When Nathaniel was ten, his mother woke him up in the middle of the night whispering "Put on some clothes." The previous week it'd been his birthday; the night before his father had finally finished the tattoo he'd been slowly carving around his neck like a collar, now going all the way to his shoulders. Nathaniel had been sleeping in weird positions the whole week because of how much it hurt.
He woke up with a quiet start, and his mother tossed some clothes at him and told him to change, not even stopping to explain – not that he asked her to; it'd been building for years now, and he was just relieved it was finally happening. When he was done, he helped her pack his duffle bag and they left, silent steps through the house and out into the front yard, making a path that would keep them away from the security cameras.
A week later they took a plane to Cardiff, and with her brother’s help they moved into a small house somewhere in the countryside of her home country with too many cows, long empty fields, small patches of forests and almost permanent bad weather.
He loved it.
Stuart left them alone most of the time, and Mary sang every morning and night, her music-based magic reinforcing the protections around the house. He’d spend days out in the woods behind the house, coming back late at night just a little bit more grown up than when he left. He was Abram, then, never Nathaniel, and he was free free free.
The best part, however, was the magic – the whispers of pixies in the wind, the house familiars joining Mary's songs as she made breakfast, childlike laughter from the kitchen when a brownie found the cookies left on the windowpane for them, big paw-marks on the grass in the backyard, where the grass met the outskirts of the forest. He studied magic alone or with help, when he managed to convince the fairies to help him, and trained with his mother whenever she could. He learned more about himself and the world around him than he'd ever thought possible. He learned how to protect himself with and without magic, and designed his second and third tattoos – first a protection circle on his chest, all in old welsh; then his cat familiar on his back.
They asked Stuart for books on ink-based magic and took turns reading everything they got their hands on. After weeks of learning, Mary tattooed him herself – having refused to let anyone near him with needles – and they spent a whole afternoon of magic and ink to weave the spells onto him.
His skin ached and itched when the cat moved around, and it’d taken some time for him to get used to it whispering in his ears. But it was his familiar, his protector, and now they were one, so he learned to understand it.
His mother had no tattoos of her own. Mary's family, the Hatfords, had blood from the seas running in their veins – though they weren’t sure if it was from Selkies or Sirens or Merpeople – so they sang their magic instead of carving it. Abram could do it too, but Mary insisted on him learning any and every kind of magic he could, especially silent ones; so Stuart brought them books and books, with glyphs and sigils from every culture he could get his hands on, magic written and drawn. It was his father's magic, inherited together with his looks and temper. He hated it, even though he knew it was irrational, even when they realized how much it got in the way of his casting, even after his mother’s best efforts to beat it out of him failed.
Some days, his cat would whisper ‘There’s something in the backyard’ or ‘by the front door’ and after telling mom, they’d spend hours locked inside by key and spells, waiting for whatever it was to leave, or Mary would go out for hours and come back looking tired and smelling of magic and blood.
(Sometimes, though, it would whisper ‘Kitchen’ or ‘Living room’ or ‘Near near near’ and Abram wouldn’t tell his mother a thing.)
Then he was twelve, and his mother woke him up one morning with all their things already packed; his cat was screaming inside his head, ‘here here here’, and everything was happening too fast for him to understand. One moment they were in the kitchen and Mary was wiping away the small salt circle they always left on the dining table, the next they were outside in the forest walking a path of dirt and fallen leaves, and Abram found his breath for long enough to tell her she’d forgotten to lock the back door, but she only snapped at him to be quiet. It took him a while to understand that they were leaving; and an even longer time to understand that they’d never come back.
For the next few years, they ran, lied, took whatever they wanted or needed, and pretended to be anyone but themselves. Mary never explained why they’d left, and after some time Abram gave up asking. He hated all of it, but he loved his mother. She was his family, his tether, and he would do anything for her.
During that time, he added some more tattoos to his collection: a little key on his right middle finger that could open and close any ordinary lock, layers upon layers of wards and protection spells in every language they learned, and a single stem of wolfsbane in watercolors – for desperate times. He was Alex, Stefan, Chris, Isaac, Gabriel, but never Abram. Some days, he hated his mother for taking that away from him. Most days he loved her because he knew she did it so he’d never have to be Nathaniel again.
At sixteen, they went back to North America – first Canada, then the States. By then his mother was a completely different person. She didn't sing anymore, didn't really use magic at all. She still taught him sometimes, but she had few good days, and even fewer sane ones.
Around that time, Abram understood that just because his mother was his tether, it didn’t mean he was hers.
Sometimes he’d feel her magic like something physical, something alive and trying to force its way out of her body. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep at night, suffocating under the sheer presence of it. He learned to block his cat’s whispers out, tired of hearing it insist his mother was the actual danger.
On his seventeenth birthday, they broke into a tattoo parlor in Seattle after he’d decided his next tattoos: a group of four triangles, each one representing an element: earth, fire, air, water. They were simple and small, lined one under the other, two on his right forearm, two on his left, but they made him feel secure in a way he never did before. When they healed, he sometimes slept at night to the sound of strong winds and cresting waves, the rustling of leaves and the crackling of fire. Through it all, the lightning scar tattoos his father had given him all those years ago remained silent and still.
Abram was nineteen when his father finally found them. He remembers little of the encounter: his cat screaming wordlessly inside his head, his father’s coven getting closer and closer and, finally, his mother’s magic breaking free and destroying everything around them. His protection spells saved his life again and again as they fled and his mother sang for the first time in years in a voice he’d never heard, calling for help from the sea mothers, and Abram didn’t understand her words until it was too late, and the storm hit them.
They ran, hoping the water would wash away their scents and the downpour would hide them from prying eyes, and Abram’s lightning tattoos shone electric blue in time with the thunders and lightning above, shaking him to the bone with every burst of energy.
(Later, he’d read in a newspaper it’d been the worst storm to hit the coast in decades – an unexpected typhoon that left hundreds of people homeless. Later, he’d wonder at his mother’s power. Later, he’d feel guilty for it, the lengths she’d go to keep him safe.)
He was nineteen when his mother died beside him on a beach in California, their car smelling of ozone and saltwater and smoke. She died with a sigh, no noise, her hand still clutching his shirt, and the storm only calmed down two days later. For two days he screamed, but the sea didn’t answer. He sang, but nothing happened. He begged, then cried and cried and cried. Then, he burned their stolen car and threw her ashes into the sea, singing Mary back home into the deep.
At nineteen, Abram became an untethered and unbound witch. It took days for his tattoos to stop moving, his skin buzzing with magic and fear and anger and sorrow. His mother tether family was gone gone gone and nothing else seemed to matter.
When Abram’s survival instincts overcome his grief, Neil Josten is born: one year younger with two very busy parents that chose Millport for its convenient location and very cheap living cost. Neil Josten is a sensible, responsible boy who can take care of himself. His teachers are understanding, the locker room has a cheap lock he doesn’t even need magic to open, and even when he can't sleep there, there are plenty of vacant houses for him to break into. Millport is a dying town. He fits in in more ways than one.
Even though his whole being begs him to keep running, he stays. It takes a while, but his magic settles, too. He uses long sleeves and baggy clothes almost all the time and pretends not to notice the rumors that run around the school – and eventually the city – about him. Some days his cat whispers ‘safe safe safe’ and others it cries ‘alone alone alone’. Still, he survives. And stays. He finds a job at the only bookstore in town; he has no idea what he'll do when school is over, but he’s pretty sure it'll involve running.
That's when fate changes its course.
It starts with his cat familiar chanting 'they are coming coming coming' for a whole week in the back of his head and refusing to elaborate even when asked, making it very hard for him to concentrate on his finals. Then, a failed break-in: he's coming back to the house he'd spent the last month in and there's a car on the driveway. When he comes closer, he sees the kitchen lights on, and movement behind the curtains.
He thinks 'Shit' and 'Did I forget anything' and 'No, no I didn't I never do' and 'Guess tonight's a locker room sleepover' and 'Oh my god shut up' – the last one to his stupid chanting cat. Through it all, he keeps walking down the street and around the block, heading back towards the school, like everything is perfectly normal. Except it isn't.
Except he did forget one thing: his scent. And that's what they find, the lingering smell of someone in the corner of the living room – the smell of sleep, the stink of fear and anger and grief; and under it all, ozone.
Magic magic magic.
Witch witch witch.