The sound of the old grandfather clock keeps tempo as Ryan wipes down the dust from an ornate glass jar of molted basilisk skin. The sweet tease of freedom hangs in the hairsbreadth of space between the clock’s looping, wrought iron needles and the long slants and columns of the roman numerals at the lowest point of its face.
It’s not that Ryan minds spending every other Saturday minding the family shop. They close early enough that summer nights still afford him a few hours of sunshine, and winter days are too cold for Ryan to enjoy, even under the comfortable aura of a warming charm. Still, there are any number of other things Ryan could be doing outside of customer service and routine housekeeping. The threat of Monday’s test in Colonialism and Contemporary American Magic looms over him like a dark cloud, and despite having his textbook open on the shelf under the register, he doesn’t feel anywhere near prepared.
Ryan wants to do well. It’s a desire he’s always had, from the time he was four years old and lifted an armada of toy trucks into the air with a single thought, well ahead of anyone else his age. But, if he’s honest with himself, Ryan wants to do well this year less for abstract reasons so much as two very specific ones.
Is it stupid to want the approval of people who hardly acknowledge you? Probably. But no one’s ever accused Ryan of being sound of mind, particularly around people who make his chest flutter like it’s filled to bursting with irate imps.
The chiming of the grandfather clock pulls Ryan from his thoughts with a start as it finally ticks over to six o’clock. In a rush, he ducks around the counter and arms the lock on the shop’s front door, flipping the sign in the window from open to closed. The sun through the glass glows golden against Ryan’s skin, early autumn having already sunk it low in the sky. A slow afternoon and no straggling patrons gets him out in a tight fifteen, and Ryan chews at his lower lip as he shoves his school books into his shoulder bag, mentally running through every restaurant within walking distance as hunger gnaws at his stomach.
He’s so preoccupied with thoughts of tacos – or maybe he’ll do Thai? – he doesn’t notice, not until he tugs on the shop’s door to ensure it’s locked and turns, nearly running smack into them, the two figures loitering on the sidewalk.
“Oh, shit,” Ryan says – “sorry” – before he’s even gotten a good look at who he’s nearly plowed over. A warm, whimsical chuckle sends chills up Ryan’s spine, and he drags his eyes up slowly, taking in every inch of long legs and oxford shoes crossed daintily at the ankles as he goes. He nearly burns out of his skin as two appraising sets of eyes take him in, flustered and suddenly out of breath.
Shane stands on an angle, shoulder braced against the brick facade of the building, arms crossed over his chest. A sly smirk pulls at the corner of his lips under a sharp, pronounced nose, its long shadow cast across expansive, stubbled cheeks. The sleeves of his button-down are rolled to his elbows under his light, summer cloak, and with his forearms bared, Ryan’s eyes are free to track the harsh, raised lines of the runes carved into his skin, shiny and pink where they hit the light.
Sara hovers to Shane’s right, perched on the thick, knotted stick of her broom so they’re almost eye to eyes, despite the good foot Shane has on her. She holds her balance with a well-cast charm if the hunched posture of her petite frame is anything to go by, bent at the middle like her whole body’s reaching out to the world. Her eyes are big and warm and green under the round, black frames of her glasses, and they’re crinkled in a genuine smile, head tilted just so, vibrant, violet curls falling to her shoulders. Nestled on the flat, flared brush of her broom is a tiny, orange-gold kitten with white-rimmed eyes, blinking up at her.
Individually, they look great, and together, they’re stunning. Sara’s bright softness quiets the chaos that rolls off Shane in waves, and his dark edges offer her depth. There’s something almost Miyazakian about them, Ryan thinks, whimsical and magical, even in a world of magic and whimsy. One part Princess Mononoke , one part Kiki’s Delivery service .
“Someone’s in a hurry,” Sara says, and Ryan is so stunned to have her address him directly, he can’t for the life of him come up with a reply.
“Yeah, Bergara. Where’s the fire?”
Flames shoot through Ryan’s gut when Shane says his name – gives Ryan indisputable proof that Shane knows his name, if only his last.
“I’m sorry,” Ryan repeats, lamely. His brain is stuck on a loop, hammering in on the same thought over and over like the ticking of the shop’s old grandfather clock. He’s talking to Shane and Sara.
He’s talking to Shane and Sara.
“You aren’t actually in a hurry, are you?” Sara asks, and Ryan blinks in surprise at the genuine dismay in her tone. The kitten on her broom chirps discontentedly and reaches out a paw, swatting at Sara’s hand to get her attention. Sara reaches out and scratches it behind its ear without once taking her eyes off Ryan.
“Just finished work,” Ryan replies, gesturing with his thumb at the shop over his shoulder while his gaze darts between Sara and Shane and back again. He shifts on his feet, uncertain, nervous energy radiating from every pore.
The raised symbols on Shane’s skin glow black.
Ryan can’t help the nervous laugh that slips past his lips. It only causes Shane’s markings to grow bolder, and Ryan scratches the nape of his neck where he feels sweat bead. Sara frowns at him, and he tries to compose himself. He doesn’t want them to think he’s nervous. Certainly not nervous in that way.
"It’s a shame about that Rubin girl. Brightest witch of her generation. And you know who – what – she’s dating."
Ryan’s heard the whispers, in the halls at the University, even in his own shop. He knows Shane’s parentage, knows what it makes him. A halfwitch. Half chaos demon. And as much as the thought of demons makes Ryan’s blood turn to ice in his veins, he’s never felt anything but searing heat as he’s traced the lines of Shane’s runned skin with his eyes, or snuck covert glances in class, across the quad, in the library, as Sara traced them with her fingers.
Of course, Ryan’s not sure he wants them to think he’s nervous in an idiot with a crush way, either. He settles for swallowing slow and noisy, makes a show of shuffling his feet and wiping his palms on the thighs of his jeans, and says, “sorry, I’m nervous,” without offering further explanation. It’s a compromise, one he hopes they can accept.
Shane pushes off the wall and leans into Sara’s side. He’s got an easy smile on his face as he says to her, “he’s a squirrely guy,” disaffected, and Ryan’s shoulders sag in relief.
Sara snorts. “I’ve noticed,” she replies, resting her chin on Shane’s shoulder just long enough to lean up and press a kiss to his cheek. He flushes under her lips, smirk sliding into a softer, more genuine smile, and Ryan’s heart flips in his chest.
Ryan clears his throat, trying to get his head back in the game, but all that manages to do is direct Shane and Sara’s attention back to him, and he nearly withers under the combined intensity of their stares.
“Anyway,” Ryan hedges. “Sorry again for almost knocking you over. I should let you get on your way.”
“That would be pretty inconvenient,” Shane replies, straightening to his full height. He crosses his arms behind his back, and Ryan isn’t sure why, but it feels like posturing. “Given that we’ve actually been waiting here for you.”
Ryan’s eyebrows jump into to his hairline. “Me?” he repeats, then glances over his shoulder to make sure they’re not talking to someone behind him.
Sara laughs, and it wrinkles her nose in an adorable way at which Ryan has trouble not staring with longing written all over his stupid, smitten face.
“We wanted to know if you wanted to be study buddies with us,” Sara says. “You know, since we all have that big test in Contemporary Magic on Monday.”
Ryan blinks. “Study buddies.”
Yes, she said that. Stop repeating things.
Ryan wants to crawl in a hole and die.
“Also, you know, it’d be cool if we–” Shane falters, clears his throat, and starts again. “If we maybe went out and got something to eat first. Assuming you’re hungry.”
Ryan’s mind whites out. Pieces are falling together in ways that don’t make sense with his understanding of most things – namely how desirable he is as a partner, and everything in the world ever. But there Shane is, rocking on the heels of his feet while Sara sits frozen still, bottom lip worried between her teeth.
“We could– yeah, we could go out,” Ryan stammers, then kicks himself for his wording. “To eat. We could eat. And study.”
“Cool,” Sara says, her bright, answering smile partially hidden as she ducks her head and nods. “We were hoping you’d be into the idea.”
Ryan watches the muscles in her arms work as she slides off the ledge of her floating broomstick, shoes touching down on the cobblestone with a soft, sharp clack. Shane’s hand goes immediately to the small of her back, and Sara bounces happily on her toes, curls following her momentum in a way that makes Ryan’s breath catch.
“Man, why wouldn’t I be? You guys are awesome,” Ryan says before he can think better of it. Shane and Sara turn to him with unreadable expressions, and a cold sweat breaks out across the back of Ryan’s neck. “I think, sometimes. Like– like the way you do when you– when you see people around. You know.”
“Ah, the ‘ole see ‘em around think they’re just swell deal,” Shane says with a solemn nod. “We’re somewhat familiar.”
“Like, with you,” Sara furthers.
Despite himself, Ryan gets his hopes up. He smiles, which must be the right move, because Sara sighs and smiles, too. Even Shane’s lips pull up in one corner. God, they’re beautiful.
Ryan is screwed.
“Cool,” Ryan says, an abrupt, nervous laugh bubbling up from his chest. The runes on Shane’s arms pulse, and Shane scratches self-consciously behind his ear and chuckles, too. Ryan could be misreading things spectacularly, but he can’t shake the manic energy pulsing under his skin, whispering what if you’re not?
“So, we’re in agreement then,” Shane says with a decisive nod. “It’s cool s all around.”
“I’m counting three cool s ,” Sara confirms. She turns her back and reaches out to scratch the kitten under its chin and mutters softly, “what do you think, Obi? Is that cool with you?”
Obi mrows happily, eyes slitted and soft. Shane reaches over with one of his sinfully long arms and rubs circles into Obi’s forehead with his thumb. Ryan swallows hard, watching Shane’s fingers work, the runes decorating his long, deft digits faded to a pale grey.
“Don’t eat my shoes,” Shane tells Obi sternly, and Sara laughs as Obi chirrups back, both of them oblivious to the warmth spreading, unbidden, through Ryan’s chest.
The couple draw their hands back, and Sara turns her attention to the handle of her broom. Ryan watches as she skimms her fingers over a rune hand-carved into the dark grain of the wood. From Sara’s profile, Ryan sees her eyes slide shut. She murmurs an incantation under her breath, and the rune sparks, orange and bright, like metal struck against a flint.
On its own, the broom shakes, then it rises, first a foot, then two, higher into the open air until it hovers well above the bustle of pedestrian foot traffic lining the street. Ryan watches it go with wide eyes, sure his awe is written plain as day across his ever-readable face. A homing charm is a high order spell, and Sara casts it without breaking so much as a sweat. It pains him to take his eyes off her in the wake of her display, but it’s worth it to catch the tail end of the dopey, dazzled smile Shane has trained on her.
“Any thoughts on where you wanna eat?” asks Sara abruptly, turning her attention to Ryan on a dime. Shane follows suit, and Ryan knows he’s been caught starting, but for all that a burning flush rises to his cheeks, it still takes him a hot minute to do anything else.
“I kinda have tacos on the brain,” Ryan says finally, after an awkward clearing of his throat. His eyes are still too wide, and he’s still staring a little too intently, but neither Shane nor Sara seems to mind.
“Tacos, baby,” Shane exclaims instead, extending his palms in the world’s smallest jazz hands, and it’s such a dork move, Ryan actually wheezes. His laughter seems to fuel Shane’s unique brand of ridiculous, and he bobbles his head in some outrageous, six foot tall parody of the vintage dunking bird Ryan’s grandmother keeps on her windowsill.
“Doofus,” Sara chides, thumping Shane’s chest lightly with the back of her hand. Shane turns away from Ryan and sics his schmaltzy smile on her instead, reaching up to take her tiny hand in his much larger one and squeezing.
“You like that about me,” Shane reminds her, and Sara rolls her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m a real sucker,” she replies, but it’s with a deep fondness that’s impossible to miss.
They linger in their tender moment just long enough that Ryan starts to feel like a creep, or an interloper, before Sara turns to him and loops him back in. “Lead the way,” she says, with a flourish of her free hand.
In beautiful synchrony, Shane and Sara unlace their fingers and take a half-step back, leaving just enough room between them for Ryan to fit shoulder to shoulder. They look at him with wide, expectant eyes that betray their nerves more than Shane’s markings ever could, and Ryan, taking a deep, grounding breath, puts on his big boy panites and sidles in between them.
“It’s just a couple block from here,” Ryan says, trying his level best to focus on the food instead of the heartbeat thundering wildly in his ears. He takes his first few steps a little too fast, but Shane and Sara keep pace, and eventually, Ryan slows. “It’s a little family owned place, which is nice, you know. Tastes like home cooking.”
“Home cooking is good,” Sara says.
Shane scoffs. “Unless it’s yours.”
“Hey,” Sara yips, leaning in to glare at Shane across Ryan’s chest. She’s close enough to smell the cedarwood in her shampoo, and Ryan shivers in a way he hopes is discrete. “I am adequate in the kitchen,” she continues. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Unlike you, Mister
Twenty-One-Year-Old Man Who Only Knows How to Microwave Popcorn
“That’s not true,” Shane counters, one finger held aloft. “I know how to microwave regular corn, too. Fresh and frozen.”
Sara feigns a gasp. “Michelin star,” she exclaims, arms waving wildly and nearly clipping Ryan in the chest. “Someone get this man a Michelin star.”
Ryan laughs. He can’t help it, soaked in the manic, lovestruck bubble of their banter. He wants viscerally to edge his way in, but he’s not sure of their rhythm yet, or where inside it he’ll fit. He settles for chuckling fondly and warming under the combined attention of their eyes when his amusement draws their attention. Shane’s knuckles brush against Ryan’s, and Ryan’s footing falters, but he doesn’t yank his hand away, and neither does Shane.
“Are– are you two always like this?” Ryan stammers. Shane’s fingers twitch, and Ryan feels it against his skin.
“What, a barrel of laughs?” Shane asks.
Sara scoffs. “I think he means impossible , ” she corrects.
“Maybe a bit of both,” Ryan offers with a shrug. Then, in a burst of courage, he adds, “in all the best ways.”
“Oh, we’ll show you all the best ways,” Shane replies. It’s a little dark, a little heated, and Ryan nearly vibrates out of his skin. A deep, smoky heaviness settles in the air, and Ryan struggles for breath. He hopes and fears in equal measure that’s a promise.
“I’m Ryan, by the way,” Ryan says, when the silence starts to choke him.
Shane and Sara chuckle, and the tension around them doesn’t quite dissipate, but it transmutes into something vital instead of something lethal.
“We did think as much,” Sara assures him. Then, she places the tips of her thin, knobbly fingers over her clavicle and says, her tone a little patronizing, but in a way that’s still so God damn sweet, “I’m Sara.”
“And I’m Shane,” Shane continues, drawing Ryan’s attention right.
Ryan huffs. “Shut up,” he grumbles, then, softer, “I know that.”
It feels heavy, the declaration. Sara bumps his shoulder, and Shane’s fingers skim the back of his hand in a way that’s more obviously deliberate.
“We’re gonna make Colonialism and Contemporary American Magic our bitch,” he proclaims, breaking the spell of the moment before its weight drives him through the sidewalk. Subconscious spellcasting has lead to stranger things.
“Look out bell curve,” Shane joins in, a maniacal little laugh colouring his tone. “The Rubin-Bergara-Madej trifecta of intellectual prowess is coming for you.”
“Oh, shit,” Sara hoots, and the trio dissolve into loud, wheezing laughter that feels more natural than it ought to for a first hangout – date? – but that Ryan refuses to look in the mouth.
The simple, wooden sign bracketed over the taco place comes into view as they turn up the next street, and Ryan’s lips twitch in anticipation. He imagines the way the spice warm chilis will compliment the warmth of Shane and Sara’s bodies pressed in close in his favourite corner booth, looking at him like they’ve been looking at him, only ten times more intimate in low, yellow lighting.
“This is gonna be fun,” Sara says preemptively, apropos of nothing, like she can read Ryan’s mind. Maybe she can. It’s an advanced incantation, but she’s a talented witch. Come to think of it, maybe she’s divined it. She’s got a twinkle in her eye that’s so sure, Ryan would sooner say she knows than assume she’s guessing.
“Oh, yeah,” Shane adds. Ryan points out the restaurant’s heavy wooden door with a gesture of his thumb, and without faltering, Shane stops in his tracks and pulls it open, stepping aside for Sara and Ryan to go in first. “A real hoot. Might even throw in a little -nanny, depending on how things go.”
Sara scoffs and rolls her eyes. She bounces up on the balls of her feet and lands a kiss on the point of Shane’s chin as she passes. Ryan, swept up in their casual affection, pats Shane on the chest, over his heart, once, then twice. It feels right. Electric. Magic.
“We’re gonna -nanny the fuck out of this thing,” Ryan says. His fingers are lingering on Shane’s chest, so, reluctantly, he draws them back. “-Nanny it all the way to a shindig.”
“Ooh,” Shane singsongs, stepping into the restaurant on Ryan’s heels. “Now that– that’s my kinda party.”
Ryan’s still reveling in the music of Shane and Sara’s laughter as the door swings itself shut behind them.