The rain is sleeting down, thick and fast, when they finally reach the outskirts of Kirchenwald. It's been raining for hours, days even, alternating between a slow, miserable drizzle that's little more than a fine mist but that still manages to soak Hansel to his skin and plaster Gretel's hair, dark and sleek, to her scalp, and this: this driving rain that roars out of the sky with a fury Hansel can feel echoed in his heart, rattling through the trees and pounding the forest paths until they're turned to churned up mud.
Hansel's breeches are thick with it to the knee, and it squelches in through the holes in his boots, leaving his feet so frozen with cold that he can barely feel them. Miserable doesn't even begin to cover it.
Gretel isn't faring any better. She stays quiet while Hansel curses the world, stopping just short of shaking his fists at the unforgiving sky because he's not quite that fucked in the head. But her face is pale and drawn, and tendrils of her dark hair stick to her cheeks, harsh lines against her chalk-like skin. She's moving more slowly than she usually does, the days - weeks, months - on the road finally taking their toll.
So when the first lights of this godforsaken town appear out of the darkness ahead, Hansel is actually relieved.
"We should get a room." He has to raise his voice to be heard over the thundering clatter of the rain. "Even a place like this has to have one goddamned inn that isn't a flea-infested shit hole."
But Gretel - stubborn, stubborn Gretel - shakes her head. "We should save our money," she says instead, lowering her brows and frowning as she considers the state of their finances. "The stables will be -"
"The stables will not be fine." Hansel doesn't bother to hide his snort as he cuts her off; it's not like Gretel would be able to hear him over the weather anyway, although she gives him a narrow-eyed glare that suggests she didn't miss it. "The stables will be cold and wet and dirty, Gretel. The stables will be a festering shit hole - literally, probably - and we've been freezing our asses off for weeks. We get a room."
She's got that twist to her mouth, the one that says she's settling in for the long-haul, quite happy to 'discuss' this with him until the cows come home. Except even cows, as stupid as they are, know better than to be outside in weather like this.
She's already opening her mouth to argue further, when Hansel pulls out the biggest weapon in his arsenal.
Her mouth snaps shut again, that twist taking on an unhappy edge. But she doesn't argue, even if she doesn't sigh and give in, rolling her eyes at him the way that she normally does. She simply nods once, sharp and abrupt, the lines around her eyes tight and pinched.
It's not just the cold and the wet that's left Gretel pale faced and silent. It's also the six inch gash in her side left by a toad witch. Hansel cut that bitch's head off just a second too late, and Gretel's the one that paid the price.
And that's another reason he wants a goddamned room.
Of course, Gretel's also the one who'd stabbed the witch in the first place, screaming in fury as she drove her blade so deeply into that flaccid, slimy body that she pinned the witch to the floor of her own hovel, leaving her flapping like a stranded fish as Hansel stormed in to finish her off. Gretel's the one who kicked the witch's head into the fireplace, snarling as she pressed her hand against the red flowing from the wound in her side and watching, grim faced, while that grotesque toad mouth continued to flap and quiver for long moments before the witch finally realised she was dead.
And Gretel was the one who turned the air blue while Hansel patched up that hole in her side as best he could, his fingers stained red with Gretel's blood. By the time he'd finished, Gretel's mouth had finally fixed into a firm line, tight and furious, as she bit back on the rage and pain, holding it all in, focusing it the way that only she could.
Hansel couldn't be that focused, not when his hands shook with fear and a fury to match his sister's.
His hands aren't shaking now, not the way that Gretel is shaking. The storm has chilled her to the bone, and fine tremors are running through her even though she's trying to hide them.
There's not much she can hide from Hansel.
"Come on," he says roughly, resisting the urge to grab hold of her, not sure if it's fear or fury now that's driving him forward, or even if it's just the feel of the water running down the back of his neck, another small misery to add to the pile. "Room, fire and some food that's not half-burnt offerings. You can't tell me that doesn't sound good."
Gretel snorts, just like he hoped she would. Maybe it's the prospect of food, or maybe it's just that the lights of the town ahead are growing brighter as they draw closer, but there's some colour in her cheeks now, something less stumbling about her steps.
"Food would be good," she says eventually, but she pauses just a beat too long before she adds, "Food that you haven't ruined."
It's Hansel's turn to snort, and he tries - he really tries - to make it sound natural when there's a tight ball of worry sitting heavily in his chest. It's been growing heavier and heavier with each of Gretel's slow steps and by now it feels like it's crushing the breath out of him.
"Food," he repeats roughly, "fire and maybe a god damned bath."
Again he waits for the insult, something harsh about how he smells, the familiar back and forth that's as easy for them, as instinctual, as breathing, but again he's disappointed. All of Gretel's attention now seems focused on reaching shelter, somewhere she can finally rest. Her hand is pressed to her side, and he can't tell whether the darker patch there is just the rain soaking into her clothing or whether blood is seeping back through.
Hansel is used to being afraid but this, this is something bone deep. Over the last few days it's soaked into him, driven deeper and deeper with every one of Gretel's winces, the ones she tries - and fails - to hide, each time she stumbles, each time she slows. He's drenched in it, drowning in it, his soul shivering alongside Gretel's body.
He swallows it down, smothers it as best he can, fighting the urge to race ahead, tear into the town ahead and pound on every door, raising hell until he finds a place to stay, some clean water and bandages.
But not a doctor. He doesn't trust some half-trained barber with an over inflated sense of ego with his sister. He's the only one who'll be seeing to Gretel, the only one who will wipe her brow and sew her up.
Even if his hands are shaking.
He curls his fingers to still them, his blunt fingernails cutting into his palms. It's the only thing that stops him from reaching out to Gretel and he daren't do that, not when they're this close to town. If he pulls her into his arms now, he'd never let her go. He knows himself too well, and so instead he sets his jaw and quickens his steps as much as Gretel can bear, focusing on the things he needs to do instead of everything he could have lost.
The town ahead is growing closer with each sodden step. It's smaller than some they've been thrown out of, but it's a hell of a lot bigger than others, which means it has a market, somewhere for the farms they've passed to travel to and sell their wares, and somewhere for traders from the bigger towns and cities to come to buy.
And that in turn means it has to have more than one tavern willing to relieve farmers or traders of their hard earned cash. For which Hansel thanks God, even though he suspects that God's long since stopped listening to either of them. A little healthy competition might mean that one of them, at least, serves something edible.
He focuses on that as he moves Gretel forward, his hand now hovering over the small of her back, ready to steady her if she stumbles but still fighting the urge to pull her close. Planning gives him something else to think about, another way to hold the fear at bay. Planning is good, no matter their propensity to wing it most of the time.
So, in a town like this, there will be two types of tavern, at least in Hansel's extensive experience - the kind that sits neatly in the centre of the town, frequented by the well-to-do shopkeepers, the merchants and the burghers, and those around the edges, where things are a little rougher, a little more run down. Those taverns are frequented by a different sort, by the men who live on the edge of everything - the trappers, the hunters, those whose coin is perhaps a little less shiny and a little less honestly earned.
Those are the places he feels most at home - respectable enough to attract return trade, but just rough enough to make it interesting, with the kind of clientele that's pointedly uninterested in someone else's doings. Unless they're paid to be interested, and no one gives that much of a shit about Hansel and his sister, no matter how hard Ben is trying to change that.
Hansel couldn't give a shit about the calibre of clientele either. As far as he's concerned, the important thing about that kind of tavern is that it will be both near to the town walls and less likely to raise a fuss about a little blood on the sheets.
He keeps his eyes peeled as they finally move towards the gates, which are close to closing if the last few stragglers hurrying through are any sign. It's hard to tell the time when the sky is already dark, but it must be later than he thought, or they go to bed early in these parts. But the gates haven't closed yet, so Hansel can save his coin, not bribe the watchman the way that he's had to do once or twice. Instead, he shares a brief nod with the men sheltering in the shadow of the walls, their faces drawn with tiredness and with the cold that's more biting than any blade, and moves Gretel on through.
She's stopped talking now, and her face is as tired and cold as those of the men around them. It's still too pale for Hansel's liking, but at least she's still moving under her own steam, shrugging off Hansel's hand when he finally reaches out to steady her, too damned proud or too damned wary to show any weakness in front of others. He thinks, for a second, of stopping and asking for directions to the nearest semi-decent inn, but the watchmen have already turned away, struggling with the large wooden gates, which slowly shut behind them with a harsh, grating sound.
But maybe their luck has changed, or maybe he was right about the kind of town this is. There are at least two inns near the gates, close enough, Hansel thinks cynically, to make it easier for the watchmen they've just passed to throw any troublemakers out of town in the space of two or three heartbeats. And if Hansel is any judge - and he's been in enough taverns in his lifetime to get a pretty damned good feel for them - there'll be tunnels from the cellar into the woods beyond that will let those same troublemakers straight back in again without having to bother the watchmen twice in one night.
He studies them both for a moment, weighing them up with a jaundiced eye, and then heads towards the nearest one, where light and sound is spilling from the doorway onto the wet, muddy streets. It's raucous, but at least light and sound - and a little ale - are the only things spilling out through that doorway; Hansel's had to skirt around more than one drunken fist fight in his time just to get to his bed and he's in no mood for that tonight.
Gretel doesn't skirt around them - she simply walks through them and it's amazing how they move out of her way, even when they're deep in their cups.
It's quieter inside the tavern than he expected, and it grows quieter still when they walk through the doorway. He's used to that - they both are - but there's something new to the silence now, something that's not just the tribal reaction to a stranger walking into someone else's territory.
No, this silence is considering, maybe even a little confused. But it's familiar - too damned familiar and growing more familiar with every town they pass through.
Hansel is already rolling his eyes before the first person speaks.
"'Ere. I seen you somewhere before, ain't I?"
The man's drunk and aiming for drunker judging by the tankard he's swinging around. He peers blearily at Hansel, then at Gretel, than at Hansel again, his ale slopping over the side of his cup as he considers the pair of them, blinking owlishly and slowly swaying back and forth.
Hansel sighs, turning his eyes heavenwards. It's either a wanted poster or...
"You been in that paper."
Damn it. He'd really been hoping for a wanted poster.
"You kill witches, aint'cha?"
Yep. Ben has a hell of a lot to answer for, and his need to embellish stories of their adventures - and sell his tall tales to anyone who'll pay the coin for them - is just the last in a very long list as far as Hansel's concerned.
"Yes." It's Gretel who answers the question, her voice harsh with tiredness and pain. "What of it?"
The man blinks at them again as Gretel's words slowly sink through the fug of ale that surrounds him, eventually finding their way into what passes for his mind. He won't be winning any prizes for schooling any time soon, that's for sure.
"Nothin'," he says eventually, swaying so noticeably now that Hansel is starting to feel a little seasick. "Just..." He pauses his train of thought long enough to let out a truly impressive belch, one that's long and yeasty and too close to Hansel's face for comfort. Then he reaches out and puts one hand on Hansel's shoulder, leaning in close enough for Hansel to get the full benefit of his body odour, which is as rich and eye watering as his belch, and says, simply, "You keep on killing 'em, hear?"
Hansel hears him loud and clear, but Gretel's the one who narrows her eyes, squaring her shoulders and staring the drunk down with the ease of long practice. "You got a dog in this fight, friend?" she asks, and she puts just enough emphasis on the word 'friend' to make it clear that she means anything but.
The drunk turns his attention from Hansel to Gretel, turning his whole body in a stagger as though he's forgotten how to turn just his head. He blinks at her again, trying to bring her into focus, but Hansel's not sure he manages it before he speaks again, his words slow and slurred.
"Took m'sister," he says, his tone barely above a mumble, lost in an age old pain that will never heal. "When I were just a boy but still bigger'n her. You keep on killing 'em, you hear me? You kill 'em all."
He holds Gretel's gaze, strangely dignified in spite of the slurred speech and the fact that he can barely stay upright. Yes, there's pain in his old, rheumy eyes but there's something else in there, too, something sharp and bright and fierce. It's a heady kind of hate, like a thread that lies underneath everything else, holding him together. It's crisp and clean and deadly, and the years have not dimmed it one little bit.
It's a look Hansel recognises; he sees it every time he looks in the mirror. He sees it every day, shining in his sister's eyes. There's not much that can put out a fire like that. He knows; he's tried.
Gretel nods, slow and sure, her eyes never leaving the old man's face. "Every one of them," she says, her voice steady and firm, unwavering. "Every evil thing between here and the horizon and then beyond." It sounds like an oath.
It is, but maybe Hansel is the only one who caught the caveat.
The old man nods, satisfied, and salutes them with his tankard. Hansel isn't surprised when the ale finally answers the siren call of the ground, sloshing over the man's hand and soaking into his shirt sleeve while he blinks at it, nonplussed. "Ale," he says eventually, bellowing the word while he paws at his wet sleeve. "Ale for'n witch hunters!"
Gretel lets out a twitch of a smile, something that fades around the edges almost as soon as it's formed. There are deep lines around her eyes and a furrow between her brows, and both leave her eyes shadowed, dark and pained. She's already shaking her head at the bar maid as the wench leans forward, her blouse gaping open in a way that's designed to catch Hansel's attention from the way her eyes slide in his direction, mischievous and sly.
Maybe he should play along, show some interest the same way she's showing cleavage, but Gretel looks like the only thing keeping her upright is her white-knuckled grip on the bar. So he scowls instead, jerking his head to the bottles at the back of the bar, filled with an amber liquid he really hopes doesn't taste like piss.
"A bottle," he grunts when the bar maid moves too slowly for his liking. "And a room. Cleanest one you've got."
The girl raises her eyebrow at that, a flirtatious glint in her eye as she looks him up and down, like she's trying to decide whether or not she likes what she sees. But it's been a long time since Hansel's been taken in by a pretty face. At least a month. Besides, she's probably trying to decide whether the coin in his purse is worth her time, and how much ale she needs to pour down his throat before she can lift it without him noticing.
"And bandages," he adds, just to watch the colour drain from her face. "The cleanest ones you've got of those, too."
To give the girl credit she doesn't dawdle, nodding briskly and heading towards the end of the bar, ignoring the calls for her attention and the tankards waved in her direction as she grabs a bottle on her way past. Being a famous witch hunter must be good for something after all. She pauses in the doorway, turning her head back towards them, obviously waiting for the pair of them to catch up with her, and Hansel has never been so glad to hurry his steps.
"We ain't got much," she says as she leads them out towards the back of the inn, up a flight of stairs and away from the raucous bar. "But it's clean. Scrub 'em meself, I do." Hansel doesn't doubt it, not from the colour of her apron, a grim grey in the dim lamplight. Still, it's a more charitable explanation for the dirt stains around the knee of her dress than the one he'd originally been entertaining. "There's a fire I c'n lit, 'n I'll draw you some water from the well." She casts a look in Gretel's direction as she finally opens a door, turning the key in the lock with a stiff clank. That look is full of fellow feeling, and something like sympathy flashes across her face as Gretel eases past her and moves to slowly lower herself into the room's one rickety chair. It's clear that she's hurting, for all that she's trying to hide it.
The girl's more charitable about them than Hansel was about her, but the shame at that is quick and fleeting.
"Thanks," he says gruffly instead, fighting the urge to feel touched. He's not Ben, too young and stupid to see the world as it really is, full of self-interest and people more than willing to stab you in the back. Or the front if they think they can get away with it.
But this girl has kind eyes, and she's almost pretty when she smiles. Her blonde hair is too dark to remind him of Mina, but somehow, right now, she does anyway.
"Thank you," she says, the words strangely formal. And then she smiles again, a curl of the mouth that's half way between uncomfortable and fierce, like she's too used to one and not used enough to the other. "Witch hunter," she adds, and the fierceness finally wins out.
Hansel nods, holding his hand out for the bottle she's carrying, and she looks down at it for a heartbeat as though she's forgotten that it's there before she finally lifts it up and hands it over.
"I'll be back with water," she promises, giving them both a look that's partway between awe and maybe something that's not quite fear but isn't far from it. "And mebbe bandages if'n I can find 'em."
And then she's gone, out the door and down the stairs in a clatter of clogs and stale perfume.
"I think you have a fan," Gretel says drily, shifting on the chair as though she's trying - and failing - to get comfortable.
"Well, I was getting jealous of you and Edward. Figured it was time I got a minion of my own."
"You have Ben."
He pulls a face at that and Gretel laughs, something that ends abruptly with a gasp as her wound protests.
He's at her side in a moment, his face creased with concern and his hands hovering over her, unsure whether or not to touch.
"I'm fine," she says before he gets a chance to ask, and he stares her lie down until she has to look away, her mouth twisting in rueful acknowledgement. "I've been better," she admits, and the words are dry, something age old and amused underneath them. "I've been warmer, for a start."
It takes him a second to catch her drift, and then he frowns, irritated with himself as much as the bar wench, who forgot to light the fire before she left. Gretel chuckles softly as he pushes himself to his feet again, his muscles aching, matched only by the ache left deep in his bones by the cold.
The fire hasn't been laid yet, but the hearth has been swept and the grate has been cleared of most of the ash, leaving enough room for any fire that Hansel sets to breathe. He's an old hand at this - he should be by now. They have their chores, he and Gretel, some of them since they were children. It's a comfortable routine, the pair of them moving around each other, taking turns at the few domestic tasks they have in between hunting down evil. He lays the fire and Gretel hunts, or vice versa, and they take turns to cook and to scrub their few pots clean in the nearest river. Gretel's small hands are better suited to weaving the baskets they need, but Hansel's stitches are quicker and neater.
He pulls out the few sticks left in the basket by the hearth, and sets to laying out a meagre fire, ready to be lit. But it's the lighting that proves the most difficult; the wood is still green, and damp from the same storm that soaked the pair of them to the bone. His tinder will not catch, no matter how much he huffs and puffs, and he curses the bar wench again, any tolerance for her fading further with each failed strike of his tinder.
Gretel's voice is quiet and strangely calm, but when he turns to look, there's a defiant look in her eye. The day hasn't come yet when Hansel doesn't listen to his sister, no matter how much trouble he thinks it might bring, and he edges away from the fireplace. She stares at him steadily while he moves and an odd kind of certainty settles over him, something warm and a familiar, like a well-worn cloak.
He knows what she's going to do before she does it, but it's not the act that is familiar, not yet. Not all of it. The familiarity is in the stubborn lift in Gretel's chin, the way that the lines form around her mouth as she presses her lips together, and in the tense frown of concentration forming on her face.
All of that is achingly familiar, and something twinges in Hansel's chest, something happy and sad both at once.
She raises her hand and makes a gesture, muttering under her breath. There's a feeling of power behind it that he recognises, something inherently Gretel in the feel of it, the shape of it in the air, but then the wood bursts into flame, a sudden, bright spark of heat that has him reeling back.
A lurching sense of loss washes over him, something tempered bittersweet by the feeling of exhilaration that comes with it.
Gretel is watching him now, not the fire, that same defiant glint in her eye and in the jut of her chin. But he knows his sister too well; he doesn't miss the fear and the doubt lurking underneath all that bravado.
"Impressive," he drawls, injecting just enough of a mocking edge into his voice to turn the jutting of her chin from a lie into the truth. "Does that mean you're going to heat the water for the bath, too? Because that bit's always a pain in the ass. Maybe you can wave your magic wand and have the buckets dance themselves up the stairs. I'm sure that would go down a treat."
She stares at him for a long moment, her expression frozen into unreadability, and then she rolls her eyes at him, her look turning scathing. But his words have done exactly what he intended; the fear has ebbed a little, the pinched look fading from her face. There's just Gretel now, Gretel who is tired and hurt and just as cold as he is. Gretel his sister, not Gretel the witch.
He hates himself for thinking it, but he thinks it anyway.
Gretel sinks back down into her chair, a sudden look of exhaustion washing over her face before she pulls it back inside, settling her face into that mask she wears sometimes, the one that doesn't fool him for a second. She winces slightly as her torn skin pulls, and Hansel swallows down a sigh. It breaks his heart - cleaves it right in two - to see her like this, this quiet and in so much pain, but he knows better than to fuss. Instead he simply grabs hold of the bottle of rotgut and heads back towards her.
"Let me see."
She doesn't argue; instead she gives him a wan smile, one that still manages to have teeth behind it, and then she straightens up in the chair, her fingers moving to the laces of her corset. She undoes them slowly, and he doesn't think that's all to do with the stiffness of her body, or how much pain she's in. There's a familiarity in that, too, as Gretel falls into that rhythm, something hypnotic in the way that her fingers tug at the laces, pulling them through the holes one after another, almost as if the real Gretel is emerging from behind her leather; the woman instead of the legend, the one made of flesh and blood instead of Ben's clever words.
There are bloodstains on her shirt when she finally pulls the corset away from her body, dark brown stains and bright crimson blooms where she's bled through his bandages. But the storm really did soak her down to her skin; the marks have run, streaking down her body, fading from dark brown and bright red to a pale washed out pink.
It's oddly beautiful, or would be if Gretel weren't wincing again, her breath hitching harshly as he reaches out and carefully eases the fabric away from her skin.
He creases his own face up sympathetically, touching her side soothingly with his free hand as he lifts her shirt free of the wound.
The bandage he hastily applied has slipped, which explains the blood on Gretel's shirt, and he swallows down a sigh of relief. It's better than he feared; he was afraid that she'd bled straight through it or worse, that the wound had already started to turn septic, Gretel's flesh poisoned by that evil bitch.
It seems as if their mother's blood isn't just a shield against a witch's magic. It might also be a shield from their filthy claws, but then Hansel already knew that they were both made of sterner stuff. They wouldn't have survived this long if they weren't.
He leans in closer, his fingers gentle as he explores the wound, making sure not to touch it or make it worse. The skin around it is a little red and inflamed, but no worse than any similar injury. Further out from it, Gretel's skin is still pale and clear; there are no creeping signs of infection radiating from the cut and the only fluid still weeping from it is that normal pale, watery blood that comes before a wound starts to scab over and heal.
"You'll live," he says eventually and Gretel grunts, leaning away from him to pull her shirt back down again. She doesn't move far, but he misses her straight away, fighting the urge to pull her back towards him, wrap his arms around her and never let her go.
Keep her safe.
"Will it need stitches?" she asks, her tone matter of fact as she straightens back up again, the move stiff and lacking her usual fluid grace.
He considers the question for a moment. "Probably not," he decides. "Especially not if Edward finally gets his ass here and works his..." He wiggles his fingers in the air, and Gretel rolls her eyes, a familiar irritation flitting across her face. It doesn't stop him from finishing the sentence, however. It never does. "Trollish mojo magic thing."
Gretel lets out a long suffering sigh, and he swallows down a smile this time, not a sigh, pleased to see the colour coming slowly back into her face. "I wish you wouldn't call it that."
"What the hell should I call it then?"
"Maybe..." She hesitates for a moment, chewing on her lip the way she has since they were children and she was lost in thought. "Healing arts."
"Healing arts?" He doesn't bother to hold back his snort of laughter and Gretel throws him another irritated look, something hotter and deeper this time. He doesn't want to fight, not tonight, not with Gretel's blood still staining his fingertips and the harsh, guttural grunt she'd let out as the witch's blow struck home still echoing in his ears. But, oh, sometimes she is too tempting to tease. "That sounds like something Ben would say."
Her irritation evaporates, lifting slowly, and she gives him a long, steady look. "Ben's a smart young man," she finally says, and he rolls his eyes again. "You should probably listen to him every now and then."
"And which times exactly should I listen to him?" He pushes himself to his feet, trying to hide the way that his muscles have stiffened up. He doesn't need Gretel fussing over him, or mocking him - and both are equally likely at this point. "When he doesn't shut up for hours at a time, wittering about all of the stuff he's 'researched' or when he tells tall tales about us to the tavern wenches every chance he gets because he thinks some of that glory will rub off on him and he might finally get laid."
There's amusement in Gretel's expression now, and a kind of fondness in her face, although he can't tell whether it's aimed at Ben or himself. "He does seem to have even less luck in that department than you do." Her expression turns tragic, so full of woe that it makes the glint of mockery in her eye shine even more brightly. "Poor boy. He's obviously destined to die a virgin."
"Oh, you're funny. You're definitely funny. You and Edward should probably work up a routine. That way if we ever manage to kill every goddamned witch in the world we can set ourselves up as travelling players."
"Evil witches," she says, and that glint in her eyes is no longer amused, more steel than satin.
"Evil witches." He softens his voice and the glint in Gretel's eyes softens too, edging into understanding as she reaches out and squeezes his hand. "How much are you going to hate me if I clean the wound?"
She blinks at him for a moment, her lips parting as she tries to follow the sudden change in conversation, and he waggles the bottle at her, the slow roll of the amber liquid inside it drawing her attention.
"Better safe than sorry. And I am sorry." He waits, and she sighs, leaning over to drag her shirt up again. He puts the bottle down on the floor and sets to slowly unwinding the bandages from her waist, as carefully as he can.
It's not careful enough; Gretel bites at her lip, but she doesn't let out a sound, not even a gasp when he finally pulls the last of it free, easing it away from where it's stuck to her skin by her own dried blood.
"You're probably going to scar," he says quietly, his fingers still pressed against her skin.
"Do you mind?"
No, no he doesn't. He'd tell her so, let his words soothe her hurt the way his touch can't quite, lean down and press his mouth against all of the places where her skin isn't bruised and broken, even the parts that have been hurt before and show it with raised white skin where her flesh has healed, but there's a knock on the door and he locks that feeling down tight.
But Gretel sees it anyway; Gretel always does. Her fingers brush against his cheek and then fall away again as she says, "Come in."
It's the bar wench, finally back with the water she promised. She's brought more firewood, too, all bundled up with her skirt as a basket, lifted up above her knees though she doesn't care who sees her stockings or the bare expanse above them. Perhaps she doesn't, or perhaps she'd intended for Hansel to see them, but if she has any designs on his tattered honour it fades away again as soon as she sees the cut curling along Gretel's side, raw and weeping.
She swallows, her eyes wide and a little afraid, and the grip she has on her skirt stutters until a handful of sticks slip free from it, scattering noisily across the floor. "Sorry," she mutters, her face flaming even brighter than the flimsy fire that Gretel has lit, and Hansel scowls at her as she scurries towards the hearth, casting another look back at the wound in Gretel's side.
Gretel watches her silently while Hansel scowls, her expression unreadable. He doesn't think she cares - she's never cared what others have thought before, but there's a first time for anything and with Gretel sometimes it's difficult to tell. She's full of hidden depths, his sister, and sometimes she's as much a mystery to him as any other woman, as sharp of tongue and as fierce of fist.
When the girl has settled the bucket by the fire, and fussed over a stack of sticks that's never going to be as straight as she seems to want, she finally turns around. The fear has gone from her face now. What's left is a strange kind of sympathy, something that stops just short of pity, but it's far enough away from it to let Gretel keep hold of her temper, and therefore it's enough for Hansel to hold his tongue.
"Do you need me to fetch t' doctor?" the girl asks, her expression so carefully blank while her eyes dart between them, bright with the kind of curiosity that tells Hansel that if they're not careful - more careful than they have been up until now - the wench will start telling tales about them to anyone who stops drinking long enough to listen. From the gleam in her eye, her stories might even rival Ben's.
Gretel snorts, sounding eerily like Hansel, at least to his ear. "And line his pockets when my brother can sew a line as straight and stay sober while doing it?"
Hansel drops his gaze to the bottle by Gretel's feet and then flicks it up again, catching her eye. It's been a long time since he's tried to look innocent, but he tries it now, to comical effect from the way that Gretel's mouth twitches.
"A little more sober," she amends, and the girl startles them both by grinning at that, something wild and fierce in it.
"Mebbe I'll fetch him if'n you need a haircut or shave then," she says saucily, turning that bright smile on Gretel as much as Hansel this time. "I couldn't find no bandages, but we got some old sheets if'n you want to tear 'em up. Landlord won't care much, not if I tell 'im that they were worn too thin. They're clean, though." There's a fierce pride in her voice, something that tells Hansel that maybe the fact that this inn is at least struggling in the direction of respectability has more to do with her than the landlord, whoever he is. "And I c'n wash your'n shirt if'n you want, too."
Gretel blinks at her, nonplussed, and the girl's grin fades a little, something sad now in those bright, merry eyes.
"There were a witch in t' woods," she says. "When I were young. Afore she got scared away."
Gretel's expression clears. "Sister?" she asks with a gentleness usually hidden behind tight leather and sharp words.
"Brother." The girl's mouth tightens for a moment, her grief much closer to the surface than the old man's had been. "He were five. Such a little mite. I were eight and supposed to watch him." Her pain should have faded by now, at least a little, but right now it seems as fresh and raw as the wound in Gretel's side, barely scabbed over at all. And then she smiles again, a little bitter around the edges but still bright and fierce. She's a survivor this one, and Hansel wonders if Gretel sees herself reflected in that smile.
"I c'n wash the shirt," she repeats, and slides her eyes towards Hansel, something sly and knowing in that look. "I know how to get t' blood out. What girl doesn't?"
She has a point, and it's not like the observation is going to make Hansel blush. He's lived too closely with Gretel for too long for that. "Good point," he says instead, ignoring the girl's little start of surprise at his lack of squeamishness. "We'll pass on the sheet, thanks. There's no need for you to get into trouble on our account, although..." He struggles with this bit; words have never been his forte, not like they've been Gretel's. "We think you for your kindness."
Now he's blushing, blushing the way that talking about a woman's monthly bleeds would never manage. He covers it by leaning in towards his sister again, silently offering her any help she needs to get undressed. "Good job you have a spare shirt."
"Good job," says Gretel a little pointedly, "that it was your shirt you decided to tear up for bandages in the first place. And, unless I'm very much mistaken, some of it is left"
He shrugs, his fingers busy gathering up the hem of Gretel's shirt, ready to ease it up over her head. His had been more threadbare, worn thin by washing; it made sense to use it before her newer one. "It was clean. Quit complaining."
The girl is watching them, her gaze darting back and forth between them as they banter, the look on her face a little melancholy. Maybe she's missing her brother more than ever, or maybe she's realised that there will be no prising Hansel away from his sister tonight. Whatever the reason, she's resilient; she limits herself to a little shrug and smile, turning away and busying herself with filling the kettle that hangs over the fire while Hansel helps his sister undress.
When she turns around again, Gretel is wrapped in one of the blankets from the bed and Hansel is holding out his sister's bloodstained shirt.
The girl takes it without a word, her eyes too busy tracking over those of Gretel's scars she can see. There might be pity in her eyes this time, but Hansel can't begrudge her that, not when that fierce light is still burning behind the pity, behind the sympathy and the careful, cheerful mask she wears.
She might pity Gretel, but Gretel, at least, wears her scars on the surface.
Most of them.
"I'll get your'n shirt back in morning," she says. "Let me know if'n you want some food."
With that she's gone in another clatter of clogs, back to the raucous bar. There's another waft of stale perfume as she passes, but Hansel doesn't mind it so much now. The scent of it doesn't do much for his appetite though.
He locks the door behind her, and when he turns back to face the room, Gretel has pushed herself to her feet, the blanket still wrapped around her. She holds it closed with one hand, her expression absent-minded as she starts rummaging through her bag, humming softly under her breath, the sound more to soothe him, he thinks, than her.
She looks oddly vulnerable, standing there in bare feet, the blanket slipping off one shoulder and with her drying hair curling around her ears. He never thinks of Gretel as vulnerable, not when it's a thought that's too big, too terrifying to hold in his head. Thinking something doesn't make it come true, or so his mother used to say, her words - and her voice - echoing in the memories that aren't as painful as they used to be, but that doesn't mean he wants to take the risk.
"Gretel," he says softly, just to hear her name on his lips, and she turns to him and smiles, something quiet and contained. "What are you doing?"
"Edward gave me some leaves."
Of course he did. Edward is always bringing her something, holding it out to her in that bullheadedly patient way of his, managing to be more stubborn than her in a way that even Hansel's never managed. Leaves, flowers, bright orange clay... Edward finds the things that Gretel needs long before she knows she needs them herself.
The kind of things that are listed in their mother's book, crisply drawn and neatly labelled in a language that Gretel is learning far too quickly for Hansel to follow.
"What kind of leaves?"
Gretel hums an answer, exhaustion bleeding through with every note.
She finally pulls a small bag free with a soft noise of satisfaction. "Healing ones," she says, clumsy fingers working at the knot before she harrumphs and hands it over to Hansel in frustration. "Like the ones he used..."
She gestures at her forehead, where a small, pale mark recedes back into her hairline. It's faint enough that no one would see it unless they know it's there, but Hansel knows. Hansel remembers and the fact that Edward flattened the fuckers who hurt his sister like that is just another mark in his favour as far as Hansel is concerned.
"What do you want me to do with these?" he asks, tipping some of the bag's contents onto his palm. The leaves are dried to brittleness, their colours faded into dull browns and tarnished gold, but the sharp, stringent smell of them hits his nostrils, fresh and crisp like the day that they were probably plucked.
He stirs the fragments with his fingertips, idly wondering if that's magic, too.
"They need to be boiled into a paste." Gretel's voice is faded now too, washed out by her injury and the toll it's taken. "Not too much water, so..."
He finds a cup with his usual resourcefulness, scooping up some of the water that's now gently steaming and settling it close enough to the flames for them to do the rest. The leaves crumble into dust as he rubs them between his fingertips, and he watches as that settles onto the water, trying to calculate how much would be enough.
In the end he settles for more rather than less, and the water has turned a muddy brown before he retreats, knotting the bag closed again and stowing it carefully in Gretel's kit.
If it heals Gretel as well as she thinks it will then maybe he'll start carrying his own supply with him. Anything to make sure that his Gretel heals quickly and cleanly from every crappy thing that life throws at her.
When he straightens up again, his hips protest, closely followed by his knees and his back; he hit the dirt more than once during their battle with the toad witch and he's paying the price now. But he'd gladly pay it twice over if he could save Gretel the hurt.
Gretel has straightened up, too, one hand on the back of her chair to steady her while she tries to ease out of her breeches, sliding the leather slowly down her legs as she tries not to bend too much. It's obviously painful - her fingers are white where they're pressed against the chair back, and her mouth is a thin, straight line - but still she soldiers on, full of stubborn pride.
His heart swells with love for her even as his jaw tenses with the need to snap, his fingers twitching with the need to shake some sense into her. In the end he does neither; instead he does the only thing he was ever going to do, the only thing he ever does because he was made for it.
He falls at her feet.
The leather of her breeches is damp under his fingers, cool and slick in the night air. The rain has soaked through the seams, but the rest has kept the worst of the wetness away. He still takes care as he peels them away from Gretel's pale skin, moving slowly, sliding them down her legs inch by inch as she steadies herself, her hand on his shoulder instead of the chair now.
It's a familiar weight, a weight he gladly bears, steadying her himself with one hand on her shapely calf as she steps out of them, leaving her bare to his gaze.
"Okay?" he asks, the question little more than a breath, and she nods, her fingers tightening on his shoulders for a moment.
She steps back as he pushes himself to his feet again, ignoring the twinges, injuries old and new. There's mud on her face in the firelight, a streak of it over her shoulder where she hit the floor, and he reaches out, tracing it with fingers that stay on the right side of gentle.
"Let's get you washed up," he murmurs, and she lets out a shaky sigh, something that's aiming for a laugh and almost makes it.
He takes his time, pouring steaming water from the kettle into a bowl and using another strip from his second best shirt as a makeshift wash rag. He wads it up and glides it slowly over Gretel's skin, letting the heat of it sink into her as he washes away the dirt and the blood. He loses himself in it, the rhythm of this ritual, and the familiarity of Gretel's beloved body under his hands. It's easy to imagine that with each slow sweep, each of Gretel's gentle, pleasured sighs, he's washing everything else away, too: the fear and the pain, the grief and the rage. That he's washing them both clean of the trauma of the last few days.
There's something almost sacred in it, for all that he can't remember the last time he set foot in a church, and he lets himself fall into the silence that lies between them, the one that is never empty because it hums with everything they never need to say.
Gretel sighs again, long and deep, swaying into his touch as he runs the cloth over her shoulder, down along the curve of her spine, over every knob in it. She's whip-thin and sharp as a knife, wiry and strong, but her hair is so soft under his hand as he slides her braid out of the way, the damp tendrils clinging to his fingers. He leans in closer to her, breathing in her scent, the one that was almost smothered under the smells of blood and pain, of death and decay.
She smells like Gretel now, clean and earthy, like the forest after the rain, and he fills his lungs with that scent, letting it soothe all of the raw places inside him.
He could have lost her, but then he could lose her every day; the fear is ever present, but even that is muted by familiarity.
They do what they must, no matter the cost.
Gretel stays silent, but there isn't much that escapes her, and nothing about Hansel she doesn't know. She lets him have his moment of brooding, simply bringing her hand up to cover his where it rests on her shoulder, pressing his fingers against her skin.
"I love you," he breathes even though she doesn't need to hear it to feel it deep in her bones, his eyes only open wide enough to watch his breath stir the hairs on the nape of her neck.
"I know," she says, her fingers squeezing his, and it's enough.
The water in the bowl is tinged pink with the remnants of Gretel's blood by the time he is finished. He empties it into the chamber pot and fills the bowl again with clean water from the kettle, adding a little amber liquid from the bottle that he appropriated from the bar. The water dilutes the harsh sting of the alcohol, but Gretel still hisses when he pats another dampened rag against her side, her body stiffening under his fingers as he winces in sympathy. But that sympathy doesn't stop him from cleaning the wound as best he can.
By the time he retrieves the small clay cup from the fire, the leaves have stewed down to a greenish paste, and the smell of it is less sharp and acidic, something earthier about it now. He's not sure if that's better, but Gretel finally relaxes when he scoops some of it out with his fingers, rubbing his fingertips together and feeling an oily grit coat his skin.
"How much?" he asks and she blinks at him slowly, like the kind of sleepy cat she'll never be.
"Not much thicker than a bandage," she says quietly after a long pause while she gathers her thoughts. "Just a thin layer, if you can manage that. It works fast."
She relaxes even further into his touch as he spreads it gently across her skin, and it's a relief to see that, to watch the pain finally dull down its roar. He's a little more generous with the poultice than she'd said, and when he winds another dressing around her body, it oozes up between the strands and through the fabric, staining it a dull green.
It's better than red.
Gretel has grown languid as he works, leaning her head against his shoulder, the scent of her hair filling his nostrils. She sighs, soft and low, as his nimble fingers finally tuck the ends of the bandage away, tight enough to hold but hopefully not tight enough to hurt.
She nods, and her hair tickles his neck. He pulls her closer and breathes in deeply, letting the scent of Gretel and the smell of rain fill his lungs again, bringing the kind of peace with them that he only ever finds with her.
"I'm tired," she murmurs, and the admission sinks its claws into him, finding all of those tender places, the ones that only Gretel sees.
He trails his hand up her spine, humming softly under his breath, the sound broken and out of tune. He's never been one for singing, and neither has Gretel; the memories of his mother's voice are still too raw. But Gretel relaxes further into him anyway, burying her face into his neck and swaying slightly as he holds her. Not all of that is exhaustion this time; it's been a long time since they danced together, deep in the woods where no one can see. The need for that - the playfulness - had ebbed a long time before Ben and Edward joined them on their travels, worn away by time and their responsibilities.
He misses it, suddenly. Misses it with a fierceness that surprises him, and it's a wrench to let her go, his fingers lingering for a moment longer than they should. "We should lock the door," he says when she blinks up at him, confused, the kind of hurt blossoming on her face that has nothing to do with the wound in her side. "And then I should put you to bed."
That earns him a smirk, something deep and filthy, only part of which is an act. It works though - it does his heart good to see his Gretel smiling the way she does when she's unhurt.
"No offense, sis," he says, leaning down to press his mouth to the parting of her hair. "But I prefer it when you don't fall asleep on me."
She pouts a little, although she'd deny it to her dying breath. "I've only done that once. Maybe twice."
"And that was once, or maybe twice, too often."
She snorts, sounding so much like herself that it hurts, in the best of ways.
"Door," he repeats, more firmly this time. "You need any help getting a shirt on?"
She seriously considers his offer for a moment before she shakes her head. "I should be fine," she says. He's not sure he believes it, but even if she's not fine she's a hell of a lot closer to it than she was before he slathered on Edward's magic troll juice. That makes it easier to let it go, to trust that Gretel's judgement on this is as sound as her judgement on everything else.
That, plus the fact that even if she's not fine, she'll just grit her teeth and get the hell on with it anyway.
And she does - she's already easing herself into the old shirt of his that she wears as a nightshirt when he turns back from the door, and if she's still moving more slowly than her usual wont, he's not quite stupid enough to point it out. He's had his ass kicked enough for one seven-night. So he waits until she smooths it down her thighs before he steps forward, easing her braid out from underneath the fabric.
It's still damp under his fingers, and it still smells like rain. It won't do her any good tonight to sleep with it wet, even though it's something she's done many, many times before - in forests and under hedgerows, in fields and under the stars. Tonight, however, he indulges himself, letting the slippery weight of it drag it through his fingers until he reaches the end of it, where the hair curls around his fingers.
It's the work of a moment to untie the leather that Gretel uses to keep it in place, and Gretel stays still, letting him do with it as he will. There still something exhausted in the curve of her spine, in the way that her hip juts out as though that's the only thing that's keeping her upright, but it's the kind of exhaustion that comes at the end of a long day, he thinks, not the one that comes when all of your ability to fight has fled.
He smooths his fingers through the strands, over and over again, separating the parts as he moves slowly up the braid. He takes longer to unwind it than Gretel took to braid it, but still she doesn't object. If anything, she relaxes into him more, the tension leaving her neck as her head falls forward. There's something achingly vulnerable in it, how the nape of her neck is bared, all of her tension drained out of her. He doesn't stop until long after the braid is finally undone and Gretel's hair cascades over her shoulders, thick and darker than Hansel's own. Even then he smooths callused fingers over that glory, feeling Gretel shiver under his touch.
"Bed," he says, and his voice comes out darker and richer than he meant it to, full of the kind of promise he would never expect Gretel to keep. Not tonight.
Gretel shivers again, half-turning her head towards him, her eyes dark and her mouth licked shiny and red.
"Stay with me?" she murmurs, like he'd ever be anywhere else.
"Always," he says, and that's the only promise she needs.
He feeds the fire while she pulls back the covers of the bed, carefully examining it to make sure it's clean. He thinks it will be - the girl's pride in her work had shone through, despite her grubby apron. He has to learn her name in the morning, thank her properly, and not just because Ben's people skills are starting to rub off on him. She deserves that much, at least, and probably more.
If Edward and Ben meet them here in two days' time, as originally planned, maybe he'll make a point of introducing her to Ben. With any luck, the kid will finally get laid, and somehow he thinks that Ben would be in safe hands.
While he's been idly pondering on Ben's future, Gretel seems to have finally reached a conclusion that she's satisfied with the state of the bed. She slips between the sheets, her movements slow but steady, and then shuffles over towards the wall, leaving enough room for Hansel to join her. They're usually more careful than this, at least in town, but while the floor is clean enough for him to sleep on, Gretel isn't the only one willing to bend the rules tonight. Hansel, too, wants his sister in his arms, wants to wake in the middle of the night and know she's right there, safe and healing if not unhurt.
He feeds a few more sticks into the fire, then strips down to his shirt, using the rest of the water to clean the mud from his legs, from his arms and his neck. The water is still warm, even though the fire is dying down, and it's easy to forget about the storm outside, here in this room with his sister's warm eyes watching him as she waits patiently for him to come to bed. She sighs when he finally lies down next to her, rolling over to rest her head on his chest, right over his heart.
He wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes, listening to the sound of the rain and the steady, even sound of Gretel's breathing as it slowly settles down into the rhythm of healing sleep.
Outside, the storm is easing, too, the wind's fury dying down until all Hansel can hear is the slow patter of rain on the roof and the steady drip of it falling from the guttering to the street below.
Hansel finally closes his eyes and sleeps.