, wild, wild rumors—whenever she’s asked about them, she just winks and smiles, all candid humor.

“You know,” she says, putting just a hint of magic into her words, “people will say the funniest things.” And she’ll laugh, and the person asking will laugh, and all the snide whispers saying that she’s a slut, she’s a whore, she’s slept her way to the top—

Well. They don’t disappear, not really—there’s never going to be enough magic for that—but they do stop reaching her ears or the ears of anyone around her. And the paparazzi never are able to find her house or the houses of any friends she stays with. And the tabloid photographers never do manage to get a clear shot of her—not even a picture of her getting out of her car or shopping at the grocery store; all the photos come out blurry. And she never does have a misstep or a mishap or an awkward moment while on the red carpet—she may be a little dorky sometimes, but she always comes across as warm and funny and absolutely enchanting.  

Alicia Owens opens her mouth, and the world falls over backward trying to please her.

 

___ 

 

Alicia meets people sometimes. People who, when they grasp her fingers in a handshake, will look at her in surprise and sudden recognition. She’ll look back and give the tiniest of nods, then glance at the nearest corner, or balcony, or restroom door, and meet with them within a few minutes to exchange information.

“I didn’t know you were an Owens witch,” they’ll say when she names her coven, a touch of awe and fear in their voices. They’ll be very careful not to touch her again, keeping a polite but definite distance.

Alicia nods and keeps her hands tucked against her elbows. She understands.

She’s an Owens witch, after all, and everyone knows the Owens witches are cursed.

 

___

 

It doesn’t start out as a curse, not exactly, but that’s what it ends up as.

The story goes like this:

See, once upon a time, Martha Prudence Owens strode calmly into Samwell, Massachusetts, with a black doctor’s bag in the crook of one arm and a baby in the other.

There wasn’t a husband to be seen.

You can imagine the whispers that started the second she stepped foot within town limits. Puritans were many things, but kind wasn’t one of them, and Martha Owens and her daughter were snubbed their whole lives long. The townspeople came to burn down their house seven times in the course of five decades, and each time, Martha Owens stepped out onto her front porch and froze them where they stood. She stopped them with nothing but the steel in her ice-blue eyes—the Owens eyes, the eyes every descendent of hers would inherit for three hundred years after.

“Stop,” she would say, and their knees would lock.

“Enough,” she would say, and the torches would go out.

“Go home,” she would say, and their feet would turn around and take them home—sometimes to the wrong houses, it was true, but always to the place their hearts would call home. It made for a few angry conversations, to be sure.

Martha Owens did this seven times, and her house is still standing. It is the third oldest house in all of Samwell, and the oldest house—and for a long time the only house—on Magnolia Lane.

(Living near witches has always been considered a dicey business, not much helped by the constant need for fire insurance.)

 

___

 

Martha Owens had one daughter, and she loved her more than life itself. Loved her more than the spite that was the only other thing that got her out of bed some mornings. Loved her more than the beat of her heart, than the touch of sunlight on her brow, than a cool glass of water on a hot summer’s evening.

Martha Owens had one daughter, and she loved her more than she loved her own magic, but her daughter wasn’t the only one she loved more than anything.

No, that love was shared with one man, and one man alone. The man who had fathered Emily Mary Owens, but refused to be a father to her. The man who hid another woman’s ring in his pocket when he held Martha Owens’ hand. The man whom she grew to hate as much as she loved him, but never did manage to stop loving.

It was enough to drive a body to madness, but Martha Owens never held much weight with that.

That love—that hate—that man drove her to magic instead.

One day, Martha Owens braided up her black and silver hair, and cut it all off. She gathered the latest noose the town mob had tried to hang her with, a few twigs from the tallest tree for ten miles around, and the first tooth her daughter ever lost. She took all these things and she went to the woods, patting Emily’s cheek before she went.

“Don’t ever fall in love,” she warned, the same way some mothers said to cross yourselves before you cross the street.

“I won’t,” Emily lied, easy as blinking.

Martha Owens nodded and went to the woods to get rid of the love that had been plaguing her for nigh on twenty years at that point.

 

___

 

In a forest clearing just outside of Samwell, Massachusetts, Martha Owens performed the strongest spell of her life, the magnum opus of her magical career—no mean feat when one was as powerful as she was. She was the strongest colonial witch in all of Massachusetts at that point, and would be acknowledged as such for fifty years after she died.

It was said that Martha Owens called Death to her side, a spell so difficult most witches didn’t even survive getting halfway through it.

She did, and she finished it, too, though her hair turned silver as moonlight afterwards, and would stay so for the rest of her life.

Martha Owens summoned Death to her side, and she told Her to take her love from her—her strongest love, the love she bore for a man she hated.

Family legend holds that Death nodded and agreed, but that Martha Owens didn’t quite succeed—not in the way she planned.

You see, she wanted to get rid of the feelings of love.

She got rid of the man instead. 

 

___

 

As soon as the spell was completed, Death pulled out Her pocket-watch, and Martha Owens could hear it ticking, ticking, ticking.

Martha Owens sucked in a breath and held it until the sound stopped.

Fifteen miles away, at that exact moment, the sorry excuse for a human being Martha Owens had fallen in love with one October evening fell to the ground, dead of a heart that just stopped beating.

 

___

 

And so it was that the curse began: anyone who dared fall in love with an Owens mage, and had that love returned whole-heartedly, was marked for Death, sure as the sun sets in the west.

 

___

 

By the time Alicia Owens is born, the family has figured out most ways to manage the curse:

  1. Do not fall in love.
  2. If you fall in love, make sure the other person does not love you back.
  3. If you fall in love and the other person returns your love, make sure that you love something else more, or that they love something else more.
  4. If you fall in love and the other person returns your love, and the both of you love each other more than anything else…then separate as soon as you hear the ticking start. Put your lover on a ship to another country. Hop on a train that crosses the continent. Get a horse and ride as far and as fast as you can, and pray that the ticking slows and fades, for if it does, then it means your lover still lives. Pray that the ticking does not hold steady. Pray that the ticking does not grow louder. Pray that the ticking does not haunt you night and day, until finally it cuts off, and silence is your only companion, for if it does, it means that you have failed. It means your love has killed your lover, and there is nothing to be done but mourn them.
  5. Do not fall in love. Do not fall in love. Do not fall in love.

 

___

 

Aunt Sarah sticks to the second method, Beatrice the first, while most of their cousins attempt the third and somewhat succeed. Amanda, unfortunately, must abide by the fourth, keeping an ocean between her and her Liza, and meeting but for a single day once every other year.  

Alicia’s mother tried the third and failed. Jack Anthony MacGregor died when Alicia was three. She has his smile, but no memories of learning it from him.

Alicia resolves to stick to methods one and five, and calls it a day.

 

___

 

Then she meets Bob Zimmermann.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 2: the winter prince, he wears a crown of silver

 


 

 

Jack Owens is born Jack Laurent Zimmermann, hockey royalty, the son of a four-time Stanley Cup winner, Bad Bob’s only beloved child.

Jack Owens is born Jack Laurent Zimmermann, Alicia Margaret’s son, the first warlock born to the Owens clan in seventy years. He is born thrice-blessed, a summer child with summer’s bounty hung heavy round his neck.

Amanda Owens sucks in a breath when she first holds him, his magic humming sharp and steady beneath his skin, sparking when it meets her own and causing him to howl in irked surprise.

“If he’d been a girl, he’d lead the coven after me,” Amanda murmurs, meeting Alicia’s exhausted but proud gaze.

“What, really?” Bob says, astonished, just a bit too loud, and Jack cries harder. Amanda holds him with practiced ease and whispers a charm into his ears to dampen the noise. Poor thing, she thinks with mingled pity and amusement. Nice and warm and safe just a few hours ago, but here you are now, out in the world, and already it’s too much.

“He’s got good senses,” Amanda states, recognizing the trait inherited from back when witches and hunters intermarried freely—Jack will have sharp eyes, a keen nose, ears that can hear the softest footfall in the woods.

Beatrice comes closer, peering at her nephew over her sister’s shoulder. “He’s got a touch of foresight,” she proclaims.

Bob’s brows draw together in confusion. “Uh—”

“He’ll be clairvoyant,” Bea elaborates. “Just a little, mind you. It might get stronger as he gets older, but he’ll get little flashes of the future if he concentrates.”   

“Useful, that,” Amanda says, rocking him. She brings him closer to Alicia, so that she can look upon her child.

Alicia stretches out a hand and touches her son’s soft, round cheek. “He’s a truthseer,” she says quietly. “We haven’t had one of those since Great-Aunt Lucia.”

Amanda sighs. “Less useful, that.” She flicks her gaze up at Bob. “You’ll have to be careful—he’ll be able to tell lies from truth, so watch what you say.”

Bob Zimmermann looks at the trio of witches watching him and swallows hard, feeling thoroughly out of his depth. But this is what he signed up for when he married Alicia, so he squares his shoulders and nods.

“I’ll do my best,” he promises, and he does.

(If only best intentions were always enough.)

 

___

 

Jack Zimmermann grows up hockey royalty, his first memory the feel of blades on his feet, his father’s hands holding his, the ice perfect and waiting for him. He grows up spending every moment he can dressed in padding and skating in rinks, on frozen ponds, anywhere and everywhere he can. He grows up chasing pucks like they’re his only friends, talking plays and strategy like they’re the only language he knows, feeling free and weightless only when he’s on the ice.

Off the ice is…a different story.

Jack is awkward. He is fat and ugly and doesn’t know how to talk to people to make them like him. He is clumsy and graceless when not on skates, self-consciously bulky when everybody’s out of padding, and ridiculously tongue-tied when it comes to discussing anything besides hockey. He’s inherited none of Bob’s easy friendliness or natural charisma, and none of Alicia’s confident poise or effortless charm.

His gifts do not help him, either—his sharp senses mean that everything’s too loud, or that everything is equally loud and he has no idea what to focus on. Means his clothes chafe against his skin, means the slightest movement in the corner of his eye will distract him, means that smells will linger in his nose for hours and cause pounding headaches.

His clairvoyance results in him answering questions that haven’t been asked yet, reacting to events a few seconds before they actually happen, and unfortunately warning a few people of upcoming mishaps, who then do not heed his warnings, suffer said mishaps, and then proceed to blame him for causing them when all he was trying to do in the first place was help.

And his truth-telling abilities…well. Pointing out the truth at inconvenient times, exposing figures in authority—such as teachers, coaches, the chronically philandering father of one of his teammates—as liars, and consistently and constantly poking holes in any cover story offered after the dishonesty has been revealed does not a popular Jack Zimmermann make.

“Michael said he hates me,” Jack tells his father, all of seven years old, coming home from the last birthday party he will ever be invited to for the next nine years. Michael is the teammate with the philandering father, who came to the party smelling of Peter’s mother’s perfume. You can imagine the furor that resulted when Jack shared this information when Michael’s mother was in the room.

Bob rushes to reassure him: “Oh, I’m sure that’s not—”

Jack’s eyes meets his in the rearview mirror, and Bob’s mouth snaps shut, remembering Amanda’s warning.

“You’ll make plenty of friends later on,” he says instead, firmly. “Good friends.”

Jack squints at him. “You’re not lying,” he pronounces.

“Of course I’m not,” Bob Zimmermann replies, indignant. It has taken him work to be the kind of parent who doesn’t lie outright and still manages to have his son believe in both Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, he’ll have you know.

(The Easter Bunny was a lost cause from the start. They didn’t even try with that one.)

Jack frowns. “But it doesn’t sound completely true, either.”

Bob isn’t sure how Jack’s truth-telling gift manifests itself—hell, he isn’t entirely sure how Alicia’s gift manifests itself, and apparently hers is one of the more common ones. Jack’s last gift is as rare and as complicated as it gets, the definition of “truth” being murky at the best of times and downright opaque at the worst. Jack’s perception of truth is rather unfortunately affected by both circumstance and intention, objective statements of fact being hard to distinguish from subjective statements of opinion, not that Bob can blame him.

A jealous classmate yelling, “You’re stupid!” can be pronounced a lie; one hockey mother saying to another, “That Zimmermann boy isn’t very bright, is he?” will sound true to Jack, even if it’s not.

Bob Zimmermann is as mundane as they come (unlike some people he knows), and he may not know exactly how this magic stuff works, but he knows his son. He says, with complete confidence, “Of course not—that’s because it hasn’t happened yet. It’ll sound true when it does.”

Bob breathes out a silent sigh of relief when Jack takes this statement and nods, content.

(Sometimes good intentions are enough.)

 

___

 

Alicia Owens worries for her son—she knows what it’s like to grow up the ugly duckling, but it never hit her as hard. She had her sisters, who told her every day that she was strong, she was gorgeous, she was going to take the world by storm. She had her mother, her aunts, her cousins, her grandmother and great-aunts and great-great-aunts, a whole clan of women who’d been shrugging off insults, ignoring funny looks, and defying societal conventions in a family tradition dating back two hundred years, and they taught her to do the same. She had her magic, bright and steady within her, a gift instead of a burden.

Jack…Jack doesn’t have that.

So Alicia sets out to give it to him. Every summer, every winter vacation, every spring break, Alicia Owens will take her son and bring him back home with her.

Oh, he will still be ostracized, yes. He’ll still have people stare and whisper behind his back, he’ll still have the weight of a thousand expectations leveled on his shoulders, but Jack will tug on his cousin Gabrielle May’s hand and have her dismissively reply to pay them no mind, the townspeople have always been boring weirdos like that, and wouldn’t know a real familiar from a regular cat if one came up and bit them.

Jack will spend his summers reading spellbooks and catching starlight for use in potions. He will spend weeks in spring learning his herbs and tending gardens full of magic. He will spend his winters making charms and stirring cauldrons side by side with Gabrielle May, Claire Marie, and Sylvia Maxine, Great-Aunt Sarah’s December magic grounding them all. He’ll learn the family lore at Aunt Jenny’s knee, peer at Martha Owens’ silver-haired portrait in the front hall, and idly imagine what ingredients you would need to summon Death to your side.

In Samwell, Jack is not known as the Zimmermann wunderkind, but as that Owens boy—see him there, he’s got those eerie blue eyes, same as the rest of ’em. Jack grows up strong in magic, his summer-blessings waxing in power year by year until his gift rivals Gabby’s, who’s the strongest of their generation. He grows up meeting his own kind when out and about, and not even needing to shake hands with them for them to know him for what he is, a warlock through and through.

“That Owens boy,” they’ll murmur, and Jack will nod back, solemn-faced but secretly pleased.

That Owens boy, indeed.

___

 

Jack Laurent Zimmermann grows up admired and envied and always, always alone.

Jack, the Owens boy, grows up adored and protected and a bit of a loner, true, but that’s because he needs space for his big thoughts, isn’t that right, Jackie?

Jack, the Owens boy, will look up from whatever book he’s reading and smile, small and real, and answer with complete confidence, “Yes, that’s true.”

Jack, the Owens boy, grows up loved.

 

___

 

And then Jack Laurent Zimmermann turns ten years old.

His mother picks him up from hockey practice, humming underneath her breath, absent-minded. His father is at the golf course, his third-favorite place to be now that he’s retired, and able to stay close to his son.

Able to stay close to his wife, an Owens witch with Owens magic.

Jack is ten years old when his mother stops humming at a red light, her voice cutting short.

“Do you hear that?” she says, a furrow between her brows.

Jack looks at her, confused, and shakes his head. He has very good hearing, better than hers by far, and he doesn’t hear anything. He expects that to be the end of it.

It’s not.

“It’s…it sounds like someone tapping on a window,” Alicia says, distracted. “Don’t you hear it?”

Jack swallows, his mouth suddenly dry. “You mean…like ticking?” he asks.

Their ice-blue eyes lock onto each other, and Alicia immediately swerves the car, getting onto the nearest highway as soon as possible.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she says, her foot heavy on the pedal.

“Your father loves hockey so much, I knew he’d be safe the moment we met,” she says, setting a swift course out of Montréal by taking whatever highway looks the emptiest.

“If anything were to happen, it would’ve happened before you were born,” she says, continuing to talk as the numbers on the odometer climb and climb.

“Are you sure you can’t hear it? I think—I think it must be getting slower now, don’t you? Fading? It must be. It can’t be getting louder, we’re so far away now,” she says, her hands gripping the steering wheel, white-knuckled.

“It wouldn’t make sense for anything to happen,” she says, her Owens-blue eyes darting from the windows to Jack, sitting tense and silent beside her. “Not so suddenly. We’d—we’d get a warning, wouldn’t we? Amanda got a warning. Your grandmother didn’t, but she didn’t start running as soon as she heard it. We did. We got out of town as soon as it started.” Jack doesn’t reply.

“I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sure this is all a big mistake. And even if it’s not, then we’ll just be like Amanda and Liza. No big deal. No—no problem at all. We love each other so much, it wouldn’t be any—” She snaps her mouth shut.

“I don’t love him that much,” she says three hours later, her hands pressed over her ears. She’s huddled in the driver’s seat, their car stopped on the side of the road, out of gas. “Surely not that much. He’s—he’s a terrible person, he snores all the time, he always leaves the goddamn toilet seat up, he—oh, God, please no, please no, I don’t love him that much, I don’t—”

 

___

 

Jack knows the exact moment the ticking stops, because that’s the moment his mother stops lying and starts screaming instead.

 

___

 

Bob Zimmermann dies on a muggy September evening. The cause is officially listed as a traffic accident—a drunk driver running a red light at a crosswalk. He never saw it coming.

But Jack and his mother know better. They know what really killed him.

“Don’t fall in love, Jack,” his mother whispers at the funeral. “Don’t you ever fall in love.”

Jack looks at the coffin and promises that he won’t.

 

___

 

They move to Samwell, after. Alicia Margaret Owens goes back to the place that raised her, and lets herself be swallowed up by her mother’s welcoming, too-empathetic embrace.

“Oh, baby,” Theresa Maeve Owens says, such aching understanding in her voice that Jack shudders to hear it. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”

“He wasn’t supposed to love me more,” Alicia says, ashen-faced and empty-eyed. “He wasn’t—this wasn’t supposed to happen. Hockey was supposed to come first. He said, he promised me—”

“Oh, baby,” Jack’s grandmother says, and she doesn’t say anything more. 

 

___

 

Jack Zimmermann decides to become Jack Owens after the fifth time his mother cries washing his jersey, her face pressed to the fabric like she’s searching for absolution.

It goes better than he thinks it will—without his father’s name on his back, people seem to forget who he is. Bad Bob’s shadow no longer hangs so heavy, and Jack feels a terrible sense of guilt that the biggest effect of forsaking his father’s name is to make his own life easier.

“He wouldn’t have minded,” Aunt Bea assures him, then frowns. “Well, not much,” she amends.

The worry in Jack’s chest eases some to hear no lie in her words. ‘Not much’ sounds like his father, sounds like the truth.

Then the next day, Claire and Sylvia make him take pictures with them, the Owens name proudly on display on each of their backs—Jack for hockey, Sylvie for volleyball, and Claire for soccer, their matching ice-blue eyes glinting with joy as they smile at the camera in Gabby’s hands.

The picture is framed on the mantel in the old Owens house. Jack breathes free and easy anytime he sees it.

 

___

 

For all the distance the townspeople keep, there sure are a lot of them that turn up at the house at all hours of the night.

“Another love potion?” an eleven-year-old Jack will ask with considerable disgust. “Why do they always ask for that?”

“Because mundanes think magic solves everything,” Gabby will answer absent-mindedly. She looks at herself critically in the mirror, a serious student of magic at fourteen years of age. “Do you think this glamour is working?”

“You need more spider-webs,” Jack will say. He knocks his heels against the back-porch steps of his Aunt Heather’s house, eyeing the lamp-lit windows across the street where George Clancy is hiding furtively behind the curtains in the old Owens manor. Nearly every house on Magnolia Lane is an Owens house, but the only one that matters to the mundanes is the first, the oldest, the house that was Martha Owens’ home.

“Don’t worry, you know Great-Aunt Sarah won’t give him what he wants,” Gabby says, dusting her sleeves with ashes, and this is true. Owens witches don’t hold with the kind of potions that force “love” into existence—most “love potions” they give out are confidence spells instead, little glamours that draw the eye, or charms that help tongue-tied suitors spout poems as needed.

They’ve had to get the cats to chase out a few customers who didn’t appreciate the difference, but by and large most of their patrons leave content.

Doesn’t mean that Jack won’t judge them for asking in the first place. Who’s stupid enough to try and mix love and magic? Just look at what that did to every Owens child born with the gift.

Just look what that did to his mother.

Jack turns away from the windows and helps draw the runes on the soles of Gabby’s shoes, deliberately putting his back to all that nonsense and concentrating on real magic instead.

 

___

 

Gabby’s first boyfriend is dead at sixteen of a lightning strike, and she’s inconsolable for months after.

By the time she’s twenty-five, she’ll have buried no less than three of her sweethearts.

Jack will go with her to each of their funerals, and accompany her home after.

“Why?” she’ll ask him, hollow-eyed. “Why?”

Jack won’t have the answers.

 

___

 

Practical-minded Jack decides he won’t ever end up like his mother, or his aunts, or any other members of his family who’ve ended up heartbroken from too much love.

At twelve years old, he takes matters into his own hands, and pulls one of the oldest books from the shelves, blowing the dust off its cover. He shouldn’t be attempting spells of this level until he’s sixteen, but Jack knows himself. Jack knows how magic thrums and rushes beneath his skin, more potent than the moonshine Aunt Bea brews.

He takes the book and gathers the ingredients. He reads the instructions carefully, completing them step by methodical step.

When the moon is a waning crescent high in the sky, Jack Zimmermann will prick the third finger of his left hand with a shard of glass and tell the stars:

“My true love will have hair the color of yellow apples,” and he will take a bite from the forbidden fruit, juice running down his chin.

“My true love will have eyes the color of good, strong whiskey,” and he will take a sip straight from the bottle, hacking up a cough right afterwards.

“My true love will be exactly five feet and six-and-a-half inches tall,” and he will chew a leaf from a tree of that same height.

“My true love will have a voice that’s a slow, honeyed drawl,” and he will dip his finger in a jar of the last of Aunt Jenny’s summer honey and place it in his mouth.

“My true love will be as sweet as sugar and sharp as lemon,” and he will drink half a glass of Great-Aunt Cathy’s lemonade, waiting until the last dregs of sugar hit his tongue.

“My true love will talk to cats and dogs and inanimate objects as if they were people,” and he will inhale the ashes of the hair of a cat, the hair of a dog, and a letter to a friend.

“My true love will know all the words to my favorite song,” and he will sing it to the stars, soft French filling the clearing where Martha Owens once asked Death to take her love from her.

“Hear me, blood of my blood, bones of my bones,” Jack Zimmermann will whisper to the locket that holds Martha Owens’ silver hair. In his right hand will be a photo of his father. “Bring my true love home to me. Bring him when the tenth month dies. Bring him on the day the sun forgets to rise. And if a single one of these things is not to be, then let it be known—my true love shall not be he.”

Jack Zimmermann will bleed onto black stone and swallow a flame whole, and by the time sunrise and his mother find him, he’ll have finished the spell.

 

___

 

“A summoning! What were you thinking, you reckless child!” Great-Aunt Sarah rages. “You could have been killed!”

“I knew what I was doing,” Jack says, certain as only a twelve-year-old can be.

“You foolish boy, you have no idea the forces you’re tampering with,” she says. “The danger to you, not to mention the one you summoned—”

“They’re not real,” Jack interrupts.

Great-Aunt Sarah pauses. “What?”

“I cast a true love’s summoning—and if my true love isn’t real, then they won’t ever be in danger, will they?” Jack replies stubbornly. “And neither will anybody else.”

Great-Aunt Sarah looks at him with knowing Owens eyes. “My boy,” she says, hard-earned wisdom in every syllable, “love doesn’t work that way. Especially not the love of an Owens warlock.”

Jack Owens sets his jaw and turns his face to the wall. He does not heed her words.

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 3: the rogue brings three years of perfect summer

 


 

 

Jack Owens grows up loving hockey, but he loves magic more—he’s his mother’s son first, his father’s second. When his Uncle Mario comes to visit him the summer he turns sixteen, Jack laughs when he asks if he’ll try for the CHL.

“No,” he says, shaking his head. He smiles his father’s smile. “Leave Samwell and my mother? No, thank you, I’m fine playing on my high school team.”

Uncle Mario frowns. “You sure, son?”

“I’m sure,” Jack answers. To comfort him, he adds, “I’m planning on playing in college, too, you know. The university team here is pretty good.”

“If you say so,” Uncle Mario says doubtfully. He hesitates, then gives Jack a St. Christopher’s medal.

Jack blinks. “What’s this for?”

“A good luck charm,” Uncle Mario says cryptically. “So you won’t forget your love for the game.”

Jack shrugs and takes it.

 

___

 

The next day, Jack travels with his mother to Ithaca, New York, to spend the rest of their summer with Aunt Amanda. He spends the car ride fiddling with the medal. His mother sees and presses her lips together, but doesn’t comment; Alicia lost most of her love for the game the day Bob died, and spent Uncle Mario’s visit holding herself apart.

Uncle Mario is one of theirs, the nephew of a witch, and he’d warned Bob what it would mean to marry an Owens woman. But Bad Bob had only laughed, certain Alicia would never love him best, would always love her magic or her sisters more. Alicia hasn’t quite forgiven Mario for not warning her that Bob had already put her before hockey years and years ago.

Jack understands. He doesn’t blame her.

“So…everything went okay?” she asks.

“Mmhm,” he answers.

“And you—”

“Still staying home,” he says firmly.

Alicia breathes a sigh of relief.

 

___

 

The first few days of the visit are largely without incident. Aunt Amanda teaches him a few book-finding spells that he’ll probably be using a lot come September, but other than that, things are idyllic.

Then one day, as he’s lying on a blanket in a nearby park, calmly reading a book on World War I, his foresight kicks in—

A blond boy running backwards won’t see him, and will trip on Jack’s legs and fall onto his stomach.

“Oh, shit, man,” he’ll say, and he’ll place a warm hand on Jack’s hip and smile, sheepish and charming. “Didn’t see you there, sorry—”

Jack will sit up. “No problem,” he’ll say stiffly. “Let me just—I’ll get going.”

“No, bro, totally my fault,” the boy will say, and hold out his hand to pull Jack up. “Uh, my name’s Kent Parson. And you?”

Jack will hesitate. “I’m Jack Owens,” he’ll say.

Jack blinks, and a blond boy runs backward, doesn’t see him, and trips and falls onto Jack’s stomach.

“Oh, shit, man,” the boy says.

“You’re Kent Parson,” Jack answers, already thirty seconds ahead.

The boy—Kent Parson, soon to be of Rimouski Océanic, not that Jack knows this yet—blinks and blushes. Jack feels the sudden swoop of attraction low in his gut, and becomes uncomfortably aware of Parson’s hand planted on his hip, his lean body lying across Jack’s flabby stomach.

“Uh, yeah,” Kent Parson says, “I am.” He scratches at his nose, still tangled up with Jack. “Does my reputation precede me? ’Cause like, you totally shouldn’t believe anything Woofer or any of the guys say about me, they’re full of shit and I would never deface public property, not even for a dare, so—”

Jack barks a laugh, hearing the ringing of a humorous lie, and Kent Parson’s mouth snaps closed.

Now it’s Jack’s turn to blush. “Sorry,” he says.

“Nah, man, don’t be.” Parson tilts his head to the side and considers him. “So, do you have a name?”

“Jack Owens,” Jack replies, no hesitation at all.

 

___

 

Jack and—“Parse, call me Parse, everybody does—well, except for my ma, but you know how moms can be”—Jack and Parse become surprisingly fast friends. Well, surprisingly for Jack. He hasn’t really had any friends his own age that weren’t cousins, or cats, or ravens, or Aunt Jenny’s lone ferret familiar in…well, ever, really.

Parse is almost sixteen years old. Parse’s birthday is on the 4th of July. Parse likes eating tuna sandwiches and feeding the crusts to the ducks at the park where they met. Parse knows how to pick locks with paper clips, how to open doors with credit cards, how to break into his own apartment using eight separate methods. Parse is also extremely forgetful and loses his keys on a regular basis, which probably explains the aforementioned set of skills. Parse knows how to drive stick-shift and has a seventh-hand Ford whose shotgun seat is soon reserved for Jack. Parse likes going to the public library in the summers for the air conditioning (and also the comics, but Jack has to tail him to find that out).

Parse plays hockey. Parse is a left winger who’s been drafted by Rimouski Océanic. Parse will spend hours and hours and hours playing hockey with Jack, or talking strategy, or watching tape.

Parse likes Jack. He thinks Jack is cool. He thinks Jack is funny. He thinks Jack is awesome. He thinks Jack is “the greatest, the best friend I’ve ever had, man, we should hang like this every summer.”

Parse smiles when he says this, and Jack has to look at the ground and blink five times in rapid succession to keep the burning from his eyes, because it’s real, it’s true, Parse said it and Jack didn’t hear a single lie in his voice.

It’s exciting, and fun, and new, and would be the best thing that ever happened to him, if it weren’t also for the fact that accompanying his newfound feelings of friendship are incredibly embarrassing and hopelessly ardent feelings of attraction and carnal lust. 

Parse says, “I like you, Owens,” and Jack thinks, wistful, full of pent-up longing, Not the way I like you.

 

___

 

After Jack sleeps over at Parse’s—not like that, of course it’s not like that, Parse isn’t queer and Jack knows that, honest—

(and even if he was, Jack knows what he looks like; he’s the fat best friend, he’s not the kind of guy that’ll get somebody like Kent Parson looking twice at him)

—Jack’s mom insists that they repay the invitation, and has him invite Parse over.

It’s simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen to Jack. On the one hand, more time with Parse. More time with Parse in his bedroom. More time with Parse sitting in his bedroom, on his bed, with their shoulders brushing.

On the other hand, Parse in his bedroom, leaving that sharp, almost tangy musk of his on everything he touches, the scent of him lingering in Jack’s house, Jack’s bedroom for days. On the other hand, Parse sitting next to him, on his bed, as Jack desperately recites hockey stats and history dates to keep from getting an erection when Parse will inevitably throw an arm over his shoulders, or start a pillow fight, or initiate the kind of constant physical contact that Jack both loves and is deathly afraid to ask for.

It’s…a lot.

Jack sits through an excruciating dinner with his mother and Aunt Amanda, Parse across from him and nudging his leg every two minutes with his foot. Jack wonders what he did to deserve this, and wonders if he wants to know so he can avoid repeating it and thus prevent this from ever happening again, or so he can do it again and ensure that this is a regular occurrence.

Parse’s toes caress his ankle, and Jack is abruptly certain he’s praying for the latter. 

 

___

 

After they wash the dishes, Parse wanders up to the guest bedroom that’s been assigned to Jack while they stay here at Aunt Amanda’s. Jack is about to follow after him when his mother grabs his arm and says, “Jack.” Her voice is layered with the strength of her gift, and Jack turns his head automatically, caught. That doesn’t mean he has to like it, though.

It doesn’t mean he has to listen.

“What, Maman?” he says, annoyed. He’s sixteen and an idiot, and he wants to go hang out with Parse, not listen to yet another lecture from his mother about not getting too attached to anybody.

He’s careful, okay? He’s never going to love anything more than he loves magic or hockey, and he’s pretty sure nobody’s going to fall in love with him at all, so it’ll be fine.

(Parse is 5’8” in bare feet. His eyes are every color under the sun, and Jack has seen them change hue three times in one hour—they’re only whiskey brown when he’s tired, or unhappy, and Jack’s made it his mission that Parse is never unhappy. Parse talks too fast for his voice to be considered a drawl, and he talks to himself more often than he talks to inanimate objects—though, yes, Jack has caught him talking to cats. He might be blond, and he might be sweet, and he might be tart as citrus, but he’s the blond of ripened corn. He’s the sweetness of sticky, messy caramel. He’s the bite of lime and salt before the burn of alcohol.

He’s not Jack’s true love, and so he’s safe, okay? He’s safe.

Jack’s not going to let anything happen to him.)

“That boy,” his mother says, and Jack stiffens, looks away.

“It’s not like that, Maman,” he says, knowing full well his cheeks are flushed and giving him away.

Alicia Zimmermann pauses and looks closer. “Alright,” she says carefully, letting the subject drop, and Jack has a second or two to be grateful before she says, “Kent Parson is one of ours.”

 

___

 

Jack hangs out with Parse in his room, half in a daze, and can’t believe he didn’t see it.

Parse isn’t like Jack—not the son of a witch, not a warlock in his own right. He’s a slantwise son, a descendent of a child who didn’t inherit the gift, or a product of a union between a gifted and a mundane. Whatever his ancestry, it means he doesn’t have more than a touch of magic, can’t work any craft besides his single gift.

But now that he knows what to look for, Jack can feel it in his hands when Parse touches him. He can hear it in his voice when Parse speaks, like the flash of silver, a weight to his words that Jack has heard often enough in his mother’s.

“He’s a charmer, that one,” Aunt Amanda had seconded, and she meant it in the Owens way, the magic way.

Jack sits on his hands and wonders if Parse knew about him. If he’s been telling half-truths all this time, pretending, and Jack was just too blind to see.

Parse sits backwards on Jack’s desk chair so that he can rest his chin along the back of it, and gestures with his hands as he talks. For once, Jack doesn’t want to listen.

“Did you know?” Jack asks, interrupting him.

Parse blinks. “Did I know what now?” he asks, nonplussed.

Jack scowls. “Don’t play dumb.”

Parse laughs, but Jack can hear the edge of nervousness in it. His stomach sinks. “Owens, what the hell? I’m not playing dumb, man.”

He’s lying. He’s lying to him.

“You’re lying,” Jack says, wanting to howl when he hears it, the first serious lie Parse has told him to his face and expected him to believe. “You knew. You know. You know about me.”

Parse’s face says it all. “I’m sorry, man. I just—well, fuck, dude, I have seen your mom, okay? She’s kinda famous. My mom’s a huge fan of hers, of course I’m going to know that she was married to Bad Bob Zimmermann. And, like, no offense, but you really look like your dad.”

Jack stares at him, feeling like his whole world’s been flipped upside down. “Wait, what?” he says.

Parse takes off his snapback and runs an anxious hand through his hair. “Sorry I pretended not to know that you’re hockey royalty? Not to mention the son of a movie star. I thought you probably got enough of that shit from everybody else, and I didn’t want you to think I was trying to use you, man.”

Jack blinks. “Oh,” he says, numbly. That’s what Parse meant. And—okay, yes, he had enjoyed not being recognized as a Zimmermann, that was true, but Jack had been more focused on the Owens thing, and the fact that anyone with enough brass to befriend an Owens warlock usually did it for the wrong reasons.

Looks like he was mistaken. Jack smiles in unexpected relief. “Um. No. I knew that, Parse. Or, well, I didn’t know that you knew, but I figured you’d be cool with it if you did. And obviously you are! That’s—that’s not what I was worried about, promise.”

Parse tilts his head, curious as a cat. “Then what did you think it was that I knew?”

Jack’s anxiety decides to make a sudden comeback. “Um,” he says, blushing. He pulls his knees up to his chest and stares at his bedspread, hoping Parse doesn’t push the subject and just drops it. He doesn’t really want to explain about magic, not if Parse isn’t aware of it.

Parse doesn’t drop it. Parse gets on the bed and sits next to Jack. “Hey. Owens. It’s okay. It’s cool, man,” he murmurs, his voice so soft and quiet, and, oh, shit. Shit. He thinks—he thinks it’s the other thing, the thing Jack would really rather die than he ever find out about. Crisse, Jack’s so fucked, oh, goddammit—

Parse nudges his shoulder, and Jack nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Um—I gotta—I gotta go, Parse,” Jack stammers, edging away.

Parse curses. “Wait—Owens—shit, man, just wait a minute—”

Parse grabs hold of his shirt, Jack keeps moving, and the two of them fall over onto the bed. Parse’s arms bracket Jack’s head, his knees straddle Jack’s bent leg, and the two of them are face to face, and Jack is blushing with it.

“Parse,” Jack says, about to beg him to get off him and please not mention this ever again.

Then Parse says, “Jack, I like you.”

And it’s true. Jack knows that. Parse has been saying it since the day they met.

Jack squeezes his eyes shut. “Parse,” he says warningly. He doesn’t want to hear the next part, the part where Parse tells him that he likes him even though Jack thinks about being fucked by him on a regular basis, and that they can still be friends even though Jack’s ruined absolutely everything with his stupid, obvious feelings.

Parse doesn’t say that. Parse repeats, with more urgency, “I like you.”

Jack opens his eyes, and Parse is blushing, too. Parse is—Parse is looking at his lips.

“Oh,” Jack says, so shocked that it comes out sounding deadpan, and Parse laughs.

“Um—can I—can I kiss you?” he whispers, and before Jack’s even done nodding, Parse is leaning down and sliding his tongue into Jack’s mouth.

Parse tastes like the chocolate mousse they had for dessert, and his hips are sharp and bony where they dig into Jack’s gut, and his hands are trembling when they slip into Jack’s hair to pull him closer, and—and Parse wants him, Parse likes him, the same way Jack likes him.

Jack moans at the realization, and Parse pulls back and shushes him with his lips turned up in a spit-slick smile.

“Dude, you gotta be quiet, your mom and your aunt were already giving me the side-eye earlier,” he whispers, his breath ghosting over Jack’s lips, they’re that close together. Jack could count his eyelashes, if he wants.

“Oh,” Jack says. “Euh. I really don’t think that’s the case, y’know.”

“Oh, believe me, they know,” Parse whispers back, rolling his eyes. “Your aunt nearly caught us playing footsie at dinner.”

Jack’s mouth drops open. “Wha—you were playing footsie?”

Parse looks at him, fondly exasperated. “Owens, what the fuck do you think my plans for this evening were?”

“I don’t know!” Jack says. “I thought we’d watch hockey or something.”

Parse snickers. “Newsflash, babe, but I’ve been trying to get in your pants for weeks,” and Jack barely has time to melt at the endearment before Parse rolls his hips suggestively against Jack’s.

Jack freezes, his eyes going wide, and Parse freezes, too.

“Too fast?” he asks, starting to lift himself off, and Jack is so hasty grabbing for his hips to stop him that he ends up with two handfuls of Parse’s ass instead.

“Fuck,” Jack says, and buries his burning face against Parse’s neck. Parse is—Parse is hard against his thigh, and the knowledge that it’s because of Jack, he’s this way because of Jack is far, far too much. “I can’t believe you want me,” Jack confesses.

Parse nuzzles at his ear and grinds against him. “Why not? You’re only the most beautiful fucking person I’ve ever seen.”

And it’s not true, it can’t be true, Jack has seen himself in mirrors, alright? Crisse, he knows what he looks like, knows he’s big and awkward and fat—

But Parse says it with his silver tongue, every slight scrap of his unrecognized magic thrown behind it, and Jack can’t hear the lie.

“Parse,” Jack says, his head going blank except for how much he wants him. “Parse.”

Parse finds his lips again, and they kiss, and they kiss, and they kiss until Jack is certain he’ll never want to kiss anyone else ever again.

 

___

 

Jack and Parse, they’re friends—they’re not boyfriends, because Jack wouldn’t be that stupid, cares too much for Parse to ever even risk him that way. They’re friends, the best of friends, and if they fool around sometimes, well. That’s nobody’s business but theirs.

Jack Owens spends every day of the rest of that first summer kissing Kent Parson. He doesn’t regret it, not one bit.

 

___

 

They stay best friends, him and Parse: email and AIM become their lifelines. Parse convinces him to get a MySpace. Jack watches all of his games online. They call each other every weekend and stay on the phone for hours.

It’s good, what they have.

“Hey, Jackie!” Gabby shouts. She’d gone over to his place to ask his grandma about a spell, stuck around for dinner because his mom was buying Chinese take-out. “Your boyfriend’s on the line.”

“Crisse, Gabby, Parse is just a friend,” Jack mutters, blushing as he takes the phone. She sticks her tongue out at him as she walks back downstairs, and Jack closes the door to his room.

“Oh, we’re just friends, huh, Jackie?” Parse says when he puts the phone to his ear, laughing on the other end. “See if I ever suck your dick, then.”

“Jesus, Parse,” Jack says, because he’s a teenage boy. Of course he’s thought about it.

“Mmhmm,” Parse hums, and Jack imagines that his eyes would be smoky gray with lust. “Bet I’d look so pretty on my knees for you, huh, Owens?”

Jack squeezes his eyes shut and tells himself that it’s just hormones, just friendship—he can let himself have this; this isn’t any more than physical hockey, than making each other feel good because they can.

“I bet I’d look better on mine,” he shoots back, and has the pleasure of hearing Parse swallow hard, his hearing picking up every little hitch in his breath.

“Fuck, Jack,” Parse breathes, “you’re going to be the death of me.”

Jack’s heart stops for a moment before his gift kicks in.

He’s lying, Jack thinks, relieved. I won’t be the death of him. I won’t.

Jack exhales and lets the sound of Parse’s voice speaking filthy, dirty fantasies wash over him, his heart feeling full with an emotion he refuses to name.

 

___

 

Jack drives to Ithaca as soon as school lets out, heading to his aunt’s a whole week ahead of his mother.

“Say hi to Parse for me,” Claire calls as he backs out of his driveway and nearly hits her mailbox across the street. He rolls his eyes, but waves goodbye to her and Sylvie nevertheless.

It never paid to ignore an Owens witch, after all.

 

___

 

Jack is waiting in the parking lot outside the local rink when Parse gets out. He doesn’t notice him at first, heading straight to his beat-up old Ford with his earphones in and his hoodie up, playing pop music so loud that Jack with his sharp hearing can make out the words from where he stands.

Jack grins to himself. This is going to be good. “Hey,” he calls out, and Parse looks over.

“Owens?” he says, his mouth dropping open, and Jack lets his grin widen and turn wolfish. Seventeen has been his year—he had a growth spurt, hit six feet this March. His shoulders have broadened, his muscles have gotten defined, and he’s finally, finally, finally dropped the baby fat. Yeah, his ass is probably always going to be huge, but he can live with that. He has cheekbones now, a six-pack people can see, and puberty has done him a favor and let his zits die down, too.

Jack Owens looks good, and he knows it.

“Hey, Parse,” he says, smirking. “Did you miss me?”

Even before he moves, Jack knows what Parse’s answer will be, saw it the day before in the moments before he fell asleep:

Parse launches himself at him and wraps his arms around Jack’s shoulders, his legs resting snug around his hips.

“Every fucking day, man,” he says, and Jack has to bury the urge to kiss him in public when he hears the truth ringing in his words.

 

___

 

Jack Laurent Zimmermann, now known as the Owens boy, loses his virginity to Kent Parson in an anonymous hotel room that Jack used a fake ID to book.

“Dude, you sprung for a suite?” Parse says, laughing. “You shouldn’t have—I would’ve put out for you in the parking lot, you know,” and Jack nearly trips because he isn’t lying.

“Kenny,” he says, wide-eyed, “Kenny, I wouldn’t have done that to you.” Parse deserved—Parse deserved a bed at the very least. Parse deserved somebody kissing across his shoulders for hours; deserved somebody undressing him reverently, worship in every touch; deserved somebody taking their time with him and learning what he likes and how he likes it.

He didn’t deserve a quick fuck in the backseat of Jack’s pick-up truck where anybody could drive by and see them. Crisse, Jack is horrified even by the thought of it. He opens his mouth to explain this, but Parse is suddenly there and kissing him, and he gets distracted.

“Say it again,” Parse begs when they finally come up for air.

“Euh, what?” Jack says, confused, and Parse huffs a laugh.

“My name, you dweeb,” he says, cupping Jack’s face and running a thumb along his cheekbone. Jack leans into the touch, turns his head and presses a kiss to Parse’s palm.

“Kenny,” he says, “Kenny, Kenny.”

Parse pulls him closer and licks into his mouth, walking Jack backwards until they fall onto the bed, and from there it’s easy to roll Parse under him and get his hands beneath his sweatshirt, pulling back and asking quickly if he can take it off.

“Yeah, Jack, of course,” Parse says, breathless, tugging at Jack’s own jacket. “Umm, can I—?”

Jack unzips his jacket and tosses it to the floor, grabs his shirt and pulls it over his head in a hurry, for once not afraid to see the look on Parse’s face.

Jack is—Jack doesn’t know what he’s expecting, precisely, but Parse giving him the exact same dopey-eyed grin he gave him any time he saw him shirtless last year isn’t quite it. Jack was—hoping for some surprise, maybe a bit more desire than before.

“Fuck, you’re always so damn gorgeous,” Parse says instead, and then he scoots over, using the chain of Jack’s St. Christopher’s medal to tug him down so he can kiss Jack’s stretch marks, and—

Oh, God, I love you, Jack thinks.

But he doesn’t really have time to register the thought because Parse is stripping off, and, wait, Jack wanted to be the one to do that. So Jack bats his hands away and undresses Parse himself, too eager to take his time with it the way he planned, Parse’s magic humming just beneath his skin and sparking against Jack’s own.

“Jack, that feels so good, fuck. Fuck,” Parse gasps, arching into his touch, and Jack cannot believe he gets to have this, gets to have Kent Parson naked underneath him, all lean, glorious muscle, all golden, careless grace.

“Kenny,” Jack says, trembling as he presses kisses into every inch of skin he can reach, “Kenny, you gotta tell me what you want, you gotta—”

“Um,” Parse says, a forearm thrown over his eyes, blushing red all the way down to his chest. “Can I—would you let me fuck you?”

Jack groans, long and deep. “Yes,” he says, scrambling up to kiss Parse, suddenly ravenous. “Yes, please, yes.”

Parse turns his head away, causing Jack’s stomach to drop—at least until he asks, shy-voiced and sweet with it, “Would you—would you let me blow you first?”

Jack dives for the condoms in his sports bag.

 

___

 

It’s clumsy, their first time—clumsy and awkward and full of funny moments, like Jack tearing three condoms in a row, or Parse choking when he tries to deep-throat him, or Jack coming embarrassingly fast, or Parse accidentally dropping the lube behind the headboard, or the two of them arguing over whether Jack should be on his belly or his back for that first time.

But Parse’s hand finds his as he presses close, and Jack laces their fingers together when he pushes inside, and it doesn’t last very long, no, but Jack doesn’t care because he knows he’s going to have this again and again and again—

“Jack,” Parse sobs, shuddering above him, shaking apart inside him, and Jack knows in his bones that he would give everything he has to keep this.

 

___

 

After they clean up, Jack pulls Parse to his chest and wraps his arms around him, content. He nuzzles at the nape of Parse’s neck, and wonders for a moment if he’d let him leave hickeys if he asked, but decides not to risk it.

Parse sighs, a soft, satisfied sound, and Jack cuddles closer. “Hey, Jack?” Parse says.

“Hmm?”

“You know I—” His hand tightens where it’s pressing Jack’s forearm against his waist. “You know you’re my best friend, right?”

Jack mouths at the place where Parse’s jawline meets his neck, savoring his shivers in response. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “And you’re mine.” Jack thinks this would be true even if he had any other friends. Who knows him better than Parse? Parse has every part of him.

(Except for his magic. But Jack doesn’t like to dwell on that, doesn’t want to think about his Owens magic marking Parse as his, signaling him out for—

But that wouldn’t matter, of course. They’re not in love. Jack would never do that to him.)

“Okay,” Parse says. He hesitates, something heavy in the pause before he follows it up with, “That’s good.”

Jack strokes his hip, uncertain. Parse is tense in a way he wasn’t just a few moments ago, and Jack knows he missed something, messed something up. For all it seems sometimes that he and Parse are telepathic, they can’t actually read each other’s minds.

“Um. You know—you know the only people I like more than you are my cousins, right?” Jack confesses. “Besides them, you’re—you’re it, you know?”

Parse doesn’t say anything, just turns around and kisses him, and Jack relaxes.

Oh, good, he thinks, kissing him back. He understands.

 

___

 

And Kent Parson does understand—this is the truth. He understands better than Jack, even, what it is they confessed to each other that night, the shape and magnitude of it.

Jack Owens says, You’re it, and Kent Parson hears the truth hidden beneath it:

I love you. 

 

___

 

When they part ways in September, Parse presses him up against the wall of the fire escape behind his apartment and kisses him goodbye for what feels like hours, right up until Parse’s sister pokes her head out to tell them that Jack’s cell phone is ringing on the coffee table.

Jack freezes, all the muscles in his body going tense, but Parse doesn’t move an inch, just slouches against Jack’s chest and tells her that they’ll be in in a few minutes. Parse’s sister rolls her eyes but doesn’t comment as she pulls her head back inside.

“Euh,” Jack says, and Parse looks up at him from beneath golden lashes.

“I told my family about us,” he says, trying for casual and missing the mark by a mile. “Was that…”

“It’s fine,” Jack says quickly. “I just—wasn’t expecting it.”

Parse snickers. “Fuck, Owens, I talk about you all the damn time, they would’ve figured it out even if I hadn’t said anything. Ma’s a smart cookie, and Lynn takes after her.”

And Jack wonders—

Does his family know?

 

___

 

They do.

“You be careful with that Parson boy,” Aunt Amanda tells him before he goes, her hands sturdy on his shoulders, her eyes boring intently into his. “He’s one of ours, so that should help, and it’s a good thing you’re long-distance, but once the ticking starts—”

Jack jerks back. “It’s not—Auntie, it’s not like that, he’s my best friend—”

Aunt Amanda exhales hard. “That’s what I said about your Aunt Liza,” she says—Aunt Liza who lives in Wales with an ocean between them, Aunt Liza who Jack’s only met a handful of times in person, Aunt Liza who once had to leave scarcely half an hour after she first arrived. Aunt Amanda had been out the door in bare feet as soon as the ticking started, running as fast as her legs could take her to throw Death off Liza’s scent.

Jack still remembers driving with his mom and Aunt Bea to find her in the woods, hunched over and breathing hard, her hands on her knees, her feet cut up and bloody, and not letting them help her until they’d told her three times over that Liza was safe, she was alive, yes, she got away in time. 

“I’m not gonna—that’s not Parse and me,” Jack says, pleading. “He’s not my true love—he doesn’t even fit any of the things I asked for in the summoning. I’m not—I’m not in love with him. We’re just friends.”

Aunt Amanda looks at him with pitying eyes. “Jackie, he doesn’t have to be your true love for the curse to take him. He just has to love you as much as he loves anything, and you just have to do the same.”

 

___

 

Jack and his mother never talk about it directly, the ghost of his father sitting heavy between them.

“Be careful,” she says once, and Jack nods and doesn’t answer out loud.

 

___

 

That season, Kent Parson tears it up on the ice. Everybody’s eyeing him, whispers floating how he’s a shoo-in for first pick, or that he’s got too much competition, or that he does his best to be a team player, but isn’t it a shame how nobody can match him on Rimouski? He’s gotta carry them on his own, but is he doing a good enough job?

Jack watches the vultures circling and knows the pressure’s gotta be rising, but Parse never shows it in their phone calls.

“Do you have any fucking clue how ridiculous you sound sometimes?” Parse says instead. “You sound like a cross between a French-Canadian hockey robot and a Boston stevedore. One minute it’s all ‘tsé’ and ‘ouais,’ then next it’s nothing but ‘wicked’ and ‘pahk the frickin’ cah, Sylvie!’”

“I don’t sound like that,” Jack protests indignantly, nearly dropping a mug where he’s washing the dishes.

“Baby, you really fucking do,” Parse says, snickering.

Jack rolls his eyes and adjusts the phone where it’s balanced on his shoulder. “Seriously, though, you sure you’re fine?”

Parse sighs. “Look, babe, whatever happens, happens. Like, fuck yeah, would I love to go first, but it’s not going to be the end of the world if I don’t, right? I’m gonna be in the N-H-fucking-L either way, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Jack hums thoughtfully. “I guess,” he says, not really able to picture it. They’ve got all his father’s things in the house in Montréal, but as much as he loves the game, Jack still remembers what it was like to be the Zimmermann wunderkind, everybody’s eyes trained on him and just waiting for him to mess it all up. He doesn’t think it’d’ve gotten any easier as he got older, and mostly he’s glad that he got out when he could.

Still, he thinks it might’ve been nice to play on the same team as Parse officially, not just in a scrimmage or shinny. He lets himself imagine it: Parson and Owens, Owens and Parson.

It’s a nice thought, he’ll admit.

“So it’s going to be either Vegas or Seattle, huh?” Jack says after a moment.

“I guess,” Parse says, and Jack can hear the rasp of fabric that means he’s shrugging. He wishes Parse were here, so he could bury his face in his neck and breathe in his scent, all citrus and salt. “Though—it’d be nice if I went to the Falcs.”

Jack laughs. “Parse, you’re not going to go third. What the hell?”

Parse sighs. “Yeah, but—East Coast, you know? I’m just saying it’d be nice.” He pauses. “You’ll be going to Samwell next year, right?”

Jack stills. “Either that or Cornell, if I can make it in,” he hedges.

It’s Parse’s turn to laugh. “You’ve got your Aunt Amanda—didn’t she tutor the Dean of Admissions back when they went there together? You’re a shoo-in, Jackie.”

Jack hums, distracted by all the things they’re dancing around. Parse wants to get drafted by the Falcs, who are based in Providence, which is only forty minutes away from Samwell. Jack’s thinking of going to Cornell, where his aunt lives and works, true, but is also in the city where Parse’s family lives, the place he’ll go for his holidays and his summers.

This is dangerous, Jack thinks, anxiety clawing at his stomach.

Parse starts, “Hey, you think—”

“I gotta go,” Jack says, and he hangs up.

 

___

 

The next week, they’re interviewing Parse, and the girlfriend question comes up.

Parse laughs it off, saying, “Nah, I don’t have—”

“Parse, you liar,” Delgado, one of his lineys, interrupts. “Who the hell else would you be calling every weekend?” He turns to the camera and says, “Every Saturday and Sunday at half-past six, like clockwork, this doofus is on the phone going ‘baby’ this, or ‘honey’ that, or saying, ‘I miss you so much, I wanna cry, babe—’”

“Hey!” Parse says, blushing, and Jack’s heart drops through the floor.

Delgado turns to their goalie. “Yo, Zezzie,” he asks, “what’s the name of Parse’s girl? Julie? Jessie?”

Zezzie scratches at his cheek. “Isn’t it Jackie?” he says.

Parse’s mouth snaps shut. Jack turns the t.v. off. His cousins all stare at him.

“Well,” Sylvie says after a long, long moment, “that was awkward.”

Jack leaves the room. 

 

___

 

“Tell your boy to come here for June,” Great-Aunt Sarah tells him.

“He’s not—”

She cuts him a quelling glance. Jack shuts up. She continues, “I’ve already told Alicia to invite his family; they can travel with Amanda. We ought to see if his mother is the one who passed on the gift, and find out if his sister has it, too. If either of them are one of ours, we’ll extend an invitation to join the coven.”

Jack is floored. An invitation to join the coven? That’s—that’s like proposing a marriage alliance between their families. “But—” He stops himself.

What else are they supposed to do, with an untrained witch? If Parse had had more than a touch of the gift, his mom or Aunt Amanda would have been honor-bound to take him under their wing.

Jack doesn’t like it, though. Doesn’t like that they’re doing this because they think he’s got a claim on Parse, that he—that he’s marked him for something. That they’re something other than what they are, which is best friends and best friends only.

“Jack Laurent Zimmermann Owens,” Great-Aunt Sarah says gently, “you need to warn that boy.”

Jack looks away and stares at the wall, but he nods once. He heeds her words. 

 

___

 

“So Great-Aunt Sarah wants you to visit in June for a few weeks,” Jack says without preamble. “We’re inviting your family, too. My mom’s going to call your mom tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Parse says blankly. Then he adds, “Meeting the family, huh?”

“I guess,” Jack says, not comfortable with the connotations of that question.

He wants to ask, What do you think we are? Are we dating? Are we boyfriends?

He wants to ask, You don’t love me, do you? I’m not that important to you, am I? I’m reading too much into this, right?

He wants to ask, If I’m planning my life around you, and you’re doing the same for me, it doesn’t have to mean that we love each other best, right? It doesn’t mean that. It can’t, can it?

He doesn’t ask any of those things. He asks, “Do you think you’ll be able to come?”

“Hell, yes,” Parse answers with no hesitation.

Jack closes his eyes.

 

___

 

Jack has never, ever, not once asked Parse how he feels about him.

Every time he started, his foresight would kick in and give him the answer:

Parse will smile at him, happy and wide, his eyes bright as he says, “Jack, I love you. You know I do.”

Jack doesn’t want to hear him actually say it, doesn’t want to feel deep in his bones how true it is, both Parse’s love and his own knowledge of it.

Better to pretend ignorance. Better just to bury it, and say nothing instead.

 

___

 

Parse’s mom and sister arrive two days ahead of him; Aunt Jenny puts them up, Sylvie and Claire immediately taking Lynn under their wing and whisking her off to introduce her to the cats.

“Congratulations on the Memorial Cup,” Aunt Jenny says, smiling carefully. “Parse—I mean, Kent played very well.”

Karen Parson thanks her and waves her off, saying, “No, no, please call him Parse. Everybody else does.”

Aunt Jenny’s eyes dart to Jack, who’s still carrying their luggage. “Oh, but—”

She stops, and awkward silence would have descended upon the room, but fortunately Parse inherited his social skills from his mother, who casually interjects, “You’re also welcome to call him Kent, of course. Anyone who’s family to Jack is family to us.”

Aunt Jenny lights up, Jack stiffens in discomfort, Karen Parson scrutinizes him for a long moment before shrugging it off, and the conversation continues.

 

___

 

When Parse arrives, he charms the entire Owens clan within half an hour, and mind you, this is the coven that raised Alicia Margaret Owens, the silver-tongue to end all silver-tongues.

“Pretty, blond, and smooth as fuck?” Gabby shakes her head. “You never stood a chance, did you, Jackie?”

Jack looks at his feet and shrugs.

 

___

 

“Dude,” Parse says, grinning, “you really are the only boy, huh? No wonder you’ve been spoiled.”

They’re sitting in Jack’s room, and Jack wants to take his clothes off so they’re strewn on every surface, Parse’s scent clinging to everything he owns, Parse’s skin smooth and warm beneath his, Parse’s voice breathy and full of want in his ear, all of his senses full of nothing but Parse, Parse, Parse.

“Kenny,” he says, deliberate, and Parse narrows his eyes at him and nudges his knee with one foot.

“Your mom is downstairs, man, and so is your grandma,” he says.

Jack shakes his head. “They’re not.” He heard them leave the house earlier, and he hears the ping of an untruth spoken unawares in Parse’s voice now.

Parse looks at him, wide-eyed. “Jack,” he says, “are you telling me they left us alone in this house? On purpose?”

Jack nods.

Parse blushes. “Do they—”

“They know.”

Parse’s mouth drops open. “Do they—do they not mind?

Jack doesn’t know what to tell him, doesn’t know how to explain his family’s complicated relationship with love, or their even more complicated relationship with their lovers. How Owens women have always taken to bed anyone whom they wanted, so long as they were willing. How that applied just to lust and its satiation, how love was a different story entirely, how it was an unspoken rule that any Owens descendent be given as much time with their beloved as they could, because who knew how long that could be? Who gave a damn for propriety or decency when Death stalked their line, as sure as a bloodhound on the scent?

Jack knows that when his family looks at the two of them, they see his mother and father’s story repeated all over again.

And Jack wants to weep, wants to rend his clothes and howl, because even he can’t deny any more that this is true.

“Kenny,” he says past the lump in his throat, compelled to bravery by the knowledge that this could be his last chance to say this, “Kenny, I love you.”

(Here is a fact, solid and fixed: Jack Owens can hear lies when they are spoken, can discern when there is direct dishonesty in almost every voice that reaches his ears. Every voice but one. Every voice but his own.

But even without his gift, he’d be able to hear the truth in his words now.

“I love you,” he says, and, oh, he means it. He means it.)

Parse goes still. “Jack,” he says, blinking hard. “Jack, I—”

Jack surges forward and kisses him, tugs them down so they’re lying on the bed, tangled together. He kisses him, and he kisses him, and he—

Parse turns his head away, laughing, laughing. “Jackie, wait, lemme say it back—”

“You don’t have to,” Jack pleads, desperate, kissing him again.  

And so it is that the first time Kent Parson tells Jack Owens that he loves him, he whispers the words right into his mouth:

“I love you,” he says, “I love you more than anything.”

 

___

 

(The ticking starts thirty-four days later.)

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 4: seven harvests without him is a famine

 


 

  

After they make love—and it is making love, Jack can call it what it is now, can acknowledge the emotion that gilds every aching kiss, every slow caress—Jack buries his face in Parse’s neck and says, “I have magic.”

Parse laughs, not understanding. “Yeah, magic hands for sure,” he says, fiddling with the clasp of Jack’s St. Christopher’s medal, which rests against the nape of his neck.

Jack just shakes his head. “No, Parse. I’m—my whole family, we’re witches. With spells, and familiars, and everything, and—” Jack sighs, sitting up. “Here. It’s easier if I show you.”

Parse tilts his head to the side, torn between curiosity and disbelief, exactly like a cat. “Show me what? A magic tri—”

Jack snaps his fingers and all the candles in his room catch aflame.

Parse closes his mouth and looks at him with wide eyes. “Jack?” he says, his voice unsteady. “How did you—?”

Jack snaps again, and all the candles go out. He folds his hands together and looks down at his knees. “I told you. I have the gift. I’m a warlock.”

Silence descends upon the room. Parse bites his lip. “Okay. So. Is this—this is a good thing, right? You—you’re happy with it?”

Jack still won’t meet his gaze. “Mostly.”

“Well, I—I’m glad you told me,” Parse says slowly. “I’m glad you trusted me with this.”

“Thanks,” Jack says dryly. “I’m glad you’ve been reading your mother’s self-help books again.”

Parse just shoots him a look. “Well, you tell me what you’re supposed to say when your boyfriend goes full-on Harry Potter on you.”

Boyfriend.

Jack presses the heels of his hands to his eyes and hisses. “Is that what we are? Boyfriends?” he asks.

Parse sits up and wraps his arms around his waist, tucking his chin against Jack’s shoulder. “Jack,” he says, “I know this is gonna be hard, but—you just said you love me. My mom and my sister are literally having a sleepover at your aunt’s, and your grandma literally gave us the blessing to fuck in your childhood bedroom. I mean, that’s pretty much boyfriend-level shit, yeah?”

“I guess, but—Parse, it’s dangerous,” Jack tries to explain. “My family—we’re cursed.”

Jack feels Parse raise a brow, the muscles of his face moving in familiar patterns against Jack’s jawline. “Uh, cursed how?”

Jack takes a deep breath and starts explaining.

 

___

 

Parse, predictably, doesn’t buy it.

“Wait a minute,” he says skeptically, “so you just hear the ticking and—boom! Your significant other is dead?”

Jack grits his teeth. “That’s the gist of it, yes.”

“But, like, why?”

“My ancestor hated her ex-lover and wanted to get rid of her feelings for him, but she murdered him instead, and now the curse murders anybody we’re in love with,” Jack recites for the third time.

“But can’t you stop it?” Parse asks.

And that’s—that’s a complicated question. God knows they’ve tried, but Martha Owens was one of the most powerful witches of her age, and the curse feeds on Owens magic. The more powerful you are, the faster the curse enacts itself. It’s why Gabby already has two lovers dead, why Aunt Amanda hasn’t been able to spend more than a day in Aunt Liza’s company since they were twenty-five—

—why everybody is watching Jack, and waiting.

“Some of us have tried breaking the curse before,” Jack says instead, “but the attempts generally kill us.”

Parse’s arms tighten around him automatically, as if his first instinct is to keep him close, keep him safe, and Jack wants to cry at the unfairness of it, because he feels the same for Parse. He feels exactly the same, and this is the thing that will tear them apart: the desire to be together, the steps they took to build a shared life.

“Is this—can I break the curse instead?” Parse murmurs. “There’s—there’s got to be a way, yeah? This is like the seven trials of Hercules, or whatever—”

“Twelve,” Jack corrects, unthinking, smoothing down his cowlick.

“—you dork, I just said whatever—you know what, not the important part. Is this a true love’s kiss sort of thing? Or am I supposed to battle a dragon, or climb a mountain, or whatever it is the curse wants me to do to prove my love to you? Because I’ll do it,” Parse says, earnest, his eyes the blue of summer skies, and Jack presses his face against his neck because it’s too much. The weight of all these truths they’re sharing—it’s too much.

“Don’t,” Jack says, pleading. “Don’t. Anything you do—anything I do to prove how much I love you—the curse hones in on that. Distance is the only thing that works. It kept my dad alive for most of his marriage with my mom, and—”

“Holy fuck, are you saying this curse killed your dad?” Parse asks, and, Crisse, did Jack not make that clear?

“Yes,” Jack says heatedly, sitting up and turning away. “Yes, Parse, this killed my dad. And my grandad, and my great-grandad, and Sylvie and Claire’s dad, and three-quarters of anybody my aunts and great-aunts have been in love with—”

“Jack,” Parse says, apologetic, pressing himself against Jack’s shaking shoulders, but Jack can’t stop, can’t shut up now.

“—fuck, Parse, it’s killed two of Gabby’s lovers, and she’s only twenty-one. It’s—if I’d been a girl, I could’ve been the heir,” Jack says. “My magic, it’s strong, it’s the second-strongest of my generation, and it’s going to get you killed.”

“It won’t,” Parse protests, and fuck. Fuck. Jack can hear the edge of an unintentional lie sneaking into his words.

“It could,” Jack whispers. “It could.”

Parse finds his hand and squeezes.

 

___

 

That last summer they had together was almost perfect. It would’ve been perfect, if every minute hadn’t been tinged by the sickly yellow-orange cast of Jack’s anxiety, his unfortunate certainty that every moment together was going to be their last.

That summer was thirteen-year-old Lynn learning to make simple charms and sing cantrips with Sylvie and Claire, Gabby wearing mourning black watching over the three of them with a smile. That summer was Karen Parson folded into a community of fellow like-minded, no-nonsense women, Owens kitchens filled with raucous laughter that spilled over into the streets, uncaring of the scandalized stares of the townspeople. That summer was Aunt Bea teaching Parse how to put on eyeliner, Great-Aunt Vivian giving Jack unsolicited advice on how to “please his fine young man,” Aunt Amanda giving them each five books to read by the end of summer.

That summer was Great-Aunt Sarah sitting down and writing the Parson family into the coven registry, three names linked by pure black ink to Jack’s: magic to magic, blood to blood, an alliance sealed and promised for as long as their coven lived.

Jack traced over the branch that connected his name to Parse’s, feeling his heart ache, feeling his ribs crack from the force of the love he was carrying, and he wondered if this was the pleasure-pain that led Martha Owens to the woods that fateful day.

(He didn’t understand what drove her to do it, and he hoped he never would.)

 

___

 

That summer was Alicia Margaret Owens taking Kent Parson by the elbow and leading him through the woods.

“Is this a shovel talk?” Parse asked, a charming smile thrown over his nervousness like a shield.

“No,” Alicia said mildly. If anything, Kent Parson would have been the one warned to protect himself—Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Alicia wanted to ask, watching this boy watch her son across the room the way her husband watched her, once upon a time.

But she already knew the answer to that. Knew her son’s answer, too. That was why Kent Parson was even here in the first place.

“Would you like to learn how to use your gift?” Alicia Margaret Owens asked instead, and Kent Parson looked back at her and answered, “Yes.”

 

___

 

That summer was Aunt Liza coming for Aunt Amanda’s 49th birthday celebration, strong white teeth flashing against her dark brown skin in a wide, wide smile. That summer was Aunt Amanda running down the steps to meet her, flinging her arms around Liza’s broad shoulders, her knees clinging to Liza’s narrow hips, her face pressed tenderly against Liza’s Adam’s apple, their matching heart-shaped lockets tangling. “I’m home,” Liza crooned in her deep, lovely alto, and Amanda Owens kissed her in the early morning sunshine, unashamed. That evening, Jack and his family quietly left the house at sunset, Jack making his way to Parse’s room across the street.

“So that’s your Aunt Liza,” Parse said, considering.

Jack nodded. “She and Aunt Amanda will have known each other for forty years this September. They’ve been together for thirty.”

Parse whistled, impressed.

Jack cleared his throat. “It’s the longest anyone in the family’s managed to…you know. Especially when they’re the next head of the coven.” It was nothing short of a miracle, Jack knew, or two miracles wrapped into one: keeping Aunt Liza alive, and keeping their relationship alive, too. But if anyone could manage it through sheer tenacity, it was Amanda Mercy Owens.

I want that to be us, Jack wanted to say. I don’t want us to be like my parents. I want us to be like that instead.

But how could he ask? They were eighteen, too young to be promising forever, and God knew it was safest for Parse to fall out of love with him and move on. Jack knew that; Jack could live with that.

But, oh, how he wanted

“You think that could be us?” Parse whispered, his cheekbone pressed to Jack’s. “In thirty years, could that be you and me?”

“Yes,” Jack promised, turning his head to catch Parse in a kiss. “Yes.”

 

___      

 

That summer was Jack taking Parse to the pond in the woods where he first learned how to swim, Parse turning tanned and Jack slathering himself in sunblock to keep from burning, the two of them treading water and trading kisses in cool, murky water. That summer was tracing constellations along every freckle on Parse’s face and neck and shoulders, his skin turned silver in the moonlight streaming through the open windows. That summer was muggy June heat, Parse’s mouth stained a rainbow of colors by the popsicles they bought at the corner store, his tongue sugar-sweet when he slipped it between Jack’s lips as they sat on the old porch swing.

That summer was Parse’s hand in his back pocket, was Jack’s arm thrown over Parse’s shoulders, was their thighs pressed together in one long line at the dinner table. That summer was hickeys blooming all over Parse’s neck, was fingertip bruises dotting Jack’s thighs and ass, was Jack’s voice in the morning left hoarse from the night before.

That summer was Jack folded open underneath Parse, Parse driving in slow and steady, absolutely fucking ruthless as he made Jack beg for it, made him keen and sob as Parse whispered filthy, silver-tongued truths into his ear, magic humming beneath both their skins, a livewire of need and longing.

That summer was Jack moaning, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” because it was too late for anything else but honesty now.

That summer was Parse answering back each time, “I love you, too,” fingers clutching him tight like they could keep the future at bay.

 

___

 

That summer was Parse going first in the draft, Aces’ jersey on his back, flashing a smug smirk for the cameras.

That summer was Jack helping him pack up his room in Ithaca two days after, the two of them pointedly not talking about the future and what it held.

That summer was the ticking starting at half-past six at sundown on the thirty-fourth day.

That summer was the first parting that saw Jack running out the door as fast as his feet could take him, Parse left behind without even an I love you left lingering in the air, let alone a kiss goodbye.

It won’t be the last.

 

___

 

Jack goes to Samwell University and plays on the hockey team there, gets a reputation for being a tough-ass who works harder than God himself. His team is—well. The seniors are nice enough, the juniors are the party-hard jock types, but they don’t mind him, and the sophomores are flat-out ridiculous, but his fellow freshmen?

God, Jack hates them, and the feeling’s more than mutual.

Things especially go to shit once they put two and two together midway through spring semester and figure out that he, Jack Owens, is actually Jack Zimmermann Owens, son of a hockey legend and a movie star. Things go to further shit once Jack makes it clear that no, he’s not going to let them use his name to their advantage, not unless they want access to the rare books collection in Founder’s, in which case he’s more than happy to bring up his Aunt Amanda, he bets your grades could really use it, Swisher.

The seniors had to break up that fight.

“Goddamn it, why are people so frickin’ weird about things?” Jack asks Parse the next day, exhausted. He can hear his accent coming out, his r’s dropping all over the place, but he’s too tired to correct it right now. “So my parents are famous, so what? I’m not, and I’m not planning on becoming it, either. Can’t they just leave me alone? What do I have to do, take out a sign?”

“Well, you know, some people are assholes and need to be punched to get the message,” Parse says sagely, and Jack tilts his head back and smiles.

“Is that why you got that stupid penalty against the Islanders yesterday?” he says.

“Hey! Hey, that was totally fucking justified—”

Jack closes his eyes and lets the sound of Parse’s voice wash over him.

 

___

 

The Aces make it to the Western Conference finals, the furthest they’ve ever gotten in their short-lived, slightly-worse-than-mediocre history. Jack has finals, too, of the written-essays-and-lecture-hall variety, but he still makes the time to Skype with Parse.

Parse makes the winning shot in two out of the three games they win, outscores everybody on either team, but they lose to the Sharks in game seven, and that’s that.

“Baby,” Jack says after, sympathetic. Parse’s eyes are red-rimmed, their irises dark brown, and Jack knows he’s taking the loss hard. “Baby, you did the best you could—”

“I could’ve done better,” he protests, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “I should’ve—Jackie, we were so close, I—” He breaks down, and Jack sits there and murmurs soothing nonsense, hums his favorite song until Parse falls asleep, his face sallow in the harsh light of the computer screen.

Jack watches him and wishes he were there.

 

___

 

Objectively, Jack knows that even if it weren’t for the curse, he and Parse would still be long-distance. Parse is in Vegas, for Christ’s sake, and he’s playing eighty-two games a year in the NHL, while Jack’s an NCAA player and juggling a double-major in history and fine arts. Most of their relationship would still be conducted over Skype, and through phone calls, and the occasional cheesy postcard from whatever city Parse is in.

But.

But there’s a difference. There’s always a difference to know that literally almost anywhere would be safer for Parse than right beside him, to know that what Jack wants is the opposite of what’s good for Parse, and still asking for it anyway.

Jack Owens never thought he was much of a prick, but what else can you call him when Kent Parson asks him when he’s coming to Ithaca, and his answer is that he’s already on his way, Death a time-bomb riding shotgun?

Parse fucks him in the backseat of his pick-up truck, the two of them too impatient for anything else, and Jack can’t bring himself to be sorry.

 

___

 

They have thirty-two days this time.

 

___

 

In the winter of his sophomore year, Parse has a game against the Bruins. Jack’s there to meet him afterwards in black jeans, sturdy boots, and a zipped-up leather jacket that Sylvie claims makes his chest look “almost as good as your massive ass, Parse’ll love it, trust me.”

“Hey,” Jack says when Parse catches sight of him, lifting his chin, “did you miss me?”

Parse laughs as he breaks away from his team and hugs him, slapping his back for good measure.

“Every fucking day,” he answers, and Jack sneaks two fingers underneath his suit jacket, pressing them against the sensitive skin of Parse’s waist through his shirt before pulling away.

He gets introduced to the Aces as Parse’s best friend, and actually gets recognized by a couple of them thanks to their frequent Skype conversations.

“Swoops, right?” Jack says, clinking his glass of coke against Jeff Troy’s beer bottle.

“The one and only,” Swoops says, laughing. “And you’re my competition for the title of Parser’s voice of reason.”

Parse slouches against his side and pouts. “Fuck both of you, I’m plenty reasonable by myself.”

Jack nearly goes deaf from the entire table’s resulting roar of protest.

 

___

 

“They’re nice. I like them,” Jack murmurs sleepily later that night, Parse tucked into his arms, the both of them wrapped up in Parse’s hotel room’s spare bedsheets. Jack likes the smell; it reminds him of their first time.

“Yeah?” Parse says, then goes silent for a bit. “You know, I—well. Back when I was in Rimouski, I had this daydream.”

“Mm?” Jack prods after he stops.

Parse sighs. “Nothing. It’s stupid.”

“Tell me,” Jack implores.

“I thought—well, I thought it’d be nice if I could get whatever team I landed on to contract you after you graduated. I mean, you’re good, right? And Samwell’s got a decent team—if you made it to the Frozen Four, I figured—” He sighs again. “See? It was stupid.”

Jack tightens his arms around him, his chest aching. “Sorry,” he whispers. They both knew why they couldn’t try that.

Parse turns over and kisses him. “Don’t be,” he commands, magic lacing his voice, and Jack shivers. That never gets old: Parse using his gift on him, Parse ordering him around. Jack loves it. Jack loves him.

He pulls Parse’s hips closer and decides to forget about the future for a while.

 

___

 

“Hey, Parser, are you up yet, you lazy bas—whoa,” Swoops says the next morning, standing in the doorway that connects their rooms.

Jack sits bolt upright in bed, clutching the sheets to his bare chest and feeling like a goddamn cliché while doing so, but, Crisse, what else is he supposed to do?

He and Swoops stare at each other for a long minute.

“I’m just gonna—I’m just gonna go back to my room,” Swoops says, and he turns around and closes the door.

Jack immediately shakes Parse awake.

“What the fuck,” Parse mumbles, rolling away, and, câlisse, why is Jack so gone on this idiot?

“Kenny!” he hisses, “Kenny, Swoops just saw us! C’mon, you gotta wake up, c’mon—”

Now it’s Parse’s turn to bolt upright. “What the fuck?” he repeats, wide-eyed and shocked.

“Do you want me to erase his memories?” Jack asks in all seriousness. His spell bag’s in the car, he could whip something up pretty quickly.

“What the fuck? No!” Parse says, which is definitely not the smartest course of action, but okay. It’s his goddamn career he’s throwing away here. “Jesus, Jack, I’ll go talk to him.”

And he pulls Jack’s boxers on and does just that. Jack sits in the bed with his arms crossed, wondering if he should call housekeeping and order the stuff necessary for a memory-fog ritual anyway, but he holds off. His hearing’s good enough to make out the tone of the conversation, not the actual words, but it doesn’t sound like it’s going too badly.

After fifteen minutes, Parse opens the door and pokes his head in. Jack’s already dressed, except for his boots, but he lets Parse pull him into Swoops’ room, where they proceed to have one of the most awkward breakfasts ever.

Swoops keeps staring at the way Parse is plastered to Jack’s side, at the careful hand Jack keeps on his waist, at the Aces jersey Jack has on under his jacket, Parse’s name on his back, and shakes his head. “Man,” he says, interrupting Parse’s slightly nervous chatter, “I’m a dumbass, aren’t I? You don’t have a girl back home, you’ve got a guy. This is Ms. Double-Major, Ms. Outta-Your-League, Ms. Goes-to-Fucking-Samwell, oh, my God, how did I not realize?”

Jack flushes and Parse grins, all sudden relief. “It’s like you said: you’re a dumbass,” Parse says, and the conversation resumes as normal.

 

___ 

 

Come April, Samwell’s playing in the Frozen Four. They don’t make it all the way.

Come May, the Aces reach the play-offs again. Come June, they win the Stanley Cup.

Jack’s there in Vegas to watch Parse hoist the Cup over his head, that wide, wild grin on his face. He’s there in Ithaca for Parse’s Cup Day, where they take a picture of the Cup in Parse’s lap while Parse sits pretty and shameless in Jack’s, his eyes glinting grass-green with happiness.

They have thirty perfect days.

 

___

 

In August, Jack’s wearing the C, unusual for a junior, and a fucking miracle considering how he’s pretty damn sure no one in his year voted for him.

“Maybe we should ask the Lax bros to take them. Sounds like they’d get along,” Parse says lazily, slow-voiced the way he always gets after sex. He’s stolen one of Jack’s jerseys, wears it and nothing else for this Skype call, and Jack’s grateful nobody else has moved into the Haus just yet, because he was rather vocal over how much he liked it.

Then the doorbell rings.

Jack groans, but Parse tells him to go, blows him a kiss, and promises to call later, and that’s that.

The auburn-haired kid at the door is one of the frogs, and is vaguely familiar-looking in a way separate from hockey. “Hi,” he says, “I just want to warn you that the narrative is going to get pretty rough, but I’ve been assured that it turns out alright in the end.”

Jack tilts his head. “And you are?”

The kid smiles, mild and unassuming. “I’m John Johnson.”

Jack narrows his eyes, his senses flaring, and—yep. This kid is one of theirs. “Of the Johnsons of Baltimore?” he asks, keeping his voice calm. The Johnsons were famed in their circles for producing a line of dependable seers, even if most of their prophecies were singularly unhelpful until long after the fact.

“Oh, yes,” Johnson says. “May I come in?”

Jack leaves the door open.

 

___

 

Johnson’s a good kid, despite Jack’s reservations, and it’s nice to have someone to practice craft with outside of his coven. Jack’s a loner, not like Gabby or Claire, and he doesn’t put enough effort to put people at ease to overcome their initial trepidation at his last name. He doesn’t have any friends who have the gift—well, not unless you count Parse.

(Parse has so many of his firsts that he’s lost count of them.)

But it’s nice, meeting another warlock, even if he’s one who doesn’t shut up about “the narrative” and always seems to know exactly why Jack is sore some mornings at practice. At least he doesn’t chirp him, just gives him a knowing look before drawing the attention of the other juniors, usually by subtly insulting Swisher.

Like he said, Johnson’s a good kid.

 

___

 

Then something happens in November. Jack is watching the Schooners vs. Aces game, Parse getting a hat trick by the second period—

—and the ticking starts, faint but true.

“No,” he says, standing up, horrified. “No, this can’t be happening—no—”

He’s out the door before he knows it, in nothing but his socks and sweats, hands over his ears like he can make the sound go away through sheer force of will. Parse is three thousand miles away in Seattle, on the other side of the continent, for God’s sake, but still he hears it.

“Please,” he can hear himself saying, “please, please, I don’t love him that much, please—”

Johnson appears at his elbow. “I got your keys,” he says, “I’ll drive us anywhere you need to go.”

Jack doesn’t want to get in his car. Trying to drive away from this did shit for his mother and his father. “No,” he says, his voice breaking.

“Owens,” Johnsons says gently, and Jack takes a deep breath, shakes his head, and follows him.

 

___

 

They go to the old house on Magnolia Lane; his whole family gathers to try and help him. In the end, Gabby’s the one to figure it out.

“You’ve got three summoning spells on you, Jackie,” she murmurs, looking closely at a bowl of red-tinged water. “One is the Owens curse, one is the true love’s summoning you pulled off when you were twelve, and one is…hmm. It’s a few years old, but I recognize the regional style. It’s the work of a Montréal coven, metal-based, locked onto an object…” She looks up at him with narrowed eyes. “Jackie,” she says, suspicious, “who gave you that medal?”

Jack clenches his jaw and goes for his phone.

 

___

 

“How could you do this to me?” he demands. “You—you know who I am, you know where I come from—how could you put a fucking spell on me?”

“Jack,” Uncle Mario says, apologetic, but Parse is in a Seattle hospital with a dislocated shoulder and a concussion, and no apology can change that. “I just wanted you to remember you had a place in hockey. It’s not a complicated spell, just one to bring people to you who would help you with the game—coaches, agents, good teammates. People like that.”

A rival to challenge him. A best friend willing to do nothing but talk hockey at all hours. A lover who spun daydreams about playing on the same team someday, even if they both knew it would come to nothing.

Kent Parson, a boy with barely a touch of the gift, compelled to Jack’s side like a lamb to the slaughter.

“You did this,” Jack says, his voice shaking. “You put a target on his back, you—the curse knows where he is now. Any time I so much as think of him when he’s on the ice, the curse could know, it could—”

“Jack,” Uncle Mario says again, shocked, “Jack, who are you talking about? Why would the curse affect—”

Jack sees a flash of the future, sees Uncle Mario’s dawning understanding coming fifteen seconds later, and hangs up.

“Fuck,” he says, putting his head in his hands.

Well. With any luck, Uncle Mario wouldn’t know who it is Jack’s in love with, just that he’s queer. Parse didn’t need to be outed on top of getting hospitalized.

“Fuck,” Jack repeats.

 

___

 

“It’s probably not as bad as you’re thinking,” Aunt Bea says, and while there’s no lie in her voice, it doesn’t sound true, either. “If you avoid watching his games live or in-person, there’s no reason for the curse to worsen.”

“I’m not risking it,” Jack says, watching his St. Christopher’s medal burn. “And it’s—it’s not even fair. He didn’t choose to fall in love with me, Aunt Bea, it was—it was this stupid fucking spell.”

“Oh, Jack,” Aunt Bea says, “that’s not true.”

Except Jack can hear a lie in her words, and doesn’t stay to find out which statement it applies to. He’s sure he already knows.

 

___

 

“I can’t do this anymore,” Jack says over the phone. He’s not going to risk doing this in-person or through video. “I can’t—I don’t want to be with you anymore.”

“Owens, what the fuck?” Parse says, his voice tired and slurred, and Jack wants to weep, wants to tell him that he did this to him, that’s it’s his fault, that he’s so damn sorry, he won’t do it again, he swears, please don’t go, Kenny, please—

“I’m breaking up with you,” Jack says instead, because letting himself hope for a miracle is what got them into this fucking mess in the first place. “I’m—I’m done, Parse, I can’t fucking take this anymore. I’m through with this.”

“Jackie, what the fuck, would you just wait—”

Jack hangs up before Parse can say anything to make him change his mind.

 

___

 

And that would be the end of it, except that Parse can’t fucking let it go. He keeps showing up at Samwell anytime he’s within a six-hour drive of the place, and Jack has never been more grateful for his gifts until then.

He calls Swoops and listens to him stammer lies about Parse’s whereabouts, uses his nose to scent out whenever Parse is waiting to ambush him at the Haus, uses his foresight to predict when Parse is going to show up at his place:

Parse will look up from where he’s lying down on Jack’s bed. “There you fucking are,” he’ll mutter, getting to his feet, and he’ll fist his hands in Jack’s shirt and pull him down into an angry, biting kiss, both of their skins sparking from rage and longing.

“You bastard,” he’ll say, “you can’t do that to me, you can’t scare me like that—you promised, Jackie, you promised me we’d stay together—”

And Jack will let him push him onto the bed and have him, because he’s weak, because he’s selfish and pathetic. Because he wants to believe it when Parse says they’ll grow old together, even when he can hear the lie, all because it feels so good when Parse tells him he loves him more than anything, and it’s true, it's true

Jack knows he’ll cave the second Parse opens his mouth, so he blocks his number, deletes his messages, cuts off all contact until Parse gets the hint and gives up.

And that’s…that.

Jack tells himself that it’s a good thing, that at least it means the curse won’t target Parse now.

It won’t take long, he thinks, for Parse to stop loving him.

 

___

 

In May, the curse kills Gabby’s Benjamin, the third lover she’s lost after both Max and Laurel.

“But I—it’s barely been three months,” she says, clutching Jack’s sleeve, dressed again in mourning black, watching as they lower the casket into the ground. “I—I wasn’t even sure this time. I didn’t—I was paying such close attention, just in case. How—why—why isn’t it ever enough?”

Jack can’t answer her, can only hold her close and hope she can’t feel how thankful he is that this isn’t him, that it won’t ever be him now.  

 

___

 

That summer, Jack doesn’t go to Ithaca. He and Sylvie and Claire pack up the family Volkswagon and take Gabby on a road trip. They don’t really plan a route, just stop at a crossroad each sunset and spin Gabby around until she stops, dizzy, giggling, their hands steady on her shoulders. They go the way she points.

They reach the Pacific Ocean in August. Gabby stands on the beach in bare feet and breathes in the salty air of the sea, her arms open wide as if she’s trying to embrace the whole sky.

“I don’t know how to love any differently,” she says as the sun goes down, smiling at them, her eyes too full of sorrow. “I don’t—I don’t know how not to love with everything I’ve got.” She laughs, loud and aching, too fragile to be bitter. “I think that’s the problem with this whole family. You ever notice how it’s only ever method two that works out? Fall in love with somebody who’s not in love with you?”

“There’s Aunt Amanda and Aunt Liza,” Claire points out, and Gabby laughs again.

“So we have one. One Owens witch who beat the odds, and she had to put an ocean between them to do it.” Gabby places a hand over her eyes. “God knows I’m not that strong. I’m not like her—or you,” she says, looking at Jack. “I don’t know how you gave him up.”

Jack opens his mouth. Closes it. Doesn’t tell her that he didn’t, not entirely—that there’s a box in the attic full of everything Parse left behind and he still hasn’t thrown it out. That on nights it gets too bad, he pulls it out and buries himself in Parse’s scent: sea salt and citrus and smoke. That sometimes he goes to the meadow and asks the stars to send him his true love, because if he meets the man with a voice of honey and eyes of whiskey, the man who sings his favorite song, then it would be safe to have Parse again, wouldn’t it? He could risk that then, couldn’t he?

But even he knows now that that’s not how this works, so he just takes off his jacket and drapes it around her shoulders, kissing her temple.

“I’ll break the curse,” he promises suddenly. “I’ll do it for us, or I’ll die trying.”

Sylvie gapes at him. “You’re lying,” she says, and Jack smiles when he hears an untruth spoken unawares in her words.

“I’m not,” he says, and he doesn’t need his gift to know he’s telling the truth. He feels it in his bones. “I’m going to break this curse if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

And Jack Owens smiles, perfectly at peace for the first time in ten months, ever since he picked up the phone and told Kent Parson he never wanted to see him again.

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 5: the keeper of the hearth arrives in autumn

 


 

 

It’s quite possible that Kent Parson isn’t taking the break-up very well, but who can fucking blame him? He’s known that Jack Owens was all he could ever want since he was just shy of sixteen, and that hasn’t changed, even five years later.

He told Owens that he loved him more than anything, that he would do so for the rest of his goddamned life, and he wasn’t going to break his word just because Owens decided to break his heart.

That wasn’t how promises worked, see.

 

___

 

It’s not that he doesn’t sleep around, of course. Like, wow, everybody on the Aces knows about the break-up, just from how hard he started hitting the liquor at all the after-parties, and just from the way he was suddenly very, very open to all the offers to go home with him that he received. Didn’t turn a single one of them down the way he used to, no sirree.

“Things didn’t work out with that Jackie chick, huh?” he overhears Cricket asking Swoops once, and Kent catches the tail-end of Swoops’ expression, all mingled pity and dismay.

Kent whirls around and heads to the restroom, splashes some water on his face. When he looks up into the mirror, he catches a dark-haired stranger quickly averting his gaze from his ass. Kent straightens, turns around to lean against the sink, and flashes his laziest smirk.

“Hey, there,” he says, lacing his voice with as much charm as he can, the way he only ever used to do for Ja—for Owens. The guy looks at him, riveted, and Kent lets his smirk widen, bats his lashes suggestively. From there, it’s relatively simple to get the guy on his knees, sucking Kent off right there in a restroom stall. It’s simple to ask him to close his eyes (dark brown, not a thing like—) while he does so, so Kent can cup the strong line of his jaw and pretend, just for a moment, just for a little while, that this is what he wants.

It’s easy, to get what he wants. All he has to do is be what people want.

 

___

 

He spends the first six months after the break-up trying to be what Owens wants. Owens said he couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t handle the distance, the waiting, the stress—so he went to him. He came to him, spent any spare minute he could camped outside his door, did everything short of standing in the street with a boom-box to get his attention.

And for what? For some dweeby auburn-haired freshman to come up to him and say that this wasn’t the time, that he had to be patient?

Fuck that. Fuck waiting for somebody who doesn’t want him back.

 

___

 

(He waits. Of course he waits, of course he does, of course he spends every day that summer waiting for Jack to drive up the street in his black pick-up truck, the way he always has before.

Kent Parson waits and waits, and Jack Owens doesn’t show up.)

 

___

 

He tries dating people. It’s what you do—you move on, you get over somebody, you meet somebody new.

Turns out it doesn’t work so well if you start with step three and work your way backwards.

After the fifth person who breaks up with him after he says the wrong name (the right name, the only name that matters) in bed, Kent admits that maybe he should try something else, something different.

 

___ 

 

He finds the something different at a game against the Predators in Nashville, a year and a day after Owens ends things with him.

There’s a boy with his co-ed high school team there at the signing afterwards, and when he shakes Kent’s hand, he looks right up at him, his mouth dropping in surprise.

“Oh,” he says, “oh, you’re one of ours.” And then he bites down on his lip and glances around him, and, Christ, is it that fucking obvious that Kent’s a fellow queer?

Then the kid squeezes his hand lightly, and Kent feels it:

The hum of magic.

“Oh,” Kent says, blinking down at him.

The kid lets go, laughing. “Yeah, that sounds about right,” he says, tucking a strand of floppy blond hair behind his ear, and, Jesus, this is not the place to be having this conversation.

So, like a dumbass, Kent Parson invites an obvious minor to join him in his hotel room. Alone. With no chaperones. To “discuss” things.

“Oh, um,” the kid looks around again, blushing this time, “I’ve got a curfew?”

Kent mentally smacks himself, and slips the kid his business card instead. “Call me,” he says seriously, and the kid nods.

“Sure thing, Mr. Parson,” he says, and Kent winces.

“Oh, fuck, no,” he replies, horrified. He’s twenty-one, he’s too young to be called ‘Mr. Parson’ by teenagers. “Call me Parse.”

The kid looks at him with amused eyes. “Parse, then,” he states. “You can call me Bittle.”

“Bittle,” Kent says, letting the name linger on his lips so he can remember it right, and the kid sucks in a breath. Belatedly, Parse realizes he let a bit of his gift slink into his voice, and bites his tongue, regretful. “Sorry,” he says, relieved that at least the kid didn’t give him his whole name. Smart, that. Somebody’s obviously raised him right.

“It’s no trouble,” the kid says hurriedly.

“Eric!” one of his friends calls out, and the kid turns his head in a panic, suddenly realizing that he’s been left behind.

“Uh, I gotta go, but I’ll call you!” he promises, running off to rejoin his group.

Kent raises a hand in goodbye, and is surprised to find himself a little disappointed when the kid doesn’t look back, not even once.

 

___

 

That’s the first time Kent Parson meets Eric Bittle. It won’t be the last.

 

___

 

The kid calls him two hours later, and Kent ducks out of the bar so he can take the call and actually hear him.

“Hello?” he says.

“Uh, hi. This is Bittle,” the kid replies, obviously nervous.

“Bittle! Good to hear from you,” Kent says, scrambling to remember the etiquette he learned from Aunt Ali—from Ms. Alicia. He thinks he’s supposed to introduce himself, and state where he’s from and who his coven is. Which is. Well. Complicated, to say the least.

His family’s formally allied with the Owens coven, and Aunt Aman—Ms. Amanda is still teaching Lynn, thank God, but…

But it had been pretty obvious to Kent that the whole alliance was predicated on the fact that Owens had been fucking him. Kent’s not even a real warlock, barely has a touch of the gift. He can’t do any magic but get people to hear him, and even then he can’t make them do anything. He can’t make them listen.

(If he did, Jack would still be with him, wouldn’t he?)

So he doesn’t say he’s Kent Parson, associated with the Owens clan of Samwell, Massachusetts. Instead he says he’s Kent Parson, of the Parsons of Ithaca, New York. Which is correct, even if it’s not the truth. And Lynn’s got enough of the gift to qualify as a hedge-witch and start her own coven someday, so it could be true in the future. Kent’s not really lying.

“I see, a New York coven,” Bittle murmurs, as if this means anything to him. “I’m Eric Bittle, of the Phelps of Madison, Georgia.” He pauses. “Though I guess it’s obvious from the name that I’m also associated with the Bittle clan of Athens, Georgia.”

“Oh, that’s cool. Phelps, wonderful,” Kent says, focusing on what must be the matronym, which is the important thing when it comes to witches. Neither the Phelps nor the Bittle name means a thing to him, though. He really needs to call Lynn, ask her if she knows who any of these people are.

Bittle hesitates on the other end of the line, and Kent wonders how he could have fucked up this early in the conversation. “You’re real polite, aren’t you?” Bittle says after a moment, something wry in his voice. “Somebody raised you right.”

“Well, my ma certainly tried,” Kent says honestly, and Bittle laughs, the sound of it cool and sweet as lemonade on a hot day.

Kent blinks, charmed.

“I’m glad of that,” Bittle murmurs, then sighs. “I hate to bring this up, by the way, but I have to make sure…” He trails off, a clear question in the pause this time.

“Sure, go ahead,” Kent replies, trying to make his voice sound as welcoming as possible.

It doesn’t work; Bittle clears his throat, clearly uncomfortable. Then he asks his question, and the reason for the awkwardness becomes abundantly clear:

“Are you aware that you’ve been cursed?” Bittle asks, and Kent tips his head back against the wall and represses the urge to groan aloud. Of course it fucking comes back to this.

“I used to be cursed,” he corrects. “It should’ve stopped a year ago.”

“Um.” Bittle clears his throat again. “I don’t—I really don’t think that’s the case, Parse.”

“…what the fuck.”

Bitty sighs. “Oh, dear, somebody lied to you and told you they broke the curse, didn’t they?”

Not in so many words, but—

“Explain, please,” Kent demands.

 

___

 

So it turns out that the Phelps coven is famous for being curse-layers, curse-breakers, and kitchen witches. Bittle’s mother is one of three girls, the youngest, which clearly means something in coven-speak, but fuck if Kent knows what that is. She’s the daughter of the head of the coven, and as a result, Bittle is in line to be his cousin’s left-hand warlock. Which sounds about right to Kent, considering how much magic he’s got under his skin. The only people who hummed like that were the strong ones, the ones whose magic Kent could feel in his teeth if he concentrated hard enough.

(Jack’s magic sang, ran hot and electric all through his body, and Kent loved nothing better than grabbing him by the hips and fucking right into it, feeling the greedy pull of him along every one of his nerves, like Jack’s magic wanted to swallow him whole—

But that was a while ago, now. He really needs to stop thinking about it; it never does him any good to remember.)

“If you’d let me, I really think I could help you,” Bittle tells him, earnest. “It’s a bad one, that curse on you.”

And Kent remembers Alicia Owens flinching when her son laughed a certain way, his shoulders shaking, his head thrown back, exactly like Bob Zimmermann had, once upon a time. He remembers Gabby dressed in funeral black, bringing flowers for two graves; Sylvie and Claire talking about how they never knew their father; Amanda Owens vaulting over the porch railing and running for the woods at five in the morning, Liza Azevedo heading for the car in her dressing gown and slippers, crying as she gunned the engine and raced the opposite way—

Kent clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely, “I know.”

 

___

 

When he mentions his encounter to Lynn, she nearly spits out her drink. “No way! You talked to a Phelps?” she shrieks.

“Uh, yeah?”

“They’re famous,” she says, incredulous. “As in, they’re one of the most powerful and secretive clans in the American South. How do you not know this?”

Kent scoffs. “’Cause I’m not actually a warlock, and I don’t actually need to know this shit?”

“But you were gonna be Jack’s—” Lynn cuts herself off.

Right. He was gonna be Owens’—whatever. Owens was a scion of the most powerful coven on the Northeast Coast. His lover should’ve read up on this stuff.

Maybe that’s why he left, a small voice in his head whispers.

Lynn absorbs his silence and changes the subject after an awkward beat. “Anyway, I can’t believe you talked to a Phelps and lived to tell the tale. They hate our coven.”

“Wait, what?” Kent asks, his turn to be shocked. “Why would they hate the Parsons? We’re nobodies!”

Lynn rolls her eyes, her impatience palpable even on a computer screen. “Jesus, Kenny, I’m talking about Aunt Alicia’s family, duh.” She rests her chin against her knuckles. “One of their sons fell in love with an Owens witch.”

“And let me guess: the curse got him,” Kent says sourly.

“You betcha,” Lynn says, then glances askance at him. “You didn’t tell him who you were, did you?”

“…I told him I was Kent Parson from Ithaca, New York.”

Lynn closes her eyes and sighs. “Kenny.”

Kent takes off his snapback and runs a hand through his hair. “What the fuck else was I supposed to say, Lynn?” he demands, frustrated. “I’m not his anymore, you know that. I can’t claim his name for my own.”

“Not even when it would keep you safe?” she asks quietly.

Kent laughs, bitter. “When has the Owens name ever kept any of their lovers safe, ex or otherwise?”

She doesn’t reply. They both know the answer to that question.

Kent clears his throat. “Anyway, you know anything about the Bittle clan?”

“You mean the hunters?” Lynn asks, raising a skeptical brow. “Jesus, Kent, how do you not know any of these people, this is the basic who’s who of—oh, my God. Oh, my fucking God, you talked to Eric Bittle, didn’t you.”

Kent blinks. “Oh, you know him?”

Lynn starts shrieking again.

 

___

 

So, Bittle’s kinda famous. Very powerful, very charming, very highly sought after by various covens for his “exceptional breeding.”

Yeah. Even though he’s only sixteen. Good to know.

“Oh, my God, Kenny, you can’t let him know who you are,” Lynn says, pacing in her room back at the Parson apartment. “Don’t ever answer his calls again. It’s one thing for the Phelps coven to know about you, it’s another thing entirely to get involved with the Bittles.”

“Lynn—”

“I’m serious, Kenny! They’re not shy about using their magic to kill anyone who’s a threat—they’re dangerous. If you don’t stay away from them, I’m telling Aunt Amanda,” she says, crossing her arms.

“Fine, fine,” Kent says, crossing his fingers beneath his desk where she can’t see them, “I won’t talk to Bittle again.”

 

___

 

He talks to Bittle again.

“So I hear you’re famous,” Kent says.

“That’s rich coming from you, Mr. Face-of-a-Franchise,” Bittle chirps back, and Kent laughs, surprised.

“Oh, hell,” Bittle says, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to be so rude.”

“Nah,” Kent says, tipping his chair back as he talks into his phone, “I started it.”

Bittle hums. “Your coven’s young, isn’t it?” he asks tactfully.

“You mean we’re new blood? Yeah,” Kent says. “One of my friends was a nephew of a witch, and she picked up on my gift. I don’t even count as a warlock—I’m basically just a run-of-the-mill silver-tongue.”

“Mm, yes, ‘run-of-the-mill’ silver-tongues can get the refs to make calls in their team’s favor seven times out of ten,” Bittle says.

Kent laughs again, delighted. “Hey, I only use my gift when it’s clear that it should be called in our favor.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s the case, Parse. I never doubted you for a second,” Bittle says sardonically.

Somehow, some way, Kent loses two hours talking to him.

 

___

 

The thing is, talking about the curse to somebody, even in vague, oblique terms, is really fucking liberating. Talking to somebody who wants to help him try and break it? Is like busting out of jail with a grenade while screaming, “So long, suckers!”

“Let me get this straight,” Bittle asks, three weeks into their acquaintance. “Your curse is a summoning?”

“Far as I can make out, yeah,” Kent says, shrugging. That’s how Ja—Owens had always described what his ancestor had done, the few times they’d talked about it.

“And it summons death? What kind?” Bittle presses.

“I don’t know, the sudden kind,” Kent says.

“Parse,” Bittle says, disapproving.

“No, really, as far as I can make out that’s the only connection. People have died in car accidents, by heart attack, through trees fucking falling on them out of nowhere—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Bittle asks, incredulous, “you’re telling me this is a generational curse?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“Oh, sweetie,” Bittle says. “I’m so sorry. That must be so tough for your family.”

Kent clears his mysteriously tight throat. “It is, yeah,” he says after a moment.

“Well, don’t worry, honey,” Bittle says, “you’ve got a Phelps on your side now. There’s only one curse we haven’t been able to break, and that one’s—well, you know.”

“I know?” Kent says, confused.

“Oh, right, you’re new blood—which honestly just makes it worse that somebody cursed your family, who even does that? Targeting a new coven, they ought to be ashamed of themselves—anyway, I was talking about the Owens curse.”

Kent swallows. “Oh. Right.”

“Oh, good, you have heard of it,” Bittle says.

“Yeah.” He bites his lip, unsure of what to say. “They, uh, they—got one of your family members once, right?”

“Right. The son of the head of the coven at the time,” Bittle answers. “My whole family was devastated, especially because the witch in question went on to kill four more people after him.”

“Oh,” Kent says, numbly.

“Right? Isn’t that terrible? Honestly, the decent thing to do is to separate from their significant other once they get the warning—which they claim is some random ticking noise, like who’s ever heard of such a thing? But do most of them do that? No! They just let their lovers keel over and move onto the next one. It’s a shame, is what it is. If you ever meet an Owens witch, you run in the other direction, you hear?”

“Yeah. Okay. I’ll—I’ll do that, yeah,” Kent says, and then he makes some excuse and hangs up.

 

___

 

He’s never—he’s never heard it put quite like that. He’s heard plenty of talk about Jack Zimmermann, hockey prodigy, the son who should’ve been his father’s heir, but ran away from the kingdom instead.

But he’s never heard talk like this about Jack Owens, pariah of the magic community. Jesus fucking Christ, Bittle made it sound like the Owens family didn’t care what happened to their lovers, didn’t care about what happened to their spouses, to the fathers and mothers of their children.

Kent closes his eyes and thinks about hearing when Gabby’s latest boyfriend died last summer, thinks about how this year would’ve been the fifty-fifth anniversary of Jack’s grandparents’ marriage, thinks about how they never even reached ten.

He remembers Jack underneath him, his blue eyes blown wide open, his fingers laced tightly with Kent’s, sobbing, “I love you,” like the confession was being ripped out of him, like it was a shameful thing, a terrible thing, instead of the thing that Kent wanted most in his entire life.

He knew. He knew why Jack didn’t want to see him anymore. Knew what it was he couldn’t take, knew the nightmares that haunted him.

Knew with complete certainty that, had their positions been reversed, he would’ve done the same.

Doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

 

___

 

Six months into his acquaintance with Bittle, Kent says, “I don’t understand how I’m still cursed.”

Lynn told him the news yesterday: Jack was seeing someone else, some guy named George. And that…makes sense. The whole point of this was to move on, and if Jack wasn’t moving on, then why’d he leave in the first place?

He was probably being smarter about it, too, more like Aunt Bea this time around: keeping it casual, choosing somebody who didn’t get attached easily. Instead of choosing somebody like Kent, who was ready to elope with him a month after meeting him. God, no wonder Jack had been so stubborn about calling themselves best friends all those years. It was obvious in hindsight that he was trying to ward off the curse.

The curse which, according to Bittle, was still intact and not going anywhere anytime soon, though at least it also wasn’t actively harming him.

Bittle makes a tsk-ing noise. “It wouldn’t be much of a curse if it didn’t stick around.”

Which. True enough, but Kent isn’t the person it should be sticking to. He was the object the curse focused on, not the person subjected to it. Not that he could tell Bittle that, but he tries to explain it anyway, which is honestly a lot easier to do now that he’s more familiar with how magic works. He thinks Lynn may have had a point when she kept urging him to brush up on this stuff, but admitting that would give her bragging rights for years, and he’s not about to do that.

“As far as I can tell, the curse’s anchor is emotional, right?” Kent says instead. “The presence of certain feelings in me triggers the summoning, so if those emotions are gone, then the curse should be gone, too, right?”

“If those emotions were self-contained, yes,” Bittle replies. “But this curse is designed to kill anyone you consider a best friend. That’s more complicated—the curse would be anchored by several emotions and states of being at once: affection, loyalty, trust, fraternal love, etc. And the feelings have to be mutual, of course, in order to enact a curse this strong and complex.”

“So as long as I think of this person as my best friend, then they have a chance of dying?” Kent presses.

“Hmm, not really? As long as one of you stops considering the other their best friend, then the curse should move on to a different target, or become dormant until you developed a comparable bond. The fact that it’s still around and robust means the current bond is still mutual,” Bittle explains.

And that—that makes no fucking sense at all. Jack doesn’t—Owens doesn’t love him anymore. He’s the one who’s still hung-up on him. There isn’t anything mutual about this hell he’s stuck in.

Is there?

“Hey,” Bittle says quietly, “good luck with your game.”

“Huh? Oh! Oh, yeah,” Kent says hastily, tuning back into the conversation. “Thanks, man, that means a lot. And thanks for the jam, too, I’ve been using it for my pre-game sandwiches.”

“You have?” Bittle says, sounding surprised.

Kent chuckles. “Dude, it’s fucking delicious, it’s a miracle I haven’t just eaten all three of the jars yet. Which would be a bad idea, considering we’re only on game five.”

“‘Only’ game five,” Bittle scoffs. “Need I remind you that if you win tomorrow, you’ll win the Stanley Cup, O Wise Captain?”

“Shh, don’t jinx it,” Kent says, smiling.

“Don’t worry,” Bittle replies, “you’re going to do just fine. Call it—call it a gut feeling.”

Kent furrows his brows. “Eric Bittle,” he says, suspicious, “do you know something I don’t know?”

“No,” Bittle says softly, “but I know you. You’ll win tomorrow.”

Jack used to reassure him like this. Kent swallows past the lump in his throat. “Thanks, man,” he says again. “You—you’re pretty great, you know that?”

“So I’ve been informed by several reliable sources, none of which include you,” Bittle says dryly, and Kent is laughing when he says his farewells.

“Bye, Bittle,” he says.

“Bye, Parse,” is the gentle answer.

 

___

 

The Aces win game five, and Kent Parson has his first Stanley Cup win as captain.

It’s been a year and a half since they broke up, but for some fucking reason, Kent still looks over at the stands and expects Jack Owens to be there.

He’s not. Of course he’s not, but Kent still has the breath knocked out of him for a second or three before he shakes it off and skates through it.

You’ve got this this. You’re going to do just fine, a small voice inside him says.

And part of him—the part that’s paying attention, the part that once looked into Jack Owens’ eyes for the first time and whispered, This one—that part listens to that voice and notes that it’s Bittle’s.

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 6: the summer king's kisses taste of salt & honey

 


 

 

Jack Owens’ senior year is taken up entirely by magic and hockey, in that order.

In August, he’s put in charge of a single frog for the yearly hazing ritual. Thankfully, the juniors are the ones who are mostly handling the whole thing, which means his fellow seniors can’t sabotage him that badly. Honestly, they’ll be lucky if they make it to the Frozen Four this year, with how fractured their leadership is. This is the first year where Jack won’t have any upperclassmen to back him up, where he’s getting most of his support from the juniors and sophomores. He wishes he could make it a better experience for the freshmen, but he’ll settle for cohesiveness on the ice and call it a day.

Then he actually meets his freshman, and if the rest of the first-years are anywhere near as unflappable as B. Shitty Knight, then Jack probably doesn’t have to be that worried.

“Brah,” Shitty drawls, “I demand that you strip me of my clothing. No hazing is complete without this ritualized attack upon our fragile masculinity.”

“Um, do you mind waiting until we get to Faber?” Jack asks. “I don’t want you to have to walk naked through the quad.”   

“That is the height of considerate, O Cap’n, my Cap’n! I’m deeply touched,” the guy says.

“I was more concerned about the general public’s well-being, actually,” Jack chirps dryly. “Nobody should be subjected to your bare ass this early in the semester.”

Shitty blinks twice before breaking out into uproarious laughter. “I like you, man,” he declares. “I like you.”

And Jack’s a little surprised to find the feeling’s kind of mutual.

 

___

 

It turns out Shitty is also one of theirs—not a warlock, no, not even possessing a hint of the gift, but he is the grandson of a witch, though apparently his family doesn’t like talking about it. Jack gets it—magic has never been that respectable, and from what he can tell, Shitty’s folks are the “respectable” kind.

But between Johnson’s intel and Shitty’s connections, his search to end the Owens curse starts off on strong footing. By necessity, the Owens coven is a close-knit and isolated one, and though they’re infamous, they’re not exactly welcome in most places where their kind congregates. Shitty is Jack’s ticket into the gatherings and libraries closed to an Owens witch, and Johnson lets him know what information he can expect to find: notes on curse-breaking, accounts of the Owens curse at work, people’s speculations on its cause, etc., etc.

Seeing other people’s perception of the curse is—well, it’s a toss-up between wildly amusing and incredibly frustrating. Crisse, how could people think that they actually wanted to kill off their loved ones? And the theories they came up with, God. Hypothesizing what enabled the spell to work was apparently the magical equivalent of speculating on Jack the Ripper’s identity. What a riot.

(Jack has to quash the urge to call Parse and tell him some of the funnier stories. It’s not—that’s not his place anymore. Jack’s promised himself that even if—when—he breaks the curse, he won’t come crawling back to Parse, won’t beg him to take him back. Parse deserves better.)

 

___

 

There’s one unintended, bittersweet side-effect of taking up this course of action:

When Jack Owens introduces himself to new covens, pasting on his politest smile, he opens his mouth and says, “I’m Jack Zimmermann of Montréal.”

He thinks his father would have liked it, to have his name be used to grant his son entry into his wife’s world. A kind of poetic exchange, since Jack plays his father’s game with his mother’s name upon his back.

 

___

 

Samwell makes it to the Frozen Four for the third year in a row. Hell, they make it the final round, which is honestly a surprise to Jack. But the other seniors seem to have declared an unspoken truce for the sake of victory, and Jack won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, even if he still hexes Swisher’s skates out of spite some mornings.

 

___

 

During this time, Jack gets courted rather tenaciously by Georgia Martin of the Providence Falconers. He would suspect that Uncle Mario’s spell is still at work, but he melted the bastard down, so that can’t be it.

“Look,” he explains one morning while they’re jogging, “you know who I am, right?”

George shoots him a questioning look. “Yes? Jack Owens, Bad Bob Zimmermann’s son.”

“No,” Jack says, stopping them at Magnolia Lane. “I’m Jack Owens. You know what that means, don’t you?”

George raises her brows, her expression faintly surprised and, Jack thinks, impressed. “Okay, what gave me away?” she demands, dropping the glamour that shielded her gift. “I’m not even an active member of any coven.”

“Elizabeta Azevedo is an acquaintance of mine,” Jack says mildly, and George throws her head back and laughs ruefully.

“Oh, for cryin’—jeez, you know my girlfriend’s aunt?” George says, incredulous, planting her hands on her hips.

Jack shrugs. “Small community. You know how it is.”

George nods. “I know how it is.” She cocks a brow at him. “So? What’s the problem with being an Owens?”

“The curse,” Jack says bluntly.

George waves a hand, “Yes, but that doesn’t affect your ability to play hockey.”

“It will when I’m looking to break it,” Jack says.

George gives a low whistle. “Wow. Isn’t that—”

“Risky? Yes.” Jack’s heard the lecture a thousand times from every one of his relatives, but better him than Gabby, or Claire, or Sylvie. He shrugs.

“Well, if that’s your goal, then think of the advantages of being a professional player: in addition to the salary, all the travel we do would help your exposure to different methods of curse-breaking,” George argues. “It would be a benefit to be a member of the team.”

Which is definitely a unique spin on the appeal of roadies. Still: “I don’t think it would be helpful to split my attention between hockey and magic that way,” Jack says.

“If that were true, you wouldn’t be playing hockey now, either,” George points out reasonably. “If you were that devoted to breaking the curse, you’d already have stopped.”

“Maybe this is my last hurrah,” Jack counters.

“Or maybe you just love the game,” Georgia shoots back.

Which is true enough. But—“Playing in the NHL isn’t exactly conducive to nurturing my love for the game,” Jack says. “I don’t—I know what it’s like to play on a team that resents you for who you are. I don’t plan on doing that for another fifteen years.”

George argues, “My guys are different—hell, some of them are hockey legacies themselves. They wouldn’t shun you. We’re a solid team, a good one, and we could use somebody like you.”

“Even if I’m queer?”

A beat of silence. Then, “Wow, you really don’t hold back, do you?”

Jack shrugs. “Not in my nature. Besides, you’re dating Raquel. I figured you wouldn’t be one to judge.”

“Mm, safe call, I guess.” She crosses her arms. “Alright, I see your point. And while I can’t promise that all of my guys would be completely comfortable with it, I can promise that the core of my team would be. That you would be an important part of the kind of organization I’m trying to build.”

And Jack—Jack is tempted. He loves hockey, loves being on the ice, loves feeling weightless and free and near-to-flying, but—

But.

“Thanks,” Jack says gently, meaning it in his bones, “but that doesn’t solve the problem of the curse.”

“Well, I don’t see why—”

“Could you guarantee that I would be able to take a scratch anytime we played a certain team?” Jack says, looking at his feet. “That I would never be on the same ice as this one player?”

Another silence, longer this time. “Jack—are you—is there—”

“I’m saying that I love hockey, but if it came down to it, it wouldn’t matter if it was the Stanley Cup Finals. Once I hear the ticking, I’d be off the ice and out the door. I’m not risking the person I love,” Jack says firmly. “I’m not. Don’t sign me if that’s not the player you want, because that’s the player I am.”

George looks at him, and nods slowly. “Okay,” she says, “okay.”

 

___

 

Jack graduates from Samwell in May, his whole family coming to watch him. George is in the stands, too, along with her girlfriend, who’s standing next to Aunt Amanda, all three of them laughing.

Jack signed with the Falcs back in April. When he walks across the stage, he knows exactly where he is and where he’s going, and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.

Parse’s voice in the stands, cheering loudly as he receives his diploma, is one of those things.

 

___

 

In June, the Aces win the Cup again. Jack listens to every game in the house on Magnolia Lane, Sylvie and Claire commentating in the living room while Jack sits at the top of the stairwell and uses his heightened senses to hear every word, crystal-clear. He uses his foresight to catch glimpses of the games, too:

Parse will steal the puck and tear down the ice, no one fast enough to catch him—

—Parse will send a pass to Swoops, who’s got a clear shot at the net—

—Parse will slam into Cricket for a celly, all exuberant joy—

—Parse will hoist the Cup over his head, sweaty, disheveled, flushed with victory and gorgeous with it.

“They won!” Claire shrieks. “Jackie, they won, they won!”

Jack already has his phone in his hand, his congratulations typed out half a minute before.

Letter by letter, he deletes it.

You promised, he tells himself. You promised you wouldn’t risk him.

Yeah? Once upon a time you promised him you’d grow old together. Which one is it gonna be, Jackie? a voice in his head replies, sarcastic, familiar. He knows whose voice it is.

Jack tucks his phone into his pocket and ignores it.

 

___

 

His rookie season with the Falcs goes surprisingly well. Jack’s gotten so used to having to work his ass off for everything that just sitting back and letting himself enjoy something he loves is…kind of something he has to get used to again.

Huh.

Who’d have thought? Jack Owens, warlock, is still head over heels for hockey. Go figure.

 

___

 

Jack is spending his Sunday hanging out with his old Samwell crew—plus Shitty’s two frogs, a pair of D-men he’s nicknamed Ransom and Holster; Jack likes them, and they’re very nice, if slightly awestruck—when the bartender switches the channel to the Aces vs. Schooners game.

Jack tenses, his eyes darting to the exit, but they just ordered food and it would be rude to leave this suddenly without any warning. Besides, it should be safe now. It’s been more than two years, surely Parse has moved on. Jack’s just being paranoid.

So he sits there and drinks in the sight of Kent Parson on the ice.

The ticking starts in third period.

Fuck, Jacks thinks, bolting for the door.

 

___

 

Later, at his apartment, he stares at the ceiling and thinks, Fuck.

Parse is—Parse is still in love with him. That’s the only explanation. Unless—

Maybe the curse got worse. Maybe Jack’s unrequited feelings are enough, maybe his magic is too strong, maybe it’s the combined summoning that’s doing this—

But it’s the first reason that has him half-hard in his sweatpants, that has him reaching a hand down and touching himself quietly, furtively:

Kent Parson still loves me, Jack lets himself imagine, and he comes all over his fist.

 

___

 

Jack takes a scratch for the Falcs vs. Aces game. George’s face is impassive when he lets her know beforehand, though he can see her filing away the information, noting that it must be one of their players. If she does a little digging, she’s sure to figure it out. There are enough pictures of him and Parse floating around, especially from their summers together.

Jack’s fine with it. He trusts George to keep his secrets.

 

___

 

After the game (which the Aces win, 4-2, making Jack’s gut twist with guilt—the Falcs probably could’ve done better if he were there), somebody comes pounding on his apartment door.

“Coming!” he yells, figuring that it’s most likely his asshole neighbor, who’s convinced that he can smell pot coming from Jack’s apartment, no matter how many times Jack has tried to explain that it’s incense instead. Jack opens the door without looking who’s on the other side. “Hey—”

It’s not the asshole neighbor. It’s Parse.

“Oh, shit,” Jack says.

Parse coolly raises an eyebrow at him. “You going to let me in?” he says, then he shoulders his way into the apartment before Jack can answer.

“Uh, what are you—”

“Look, I’ll cut to the chase,” Parse says, surveying Jack’s living room with a slight derisive curl to his lips. Jack doesn’t know what he’s feeling, a jumble of annoyance and longing and love and shame and incredulous, giddy shock all warring in his belly. “I don’t want to beat your team just because you decided to run for the hills with your tail tucked between your legs. It’s not—Jesus, Owens, we’re both here to play hockey, right? You don’t have to fucking avoid me anymore, it’s been years.”

Kent Parson stands there, irritation and condescension written all over his face, and Jack doesn’t know whether he wants to punch him or kiss him.

“Uncle Mario put a summoning spell on you,” Jack blurts out instead.

Why? Jack asks himself a second later, despairing. Why do you always do this to yourself?

Parse wrinkles his nose in confusion, such a familiar expression that it tears Jack’s heart to pieces inside of him. “What the fuck? That doesn’t make any sense, I’d be playing for the Pens now if that were the case, wouldn’t I?”

“No, I mean—he put a summoning spell on me, and it summoned you. That’s why we met. People who would help me with hockey were supposed to be drawn to me, and you—you got caught in the mess. And then the curse started using it to hone in on you, so whenever you were playing and I saw you, I’d hear the ticking, and—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Parse says, holding up a hand. “You’re telling me the curse gets stronger when I’m playing hockey?”

Jack nods reluctantly.

Parse rolls his eyes. “Well, that’s fucking annoying. Glad you finally told me the reason for the break-up, all this time later. Good to know.” He sighs, obviously done with this whole thing, and Jack can’t blame him. “So. Here it is. Closure, moving on, etc., etc. Will you get over your self-inflicted guilt trip and put on your damn skates next time?”

Jack licks his lips, suddenly aware that he’s on shaky ice. “Euh—I can’t.”

Parse shoots him an exasperated look. “Care to share why with the class?” he says, gesturing sarcastically.

Jack hedges, “Well, Uncle Mario’s spell coerces you into having feelings for me—”

“What the fuck? Owens, even I know that’s not how a summoning works, Jesus,” Parse interrupts, glaring at him from beneath the brim of his snapback. “So it brought me to you, so what? My moronic ass falling head over heels for you was—well, it wasn’t exactly my choice, because that implies that an executive decision was made along the line, and let me tell you, it wasn’t—but it wasn’t magically induced. I fell in love with you because you were—you know.” Parse waves a hand up and down in Jack’s general direction. “You.”

“Oh,” Jack says faintly.

Parse smiles, crooked and wry, and he needs to stop doing that right now. Jack can’t handle any more of this. It’s already taking all he has not to breathe in like a caveman, inhaling Parse’s scent: citrus and salt and sweat, with the faint metallic smell of blood pooling beneath his skin, proof of his fresh, newly-earned bruises.

“Yeah. ‘Oh,’” Parse says, and he leans against the back of Jack’s couch. “Fuck, Owens, and here I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.” He rubs the back of his neck. “So, are we cool now? Are we good?”

Jack shakes his head. “I don’t—but I—but it doesn’t make any sense. I still hear the ticking, and if it’s not thanks to Uncle Mario’s meddling, then why—” Jack lets out a sigh.

It’s gotta be him. It’s gotta be his fixation on Parse, his absolute inability to let him go.

Even here, even now, he’s trying to think of ways to get him to stay.

Parse looks at him with a narrowed gaze. “I’ve been doing some research,” he says slowly.

“Who, you?” Jack chirps, and Parse rolls his eyes.

“Yes, me. And everything I’ve heard has told me the same thing—that for the curse to work, it’s got to be mutual,” Parse says.

“Yes, of course, we’ve been over this,” Jack says, crossing his arms. “It should leave you alone now. You’re over me, so I don’t get why you’re not safe yet—what?” Jack demands.

Parse is looking at him, a serious expression on his face. “Why are you so insistent that it’s me? That I’m the reason that the curse can’t still be working?” he asks quietly. “How come you’re so sure that I’m the one who’s over you? Why can’t it be you?”

Jack snaps his mouth closed, his face flushing. Parse zeroes in on it, and Jack gets a flash of the future:

“You’re still in love with me, aren’t you?” Parse will ask, and Jack’s answer will be written all over his face.

“I’m not,” he’ll protest, but even he can hear the goddamn lie in his voice. He’s always been shit at lying to Parse. “Parse, I swear I’m not, I swear I wouldn’t—”

Parse will grab him by the front of his shirt and sock him in the jaw.

Parse starts to say, “You’re still—” but Jack’s already running for his bedroom.

 

___

 

In hindsight, this was a stupid decision, because Parse ends up tackling him to the bed. By the time they’re done wrestling, they’re both breathing hard, and Parse is sitting astride Jack’s hips, his hands pinning Jack’s wrists above his head, their mouths inches away from each other.

“You bastard,” Parse says, panting, his ice-blue eyes locked onto Jack’s. “You fucker, you’ve been in love with me this whole time, haven’t you—”

“Yes!” Jack barks, turning his head to the side. “Crisse, yes, I’m still in love with you! Are you happy now?” He squeezes his eyes shut. “God, I—I tried so hard not to be. I tried, okay, it’s not like I want to put you at risk—”

His voice breaks, and he stops.

Christ, this is humiliating. He’d try and squirm away, but Parse’s ass is nestled against his half-hard cock, his body betraying him and reacting the way it always does when Parse is in proximity, burning up like Parse is a flame and he’s the tinder. There’s nowhere for him to go, nowhere for him to hide, so he lies there and trembles underneath him.

Parse exhales sharply. “Jack Laurent Zimmermann Owens, you are a certifiable moron, and that is a fact,” he snarls, and then he’s leaning down and kissing the living daylights out of him.

Wait, what? Jack thinks, but Parse’s hips grind down against his, filthy and achingly familiar, and Jack whines and arches up on instinct.

“You fucking idiot,” Parse says between angry kisses, leaning all his weight against Jack’s wrists. “You goddamn son of a—you wasted two years, did you know that? You—I’ve been in love with you this entire time, and you decide to be a fucking martyr and fuck off on your own, and—”

Parse pulls back, his voice breaking. Jack opens his eyes to see Parse’s face twisted up, a mess of hurt and hope and relief.

“Kenny,” he says, “Kenny, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.”

Parse shakes his head. “You could’ve talked to me. You could’ve explained. You—fuck, Jack, I love you. Is it so hard to let me know the same?”

“Yes,” Jack admits.

Parse mashes his face against the side of Jack’s neck. “God,” he says, groaning with frustration and amusement both, “Jackie, what am I going to do with you?”

Jack takes a deep breath and says, “Whatever you want.”

Parse sits up and looks down at him, finally letting go of Jack’s wrists so he can cup Jack’s face in his hands. Jack keeps his arms above his head, keeps his body loose and pliant underneath Parse’s, and waits.

“Do you mean that?” Parse asks quietly.

“Yes,” Jack answers.

Parse sighs, the tension leaving his shoulders, and he runs a hand down Jack’s side. “Strip,” he orders, magic lacing his voice, and Jack scrambles to obey.

The years have been good to Parse—he’s filled out, bulked up, and Jack runs reverent hands all over his body, traces over the new scars, places his mouth against the purple bruises from today’s game, against the fading yellow-green marks from earlier in the season.

“Oh, fuck,” Parse moans, eyes wide with stupefied wonder when Jack takes him in his mouth. “Oh, my God, Jack, is this real? Is this happening, are you here, am I making this up—oh, fuck, oh, fuck,” he keens, tossing his head back as Jack swallows him down. His hands grasp Jack’s hair and tug hard as he dissolves into wordless moans, and there, that’s better. Jack still knows how to do this for him, Jack can still be good for him, he can.

“Oh, shit, baby, stop—stop, I’m gonna come otherwise,” Parse gasps after a few minutes, pulling Jack off, who goes with one last lick to the head of his cock, savoring Parse’s helpless shudder. “C’mere, c’mon, I wanna fuck you,” and Jack lets himself get arranged to Parse’s satisfaction. His knees are hooked over Parse’s shoulders, there’s a pillow beneath his ass, and Parse is scrambling through the bedside drawer for the lube.

“Jesus, Jackie, where are your condoms?” he complains, and Jack blinks up at him, confused.

“I don’t have any,” he replies.

Parse freezes, his mouth dropping open. “You don’t have any? Jesus, Jack, what kind of risks have you been taking—”

Jack shakes his head, impatient. “I don’t need condoms. There hasn’t been anyone since you.”

Parse gapes down at him. “You—what?”

Jack rolls his eyes, studiously ignoring the heat blooming on his cheeks. “Look, what’s the point of dating if the other person might end up dead because of me?”

Parse splutters, “I—but—Lynn said you were seeing some guy named George?”

Jack laughs. “You mean Georgia Martin, manager for the Falcs?” he says, raising a brow at Parse.

Now it’s Parse’s turn to blush. “Oh, fuck, I’ve been jealous over nothing, haven’t I?” he says.

Jack shrugs, and Parse chuckles ruefully before going silent. He traces a line from Jack’s hip to his knee, contemplative. “Baby,” Parse says softly, his eyes remorseful, “I didn’t wait for you.”

Jack shakes his head, taking his hand and squeezing it. “Didn’t want you to. Wanted you to move on,” he says honestly, ignoring the faint tug of hurt Parse’s admission causes him.

Parse lets out a laugh that’s nearly a sob. “I couldn’t—Jack, I couldn’t,” he says, truth in every word, and Jack pulls him down and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.

“Take me,” he whispers against Parse’s lips. “Kenny, make me yours again, I want it, I want you—”

And Kent Parson swallows his words and does as he asks.

 

___

 

“Don’t do that to me again,” Parse says, after, cocooned in Jack’s arms like he never left. “Don’t shut me out again. Please. I couldn’t take it.”

“I won’t,” Jack promises. “I won’t.”

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 7: a house for all seasons is not built in a day

 


 

 

Eric Bittle is a kitchen warlock through and through, raised in one of the oldest covens in the American South. He’s always gotten along better with his mother’s side than his father’s, so when he comes of age at sixteen, he writes his name in the Phelps’ registry.

“Junior, are you sure about this?” his father asks, torn between relief and disappointment. Relief that his son knows what he’s best at and isn’t afraid to declare it, disappointment that it isn’t what he wanted him to want.

Eric knows the feeling. “Yes, Daddy,” he says, carefully putting on a smile. “I’m sure about this.”

 

___

 

Eric Bittle meets Kent Parson that same year, heading up north to Nashville with his team to catch the Preds game. They go for autographs after, since they’ve come all this way, so why not?

Then Eric shakes Kent Parson’s hand:

“Oh,” he says, shocked to feel the spark of magic licking up his skin, “oh, you’re one of ours.”

He sends a touch of his own magic up, and Kent Parson looks at him sharply, eyes widening in sudden recognition.

“Oh,” Parson says, and his hand tightens around Eric’s, his magic blooming, opening, surging up wild and irrepressible, about as far from prim and proper as you can get.

Good Lord, does he know what he’s doing, with an invitation like that? Eric thinks, startled, aroused, and embarrassed all at once.

Then he tastes it: the faint metallic tang of a curse in waiting.

Well, Eric thinks, hiding a fierce and sudden grin, what do we have here?

 

___

 

To be honest, Eric isn’t surprised that Parse has been cursed. He’s so—so open, so vulnerable, possessing the kind of magic that’s new and young and hard to resist, especially for old covens like Eric’s own. He might not have much of the gift, true, but what he has is…tantalizing. Delicious.

(Mine, Eric’s magic purrs, and Eric has to grit his teeth and shove it down.)

Still, it would behoove whomever cast the curse to have had a sense of decency and morality. Eric can understand the urge to possess and to claim, but curses were not the way to go about reacting to a rejection.

Then Eric learns that the curse is generational, and not tailored just to Parse.

Oh, hell, he thinks, dismayed.

 

___

 

He took on Parse’s case mostly because of the challenge. Well, that and the novelty—reminding himself that he’s acting counsel to an NHL player does wonders for his temper and his ego when his meathead hunter-cousins condescend to him at coven gatherings.

That’s how it starts, at least.

Along the way, it turns into something…different. Parse’s curse is complex, fascinating, and trying to crack it is one of his favorite things to do in his spare time. He might actually make an opus out of it, showcase it to the Southern regional covens once he’s gotten it finished, but—

But Eric would be lying if part of the appeal of talking to Parse about his curse isn’t Parse himself, lively and sweet and silver-tongued. Lord, if he were alive a hundred years ago, Eric wouldn’t be surprised to see Parse paired off to a coven leader, draped over her shoulder for the express purpose of whispering sweet nothings into her ear. Well, that and being a charming host to their guests, using his gift not to coerce but to skillfully convince, all parties aware of the game and aware of what they’ll get out of it.

Parse talks for hours into his ear, and Eric suddenly understands why charmers are prized so highly despite their gift being a relatively common one.

 

___

 

He has to be careful, he knows. Homosexuality is a lot more acceptable amongst their own kind than the general public, but it’s also true that this applies primarily to female homosexuality. Lesbian and bisexual witches are common and celebrated; gay and bisexual warlocks are tearfully reminded that they have a duty to their clan and their family to at least try and procreate—think of the bloodlines!

And Eric’s glad for his cousin Polly and her girlfriend, he is—he just wishes he had a little more support for himself, as well.

But it’s a moot point, anyway. It’s not even as if anything could come of it. He doesn’t think Parse is anything but straight.

 

___

 

Then one day Eric calls a little earlier than usual.

“Hi!” he says brightly.

“’lo?” Parse mumbles, his voice rough from sleep.

Eric suddenly remembers the time difference. “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry—” he starts.

Then he hears a low, masculine rumble on the other end, too muffled to be Parse himself.

Parse confirms it a second later: “It’s just my friend, go back to sleep,” he instructs the stranger, and Eric squeezes his eyes shut, his stomach swooping. “Sorry ’bout that, you were saying?”

You like men, Eric thinks. You could like me.

“About your curse,” he says instead, “I was wondering if it was bloodline-based or magic-based—”

 

___

 

Alright, so it’s a possibility, him and Parse. There’s still a lot of hurdles to jump over, not the least of which is just the practical mundane considerations: their age difference, the distance, whether Parse would even be interested in Eric.

And this isn’t even taking into account the magical considerations—the disparity between their ages matters less to witches than the astronomical difference in their coven standings. To put it bluntly, Eric is coven royalty, and Parse is a smooth-talking peasant, good for bedding and pleasure and not much else. Parse’s coven is laughably young, so young that when Eric made inquiries of his allies in Albany, the name only drew blank stares and requests that he repeat himself. And yet they’ve managed to get themselves cursed in such a short period of time, which means that they were able to draw attention to themselves, even if it was the negative kind.

Actually, come to think of it, the curse probably wouldn’t have helped their status—a curse that killed off their closest friends would have made the Parson coven risky to be allies with, would have isolated them in a way few clans could afford.

(The notable exception being, as always, the Owens clan, who had enough power by themselves to control a medium-sized city, and had never fielded a challenge to their territory simply because there wasn’t anyone strong enough—or suicidal enough—to challenge them.)

Parse is an NHL star, is five years older and several million dollars richer, is handsomer and sexier and out of Eric’s league in every way but one, but it’s that one that worries Eric.

Eric’s one of the most powerful practitioners of the craft in the entire eastern United States. Parse is a slantwise son who can’t even be called a warlock, who had to be informed that Eric was famous in their circles, who cut off a lock of his hair and gathered a vial of his blood and sent it in the mail just because Eric mused out loud that samples of his DNA would be useful.

“Honey, what the hell were you thinking?” Eric asked, aghast, holding enough blood to hex Parse three times over in the palm of his hand. He’d sent in the mail. The mail.

“Well, I’m already cursed. What’s the worst that could happen?” Parse said, and Eric could almost hear his shrug.

“Parse, don’t you ever do something this stupid again, or I’ll show you,” Eric promised, and hung up.

So, you see, Eric would be the one taking advantage, and he knows it.

Doesn’t mean he isn’t still tempted.

 

___

 

Eric spends nine days pouring as many protective spells and healing charms and harmony-promoting potions as he can into the three jars of cherry jam that he sends Parse in the week before the play-offs start.

He watches the games at his co-captain Abigail’s house, and a spark of happiness and possessiveness goes off within him when he sees Parse aglow with his magic on the ice.

Mine, his magic purrs, and Eric doesn’t push it down.

 

___

 

Parse visits him in the summer, sunglasses perched jauntily on the bridge of his nose, a snapback thrown on backwards over his messy hair.

“Hey,” he calls out, sauntering across Eric’s territory like he owns it, “good to see you again, Bittle.” He pushes his sunglasses down, looks at Eric over the edge of them, his eyes the glinting green of a hunter’s blind. “Care to help me break a curse?”

“Gladly,” Eric says, and swings his door wide open. Parse steps over his threshold without any hesitation at all.

 

___

 

“Sweet baby Jesus,” Cousin Micki drawls when she visits that week, eyeing Parse where he’s sitting and chatting with Aunt Judy and Moo Maw. “You’ve landed yourself quite a catch, haven’t you, Dicky.”

“It’s not like that,” Eric hisses, and Micki tosses him an amused glance.

“Sure thing, honey,” she says, patting his cheek, “you keep telling yourself that.”

 

___

 

Nothing happens, of course. Eric is seventeen and the second-in-line to the most powerful coven in Georgia. He is an advisor to an unallied craft-worker—he’s not going to make a move until the curse is broken. Then he can approach Parse’s coven formally, make them an offer as equals, without the weight of debt and obligation hanging over them.

It’s probably going to take a while, true, but by then Eric would be legal, and Parse should have no objections from the mundane angle.

Eric’s thought this out. If everything goes according to plan, then he’ll have everything he’s ever wanted within five years’ time, easy.

 

___

 

Everything does not go according to plan.

A few months shy of turning eighteen, Eric Bittle gets a phone call. “Parse!” he says cheerfully, “how’re you doing?”

“Bittle,” Parse says, “um. I’ve gotten—there’s been—oh, shit, I don’t know the protocol for this.”

“Parse,” Eric says, alarmed, “what happened?”

“So, uh, my coven leader technically forbade me to speak with you—”

“Wait, what?”

“—except I ignored her and spoke to you anyway. But now I’ve, uh, gotten involved with one of the members of a coven my family is allied with, and, uh. Shit. I don’t know. They’re pretty invested in helping me break the curse, too, and I was going to tell them about you and how you’ve been helping me, but then I remembered that your coven has bad blood with theirs—oh, shit, I just gave the game away, didn’t I?”

“If by ‘game’ you mean ‘identity of the person you’re involved with,’ then, no, actually,” Eric says dryly, speaking as close to normally as possible and determinedly ignoring the sudden disappointment taking over him. “Believe it or not, but my family—both sides of it—has bad blood with a lot of covens, even before we start looking outside of the South. I don’t have a clue who you’re talking about.”

“Oh, good,” Parse says, sighing. “Anyway, do you want me to tell them about you? Maybe meet you? Or would you rather not—it’s your choice, I swear, I’ll do whatever you’re comfortable with.”

And Eric was about to tell him of course, he’d love to meet whomever he’s “involved” with—but then he registers the second half of what Parse said. “Parse,” he says slowly, “what would you do if I said I don’t want you to tell them about me?”

“I’d keep your name out of it,” Parse says automatically. “Actually, I just—I won’t mention you at all, if you want. I’ll say I learned what you’ve taught me from books and things.”

Which would be highly implausible, considering how most of what Eric’s taught him has been passed down through oral tradition, with a certain style to it that speaks to its Southern influence. Any witch worth their salt could figure out that Parse’s been talking to a Georgian witch.

“Oh, Parse,” Eric says fondly. This boy. It’s lucky that he’s not that involved with the community; he wouldn’t last a minute before getting caught up in something he shouldn’t.

Then he remembers the curse on Parse’s family and thinks wryly, Too late.

“You know, you could tell them about me, but I think I’d like to keep my name out of it,” Eric says. This is the smart thing to do, the thing that will keep both him and Parse out of any trouble, but Eric doesn’t say it because it’s smart. He says it because he wants to be Kent Parson’s secret, wants this proof that even if he’ll never come first, he’s still important to him. Important enough for his opinion to matter, important enough to go against his coven, important enough that he won’t tell his own significant other about him if Eric asks. It means something for their kind, where secrets and knowledge are the most valuable currency, where alliances and friendships are a mark of power.

“Okay,” Parse agrees, easy as anything, exactly how Eric knew he would.

“Then it’s a promise,” Eric says, and he lets that be enough.

 

___

 

Eric knows nothing much actually changes—Parse still calls him regularly, and they still talk about what shows they’re watching, the latest albums they’re listening to, whether or not Parse really should’ve done that ad campaign with Ralph Lauren (Eric maintains he should’ve held out for Gucci)—

Regular stuff, basically, with discussions about Parse’s curse tacked on as an afterthought.

But it’s different, too, in a way Eric can’t really pin down. Parse sounds…happier. More content. He doesn’t talk a lot about his boyfriend—and it must be a boyfriend, Eric’s caught him saying “he” once or twice—but Eric knows he thinks about him a lot. Plans things for him. Buys a present for him in March even though his birthday’s apparently in August. Shows up to games with love-bites on his neck like he doesn’t care to hide them.

Once, he Skypes with Eric while he’s in a hotel room in Boston, and he’s practically aglow with someone else’s magic, rich and thick and heady. Eric doesn’t recognize the aura—he doesn’t use his second sight often; it isn’t polite—but he can recognize strength when he sees it. Parse has taken up with someone from a powerful bloodline.

Eric asks about it obliquely, just to make sure Parse isn’t being coerced, but Parse laughs and shakes it off.

“Nah, it isn’t like that,” he says, his eyes soft and fond and far away. “We just love each other.”

“Oh,” Eric says stupidly. “That’s—that’s good.” And then he changes the subject before he can do something even stupider, like cry.

 

___

 

Then in April, Eric does dishes and watches Parse in a game against the Falcs, and—

a flash of red, pulsing in the corner of his eye, his second sight flaring hard as he turns his head in surprise

—Parse goes down.

“Oh, no,” Eric says, gasping. “Oh, no, oh, no—”

He runs for his spellbook and his phone, in that order.

 

___

 

“Talk to me,” Eric says the next day. “What happened?”

Parse protests, “Nothing! It was just a bad hit—”

“Don’t lie to me.”

A long moment. Then Parse sighs. “Are you sure it was the curse?”

Is he sure if it was—“Parse,” Eric says tersely, “I have the second sight. I know a curse in action when I see it. My family’s kind of famous for it, you know.”

“Oh. That’s—oh.” Parse sighs again. “I was kind of hoping it wasn’t the curse this time, actually. And it’s my fault, really, I wanted to see if it would affect me that badly—”

“Are you kidding me?” Eric demands, pacing the length of his kitchen. “You baited it? Parse, that is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, we’ve established that your curse is a bad one—”

“I know, I know—”

“No, you don’t!” Eric shouts. “You could’ve died! You—Parse, why would you do that? Did you—did you know it could go after you like that? I thought it was supposed to target your best friend, not you.”

“Oh. Well. It’s…a mutual death curse?” Parse says, sheepish, and Eric has to close his eyes and count to twenty.

“Are you telling me,” he says through gritted teeth, “that you knew this whole time that you were at risk, too?”

“…I didn’t want to worry you.”

Eric exhales hard. “That is the least helpful thing you could’ve done,” he accuses. “How’m I supposed to break the curse if I don’t even know how it works? Parse, I’m serious, if you ever lie to me like this again, we are having words.” And that’s about as serious a threat as he can utter, being a Phelps warlock—words were his family’s historic weapon of choice.

“I don’t…I haven’t…” Parse takes a shaky breath. “There are some things I can’t tell you. They’re not mine to tell, okay? I’m being as honest with you as I can, but if it’s not enough, I understand. You can back out, no hard feelings. This isn’t your fight.”

Of course it’s my fight! Eric wants to shout. You’re what I’m fighting for, you dense, idiotic, stubborn rock-head!

“If you think you can get rid of me that easily, you’ve got another thing coming,” he huffs instead. “Clear your calendar, you’re coming down to Georgia for a week.”

“Um…”

“That wasn’t a request,” Eric warns.

Parse laughs, the sound of it tired but fond. “Okay,” he says. “Can’t make it until late July, probably, but I’ll be there.”

“Promise?” Eric urges.

“Promise.”

 

___

 

“I’m taking Samwell’s offer,” he tells his mother the next day.

“Dicky!” she says, horrified, nearly dropping the pie lattice she’s working on.

“What? It’s got the best hockey team of the places that accepted me. And think about the scholarship,” he says, crossing his arms. Not to mention it’s super-friendly to the LGBTQ community, he thinks, but his mother is still coming to terms with that side of him, so he doesn’t push it.

“But—it’s Samwell,” his mother protests.

“So? It’s not like I’m going to fall in love with an Owens witch,” Eric replies. It’s not like he’s going to fall in love with any witch, period. “Besides, does it even make sense for us to avoid all of Massachusetts because of one coven? It’s not like we did anything wrong.”

“Your Moo Maw’s not going to like this,” his mother says. Moo Maw had loved her Uncle Richard, and hated the Owens witches with a passion for getting him killed.

“I know. But I’m going anyway,” Eric says.

 

___

 

(If there’s any clan that has more experience with a curse like Parse’s, Eric hasn’t heard of them. And the Owens witches aren’t fools—they may be heartless and unfeeling, but they’re not fools. Surely they’ll see the benefits of working with a Phelps curse-breaker. Surely.

Eric won’t let Parse die. He won’t. And if making nice with the most feared clan on the East Coast is the only way to save his life, then he’ll do it.)

 

___

 

The Aces don’t make it to the play-offs, thanks in part to Parse’s injury. The Falcs take the Cup that year, but Eric doesn’t watch the series. He’s knee-deep into a five-week spell when the finals happen, his eyes red-rimmed and his fingertips aching by the time he leaves his cousin’s workshop.

“Rare for you to take an interest in the hunter side of things,” Savannah notes. She eyes the shield-locket he’s crafted, Parse’s golden hair tucked inside like a secret, his blood bonded to the metal, the most potent protective charm Eric can make.

“Wouldn’t do to let my skills get rusty,” Eric says, and he slips the locket over his head and lets it rest against his beating heart.

There. That should keep him safe.

 

___

 

Parse comes by in late July, as promised, but this time he brings a friend.

“Oh, my,” Eric says, cooing over the lovely little lady in Parse’s arms, “who do we have here?”

“This is Kit,” Parse says, grinning as he sets her down so she can wind her way around Eric’s feet. “Kit Purrson.”

Eric raises a brow, clearly amused. “You named her after yourself.”

Parse shrugs, shameless. “She’s pretty enough to pull it off, yeah.” He makes kissy noises at the sleek black cat. “Aren’t you, girl?”

Eric pulls the cat into his lap, noting the magic thrumming faintly in her bones. “She’s a familiar, isn’t she?” he says, scratching underneath her chin.

“Yeah.” Parse tucks his hands into his pockets. “My Aunt Bea’s cat had a litter, asked me if I wanted one. And I thought, you know, why not? I miss Purrs a bunch, but he’s Lynn’s familiar, and Ja—my friend thought it’d be good if I had one of my own. So here we are.”

“Here we are,” Eric murmurs. He thought he recognized the magic; this cat is a gift from Parse’s lover’s coven. A courting-gift if Eric ever saw one. Eric thinks of the hunter’s hounds his uncle raises, how he’s been spending time with a particular one, golden and lean and smart as a whip. Gramercy, he’s named her. A word expressing thanks, a word for a surprise unlooked for, but still gratefully accepted.

In another world, she might’ve been his courting-gift to Parse.

Well. Too late now.

Eric presses a kiss to the top of Kit’s head and hands her back. “Alright,” he says, “let’s get to work.”

 

___

 

The curse is stronger than ever in Parse, clinging so thickly that it almost obscures the lingering aura of Parse’s lover. Almost.

Parse doesn’t have enough of the gift to throw on a glamour to hide it, drawing sharp looks from most of Eric’s coven, a consequence of having a family where a good two-thirds of them have the second sight. Eric’s resigned himself to being pulled aside by well-meaning (and gossip-loving) relatives who want to know what he’s getting himself into.

“Are you going to start a feud over him?” Aunt Judy asks, wringing her hands, anxious.

“No, Auntie, we’re just friends,” Eric assures her.

She glances askance at him, which he thinks is just deeply unfair. “That lover of his, she’s a strong one,” she warns, disregarding his words. “You could probably take her, of course, but be sure that’s what you want. You know these silver-tongues—they can be very fickle.”

“Parse isn’t like that,” Eric says, irritated into exasperation. “He’s loyal.” And you liked him well enough last year, he wants to add petulantly. But that was last year, of course, when the magic that had been clinging to Parse had been Eric’s own.

And as the days pass, this slowly becomes true again, as Eric feeds Parse pies baked with protective spells, spoonfuls of magic-infused honey, tea steeped alongside shielding charms, anything and everything to keep him safe.

Cousin Micki clicks her tongue in disapproval. “This isn’t smart of you, Dicky. He should at least pay you for the trouble if he’s not going to put out.”

“He’s my friend,” Eric says stubbornly. “He doesn’t need to pay me. I’m doing this as a favor.”

“I’m just saying,” she says, wagging her finger at him, but Eric ignores her.  

 

___

 

It doesn’t help that most witches outside their family don’t have the second sight, and thus can’t see that Parse is taken. Or, well, that Parse is taken by someone who isn’t Eric.

“What a charmer that young man of Eric’s is,” he overhears old Mrs. Agatha Cartwright telling his mother. “Your coven always did have good taste. Will we be hearing of an alliance soon?”

“Oh, that’s not—Dicky’s still so young, you know,” his mother replies, flustered.

Mrs. Cartwright sniffs, disapproving. “These modern notions, I never did approve. Why, in my day, Eric should’ve already been married, not dragging his feet when making an offer.”

“Is it trouble with Mr. Parson’s coven?” Mrs. Langley asks. “You know, some of these Yankees don’t have any sense of the way things ought to be done. Do we need to send a representative from the guild? Would that be helpful, dear?”

“Oh, that really wouldn’t—I don’t think that’s going to be necessary,” Suzanne Phelps says, and Eric decides it’s time to break out the pies so they can have something else to do besides speculate over his nonexistent love life.

“Oh, look, the lemon’s done!” he says, cheerily, and all but shoves a slice into Mrs. Cartwright’s hands.

 

___   

 

Eric bids Parse goodbye standing at the threshold of his house, carefully keeping his magic contained so it doesn’t spill over and cling to Parse. He’s not rude, won’t put a claim on someone who isn’t his, no matter what his cousins suggest. It’s Parse’s choice, and if he’s happy, Eric’s happy.

“Here,” Eric says, handing a leather bracelet over to him.

Parse lifts his brow. “Another one?” he jokes, jangling his already crowded wrist.

Eric shakes his head. “No. It’s for your best friend.” Your lover, he thinks. He’s not unaware that Parse’s interest in breaking the curse spiked after he took up with his boyfriend. “Wouldn’t want them getting hurt, either.”

Parse looks surprised. “Oh, that’s—wow, thanks. That’s really nice of you. I’ll, uh, pass it along.” He pockets the bracelet, and bites his lip.

Eric tilts his head. “What?”

“Uh, you don’t—you don’t have to make them things, if it’s difficult,” Parse says awkwardly, and, oh, God, does he think Eric is trying to make a move on his man? It could be construed that way, if you were the jealous type of magic-worker, but Parse has never seemed that territorial, unlike Eric himself.

“No!” Eric rushes to reassure him. “No, not at all, I just wanted them to be safe, too, since they’re so important to you. And since the curse is going to target them and everything.”

Parse smiles sheepishly. “Right. The curse.” He looks away.

Eric narrows his eyes, suspicious. “The curse isn’t targeting them, is it?”

Parse squints at the porch ceiling and shrugs.

“…you’re the only one at risk, aren’t you?”

“Not the only one,” he protests, but Eric’s already shaking his head.

“For God’s sake,” he says, exasperated.

“What? It doesn’t change that much, does it? I’m still the one in danger,” Parse says, wrinkling his nose.

Which was true enough, but it’s the unfairness of the thing that Eric’s angry about right now. This was a vicious, spiteful spell, no two ways about it. To target any member of a coven with a strong bond of trust with someone else—no wonder Parse’s family is still so unknown. Maybe they’re not new blood at all, maybe they’re what’s left after the curse got the rest of their coven, if they were anywhere near loyal as Parse.

Eric reaches over and pulls Parse down into a hug. “You be safe now, you hear?” he says fiercely, muffled against Parse’s shoulder. “Keep the charms on you. And if it gets worse, you come find me, okay?”

“Eric—”

“You find me,” he orders, and he doesn’t let go until Parse sighs and says, “Alright. I will.”

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 8: come spring, the game is afoot

 


 

 

Eric’s first few weeks at Samwell are…well. They’re interesting, to say the least. He quite likes his teammates, even if the Haus kitchen is sadly neglected and the attic appears to be haunted. Ransom and Holster are very friendly, Shitty is not nearly as terrible as his nickname would suggest, and Johnson seems a decent captain, despite his first words to Eric literally being, “I have been informed by the narrative that last night’s dream was an omen.”

“What on earth?” Eric says, eyes wide.

(Last night, Eric had dreamed about Parse on his knees, smirking up at him before dragging the zipper of his jeans down with his teeth. Eric had woken up before anything more could happen. This, sadly, is not an uncommon occurrence—neither the dreaming, nor the waking up before the good stuff took place.)

Johnson claps his shoulder in a friendly manner, and Eric startles further to feel the touch of magic, his eyes going even wider.

Oh. He’s one of theirs.

“I don’t know what it means, either, but I felt that you ought to know,” Johnson says, winking.

Eric blinks. “Are you by any chance a Johnson of the Johnsons of Baltimore?” he asks.

Johnson nods, affable. “From the Minneapolis branch, but yes.” He tilts his head, blue eyes considering. “You’re a Phelps, aren’t you?”

Eric straightens his shoulders and smiles. “Yes,” he says, lifting his chin, proud as any warlock worth his salt. “I am.”

 

___

 

Eric gets a nickname: Bitty, hockey-fied from Bittle. He repeats it to himself a few times under his breath when Ransom and Holster first give it to him. Names are important, you see, true names more than any other, but a name bestowed with affection has its own sort of power, too.

Bitty.

Eric rolls the syllables around in his mouth and smiles. He’ll take it.

 

___

 

The Haus is surprisingly magical, with there being the requisite three of the gifted needed to form a coven—there’s him, Johnson, and Ransom (a diviner whose chosen method is Excel spreadsheets, apparently). Shitty’s also associated with them, of course, even if he doesn’t have a lick of magic, and Bitty was reassured to hear that their manager, Lardo, was also a witch. He knows all-male covens are a thing now, but it didn’t seem right not to have at least one witch in a leadership position, even if their coven base was a frat house.

But, yes—it feels like Samwell’s just what he needed, a comforting mix of familiar and new.

 

___

 

The first Monday of September, Bitty borrows the Haus oven to bake an apple pie. After, it’s done, he fends off his teammates’ hungover attempts to grab a slice from it, and informs them that he’s heading into town.

“Yo, bro, you need someone to drive you?” Holster says, looking up from the bowl of mixed Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops that he’s eating.

“No, thank you, I’ll take the bus,” Bitty replies absent-mindedly, busy packing his picnic basket. Should he take another jar of jam? But he’s already bringing three, plus a little hunter’s honey from his Uncle Fred’s hives. He doesn’t want to look desperate or, worse, obsequious. Upon further consideration, he puts the fourth jar back on the shelf.

Ransom looks over his shoulder. “What’s all this for, Bitty?” he asks, touching a curious hand to smooth glass, his magic reacting slightly to the potions contained within.

Bitty smiles, close-lipped, and closes the basket up. “I’m making a visit,” he says meaningfully, and Ransom nods and lets it go. He’s a practitioner. He understands.

“You tell your friends hey from me,” Ransom says, because their communities are close-knit ones, webs of connections pulling tight, and friends of friends are as good as actual ones.

“I will!” Bitty lies, not bothering to correct his assumption that he’s seeing friends.

He’s not.

 

___

 

Bitty looks at the address scrawled on a scrap of paper to make sure he’s at the right place, and tells himself that he’s not stalling. Who knows? This whole street’s so full of magic, maybe this isn’t the coven house; it’s a possibility that he got the wrong one. Best to be certain.

The house at the end of Magnolia Lane faintly hums with power, and its digits match the one on the paper. Bitty sets his jaw and pushes the fence open, picnic basket tucked in the crook of one elbow.

The door swings open before he even gets halfway down the path. A young woman with fawn-brown hair and sharply-hewn features stands at the threshold, her arms crossed, her head tilted to the side, inquisitive.

“And who are you?” she asks.

Bitty gives her a careful smile. “Eric Bittle of the Phelps coven, out of Madison, Georgia.”

She narrows her ice-blue eyes—the famed Owens eyes—in recognition. She knows who he is.

Good, Bitty thinks fiercely. “And you?” he adds, polite.

There’s a long pause before she answers. “I’m Gabrielle May Owens,” she finally says, heedless of the power she just handed him. That’s her full name, her true name, and she doesn’t seem to care that he has it. Bitty feels his brows raise in faint surprise, and the Owens witch sees it, the corner of her mouth tilting up ever so slightly.

You don’t scare me, she doesn’t need to say.

“You’d better head inside,” she states instead, and she turns around and walks back into the house, leaving the door wide open behind her.

Bitty takes a deep breath and crosses the threshold.

 

___

 

The house is an old one, and Bitty walks through it fully cognizant of the power that seeps out of its foundations, its very walls. It’s a lived-in house, a living house, and it has been for a while, the vibrant strength of its current occupants supported by the steady magic of those who came before.

“This way,” Gabrielle calls out, and Bitty follows her to the back of the house, past sitting rooms and winding stairs and shelves groaning from the weight of books.

“Oh!” he gasps once they reach their destination. It’s a sun-drenched kitchen, welcoming and warm—there’s an herb garden on the windowsills, potted plants hanging from the ceiling, a collection of mason jars and cauldrons and wooden spoons and silver knives scattered about. Recipes and potion spells alike are tacked onto corkboards, shopping lists are scrawled on both parchment and post-its, and a plethora of family photos and postcards is on the refrigerator, held in place by cat-shaped magnets.

(Bitty can’t help but think of Parse when he sees them; maybe he ought to get him a few, make it a Christmas gift along with the usual batch of cookies.)

Speaking of cats, there’s a lovely, sleek tabby winding its way around Gabrielle’s feet.

“Hey, you,” she says fondly, nudging it aside, then catches Bitty’s eye and points her chin towards a chair. “Sit down,” she instructs. “I’ll get some lemonade out for you.”

“Um, thank you,” Bitty says, disconcerted. This isn’t exactly the welcome he’d expected, but he sits and clears his throat, placing his offering on the heavy wooden table and pushing it in her direction. “I brought you a basket.”

Gabrielle lifts the red-and-white-checkered cloth and peeks inside, setting it back down after a second and proceeding to pour two glasses of lemonade. “Mm, nice craft you have there,” she says as she sits back down, setting a glass before him. Bitty can’t help but notice that she’s very careful not to touch him, making sure that even their clothes don’t accidentally brush. Strangely enough, he gets the sense that that’s for his benefit rather than hers, that she’s trying to set him at ease for some reason.

“I wouldn’t have thought plums would hold energizing spells that well,” she states, offhand, and Bitty blinks.

“Oh, well, you just have to know what to do,” he babbles, caught off-guard. She’d barely looked at the jars! The jams were labeled, true, but only by their fruits, not their magical properties. “If you do most of your canning during a full moon, they hold it better.”

She nods, taking a sip. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she murmurs, the silver studs in her ears and her nose glinting in the sunlight.

“Um—would you—would you like to try some?” Bitty asks, feeling thoroughly out of his depth.

She flashes him a smile. “No need,” she says. “Better if we wait for the aunts to come in. I assume you’ll be wanting to talk with the head of our coven?”

“I—yes,” Bitty says, squaring his shoulders.

She nods, steepling her fingers. “I’m guessing you’re here for the rest of your ancestor’s things?”

Which. Well, that would be nice, actually, he’s sure his Moo Maw would love to have her Uncle Richard’s things back—well, except for the fact that he absolutely can’t give them to her, considering that he has no way of explaining how he got them save for telling the truth, which is not an option. Dear Lord, saying that he just up and walked to the Owens’ front door? Now that would be a conversation—

And he’s rambling to himself. Again. Wonderful.

Bitty clears his throat. “No, I’m actually here to talk about the curse,” he says, smiling his most winsome smile. Best to be upfront at this point, he thinks—the whole visit’s gone a lot better than he’d anticipated thus far.

Gabrielle goes very still. “Are you now?” she says, her tone flat, and she twists a ring on her left hand.

Bitty belatedly realizes that she’s wearing all mourning black. Oh, hell, he thinks, dismayed. She’s already killed somebody off, hasn’t she?

Gabrielle catches sight of his expression and smiles at him again, thin-lipped this time, the curve of it fragile and aching. “Come to point fingers at us?” she prods gently.

“Well, no,” he says slowly. “More along the lines of—I thought we could have a mutually beneficial partnership. I’m a curse breaker, see, and this one friend of mine—”

Bitty spends the afternoon explaining, careful with his words and careful with his hands, as an Owens witch sits across from him and listens. The two of them watch each other, wariness and a growing, tentative hope in both their gazes.

“I just—well, I just figured I’d go to the experts,” Bitty finishes, fiddling with the locket around his neck.

Gabrielle Owens catalogues the nervous gesture but doesn’t comment on it. “Experts,” she says instead, laughing dryly. “You could call us that.” Her eyes flicker up, focusing on a point over his shoulder, and she says, “Well?”

When Bitty whirls around, there’s a gray-haired, fine-boned woman in her seventies standing in the kitchen doorway, silent as the grave. Her eyes are the same color as Gabrielle’s, set in a face creased liberally with laugh lines and frown marks both, her wisdom and power evident in her bearing, a strength hard-earned with age and experience. Bitty has to avert his eyes some, she glows so brightly in his second sight.

“You’ll do,” Sarah Morgan Owens, head of the Samwell coven, tells him, and she holds out her hand to seal the pact.

Bitty reaches out without hesitation and shakes it. “Thank you,” he says, and he means it.

 

___

 

Bitty makes the trek to the old Owens house every other Thursday after his morning classes let out, and he gets to know the Owens women one by one. They’re a medium-sized coven, with around twenty practicing members, about half of whom actually live on Magnolia Lane, the rest of them scattered all over the Northeast. They’re…not at all what Bitty was expecting, to be honest, but considering he was imagining them to be stone-cold, callous people, that turns out to be a good thing.

These are the things he finds out: Miss Sarah is the head of the coven and the strongest witch for five hundred miles, a winter witch through and through, with a specialty in cantrips and a fondness for daytime soaps. Her sister Miss Catherine is a potions-master, and thinks Italian telenovelas are the bees’ knees. Their sister Miss Theresa is a weather witch, and she likes musicals instead, the flashier the better. Their cousin Miss Vivian used to be a pin-up girl back in the ’60s, and can whip up a glamour in five seconds flat with a little bit of spit and three cotton threads. Miss Vivian is mother to Miss Heather, expert charms-maker, who is mother to Gabrielle, the heir to the heir of the coven.

The actual heir is Miss Theresa’s eldest daughter Miss Amanda, whom Bitty hasn’t met because she lives and works at Cornell University, where Gabrielle’s cousin Sylvia is getting her master’s in psychology. Sylvia is the older of Miss Jenny’s two daughters, the other being Claire, who attends university in Virginia on a soccer scholarship. Miss Jenny has a ferret familiar and a green thumb, and is responsible for a strain of dandelions that can cure hangovers if you chew them. (Bitty has tried them out on the boys; they work miracles, it’s true.) Miss Beatrice is the older of Miss Amanda’s younger sisters, with the youngest being Miss Alicia. Miss Beatrice is his mother’s age, works in Boston as a make-up artist, and doesn’t have any children, but she dotes on her nieces and her nephew, Jackie. Jackie is Miss Alicia’s son, the only boy born to the Owens family in the last ninety years, and as far as Bitty can tell, he must be spoiled rotten.

“You probably won’t get to meet him,” Miss Jenny says, sighing. “That boy’s a busy one, what with all the traveling, and he’s bound to spend the first part of summer in Vegas this year.” She brightens. “But Claire and Sylvie will be here in mid-May, and you can meet them then. Samwell doesn’t let out until a week after, yes?”  

“Don’t forget, Lynn is coming, too,” Gabby says as she walks past the kitchen.

Bitty raises a brow. “Lynn?” he asks. He doesn’t remember hearing about her.

“—oh, she’s Karen’s girl. She goes to Cornell, too,” Miss Jenny says after a beat, her cheerful expression wavering for a moment there. Bitty hasn’t heard of Karen, either, but he nods and decides not to question any further, knowing the sign of a black sheep when he hears it.

“How’d the raspberry tart turn out?” he asks instead, and Miss Jenny’s smile comes back in full force.

Don’t ask about Karen, Bitty tells himself.

 

___

 

Over the course of his acquaintanceship with the Owens women, he collects a whole group of names he tells himself not to ask about, or even mention:

Don’t ask about Max. Don’t ask about Laurel. Don’t ask about Ben. Don’t ask about Ethan. Don’t ask about Jack. Don’t ask about Fiona. Don’t ask about Michael. Don’t ask about Roger. Don’t ask about Bob. Don’t ask. Don’t ask. Don’t ask.

Each name comes with a story, and each story ends the same:

Owens-blue eyes going dark with grief, and a calm, steady voice proclaiming matter-of-factly, “I loved them too much.”

Bitty’s stomach sinks to his feet each and every time, and he wants to go back and shake his past self for all his ignorant, wrong-headed assumptions.

Who would wish this curse on anybody? Who would ask to be death to anyone they loved?

I’m sorry, he wants to say, but he knows how hollow it would seem. What has he suffered? What has he lost? Nothing that was ever really his.

 

___

 

“You’re taking care of yourself?” he presses one Thursday night.

(He’d accompanied Gabby to the flower shop to buy three bouquets earlier. He didn’t go with her to the cemetery, of course. Wasn’t his place. He just went back to the old house, headed straight to the library there, and spent three hours reading up on the curse.

He didn’t find anything new, just death after death after death.)

“Mmhm,” Parse says sleepily, eyes drooping on the other side of the computer screen.

Bitty’s heart squeezes to watch him. I like you so much, he thinks. Knows he can’t ever admit it out loud. “I’ll send you some blondies,” he says instead.

“Thanks,” Parse says, smiling. “Love your desserts. Always so fuckin’ good.” His eyes close completely.

“No problem, honey,” Bitty murmurs. After a few moments, he starts softly singing Parse’s favorite lullaby, a French song whose lyrics he memorized by rote, just because Parse would hum it all the time, anytime he was feeling happy or content, or wanted to feel happy or content.

It’s not a coincidence that Parse has been humming it so much lately, Bitty knows.

Parse starts snoring that odd whistling snore of his, and Bitty watches him for a little longer.

Five minutes, he tells himself sternly.

He turns the computer off an hour later.

 

___

 

While the magic side of things is going exceptionally well, Bitty must admit that hockey is…not. Oh, he’s as fast and nimble as ever, an exceptional skater, etc., etc., but the physicality of hockey still frightens the heck out of him.

Long story short: no, he still can’t take a check.

Fortunately, he’s got Ransom and Holster, the best D-men anyone could ask for, and Johnson, who wakes him up for 6 a.m. checking practices on Mondays and Wednesdays.

“Sorry,” Johnson says once, amiable. “This isn’t nearly as cute and relationship-advancing as it was in canon, but limitations of the plot and everything. You have to be understanding.”

“Uh, okay,” Bitty says, glancing askance at him, but he doesn’t question it. It helps him either way, so he won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how weird Johnson talks sometimes.

He talks through it with Parse, anyway, who’s pretty good at helping him work out decent strategies, considering how he’s a smaller player, too.

“Stay out of those fights,” Bitty warns him.

Parse laughs. “Damn, Eric, it was one penalty!” he protests. “You sound just like—” Parse coughs, cutting himself off. “Like my teammates,” he substitutes.

Like the boyfriend, Bitty thinks, and changes the subject to something safer. Something less painful: “Anyway, season’s starting soon,” he says.

Parse purses his lips. “Right. Playing for Samwell, huh? Gonna rock that crimson and white, yeah?”

“Yep!” Bitty says, cheerful. Samwell was another thing they skirted around—Bitty had touted the liberal arts focus, the beautiful campus, the cost-efficient scholarship, and the very LGBTQ-friendly community. But Parse had just looked at him when he’d seen the orientation letters on his desk back in July, and from the expression on his face, Bitty had known that he suspected the real reason why he was going there.

(You. Always you, Bitty thinks, and adds it to the list of things he doesn’t say.)

 

___

 

Bitty wakes up on Halloween morning to red skies, smoke and ash hanging heavy in the air, the sun obscured by a faint gray haze.

“What the hell?” he mutters. The whole day, it’s as if the sun never gets past early dawn. Turns out there’s a fire in the nearby forest, trees catching aflame from one of the driest summers on record. Makes it a pain to walk through campus, but, oh, well.

“Yo, Bitty!” Shitty yells as he’s making his way across the quad, and sure enough, Shitty’s arm lands companionably around his shoulders. “You coming with tonight? We’re meeting up with our old captain—he’s finally got a free weekend, wants to see what you new frogs are like.”

“Right,” Bitty says. “Zimmermann, yes?” Johnson had spoken of him fondly.

Shitty gets an odd look on his face. “Zimmermann. Right.” He blinks rapidly, stroking his moustache. “Bitty, you don’t really follow NHL teams, right?” he asks.

Bitty just rolls his eyes. Bitty follows the Preds and now the Aces, and that’s about it. Anything from before he started playing hockey himself is a murky and nebulous area, to be honest. This has led to some over-the-top outrage from his teammates at certain points. “Oh, God, don’t tell me this captain’s another die-hard fan who’ll have a heart-attack when he hears that I didn’t know who Mario Lemieux was.” That had been an embarrassing locker room moment, to be sure.

“…uhhh, not really? Actually, this one time that might actually work in your favor?” Shitty glances at him thoughtfully. “Just—promise to be normal and chill and your usual sunshine-y self, mmkay?”

“Okay,” Bitty promises, shrugging.

 

___

 

Bitty regrets making this statement 2.5 seconds after walking into Jerry’s.

“Oh, my God, you didn’t tell me your former captain was Jack Owens,” Bitty hisses, poking Shitty in the shoulder.

Ransom and Holster just snigger. “Dude, he pulled the same trick on us,” Ransom reveals, throwing an arm over Bitty’s shoulder.

Bitty shrugs him off and glares at him. “It is deeply unfair that you let him do the same thing to me.”

“Nah, brah, it is the height of fair. It’s tradition at this point,” Holster declares. “C’mon, promise he doesn’t bite.”

“Okay,” Bitty grumbles, pasting on his politest smile. Honestly, how could Shitty not warn him that he was talking about Jack Owens, Bad Bob Zimmermann’s son? Oh, God, Zimmermann—he really should’ve put it together. Parse was a particular fan of the man, though he rarely played against his son. Sports commentators always talked about how it was unfortunate how two of the rising stars of the NHL so rarely faced each other—even amongst the guaranteed two Aces vs. Falcs matchups per season, either Parse or Owens tended to be absent. The one time they faced each other on the ice, Parse’s curse had caught up to him and cut the encounter short.  

And then Bitty gets within five feet of Jack and stops dead in his tracks.

“Oh, sweet Mary,” he says, his eyes going wide. “You’re Jackie Owens.”

He’d recognize the characteristics of an Owens mage anywhere, knows their magic by the simmering, now-familiar hum that echoed in his lower jaw anytime he stepped onto Magnolia Lane. And even if the magic wasn’t a dead give-away, those ice-blue Owens eyes would’ve clued him in. He’s only seen them about a million times, glinting with laughter in Gabrielle’s face, or shining excitedly in Miss Jenny’s, or narrowed with wry amusement in Miss Sarah’s, or looking out from the somberly-dressed, crookedly-smiling portrait of Martha Owens hung in the old house’s front hall.

Jackie—Miss Beatrice’s favorite and only nephew—quirks an amused brow at him. “My reputation precedes me, I presume?” he says, crossing his arms.

“I—no—I mean, yes? I mean, I know your family. They’re helping me with my research,” Bitty says numbly. He holds out a hand, ready for the spark that jumps from him to Owens when they touch.

Jack Owens’ hold lingers, and he looks at him steadily, not flinching at all. “Bittle—of the Bittles of Athens, Georgia?” he asks, that Owens calm evident in his voice and in his manner and in his everything. If Bitty looked at him with his second sight, no doubt he’d burn as bright as Gabrielle.

“The Phelps of Madison, actually,” Bitty corrects, and watches as Jack’s expression sharpens in recognition.

“You’re the one that Gabby’s been meeting with,” Jack says.

Bitty nods at the same time Holster squawks, “What the hell, Bitty knows your super-hot cousin?”

Shitty, Ransom, and Bitty all react with dismay: Bitty winces, Ransom goes, “Bro, we’ve talked about how that’s a no-go,” and Shitty just says, “Nuh-uh, no way, we’re never letting you within twenty feet of her—and that’s only 25% for your benefit, by the way, the rest is totally because she doesn’t deserve to be subjected to you.”

“But Bitty gets to meet with her,” Holster protests.

“Do you know how to make blueberry cheesecake?” Johnson interjects.

Holster deflates. “No,” he mutters. He squints at Bitty beseechingly. “Bro, help a guy out. Teach me your ways.”

Bitty snorts and rolls his eyes. “No, Adam, I will not,” he says, sliding into the booth next to Johnson.

Ransom nudges Holster’s shoulder companionably. “’S a magic thing anyway,” he explains. “You couldn’t pull it off.”

“Aww, man, not fair,” Holster says, pouting.

“Trust me, it’s for the best,” Jack says, and Holster lets it go, the conversation moving on to other things, though every now and then Holster will once again ask Jack for an introduction, or express envy that Bitty of all people has gotten approval to talk to Gabby.

Bitty rolls his eyes. He’s also gay, and not at risk of dying from the Owens curse any time soon, thank you very much, so it’s not that big of a mystery.

Well, he’s not at much risk of dying from the curse, he amends, his gaze landing on Jack Owens briefly before darting away. Oh, Jack was beautiful, certainly, and pretty much exactly Bitty’s type, but he didn’t get a single hint from what the Owens women had said that their ‘Jackie’ was anything but straight.

Besides. There was Parse. If there was any NHL player Bitty would risk death to be with, it was him.

(Though, admittedly, Owens’ ass was a gift straight from God in heaven, and does make him consider it for a second or two. Just a second, mind you—Bitty is a lot of things, but suicidal isn’t one of them.)

 

___

 

Bitty sees Jack Owens more often than he’d expected he would—he drops by the house on Magnolia Lane at least once a month, oftentimes more, and Bitty gets used to him and his magic, those curling ice-blue waves in the corner of his eye, the phantom scent of rosemary, fennel, and bay leaves hanging in the air.

“You’re thrice-gifted, aren’t you?” Bitty asks two months into their acquaintance. It’s a little bit forward of him, but it’s not as if he’s asking for Jack to lay all his cards on the table. He just wants his suspicions confirmed.

Jack glances at him, something like approval in his gaze. Bitty does his best not to blush, but it’s a near thing. “Yes,” Jack says, amused. “Hunter’s senses, a touch of foresight, and truth-telling.”

Bitty sucks in a breath. This boy. This whole family, actually, on second thought. Bitty’s never met a coven nearly as forthright. (Parse doesn’t count. Parse is a slantwise son from a very young coven who doesn’t know any better, not the scion of the most powerful unbroken line of witches in all of Massachusetts. It’s completely different.)

Then Jack says, all fake-casual, “And you? What are your three gifts?”

Now that is forward of him. Bitty bites down on the corner of his lips, about to demur when he catches sight of the laughter in Jack’s eyes.

You little shit, Bitty thinks, outraged. You think I don’t have the chutzpah to go toe-to-toe with you, is that it?

(Holster may be rubbing off on him more than he wants to admit.)

“I’ve got the second sight,” Bitty declares, taking up the gauntlet, so to speak. He ticks off each attribute with the fingers of his left hand, keeping his eyes on Jack all the while. “I’ve got hunter’s senses, too,” but he scents out auras and curses, not physical smells. “I’ve got an affinity for metal and fire,” hence his love affair with Betsy. “I can bottle a little time, here and there,” which drives Micki up the wall, because his cooking times are ridiculous as a result.

“And last of all,” he finishes, holding up all five fingers, his chin tilted up in challenge, “I lay curses.”

A Phelps with the gift of curses is less common than one born with the second sight, but there’s at least one each generation. He and Polly share the trait, but Polly is sweet and slow-tempered as molasses. Bitty’s the one everyone was worried about growing up.

“You’ve gotta watch your tongue, honey,” his mother would say, cupping his chin in her hand and leaning down in front of him, her brown eyes serious. “You’re not like other kids—if you say, ‘I hope you break your arm!’ or ‘I wish you’d drop dead!’ there’s a chance it might actually happen. So you’ve gotta be careful, okay? You have to—you have to say nice things, even when you don’t mean it.”

Bitty’s been careful his whole life—been polite and measured and never said a bad word about or to anyone, just in case. Even when he’d wanted to. Even when they’d deserved it.

Bitty’s been careful, and all he’s had to show for it is a crowd of frightened eyes and a wide, wide berth at any gathering of their kind he’s been to.

Jack doesn’t take a step back, though, doesn’t look at him with a fearful gaze. Jack Owens just tilts his head to the side and says, “Huh. Five gifts. Didn’t catch that.”

Bitty blinks. “My cousin Savannah gave me a glamour,” he says on autopilot. “Obscures the last two.”

“That explains it.” Jack nods, satisfied, and he goes back to rummaging through the kitchen cupboards.

Bitty stares at him a moment or two longer, and can’t shake the feeling that something momentous just happened.

 

___

 

Jack is—Jack is funny. And kind. And very helpful. He’s a little on the impatient side, true, but he’s always earnest, always full of good intentions, wanting Bitty to be his best, whether it comes to hockey or magic.

“If you tried this, maybe—” or “How about if we did this instead—” or the ever-constant “You really ought to eat more protein, Bittle,” is a predictable refrain around him.

“Sounds like Jack,” Ransom says, shaking his head with a smile when Bitty mentions it to him. “Means he cares about you, bro.”

Which. Huh. Bitty tamps down on the warm feeling in his chest that he gets right afterward.

Don’t be stupid, he tells himself crossly. You’ve already got one hopeless crush. You don’t need one on a straight warlock. On a straight warlock who’s an NHL player. On a straight warlock who’s an NHL player and an Owens, of all people. Do you wanna break Moo Maw’s heart?

The warm feeling in his chest doesn’t really dissipate, though, and Bitty despairs at his taste in men.

“I need to get laid,” he says aloud one day, absent-minded, and Parse bursts into laughter.

“Oh, hell. Please ignore that,” Bitty begs, blushing fiercely.

“No can do, Eric,” Parse says, smiling. Bitty thinks it deeply unfair that even in the washed-out gray of his laptop’s bad lighting, Parse looks incredibly attractive. “So, what, did a cute college boy catch your eye?”

No, just an NHL player, like usual, Bitty thinks sourly.

(He hasn’t…exactly told Parse about being in contact with Jack Owens and the rest of his coven, for several reasons: 1) His family would kill him if they found out, so he hasn’t told anybody. 2) Once upon a time, he instructed Parse to run from any Owens mage he met, and he doesn’t want to subject himself to any accusations of hypocrisy, however accurate. 3) There’s really only one reason to be talking to them in the first place, and risking life and limb by talking with a clan your clan is feuding with is hardly the kind of thing you’d do for somebody who’s “just a friend.” Might as well toss his cover out the window at that point.)

Out loud, he says, “No, though Ransom and Holster are determined to find me somebody for Winter Screw.”

“Winter Screw—holy fuck, do they actually call it that?” Parse says, delighted. “I thought that was a joke.”

Bitty rolls his eyes and launches into the story. “See, I did, too, but apparently that is the official epithet—”

 

___

 

In spring semester, Bitty meets Lardo.

“Oh,” he says, nonplussed. “I was expecting somebody—”

“Who was a 6’2” white dude? Chyeah, I get that a lot,” Lardo says, unfazed.

“No, I knew you were a witch,” Bitty hastens to say. “Just…I guess I thought you’d be taller.” He clears his throat and pushes forward a pie, feeling a little nervous. He has to make a good impression, after all. “Anyway, here, have some blueberry pie. I do hope you accept me into your coven.”

“What the—oh, my God, you think I’m head of the coven? Who’s been spreading these lies?” Lardo bellows, striding down the hall. “I’m already responsible for keeping your hockey asses in gear, I don’t have time to mind your craft! Johnson! Johnson, you get your butt in here, I refuse to take all of you on—”

“Oh, thank God,” Bitty says to the boys, relieved, as she takes the steps two at a time. “A proper coven leader, at last.”

Shitty gazes after Lardo with hearts in his eyes. “I know, right? I mean, she and Johnson technically co-lead us, but what an anchor, right? What a shining example of a left-hand witch.”

Holster just stares at him. “Dude, what kind of requirements do covens even have if Lardo is a typical example of your guys’ bosses?”

Ransom claps him on the shoulder. “Bro,” he intones solemnly, “you don’t want to know.”

 

___

 

In March, Bitty nearly spits out his lemonade when Jack reveals that he’s been timing his visits so that their paths deliberately cross.

“You’re a curse-breaker,” Jack says, shrugging when he explains his reasoning, “and I’m looking to break the curse. I could use the help.”

Bitty glances up at him, surprised, though he guesses in hindsight he shouldn’t be. It’s just—the Owens curse is a strong one, a complex combination of several spells at once, as far as he and the rare few Owens practitioners who’ve attempted to break it can tell. It’s a summoning mixed with a tracking spell, a powerful hex weaving it all together, and it’s magic- and bloodline-based, with any Owens descendent bearing the gift acting as both the subject and the focus of the curse. The curse feeds on Owens magic, meaning that trying to break it has generally meant the curse-breaker had to try and throw their singular power against the combined might of the entire Owens clan.

Usually that resulted in said curse-breaker dying of literal burn-out, their body a fiery husk from attempting to channel that much magic at once. Knowing that track record, Bitty can understand why Jack’s family keeps on trying to get him to leave Bitty alone. Hell, the Owens coven was hiring him just to investigate ways to mitigate the curse, maybe give them a better warning system for when it strikes, or find a way to prolong the dormant periods before their feelings for someone else triggered its activation. They certainly didn’t expect Bitty to risk his life for them.

Apparently, Jack has no qualms risking his own, however.

Bitty asks slowly, “When you say ‘break the curse,’ do you mean—”

“I mean to break it completely,” Jack answers. “Not slow it down, not transfer it to something else—I mean break it.”

“That seems—” pretty damn reckless, Bitty thinks, “—very brave of you,” he substitutes instead.

Jack Owens smiles down at the book in his lap, as if he heard the words Bitty didn’t dare say. “Not really. I’ve got a lot on the line.”

Bitty looks up at him quizzically. “Pardon?”

The quirk of Jack’s mouth turns—complicated. An expression caught between wistful and rueful, maybe. “I’ve got somebody,” Jack explains, and, oh. Oh. With a sudden rush of understanding, Bitty reads the entire story between the lines. Jack’s magic is barely a hair less powerful than Gabby’s, and Gabby’s got three names on the list of people Bitty can’t mention.

“I’m so sorry,” Bitty says hastily.

Jack laughs, the sound wry. “Gotta love how everybody’s always so quick to offer condolences,” he murmurs.

Bitty winces. “I’m—”

“Don’t mind me, Bittle, I’m used to it.” He makes a note on one of his post-its—a green one, so Bitty knows he found something on a similar curse; when he circles it, Bitty knows he means to cross-reference it with something he’s already read. Jack is rather methodical in both his research and his magic, a contrast to Bitty, who often just wings it and writes down the results after, if he records them at all.

Bitty bites his lip. “Still. It must be real hard on you two.”

Jack shrugs. “We’re used to it.”

“I’m assuming she knows about everything?” Bitty queries, fiddling with a highlighter. Poor girl, falling for an Owens. Did she even have the gift, or was she a mundane, knee-deep in love before she even knew what she was getting into? Bitty glances at Jack; if that were the case, Bitty certainly couldn’t judge her for not backing out. Jack strikes him as somebody who’d be hard to forget.

Jack’s eyes meet his, unwavering and unexpectedly intense. Bitty finds out why a second later: “He does,” Jack says, a slight emphasis on the pronoun, dropping his secret right into Bitty’s lap. “He’s choosing to be with me anyway.” He shrugs. “Helps that he lives on the other side of the country, of course.”

Oh, fucking hell, Bitty thinks, my eyes must be wide as dinner plates.  

Jack isn’t straight. Jack isn’t straight. Jack isn’t—

He also isn’t available, Bitty’s brain helpfully reminds him.

Right. Yes. He knew that.

Bitty clears his throat. “That’s good,” he babbles. “Clear communication and everything. Very important in a relationship, especially one with—you know—”

“A curse involved?” Jack interjects, sardonic.

Complications.” Bitty rolls his eyes, noting how the tension in Jack’s shoulders eases. He glances down at his notebook, not really seeing his chicken-scratch. “Don’t worry, by the way,” Bitty says, tilting the book so it’s parallel with the table’s edge. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“That I’m bi, or that I’m with a man?” Jack says, blunt as always.

“Either. Both. It’s not anybody’s business, and I figure you’ve already got enough to worry about. You are in the NHL, after all.” There’s a reason Parse isn’t out, and a reason that Bitty took an entire semester to tell his teammates, a memory-wiping cantrip on the tip of his tongue in case it all went wrong. Bitty figures Jack’s in the same boat.

Bitty takes a deep breath. “Besides, I’m not in any position to be throwing stones, since I’m gay,” he states, matter-of-fact. His sexuality’s common knowledge amongst his coven, he’s pretty much out at Samwell, and he’s certain the Owens clan have at least an inkling, but there’s a difference between guessing right and being told by the person themselves.

(Besides, it’s already evident that the Owens witches know how to keep their mouths shut—he didn’t have a clue about Jack. Bitty likes to think they’d extend the same courtesy to him.)

“Thank you for telling me,” Jack says gravely.

Bitty shrugs, his hand going to the back of his head. “It’s no big deal,” he says.

“It shouldn’t be, no,” Jack murmurs, and Bitty smiles wryly. There’s a world of difference between is and ought, and they both knew it.

“Anyway,” Bitty says, going back to the topic they both have a vested interest in, “would you like me to make anything for your boyfriend? A protective charm or something, maybe a warning flare?”

Jack’s already shaking his head before he finishes making the offer. “No,” he says firmly. “I appreciate it, but the curse is already compounded when it comes to him. I’m not risking anything else.”

Bitty narrows his eyes. “Compounded how?”

Jack lets out a frustrated sigh and explains.

“That’s—well. That’s terrible,” Bitty says a few minutes later, dismayed.

“Yeah, I know. I broke up with him for two years because of it. Well, also because I was an idiot, at least according to him, but that’s a little different,” Jack says, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Bitty’s heart squeezes in response, that same hopeless feeling overtaking him as when Parse talks about his lover.

Bitty fidgets. “Well, two years. Anybody would be upset, wasting all that time.”

“I’m an Owens, though,” Jack says softly. “I wanted to give him a chance. Protect him. I figured you’d know about it.” He nods at the locket hanging over Bitty’s heart. “You’ve got somebody, too, right?”

Bitty’s hand flies to cover it. “Wha—it’s not—that’s really not the case,” he says, flustered.

Jack quirks a brow at him.

Bitty glares. “It’s not,” he insists, then sighs. A secret for a secret, right? That’s the Owens way, after all. “Not on his part. He’s—got somebody else, and I won’t get in the way of that. He’s loyal,” Bitty says, a bit of the pride he takes in Parse slipping into his voice.

Jack glances at him with an inscrutable expression. “His loss, then.”

And Bitty—Bitty really doesn’t know what to make of that.

 

___

 

“Is it possible to be in love with two people at once?” Bitty says aloud to Betsy, just shy of a week later.

Lardo looks over from where she’s sketching at the kitchen table. “To quote Johnson, narrative forces would suggest yes.”

Bitty sighs. He thought that might be the answer.

 

___

 

Skyping with Parse that night, he sort of tells him. About Jack, at least, not his ridiculous crush on Parse himself. He’s not masochistic enough to put himself through the achingly gentle let-down Parse is sure to give him.

“There’s somebody,” he says, stirring his tea counterclockwise. He can’t quite meet Parse’s eyes when he says it, but he catches the curve of his pleased grin anyway.

“Really? That’s great!” Parse says. “You ask him out yet, or—”

Bitty shakes his head. “He’s taken,” he admits, his voice small.

“Oh.” Parse is quiet for a second, then he says, resolute, “His loss, man.”

Bitty laughs despite himself, surprised. They’re kind of alike, Parse and Jack, he thinks fondly. No wonder he’s so enamored of them both. “Thanks, honey,” he says, leaning his cheek against the heel of his hand. “Needed that. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Parse’s smile is slight and sweet, and Bitty pretends for a moment that he’s the only one who’s ever seen it. “Keep on being your kick-ass self, I think,” Parse says.

“Yeah, but I have so much more fun when I’ve got you around,” Bitty replies, then looks at the clock. “Oh, hell, I’ve gotta head to bed,” he says. “Talk to you next week?”

“Talk to you next week,” Parse answers, and Bitty knows he’ll be there, right on schedule. Parse always keeps his promises, after all.

(It’s how he knows, knows he doesn’t have a chance, because Parse has gone and promised himself to somebody else, and Bitty knows Parse would die before he breaks it.)

 

___

 

Both the Aces and the Falconers make it to the play-offs, so Bitty bakes up a storm and sends half a dozen jars of jelly to Parse and Jack both. The Falcs are knocked out in the second round, the Aces in the Conference finals. And somewhere in between studying for his own finals, packing up some of his things to move them into the Haus—Johnson, bless him, had given Bitty dibs—and avidly keeping up with Parse and Jack’s games, Bitty finally gets to meet Sylvie and Claire.

“Wow,” Claire says, blinking at him, “you know, for a second there, I kinda thought you were K—”

Gabby clears her throat.

“—somebody else,” Claire amends, still looking him up and down.

“…is that a good thing?” Bitty asks, feeling trepidation at all the possible answers. Oh, God, does he happen to resemble one of the people who shouldn’t be mentioned?

“It’s just a thing,” Sylvie says firmly. She catches hold of his elbow. “Now, tell me all about this jam my mom’s been droning on about—”   

From behind him, he hears Claire telling Gabby, “Pretty, blond, and smooth as fuck? Please tell me Jackie’s watching out for himself.”

Gabby sighs. “I don’t think we have to worry. You know how he feels about his boy. Besides, I’m dead sure Bitty’s already got somebody. You don’t carry a charm like that without both parties being in pretty deep.”

Oh, God, they know about my crush, Bitty thinks, turning pink with embarrassment. His hand comes up, fingers flattening over the locket he always wears, and Sylvie’s sharp, Owens-blue eyes catch the gesture before flickering away.

“So,” she says, “how about some pie, yeah?”

 

___

 

Bitty doesn’t get to meet Lynn, unfortunately. She’s out West for “a thing,” the Owens’ smiles turning cryptic when they offer this explanation.

“You can meet her next year,” Miss Jenny says, patting his hand. “She’s a nice girl, very smart—I’m sure you’ll like her.”

“I’m sure I will,” he replies. “Be sure to give her some of my cookies.”

“Oh, we will,” Miss Bea says, lazily saluting him from her place on the front porch. “See you in the fall, Bitty.”

“See you in the fall,” Bitty echoes, and hoists his bag over his shoulder.

For better or worse, he’s thrown in his lot with the Owens witches now, and he’ll stick with them ’til the end.

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 9: in winter, the waiting

 


 

 

Having Parse back is—Jack doesn’t really have words for it. Doesn’t have thoughts for it, either, beyond a stunned, wondrous feeling of yes and please and I can’t believe this is happening. He’s distracted for weeks after, pressing fingers constantly against the hickey Parse left on his collarbone, smiling widely for no reason at all other than the fact that Kent Parson is still in love with him.

“Ha! It Zimmboni’s girl again?” Tater says, smirking when Jack slaps a hand over his pocket, fumbling for his phone after another text alert.

Jack smiles wryly. “Yeah,” he says, glancing at the message—Parse sent him a string of incomprehensible emojis again. “It’s my girl.”

It’s not as if his team isn’t aware that he’s bisexual; he’s been fairly upfront about it, though it’s understood to be an open secret, something just for the team to know, and not anybody else. Still, it’s one thing to be bi, and another to be openly in a relationship with another player in the NHL. He’s already causing Parse enough problems as it is—Parse doesn’t need the media spectacle and the rampant homophobia of their sport laser-focusing on them if they came out, and Jack knows exactly who they’d go after harder.

So Jack keeps quiet and lets his team make their own assumptions about who he’s with, catching George’s amused glance every time they come up with another close-but-not-quite-there factoid.

 

___

 

“Since I’ve refused to reveal your name, Snowy’s decided to just call you Super-Hot Blond,” Jack says.

Parse throws his head back and laughs and laughs, all open-mouthed joy. “Well, they ain’t wrong,” he says, his gray eyes amused. “Not about that, at least.”

“Yeah, but the rest of it is—euh.” Jack shrugs. So far, from the things Jack’s said, the Falcs have decided that Jack’s girlfriend is a few years older than him, an accountant who lives in Seattle and is pretty much a hipster, one who’s way into latte art and whose guilty pleasure is listening to electronica-dance-house-pop or something. Parse eats the whole thing up, invents long backstories for his alter-ego, concocts new tidbits for Jack to “reveal,” and is currently campaigning to be named Kristina Lorelei Amadeus Pearson.

“Oh, come on, you gotta admit this stuff is gold,” Parse argues.

“I plead the Fifth,” Jack says dryly, beaming inside when Parse starts laughing again.

I love you, he thinks, but he doesn’t say it out loud. He doesn’t want to jinx this.

 

___

 

After the call, Jack goes over his mental notes and thinks, Huh.

‘Ain’t’ is a new one—Parse picks up verbal tics the way other people pick up bad habits, inheriting his mother’s penchant for pet names and borrowing Swoops’ easy-going ‘sorry, sorry,’ going from Aunt Amanda’s dry, ‘Care to share with the class?’ to Jack’s way of stretching out the word ‘weird.’ His latest penchant for using ‘ain’t’ and ‘sweet baby Jesus’ points to him spending time with a particular person, and Jack can guess which one.

Parse has changed some in the last two years, and nowhere is that more evident than his expanded knowledge of magic. He has a whole notebook of information about curses and curse-breaking and magical practices in general, and most of it is actually useful stuff, stuff even Jack has trouble finding, stuff that only allies of certain covens have access to. This, combined with the fact that Parse’s picked up so much etiquette and decorum, means that Jack knew even before Parse told him that he’s been corresponding with a witch from an old bloodline.

“Can’t tell you my friend’s name,” Parse says. “They want to stay out of it, and I promised I’d keep their identity a secret. There’s…complications. Like, bad blood between your family and theirs.”

“Well, damn,” Jack says, disappointed. A feud pretty much guarantees the curse killed a member of their coven off, back in the day. The chances of meeting Parse’s friend would be close to nonexistent, if the grudge is as deep as they tend to get. It’s a shame—from what Jack’s heard of them, they seem to be a good friend to Parse. Jack would’ve liked to get to know them.

“I haven’t told them your name, either, I swear,” Parse continues, and Jack winces.

“Euh, it’s better if you just call me Zimmermann, if you’re talking with one of ours. The Owens name is—”

“Complicated, right.” Parse sighs, drumming his fingers along his laptop. “I miss you,” he says abruptly.

“I miss you, too,” Jack answers.

“You’ll come see me in February?” Parse pleads.

Jack considers his schedule, thinks of the five-day roadie the Falcs have, hitting up the West Coast. If he takes a scratch for the Aces game like he’s been planning, they’ll have half a day together before he’s got to head back.

He can risk a day, can’t he?

“Yeah, okay,” Jack says.

Parse’s answering smile lights up the room.

 

___

 

Everything would’ve gone well, except.

Except that Parse convinces him to play in the game.

“Parse, are you serious—”

“Owens, listen to me,” Parse demands. “We don’t have any evidence that hockey is what’s causing this, okay, we don’t have any proof—”

“I hear the fucking ticking!”

“But why? What’s causing it?” Parse presses. “It’s not proximity, right, and it’s not me playing hockey that seems to do it, because if that were the case, boy, I should be fucking dead right now. And as long as you’re not directly watching me in real-time, nothing happens, right? But somehow, some way, when you see me play, it starts?”

“Yes! We’ve been over this—Parse, it hones in on you on account of Uncle Mario’s stupid fuckin’ summoning spell.”

“But don’t you see?” Parse says, gesturing intently. “Don’t you see, Jackie, if this is true, then we’ve got proof—proof that magic affects the curse! If it can get stronger, doesn’t it stand to reason we can figure out some way to make it weaker?”

Jack just shakes his head. He’s pretty damn sure his luck wouldn’t be that good; for all he knows, the curse is immune to any magic that doesn’t feed it.

“Look, Jack, just—let’s see what causes it, okay? Does it have to be an official game? Will the curse start activating anytime we share ice, or is it only when there’re stakes involved? Why is it different now? If distance isn’t working, then what’s the reason it stopped? I wanna know why, alright, so let’s be smart about this.”

“If you wanted to be smart about it, you’d take a fucking scratch,” Jack snarls.

“Jack,” Parse says, looking at him with pleading eyes, “please, baby, we gotta try. If we’re ever going to beat this thing, then we’re going to have to take risks. I’m willing, okay? It’s—it’s on me. It’s my choice.”

Jack blows out a hard breath. “If we’re doing this, it’ll be on both of us,” he insists.

Parse grimaces, but nods. “Okay, then. Let’s do this.”

 

___

 

Parse takes a bad hit in first period. Jack finishes the game, the rest of it a blur, and sits in the hospital waiting room after. Nobody tells him to leave—he’s on Parse’s emergency contact list, apparently.

Jack blinks at the floor and tells himself not to cry.

“Don’t say ‘I told you so,’” Parse says as soon as he wakes up that evening. “It wasn’t that bad a hit.”

“You’re missing the next couple of games,” Jack says, carefully neutral.

“Fucker, I can see that for myself,” Parse says, wiggling his right foot slightly, his ankle in a splint. Parse sighs. “You leaving soon?”

Jack nods. “In the morning. Visiting hours end in a few.”

Parse scoots over on the hospital bed. “Well, get in here, then. If I’m not getting or giving victory sex, then I’m getting my damn snuggles.”

Jack clambers in and obliges.

 

___

 

The next morning, he blinks awake, bleary-eyed, the scent of disinfectant heavy in the air, almost obscuring Parse’s familiar smell.

Shit. He must’ve fallen asleep.

He moves to get up, but Parse’s hand cups the back of his head and pulls him back down against his chest, gentle. Jack resettles, and realizes he woke up because Parse is talking to somebody on the phone.

“Can’t make it until late July, probably, but I’ll be there,” he says, his voice tired but affectionate, the way he only sounds when he’s talking to his family, or Jack.

“Promise?” the person on the other end presses, in an accent that Jack can’t quite place. He can’t really tell their gender, either, the sounds too muffled, but he guesses it must be the friend, especially when Parse answers, easy as breathing, “Promise.”

After Parse hangs up, Jack turns his head and buries his face against Parse’s chest. “They were worried, huh?” he says.

“Ah, yeah,” Parse answers, pressing a kiss to the top of his head, sounding a bit sheepish. “They were watching the game, and saw the curse flare up.”

Jack grunts, surprised. The friend has the second sight, then, if they can see magic, and not just feel it or sense it close-up.

Parse sighs, taking his response the wrong way. “Okay, okay, you can tell me ‘I told you so,’” he says, pouting.

Jack leans up and kisses him. “Please just be careful,” he begs. “Please keep yourself safe.”

“I will, Jackie,” Parse says, holding him closer in clear contradiction of his words. If he wanted to be safe, he’d be pushing him away.

Jack hides his face against Parse’s neck and pretends he can’t hear the lie.

 

___

 

That year, the Falcs win the Stanley Cup against the Aeros in Game 6. Parse sneaks into his Houston hotel room and gives him a drunken lap dance to congratulate him. Parse is giggling too much to be considered more sexy than cute, but Jack’s always been more turned on by Parse’s dorkiness than practically anything else, and comes before he can even get his pants off.

“Fuck, I love you,” Parse says after, nuzzling his ear.

“Me, too,” Jack says, his throat tight.

(He still can’t say it directly, too afraid of what might happen because of it.)

 

___

 

They decide to divide up their days to see if it’ll make a difference, testing the limits of the curse. Jack knows that Parse is hoping for more time in total, but honestly he’d settle just for seeing him for a week straight at this point.

They have their first two weeks in late June, early July, timing it so Jack can spend Parse’s birthday with him.

 

___

 

Parse bought a house in Ithaca sometime in the years when they were apart, and when Jack drives up to it for the first time, he’s hit with a sense of déjà vu. It almost looks like a house that would fit on Magnolia Lane, an old three-story colonial that’s been lovingly restored. Jack finds himself itching to grab his camera, wants to photograph Parse looking at home in every room.

Those plans are immediately derailed, however, since he doesn’t get five steps past the foyer before Parse is grabbing his shirt and hauling him in for a searing, desperate kiss.

“Jack,” he moans, “Jack, please, want you, missed you, please, please, please—”

Jack wrenches his mouth away, already on the edge of overwhelmed, and Parse’s hands curl in his hair and try to pull him back down, Parse’s body surging up to press against Jack’s chest, Parse’s magic sparking almost painfully beneath his skin. Jack groans and grasps his hips, lifting him up, and Parse goes willingly, legs winding around his waist as Parse kisses all along his neck, his mouth hot and wet and needy. Jack takes the stumbling strides necessary to get them to the nearest comfortable horizontal surface, which happens to be the wide leather couch in the sitting room.

“Baby,” Jack says, landing heavily on top of Parse and hissing when Parse arches his hips up, grinding his thigh against Jack’s erection. “Baby, wait, slow down. I wanna take my time.” He runs his fingers though Parse’s messy hair, struggling to get himself under control.

Parse’s irises are hazel-green in the morning sunlight as he stares up at Jack, wide-eyed. “Do we gotta?” he pleads, breathless, his hand sneaking into the back pocket of Jack’s jeans. “Please, I—”

Jack kisses him to shut him up, cupping his jaw with one hand and grabbing his left hip hard enough to leave red imprints with the other. He knows Parse won’t mind, knows that they both like getting marked up. Jack takes his time with it, kisses Parse slow and hard, a steady, constant pressure, licking into his mouth and mapping out every inch of it like he’s got all the time in the world. He kisses him until Parse starts trembling underneath him, needy little whines pulled from his throat like he can’t get enough, exactly the way Jack wanted him.

“Kenny, baby, I’m not going anywhere,” Jack promises between those measured, lazy kisses. “I’m here, I’m yours, you’ll have me for as long as you want me.”

“Want you now,” Parse demands, and Jack laughs breathlessly.

“Crisse, you’re so fucking impatient,” he says, but he lets Parse push him onto his back and lifts his hips obligingly so Parse can get his pants off, peeling his shirt off at the same time. Then he unbuttons Parse’s, spreading it open so he can get at Parse’s skin, but not quite pushing it off his shoulders, letting the deep blue of it frame Parse’s tanned torso. It makes for a pretty picture, Jack thinks, blatantly eyeing him up.

Parse scoffs when he catches him at it. “What is it about the half-dressed look that gets you off so much, huh, Owens?” he gripes, palming Jack’s cock through his boxers.

“The debauchery,” Jack quips, thumbing Parse’s nipples and smirking at the way Parse’s mouth falls open and his eyes squeeze shut.

“Jack,” Parse begs, squirming in his lap, “Jack, please, come on.”

Jack fishes through the pockets of his discarded pants and tosses the packet of lube at him. “Oh, don’t—” he starts to say when Parse opens it with his teeth, fucking Christ, tearing it too wide and getting a third of it down his chin as a result.

“Ew,” Parse says, grimacing while licking his lips. “Couldn’t you have gotten the flavored kind?”

“Why am I in love with you again?” Jack demands, and Parse grins down at him.

“Because I’m so pretty,” he says, shameless, then spreads the lube all over his fingers and reaches behind himself.

“Oh, fuck,” Jack says, his eyes going wide, his cock twitching in sudden interest. He didn’t know they weren’t doing it the usual way.

“Yeah, babe,” Parse says, his voice smug and thick with pleasure. “’m gonna ride you ’til you cry.”

“Okay,” Jack agrees, feeling winded. He likes bottoming, loves the feel of Parse inside him, savors the way he aches afterward, every twinge a reminder that he’s been claimed and spoken for and taken.

But, you know, he doesn’t mind making love this way, either. Whatever Parse wants, honestly, and if Parse wants to fuck himself on Jack’s cock and treat Jack’s body like it’s a toy that’s been tailor-made to give him pleasure, then Jack Owens is 110% on board with that.

“Oh, fuck—oh, hell—Jesus, Jackie, you feel so good inside me, ahh, so fucking—so fucking huge. Christ, I’m gonna come, nngh,” Parse moans, tossing his head back, his hair dark gold with sweat and plastered to his forehead, or sticking up every which way. He’s the most beautiful thing Jack’s ever seen.

“Yeah?” Jack pants, thrusting up hard in time with the downward roll of Parse’s hips.

“Yeaaahhh,” Parse says, stretching the word out, and he takes one of Jack’s hands off his waist and wraps it around his cock, and, yes, yes, Jack can do this for him.

“Come on, Kenny, come for me,” Jack says, stroking quickly, thumbing the head of Parse’s cock the way he knows he likes, and it doesn’t take long before Parse is closing his eyes and keening, spilling out over Jack’s knuckles and belly, his whole body quivering as he braces his hands back on Jack’s thighs, barely able to hold himself up.

Jack stills his hips, reaches out a hand to steady Parse, gently running a palm down his side. “You good?” he asks.

Parse’s head lolls to the side. “Yeah, ’m good,” he answers, laughing a little. He blinks open his eyes partway, his lashes long on his cheekbones as he clasps Jack’s hand and brings it to his lips. He presses a soft kiss to his knuckles, and Jack’s heart squeezes painfully in his chest.

God, I love you, he thinks, helpless, the way he always does when he’s buried inside of Parse like this, so deep like it’s the two of them won’t ever have to part.

Parse brushes his lips against Jack’s fingertips before placing Jack’s hand back on his hip, encouraging. “C’mon, Owens,” he says huskily, biting at his lip the way he knows drives Jack crazy. He grinds down a little, shuddering as he does so. “Give it to me, I can take it.”

“You sure?” Jack asks, body tense from holding back.

Parse tries for his signature smirk, but he looks a bit too dopey with happiness to really pull it off, ending up with a sweet smile instead. Which is fine with Jack—he’s the only one who gets to have this, gets to have Kent Parson’s heart, not just his body.

“Yeah, baby,” Parse says, leaning back on his hands so his torso is one long, pretty arch. “Want it. Want you.”

So Jack gives it to him, hips snapping up in a steady, ruthless rhythm, Parse writhing and gasping on top of him, reduced to open-mouthed moans and trembling limbs. Jack wrings another orgasm out of him before following right after, tears leaking from the corner of his eyes because it’s too much, too good.

He sobs out Parse’s name like it’s the only prayer he needs, barely holds back from saying ‘I love you’ right after, the deepest truth he knows.

 

___

 

“Told you I’d make you cry,” Parse says smugly.

Jack smacks his ass in retaliation.

 

___

 

When they make it the bedroom, Jack stops dead in the doorway.

“Dude, what, do you seriously not want to shower right now—oh, shit,” Parse says, following his line of sight to the row of photographs he has on the wall. Parse flushes to the tips of his ears in embarrassment, covering his face with a hand. “Fuck, I forgot to take those down.”

“Those’re—those’re my photos,” Jack says. He recognizes them from the annual charity auction the Falcs hold for the local children’s hospital. They went for a pretty good price, he remembers, especially since he was a rookie and most people outside of the college hockey scene hadn’t really heard of him yet. Still, he’d wanted to contribute, so he’d donated a series of his photos: a couple of snapshots of Samwell, some prints of the local woods, a picture of the sunset gracing the skyline at Magnolia Lane.

That was back in November, months before he and Parse reconciled.

“Yeah. Um. I had my people buy them,” Parse says, scratching at his temple, then drops his hand. “Sorry, I know that was creepy, and weird, and really fucking stalker-ish, but I—”

Jack goes over and kisses him until Parse’s knees buckle.

“Or not,” Parse says, dazed, his mouth swollen and his hair a mess, clutching Jack’s shoulders like Jack’s the only thing keeping him upright.

“I never threw out your things. I used to sleep in your clothes when I missed you too much,” Jack confesses, a secret for a secret.

Parse looks up at him. “Oh,” he says.

Jack kisses him again. They don’t make it to the shower for a while.

 

___

 

Over the course of his two-week stay, it becomes exceedingly obvious that Parse bought and decorated this house with Jack in mind—there’s a gorgeous study on the second floor that mirrors Aunt Amanda’s, a dining room that looks like it could fit right into Jack’s grandma’s house, a small shed in the backyard that would be easy to convert either into a darkroom or a space to work craft in.

That’s not to say that he didn’t have other people in mind, too. Several of the guest bedrooms are clearly meant for his mom, Lynn, and Swoops. The rec room can entertain any number of hockey bros. And the kitchen—well. Any of the Owens women would have a field day.

But Jack is all over this house in a way that’s so subtle that he’d think Parse did it subconsciously, if it weren’t for the fact that he blushes each and every time Jack finds something new that seems like it was meant just for him.

“Well, duh, Jackie,” Sylvie says, amused, when Jack calls her and spills his guts. “You know he’s freakin’ gone on you, don’t you? ’Course he’s gonna be this damn extra when he gets you a courting-gift.”

Jack makes a doubtful noise. They’re past the point of courting-gifts now, if Parse went and bought him a damn house.

“Jackie, stop freaking out and get him something nice,” Sylvie orders, then hangs up.

Something nice. Huh.

 

___

 

Jack gets him a cat from Aunt Bea’s familiar’s latest litter. She’s black and sleek, an arrogant little thing. She’s the opposite of Purrs, the dignified Maine Coon that basically helped raise Parse and Lynn, the way Parse tells it, so Jack’s a little nervous at first, but she’s the cat that felt right when he was picking one out.

Parse falls instantly in love.

“I am naming her Kristina Lorelei Amadeus Purrson. She will be my Kit, and I will love her until I die,” Parse declares, cuddling her close.

Jack shoves his hands into his pocket and rocks back on his heels. “Only you would name her after your fake alter-ego.”

Parse makes kissy faces at the cat and ignores him. Jack takes out his camera and snaps a few photos in retaliation.

(They’ll put one on the mantle—the one of Parse cradling a sleeping Kit to his chest, his smile so fucking soft and grateful as he looks up into the camera lens, so much love spilling out of him that Jack’s chest goes tight every time he sees it.)

 

___

 

There’s a row of mason jars on the kitchen windowsill, sitting in an array of pretty rainbow colors. Jack touches a hand to them when washing the dishes, and is surprised to feel a spark of magic, vivid and intense.

Oh, he thinks, realizing that they must’ve been a gift from Parse’s witch friend.

Picking up a jar and concentrating, Jack can tell that the friend must be powerful, to have their magic linger this long after whatever was in it has been used. He doesn’t know much else about them, other than that they’re young and from the South, judging from the etiquette and methods Parse has picked up. Parse sometimes calls them a kid, sounding fond, but Jack’s coven-born and raised. Sixteen is old enough to hold a seat on a council, so long as you’ve the strength, and everything he’s heard about this friend makes him think they’re strong enough.

Jack sends an echo of his own magic into the glass, curious, wanting to test his theory.

He nearly drops the thing when the magic sparks back, a jumble of sensations and emotions: Mine. Mine. Protect what’s mine. Keep safe. Protect.

Jack sets the jar down with a thud.

Well.

 

___

 

“Your friend,” he says later.

“Mm?” Parse says, half-asleep in his arms.

“You’re visiting them after this, right?” Jacks asks.

“Yeah. Always do. ’S our thing.”

“Hrm.” Jack tightens his arms, wonders how to ask, Do you know that they’re in love with you? without sounding like a possessive caveman. He’s not jealous so much as worried; older covens have a bad track record at accepting ‘no’ for an answer, and Parse is. Well. A terrible combination of vulnerable and extremely tempting, his magic fresh and wild and vibrant, strong for a silver-tongue, but weak in every other respect. If it came down to it, he’d have no defense against magical coercion.

Jack bites at his shoulder and pulls him closer, smothering Parse in his aura, just in case. “You should bring Kit,” he instructs. “She still needs to get used to your magic, and it would be good to get her exposed to different kinds.”

And your friend will know that you’ve got a coven looking out for you, he thinks.

“Mm’kay,” Parse says, patting his elbow, and drops right into sleep.

Jack stays up and watches him a little while longer.

 

___ 

 

When Parse comes to Magnolia Lane in August, Great-Aunt Vivian’s eyebrows nearly hit her hairline when he leans in and kisses her cheek. “Young man, have you been two-timing our Jackie?” she asks jokingly, but her eyes are sharp when cataloguing Parse’s answer.

“No, ma’am,” he assures her, laughing. “Just visiting a friend.”

“And is this friend a pretty young witch?” Great-Aunt Cathy demands.

Parse smiles crookedly. “Not at liberty to say, ma’am.”

Great-Aunt Viv squints at him. “Well. As long as she’s aware you’re taken, I guess it should be alright.”

“Even if she’s leaving her magic all over him?” Great-Aunt Cathy says, incredulous, her nose crinkling. She jabs a finger in Kent’s direction. “Jackie, you have to do something about this whole situation. Kent is stinking up the place, like one of those Southerners—he practically reeks of that cloying, syrupy-sweet magic of theirs. Ugh.”

“Oh, like Aunt Bridget’s first husband? What was his name?” Great-Aunt Viv says, snapping her fingers. “Theresa! What was Aunt Bridget’s favorite husband’s name?”

“Uncle Richard?” Jack’s grandma says, coming to the porch.

“Yes! Richard Phelps!”

Parse trips on the threshold, and Jack catches him. “You okay?” he asks.

Parse laughs, nervous. “Yeah, I am.”

Jack shoots a look at his great-aunts before tugging him further into the house. “Don’t mind them,” Jack says. “I trust you. I trust your friend. And, you know, if you ever decided to leave me—”

“Hey,” Parse says, gripping his hands. “None of that.”

Jack shrugs. “If you did, I’d understand,” he says, plowing through. And if Parse decided to take up with the Southern witch, well, at least Jack knows they’re dedicated to keeping him safe. And his eyes are clear, his hands steady, so Jack knows they didn’t put a compulsion on him, either. Jack’s fine with a little healthy competition, so long as they play by the rules.

“Well, too bad, Owens,” Parse says, leaning up to kiss him. “You’re stuck with me.”

Jack nods, presses their lips closer together. He knows. Parse keeps his promises, after all.

 

___

 

Jack makes love to him that night, purposefully letting his magic run close to the surface of his skin, and it drives Parse wild, the way it always does. Parse’s gift rises up to meet his, like flint striking steel, and any hint of that other witch’s magic is lost in the ensuing blaze.

“Kenny,” Jack says, gasping against Parse’s neck. “Kent—Kenny, please—” His voice cuts out in a whine, embarrassingly needy, but Parse just slants his mouth over Jack’s and swallows it down.

“Yeah, Owens, I got you,” Parse says, and then his hand is at Jack’s hip, warm and achingly familiar, and he’s pushing Jack’s sweatpants down so they pool around his thighs. That’s all the warning Jack gets before Parse wraps a hand around him and pumps once, twice.

Jack’s eyes roll into the back of his head and he lets out another breathy groan. “Parse—I—I’m not gonna—not gonna last—” he warns.

Parse sucks at the place where his neck meets his shoulder, slides his mouth down and bites at the meat of it. Jack closes his eyes and barely keeps from begging that he bruise him up, leaves him marks that’ll last for days. “’S fine, baby,” Parse croons, stretching his words out slow and sweet even as his hand keeps up the ruthless pace. “You don’t have to. I wanna see you, come on, come for me.”

Jack comes, a mess all over his thighs and belly, Parse’s long, elegant fingers streaked white. Parse holds up his hand to show him, grins filthily before licking Jack’s come off his palm, sucking his own fingers, moaning obscenely as his grass-green eyes glint knowingly at Jack.

“Fuck, Jackie, you taste so good,” he says, and Jack turns his face to the side and shudders.

“Don’t hide,” Parse demands, leaning down to take his mouth again.

Jack lets him, kisses back sloppily and with everything he has in him. I love you, he thinks. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Love you, too, Jack,” Parse murmurs, and, oh, he said it out loud.

“Shit,” he says, turning his face away. “Sorry.”

Parse looks down at him, a storm in his eyes. “Don’t,” he says, and it’s a command, an order, and Jack can hear the weight of Parse’s gift, every bit of his silver tongue thrown behind it. “Don’t you dare be sorry for that.”

“But I—”

“I’m not,” Parse says fiercely, spreading Jack’s thighs and settling between them. “I’m not sorry that you love me, okay? You’re mine, and I love you, and I don’t care if I d—”

Jack surges up and kisses him to shut him up. He doesn’t want to hear that particular truth.

You won’t, he thinks, just as fierce as Parse. You won’t die. I won’t let you.

 

___

 

Not thirteen days later, Jack hears the ticking start again at half-past eight in the morning. He sits bolt upright, turning white as a sheet.

“Kent,” he says, and Parse looks up from where he’s reading the Sunday comics.

“Yeah, Jack?” he asks, then he stops, recognizing the look on Jack’s face.

“Owens,” he says warningly.

“You have to go,” Jack says, standing up. “You—you have to go.”

“This is stupid,” Parse argues. “We barely had more than a week—”

“Kenny, we don’t have any time!” Jack shouts. “It’s—I fucking hear it, okay, it’s coming for you, you have to go.”

“God, I hate this,” Parse mutters, grabbing him in a kiss before heading out the front door, Jack bolting past the back porch.

 

___

 

They had twenty-five days total that summer, the shortest time they’d ever spent together.

So much for that attempt, then, Jack thinks, his heart aching.

He guesses some things don’t change, his terrible luck being one of them.

 

___

 

But some things do.

That year, on the very last day of the tenth month—the day it dies—the sun almost seems to forget to rise, obscured by clouds of smoke and ash.

On this day, All Hallows’ Eve, Jack Owens meets Eric Bittle for the very first time.

 

___

 

“He seems nice,” Jack tells Johnson afterwards.

Johnson snorts and shakes his head. “You have no idea.” He gives him an appraising glance. “But you will.”

“Is that a prophecy?” Jack asks lightly.

“Call it a gut feeling.” Johnson walks forward ahead of Jack, waving a hand goodbye without turning around. “Tell Parson I said hello.”

“Will do!” Jack yells after him, and doesn’t think of Bittle again that night.

 

___

 

Bittle’s impossible to forget, however, because he seems to be constantly underfoot at the old house. And even if he’s not there, his magic is, strangely recognizable in a way Jack can’t quite pin down. He’s sure he’s never met the guy before, but something about him is just so…familiar.

After a few meetings, Jack finds that Bittle’s actually useful—he has access to a lot of information and resources that Jack’s never even heard about, and his name and status opens doors like nothing else at Jack’s disposal. Jack finds it easy enough to adjust his schedule so that their visits to the old house coincide, and, gradually, he finds he has yet another ally in his quest to break the curse, one who, for all his kindness, is also quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and full of plenty of grit.

“I lay curses,” Bittle declares, chin up and eyes unafraid as they meet Jack’s, not an inch of ground conceded.

Jack can respect that.

 

___

 

The significance doesn’t hit him at first—he cast that spell nearly a dozen years ago, and it was meant to be impossible to fulfill.

But then Jack gets to know Bittle, and the pieces slowly, slowly start to come back to him.

Bittle’s hair, the same yellow as the apples he has Jack peel and core and quarter for the pies he bakes, full of love and magic.

Bittle’s eyes, the same shade of warm brown as the bottled whiskey in Great-Aunt Vivian’s liquor cabinet, and sparking with the same heat and fire as the burn of alcohol down Jack’s throat.

Bittle’s head at his shoulder, exactly 5’6” and a half as he stands barefoot in the grass, helping tend the old magnolia tree that Magnolia Lane was named for.

Bittle’s voice, as smooth and sweet as honey, a constant, cheerful drawl in the background as he chatters about this and that, never minding Jack’s silences and never talking over him when he does have something to say.

Bittle’s quick words, sharp as lemon as he spars with any of the aunts, holding his own; Bittle’s sweet temperament, his kindness as genuine and generous as heaping spoonfuls of real sugar, as he gently steers conversations away from hurts too raw to be talked about, as he sidesteps names that bring more pain than gladness.

Bittle sneaking glances to the side as he feeds another tidbit to the Owens collection of magical cats, holding conversations with them as he shoos them off pots and down from cupboards, calling endearments to every dog that passes by on the street, murmuring encouragements and admonishments alike to pens, to jars, to doors, and to ovens.

Bittle standing in the kitchen, crooning all the words to the lullaby Jack’s father would always sing to him on nights he was at home, Bittle’s eyes on the moon, his hand over the locket that hung over his heart.

Jack puts all the clues together and starts to panic.

 

___

 

“If, hypothetically, I were to fall in love with two people, what would happen?” he asks Great-Aunt Sarah.

She looks at him sharply. “If they loved you back, they’d both die,” she says in her blunt way.

Jack winces. Shit. Well, there goes his tentative hope that maybe at least one of them would be spared.

“This isn’t about the Phelps boy, is it?” Great-Aunt Sarah asks, suspicious.

“No,” he lies.

She purses her lips but doesn’t press further, only says, “At least you don’t have to worry about him falling for you. Even if he hadn’t been warned off since birth, he has that lover of his.” She taps the space under her collarbone. “That’s a blooded locket he’s wearing, and none of our kind would let a Phelps have their blood if they didn’t trust him with their life.”

Jack blinks, startled. Hn. That’s true. Bittle’s got somebody else. He should be perfectly safe.

(Jack ignores the twinge of disappointment he feels at hearing nothing but truth in Great-Aunt Sarah’s words.)

 

___

 

It’s not that he’s in love with Bittle. Not exactly. It’s just that he knows, deep in his bones, that had they met in different circumstances, or been slightly different people, he could be.

He’s not going to do anything about it, of course. He has Parse. He loves Parse. Not even a true love’s summoning will be enough to sway him from the course he’s set.

Kent Parson may not be the man Jack Owens wished for once upon a time, but he’s the man he chose, and that’s something deeper than magic, stronger than fate.

 

___

 

Jack doesn’t tell Parse about Bittle. It’s not his place; Bittle’s made it clear that he doesn’t want anyone knowing about his connection to them.

“If my family found out,” Bittle says, then stops, grimacing. “Well, disowning me wouldn’t be out of the picture and, honestly, the worst-case scenario would be my Moo Maw keeling over, dead of a heart attack.”

“She’d be that upset?” Gabby asks, surprised.

“She’d be that enraged, that’s what she’d be,” Bittle mutters.

Jack nods. He understands. There’s a reason why the Owens clan is officially feuding with a whole third of the established covens on the East Coast, not to mention black-listed by all their allies, who make up another third by themselves. And that’s not counting any of the covens further west, or even abroad.

The Owens name is feared and respected in equal measure, but there’s a lot of hate thrown in, too. Jack doesn’t blame them. Most of the gifted the curse has killed weren’t like Parse—Aunt Amanda practically half-raised Lynn, and Lynn and Aunt Karen have been claimed as niece and sister and cousin by his whole family. Parse’s coven is the Owens coven, unlike most everybody else, who had covens of their own. Families who, in their grief, declared undying enmity towards Jack’s.

Families like the Phelps, whose son tried to break the curse, and died when he failed.

If he’d been anything like Bittle, Jack can understand why their rage at his loss would still be strong enough to cause death.

 

___

 

Jack does tell Bittle about Parse. It’s not entirely a deliberate decision—between one heartbeat and the next, something in him decides that he’s tired of hiding, and so he just…says it.

He’s queer. He’s in love. He’s going to break this curse or die trying. He trusts Bittle to keep his secrets—

Wait, Jack thinks, freezing.

He trusts Bittle to keep his secrets? He trusts Bittle?

The same way you trust Parse to keep his word, a voice points out, and Jack is so rocked by this realization that he nearly misses Bittle’s own confession. Thankfully, he has enough wherewithal to recover and answer Bittle’s words with the support he deserves.

“Thank you for telling me,” he says as seriously as he can, and pretends his heart doesn’t skip a beat when Bittle smiles back at him.

He’s taken, he reminds himself. Not to mention you’re taken, too.

Right.

To remind himself of the facts, Jack deliberately points out Bittle’s locket.

Bittle immediately covers it with a hand, not that that does much to smother the aura of devotion and love ringing out from the metal, a constant background hum of My love, mine, protect, keep safe, my love, mine. “Wha—it’s not—that’s really not the case,” Bittle says, blushing.

Jack raises a brow, hearing the obvious lie like a note out of tune.

Bittle glares daggers at him. “It’s not. Not on his part. He’s—got somebody else, and I won’t get in the way of that.”

Oh. That’s—that sounds mostly true, actually, and the lie Jack hears mixed in is probably just Bittle’s denial seeping in at the beginning.

“He’s loyal,” Bittle finishes, a quiet pride in his voice, and, oh, yes. Jack would know that expression anywhere—spent two years denying he wore it any time he was around Parse, and then spent another two years trying to stop, to no avail.

Bittle is in love, truly in love, even if it’s not returned. Which is crazy, seriously, what’s wrong with the guy he likes?

What an idiot, Jack thinks. “His loss, then,” he says out loud, and he means it.

Bittle stares back at him and blushes.

You are in so much trouble, Jack tells himself, despairing.

 

___

 

“I love you,” he tells Parse later that night.

Parse looks at him with surprise. “Oh. Love you, too,” he says automatically, then asks, “Is something wrong?”

Jack scowls. “Why would—”

“You hate saying it straight out like that,” Parse interrupts. “Babe, seriously, is something the matter?”

Jack hesitates. “Not really. Just—met with a friend today. He, um, he’s in love with somebody who doesn’t love him back, and I—well. I felt bad for him. Didn’t know what to say. Mostly because I’ve never been in that position, you know? I always—I always had you.”

Parse’s eyes are suspiciously wet. He clears his throat twice before he can speak. “Yeah, I—I get you. That’s—it’s pretty rough, yeah. My friend—my magical advisor, you know the one—they’re in the same boat, and I thought, ‘God, wow, what an idiot their crush is.’ Like, who wouldn’t fall for them, right?”

“Right,” Jack says earnestly, thinking of Bittle.

“So, yeah, um—I get that. I didn’t really know what to say either, other than that dude is totally missing out, and that they’re awesome and kick-ass, and—” Parse laughs, running a hand through his hair. “I feel so bad now, because that totally sounds like I’m patronizing them. Like, who the fuck am I to say that? They’re shit out of luck while I landed the jackpot. I mean, I’ve got you.” Parse takes a deep breath and says it again, looking Jack right in the eye. “I’ve got you.”

“Yeah,” Jack says, his heart impossibly full. “You do.”

Then, because this is the kind of couple they are, he says, “Did you really have to make that pun, though?”

“What? What pun, where was it, you know I love those—oh! Oh!” Parse says, his eyes lighting up. “I landed the jackpot, I get it! Man, that was good! I am awesome. I pun without even trying.” He dissolves into laughter as Jack rolls his eyes.

“Why do I even,” he says. He doesn’t even have to finish the question anymore.

“Because I’m so funny,” Parse retorts.

“You wish,” Jack says.

Because I just do, Jack thinks. Because I just love you.

 

___

 

Bittle sends him home-made jelly during the play-offs, and Jack tries not to feel guilty when using it to make his sandwiches.

He’s just a friend, he tells himself. This can’t really be counted as cheating. For God’s sake, since when is jelly considered a courting-gift?

He’s really reading too much into this. Things’ll be better once he sees Parse for the summer.

 

___

 

And things are better during that first two-week stretch. With their schedules, it really is more convenient dividing up what time they have like this, even as Jack feels envy clawing through his gut when his teammates get to go home in May and don’t have to be back until late August. They get whole months with their families, while he—

Well. Best not be greedy. It’s better than one day every two or three years, Jack reminds himself.

“Love you, Jackie,” Parse murmurs on their first night, pressing back against him, already half-asleep, and Jack kisses the nape of his neck and holds him closer, thinks as loudly as he dares, I’ll love you until the day I die.

(And this is the truth: Jack Owens will love Kent Parson for as long as he lives.

Note, however, that this doesn’t stop him from falling in love with anybody else.)

 

___

 

There are more jars on the windowsill.

Jack takes a deep breath and tells himself that it would be unfair to be jealous, especially when Parse is literally only friends with this witch and Jack is the one with a crush on somebody else.

(He avoids touching them this time, which is how he misses figuring out the shape of the love triangle he’s entangled in. Had he touched those jars, he would’ve known instantly who sent them.)

 

___

 

“You visiting your friend this summer?” Jack asks.

“Hn? Oh, you mean—ah, yeah—I mean, no! No, actually, they’re busy during all of July this year. Something with their coven holding this council thingie? They’ve got to be there since they’re pretty high-ranking,” Parse says, scratching the side of his face.

Jack raises his brows, surprised. “You mean they’re attending the gathering of the Greater Southern Council of Covens?” Bittle’s going to that, mentioned it to Gabby before he left, apparently. Jack wonders if he might know Parse’s friend, since he’s from a prominent bloodline, too.

“Yup. The good ol’ GSCC,” Parse says, pronouncing it all mashed together so it sounds like ‘geese-y.’ He looks at Jack right after, biting his lip nervously. “They, ah, they’re coming to visit in August, though, since I can’t come to see them.”

“Oh,” Jack says.

“I was thinking—I want you to meet them,” Parse says. “If you’re okay with that. And if they’re okay with it, too, obviously, but I wanted to ask you first—”

“It’s fine. I’d love to meet them,” Jack lies.

Parse gives him a strange look but doesn’t question him. “Okay. That’s good. I mean, they could always say no, but I think they’ll be fine with it. I mean—I really think they could help us with the curse. They’re, like, one of the premier experts on curse-breaking in the South, so—”

“It’s fine, Parse,” Jack repeats, stifling his skepticism. He didn’t hear a lie, but the premier experts on curse-breaking are Bittle’s family, especially in the South. Though it might just be a case of Parse boasting about his friend, which is certainly possible. He’s always the first to talk up the people that are his.

“They’ll get here on the 8th, so it’s only the last two days where you’ll have to talk to them,” Parse says. “It won’t cut into our time that much, promise.”

“Parse. It’s fine,” Jack says, pulling him in for a kiss. “If I could stand hanging out with the Aces during Cricket’s stag party, I can handle meeting your coven-royalty BFF.” Jack pauses. “Probably better than you did, considering I actually know my etiquette.”

“Hey! Hey, you were the one who kept on fucking playing footsie when your aunt was trying to teach me, you pervert!”

Jack lets Parse wrestle him down to the bed, and there’s no more talk of the friend that night.

 

___

 

Things probably would’ve gone perfectly to plan, Jack likes to think, except that in August, Sylvie accidentally kills a man, and he and Parse have to help hide the body.

It…does not go well.

 

___

Chapter Text


  

CH. 10: after sundown, the darkness

 


 

 

So, the thing is, Kent Parson realizes he sort of maybe has a crush on Eric Bittle right after Eric tells him he’s got a crush on somebody else.

Go figure.

 

___

 

Parse doesn’t feel too badly about it, mainly because:

1) He’s got Jack, he’s not fucking cheating on him.

and

2) Bittle is clearly not interested. And also five years younger, what the fuck, Parson, you’re not going to make moves on a teenager.

“You know, sixteen is the age of majority amongst most covens. They probably haven’t been considered a kid for three years now,” Lynn points out when he spills his guts to her in April. She chews on the straw for her milkshake. “’Sides, don’t you think this might be a good thing? If you fall in love with them, maybe the curse won’t affect you anymore.”

Kent snorts. “Yeah, I don’t think it works that way. I have to fall out of love with Owens first.”

“And that’s not happening any time soon,” Lynn says, resigned.

“Exactly.”

She sighs. “Well, worth a shot.”

It’s not that Lynn wants him to break up with Jack, Kent knows—she loves Jack. Thinks of him as a second big brother. It’s just that she’d rather Kent didn’t drop dead because Jack Owens loved him too much.

“So, are you finally gonna tell me the name of this friend of yours? Like, Claire is convinced she’s this stunning Southern belle, you know, all Scarlett O’Hara, and Sylvie thinks she must be from one of those old covens and rocks the American Gothic look. But Gabby’s betting that she is a he and happens to be a Jack look-a-like, because God knows you’ve never looked at anyone else the way you look at him,” Lynn says, rolling her eyes.

And, yeah, okay, here goes the part where he drops dead because his sister murders him.

He clears his throat and says, “Actually, it’s Eric Bittle.”

What?”

 

___

 

“I don’t fucking believe this,” she says later in the safety of Kent’s house. “I told you not to talk to him!”

“And I obviously disobeyed. Sue me, I don’t have to take orders from my kid sister—ow!” Kent yelps when she punches him in the shoulder.

“Yes, you do! I’m your coven leader!” she yells, then starts pacing in worry. “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen when he finds out you’re connected to the Owens clan?” she says, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes.

“Nothing! He’s a good friend of mine, he’ll understand.”

“Kenny!” She jabs a finger in the direction of his kitchen, gesturing angrily at his window.

“What?” he asks, confused.

“Oh, my God!” She goes over and picks up a jar, shaking it in his direction. “Are you seriously telling me you didn’t know he’s been courting you?”

“What?”

 

___

 

Okay, so Lynn’s got some messed-up theory that the guy Eric’s crushing on is…him.

Which is totally not the case? But whatever, they decide to do a Skype call just to ease some of the introductions through.

“Hi, Miss Parson,” Eric says politely. “I’m very pleased to finally meet the head of Parse’s coven.”

“Thank you,” Lynn says, straightening in her seat with a pleased blush, and Kent tugs on her cowlick affectionately. For all that he teases her, he knows she is starting to be somebody in magical circles, a young woman with connections and skill, if not a lot of raw power. It’s fine, she’s got Sylvie and Claire and Gabby to back her up, and he knows Aunt Amanda wouldn’t let anything happen to her here at Cornell. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Mr. Bittle.”

“Please,” Eric says, “call me Eric.”

“Alright, then.” Lynn pauses, and Kent guesses that she’s trying to remember the protocol for this—as a coven head, technically she can’t allow Eric to be on direct first-name basis with her, just because it’ll put her at a disadvantage when negotiating on Kent’s behalf. It’s why Eric still insists on calling him Parse, at least until they break the curse and the advisorship is completed.

Still, Lynn wouldn’t want to be rude to a friend of his—their ma raised them better. “You may call me Miss Carolynn,” she says instead. It’s a compromise, using her little-used full name, not the name everybody knows her by, but also allowing him a step closer than stuffy ‘Miss Parson.’

Eric’s smile widens. “Why, that’s a lovely name, Miss Carolynn,” he says, and proceeds to charm the pants off her.

 

___

 

“Okay,” she says afterwards. “So maybe introducing him to Jackie won’t be a total disaster. Probably.”

“Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Kent says sarcastically.

She just shoots him a look. “Alright, so he probably won’t murder you for being an Owens—it still doesn’t stop Jack from killing you once he figures out you’ve got a crush on him.”

“He won’t—”

Lynn bats her lashes. “Oh, my God, Eric, that’s so smart of you,” she imitates breathily.

Kent wrinkles his nose. “I do not sound like that,” he protests.

Lynn stares at him. “Bro,” she says pityingly, and Kent looks away.

 

___

 

“Well, at least you might not be the only one with a crush,” Lynn says later.

“Mm?”

“Jack’s gotten awful friendly with this new Samwell warlock that’s been visiting with the coven—he’s the great-great-nephew of one of the people Bridget Owens was in love with, I forget his name. Mitchie or something? They literally only mentioned it once, Gabby’s been sworn to secrecy, and Sylvie and Claire and I can’t know who he is until we meet him and do the handshake thing.” Lynn shrugs, careless of the fact that she’s completely turned Kent’s life upside-down.

“Oh, my God, Owens is leaving me?”

 

___

 

Okay. So. No, he’s not.

Gabby reassures him that the warlock—who will definitely remain unnamed, now that Kent is freaking out about him—just happens to be blond and pretty and kind of exactly Owens’ type.

Which is, like, not ideal, but it seems to be more of an ‘Owens thinks he’s hot’ kind of thing, and not, ‘Congrats, Kenny! You’re no longer at risk of dying because Owens has finally moved on, hurray!’ type deal.

(Look, Kent knows his priorities are kind of skewed, but if his only options are literally either death or Jack Owens deciding he doesn’t love him anymore, he’ll take Door Number One and be happy about it, okay?

It’s not like he wants to die; he just thinks there are worse things.)

Kent can accept that, yeah, seeing as he’s the one with a massive boner over a goddamn teenager. He’s not a hypocrite. So Jack has eyes, Jack finds people other than Kent attractive, it’s fine. Jack’s not leaving him, which is the important thing.

“I love you,” he tells Jack later that same day.

Jack’s eyes go soft and he gets this tiny little smile on his face, the way he always does when Kent says it. “Yeah,” he says, ducking his head, “me, too.”

Kent’s heart squeezes in his chest, and he tells himself it’ll be fine. It’ll be better once summer arrives.

 

___

 

Eric sends him a box of different jellies and jams once the play-offs start, and Kent saves the jars and the notes they come with, the way he always does.

Oh, he thinks when he’s tucking the notes away in his desk, stacked neatly across from Jack’s love letters and photo-booth strips of the two of them together, Eric’s Good luck! Thinking of you. <3 side-by-side with Jack’s Miss you, scrawled on the back of a postcard.

He…may be more deeply involved than he thought.

Fuck.

 

___

 

Jack arrives in July, and Kent makes love with him until neither of them can move.

“Love you,” he promises, and falls asleep with the feel of Jack’s lips mouthing the words back to him against his shoulder-blades, over and over and over.

 

___

 

“I want you to meet them,” Kent asks.

Maybe if he sees Eric and Jack in the same room, his heart can get its shit together and stop tearing itself in two, make the choice it’s always made when presented with Jack and every other option besides him.

You’re Jack’s, he tells it firmly.

And Eric’s, it stubbornly replies.

Why do you gotta do this? he thinks, despairing.

I just gotta, his heart answers, the same thing it always told him whenever he asked it about Jack Owens.

Considering how he’s basically going to marry the guy, one can see why this realization freaks Kent the fuck out when he has it over Eric, too.

 

___

 

Kent spends the rest of July pointedly not thinking about it. This strategy serves him well, except when Jack calls him, or he and Eric Skype.

So, every two or three days, basically.

Great. Just great.

 

___

 

Then August rolls around, and everything goes to shit.

Two days after Jack’s birthday, Parse’s phone starts ringing incessantly, and he untangles himself from Jack’s octopus-embrace long enough to answer.

“The fuck?” he groans.

“Kenny, we’ve got a problem,” Lynn says, her voice tight.

“It’s 3 a.m.,” he complains.

“Sylvie killed a guy,” she says in a rush.

“Wait, what?”

 

___

 

So, here’s the deal:

Sylvie, Claire, and Lynn went clubbing, and Sylvie ran into one of her ex-boyfriends. Ex-boyfriend is—pardon, was a douchebag, and never even remotely in danger from the curse, considering he was a selfish jerk, and would probably never have loved anybody more than he loved himself, fucking Christ.

So, yeah, it’s not the curse that got him, it was his own big, fat ego.

Ex-boyfriend was drunk. Ex-boyfriend confronted Sylvie and the girls. Sylvie said one of her cutting remarks, the ones she learned to deliver while a babe at the Owens aunts’ knees, and Lynn started laughing. Ex-boyfriend took offense.

Ex-boyfriend back-handed Lynn.

At this point in the story, Kent is 100% on board with whatever Sylvie did in retaliation. You did not put a fucking hand on his little sister and fucking live to tell the tale.

But it turns out Sylvie didn’t even really mean to kill the guy. She told him, “Back off.” He didn’t do it, so she hit him with a mild compulsion, not even that strong, and repeated her command. Douchebag raised his hands like the super-obnoxious dickhead he was and went, “Ooh, I’m so scared, watch me back away.”

And he didn’t look where he was going and walked backwards off the roof.

Yeah, real smart one there.

Anyway, long story short, Sylvie freaked out and tried to revive him. This didn’t work all the way, but he was a zombie for a hot two minutes, stumbling around the first floor of the club like a badly put-together puppet. Lynn knocked him dead again with a fire extinguisher, Sylvie cast a mass memory-fogging spell on everybody there, and Claire hacked into the club’s security system and deleted the footage from that night, so all was relatively well.

Except for the fact that now they had a dead body in the back of Lynn’s truck.

“God, why didn’t you just dump him in a pond or something?” Kent grunts as he and Jack carry the corpse out of the garage and into his backyard.

“And freak out all those innocent people? No way!” Lynn hisses back.

“I am so, so sorry,” Sylvie says, shivering miserably next to her.

“It’s fine, sweetheart,” Jack says soothingly. “You did the right thing.”

“Killing somebody was the right thing to do?” she says, incredulous.

“Calling us to get rid of the body was the right thing,” Jack amends.

“But, yes, also killing him,” Kent adds. The left side of Lynn’s face was red and swollen before Jack healed her up. As far as he’s concerned, the bastard deserved it.

“You didn’t even really kill him!” Claire argues. “He’s the one who walked off the roof!”

“But I made him!”

“You told him to get lost! Dumbass was the one who decided that meant go over the edge!” Lynn says.

“Hey, hey, keep it down,” Kent mutters, looking over at his neighbors’ house. The girls go quiet, and the five of them bury the body in relative silence.

Well, except for a few whispered conversations:

“Should we dismember him first?” The answer to that was no, mostly because Kent didn’t own any utensils big enough for the job, and also he was not cutting up a dead body, sorry, Sylvie, he doesn’t love you that much.

“Wait, isn’t it a thing that you should bury him standing up? So then it won’t look like a body from X-rays or something?” The answer to that was also no, because it would take too fucking long and they decided they could just put a bunch of shielding spells up, anyway.

“Um. I have his wallet and things. Also the fire extinguisher, but, like, is it really a murder weapon if we used it to murder a zombie?” The answer to that was, once again, no, but let’s get rid of it anyway, and, yes, Claire, you can keep the money, we’ll use it to buy pizza.

“Really, the only problem is that you tried to revive him afterwards,” Jack says once they’ve assembled in Kent’s living room, five deep-dish, all-meat pizzas laid out in front of them. Look, burying a body was hard work, okay? They needed the calories. “I mean, the family’s killed people before, but with that whole crowd seeing him walk around, and then you erasing all their memories—”

Sylvie sighs. “The local Council arbiters will be on us.”

“Yeah,” Jack states.

“The who now?” Kent asks, confused.

“The magic police,” Sylvie, Jack, Claire, and Lynn answer him simultaneously.

Kent furrows his brows. “Wait, you mean like the judge-paladins?” Eric’s cousin Savannah is one of those.

Lynn rolls her eyes. “Of course you know them by the title they’ve got in the South.”

Kent makes a face at her. It’s not like any arbiters came around Magnolia Lane and had tea with the aunts, not like at the Phelps house in Madison, where Savannah regularly brought her group by. The Owens clan was basically powerful enough to be a law unto themselves in their territory, plus they never killed anybody without provocation, and never any mundanes.

Well, not until tonight, at least, but even Kent knows that no killing of non-magical persons is pretty much Rule Number One of every coven ever.

“Shit,” he says, “are we going to get sent to the real-world version of Azkaban?”

“Possibly, or at least put through a trial by jury of our peers,” Claire says.

“Great, an actual witch-trial.” Kent pinches the bridge of his nose. “Okay, you know what, time to head to bed. We’ll deal with this in the morning.” He squints at the window and adds, “Well, later morning.”

He sends everybody off to their respective rooms and drags Jack with him back to the master bedroom, bullying him until he lies down and snuggles with him.

“It’s going to be fine,” Kent insists.

Jack huffs against his neck. “You can’t know that.”

“For fuck’s sake, we’re the Owens coven. Your great-aunts won’t let the girls get dragged off to magical jail,” Kent points out, exasperated.

“Kenny, we may be powerful, but we’re not strong enough to fight off the entire New England Council if they rule against us, and we’re not exactly well-connected enough to sway a jury to our side,” Jack explains. “A trial by jury is—well, it’s always been about who you know and what people owe you. We don’t—we don’t have many friends, not the kind with influence. If it gets that far—” Jack sighs. “It won’t be good.”

Kent strokes his thumb soothingly over Jack’s forearm. “Hey,” he says quietly, “you’ve got Johnson and Knight. I know they have some pull. Not to mention the rest of your Samwell buddies, and that bigshot warlock Gabby’s been working with.”

Jack makes a frustrated noise. “They’re not—”

“You’ve got me, too,” Kent interrupts. “I know people. My friend, they—well, I told you they were powerful. They’d help us if I asked.” Kent isn’t blind; three years of friendship with Eric Bittle, scion of the Phelps clan, means that he’s learned to navigate the politics of coven aristocracy almost as well as he navigates the politics of the NHL. He may not have much magic, but he’s wealthy, handsome, and very charismatic when he wants to be. He’s not without status in Jack’s world.

“Yes, but at what cost?” Jack demands. “Even if you’re their friend, they won’t do something for nothing. There’ll be a debt.”

“And I’ll pay it,” Kent insists. “Jesus, Owens, you know money won’t be an issue.”

Jack scoffs. “Are you sure they won’t make you pay with something else?”

The room goes dead silent for a long moment. Jack’s arms tighten around his waist. “Kenny,” he says, apologetic, “I didn’t mean—”

Kent cuts him off, his body tense. “I know what you meant.” Kent’s not deaf, either, and he’s heard the whispers, the snide remarks about his looks, and his silver tongue, and the things he must be good for.

“There will always be talk,” Alicia Owens told him when he was eighteen years old, a dumb young kid who hadn’t yet figured out that the reason it felt so good when her son touched him was because he was coaxing Kent’s magic to the surface, like calling to like. “You’re a charmer, like me, and that will always come with—expectations. That’s not why he chose you, but it is what our kind will assume. My advice to you is to either ignore what they say, or listen very closely and use what you hear to your advantage.”

She reached out a hand and placed it on his shoulder, intent. “You’re young. You’re beautiful. You will always know the right word to say, the right tone to say it in, the exact things that people want to hear, and they’ll love you for it. They’ll want you for it. In our world, that’s a very dangerous skill to possess, especially without the magic to warn them off should they press you. If that happens, don’t hesitate to use my name.”

“Aunt Alicia—”

“No matter what happens between you and Jack,” she insisted. “You’re under our protection now. We’re your allies.”

“Okay,” Kent had replied, his throat tight.

He thought of her words every time he was in Georgia, or Illinois, or Washington, anywhere he went where he encountered mages or people with the gift, and people’s eyes sparked with interest, and their hands reached out to touch, appraising.

Eric had never looked at him that way, never even came close to treating him like he was an object or a prize, never acted like he expected payment in money or gifts or, yes, sex, and fuck Jack for assuming that about him.  

“You’re wrong,” Kent says evenly, staring at the wall. He hasn’t moved out of Jack’s arms, but he won’t turn around to face him, either. “They’re my friend. They would never ask that of me. I know you think I’m naïve and clueless, and maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about your guys’ world, but I know that I can trust them.”

“Parse,” Jack says, still sounding sorry.

“I need to know that you’ll be kind to them,” Parse insists. “I want them to feel welcome here.”

“Parse, I—” Jack blows out a breath. “Of course they’ll be welcome here. But it’s going to be complicated. I mean, you—you know that they’re in love with you, don’t you?”

“What? No, they’re not,” Kent says, incredulous. He turns over, looking up at Jack’s pinched face. “God, why does everyone keep thinking—”

“They touch you the way I touch you,” Jack says, blunt. He traces a finger over Kent’s cheekbone. “Their magic is all over you whenever you come back from your trips, and it lingers. It clings. That means something.”

Kent closes his eyes and shakes his head. “That’s not what’s happening. They’re helping with the curse.”

Jack pulls him in tightly. “If you say so,” he says, sighing.

“I know so,” Kent says stubbornly, placing a kiss on Jack’s chest. If anyone’s having inappropriate feelings, it’s Kent, not Eric. “Let’s go to sleep.”

“Okay,” Jack replies, closing his eyes. “Okay.”

Kent buries his face against his neck and tells himself everything will be better in the morning.

 

___

 

This turns out to be decidedly untrue, much to Kent’s dismay.

 

___

 

“Hey!” Eric says, his voice all pleased warmth. “I was just thinking about you—Lord, you will not believe what the past few weeks have been like. I swear I am fit to murder some of my cousins. Honestly, those boys, I can’t believe sweet Auntie Mel gave birth to them—anyway, I’m really looking forward to my trip after yesterday, believe me. How about you, honey?”

“Um. Well.” Kent casts about for something to say, then decides to just be upfront about it. “Eric, I’m really fucking sorry, but is there any way you can come today or tomorrow? My sister and our allies got involved in an accidental death. They used magic to cover their tracks, but he—the guy was a mundane, and it looks pretty bad.”

“Oh, shit,” Eric says, alarmed. “Have the judge-paladins come by yet?”

“Uh, no, but J—my boyfriend thinks it’s just a matter of time.” Kent massages his temples. “We buried the body in my backyard, and—well, one of the girls used a resurrection spell on the guy to try and resuscitate him at first, and it’s working a little too well. Fucker keeps trying to crawl out of his grave.”

Appalled silence greets his statement. Then Eric says, “I’ll be at the airport in two hours. You hang tight, sweetie, we’ll get you out of this mess.”

Just like Kent knew he would.

Kent sighs, leaning his head against the window, feeling a mix of relief and guilt. “Thanks. I’ll pick you up when you get here,” he promises.

“Fantastic. See you soon, hon,” Eric says.

“Yeah,” Kent echoes. “See you soon.”

 

___

Chapter Text


 

CH. 11: before dawn, the silence

 


 

 

While Kent Parson asks Eric Bittle for help, Jack Owens is calling his own people.

“Johnson,” he says, “I need you to act as a character witness. There’s been an incident.” He fills his friend in, and exhales hard in relief when Johnson’s reply is an easy-going, “No problem.”

“Oh, and Jack?” Johnson adds.

“What?”

“Remember what you’ve been promised. It ends happily, okay?” Johnson says, gentle.

Jack huffs out a laugh. “Thanks, man. I’ll try and remember that.”

He hangs up, feeling a little better.

 

___

 

He doesn’t call Bittle. It just—it doesn’t seem right, asking him to intervene on their behalf in this matter. He’s already helping the coven so much already. It wouldn’t be fair to demand more of him than what he’s already giving.

Jack’s thumb hovers over his number anyway, but he puts his phone away with a sigh.

 

___

 

After lunch and the third unfortunate attempt of Zombie Guy to leave his grave, Jack puts his foot down and insists that they call Aunt Amanda.

“But—”

“No buts. We’re in way over our heads right now, and she needs to know. I’ll call her, but you guys are coming with me to pick her up,” Jack says, pointing at Claire, Sylvie, and Lynn. “Parse, you stay here so you can go and get your friend when they arrive.”

“Ooh, we’re finally meeting Miss Southern Belle?” Claire says, grabbing her coat.

“It’s ‘Mister,’ actually,” Lynn corrects, and Jack glances at her sharply, ignoring Claire and Sylvie’s yells of outrage and demands for details.

“You’ve met him already?” Jack asks.

“Yeah, through Skype, but—” She looks over at Parse, who’s shaking his head.

“I’ll introduce you when he’s here,” Parse says, biting at his lip. “There are things I have to explain first.”

“The Owens thing?” Sylvie says dryly, having recovered some of her usual humor.

“The Owens thing,” Parse agrees.

When they’re all ready to go, Parse gives each of the girls a quick hug, then puts his hands on Jack’s waist and leans up for a goodbye kiss, short but firm.

“Love you,” Parse murmurs against his lips.

“Be safe,” Jack answers.

“Always am.” Parse smirks, careless of the lie that tinges his voice.

“Jackie, are we going or not?” Claire yells from the front path.

Jack reels Parse in for one last kiss. Fuck zombies, incoming friends of his boyfriend (who’d rather be more, no matter Parse’s delusions; Jack can hear the unintended lie, thank you very much), and his catcalling cousins—summers are for him and Parse and he’ll take any second he can get.

 

___

 

It doesn’t take too long to get Aunt Amanda and explain the situation to her. Thankfully, she takes the accidental death in stride.

“It’s not manslaughter, actually, since you didn’t intend to kill him, nor were any of your actions against him liable to cause harm or death, and you were of course provoked—Lynn, sweetheart, are you doing okay?” she says, reassured when the answer is in the affirmative, moving on to the next topic: “We’ll probably have to call in someone to deal with undoing the resurrection, but—”

“Oh, Er—I mean, Kenny’s friend can handle it,” Lynn says.

Aunt Amanda’s gaze flickers to Jack before looking away. “Wonderful,” she says, carefully neutral, typing on her tablet. “Jack, dear, have you called all your contacts?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Good. I’ve sent emails to Liza’s coven, but they’re in Wales, so their influence is limited. I’m sure we can count on the Johnsons, of course, but Bittle is sure to be our best bet—”

“I didn’t call him,” Jack says at the same time Lynn says, “Oh, you’ve met him, too, Auntie?”

The occupants of the car turn to stare at her.

“What?” she asks, nonplussed.

“Nothing! It’s just—I thought you were the one who hasn’t met Bitty,” Claire says. “Like, you were out in Vegas with Jack to support Kent, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, but what does that have to do with meeting Eric?” Lynn demands. “I told you, we Skyped.”

“Wait,” Sylvie says, her eyes going wide. “Are you telling me Bitty is Parse’s friend?”

“Uh, yeah?”

Jack nearly causes a traffic accident.

 

___

 

Jack honestly didn’t think the day could get any worse, but Parse doesn’t pick up when he calls, and they manage to arrive just as Parse’s car is pulling into the driveway.

And, yes, getting out of the passenger seat is one sharp-tongued, sweet-tempered, honey-voiced, five-foot-six-and-a-half, blond bundle of joy, talking a mile a minute as he shoulders his duffel bag.

“Oh, freakin’ hell, that’s definitely Bitty,” Sylvie says.

Lynn gets out of the car first, and Bittle turns to beam at her. “Miss Carolynn!” he exclaims. “It’s so lovely to see you again! Why—Jack?” he says, shocked. “What are you doing here?”

“Wait, you know Jack?” Parse says, confused. Jack feels his heart racing, but it’s like his tongue’s been turned into lead. He can’t speak—he can’t even move, can’t do anything but keep staring.

Bittle looks—well, he looks vaguely guilty for a second, which Jack doesn’t understand at all. What does he have to feel guilty about? “Oh. Well. Yes. Now, don’t be mad, and you absolutely can’t tell my Moo Maw, but I’ve been talking with him and his coven about your curse, and—”

“You’ve what?” Parse’s mouth drops open. “You mean—oh, fucking shit, you’re the Samwell warlock,” he says, comprehension dawning.

“Um, yes? Honey, you knew that,” Bittle says, his brows furrowing.

And then he places his hand on Parse’s bicep, and everything clicks into place for Jack.

That magic. Those jars. The locket around Bittle’s neck. That look on his face.

Right. Parse’s friend is in love with him. Parse’s friend is Bittle, so it stands to reason that Bittle is in love with Parse.

Somehow, though, it isn’t right until that second that Jack really realizes it:

The person Bittle is in love with—the person the locket is made to protect, the person whose curse he’s trying to break, the person for whom he’ll defy his family’s orders to help—that person is Kent Parson.

It’s just Jack’s luck that this exact second is the same second Bittle comes to his own realization, gasping once his hand hits Parse’s skin, and Jack’s lingering magic sparks in response.

“Oh, God,” Bittle says, his face going white as he stares up at Parse. “Oh, God. This magic—it’s his magic, it’s his—you’re Jack Owens’ lover. Oh, my God. Your curse—it’s the Owens curse, it’s—oh, my God. Oh, my God, Parse.”

Parse’s face crumples. “Eric, I’m sorry,” he says, reaching out to him, but Bittle is backing away and shaking his head, tears starting to leak from his eyes.

“Parse, I—why didn’t you run? Honey, I told you to run,” Bittle says, his voice breaking, and Jack feels himself and his whole family flinch back. “If you met an Owens, I told you to run.”

Parse spreads his hands, helpless. “Eric, I couldn’t. I love him,” he states.

“But I—I—oh, Parse,” Bittle says, love and despair pouring out of him like a river breaking through a dam. “Oh, Parse.”

 

___

 

Eric Bittle stands in front of the house Kent Parson bought for Jack Owens, puts his hands over his face, and weeps.

“You’re going to die,” he sobs. “You’re going to—oh, God, Parse, this curse is going to kill you.”

And Jack Owens wants to weep with him, because his words don’t sound like the truth, but they don’t sound like a lie, either.

(It’ll sound true once it happens, he remembers his father telling him once.

Please, Jack begs. Please, no. Please. I’ll do anything, please.

There’s no answer but the sound of his own breaking heart and Bittle’s quiet weeping.)

 

___

 

The atmosphere inside the house is a necessarily subdued one. Bittle talks mainly with Aunt Amanda and Sylvie, ignoring Jack, ignoring Parse, his jaw stiff and his eyes red-rimmed as he’s brought up-to-date with the situation.

“Right,” he says. “I brought everything we’d need for a quietening spell. If you could just show me where the body’s buried, I think we can get started.”

Parse does so, taking him, Sylvie, and Aunt Amanda outside while Lynn and Claire try to make sense of everything. Jack sits on the couch, not saying a word.

“This is such a freakin’ mess,” Claire says. “You’re saying that Bitty just met him at an NHL game, and, what, now they’re the best of fucking friends?”

Lynn shrugs, glancing at Jack. He ignores her in favor of staring through the sliding glass doors at the group of people standing around in the backyard. “Something like that.”

“But—for fuck’s sake, that is a wicked fucking blooded locket Bittle is wearing. You don’t make that kind of shine for somebody who’s not—” She stops.

“Somebody who’s not fucking you,” Jack finishes dully.

Lynn bristles. “Jack, Kenny isn’t cheating on you.”

“I know,” Jack says quietly. “But I—God, at this point I sort of wish he was. It’d be an easier solution, wouldn’t it? If Kenny could just move on.”

Lynn sucks in a sharp breath, but Claire just looks at him with such understanding that Jack can’t bear to see it.

God, the way Bittle had looked at him. He’d been so horrified, so devastated—and who could blame him?

Jack is going to kill the man he loves.

“Jack—” Lynn says warningly, but everyone moves back inside before she can finish her sentence.

“May I borrow your kitchen?” Bittle asks, still not meeting Parse’s eyes. He runs a hand over his apple-yellow hair. It’s shorter now, Jack notes. He must’ve gotten the Samwell chop.

“Yeah,” Parse says. He clears his throat. “It’s this way.”

Bittle follows after, keeping some distance between them, but stops dead in his tracks when he gets to the doorway, transfixed. “Oh,” he says, and then suddenly he’s striding into the space, opening all the cabinets and drawers, running a hand over the jars on the windowsill, his magic flaring up fierce and bright until the whole room is humming with it.

“Oh,” he says again, stopping in the middle of the kitchen and turning to face Parse. “You got me my kitchen.”

Parse’s face flushes red.

Jack feels it like a hard check into the boards, all the breath knocked out of him.

Oh, he thinks.

Bittle taps a foot firmly against the floor, his magic singing. “Quartz tiles. Rosewood cabinets. Black walnut countertops. Steel knobs and handles. Two ovens.” He gives a watery laugh, leaning against the island and touching a hand to the standing mixer there. “Honey, you didn’t have to.”

“Well,” Parse says, “I thought you’d want to bake, when you visited. Wanted you to feel at home.”

He might as well have shouted, ‘I love you,’ from the rooftops. Jack knows how Parse works.

Bittle stares at Parse with wide brown eyes. Parse stares back.

And Jack?

Jack stares at them both and thinks, They’re in love.

Where does that leave him, though?

 

___

 

Bittle works his craft in Parse’s kitchen with such ease that anyone watching wouldn’t be able to tell that he’d never set foot in this house before today. Aunt Amanda stands at his elbow and offers advice, and he takes it with a polite deference. Soon, a grayish-green liquid is being poured into a silver pitcher and handed off to Sylvie, who grimaces but takes it, spitting into the potion and adding her own magic.

When the clock strikes midnight, they go outside and dispense the whole thing onto the grave.

“There,” Bittle murmurs. “That should take care of that.” He flicks his gaze at Parse, then away, turning to Aunt Amanda. “I’ve already taken the liberty of coming up with a story for the mundane authorities. We’ve an associate in Albany who’ll pass it along to the people here, in exchange for the body. They’ll come by in a few days to get it.” He pauses. “I would also have contacted the arbiters here, but you know our kind. They’re territorial. I thought it best to let them come and ask their questions without interference beforehand.”

He outlines the rest of his plan, which basically amounts to keeping Claire and Sylvie out of it completely, and pinning all the culpability on Parse and Lynn. “Best to keep the Owens name out of this—Lord knows you have enemies enough who’d love to take advantage. Lynn’s a young and up-and-coming witch; they’ll be much more sympathetic to her,” he says, adding, “I’ll stay, of course, to provide witness.”

To lend the weight of his name and coven and bloodline, he means. Jack can tell that it’s clear to everyone here what it is he’s really doing.

“Thank you,” Aunt Amanda says, solemn. “If you or yours should ever need our assistance, then the Owens clan would gladly be at your service. Send word, and we’ll come.”

“You’re welcome,” Bittle says firmly, “but there’s no need. I don’t charge my friends.”

“I disagree,” Aunt Amanda counters. “We do not recant our offer. It stands until we’ve repaid our debt.” And with one last nod, she walks back into the house. “Come, Jack,” she commands. “I need you to take me and the girls home.”

Sylvie clears her throat, her gaze bouncing between Parse and Bittle worriedly.

“Lynn will stay,” Aunt Amanda states.

“Uh, sure,” Lynn says, equally ill at ease, but knowing better than to argue.

“I don’t need the chaperone, thank you,” Bittle says, steel in his voice.

Aunt Amanda stops in her tracks, and looks coolly over her shoulder, Owens-blue eyes shining like ice in the moonlight. “You think the chaperone is for you, young man?” she says, wryly amused. “It’s not. I know what that charm around your neck can do, and I won’t leave one of my own unprotected.”

Bittle stiffens, frowning.

“Kent Parson,” she says, her gaze cutting to Parse. “Didn’t I teach you better than to give your blood to strangers?”

“Well, Auntie,” Parse says, his face carefully blank, “it’s a good thing Eric’s not a stranger, then.”

“Ha!” Aunt Amanda shakes her head. “You’ve always been reckless. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

Parse dips his head in acknowledgement, Aunt Amanda sweeps into the house and then out the front door, and everybody else says their hasty farewells.

When Jack gets to Parse, he hesitates.

Parse doesn’t. Parse pulls him into a kiss goodbye, like always.

“I love you,” he says, and Jack hears Bittle’s breath catch in his throat in response. He’s standing in the shadows of the house, but Jack’s eyesight is good enough to see that he looks absolutely gutted.

“Be safe,” Jack replies, and Parse nods and lets him go.

 

___

 

On the drive back to the house, alone in his car, Jack wonders to himself—how long has it been since Kenny’s told him that he loves him more than anything?

If he said it now, would the words ring true?

Jack’s stomach clenches, and he honestly doesn’t know which answer would be worse.

 

___

 

That night in bed, Jack says, “If you’ve changed your mind—”

“Don’t you fucking dare. Eric and I aren’t like that,” Parse answers, vehement in his denial.

“Baby,” Jack says quietly, “please don’t lie to me. Please.”

Parse sits up, his skin stained silver in the moonlight. “I’m not. I—it’s just me,” he says, earnestly beseeching. “Please don’t be mad at him, I’m the one who went and fell in love with him.”

In love. Jack can’t quite hold in the pained noise he makes at the admission.

“Jackie,” Parse says, fitting his hand over the side of Jack’s face so his fingertips rest against Jack’s cheekbone and the heel of his hand cups his jaw, achingly tender. “Jackie, I’m not leaving you. I’m not.”

“But—”

Parse shakes his head. “You know, Gabby told me you were making eyes at this pretty blond warlock from Samwell,” he says conversationally.

Jack flushes, and he knows Parse must be able to feel the heat in his face. “Kenny—”

“It’s okay,” Parse says. “I know it’s different. It’s probably not as bad as what I did.”

Maybe not, but Jack’s put together the timeline. Parse met Bittle during the two years they were apart. If Parse had stayed away—

Well. Maybe Bittle would never have shown up at Magnolia Lane, determined to break his friend’s curse. Maybe he would never have needed to, because Parse would have moved on. Fallen in love with him. Taken all the magic and affection and desire Bittle poured over him and returned it, beat for beat, measure for measure.

And maybe Bittle might have come anyway, propelled by something else entirely.

“Bittle is my true love,” Jack confesses.

“What?” Kent asks, confused.

“You’ve heard the story. When I was twelve—”

“You went to the woods and you performed a crazy summoning. You should’ve died ten times over, but instead you just walked home in the morning with a cold like the brat you were and pretended like you did nothing wrong,” Parse answers.

Jack cracks a smile despite himself. “Yeah. It—it was a true love’s summoning. I didn’t ever want to fall in love, so I made a bunch of impossible requirements—”

He tells Parse the story. A secret for a secret, right?

“—it’s why I thought I couldn’t be in love with you,” he says, finally. “I thought it wouldn’t fail me. My magic never has before. And if you weren’t my true love—”

“Then I would be safe. You could have me.” Parse closes his eyes, a rueful twist to his mouth. “Owens, you dumbass.”

“I never claimed to be the smart one,” Jack says.

Parse lies back down, pressing close to him. “God, what a mess. We’re both in love with the same guy.”

Jack nods, feeling slightly better about the whole thing. If Parse isn’t leaving him—well, it means he’s still at risk for the curse, but that’s an old ache, a fear he’s used to. Parse falling out of love with him would be a different thing entirely. It’s selfish of him, but Jack doesn’t want to give Parse up, even if he has gone and fallen for Bittle, too. At least they’re on the same page about it, even if Bittle is only in love with Parse, not Jack.

Parse hums, thoughtful, and voices a similar thought, the two of them still familiarly in-tandem: “At least it’s requited for one of us.”

Jack snorts. “Obviously, Parse. I mean, the way he looks at you—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Parse says, pinching his side. “Don’t you fucking dare. I’m talking about you.”

“Me?” Jack says, surprised. “What about me?”

Parse rolls his eyes. “I told you, my friend had a crush on a guy—he’s athletic, grew up locally at Samwell, and was unfortunately taken—” He stops, his eyes widening. “—wait, holy fuck, I’m the reason you're taken. I’m why he didn’t go for you. Oh, my God, I sound like such a douchebag in hindsight. I’m the other guy, holy cow.”

“Clearly not,” Jack says. “Parse, he’s wearing one of the most powerful protective charms I’ve ever seen, and it’s linked to you. He crafted it for you. He told me himself, he’s in love with you.”

Parse chews on his bottom lip, considering. “Wait a minute, let me try something.” He clears his throat and looks Jack dead in the eye. “Eric Bittle is in love with me. Truth or lie?”

Jack blinks, hearing the honesty in that statement. “Truth.”

Parse grimaces, but holds a hand up before Jack can press his case. “Eric Bittle is also in love with you.”

And it’s…not a lie.

“Um. Mostly truth,” he answers, flushing with embarrassment.

Parse drops his head to Jack’s shoulder, his face going red, too. “Well, fuck.”

Jack pulls him in closer. “This is bad,” he agrees.

“It’s a fucking disaster,” Parse says, groaning. “Moo Maw is going to kill me. And you. And—holy fuck, the curse, oh my God, what if it goes after him—”

Ah. Yeah. About that. Jack winces, and proceeds to explain what he’s learned.

 

___

 

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I fucking hate Martha Prudence Owens,” Parse says, staring at the ceiling.

Jack drops an apologetic kiss to the corner of his mouth, and doesn’t reply.

 

___

Chapter Text


  

CH. 12: year-round, he holds his lover's heart in his hands

 


 

In the room down the hall, Eric Bittle lies curled on his side and tells himself to stop crying.

This house is—oh, God, Parse is everywhere in this house, and so is Jack. The way they acted around each other—familiar, affectionate, thoughtlessly navigating around each other’s personal space with the ease of long practice—

I’m such an idiot, Bitty thinks. How could I have missed it?

A curse so strong it hasn’t broken, even after three years of his hard work and toil? A curse that’s based on emotions, on trust, on mutual love? How many curses in the world were like that?

Only one. Only the Owens curse.

Parse has never been the one the curse was cast upon. Parse is the curse’s target.

“Why would you do this?” Eric had asked him. Of course he’d asked. Eric had sat there and played games on his phone, and pulled books off the shelves and tried to read them, and cooked for Lynn and himself, and coaxed Kit over to pet her, and done everything under the sun not to be pulled into Parse’s orbit.

But eventually he’d caved, and he’d asked.   

Parse looked at him, gray-eyed in the lamplight. “I didn’t know at first,” he said, “and by the time I did—” He sighed. “Jack didn’t mean to. I’m pretty sure he was counting on one of us not being stupidly in love with the other, but that was never going to be me, and for some strange reason it wasn’t him, either. So. Here we are.”

“But you—you thought the curse was broken when we met,” Bitty pressed.

Parse barked a laugh, rueful. “Yeah. Um. Again, Jack was counting on me to fall out of love with him.”

And he didn’t, because if Parse was anything, he was loyal. And so was Jack Owens, apparently.

Bitty fought the urge to cry. “If you wanted,” he whispered, “I could whip up a spell to make that happen.”

Parse glanced at him sharply. “What?”

Bitty stared straight back at him. “I could make you fall out of love with him. It would—you’d never be able to fall in love with anyone else after, but I could do it.” It would ruin him to give Parse up, but he would do it. Better than losing him completely. Better than him dying.

But Parse is shaking his head before Bitty even finishes the sentence. “No. No way. That’s not—give up Jack? Never.”

“But, Parse,” Bitty pleaded, “Parse, you could die.”

Parse set his jaw, stubborn to the last. “There are worse things,” he declared.

“No, there aren’t!” Bitty shouted, the words bursting out of them. “Parse, there’s—there’s nothing worse than that, than—than—Parse, don’t you see? Don’t you—don’t you know? I—I—I couldn’t bear it if you died. If you—if I lost—Parse, I—”

I love you, he thought, but he swallowed the words down and swiped a hand over his eyes instead.

“Never mind,” he said, thinking of the way Parse had pulled Jack Owens down to kiss him, how easily Jack had gone to meet him, the two of them in so much goddamn love that Bitty knew it would be a hopeless cause to try and pry them apart. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

And he’d turned on his heel and left.

 

___

 

Bitty barely gets a few hours of sleep, but the next morning, he takes special care with his hair and his clothes, dressing in black slacks and a somber blue shirt. Bitty wishes dark colors weren’t so stereotypically associated with power for their kind, but they are, so he wears them when he wants to be taken seriously.

And he needs to be taken seriously today.

“Alright,” he tells his reflection, pasting on his careful, cautious smile, the one he practices before every get-together with his father’s side of the family. “Let’s do this.”  

 

___

 

The doorbell rings at half-past noon. Bitty has situated himself in the sitting room, having tea and chatting casually with Lynn, while Jack looms in the background and Parse goes to open the door.

“So, I’m assuming you’re here for the asshole that got himself killed. Do you need help digging him up, or have you guys got a spell ready?” Parse demands cheerfully.

“That boy,” Bitty mutters under his breath, exasperated, and Lynn nudges his ankle with her own in solidarity.

“No,” a woman says after a brief pause. “We’re arbiters from the Council. May we come in?”

“Sure,” Parse says blithely, and lets them step past the threshold.

Showtime, Bitty thinks.

 

___

 

Most judge-paladins move in teams of two, and up here in the North, the arbiters apparently do the same. The woman introduces herself first: Neela Kumari, associated with the Srivastava coven of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She’s very polite and measured, and Bitty quite likes her; she’s a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman in her late twenties, of medium height, and she takes Earl Grey tea with a generous amount of milk and a teaspoon of sugar. She also radiates magic like a small star.

The man is Gary Anderson, of the Coopers of Albany, New York, which is promising; the Phelps are allied with that coven. Anderson is a hair under six feet and the kind of white that means he burns and peels and probably never tans, poor thing. Bitty can’t tell what color his hair is, exactly, because he’s shaved it all off. He’s around Bitty’s age. Possibly older, but he certainly acts like he’s barely out of his teens, goodness. He doesn’t want tea. He doesn’t want cookies. He’d rather not make any small talk.

(Bitty justifies his instant dislike of the man with the fact that Kit doesn’t like him, either.)

Both of them clearly have hunter’s blood, and both of them clearly weren’t expecting the script to go the way it’s going.

“We understand that there was an unlawful killing of a mundane two days ago, and then a resurrection spell performed in front of a crowd?”

“Well, yeah, but we figured we should at least try and revive the dude, you know? It was a fucking one-story building, how were we supposed to know he’d be dead dead? And we wiped everybody’s memories after, so there ain’t a problem, right?” Parse says earnestly.

You wiped everyone’s memories?” Anderson says dismissively, casting a scornful glance in Parse’s direction. Bitty barely manages to keep his smile from freezing.

Why, you elitist snob, he thinks, annoyed. Just because Parse doesn’t possess much of the gift doesn’t mean his testimony isn’t worth hearing.

“I did,” Lynn counters swiftly. “I also cast the compunction that resulted in the guy stepping off the roof, but to be fair, he hit me first.”

Kumari’s eyes sharpen. “He hit you?”

Lynn shrugs. “Yeah.” She gestures toward her face. “Jack healed me up, so it’s fine.”

Kumari looks over at Jack, who’s sitting in one of the armchairs with his arms crossed, Kit in his lap, the both of them glaring daggers at Anderson. “I’m assuming Mr. Zimmermann also cast the resurrection spell?” she says, using the last name they said was Jack’s. The last thing they wanted was for anyone to start asking about the Owens family.

Jack gives a single terse nod.

Kumari raises a brow, but goes back to questioning Lynn, letting her take the lead. Parse chimes in now and then with offhand remarks like, “How the fuck are we supposed to know the dude’s name? No, really, he’s the one who came up to her randomly,” and, “Are you sure you can’t take the body? Like, man, I would pay you so much money to get rid of him already. I don’t care what people say, dead bodies can’t be good for the bougainvillea.” 

Everything goes well, with Kumari accepting Lynn’s explanations and letting a small smile cross her face at Parse’s more ridiculous answers, and she informs them that they’ll have to draft a letter to the New England Council—but as long as they promise to be more careful in the future, it seems an open-and-shut case to her, and there shouldn’t be any trouble.

The only hitch is when Bitty politely asks to be the character witness on Lynn’s behalf.

Anderson frowns at him patronizingly. “Kid, I don’t think you’ve got the clearance for that.”

Kumari makes a silencing gesture with her hand, but it’s too late. Bitty clenches his jaw, lifts his chin, and says challengingly, “Excuse me?”

“What? I mean, are you even of age?” Anderson asks.

“Anderson,” Kumari says lightly, “this is Eric Bittle of the Phelps clan. He’s the second-in-line of his coven.”

Anderson does a double-take. “What the hell? No, he’s not—my family’s allied with the Phelps, and none of them ever cross the Mason-Dixie Line if they can help it. What would he be doing here?”

“I can call Patricia Cooper right now and have her vouch for me,” Bitty says, smiling sharply, naming the third-generation heir of Anderson’s coven.

“What? No, I’ll do it myself,” the guy says, scowling, and does just that.

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” Kumari says, a sort of long-suffering look in her eye that makes Bitty think she’s probably not Anderson’s usual training advisor. The partnership has the feel of a very temporary one; maybe she’s babysitting on a fellow arbiter’s behalf.

“It’s fine,” Bitty assures her, then tells Anderson, “Please put it on speakerphone. I wouldn’t want to miss anything.”

Anderson raises his brows but does as he asks, so at least he has some manners.

“Patricia Cooper here,” a young woman says brightly a few seconds later.

“Hey, Miss Patty—”

“Gary? Gary, is that you? Please tell me there hasn’t been another incident. You promised you’d be good for Kumari while Thatcher was out,” Patricia warns.

Jack snorts as Anderson shoots him a glare and says, “No, no, everything is fine. I just needed you to vouch for somebody—”

“Oh, who? What’s her name and coven?” she interrupts, all effervescent curiosity.

His name, actually, uh, an Eric Bittle—”

“Oh, my God!” Patricia shrieks. “Oh, my God! You would not believe what I just heard about him, oh, my God. Now, I’m friends with Amy, right, and she knows Jody Whelan, who was talking to Polly Phelps yesterday, and she said Eric was visiting up North.”

“Oh,” Anderson says, sour, glowering at Bitty. “So he’s—”

“He’s probably shacking up with that silver-tongue of his, you know, that blond one, he’s some famous guy in a sport or something, I forget which one. Oh, my God, half my friends are devastated, like, whoa, way to get taken off the market. Seriously, though, who would’ve thought? I mean, the Phelps are one of the oldest covens, and here their left-hand man is, going and falling for some smooth-talking nobody—but I mean, I get it, of course, I’ve seen pictures of the guy, and, wow—”

“Patty, sweetheart,” Bitty says, unable to take it any longer, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t talk that way about my friends.”

“…Eric?” she says, sounding sheepish.

He smiles tightly. “Honey, what have I said about listening to Jody Whelan?”

“That I shouldn’t,” she says promptly. “But, honestly, she makes everything sound so much more interesting, Eric, are you sure I shouldn’t?”

“I’m sure,” Bitty says with conviction. They exchange a few more words of pleasantries, Eric asking her to please not spread more rumors, but having little hope she’ll follow through, before they hang up.

By this point, Parse’s cheeks are dusted liberally with red, Kumari’s looking studiously out the window, Anderson’s still scowling, Lynn just seems both resigned and amused, and Jack—

Bitty stares at Jack and tries to convey a million apologies with just his face alone.

 

___

 

“We’re not like that, you know,” Bitty says desperately to Jack, once the arbiters have departed and Parse has gone to drop Lynn back at their mom’s house. “You know it’s one-sided. I would never—”

“Bittle, enough.” Jack looks conflicted, and Bitty doesn’t know what to say at all, a hundred emotions warring in his chest, anger and frustration and desire and longing and despair all taking up space inside him.

How dare you love him? he thinks. How dare you risk him like that?

But also, I like you so much. I understand why he won’t give you up, not even to save himself. I can see why he’d risk everything to keep you.

Bitty says neither of those things, just closes his mouth and lets his shoulders droop.

“Bittle,” Jack says, cupping Bitty’s chin, and Bitty can’t help but shudder at the way their magic strikes up against each other when they’re skin to skin like this. At least Jack is affected, too, goosebumps raising all along his arm.

“I’m so sorry,” Bitty whispers. “I never meant to fall in love with him.”

Jack laughs, the sound tinged with bitterness, so close Bitty can feel it reverberate through his chest. “Believe me, I’m the last person who’d blame you.”

They stand there looking at each other, until Jack’s eyes drop to Bitty’s lips. And stay there.

No way, Bitty thinks, in shock. It couldn’t be—

And then Jack lets go of his chin and steps away, right in time for the front door to open and for Parse to walk in.

“Hey,” he says, waving tiredly as he stumbles forward. “I’m back.” He steps right up to Jack and wraps his arms around him, letting his body collapse and trusting Jack to hold him up.

“Welcome home,” Jack murmurs, stroking his hair gently, and Bitty takes another step back.

He can’t—he can’t watch this.

So he runs.

 

___

 

Later that afternoon, the three of them sit down and talk about the thing that brought Parse to Bitty and Bitty to Jack:

The Owens curse.

“A summoning shouldn’t be this powerful,” Bitty says. “It’s—it’s an impossible spell to cast and keep going for all these years.”

“But it’s here,” Jack says, his eyes more somber than Bitty’s ever seen them. “It won’t leave.”

“But why?” Bitty insists. “There has to be—there has to be a catch, there has to be a way—”

“I know,” Jack says. “I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s real. I just—all I keep coming back to is that I can’t figure out why she did it. If I could just figure out why, I think we could figure out how.”

“You mean Martha Owens?” Parse says, scoffing. “Didn’t she do it because she hated the guy?”

Bitty shakes his head. “No. Well, yes—but it was her feelings she really couldn’t stand. That’s what she hated most. She hated that she loved him.”

“I never understood that,” Jack murmurs, and Bitty looks at him and thinks, How lucky.

It’s all he could think of, ever since he realized who Parse was in love with:

God, he thought, despairing, thinking of the years of agony ahead of him, of waiting slowly, in constant uncertainty, dreading the day he’d hear that Parse had died, God, why do I love you? You’d rather die than let this person go? You would honestly rather get yourself killed than give him up?

Then go ahead. Drop dead. Just do it and spare me, let me get this over with, please, please, please make this stop, make it stop, make it stop now

He knows exactly how Martha Owens feels.

Oh, Bitty thinks, in sudden realization. Oh.

He knows what he would’ve done to end it. He knows what Martha Owens did.

 

___

 

One early Sunday morning in August, Eric Bittle leaves the house where Kent Parson lies sleeping, curled around his first and last (but not only) love.

Eric steals Jack’s keys and takes his truck, and he makes the long drive to Samwell, Massachusetts, a small notebook tucked in his jacket pocket, a complex spell he found in one of the oldest of the Owens’ spellbooks copied carefully onto its pages.

It’s a summoning, but it’s not for Death. Not exactly.

Bitty walks into the forest behind Magnolia Lane, taking with him three items from his warlock’s bag: a stone he’d swallowed and nearly choked on when he was three; a tooth he lost in middle school, that time he got shoved and locked inside that supply closet; the strands of hair from his latest haircut, when he’d told the barber, “Chop it off,” looking to be someone new, someone different.

And, always, always, a locket that held the most precious gold he’d ever found, made with the strongest iron he’d ever encountered.

Bitty walks into the forest and lets go of a little of the time he’s borrowed the past few days, a second here, a minute there. Once the very air around him goes still and cold and absolutely quiet, Bitty inhales deeply, holds his breath for a few seconds, and then lets it go. He takes another, and holds it, and lets it go. He takes a third breath—holds it—and lets it go.

He starts the summoning.

 

___

 

“Hello,” he tells Time, occasionally mistaken for Her sister, Death. “I have a favor to ask you. If you would please listen?”

She takes out Her pocket-watch and pauses it, and inclines Her head forward.

Bitty opens his mouth, and asks.

 

___

 

The story goes that Martha Owens summoned Death, because Death is what the curse brought. So when her descendants tried to end the curse, they summoned Death, too. They risked life and limb and rarely succeeded, and when they did, they begged Her to spare their loved ones. They begged Her to end their curse.

But Death can spare no one. Everyone has their Time, and Death will not intervene in Her sister’s work.

So the Owens curse was left in place, granting Martha Owens’ wish in perpetuity.

“Please,” she’d asked Time, hollow-eyed and aching. “Please. He took years from me. Years. I can’t spend another day like this. Please. Please end it. Take what you want. Just—make it stop.”

So Time reached out, and cut short Martha Owens’ love, and because She was soft-hearted, and always listening, She reached out and cut short her daughter’s love, too, and her daughter’s daughter’s, on and on and on and on.

“Don’t you ever fall in love,” Martha Owens had said that morning.

“I won’t,” her daughter had lied.

p o o r   t h i n g,  Time thought.  d o i n g   h e r   b e s t   a n d   s t i l l   f a i l i n g.   i   w i l l   h e l p   h e r   k e e p   h e r   p r o m i s e.

And so it was that the curse began.

 

___

 

“Please,” Bitty asks, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Please, take whatever you want from me. Just—please. Just leave them alone. Please.”

Time looks at this boy, this boy who has always hung onto Her cloak and borrowed Her here and there, and says, reaching out a hand to stroke his temple,   n o   p r i c e   n e c e s s a r y,   d e a r   o n e.   a   f a v o r   to   a   f r i e n d   i s   a l w a y s   f r e e.

“Thank you,” Bitty whispers.

And so it was that the curse was ended.

 

___

 

Bitty walks out of the forest, a streak of silver over his left ear, a permanent mark of Time’s tender touch upon him.

“It’s done,” he says, walking onto the old house’s back porch, meeting Sarah Owens’ shocked gaze. “It’s over.”

And he takes two more dragging, heavy steps, and collapses on the steps before her, utterly exhausted from the summoning of a lifetime.

 

___

 

When Bitty wakes up, he’s in an unfamiliar room, the scent of rosemary, fennel, and bay leaves hanging in the air, an unmistakable psychic signature. There are candles strewn about, spellbooks meticulously piled on top of a wide, wooden desk, and posters of hockey players on the walls.

There’s one of a young Kent Parson cockily smirking on the ceiling. Love you, babe, XOXO, is scrawled along the bottom of it in large, looping letters.

Oh, goodness, Bitty thinks, suddenly certain whose room he’s in. Peering with his second sight, he can see Jack’s aura permeating the whole space, years of living seeping into the very walls.

And overlaying it, as if an artist had grabbed a brush and dabbed a bit of paint here and there, is Parse’s own bright hint of silver and green, strongest on the chair in front of the desk, on the bed that Bitty is lying in.

They’ve probably made love in this bed, Bitty realizes.

“Oh, God,” he says, groaning out loud, and pulls the covers back over his head. He’ll just—he’ll just sleep a little while longer.

Except life has other plans for him, because not one minute later, the door opens and footsteps draw near.

Bitty would know that scent anywhere, citrus and salt and smoke. He holds his breath.

But nothing happens. Parse doesn’t talk to him, or touch him, or even move the blanket off his head. He just…stands there. Watching a lump-shaped Bitty feign sleep. For several minutes straight.

This boy, Bitty thinks, exasperated, and abruptly pulls the covers down.

“Sweet baby Jesus!” he shrieks right afterward, because Parse was a lot closer than he was expecting, and apparently leaning over him like some kind of creeper, honestly, who the hell does that?

“Fuck!” Parse yells back, tripping backward and falling on his ass.

He and Bitty look at each other for several seconds before the two of them burst into laughter.

“Oh, my God.” Bitty gasps for breath and clutches his stomach, he’s giggling so hard. “Honey, what on God’s green earth were you doing?”

“I was making sure you were okay, you weirdo! Shit, you about gave me a heart attack, man.” Parse grins at him, that wide, effortless smile that means he’s having a fantastic time and doesn’t care who knows it.

Bitty looks at him, his heart doing somersaults in his chest. “Parse,” he says, “did it work?”

Parse gives him a fond look. “Well, come on down and see,” he says.

 

___

 

Amanda Owens is sitting in Liza Azevedo’s lap, her head tucked right beneath Liza’s chin, the two of them a tangle of limbs and hair and jewelry that doesn’t look like it’s going to unravel itself anytime soon.

They’ve haven’t been a foot away from each other since Liza arrived four days ago, the day after Bitty collapsed on the porch steps and stayed asleep, exhausted.

On the first day, the two of them had sat at the kitchen table, clutching hands and staring at the clock, ready to bolt away from each other at any second.

Then twenty-four hours passed. Twenty-six. Thirty-six. A whole second day.

“Oh, God,” Liza said, holding Amanda close. “Oh, Madre de Dios, Mandy, you’re still here. You’re still here.”

“It’s not starting,” Amanda replied, laughing, sobbing, laughing. “It’s not—I don’t hear it. I don’t—I don’t hear anything.” She pressed in close, leaning her ear against Liza’s beating heart. “Mi querida,” she said, “I don’t hear anything but you.”

They wrapped their arms around each other and have refused to be parted since.

 

___

 

Gabby Owens visits the cemetery three days in a row, wearing a different dress each time: one in polka-dotted pink, one in pleated blue, and the last in knee-length, sunny yellow.

“I won’t forget you,” she promises each time. “I know you would’ve forgiven me. I know it. But I promise I won’t forget you, not ever, even if I fall in love with somebody else.”

She tips her head up to the sky and spreads her arms wide, as if she’s trying to embrace the horizon.

 

___

 

Alicia Owens drives to Pittsburgh and goes to an out-of-the-way diner.

“Been a while since we’ve seen you,” the man behind the counter says as she slides onto a stool.

She just smiles at him. “Yeah, I know,” she says. “Do you mind getting me Bob’s usual? I just feel like it today.”

“Alright, Owens,” the man says, “one knuckle sandwich, extra pepper, coming right up.”

Alicia Owens sits there and hums her husband’s lullaby while she waits, magic in every note.

 

___

 

Jenny Owens talks to her husband in her garden, the way she always does. Heather’s coming by later, and they’ll go and get their nails done, but for now she’s on her weekly date.

“Sylvie said she wanted to borrow my veil when she gets married,” she says to him. “Imagine that.” She wipes her eyes, her smile wobbly but true. “Imagine that.”

 

___

 

A few weeks later, Claire will walk into a lecture hall and find her best friend.

“Hey,” they say, surprised. “I thought you had a class across campus?”

“Hi, Dylan. I do, but I had something more important to take care of first,” she answers back, and pulls them in for a kiss.

“Um,” they say afterwards, all wide-eyed surprise.

“Sorry,” she says, stepping back. “I’ve been wanting to do that for years, but, you know.” She shrugs. “I was kinda terrified.”

“Oh. Um. Same,” they say. “Uh—would you wanna maybe try again?”

Claire breaks into a grin, her blue Owens eyes sparkling. “Hell, yeah.”

 

___

 

Beatrice Owens goes to her favorite bar and, as usual, never pays for any of her drinks.

“You seem like you’re in a good mood today,” one of her friends says.

“Yeah,” she says, smiling at her. “My sister’s wife is moving back in with her.” She’s never fallen in love, unlike her sisters, but she’s also never wanted to. She still doesn’t particularly want to, but she is very fucking glad her sisters have the choice now without having to be afraid. “Cheers,” she says, toasting to her family’s happiness.

 

___

 

Theresa, Cathy, Vivian, and Sarah Owens all gather on the back porch of the oldest house on Magnolia Lane.

“Girls,” Vivian says earnestly, “I am signing up for e-Harmony, and I’m never looking back.”

They clink their glasses together.

 

___

 

And Jack Laurent Zimmermann Owens?

Well.

Jack Owens drives his truck to Ithaca, New York, with Kent Parson riding shotgun.

Eric Bittle is in the backseat.

“So, yeah,” Bitty says, nervously running a hand through his hair. “There aren’t any undue side-effects, it was just a result of fatigue from the spell, so you really don’t have to do anything. I’m fine, I swear.”

“You know,” Parse says conversationally, “I almost lost my virginity where you’re sitting right now.”

“Parse!” Bitty and Jack shout at the same time. Jack is beet-red, and, oh, God, that means Parse isn’t lying, doesn’t it, if he’s that embarrassed?

Bitty scoots down further in his seat, then abruptly straightens up so his back isn’t touching it.

Oh, God, Bitty thinks, that horrible mix of embarrassed and aroused he’s been all afternoon, ever since Parse and Jack packed him up and told him they were heading back to Parse’s house.

“What? It’s true! And I thought that’s what we were doing? Sharing two truths and a lie?” Parse says. “Two truths: there are no undue side-effects, and you were just fatigued. One lie: we don’t have to do anything.”

“You don’t!” Bitty insists.

Jack snorts. “An Owens always pays their debts, Bittle.”

“And now we owe you, like, ten generations’ worth of firstborns, at least,” Parse adds. He turns to Jack, asking, “Does that count as a truth?”

“No, it has to be personal, doesn’t it?” Jack says.

“Right.” He turns around in his seat, facing Bitty as Jack starts turning down a familiar street. “Here,” he says, “guess which one is a truth and which one is a lie, okay?”

Bitty sighs. “Okay.”

“Statement one: I don’t daydream about getting on my knees and pulling the zipper of your jeans down with my teeth.”

Bitty chokes, temporarily blindsided by that vivid imagery, then registers what it was Parse said—he doesn’t daydream about it. Right. Of course. That makes sense. “Um, that definitely sounds like the tru—”

“Statement two,” Parse says, talking over him, “I’m in love with you.”

Bitty can’t breathe.

“Oh,” he says eventually. That—that has to be the lie, right? Parse can’t be in love with him. He just can’t. But then that would mean—

Oh, goodness.  

Parse is still turned around, watching him, his eyes intent. His hand is resting along the back of Jack’s seat, his fingers toying with the dark hair at the nape of Jack’s neck. Bitty’s always wondered what it would be like to be Parse’s lover, and watching him with Jack these past few days, Bitty’s come to the conclusion that it involves a lot of touching, a lot of easy, casual possessiveness. He’s been trying really hard not to be jealous of either of them, but, honestly, that’s been a little difficult.

“Um. That’s. They both—I thought one had to be a truth? I mean, they can’t both be lies, right?” Bitty says, stammering. Parse can’t honestly daydream about blowing him, much less come out and admit it, not when Jack’s sitting right there.

“Do you want me to tell you which one’s the lie?” Jack asks, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror.

Bitty licks his lips. “It’s gotta be the second one, right?” he says, quiet.

So Parse is attracted to him. So what? Parse’s not—he’s not going to do anything about it. He has Jack. He loves Jack, as much as he loves anything.

The second statement is the lie.

“Nope,” Jack says, smiling at him like they’re sharing a secret, and maybe they are. It certainly feels like it, like something heavy and intimate is taking place right here, right now, as they pull into the driveway of Kent’s gorgeous house.

“Oh,” Bitty repeats, his voice sounding distant. “You—you’re in love with me.”

Parse is grinning crookedly, but his eyes are dead serious when he answers, “Yeah. I am.”

“Oh.”

Parse slants his gaze towards Jack. “Alright, Owens, your turn. Speak up,” he says, a little bit of magic in his voice, and Jack shivers in response. Oh. He must like that, Bitty realizes, must like hearing his name said in that tone.

Or maybe it’s the order that does it for him. 

Bitty swallows.

Jack turns the engine off, then taps his fingers against the steering wheel, considering. “I’ve never been with anyone but Parse,” he says, “which I know turns him on.”

Parse ducks his head and blushes, so that must be a truth.

Bitty is—Bitty can see that. Can imagine a teenage Jack Owens, here in this very truck, letting Kent Parson touch him for the first time, and deciding that, no, he didn’t need to try it with anybody else, he was keeping this boy, thank you very much.

“Truth,” Bitty says.

The corner of Jack’s mouth ticks up in a brief smile, before he settles back into his usual quiet expression. “You got it,” he says, then follows it up with, “I’ve never talked to him about having a threesome with you.”

Bitty sucks in a breath. “Lie,” he says, putting a confidence he doesn’t entirely feel into his voice. He’ll fake it ’til he makes it, and, God, does he hope he makes it.

This time it’s Parse who answers: “Correct,” and he rubs Jack’s earlobe idly, shooting Bitty an approving smirk. “You’re doing great at this round, Eric.”

“Thank you,” Bitty says primly. He clasps his hands together to hide the fact that they’re trembling slightly, but he thinks Jack and Kent notice anyway.

“Last statement, Jackie,” Parse says.

Bitty knows the shape of what Jack will say before he says it, but somehow it still manages to take him by surprise:

“I fell in love with you the first time I caught you talking to one of the cats,” Jack admits.

And that was—that had to have been months ago, ages, are they really not kidding him right now?

“That’s the truth?” Bitty asks, tearing up, afraid of the answer but wanting to hear it more than anything.

“That’s the truth,” Jack Owens says, and then Bitty is scrambling for his seatbelt and lunging forward out of the car.

Jack and Parse give him matching worried stares, peering at him through the side window, which is honestly ridiculous. Do they think he’s running away from them? What an outrageous thought.

“Come on,” he tells them. “Take me inside.”

They scramble on right after him.

 

___ 

 

When the front door closes behind them, Jack says, authoritatively, “Bedroom.”

Parse gives a bark of laughter, startled and delighted, and Bitty knows there’s an inside joke here that he’s missing out on. For the first time, it doesn’t make him feel lonely.

“What’s the joke?” he lets himself ask, and Parse snickers as he answers.

“So, Jack’s kind of a fucking romantic, right—”

“It’s called having patience, Kenny.”

“And he’s still upset that the first time he ever fucked me in this house, I didn’t let him take us past the living room. He had me right on that couch over there, fucked me raw through two orgasms,” Parse reveals, and Bitty nearly trips over his own feet.

“Oh,” he says, staring at said couch. “That sounds—”

“Really fucking hot?” Parse says.

“Very uncomfortable for three people,” Jack amends, frowning. “Bed.”

“Alright already, Owens, I’m going, I’m going.” Parse turns around to face them, walking backwards as he pulls his shirt over his head and drops it to the floor.

Bitty stares, wide-eyed, as Parse runs his hands over his torso, tracing the lines of muscle from his collarbones down to his washboard abs, stopping at his waistband.

“Parse,” Bitty says, his voice hoarse from wanting, and Parse’s expression flips suddenly, going from sexily seductive to achingly vulnerable.    

“Kent,” he corrects. “You’re—you’re not my advisor anymore. You don’t have to—you can call me Kent now.”

“Kent,” Bitty says, stumbling forward, right into his waiting arms, mashing his face against Parse’s—Kent’s chest, pressing his lips to warm skin and feeling the urge to cry when Kent’s arms wrap around him, solid and strong. “Kent. Kent. Oh, God, I’ve—I’ve wanted you for years. For forever. I still can’t believe I get to have you.”

Kent’s hand cups his chin and tilts his face up so his eyes can slowly traverse over each of Bitty’s features, his irises a shade of grass-green that Bitty’s never seen in person before, only through a computer screen. It’s the shade that means he’s feeling happiest, that means he’s talking about his lover. About Jack.

But then Kent starts talking about Bitty instead:

“You know,” he murmurs softly, “I’ve kind of been in love with you since you told me that I’d be just fine, because you knew me, you knew the kind of person I was—‘call it a gut feeling,’ you said.”

Bitty starts trembling, because he remembers that day, too—and really? That long ago? It wasn’t just him this whole time?

He lets his eyes close, because otherwise he won’t be able to say this next bit: “For me it was—do you remember our third phone call? I told you I was feeling down and you, um.” Bitty laughs a little, licking his lips. “You sang me a lullaby,” he says.

“Oh, that one,” Jack murmurs from right behind Bitty, and, dear Lord, he’s not going to survive this, is he? “That’s how you knew it.”

Bitty nods, because he knows that song’s always been meant for Jack. It’s fine—now it’s meant for him, too. “I think—I think that was when it started for me,” Bitty confesses, a secret for a secret, his eyes still shut tight.

“Yeah?” Kent says, hushed.

“Yeah.” Bitty trembles some more, until he finally manages to grab hold of his courage and ask, “Kent, would you please kiss me?”

Kent makes this soft, wounded noise, but then he’s leaning in and finally, finally kissing Bitty.

Bitty moans, because he just can’t help himself. This is Parse, this is Kent, this is everything he’s been dreaming of for years.

Kent takes full advantage, slipping his tongue into Bitty’s open mouth and rubbing it filthily against Bitty’s own, and, good God, if Bitty hadn’t already been hard and aching, he would be now.

Oh,” he keens, his knees giving out on him. A pair of hands grab his hips and guide him firmly onto Kent’s waiting thigh, encouraging him to grind down and get some friction, some relief. Bitty cries out again, the sound of it muffled by Kent’s mouth, and hears Jack’s answering groan in his ear, feels him pressing up warm and solid behind him.

Desperation rises in him. Too fast, he thinks hazily. It’s too fast, I want—I want—

He rips his mouth away. “Bed,” he gasps. “Bed. I want—oh, God, please, ohh—I want it slo—slower—oh, please, you have to stop that, I can’t think,” he snaps, grabbing the hand that’s palming his cock through his ridiculously tight pants—why did he think skinny jeans were a good idea? They are not, he’s never wearing this pair again.

The hand turns out to belong to Jack, who shakes loose from Bitty’s grip and cups Kent instead—Kent, who then proceeds to spread his legs shamelessly and rub against him.

“God,” Bitty says, his brain short-circuiting as he watches them, “you little slut.”

Kent freezes, his eyes going wide. Behind Bitty, Jack tenses up.

“Oh, my God,” Bitty says, horrified. “Oh, my God, I don’t know why I said that, I’m so sorry—”

“No—that’s—it’s fine,” Kent says, his pupils blown wide. “That’s—it’s fine if you call me names, I like it. Jack never—Jack doesn’t—”

“I can’t do it for him,” Jack rumbles, pressing a kiss to Bitty’s temple, “but if you want to.” He doesn’t say anything more, but the implication is clear.   

“Okay,” Bitty says, his thoughts racing. “Um. We can talk more about that later. For now, I just want a bed, please.”

Kent huffs a laugh, and leans forward to steal another kiss, letting him go with one last nip to his bottom lip. “Bed,” he agrees, exchanging a glance with Jack.

And then Bitty’s world goes sideways as Jack hauls him over his shoulder.

“Oh, my God,” he says again, breathless, and Jack shakes with laughter underneath him, Kent’s answering snickers coming from just ahead of them.

 

___

 

Once they get to the bedroom, Jack sets Bitty down, and he sees that Kent’s already lying on the bed, sitting up against the pillows and avidly watching them.

The room is Kent and Jack all over, the life they’ve built together clear from the pictures on the walls, to the bedside tables that are clearly his and his. The neat stack of books on the right-hand one must be Jack’s, and the left one is covered with assorted receipts and coins and knickknacks—Kent must empty his pockets every night and just dump the contents there.

The bed itself is wide and welcoming, less an invitation to debauchery and more a place to lay your head down and rest. It’s a bed that Bitty would’ve guessed that Jack picked out, it matches his tastes so exactly, but Bitty remembers seeing it in Skype calls from when Kent was still single, so Kent must have chosen it.

“Oh, my God,” Bitty realizes, putting this piece together with a dozen other observations, “this whole house is a courting-gift, isn’t it?”

Parse goes red and Jack laughs, loud and pleased.

“Yes,” he says, tugging on Bitty’s hand and pulling him close. “Yes. He bought it for you and me. It’s how he works.”

Now it’s Bitty’s turn to blush. “You mean he bought it for you,” he corrects.

Jack raises a skeptical brow. “Have you seen the kitchen downstairs? It’s a quarter of the first floor. All I need most days is a microwave, a toaster, and a coffee machine. You were right that first day. It’s your kitchen.”

Bitty buries his face against Jack’s neck, suddenly overwhelmed. “Is this—are we—”

“He’s yours if you want him,” Jack says gently. “If you wanted to call your coven and write his name in the registry to make it official, he’d let you.”

“Hey, don’t be fooled,” Parse calls out. “That big lug over there is yours, too.”

Bitty stares up at Jack, everything he’s ever wanted landing right in his lap, and he hasn’t a clue what to do with it. Wistful daydreams never prepared him for this.

“Bitty,” Jack asks, using his nickname for the first time, and Bitty’s racing thoughts come to a screeching halt as he snaps his attention back to the present.

“Yes?” he says, blinking.

Jack gives him this tiny, fond smile and cups his cheek.

Oh.

“May I kiss you?” Jack says, and at this point all Bitty can do is nod.

So Jack leans down and kisses him, slow and sweet and thorough, and goodness. Goodness. Bitty’s never kissed anyone with as much of the gift as he has, and it’s—well. He likes it. He likes it a lot.

“Oh, my,” he breathes when they separate, and then he nearly jumps out of his skin because Kent is right there and laughing in his ear.

“Yeah, he does that to you,” Kent says with a knowing smirk, and then he’s placing his hands on Bitty’s hips and pulling him flush against his body, stepping backwards until they fall onto the bed. Bitty goes willingly, fitting himself against him like they were made to be together. He lets out a contented sigh, and Kent’s hand comes up to scratch at the nape of his neck, tactile and casually possessive and exactly what Bitty wanted.

“How do you want to do this?” Kent asks, quiet, and Bitty knows that Kent’s aware he’s never done this before. He’s told Kent himself.

“Um—I—would you let me fuck you?” Bitty blurts out, nervous. “Or—or you can fuck me, if you’d rather, I don’t really have a—”

“We’ll go with the first option,” Jack says decisively, leaning over Bitty to kiss Kent. “Kenny likes either, but he doesn’t bottom as often, so it’s always a bit of a treat for him, eh?”

Kent murmurs an agreement, and the next thing Bitty knows, all three of them are naked, and he’s between Kent’s spread legs, Kent rubbing his cock against Bitty’s belly, smearing his skin with precome as Kent moans shamelessly into Jack’s mouth.

Bitty’s got two fingers sliding in and out of him, and Kent gets even louder when he slips a third inside, angling them so he brushes against Kent’s prostate, Kent’s whole body bucking in response.

Jack pries his mouth away. “Kenny, you should talk,” he suggests. “Bitty will like it.”

“What the fuck,” Kent gasps, squirming, “what the fucking hell, what am I supposed to say—ah, fuck, fuck, please, will you just fuck me already, please, I need you, I need you, damn it.”

“Like that,” Jack says, pleased, and places a chaste kiss to Kent’s sweat-dampened temple.

Bitty laughs, enamored. “He always get like this?”

“Mmhm.” Jack reaches down and flicks one of Kent’s nipples.

Ah, no, stop, you fucking tease, don’t you dare, don’t you—oh, fuck, oh, God,” Kent moans, arching his back as Jack starts rubbing his nipples.

“He came once just from me sucking them,” Jack shares, and Bitty shudders.

“Really? You’ll have to show me sometime,” Bitty says huskily.

“I will,” Jack promises. “He begs so nicely, you’ll see.” He moves his hands away from Kent’s chest, placing them on his hips instead and pushing them down, trapping him neatly under Bitty’s body.

Kent straight-up growls in frustration. “You fucking bastard, don’t you fucking act like you don’t fucking beg for my cock all the goddamn time.”

“I do,” Jack says evenly, his eyes glinting. “It’s a very pretty cock.”

Kent blinks in surprise, then laughs all of a sudden, startled into fondness. “What the hell, this isn’t the way you usually get in bed,” he says, half a question, and Bitty pauses.

Jack strokes back Kent’s hair. “I know. But you—you’ve always given me what I needed. I want you to get what you need, too.”  

Kent grabs his hand and kisses his knuckles. “Baby, you’re what I need. What I want,” he says. “Any way I can get you, of course, but I like the way we have sex.”

Jack smiles again, soft and sweet. “Of course. It isn’t off the table.” His eyes flick to Bitty. “We just have more options now.”

Kent smiles at Bitty, too. “Yeah, you’re right,” and then he’s wriggling his hips again, sliding his foot up Bitty’s calf suggestively. “C’mon, babe, fuck me. Please, I swear I’m ready.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” Bitty says, his heart aching in his chest. He leans down to kiss him quickly, then withdraws his fingers and positions himself at Kent’s entrance, pushing in as slowly as he can, which—okay, it isn’t very slow at all, especially not when Kent snaps his hips up and takes him all the way inside. Bitty moans, the sound ripped out of him through sheer pleasure, Kent’s magic sparking along every nerve where they’re connected.

“Kent—Kenny—you feel so good, honey, you feel so—so good, ah, I can’t believe I get to have you like this. Is he—is he always like this? This tight? This sweet?” he asks Jack, gasping.

Jack strokes himself in time to Bitty’s thrusts and nods quickly. “Yeah,” he grunts. “He’s always so—so perfect.”

Kent sobs underneath Bitty, turning his head and catching Jack in a desperate kiss. “I love you,” he moans.

“I love you, too,” Jack says back, and those words must trigger something in Kent, because he’s convulsing right afterwards, falling right off the edge and taking Bitty with him.

Bitty cries out, collapsing on top of him. He manages to hear Kent saying, “Eric, God, I love you, I love you,” before the pleasure overtakes him in a blinding rush, and then he can’t hear or see anything at all, reduced to nothing but pure, glorious sensation.

 

___

 

After Bitty’s consciousness returns to his body from its quick sojourn into heavenly bliss, Kent gently moves Bitty off his body and to the side. Bitty protests incoherently, wanting him to stay right where he was.

“Shh, I’ll be right back, I promise,” Kent says. “I just gotta take care of Jack first.”

At that, Bitty pries his eyes open, because this is a sight he knows he doesn’t want to miss.

And he was right, because Kent crawls over to Jack and drops mouth-first onto his cock.

“Dear God in heaven,” Bitty breathes.

Jack immediately starts shaking apart, tossing his head back and keening desperately as his fingers tangle in Kent’s golden hair, pulling to no avail as Kent ruthlessly sucks him through an orgasm and keeps right on going.

“Kenny—Kenny, please, please, I can’t, it’s too much, please,” Jack begs.

Kent hums around his cock, considering, and Jack flat-out sobs. Bitty heaves himself up so he can go and kiss those wrecked sounds out of his mouth.

“There you go, sweetie,” Bitty croons lovingly. “Come on, you can do it, you can be good for him, for both of us. You can take it, can’t you? You’re doing so well. There we go, that’s it now.” Bitty pats his chest as Kent lets him go with one last slick, obscene suckle to the head of Jack’s cock, kissing back up his body until he gets to his cheek.

Jack opens his eyes long enough to find the location of Kent’s mouth and pull him into a wet, sloppy kiss, and then he turns his head and delivers the same to Bitty.

And, honestly? Bitty can live with that.

 

___

 

Afterwards, Bitty and Jack cuddle as Kent goes to the bathroom and grabs a couple of washcloths so they can clean up some. Then he ruins it all by tossing a pillow onto the wet spot and lying on top of it, because apparently the man Bitty loves is a godless heathen.

The other man Bitty loves isn’t much better, because he rolls over and pulls Kent into his arms like he hasn’t just desecrated their shared bed.

Bitty decides he’ll pick another hill to die on, though, and snuggles up to Jack’s other side and makes himself comfortable.

The three of them fall asleep like that, tangled up in each other.

 

___

 

When Bitty wakes up, Jack Owens is kissing across Kent Parson’s face, following the line of his cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, mapping out a detailed route, with every freckle a destination.

“Kent,” he says, “Kenny. Tell me we’ll grow old together. Tell me you love me more than anything.”

Kent Parson pulls him close and murmurs the words sleepily, and Jack Owens smiles wide enough to split the world in two, because every word of it is true.

Then he turns to Bitty.

“Kenny,” he asks again, “say it to Bitty, too.”

And Kent Parson smiles his crooked smile, the one that is Eric Bittle’s favorite, and does as Jack Owens asks of him, just like he always has, just like he always will.

 

___

 

This. This is the first day that isn’t part of a countdown, that isn’t drawing closer to an expiration date, that isn’t an inevitable step towards goodbye.

This. This is the first day of the rest of their lives.

Bitty leans forward, and starts it with a kiss.

 

___