Snow crunches underneath Mike's boots. The temperature rose above freezing yesterday and then dropped overnight, leaving behind a thin layer of ice that cracks with every step Mike makes.
The air is cold and still today. He licks his lips, feels where they're dry and chapped. His breath trails behind him as he moves.
The energy of the forest is muted, sleepy and quiet. He'd almost forgotten that it got like this in winter, with so much of the life gone into hibernation. He can't draw on as much as he can in the summer, when the lake is swarming with insects and choked full of fish.
The trees all around him are bare and prickly, but still alive. Mike takes off one of his gloves and presses his palm against the trunk of a nearby tree. The bark is smooth, and the tree itself pulses with a comforting, familiar magic.
He looks up at the sky. It's an ugly sort of gray this morning. It reminds Mike of slush-covered sidewalks in Philly, the snow mottled black and brown with dirt and soot, nothing like the pristine white all around him.
A bird crows into the silence. He turns towards it, feels the way its energy threads into that of the rest of the forest, and then he continues on his way.
When Mike first meets Jeff, Jeff doesn't know what sort of element his magic belongs to.
"I think it's water of some kind," Jeff says with an awkward shrug when Mike asks him about it. "My dad says I haven't grown into it, yet."
'Not grown into it yet' describes pretty much everything about Jeff at that point. He's all long skinny limbs that get longer every time Mike sees him, a voice that doesn't know how deep it wants to be, a face covered in red, blotchy acne. Mike doesn't have a whole lot of room to criticize on any of those fronts, but at least he knows what sort of magic he has.
It's the same for him as it is for his mom and his brothers: it's not quite water, not quite fire, not quite earth, not quite air, but all of those mixed together and attuned to the ley lines that lie beneath the Lake of the Woods, to all the living things that sit on top of it. Wild magic, if you want to go by the old terminology.
When he was preparing to play for Kitchener, his mother would fret over him for days, concerned about what it would mean for him to be so far away from home. But Kitchener sits on top of the same lines that Kenora does, drawn across Ontario, and whenever Mike feels homesick he goes hiking out into the woods or takes a boat onto the lake. It's not quite the same, but it's close enough. And there's hockey. All Mike's ever wanted to do is play hockey.
On the ice, he careens into opposing players, he fires off slapshots, he wins faceoffs, and he gets into fights. He does it all with the taste of the lake's water on his tongue, the feel of its winter ice underneath his skates. Some of the other witches chirp him for cheating, for using his magic where it's not allowed. But they don't get it. Mike's magic has never been something he does. It's always been something he is.
Arnold pads across the snow. His presence is bright in the silence of the forest. But then again, Mike's always aware of him, no matter where he goes.
Arnold has caught the scent of something, but he doesn't rush into it, waiting for Mike to join him. Mike pulls an old hunting spell around them, muffling their steps, covering their scents, hiding them from view. Arnold knows where to go, and Mike's more than willing to follow him.
Ahead, there's a clearing. A buck stands there, antlers tall and proud. His brown coat is untouched by snow. His ears twitch, as if he can tell that he's being watched. One dark eye turns towards Mike, but the buck doesn't react. The spell is doing its work.
Mike weaves the next spell underneath his breath, drawing on Arnold's power for some extra strength.
There's no sound as Mike stops the buck's heart -- no echoing crack of a bullet firing from a rifle -- but the buck's body makes a heavy thud as it collapses into the snow. Its energy vanishes so suddenly, there's a vibration in its place that Mike can taste.
Mike's never been squeamish about this sort of magic, but he's known some witches who are. Vegetarians, mostly. Allergic and uncomfortable around the disruption. But Mike's mom made sure Mike felt it every time a fox ate a rabbit. Every time a bear ripped a fish out of the lake. Every time an eagle swooped down on a smaller bird and caught it in its claws. Death is as much a part of Mike's magic as life is.
Arnold bounds over to the fallen body, sniffing at it. He's curious, as he always is. He picks up the smell of berries and wolf droppings. Nothing interesting. He turns back towards Mike.
Mike trudges over himself. He takes off his gloves and pulls a knife out of his coat pocket and guts the deer, slicing open the chest and pulling out the organs so that they can't spoil the rest of the meat. It's always a bloody process, and it stains the knife and Mike's hands a dark, vivid red. Mike cleans them off in the snow.
Once he's done with that work, he starts to drag the carcass back with him towards his SUV. His back twinges with the effort, but he ignores that.
He's going to get in trouble with his dad when his dad finds out about this little excursion. His dad who insists that Mike shouldn't go out into the woods by himself, who says it's too easy to get lost to the power of it.
But Mike isn't alone, not really. Arnold trails after him, excited and happy for their catch of the day, tail wagging, eyes dark and eager. See? Mike's not alone at all.
In 2004, World Juniors is in Helsinki. Mike's eighteen at the time, excited to see more of the world. All the same, he feels restless, too big for his skin. He channels that into hockey. It's not a long contest, thankfully, and he knows he'll be back on Canadian soil in no time at all.
He finds himself walking with Jeff through one of the parks that faces out towards the Baltic on one of their rare days off. It's surprisingly warm for December. The water is still dark and flowing. It's windy that day, but the sky is clear. Mike squints a little bit in the sun.
A breeze kicks up, bringing with it the taste of salt and sea. Mike blinks. The energy next to him changes. Jeff's always been crappy about shielding, but that's because his magic's never been strong enough to really need it.
But now, Jeff's staring out at the waves. He's listening to the call and response of the gulls. Mike can feel the way Jeff's magic has snapped into place, lighting him up so brightly that every witch in a one mile radius must notice it.
"Yeah?" Mike asks.
"Yeah," Jeff says. He's smiling so wide that he looks a little stupid. But he's so fucking happy, too. He's leaking his happiness into the air around them.
Mike looks up at him. His bright eyes. His long neck. His goofy grin. Mike tugs on the collar of Jeff's shirt until Jeff looks down at him.
Mike gets up on his tip toes. He presses his lips against Jeff's. Their magics slide up against each other, twining together. Jeff breathes into Mike's mouth.
And for one long, aching moment, Mike doesn't think about his lake at all.
When Mike gets back to where he parked, he pops open the trunk so that he can pull out a bone saw and his skinning knifes. Arnold trails a few feet behind, distracted by the scent of a few rabbits.
Mike removes the antlers, first. Hacks them off with the saw. The bone is smooth in his hands, and the shape of them reminds Mike of winter branches, stripped of all their leaves.
He's not careful about the removal, because he's going to get the antlers ground down into powder later. Apparently some lay people buy it in the hopes of improving their virility, which is just ridiculous, but Mike knows his sister-in-law has been looking for fresh antler powder in the hopes of using it in a pest-control spell for her garden next year.
Next, Mike settles down to skin the deer itself. Skinning is a time-consuming process, but Mike isn't in any sort of rush. He starts with the legs first, slowly separating hide from muscle. There's magic for this, but Mike's never bothered to learn it. He likes the patience it takes to do the work, the way his world can narrow down to the knives in his hands and the body in front of him.
When he's done, he packs up the bits of hide in case one of his brothers wants it for something. He rolls out his neck, flexes his fingers inside his gloves. He breathes, feels the way the cold air stings the back of his throat. He can feel every inch of the forest. Sometimes, it almost sounds like it's singing for him. He could--
But no, he has more work to do. He quarters the deer. His knife finds the soft places between joint and bone. He removes the best cuts of meat (shoulders, hams, backstraps, neck, tenderloin) and puts them in a cooler. He leaves the rest of the body for wandering wolves or bears.
He gathers Arnold back in, hustles him into the backseat of the car. Mike closes his eyes and leans against the side. There's so much magic here. It welcomes him in, invites him to stay.
His hesitation only lasts for a moment, the same as it ever does. He pulls open the SUV's door, and then he drives home.
Philly -- well, Mike doesn't always make the best choices in Philly. His magic never quite settles there. He wants it to. He wants to play the rest of his career there. The city streets -- the brick and stone of the buildings -- they have their own power, but it's not something Mike can tap into. It's always just out of reach.
Mike works hard. He burns up every bit of reserve he has on the ice. Off it, he parties with the other guys, gets lost in alcohol and dimly lit bars, pretty girls with pretty smiles. There's always more magic in the air when people get sloshed. Their shields come down. Their feelings come closer to the surface. Their auras get so bright they're almost blinding.
Jeff manages his separation from the ocean in his own way. He grows into the rest of his body. He buys beachfront property in New Jersey. He comes with Mike when Mike goes out. He scores goals. He looks after the rookies. He talks Mike into trips to Florida, to Cabo, to Cancun, to the Bahamas. He sleeps in Mike's bed and makes breakfast in the mornings and grins every single time Mike rolls his eyes at him.
The sex is always the best when they're at Jeff's place in Sea Isle, where on summer nights, they can hear the ocean just outside Jeff's bedroom window. When Mike fucks him, Jeff will buck against Mike's hands in a way that reminds Mike of rolling waves. When Mike kisses him, Jeff's mouth will taste briny -- full of salt and sun and seaweed. And when Mike bites behind Jeff's ear, he can feel the grit of sand between his teeth.
Mike's house is quiet, but there's always a familiar snap of energy when Mike steps inside. He chose this location specifically for the way it sits on criss-crossing lines, and the house always hums with that power. Mike considers getting the fireplace going as well, so that he can listen to the flick and crackle of burning wood. But he likes this sort of silence as well.
Arnold curls up in the middle of the rug. He'll beg for scraps of venison later, but this is already enough excitement for him today.
Mike unpacks his gear, unloads most of the meat into his freezer. He'll have time to cook it later. Mike's got all the time in the world right now.
He ends up on his porch, where the slats of its wood are encrusted with ice and snow. From here, Mike has a clear view of the lake below. It's cold enough today that it's covered in a thin sheet of white ice. Not enough to skate on. Not enough to even walk over. If Mike closes his eyes and reaches out, he can feel all the places where the ice is thin and patchy, can sense all the fish swimming below the surface.
It's supposed to be cold again tomorrow. Some of Mike's friends in town are planning on going ice fishing. Mike's probably going to go with them, but he hasn't decided yet.
The lake looks so peaceful like this. Mike wants to go out onto the middle of the ice. He wants to stand at the center, where the energy is strongest, and he wants to stay there forever.
There might be a missed call on Mike's phone from Mike's agent, talking about new opportunities, new chances to play in a new city. A new place with new magic. A chance to play hockey again.
Mike closes his eyes to listen to a bird trilling in the distance. He feels his breath as it escapes his lungs, as it freezes, suspended in the air.
Every time he leaves this behind, it hurts a little more.
When Mike brings Arnold back to Philly with him, Jeff laughs at him for five minutes straight.
"Hey, man," Mike says, "cut that out. You'll hurt Arnold's feelings."
Of course, Arnold doesn't actually give a shit. Arnold is too busy investigating an old wine stain on Mike's carpet that even the most expensive cleaning service couldn't get out.
Jeff just keeps laughing. "You went out and got a black dog to be your familiar. You're the biggest fucking cliche, dude."
"Fuck off," Mike says. But then Jeff kisses him, and it's hard to argue about anything else after that.
It had been Matt's idea in the first place. "You should bring a piece of home with you," he'd said. It sounded more like a thing their mom would say, but that she'd ask Matt to deliver the news to soften the blow.
It wasn't a bad idea, so Mike hadn't argued. He'd gone to the shelter. He'd looked at each of the puppies, feeling out their energies. Most of them would have been fine. They all carried a little bit of Kenora with them. But then he got to Arnold. Arnold looked at Mike with dark, curious eyes, and Arnold's magic brushed gently and calmly against Mike's, and Mike knew exactly which one he was going to take with him.
For a while, it works. The homesickness doesn't eat at Mike quite so badly with Arnold around to anchor him. He captains his team. He spends lazy mornings making out with Jeff. He sneaks Arnold ice cream after dinner. He plays hockey, good hockey. Brilliant hockey, even.
It doesn't last, but nothing really does.
Jeff calls while Mike is making dinner. It's something they still do, same as they've done every off-season, every enforced separation.
"Hey, man," Jeff says. "How're things going?"
They practically have a script for this now. "Alright," Mike says. "Went hunting today."
"Get anything good?" Jeff asks. His emotions are faint. All their years in and out of each other's pockets, all those times their magics have been woven together, they all mean that Mike can still feel him. Jeff's presence is not as vivid or as bright as it was when during the months when Jeff was in Columbus and Mike was in LA, but it hasn't faded entirely. Maybe after all that time they spent so close, Jeff will never disappear from Mike magic, Mike's life, entirely. But maybe Mike is just telling himself that the same way he tells himself that he can still play NHL hockey.
"A buck," Mike says. "A pretty big one."
"Cool," Jeff says.
"How about you?" Mike feels some of the air shift, a change in the way it smells. It might snow tonight. Nothing more than some flurries, but still, fresh snow.
"Lost the last game," Jeff says, like Mike didn't watch it. "But Toff and Pears--" Mike doesn't really listen to his voice, but he does listen to the dips and swells of Jeff's energy across the miles between them. He thinks he might feel Jeff do the same to him.
After Jeff finishes his story, he pauses. "I think-- You seem like you're doing better."
"Yeah," Mike says. He still gets headaches, and when he wakes up in the mornings, his knees ache. He still gets days when his magic wants to drag him to the bottom of the lake and never let him come up again. But he's managing it. It's not a constant, everyday fight the way it used to be.
"You could visit," Jeff says, cautious. "Or I could visit you."
A visit. Temporary. Keeping Jeff in Kenora would be just as cruel as keeping Mike in LA. "Yeah," Mike says. "I could probably do that."
And there's Jeff's happiness again, so strong Mike can feel it across the continent, so deep Mike thinks he could drown in it.
Los Angeles is sunshine and shore. A newer city than Philadelphia. Palm trees along the streets. Ley lines that speak of wealth and power.
Mike thinks he can handle it. He really does. It's still hockey. He tries to make it work, and some might even argue that he succeeds. He wins two Cups there. He also gets two concussions. His body ages, and he doesn't have the same control over it he used to have. His magic gets restless stuck inside the concrete and endless sun of LA. It wants the slow shift of the seasons. It wants rain and snow and changing leaves. For Mike's magic, LA is a nowhere place, devoid of life, and for all that Mike tries, for all that he clings to Arnold and tries use Arnold's magic to anchor his own, he fades a little more each year.
Jeff, of course, adores LA. He spends enough time on the beach that he starts getting tan lines in weird places. He goes fishing with Mike and Mitchie and falls asleep on their tiny motorboat with one hand dangling over the edge, fingers dipping into the ocean water. He buys his own house and settles in for the long haul. His magic gets stronger, until sometimes it almost feels suffocating to be around him while he's not shielding.
He cups the curve of Mike's jaw in one large hand and kisses Mike tenderly, his aura saturated with every bit of love that he feels, for LA, for Mike. It makes Mike's heart break every time.
"I wish--" Jeff says once, in the quiet of his bedroom, his voice hushed. "I wish I was enough."
Mike doesn't say anything back. He just turns around in the bed. He closes his eyes. And like every night, he dreams of home.
It's dark, but Mike goes down to the lake after he eats dinner. He leaves Arnold in the warmth of the house.
The path is still covered in snow because Mike doesn't bother to clean it in the winter. Full moon tonight. Its brightness can't be fully hidden by clouds. Across the lake, there are pinpricks of light. Other houses. Other people.
Mike kneels down at the edge of the pier. He places one bare hand against the ice. Feels the power of it. It feels the same as it always has. Mike was born with this in his blood.
He presses down, pushes. A crack forms in the ice. It expands, traveling towards the center of the lake, fading away into the darkness.
It would be so simple, so easy, to let the wildness of his magic take him. He could lose himself in the barren trees of the woods. He could dive into the murky depths of the lake.
But no, Mike wants more than that. He's always wanted more than that. It's why he keeps leaving, even if he has to keep coming back. He turns away, closing his eyes so that he can collect himself. If he reaches for it, he can still feel Jeff's happiness, even if it's distant and far away. A different sort of anchor than Arnold, but a real one all the same.
Mike opens his eyes. As he predicted, it has started to snow. He holds out one bare hand, catches a few snowflakes in his open palm. They melt against the heat of Mike's skin. Mike puts his gloves back on, and he climbs back up the hill to his house, and he goes inside.