"Can't you just, you know."
"Can't I just what."
Ben lifts the fingers not currently attached to a badly singed forearm, and wobbles them. "Heal me."
Gretel glances at the members of her band who didn't get stuck with nurse duty. Hansel is perched on a rock, cleaning his guns with the kind of concentration that means he's in a lot of pain; she'll have to look at his leg, soon, where the younger of the two witches got him with some kind of enchanted metal whip. Edward is stacking the witches' corpses inside their truly hideous little cottage and preparing to set the whole thing alight.
"No," Gretel says. "I don't know any spells for burns. Cuts, sure, I've got the hang of them now. And I've read Mina's notes on fixing broken bones."
"I haven't got a broken bone! Owowowowow."
Gretel releases her grip on his burned skin. "Do you want one?"
Ben's face is pale, but he rolls his eyes. "No."
"Then stop fucking whining and go stick your arm in the stream like a normal person."
Ben hauls himself to his feet, wincing, and heads in the direction of the treeline.
"Put it in the water and count to three hundred!" Gretel yells after him. "I swear," she says, "it's like having to look after a fucking child."
"You've got a real healing spirit," Hansel says. There's a smile playing at the side of his mouth.
"He's got potential. But he's no use to us if his skin's still that thin."
"Speaking of which," Hansel says, pointing down at the mess that's his left ankle. "It's your lucky day. Look at all those cuts. And I'm pretty sure I heard a snap."
"I've read Mina's notes," Gretel says. "That's all."
He shrugs. "Give it a try."
"We should have kept the older one alive," Gretel says. She settles herself on the ground at his feet, armed with a fresh bucket of water and some rags. "I could have broken her bones, and practiced putting them back together. I could have broken them lots of times."
"Bloodthirsty," Hansel says, approving. "Reminds me of--ah."
"Don't you start whining on me too." But she leans forward and presses her lips to the clean skin of his knee, exposed where she's tugged the torn fabric away from his wound.
Hansel reaches down and smooths some strands of hair, matted with some body fluid or other, back from her face. He tucks them gently behind her ear.
"Come on, sis," he says. "Let's see what you've got."
Learning witch-hunting and witch-lore out of books is pretty fucking useless when it comes to the practical aspects like stabbing, burning, kicking and slashing, but Gretel will give Ben this much: at least he means that the Grimoire he insists on lugging around isn't just a calligraphic doorstop, but a potential source of information.
It's the ultimate tome of protection against dark magic, and it will transform their lives. Sure.
"No, I'm pretty sure that's for clothing," Ben says, flipping pages. "I saw the same thing on--here, Gretel, look--"
"More symbols," Gretel says. Her skin itches.
"The same symbols."
Gretel looks over Ben's shoulder to where Edward is sitting, too large for the inn's beds as usual and so leaning against the wall with every appearance of comfort. Not that it's easy to tell, with him.
Edward picks up on her gaze, raises his eyebrows and makes a heavy, inquiring gesture that might signify picking Ben up and carrying him down to the taproom to get him drunk, or possibly shoving him headfirst through the floorboards. It really isn't easy to tell.
Gretel gives a tiny shake of her head, but feels better.
"Yeah, this is another shielding spell. Channel the silver into the--uh, something something, I think this one means sheep, I'm not sure why that--maybe wool?"
"I don't speak ancient nonsense," Gretel says, kicking back in her chair. "Get back to me when you've got a translation."
Not for the first time, she's thankful for Mina, who took notes and kept records in proper human language. A white witch practising entirely alone in a world full of sharp teeth bared against witches, but persevering, and writing down the things she learned.
Gretel starts to feel sad if she thinks about it for too long. So she doesn't.
From the papers they recovered from the walls of Mina's house she's so far learned to heal cuts, to heal bones--well, almost--to purify water, and to cast love spells. These are pretty things, tangles of golden string that float above Gretel's palm. Expanding and contracting with her breath like small tides in a smaller ocean, yearning, promising.
Totally fucking useless.
Gretel purses her lips and blows a soft puff of air over her palm, watching the spell unwind and float away, gilded seaweed caught in a giddy current, across to the bed where her brother lies.
Hansel, half-asleep, reaches down to slap at his leg as though to kill a biting insect.
"F'ckoff," he mutters. "Tickles."
The man's pupils don't cross so much as undergo a strange asymmetrical wobble, and his jaw goes tight with pain.
Slowly, he topples to the floor.
Gretel stretches the ache from her knee and looks around the taproom. She counts at least three beer steins arrested halfway to mouths, and at least twice that number of men who are now trying, consciously or otherwise, to shield their genitals.
"Does anyone else want to try and prove how grateful they are that we just saved the children of your rotting midden of a town by feeling me up?"
In the corner of her eye she can see the mayor adding more gold to their purse. At least someone in this fucking place has a survival instinct.
"We really are very grateful," the mayor says. He scuttles backwards when Gretel grabs the purse from his hands. "But not, uh. That kind of grateful. I swear."
Gretel ties the purse to her belt and goes to plant herself with a deliberate rattle of weaponry at the table where Hansel is sitting, drinking his own beer and radiating his usual air of disinterest bordering on dysfunction.
"Nobody'll buy us drinks now," Hansel points out.
"How's the beer?"
"Smells like blood."
"You've got a broken nose," says Gretel. "How does it taste?"
"Like stale piss. You're right. Let's go."
"Ben?" she inquires, as they step out into the fresher air. The ground is muddy and the moon high.
"Some of the young women of the town wanted to express their gratitude."
"And unlike you--"
She almost smiles. "He took them up on it?"
"We're not in a rush."
"I guess not."
Gretel seats herself on a rough-hewn log on one side of the main road through the town's centre. Hansel pauses, then sits between her legs with the log at his back, with total disregard for the mud. Gretel smiles and slides light fingers up the nape of his neck and into his hair. She can feel the knots of his muscles and makes no attempt to soothe them.
"So," she says. "The young women of the town."
Hansel presses his head back into her palm, hard.
She tightens her grip. "You could've have your pick, I suppose."
"You needn't sound so amused."
"Must be the nose," she says. "I always said that breaking it could only improve your face."
"Fuck you," Hansel murmurs, intimate.
His hair is strange and grey in the moonlight as Gretel threads her fingers through it, thinking of fishing nets and gunpowder.
"Hello." Hansel raises his voice.
Gretel looks up. A woman is walking towards them with the hesitant gait of lifelong prey, a shawl held so rigidly around her shoulders that it's obviously serving more for shielding than warmth.
"I heard you were here," the woman says. "I heard what you did. I wanted to find you, I wanted…you're making us safe. Thank you."
"You're not talking about the children, are you?" Gretel says.
The witch shakes her head.
It's happening to them more and more as they travel. All these white witches coming up to them, making themselves known, wary. It's entirely new. Their notoriety had worked against such a possibility before: Witch Hunters. It was right there in the job description.
They always look at Gretel, these women, and there's everything in their expressions. The whole fucking gamut. Pity and hope and awe, fellowship and resentment and fear.
The thing is, most of the time Gretel still doesn't think of herself as a witch, really, and it's hard to think of yourself as good when you're covered in blood and laughing the thrill of near-death into your brother's shoulder, your hands clutching at his clothes, your body singing to his.
She keeps Muriel's wand tucked among her belongings, wrapped in a sturdy piece of leather. Whenever she picks it up the stone flickers red under her hand but it won't play along with any of Mina's nice, kind spells.
Gretel doesn't blame it one bit.
In a town with the rollicking name of Kirchheimbolanden there's a library and a harvest festival. Ben descends on both of these with equal levels of enthusiasm, while Hansel disappears to do business with one of their shadier arms dealers, and Gretel clings to Edward's back as the troll climbs easily, hand over hand, up a sheer red cliff face in the mountains that loom over the town. Communing with his element, or something. Gretel won't complain; the view from the top is spectacular, the land sweeping away from them in undulations of shadowed green, the muffled sound of a waterfall reaching her ears.
They head back to meet the others, Edward wading implacably through the festival crowds in the town square like a man fording a stream. Ben is hopping from one leg to another by the church steps.
"Gretel!" he shouts, as soon as he sees them, and lifts a bundle of papers. "I've found something."
The papers, which Ben outright stole from the town library--Gretel feels an unfamiliar spike of approval--are a selection from the writings of an esoteric expert, which by now they can all recognise as 'white witch keeping her head firmly down'. They say that a Grimoire can be translated, but that's not how it's designed to be read.
"This seems so needlessly fucking complicated," is Gretel's opinion.
"That's what makes it a code," says Ben, blithe. "Only a white witch can do it. And you can't read the whole thing at once, you have to match the section of the text to the right stage of the moon, and sometimes the right season as well--I haven't worked that part out yet--"
"Please tell me this means you can find the spell that turns turnips into roast beef," Hansel says.
Edward gives a rumbling laugh.
Ben's face falls. "I told you, that was a joke."
"Turnips, sure," Gretel says. "How hard could that be?"
So that night they sit in a room above the square with both bawdy festival noise and the fat, waxing moon's light pouring in through the window, and Ben flips through the Grimoire while Gretel says, "No. No. No. No. Wait."
Ben freezes. Gretel stares at the page. The symbols don't transform themselves physically under her eyes, part of her mind still finds them foreign, but it doesn't seem to matter: she can read it. She can understand.
"It's a list of blessings," she says, snapping her fingers at Ben until he scrambles a piece of parchment and a pen into her hand. "That figures. There are definitely enough curses in the world."
"Man, remember the Curse of Belief in Flight?" Hansel says. "That guy splattered everywhere."
"The Blessing of Sweet Breath," Gretel reads. "One for you, Edward."
Edward looks up from where he's making his way through a barrel of wine and a wheel of cheese the size of Gretel's head. "Funny," he decides, once he's done chewing.
The Blessing of Strong Hands. The Blessing of Peace in Grief. There's even a blessing for keeping milk from souring.
"Well," Gretel says finally, setting down the pen. "That's all very lovely, but how the fuck am I meant to use them to kill witches?"
Hansel's chin is resting on his arms. He turns a bit to the side and rests his temple against her arm, one finger making thin scratches in the wood of the table.
"You don't need to," he says. "You're already the best fighter I know."
Gretel leans down and kisses his forehead, hoping he'll take it as thanks. She disagrees. She'll learn anything, she'll take anything; she's seen him slam into too many surfaces that could have been lethal from a different angle. There's still so many ways he could be taken from her, so many possible wounds she couldn't bring him back from.
So many witches left to kill.
Gretel flies through the air and strikes a tree with her chin and her pelvis simultaneously, which doesn't seem like it should be possible, but you learn during your first fight that anatomy doesn't play fair any more than witches do.
She hits the ground and sucks in a breath, trying to trick her lungs into believing that they aren't stunned. Everything hurts as she drags herself to her feet and spins around, ready to re-enter the fight.
Normally, about now, Gretel would be waiting for the slow roar that heralds Edward's charge, or the click-click of Ben's trigger from somewhere in the treetops. But she and Hansel are on their own for this one. They snuck off, just the two of them. Gretel enjoys Edward's company, and Ben is less useless with every passing week, but sometimes she misses the days before she and her brother had to account for other people in their plans.
On the other side of the clearing, Hansel drops to the ground and rolls furiously to avoid a curse. He comes to a halt up to his elbows in the damp leaf litter and aims his gun, which makes fizzling noises as he pulls the trigger. The witch laughs with a sound like bubbles rising through marshland and points her wand at him again.
Gretel wipes blood from her chin, leans down and snatches up a twig from the ground to use as a wand. In the midst of panic she finds herself casting a glittering, arrow-sure love spell, because to her disgust it's still the only thing she can manage with any consistency.
What the hell; it can hardly make the situation worse.
The spell wraps itself around the witch's chest like ivy around the trunk of a tree, glows brighter for a moment, then fades. The witch's arms fall to her sides and a new expression crawls across her grey, slime-distorted face.
"My love," she croaks, dropping her own wand. "My darling."
"The fuck," Hansel breathes, as the witch advances on him again, this time with nothing but her filthy hands outstretched.
"Huh," Gretel says, twirling her twig.
"I suppose you think this is funny," Hansel says. He stands up, puts his gun back in its holster and picks up an axe instead.
"Come to me, my dearest love," the witch croons.
"It's pretty funny," Gretel says.
"I don't know." As soon as the witch is within range, Hansel swings the axe and lops her head off with a clean, violent stroke. "Seems to me it's taking all the fun out of it."
Gretel kicks the head out of her path as she walks over to him.
"And to think, you're usually so shit with women," she says.
"Jealous?" Hansel asks, wiping the worst of the gore from his face.
"Oh, yeah. Absolutely."
"Don't worry," he says. "There's only one witch for me."
Gretel has Hansel shoved up against a tree, his mouth sucking viciously on her bruised lower lip and her hands almost done unlacing his trousers, when Ben hurtles into view. He's puffed and brandishing his own gun.
"Guys, I can't believe you didn't--oh. I. Really?"
Ben sounds pained. At least he's stopped making huge disapproving eyes at them and stuttering about sin, which was what happened the first time.
He's better, now. He's been blessed with the gift of tolerance and understanding.
"What's the matter, kid?" Hansel says. "The shine wearing off the hero-worship apple?"
Ben heaves a sigh. "You two are terrible role models."
Despite everything, there are still towns where the hatred of anything out of the ordinary still runs deep and poisonous, and the people can't hide their fear well enough. Where the population would rather spit on them than feed them a hot meal, even when Gretel throws a witch's head onto the mayor's threshold and leaves it there, sticky black blood soaking into the mat.
They get paid, nonetheless. There's nothing like Edward's presence and the wrong end of Hansel's favourite gun to bring about prompt payment.
"Witch," someone mutters as they're leaving, their voice carrying and venomous, and Gretel rounds on the small crowd with her bow raised.
"A white witch will not use magic to harm humans," Hansel says. "That still leaves my sister with plenty of options."
They don't make it far out of town before a breathless girl on horseback catches them up. She's barely out of childhood and has a densely freckled face which creases in uncertainty as she soothes her horse with a hand to its neck. Horses don't tend to like Edward.
"Witch hunters," she says. "My family would--we would offer you shelter. My brother was taken by the witch, two summers past."
"We didn't save him," Hansel says.
The girl doesn't flinch.
"I have another brother," she says. "He also likes running away to explore the swamps. Two more summers and he might have been dead too."
So they spend the night in a hunter's hut, a serviceable thing built by the girl's father for weeks spent in the forest when the game is thick on the ground. The beds are comfortable, but Gretel can't sleep. She takes Muriel's wand and walks aimless circles around their dinner fire, burning low and controlled in the clearing where the hut stands.
She rolls the wand between her palms, a habit that sometimes calms her and sometimes doesn't. Her thoughts aren't doing much more tonight than swing in angry circles like a well-aimed blade, slicing her mood thinner with each pass. She and her brother risked their lives to protect those small-minded ingrates with their hungry, spiteful eyes. People like that burned her mother, and strung a rope around her father's neck for having dared to love her. People like that deserve the witches they end up with.
Gretel's fingers brush the red stone and it's hot like the metal door of a smouldering oven, her grip shifts before she can think, and she throws her arm out with a yell. A thin bolt of blue fire erupts from the wand, blasting a chunk from a tree across the clearing with enough violence that a splinter grazes Gretel's cheek.
She drops the wand and looks at her hands, which are shaking.
"Gretel!" Hansel bursts out of the hut. "Is everything--"
He stops, catching sight of the tree in the light cast by the dying fire, and lowers the crossbow. He doesn't say anything for a few heartbeats. Gretel pulls in a breath that smells of charred things. Her cheek stings.
"I'm not," Gretel says, fierce, but she can't finish the sentence.
Hansel sets the bow down and comes to her side. "Hey. Hey," he says, taking her face in his hands the way she loves, looking at her with nothing but certainty. "You are a grand white witch. Our mother was a white witch. You know who you are."
"Where is the whiteness?" wonders Gretel for the first time. "Is it in the blood? Or is it a choice?"
Hansel rubs his thumb along her cheekbone, her lips. She shudders and closes her eyes.
"Either way," he says.
"Yeah," Gretel says. "Either way."
She takes the wand apart and burns the wood, one fragment at a time, in all of their dinner fires for the next ten nights.
The red stone she crushes to a dull powder and scatters along their trail, bit by bit, like breadcrumbs ground fine and left for the birds.
"Any time," Hansel gasps out, both of his hands fumbling at the witch's wrists.
The witch bares her teeth and grips his neck tighter, lifting him fully off the ground.
Gretel opens her free hand as though flinging sand, willing her magic to cooperate, but it's temperamental at the best of times when she's working wandless.
"Fuck," she mutters. She struggles to free herself from the remains of the Curse of Choking Vines--this witch has a real hard-on for strangling people, it seems--and only manages to end up with one of the vines wrapped in loops around her arm. To her surprise, her shoulder tingles with a restless surge of magic.
Well. Sure, why not?
Hansel's face is darkening, his nails carving urgent bloody grooves in the witch's hands.
"Strength," Gretel blurts, "strength, strong hands, I bless you, oh please work," and pushes the surge all the way down the vine.
Like water through an opening in a dam, the blessing bursts out with a force that leaves Gretel shivering and stunned, a shower of gold sparks which soar through the air and attach themselves to Hansel's limbs. He shines for a few seconds, gilded like an ornament, and then the spell does the usual thing and sinks invisibly in.
There's a pause, in which Gretel thinks all three of them are trying to work out exactly what just happened. The witch looks the most surprised, but not by much.
Then Hansel brings the side of one hand down on the witch's arms and there's a loud and meaty crunch, followed by a screech of pain. Hansel, released, lands on his feet and takes a wheeze of a breath, then makes a motion like he's trying to box the witch's ears.
Her head caves in between his palms with a cracking, explosive squelch.
Gretel leans against the splintered remains of the door, which came off fourth best when the fight moved itself from inside the witch's cottage to the garden where they're standing now, which is more like a wilderness going to seed.
"Wow," she says.
"Holy shit," Hansel croaks. "I just--with my bare hands! Holy shit."
"You've got--" She gestures.
"Ugh," Hansel says. "Brains. Well, at least leather washes off easy."
He's splashing his face with water drawn up from the well when another bout of wheezy coughing bends him over, and when he's done he rests his hands on his knees and looks at her. "Seriously, that was your best idea? Using magic on me?"
"We know black magic doesn't affect us," Gretel says. "I was hoping, I thought, maybe a loophole..."
Hansel looks at his hands. After a moment he bends and picks up a long-fallen tree, which creaks in protest as clumps of dirt and crawling insects drop from the length of it. It teeters in his hands, off balance, but staying easily aloft.
"You had no idea," he says. "You had no idea if that would work."
Gretel bites her lip. She wants to laugh. She still feels fizzy and warm with the unfamiliar strength of the spell, like a heated pool gushing up from black rocks. "Nope."
Hansel drops the log and turns around. As he walks closer she can see that his eyes are bright--no, his eyes are gold, literally gold, and Gretel has a moment in which all of her misgivings collide with their history: Hansel screaming her name in a gingerbread house, the cold-faced violence of their days, Hansel saying burn them all.
Hansel would tear down the world for hurting her, but she is...she is a witch. And her magic can affect him, where no magic ever could.
"I could do anything," he says. "I feel--we could do anything."
"Hansel!" she shouts, "Hansel, don't you fucking dare--"
He picks her up as easily as Edward would, like she's made of nothing, taking all of her weight on one of his forearms as though it's a firm tree bough, and lifting her high. Gretel's feet in their tough boots dangle somewhere near the level of his stomach. She laughs in delight and rests her fingertips on the damp skin of his face, where her own spell glows out at her through his eyes.
"Isn't this handy," Hansel says.
"Consider yourself blessed," Gretel says, breathless.
His free hand is at the back of her neck, the slightest nudge of his new strength enough to pull her down to him, and Gretel's body lights up with want. She catches the exhilaration from his mouth and feeds it back to him in slow, hot kisses that coax sounds from her throat. Part of her wants some of this strength for herself, so she can press him into the ground and grind her body down against his. But being held apart and suspended like this is making her skin burn in the few places they do touch. She has a terrible hunger for sweet things.
"D'you think," Hansel says, "I could bring you off without putting you down?"
Her shirt is open at the neck; he bites down hard just over her collarbone. Gretel gasps and narrowly avoids kicking him in the stomach.
"I don't know," she says. "Why don't you find out?"
She has to balance herself while his free hand works at the laces of her trousers. Leather, washes off easy--and she shifts, her skin prickling in silent demand, taking more kisses that go from teasing to savage. She breathes out raggedly when Hansel slips his fingers into her.
Thunder rattles in her ears, slower than her pulse.
"It's going to rain," she whispers into his hair, like a secret. She hadn't even noticed the clouds thicken, or the metallic dullness to the air. Everything tastes of blood after a fight and before the rain; it's easy to confuse the two.
Hansel rubs his thumb in agonising circles and watches her face, silent and devouring, and she stares right back down at him with parted lips and wonders what colour her eyes are, if there's anything more remarkable to be seen in them than just how much she loves him. She tilts her hips until she starts to shudder with the building heat, slick and needy. Hansel's fingernails are like the rest of him, blunt and pared-back, with a few ragged corners sharp enough to draw blood, and she's never minded if they do. Gretel shoves herself against him, soft where he's hard, and cries out.
"My sister," Hansel says, smearing the words against her lips like hot honey, "what a marvel you are."
Hansel carves slim branches of various trees into wands for her, once they realise that nothing metal or rock-based will do more than spark sullenly in her hand. Mina filled a whole notebook with the magical properties of plants, and Ben's stolen them some books on the subject as well. Oak is better than birch; reeds pulled from the river are better than woven grass.
In the end, though, nothing works as well as a thin vine wrapped around Gretel's arm and tied in a knot around her finger.
"Look at it this way," Ben says. "At least you're not going to drop it."
Gretel flexes her hand. There's still a chance it could fray as it withers. It could snap in the middle of a fight, and it's not exactly comfortable. But it'll do, for now.
Mina's notes don't say anything about the sugar sickness. Ben and Gretel keep a sharp eye out for any mention of it in the books and papers they gradually gather, but they have no luck until they reach a middling-sized town called Baunach, where the white witch who slips out of the shadows and introduces herself is an elderly woman called Leda.
Leda has white hair in an intricate set of braids and is also the town apothecary, which now that Gretel thinks about it is both a brazen display of courage and not surprising at all.
"I have something for you," she says. They always look at Gretel, these women, but this one is looking at Hansel.
Hansel glances at Gretel, who shrugs her agreement with his wariness and looks at Leda.
"If it's your virginity," Gretel says, "I don't know if he's interested."
"Hah," Leda says, like the snap of a twig. "Fifty years too late, my girl. Not that I'd be kicking him out of a haystack, mind you."
The humour in her voice is rich like good soil, so Gretel doesn't do much more than let her hand whisper across her favourite dagger's hilt, and smile.
"I know why you carry that," Leda says. She points to the syringe tucked against Hansel's thigh. "I can help."
Gretel sees her brother's body go taut.
"You can cure it?" Hansel asks.
"No," Leda says. "But I can give you something better than whatever you're carrying."
"How did you know?" Gretel asks. "About his sickness."
"People tell stories about you two," Leda says. "You're famous! They pay attention! All of the details are in there, though some of them are more garbled than others."
Leda's form of medicine only has to be injected once a day, she tells them, and Hansel should have less of the shaking-hunger that comes when they haven't been able to make a good meal. She gives them a roll of leather which contains rows and rows of neat glass vials, and a set of smaller syringes.
"This should last you eight moons," Leda says. "Come back when you're running low, and I'll give you more."
"You created this for me?" Hansel demands. "Why?"
Leda snorts. "No, boy. I'm a professional. I created it for my town. You think you're so special? The sugar sickness is an old curse. There are plenty of people who fall prey to it. It doesn't always take a witch."
"If he uses this and comes to any harm," Gretel says, hand finding her dagger again, "I'll show youexactly what I did to the sea-witch of Vilshofen. Slowly."
"Oh, I'd expect no less," Leda says. That loam-humour is still there. "I told you. People tell stories."
"How much for this?" Gretel asks, digging out their purse.
"Five silver," says Leda.
Gretel looks up sharply. "That's not much."
Leda's eyes are grey and cool. They gaze into Gretel's as though into a mirror. "You spread the word as far as you wander, Gretel, witch and hunter of witches. You keep on telling them not to fear us. You just keep on talking until we're proud to heal with our hands as well as our herbs. Until we can walk in the sun without fearing the flames."
It sounds like a command, not like praise.
Hansel rests his steady palm in the small of her back.
"I will," Gretel says.
Most of the witches are startled enough that they stand exactly where they are, and Ben's fire-arrow is two seconds away from turning the ground into an inferno, but one of them is quicker on the uptake than the others, or at least has better reflexes; she gathers her skirts, darts away from the rest of her coven, and clears the circle just as the flames leap up.
"Got her!" Gretel shouts, and starts to run.
The witch peers over her shoulder, sees Gretel, and tries to accelerate with a fearful cry. Her mistake is looking back a second time; she trips on something and crashes to the ground, tangled in her clothes.
Gretel catches up easily and steps on the witch's wrist to keep her pinned. She's got two knives and a gun tucked away, but to her surprise she finds herself with her wand hand outstretched. Flecks of gold are already moving through the vine like quick sap.
What could she do? Fuck. Anything. Blessings are slippery things and only as white as the heart that makes them. Gretel could bless a person with sleep so dreamless they never awoke, a heart so light it wanted to float right out of their ribcage, no matter the mess on the way. She could do it all. The power is seeping into her skin, soaking her, trying to consume her. This is what leads to sacrifices at midnight, the creeping rot, abandoning humanity in the search for more power: this feeling, here.
Either way, Hansel said.
Now Gretel wonders if what he meant was: white or black or muddied grey, I'm still yours. You're still mine.
Gretel grits her teeth and decides on a simple, human, and extremely satisfying kick to the head.
"That was great. Wow. Did you see me? She was that close, and I just--I just got my gun up between us, and boom."
Hansel presses the bunch of cool soaked rags more firmly to his own forehead.
"C'n I set him on fire?" he mutters.
"Maybe later," Gretel says. "Ben?"
"I finally felt like a real witch hunter, you know?"
"Ben. Shut the fuck up."
Gretel points her finger at him and smiles at the way he flinches as though from the barrel of a gun, his eyes fixed on where the line of blank ink curls lovingly out from the cuff of her blouse. The tattoo is still fresh, her skin still aching from elbow to fingertip.
"Do you want me to make you fall in love?"
Edward and Ben exchange a wary glance. Edward shrugs with a motion like a contained rockfall. Ben opens his mouth, then closes it.
"That's what I thought," Gretel says.
By the time she had the tattoo done, she was sure that it would work as a wand. It's not what you hold in your hands. It's how you think, and what you allow to seep beneath your skin. It's your blood and it's your choice.
Now instead of wrapping a vine around her limb, the vine is embedded within her, a thin and thorny tendril of plant life. When she had it done it was nearing the end of winter, and she admired the way the tendril was dotted with small buds. Now, as the weather warms, black roses are blooming on the skin of her arm. Hansel traces them with his torn fingernails and his eyes are keen.
"You know, I don't think that artist was being entirely honest with us," Gretel says. "I think we need to loop back through his town and have a little chat."
"A little chat with guns?"
"My favourite kind."
"Well, if it's nothing dangerous, I think we should give him another handful of silver," Hansel says.
"Oh," Gretel says, letting her voice soften and darken like twilight. "I see."
Hansel takes careful hold of her wrist, draws her finger into his mouth and sucks, curling his tongue around the sensitive skin. Heat unfolds across Gretel's face and down her neck, her pulse thudding in anticipation, and she feels desire curve her lips.
Sudden and unbidden there's a sensation in her finger similar to what she feels when she's casting spells, a delicate spark, and Hansel winces.
When she takes her inked finger from his mouth, it comes away reddened with fresh blood. Her own skin is still intact.
"Thorns," is all Hansel says.
Gretel doesn't answer but leans forward and kisses him, tastes the blood on his tongue, his blood, their blood, the magic that grows between them as sure and as stubborn as creeping vines.
Shards of bone are sticking out of Hansel's leg. It makes Gretel think of raw wood, like a horrible shipwreck emerging from bloody waves, and fear clutches her throat. She doesn't even think before she drops to her knees, puts her hands against the wound and shoves a pulse of magic through it, picturing a straight limb with the skin closed and new.
Hansel curses under his breath when the bone grinds back into place. But by the time the gold fades, he's gingerly stretching out the leg.
"You're getting better at that," he says.
"Seriously? He gets to go first?" Ben holds up his hand, where three fingers have been crushed to pulp, almost to nothing at all. He's gone white and has bitten a dent in his lower lip, but his voice is lively. "Fuck you, princess."
Gretel raises her eyebrows at him, impressed.
Ben looks a bit shocked at himself, but gamely holds her gaze.
"I told you," he mutters. "Terrible role models."
Hansel laughs, his face buried in Gretel's neck, and Gretel runs a fond bloodied hand through his hair. She's exactly where she should be. She's keeping them intact.
"Just for that," she tells Ben, "I might forget how to restore flesh. There are a lot of spells in the world, you know, I can't be expected to remember all of them."
"Witch," whispers Hansel, lips against her pulse.
"Yes," says Gretel.