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i'll speak love's truth with oak and ash for you

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*

Gary Hallet is a practical man. He appreciates logic and facts and he trusts his gut. It makes him a good investigator. It comes in real handy when he heads to Maria’s Island and finds the Owens sisters, trying to track down Jimmy Angelov.

What he can’t quite account for is how his brain scrambles seeing Sally Owens, how he’s pretty sure he can’t ever lie to her, how he can see right through her and loves how tart and sharp she is with him. He remembers the feel of her mouth on his and the warmth of her skin under his palm and how everything just felt right with her, even when they were bickering. How everything in him was calm and certain when in her stillroom, surrounded by herbs and the crackle of knowledge in the air.

He can’t account for it. But it all makes sense. Everything about her makes… sense.

The magic… that is a bit of a surprise.

*

When Sally, all dark wavy hair and wide watery eyes, tells him he doesn’t know why he’s here, he knows it’s logical and true. He’s just had a supernatural encounter, where his badge was an actual weapon, and his chest still burns from… whatever Jimmy Angelov (or whatever that thing was) tried to do to him. There are chills lingering in his bones, but when he looks at Sally, he feels no fear or trepidation.

The reason that you’re here and you don’t know why is because I sent for you.

Sally is close to tears, the sea breeze sliding between them and through her hair. He wets his lips and hooks his thumbs into his belt loops, rolling his shoulders back under his jacket. She is so matter-of-fact as she speaks to spells and curses and imagining the unimaginable man to keep her heart safe.

What can he say? He exists, he is real, and he is here – and she still –

There’s a chasm of pain in her eyes. The urge to bring her into his arms, to tuck her against his chest and protect her from whatever else the world tries to throw at her, it’s nearly irresistible. Is this just a spell?

It’s not real.

He wants to protest, but his practical sense stops him. Sally is too sharp, too anguished. She won’t listen, not now.

“Well… why don’t you do what you do, and I do what I do… and we’ll see where we end up,” he says, stilted as all hell.

Sally presses her mouth into a forced smile, mutters okay. It’s all he can do to spirit her away to his hotel room, press her into the wall, into the bed. Desire and something else, something earthier, thrums under his skin. But – but, he can’t. He won’t.

Walking away from her feels wrong. He can’t help but turn back.

“Curses only have power when you believe them,” he says, turning back around. She stays still, her shoulders hunched, her hair loose and free down her back. He wants her to be strong, to focus on nothing but her own sense of self. He knows from the last few days just how resilient she is. He doesn’t need longer to know the gut truth of her.

“And I don’t,” he finishes, before he heads back towards town.

His chest aches. He doesn’t think it’s because of Jimmy Angelov’s ghostly fist.

*

The island clearly bases its economy off the tourist trade, for those looking for a more rustic experience than Cape Cod. It’s a strange place – and not really because of what everyone says about the Owens family.

No, it’s strange because they seem to care so much about the Owens, about what they might or might not do. As if they become a scapegoat for all the things wrong and uncomfortable in the town. An easy way to escape responsibility for your own feelings and actions, Gary thinks.

It doesn’t do anything but make him feel more towards Sally, towards those two young girls she’s raising, towards the big house on the top of the hill.

The worst, he thinks, is the casual way the townsfolk suggest Sally’s husband died because of her. It’s the first thing he thinks of when she tells him about curses and spells – he thinks, god, the pain in her voice. . How she just wants normalcy, and steadiness. He understands – he was a kid who liked animals more than people, who was considered a freak because of how he was born, eyes of two different colors – he entered law enforcement maybe because of this, because he wanted normalcy and belonging. How life took from her and still she tries to make things right and good and simple for everyone around her, even those who demean her

But who makes life easy and good for her?

Gary asks himself this as he boards the ferry away from the island back to mainland Boston, as he lingers at the gate for his connecting flight to Charlotte, as he rubs his knuckles over his sternum. Who eases Sally Owens’ pain?

Flying away feels like a betrayal. Is it all just magic and nonsense?

*

Tucson is dry and hot and he goes straight to the office when he lands. He hates the idea of going to his empty apartment, of shedding the island and settling back into his routine. He writes his report, types out a copy for Sally and Gillian, and lets the rest go. The spirits have Jimmy Angelov, and there is justice in that.

The ring, he sends back to the island. The letter, he keeps.

For weeks, he sleeps restlessly, if at all. He keeps Sally’s letter under his pillow, re-reads it. He looks at the moon over the arid Tuscon skies and wonders if there really is just the moon. Whenever he sees kids playing or laughing, he thinks of Kylie and Antonia, those two little girls full of energy and spirit and a magic all their own. During the day his lungs fill with dry air, and he remembers the brush of sea breezes, the spray of water against his skin. The little town, quirky and strange and homey, Sally’s shop with its tinctures and lotions and extremely expensive shampoo. The shampoo is in his bathroom now.

At night, he imagines Sally – the little girl afraid of her own heart; the resilient woman mothering two children through grief; the fire behind her eyes; the gentle way she touched his face in the hotel room. When he can’t sleep, he re-reads her letter, drawing his fingers across the ink, thinking he can smell her on the paper – rosemary and lavender, sea salt and lemon.

How can you miss someone you only knew a few days?

*

Weeks go by. Gary finishes open cases. There is a lingering ache in his chest. Every time he sees a woman with long dark hair, he tries not to hope for her. Was it all a fever dream? Did he really met Sally Owens? His skin prickles in the arid heat, there even in the spring, uncomfortable in a way he can’t pinpoint.

One morning, he wakes up with a start, the air cooler than normal. Seasons in Tucson don’t really exist – it’s winter for a moment, and then summer (and hot) for months. But this morning is cloudless and breezy, and there are flowering buds on the cacti outside his building. He looks at the skies, blue and endless, and thinks not of air, but of the ocean. Longing settles low in his belly. His badge glimmers on the top of his dresser.

Gary Hallet is a practical man. He knows what he wants. And he follows his gut.

*

Maria’s Island looks the same from the ferry. The Northeast is muggy in summers but the sea breezes provide relief against his skin as he steps onto the dock. Immediately, he feels a difference in the town’s energy. There’s a lightness, a community; he can’t help but smile a bit.

When he stops into Sally’s shop, she isn’t there. Chloe is there, just as friendly and open as before. She waggles her eyebrows and points him up to the house on the hill.

“Tell her the coven is excited for lunch next week! Sara popped by and asked what she could bring,” Chloe calls as he heads for the door.

Sara, one of the townswomen who had once insinuated Sally killed her husband. What in hell had happened since he’d been gone?

Gary shakes his head and walks up to the Owens house. He has never felt surer. Her letter is in his duffle bag and his heart is steady in its beat.

Two older women in eccentric – caftans? Dresses? – are in the side yard when he opens the front gate and crunches up the sidewalk. One, dark-haired and sharp-eyed, fixes a stare on him.

“You must be the investigator,” she calls, voice tart.

“Oh, be nice, Frances,” the other woman – reddish-blonde, a wide friendly smile – scolds kindly.

“Not here to investigate anything today, ma’am,” he calls in return.

Frances huffs, a smile playing at her lips. She waves her garden-gloved hand absently. “Come out back, you. She’s in the trees with the girls.”

“You can leave that there,” the other woman says sweetly.

Gary drops the duffle, blinking against the bright summer sun. A sense of rightness settles in his bones as he walks towards the women. His gaze glances to the arbor, to the table where they had once eaten pancakes, and he smiles slightly. Nerves all over his skin come to life. He hears the girls giggling and yelling in the near distance.

“We’re the aunts,” Frances says.

“Pleasure to meet you both,” he says, nodding.

“Goodness, he is nice,” the other aunt says.

“Jet, please,” Frances mutters, rolling her eyes. “Thataway, young man.”

He nods and walks past the glassed-in stillroom. He has no eyes but for Sally as she appears out of the woods, hair loose and wavy down her back, glowing in the yellow sunlight. She smiles and he exhales, all love and relief. When she winds her arms around him and kisses him, he shuts his eyes and thanks whatever spirits might be in the air. Her arms are home and her lips are salvation, and he knows he’s found a woman – a family – to plant roots for.

Later, after supper and games with the girls and the aunts and Gillian respectfully keeping their distance in the house (presumably with wine), he and Sally walk to the arbor and sit, their hands clasped.

“I’m glad you came back,” Sally says abruptly. There’s nothing smooth or coy about her. She is all herself with him, all the time.

Gary strokes her dark hair away from her neck, any excuse to touch her. “I decided… I decided that even if you cast some spell looking for me, I still had to exist for you to find,” he said slowly. “And I do. And if I do, then I wanted to be found.”

Her dark eyes reflect the moonlight, shining and swimming.

He cups her cheek, her skin cool and soft against his palm. “You deserve to be happy, Sally. You all do. And I wanna be a part of it.”

She leans in and kisses him, her hands cradling his jaw. The rosemary softness of her envelopes him. It’s everything he’s missed and ached for these last weeks.

“I’m still scared to be happy,” she whispers.

He moves his hand from her cheek to her waist, sliding his arm around her and pulling her into his side tightly. “Yeah. ‘m scared, too,” he says quietly. “But we can do it together.”

She exhales sharply and nods. His hand tangles in the wavy ends of her hair.

“I’m – I’m a whole package,” she says after a moment, voice steady once more. “The girls, Gillian, the aunts – I can’t – I can’t leave – “

“Who said anything about leaving, honey?” he asks, the endearment sliding slow and sweet from his lips. “Desert never suited me much anyway.”

Looking up at him, she smooths her hand down the front of his shirt, nails catching on the buttons. “I can’t ask that – that’s so much – “

“I ain’t got much in the way of family or connections, Sally,” he says, cutting her off. “I never – never found what I was looking for. Until I came here, met you, met your family. I want it all, and I want it with you.”

Sally blinks and laughs a little, her hand resting right over his heart. “Be careful what you wish for,” she says softly.

He gives her a little half-grin. “I like our odds. As long as there aren’t more bad exes coming to haunt your sister.”

“No, but we are building a coven,” she says with a straight face.

Grinning even wider, Gary leans in and kisses her under the moon’s pale face.

Later, he will give her back the well-worn letter. Later, when the house is quiet, she will slip into the guest room the aunts bestowed on him, and curl up in his arms. Days later, he will endure the “we know disappear you if you hurt her” speech from the aunts and Gillian (and he believes it). Weeks later, he will ask Kylie and Antonia for help with a ring, and tell them he will never replace their dad, but he’s happy to be in their lives and will love them well in his place. Months later, he will watch with the whole town as the Owens women (and girls) float from the roof to the earth, and he will laugh and cheer along with the rest of them on a cool Halloween night. He learns about the Owens’ magic, rooted in nature and love, and feels warm every time Sally touches him, smiles at him, wraps herself in him when they sleep.

But for now, he kisses Sally, holds her close, and feels the surety of his choice settle in his very bones.

*