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keep a little fire

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Travis like, knows he’s not the best at magic.

Does he want to be? Well, yeah. That would be, all things considered, a good deal for him. Travis Konecny, the best witch in Volantes? It’s not like he’s never had that dream before. Attempting to manifest greatness during morning huddle? That would pretty much be his modus operandi. And when the manifesting never got anywhere? Well. Maybe he just needed some more candles.

(Was his room in the Niche fully covered in candles? Not fully. There was always some more room somewhere.)

Him not being the best at magic was definitely not for a lack of trying. Ever since he first felt the spark, ever since he first learned he was one of the few in Volantes who could practice, ever since he was conscripted by AV, all he did was try. Read the books, did the meditations, lit the candles, learned the spells and recipes and all the herb names and original names and uses and, and, and… Some of the stuff regarding magic made his head spin. Literally, sometimes. Beezer was really into physical magic, and shit had a tendency to get weird.

But he kept on. Every once in a while Claude came back from his councils with AV with a good word specifically for him, usually about his advances in emotional magic, or dreamspace, or another area Travis was trying to master. AV thought the emotional stuff came easy to him, and encouraged it. Travis never told him, Claude, or anyone else that nothing about magic came easy to him. It was long nights with his myriad of candles lit, it was holing away in Coots’ massive library, it was spending unhealthy amounts of time in dreamspace, sometimes just to get away from it all. 

Most of the time, magic exhausted him. But the spark, the pull behind his navel and between his eyes and in his fingertips when he practiced and when he felt the others practice, never dimmed, so he kept pushing. Kept trying, even when all it meant was a deep pain in his chest and an ache between his eyes. He’d left his family for this, after all. Rejected a life outside of the Niche. Volantes was at peace, sure, but if one of the surrounding territories decided to try something, she’d need her witches to protect her. That’s why AV trained them so hard, pushed them further and further. Encouraged them to be the best. 

And was inevitably disappointed when Travis fell short.

Not that he’d ever met the man. Claude was his messenger, and their leader by default. Claude, with his ginger beard trimmed to perfection and his tendency to sing while he mixed potions, was what Travis longed to be. He’d seen Claude levitate, he’d seen Claude control energy, he’d seen Claude scream at Frosty for leaving the lid off of his big jar of sage —again, how many times do I have to tell you, Morgan— and despite all that, Claude was a good leader. The best. Travis remembered his own dad, sure, but sometimes when he thought the word dad Claude’s beardy face showed up before his biological dad’s did. 

Travis crossed his legs. Thought about it, uncrossed them, and then crossed them a different way. The other foot on top, this time. He was in his small room, tucked away in the second corridor of the third floor of the Niche, with a metal 11 on the door. There were a few candles (a few of many) lit on the wooden floor in front of him, and his back was to his bed. One of them smelled like lavender. He inhaled and watched the flames sputter.

Closing his eyes, he slowly ran through the meditation exercise Coots had them do that morning during huddle. (Coots called it conclave, a lot of the older witches did. Travis liked huddle. They did tend to huddle during it; a lot of Volantes witches liked to touch and be touched. Travis couldn’t count the times he’d woken up in the middle of the night to Oskar in his bed, pressed next to him for warmth, or Beezer sprawled across his legs like a stupidly heavy throw blanket.) He was doing the exercise now because something had felt weird when he meditated during huddle, and he was just checking—

Shit. Yeah, right there. A little pain in his chest, not the normal pain, but different in some way, right on the nine count of his exercise. Pain was the wrong word, it felt more like someone had taken a melon baller and scooped a tiny bit of him out. An emptiness. Something gone. It felt cold. One of his candles winked out.

“That’s not ominous at all,” Travis said out loud to the empty room. As if to say fuck you, another candle flame disappeared, along with the strange feeling in his chest. Huh. Maybe he was allergic to lavender. God, that would suck— lavender smelled so good.

Whatever. Everything seemed to be fine now. He blew out the other three candles and went to find some lunch.



*****

 

Claude was making tomato soup.

Aside from being their leader as well as their best potions mixer, hands down, Claude made some kickass tomato soup. There were four stools at the kitchen island’s bar, and three were occupied. Travis slid between Oskar and Scotty, accepting a bowl from the second and a side hug from the first. Oskar stuck his nose in Travis’s hair.

“Lavender,” he said. “Were you spellcasting upstairs?”

Travis pushed him away. He hadn’t washed his hair in a hot second, and no one’s nose needed to be all up in his business like that. “Meditating. Tried out a new candle, I think it’s defective.”

“Watch yourself,” Provy said as he leaned over Travis to grab two bowls. He kept one for himself and handed the other back to Nisky. A large space in the outer area of the Niche had been built just for candlemaking, a very specific kind of magical skill that Provy learned from Nisky, an older witch and his mentor. Like a lot of the Niche’s younger witches, Provy took what he learned and absolutely ran with it. His own little niche of magic, just like the Niche was the witches’ little niche away from the wider world. 

“Did the wick pop?” Nisky asked as he got in line behind Provy. “Do you remember how many times? It can have meaning, you know—” he elbowed Provy like he was seeing if he was listening. “If they flashed specific colors, too.”

“No popping,” Travis said and got in line himself, sandwiched still between Oskar and Scotty. Nisky shrugged like that was too bad, and more people poured into the kitchen, jostling and bumping shoulders and grabbing bowls as they got in the lunch line.

The Niche’s big kitchen (there were a few smaller ones scattered around, mostly for magical purposes— a copper skull plaque on any door meant eat things in here at your own risk, the risk being death usually) was a wide room with curved walls and a low ceiling. Vents funneled steam out and up, and the dark wooden walls kept the warmth in. It was a tight fit, only about fifteen witches at a time could even stand in the kitchen, and the rest of them spilled out into the center courtyard and dining area. Claude stood at a huge stove, a black apron tied around his waist, three giant cauldrons bubbling in front of him. Two were stirring themselves, and he had a long wooden spoon in his right hand and was serving from the largest cauldron first. Every time he shifted the pattern on his apron became clearer; eyes stitched with silver thread. Travis stared, watching the pattern move, and one of the eyes winked at him.

Two others were cooking with Claude; Bunny stood on the other side of the island, by the industrial sized sink, slicing a huge loaf of crusty bread, as Nic tore basil by hand into a serving bowl. Bunny hadn’t even spent a year at the Niche yet, and didn’t seem to have any particular magical affinity yet. Some of them didn’t. But it seemed like a strange thing, to not have any gut instinct pulling towards a specific subset of magic. Effortless, it looked like. The Niche was overflowing with effortless.

In front of him, Claude poured soup into Oskar’s bowl and reached out his hand for Travis’s. 

“How’s it going, TK?” he asked.

“Weird,” Travis answered honestly. There was absolutely no use in lying to Claude, he’d learned that the hard way. “I feel kinda, I don’t know.” He wiggled his hand in an accurate portrayal of his mental state. It wasn’t just the candle, or the feeling inside his chest that had disappeared just as quickly as it came. “Ever since huddle this morning.”

“Could be something negative.” Claude ladled more soup than normal into his bowl. “Meet me in the Lookout after lunch, okay?”

Fuck. Travis nodded, got some bread from Bunny, let Nic sprinkle basil on top of his soup, and went into the courtyard. There was no use disobeying an order from Claude, even though the Lookout definitely meant he was going to have to drink something disgusting and feel its effects for the rest of the day. The long table all the way to the left of the courtyard was already half full, but there was an open space between Sanny and Oskar, and he fit into it like they’d left it there just for him, which they probably did.

Travis had a lot of friends at the Niche; he’d go so far as to say he got along with everyone. Some people were unbelievably grumpy most of the time, like Scotty or Jake, and others liked to keep to themselves (a trait most of the defenders had, but not all of them, Sanny case in point), but there was no one who actively disliked anyone else. They were a good group, a good coven, and Travis loved them all. Oskar and Sanny, though, were probably his best friends in the whole world. 

As soon as he set his bowl down, Sanny flung his long ass arm around Travis’s shoulders and pulled him close.

“Heard you have to go to the Lookout,” he said. Travis let himself get put in a very gentle headlock. 

Damn, no secrets among witches, huh?

“Everything’s fine,” he managed to grunt as he wiggled free. “A little weird feeling during huddle, that’s all.” 

Oskar draped his cool hand across Travis’s forehead, pushing away his hair. Relaxation rolled down his temples, thick like syrup, and he exhaled for what felt like the first time since his room and the candles. Oskar’s magic always smelled clean, like freshly washed sheets and an open window on a windy spring day. He leaned onto Sanny’s shoulder, who immediately ruffled his hair and ruined the moment.

God.” Travis sat up, elbowed Sanny right in the ribs, and nudged Oskar with his knee to say thanks. They ate in silence for a while, the entire table murmuring about how good the soup was, or how good the bread was, or, again, the soup. It was good, like always. Claude sat at the head of a different long table, listening intently as Coots told him something, hands in the air as he illustrated his story. Travis couldn’t tell for sure, but it felt like one of the eyes on Claude’s apron was focused right on him.

He wanted to eat slowly, savor his lunch, give himself some breathing room before the Lookout, but Claude’s soup was practically meant to be inhaled. It felt like five seconds before JVR was going around and gathering bowls; Oskar jumped up to help and Travis made like he was going to follow them back into the kitchen (he normally wouldn’t like, want to do dishes, but almost anything was better than—)

He caught the barest glimpse of Claude through a gap between Raffl and Moose, saw his eyebrow raise the tiniest bit, and that was all it took. He let Sanny put him in another headlock, took the rest of Frosty's bread right out of his hands, and left the courtyard. 

The Lookout was, like the name suggested, the very top of the Niche. A spiral staircase took him up the tower, and yeah, sure, he was in pretty good shape, but his calves were on fire by the time he got to the top. He knocked, and the door swung open of its own accord.

The Lookout was Jake’s area. Coots, because he ran the garden and was the resident herb expert, was up there a lot, too, and of course Claude, but everyone knew the Lookout was Jake’s space. No one messed with Jake’s space, or really even thought about climbing the staircase unless they’d been invited.

“Jakey,” Travis called into the cluttered tower. “Claude said—”

“I know what G said.” Jake was by the farthest window, sitting on a tall stool with his back to the door in front of a high table. An empty bowl with the remnants of tomato soup was pushed off to the side. Across the room Beezer sat with his legs crossed, lost in some medicinal book that Jake no doubt was making him read. “Get over here, TK. Tell me what happened during conclave.”

Travis took the stool beside Jake; he had to put his foot on the first rung and kind of heave himself up onto it. The table was covered in herbs, and he accidentally put his hand into a pile of dried vetiver. Jake gave him a look drier than the herbs.

“I just had Frosty up here, so I’d rather not have to clean up after another disaster witch, thanks.”

“I’m not as bad as Frosty,” Travis argued, shaking the vetiver off of his hand. Jake hummed, as if to say that’s true, and Travis took it as a victory. “And nothing much happened in huddle. Like I told Claude, I’m feeling kinda weird. Off, maybe. He said it might be something negative. There was a weird pain in my chest when I meditated on my own, but it went away quick and it hasn’t—“

Travis choked to a halt as Jake took his chin in his hand, turning his head from left to right as he looked into his eyes. He put both of his huge palms over Travis’s ears, and they began to warm up. 

Travis closed his eyes and focused on breathing. In, out, in, out. There was no use rushing Jake when he really got into it. There was really no use rushing Jake ever, in general. 

He didn’t know exactly how much time had passed before the pressure and warmth released. Travis opened his eyes to both Claude and Jake surveying him, heads tilted opposite ways like two of the Niche's many cats looking at the same food dish. Claude nudged Jake with his elbow. 

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing,” Jake said as Beezer closed his book and ambled over, peering over Jake’s shoulder. “No negativity, no strangeness, no hitch in his aura. Normal all around.”

“Huh.” Claude crossed his arms. “Well, that’s a good thing, I guess.”

Jake crossed his arms, same as Claude. They’d practiced together for so long they sometimes moved in sync. “Normal Konecny is either a blessing or a curse, depending on which way you look at it.”

“Hey!” Travis protested, and Claude grinned. 

“Glad you’re ok, bud.” He rubbed Travis’s shoulder before turning to leave. “Anything else comes up you let us know, yeah? If it comes back we’ll run some tests with the defenders or something.” 

“Sounds good.” Travis rolled his shoulder back, feeling the warmth and comfort from where Claude had touched him spread across his back. He turned to Jake. “I don’t have to—“

Jake gave him a look. “ No you don’t have to drink any potion. They’re not that bad.”

Travis fought the urge to tell Jake just how excruciatingly bad they were, but decided not to push his luck, especially with Beezer pretending to choke in the background. He scraped the vetiver he’d messed up into a neater looking pile and hopped off his stool. 

“Thanks, Jakey,” he said. “If anything else happens, I’ll—”

“You’ll come here immediately,” Jake finished for him. “Maybe you should take the rest of the day off, just in case. Who are you with?”

“I told Coots I’d help him out this afternoon,” Travis said, “and I think I’m supposed to do a practice session with Scotty.” Jake winced.

“Don’t do that last thing,” he said. “I’ll let Laughts know he needs a new partner. If you’re dealing with any sort of negativity…” He trailed off and Beezer made a dead corpse face behind him. Travis laughed, the loud noise echoing around the Lookout. Jake frowned and Travis composed himself.

“Probably a good idea,” he said. “Bad vibes and Scotty go hand-in-hand. I’ll hang out on the fifth lawn and watch the defenders this afternoon, or is that too much?” Jake rolled his eyes.

“Just don’t get under anyone’s feet.”

“That’s my specialty.” Travis threw Jake a salute, winked at Beezer, and left the Lookout far behind him as quick as he could. The Niche was huge, a sprawling ancient compound made up of dormitory rooms, kitchens, training rooms, gardens, greenhouses, observatories, the planetarium, and Coots’s huge library. The Niche was warm and inviting and home, and Travis knew it like its layout was etched onto his bones. 

He headed towards the gardens. He was late, but Coots knew everything that happened in the Niche. He was sure his weird feeling during huddle and subsequent trip to see Jake was common knowledge by now.

The sun hung in late afternoon position; it was three, maybe three thirty. Mud squelched under Travis’s boots as he trekked around the planetarium’s curved rock wall. It had rained the night before, a late spring shower that soaked everything and was still hanging around. It wasn’t too cold, but there was still a bite in the air that made Travis regret his short-sleeved shirt. Coots was always in cardigans, maybe he had an extra laying around the garden shed.

He had company, he saw as soon as the wide expanse of the gardens came into view. Coots knelt by the mint bushes with Nic, and farther down, by the sunflowers, Kevin was pruning something. As soon as he caught sight of Travis, Coots threw him a pair of garden gloves.

“Everything okay?” he asked. Travis tapped his forehead. 

“All good up here.”

“Yeah, besides the usual stuff,” Kevin yelled from behind the sunflowers. Travis tugged on the gloves; they molded to his hands like a second skin. Garden magic, man. Coots knew what was up.

“Shut up, Hayesey,” he yelled back, and Coots pointed him towards the blackberry brambles. No matter the season, Coots could coax whatever he wanted out of the ground, and the blackberries looked just about ripe. Travis picked up a container, tugged the gloves up as far as they could go, and began extracting the berries from the tangle of prickles. Half listening as Coots explained to Nic how to infuse the mint soil with some property to help them grow quicker, he fell into a rhythm picking berries and hearing them drop into the container. 

As soon as Kevin dropped off his sunflower prunings beside Coots’s half-full wheelbarrow, he grabbed a pair of gloves for himself and joined Travis by the brambles. His big hands weren’t as good for picking berries as Travis’s, and he muttered curses, some magical, some not, every time he squished one, dropped one, or got pricked.

“You suck at this,” Travis eventually commented. Kevin pushed him. He had a blackberry juice stain around his lips.

“Came to keep you company, anyway,” he returned in his deep rumble. “Heard you got hit with some curse earlier today.”

“Is that what the rumor is, now?”

“Ask Sanny.”

Travis rolled his eyes. “If you’re going around believing whatever Sanny tells you, you deserve to be cursed.” Kevin laughed his loud, goofy laugh and ruffled Travis’s hair.

“Glad you’re okay anyway, Teeksy. Now get those last berries so I don’t have to.”

Travis finished picking the berries as Kevin made sure Coots and Nic didn’t need help with anything else. As soon as Travis told him that the rest of his afternoon plans included watching the defenders, Kevin was in. He then wrangled Travis into helping him practice spellcasting while they watched, but Travis was fine with it. He didn’t think Jake would mind, either; Kevin’s magic wasn’t harsh or dark, he was the Niche’s resident rituals witch and took his job very seriously. Little things Kevin did that seemed normal were actually very intricately designed rituals, and he took his time weaving each one with specific magical properties. 

Like his nicknames. He had a myriad of different names for each witch in the Niche, but everyone had one special name that Kevin had boosted with magic. Every time he said it, the magic worked. He called Travis TK, and Konecny, and Teeks like everyone else, but when he said Teeksy it was like a wave of calm. It made Travis feel grounded and secure, exactly what he needed to feel whenever Kevin said it. Before or sometimes after a particularly difficult group session, Kevin liked to stand at the door to the largest training hall and call out names as they entered. Beezy, Leaf-Eater, Osky, Ghosty, Pigeon, Raff, Moooooooose! The room would hum, the hairs on Travis’s arms would stand on end. Names hold power, he remembered hearing Claude say once. Even without Kevin’s magic weaving through them. Give someone your name, you give them power over you.

Be careful.

First names were strictly a Niche thing, anyway, and any time they went out into Greater Volantes they used last names only. It was kind of a tradition in Volantes; parents usually held onto their kids’ first names until their first birthday, and by that time it was clear if they were able to practice magic or not. If yes, they would keep the first name as a close family secret, if not, that was their name day.

Visiting families and testing their kids was one of Claude’s jobs under AV, even though the amount of kids who were able to practice were few and far between nowadays. On their twelfth birthday they would be able to be conscripted, and sent to the Niche if they wanted to unlock their abilities and really learn how to practice. If not, and that was rare, they were taken by Claude to AV, who would strip them of the responsibility of magic forever. No one at the Niche, besides Claude, knew what that process was even like.

If the first birthday was name day for non practicers, the twelfth birthday was name day for witches. Travis would never forget walking into the Niche on the day he turned twelve, and telling a group of people who weren’t his family for the very first time that his name was Travis Konecny, and immediately learning that there was another Travis in the group. He resented Sanny for about five whole seconds before other Travis (as he referred to him for about a month, and still did every once in a while when he was pissed off) put him in a headlock. They were pretty much inseparable after that. 

Before heading to the fifth yard to watch the defenders, they stopped by Kevin’s room, a few hallways down from Travis’s. The door had a metal 13 bolted to the outside, and was an absolute disaster inside. Kevin dug in a pile of clothes as Travis rooted through his closet for a jacket (the only one that wasn’t a floor-length duster or had some sort of feather pattern was a quarter-zip pullover made of the softest dark green fleece; it hit Travis about mid-thigh and he silently vowed to never return it) and as soon as Kevin’s arms were full of books, papers, and a small bag (spellcasting items, if Travis had to guess, or maybe snacks), they headed to the fifth yard.

The defenders were a tight-knit group of witches who practiced physical magic. Sanny was one, and so was Provy, and Nisky watched over them closer than the hens who wandered the Niche’s yards watched over their chicks. They had one job on missions or if Volantes was ever attacked— they defended the protectors. 

Volantes had three protector witches; Lyon was good but not great, Moose was a veteran protector and, like Nisky, watched over his protégés, and Carter… Well. 

Travis and Kevin walked onto the fifth yard in time to watch Moose heft a hand cannon that shot harmless (but heavy enough to knock over an unsuspecting witch) foam rockets onto his shoulder. He aimed it right at Provy, who had been enlisted to help with the exercise as his fellow defenders hung out near the entrance, waiting their turn. Moose fired the cannon.

The light purple rocket shot from its home, ready to serve its purpose of knocking Provy right onto his ass, when it halted, midair, a hands’ width away from Provy’s heart. A force field, invisible except for a slight shimmer and a ripple in the air, just as big around as the rocket, floated between it and its target. The force field sharpened and the rocket shuddered as it was torn in two. Travis winced. There —the pain in his chest, the melon-baller feeling— shit

The rocket fell, halved and useless, to the ground. A few paces away, Carter stood, his own chest heaving, with his hand outstretched and his eyes covered by a thick blindfold.

“Whoa,” Kevin breathed out. Carter lifted the blindfold above one eye.

“I got it, right?”

Across the yard, Lyon whooped. Provy, not shaken in the slightest, picked up the foam pieces and threw them, one by one, into the bin by the entrance. He turned to clap Carter on the shoulder as the other defenders swarmed them, taking turns yelling out compliments and praise until his ears turned a violent shade of pink. Moose berated him a little bit, for tearing the rocket, which apparently he had never done before that afternoon. Even that was tinged with praise, though, because holy hell, Hartsy, how powerful did you have to be to tear through tangible objects with a force field, etcetera, etcetera. 

All of that leaned a bit towards overkill, but, according to Claude, Volantes hadn’t had a prodigy protector in decades. Carter was young, he was strong, and when all was said and done, really had Volantes resting on his (admittedly broad) shoulders. That was power. That was responsibility. AV trusted him, trusted Moose to train him. Just thinking about it made Travis a little queasy, and he never knew if it was because of discomfort from even thinking about the sheer weight of Carter's role in the coven, or jealousy that he was never going to be in a position like that.

Kevin settled on one of the open window sills that split the inner corridor from the fifth yard. The windows didn’t have any glass panes but just soared upward into an arch, leaving a wide space at the bottom that made a perfect bench for two people to sit, leaning against one side of the arch each and tangling their feet in the middle. That’s what Travis did, hopping up onto the other side and slotting his feet firmly under Kevin’s crossed legs. He balled his fists into Kevin’s fleece (his fleece, now) and got comfortable as Kevin arranged his papers. 

In the yard, the defenders fanned out around Carter. Nisky, Moose, Lyon, and Nic, who Travis had heard volunteer as he and Coots walked back from the gardens, each grabbed one of the foam cannons. 

In a real altercation, or fight, or full-scale battle between witches, the protectors were in the rear of the charge, well, protecting. They used their force field protection magic to block the forwards from spells and curses and all sorts of nasty stuff as they did what their name meant, and moved forward to attack. 

Claude was a forward like many of the Niche’s witches, but he was also the leader. It was important for him to know exactly what each witch in his coven was capable of, so he could send them where they needed to be. The defenders stayed in the middle, the last line of, well, defense between the enemy and the protectors. Protectors were rare and defenders, were, well, not. A lot of witches had an affinity towards physical magic, and maybe one in a hundred could even practice protection magic, let alone become great at it.

And the protectors shielded the forwards (and the defenders, if they needed it) with their own special brand of magic. A good protector could shield one, or maybe two forwards at a time. A great protector could switch between who he was protecting quick enough to protect his entire coven. In his last session, Travis had seen Carter protect three people at once, and then switch to protecting three others, all without breaking a sweat. Greatness. It was so apparent in him, and in Claude, and in Coots. Provy, Jake, Oskar, Scotty. Even Kevin, scratching a pencil down his temple with his tongue between his teeth, was a natural. He understood magical theory, equations, and rituals like no one Travis had ever met. 

In the fifth yard, Moose and the rest of his group pelted the defenders with foam rockets as they blocked them from reaching Carter. In a real battle he’d be using his protection magic and could help his defenders if they needed it, but this was a drill so he was sitting, legs crossed, in the grass. Knowing him, he was probably getting some meditation time in.

Provy uppercut, and a rocket exploded into shreds of purple foam. 

Travis sat for a while longer, watching the defenders work and listening to Kevin mutter incantations back and forth, his notebook paper steaming under his pencil, but soon he got sick of burnt graphite smell and foam fragments pelting the right side of his body. He stood, made an excuse to Kevin that he might not have even heard, and headed back towards the center of the Niche. Grunts and yells and Nisky shouting instruction and encouragement —back up, Myers! Ghost, good position! Braun, fix your stance before I fix it for you!—  faded behind him as he walked, a little faster than usual.

The pain hadn’t come back, his chest felt normal and not at all empty. But he kind of did. Felt empty. Or maybe too full; unused and unneeded. 

The last thing he wanted to do was go back to his room, or go find a quiet corner, or carve out a spot for himself in the library, and try. That’s all he ever did. Burn his fingers on candles and fill his lungs with smoking herbs and stare at spellbooks until his eyes ached. I’m going to be great, he remembered thinking before stepping foot into the Niche. 

I’m going to get through this without being a safety hazard, was his most recent thought. 

If he talked to anyone, like Claude or Oskar or Kevin, they wouldn’t understand. They saw him perform, they saw him do magic. He was fine, he was even good on a good day. They didn’t see the work, the stress, the struggle. Gaining new magical skills felt like he was clawing his way up a wall. It was draining. He felt drained

“God, this fuckin’ sucks,” he muttered to himself, and opened the double doors that led outward, to the winding road that would eventually lead into the heart of Volantes. He meant to head towards the weeping willow by the lake, sit in the little space between the curved, low-hanging branch and the tree’s sturdy trunk, maybe practice some spark conjuring until he felt less like a piece of shit, but in front of him, on the large oak slab that served as the Niche’s front stoop—

A cat.

Not just any cat. This cat was well-groomed, a brown that looked almost black, the color of the darkening sky, and larger than the normal cats that roamed the Niche, Travis would know. He made a point to make friends with all of them in case he ever needed to summon a cat army to attack Sanny or something. He’d never seen this cat before.

New cat looked up at him, and Travis took a step back.

Its eyes shone in the near darkness, a gray that was sometimes blue, sometimes green, depending on which way the light hit it. The cat’s eyes looked like the ocean, looked like a slate mountainside, looked like the labradorite bowl that Kevin made herb mixtures in whenever Travis had a headache or a hangover. Travis knelt and offered his hand to the cat.

“You have pretty eyes,” he said, and then tilted his head and frowned like he wasn’t exactly sure why he’d just said those words to a cat. The cat shied away from him, like it was too good to be pet by Travis’s admittedly unwashed hand, and Travis, right back to being embarrassing, made a little kissy noise at it.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, bud,” he said. The cat’s brow furrowed (did cats have brows?) and it finally took a step towards Travis.

It bumped its head onto Travis’s knuckles, and the moment his skin made contact with fur—

A scream. An absolute howl ripped through Travis’s mind, loud enough that he fell backwards, sprawled onto the wet grass in front of the Niche, clutching his head in agony. It echoed like cannonfire. 

HELP ME.

 

Chapter Text

Travis’s ragged breaths tore through the Niche’s silent front courtyard. He was still sprawled on his back, looking up at the stone vestibule’s ceiling, the wooden stoop under him cold through Kevin’s fleece. The voice echoed through his head, pounding on beat with his heart.

Help me, help me, help me…

Maybe it hadn’t even happened. He leaned up on his elbows, half-hoping that—

Nope. New cat was still there, staring at him with a level of intensity that perfectly matched the voice. Those blue-gray-green eyes that, sure, were still unfairly pretty for a cat, but now they were giving Travis the creeps. There was something else behind those eyes, maybe the source of the voice? Maybe the cat really needed help?

Travis’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Do you need help?” he asked out loud.

The cat tilted its chin, looking at Travis like he was an idiot.

“I’m not an idiot,” Travis said. The cat seemed skeptical. “I can help, or I can find someone who can. You came to the right place, you know.” He pointed up, at the giant lantern hanging from the vestibule roof, bathing the courtyard in a soft glow. It was ancient, crafted by Niche witches generations and generations before Travis had even set foot on the property, and forged in the shape of a bursting star, with dozens of cloudy white glass points each holding a flickering candle. It lit itself, automatically, every night at seven o’clock exactly.

“We’re all witches here,” he continued. “If something weird’s going on with you…”

He trailed off. The cat was obviously not listening anymore, if it even had been listening in the first place. It padded up to the walnut slab double doors and put one paw on the carved wood. Letting out a loud mrow, it looked back at Travis expectantly.

“Okay, okay, I get the message. Not me. We’ll find someone else to help.” Travis heaved himself off of the ground and yanked the door open, letting the cat inside first. This was weird as hell, sure, but half the stuff he saw at the Niche was weird, and he sure didn’t want any negative cat karma coming around to bite him in the ass. And the noise the cat had made, strange as it was, almost sounded like the voice that had yelled for help. Deep and rumbly, like standing underneath an avalanche.

The exact opposite of the cat’s striking eyes, but somehow also… Pretty? Could a voice be pretty? Could a voice that screamed at him about two minutes ago be pretty? Travis wasn’t about to dwell on it.

As he walked, letting the cat lead for reasons he didn’t know (laziness, maybe; it wasn’t as if the cat knew where it was going), he weighed his options. No one at the Niche was really proficient in animal magic; it wasn’t practiced much, anyway, and seemed difficult as hell from what Travis had read. He could take it up to Jake, see what healing magic could do on a cat, but it was dark outside already and disturbing Jake after he’d turned in for the day was a surefire ticket to nightmare city. Maybe Coots, but plant magic seemed like the exact opposite of the kind of shit he’d need to tackle this cat problem.

Claude was the obvious answer, but two Travis Issues in one day might prove too much, even for Claude.

“Oskar,” he said to the cat. “We’ll go see what Oskar has to say about you, okay?” The cat looked over its shoulder like he didn’t know who Oskar was, and didn’t really care. Travis knelt and held out his arms.

“Come on,” he said, “we’re gonna have to walk a lot. You can get on my shoulders if you want.”

The cat actually hissed. Travis held firm.

“Don’t be an asshole. If you’re mean to Oskar, I’ll make you sleep in the henhouse.”

The cat didn’t hiss again, just narrowed its eyes at Travis until he stood up again and put his hands in the pockets of Kevin’s fleece.

“Fine,” he said, “do it your way. You better fuckin’ keep up, though.”

He closed his eyes and felt throughout the Niche for Oskar’s energy. This was a specific magic that each new witch was taught in their first months of training, and would go on to use about fifty times a day once they mastered it. The Niche was so big and sprawling, finding others in its depths would be near impossible if it weren’t for magic.

Oskar was easy to locate, both because his energy was so bright, and because he and Travis were together so often. The more time Travis spent with someone, the more he got accustomed to their energy and aura. It was the simplest thing in the world to reach out and find Oskar in a perpetual state of reaching back to find him. Their energies meeting in the middle, a thread he’d follow to find his friend wherever he was at.

The kitchen, it looked like, with Scotty, Sanny, and Provy. Good, he’d have a whole bunch of opinions, some logical, some definitely not, and some dinner, too. He looked down at the cat again.

“Let’s go find out what’s up with you,” he said. “And I can feed you, if you keep that asshole energy to yourself.” The cat let out a soft mrow, which sounded, to Travis at least, like a yeah, right. Typical.

Travis headed to the kitchen, his feet taking turns and staircases and secret passageways like it was second nature. The cat kept up, even though Travis might have been walking faster than usual. Hey, if the cat was going to be an asshole, he might as well bring that same vibe to the table. Candle wicks sparked into flame, lighting his path as he walked, and they doused themselves as soon as he turned a different corner. If he glanced over his shoulder more than once, just double checking to see if the cat was still there, no one needed to know.

The hallway leading to the kitchen’s back entrance, through the expansive pantry, always smelled good. Tonight it smelled like baking bread and chocolate, a rich, almost earthy smell that definitely meant Scotty was making dark chocolate filled croissants. And there were only three other people in the kitchen with him? Fuckin’ score. Travis was going to eat at least five and no one on earth would be able to stop him.

“TK!” Sanny’s voice boomed through the pantry before Travis even made it to the kitchen. “Don’t you dare bring a cat in here!”

“He’s got a cat?” That was Scotty. Scotty loved the Niche’s cats. Travis was pretty sure he’d given them all names, and there were at least twenty-odd cats that roamed around. “Is it Yerba?”

“No one knows your cat names, Laughts.” If there was a loving the Niche’s cats spectrum, Sanny was on the exact opposite side of Scotty. He raised his voice again. “TK, I swear —“

“Okay.” Travis poked his head into the kitchen, just to alleviate this tension before introducing a whole new kind of tension. Also, he was right; Scotty was leaning by the stove, a cooling rack of croissants beside him, another batch already in the oven, and Sanny, Provy, and Oskar were crowded on the stools by the island. Sanny and Provy were playing Knuckle Down with a tattered old set of cards and a cup of tokens, and Oskar had a thick book open in front of him and was taking detailed notes as he read. “I have a cat, but…”

“Get it out.” Sanny pointed at the closed door, one that led into the dining area and subsequent courtyard. Travis made a pleading noise.

“I need you guys’s help, okay?”

Oskar’s eyebrows furrowed as he marked his place in the book and looked up. His eyes were concerned already. “What’s going on?”

Travis fully entered the kitchen and the cat came along with him, sitting back on its haunches in the doorway like it didn’t want attention. Since when? Travis thought as he gestured to it.

“Found it by the front door,” he said, and the cat hissed. “Okay, it found me, I guess.”

“He’s not one of ours,” Scotty said, leaning around the island to take a good look at the cat. “And he, not it, Travis. God, don’t be a degenerate.” He shucked off his apron and put down his spatula and bent down to examine the cat. Travis heard a little bit of muttered baby talk, but decided not to make a big deal out of it.

“Are you new?” Scotty asked the cat, and held out his hand. “Can I pick you up?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t—“ Travis started, but the cat butted Scotty’s hand in greeting and allowed himself to be picked up and cradled like a— Okay, Scotty was now holding the weird magical cat like a baby and not laying on the floor with a grumbly voice yelling in his head. That was a thing that was happening. Scotty used his thumb to pet the cat’s forehead up between its (his?) ears, still mumbling sweet nothings as the cat—

Holy fuck. The cat was purring.

“Did you just get that damn thing to purr?” he asked.

Scotty looked at him like he was insane. “Lots of cats purr when I pet them, TK. Lots of cats purr when you pet them. You’re acting like Sanny, what’s going on with you?”

“Both of you suck,” Sanny said from his seat at the island.

“Okay, so this is what happened,” Travis said, and, in the time it took him to down two chocolate croissants, told them about the cat, the voice, and the plea (scream? Demand?) for help. Oskar chewed on the end of his pen the whole time, and the cat kept on purring. Really undercutting the part of the story where it had mentally bullied him so loudly he’d fallen on his ass.

That sounds like a Claude thing,” Provy said as soon as Travis finished (the story, and also his third croissant). “Did you ask him?”

“Yeah, Prov, we had a long talk about it in the time it took me to get yelled at by a cat and come find Oskar immediately afterward,” Travis shot back. Oskar beamed.

“You came here first?”

“’Course I did,” Travis said. Oskar put the pen behind his ear and held out his arms to Scotty and the cat. Reluctantly, Scotty placed the cat in his arms and Oskar tucked him right up to his chest. The cat laid his head on his shoulder and closed his eyes.

Oskar ran his head down the cat’s neck, regulating his breathing and closing his eyes, too. He’d done this exact thing to Travis hundreds of times before, letting both his cooling touch and his magic undo all the stress knots in his back and relieve the tension in his forehead. The cat looked like it was half-asleep, which Travis could also relate to.

Oskar hummed softly. “I don’t feel anything. He’s all jumpy and stressed, well, was, but he seems calm now.” He gently handed the cat back to Scotty, who cuddled him for another minute before letting him lay on the counter. It looked like Oskar had really knocked him out for the count; he curled up and draped his tail down the middle of Oskar’s spellbook like a fluffy bookmark.

“Seems like a normal cat to me,” Oskar concluded, with a shrug aimed at Travis. “Sorry, TK.”

“Doesn’t mean he’s not weird, though,” Provy said, leaning across the counter to grab a croissant. “I still say talk to G about it.”

“Definitely talk to G about it,” Oskar said. “Maybe the cat latched onto you for some reason.”

Travis remembered how adamantly the cat tried to get inside the Niche’s front door when Travis offered to help him, and raised his eyebrows. “I really don’t think that’s it.”

“Well it needs a name,” Sanny said. “Laughts is good at that.”

“Make fun of me all you want, Sanny Boy,” Scotty said, “but I embrace all my talents.” He considered the cat and then poked the large bag of deep brown powder sitting among the rest of his baking ingredients. “How about Cacao? He showed up about the same time as these croissants, he’s brown, he’s sweet when you get to know him…”

Scotty trailed off as the rest of the room agreed with varying levels of enthusiasm. It was a pretty good name, Travis thought, as far as cat names went, when the newly dubbed Cacao raised his head and fixed Travis with a devastating glare.

Potent rage knocked Travis back a few steps; he slammed into the counter and grabbed his head.

“Don’t—“ he managed to choke out. Oskar was at his side in an instant, supporting him as he slumped over. “Don’t name the cat.”

“Holy fuck,” Sanny said, and came up on Travis’s other side, lifting him up uncomfortably; their heights really weren’t compatible at all.

“What’d he say this time?” Provy asked as soon as Travis was able to lift his head again.

“Nothing.” Travis massaged his forehead. The cat had lowered its head, resting it on his front paws, and was still looking directly at Travis. It was disconcerting, but at least he wasn’t in pain anymore. “He’s just pissed off.”

Scotty raised his eyebrows in a huh expression and turned to the cat. “I apologize, no more names.” He crossed his heart.

“I’ll talk to Claude in the morning,” Travis said.

“That’s a good idea,” Provy said. Oskar nodded.

“Is it weird that none of you guys can hear it?” Travis asked. “Feel it? I don’t know. I’m kind of freaking out.”

“It’s probably not that weird,” Sanny said as he and Oskar led Travis to one of the stools and made him sit. Scotty slid another croissant across the counter to him as Provy filled a kettle with water. “Remember when Beezer turned orange but only he could see it? He thought he was going nuts until Jake made him drink that potion.”

“Or when Coots tried to grow worthand in the wrong soil and spoke gibberish for a week?” Provy laughed from his spot by the stove. “He thought he was fine, but all we heard was—“ Provy let out a string of, well, gibberish. Travis remembered that week; it had been funny at first, but Coots insisted on holding lessons anyway, and it quickly devolved into a nightmare.

“Point is, weird things happen.” Oskar scratched his nails across Travis’s hairline. “We’ll figure it out.”

Travis lowered his shoulders and breathed out. Took a bite of croissant. Breathed deep again.

“We’ll figure it out,” he repeated.

Provy’s kettle began to whistle, a lilting melody that petered out as he took it off of the stove and slid it onto a hot pad in front of Oskar. He gathered mugs from one of the cabinets; last year Claude and Raff had built a tiny pottery studio branching off of Claude’s potions lab, and most of their dishes were now hand-thrown, hand-glazed, hand-painted, and sometimes godforsaken ugly clay pieces. Claude was good at it, because of course he was, and the rest of them tried, for better or for worse. Throwing clay was fun, and oftentimes the pieces made by the others reflected that part of the process more so than skill.

The creations usually still kept a tinge of their creator’s magic, and as Provy rooted through the cabinet he naturally emerged with a baby blue and gray mug made by Oskar, a lopsided half-midnight black dipped mug made by Scotty, a green vase-looking monstrosity made by Sanny, a delicate dark purple cup made by himself, and, finally, slid Travis’s favorite mug he’d made, a deep orange tankard mug that Claude had complimented and later tried to steal, into the space in front of him. He poured from the kettle into each mug, steam raising in curls to the dark ceiling. The cat stretched, kicking Oskar’s pen to the floor.

Forever ago, before Travis had come to the Niche, Jake had put some sort of spell on this particular kettle. Whatever came out of it was the tea its recipient needed most at the time, no teabag or sugar or milk necessary. Provy filled the orange mug and Travis immediately smelled mint and lavender. He grabbed for the mug and let it warm his hands for a heartbeat before taking his first sip; hot, but not too hot— just enough of everything. He probably should have something other than chocolate croissants for dinner, but now he was all warm from tea and comfortable between Sanny and Oskar and he really didn’t want to move much at all for the rest of the night.

The kitchen drifted into silence as they all drank their tea and thought their thoughts. Scotty found some shredded chicken, leftover from someone’s dinner, and fed it to the cat before rooting in the cabinet for another, shallower mug and filling it with water. Oskar leaned over until his shoulder was pressed against Travis’s.

From there, the night progressed in pretty much the same way it had been before Travis introduced all of his cat drama. Sanny and Provy started a new game of Knuckle Down as Scotty started cleaning up his baking mess; Oskar gave Travis’s arm a squeeze before hopping off his stool to help him package up the rest of the croissants. Breakfast tomorrow, Travis thought.

People drifted in and out. Raff came in and made himself a cup of hot chocolate before leaving with Scotty, Beezer wiggled his way into what was quickly turning into a full Knuckle Down tournament, Oskar took his book, picked his pen up off of the floor, and headed to bed. Through it all, the cat still lay on top of the island, accepting head pats and behind-the-ear scratches from every witch that passed him, and one very aggressive session of baby talk from Brauner, who was second only to Scotty in cat enthusiasm. No one screamed, no one fell on the ground. Maybe this cat just had a vendetta against Travis in particular for some reason. That would be dumb, he loved cats.

Maybe be mean to Sanny next time, he thought viciously towards the cat, who made no move to show he’d heard anything.

However, when he got off of his stool, rinsed his mug, and made to leave the kitchen, the cat stood up, stretched, jumped down from the island, and followed. Huh.

“Maybe you just need to know me better,” Travis said out loud as the cat followed him through a skinny, dimly lit hallway that wound around the kitchen and led back towards the center of the Niche. He’d thought about going to his room, but he wasn’t that tired yet. Maybe he’d head to the study cubicles over by fifth yard, do that spark conjuring he’d wanted to do before this whole cat fiasco started. He’d tire himself out, go to bed, and fix it all with Claude in the morning. That sounded like a plan.

“Want to come with me and do some magic shit?” he asked the cat. No answer, but the cat still followed him as they walked, which Travis took as a hell yeah, TK, I’m always up for watching you kill it at spark conjuring.

“My name’s Travis, by the way,” he said. “Konecny. A lot of people here call me TK. And since you wouldn’t let Scotty give you a name back there, I hope you know I’m just going to refer to you as cat.” The cat mrowed. Travis cocked his head. That one actually sounded kind of encouraging. “How about Cat? Like, uppercase C. Kind of a name, kind of not.”

The cat’s eyes narrowed, like he was thinking about it, and then another mrow. A solidly affirmative noise.

“Cat it is.” Travis turned the a corner and opened the double doors leading to the outdoor corridor that cut through fifth yard, surprised to see lanterns already lit and someone, half obscured by shadows, pacing around in the grass. Travis let the doors close heavily after Cat had come through, loud enough that he wouldn’t catch anyone off guard. He squinted through the hazy darkness. “Hartsy?”

Carter flinched like he hadn’t heard Travis close the doors and raised his blindfold. Whoops. He waved a hand and the lanterns flared brighter.

“TK? What are you doing out here? Is that a cat?”

“Heading to the cubicles,” Travis said, climbing through one of the arched stone windows instead of walking through the entryway. Cat followed, jumping higher and faster than Travis thought he’d be able to. “Getting some more work in out here, or what?” There were foam rockets scattered all over the yard and Travis didn’t miss the way that Carter’s shoulders slumped, just slightly.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Travis gathered a few of the rockets and dumped them into the almost empty bin connected by a tube to a larger launcher than the ones Moose and Nisky had used that afternoon. It was set to automatic, one launch every two seconds.

“This is all pretty intense, Hartsy.” Travis flipped up a rocket with his foot and kicked it into the bin. “Is everything okay?”

“It’s nothing.” Carter picked up a few rockets himself, slotting a few into individual launchers and dumping the rest into the bin. “It’s just… Okay, you saw this afternoon, right? With the—“ He pantomimed ripping something in half.

“When you fuckin’ killed it during training?” Travis raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, Harts, we all saw it.”

“I can’t do it again,” he said, and there, undercutting his voice, a tiny thread of heat. Carter didn’t get angry. Not at his defenders, not at Moose, and certainly not at himself, not that Travis had ever seen or heard about. “I’ve been out here trying for an hour, and I just—“ He closed his eyes and pressed his lips together, composing himself. There was a faint brush of pink across his cheeks and ears.

He took a deep breath.

“I don’t like flukes. I want to know exactly what I can do and how to do it better.”

Travis shrugged. “Want me to help you out? Two witches are better than one, or whatever the fuck that saying is.”

Carter frowned. “No offense, TK, but you aren’t a protector.”

“Yeah, but—“ Travis hefted one of the launchers and settled it on his shoulder. “I can definitely shoot you with these damn things all day long and not get sick of it.” That actually made Carter crack a smile, and Travis grinned back. “And, hey. Maybe doing it in front of someone else will force it out.”

“Maybe,” Carter said, backed up until he was in position, and pushed the blindfold down over his eyes. “Okay, whenever you’re ready.”

Travis made sure the reloading enchantment was locked onto his particular launcher, and fired a test shot right at Carter’s head. A tiny square of the air shimmered, and the rocket stopped in its tracks, shuddered, and fell to the ground. Travis fired three more in quick succession, Carter stopped them all, but didn’t tear through any in the sheer display of power from that afternoon. It just wasn’t happening.

They stayed at it for about ten minutes, until Travis’s trigger finger actually started to hurt and beads of sweat rolled down Carter’s face as he blocked rocket after rocket.

“Maybe we should stop,” he yelled over the echoing pow of the launcher.

“Keep going!” Carter’s voice was ragged.

Travis fired again, and as soon as he pulled the trigger, Cat let out an ear-splitting yowl from the doorway. A bolt of aching shot Travis right in the center of his chest and he dropped to his knees, slamming his hand to his chest like he could physically stop the carving feeling tearing away at his insides. He huffed out a soft fuck, bending over so far his forehead brushed the grass.

“TK?” Carter sounded far away, and also maybe underwater? It was hard to tell. “TK!”

Carter’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding him down, grounding him. He smelled clean, like rain. He hefted Travis in his arms, pressing his forehead into Travis’s hair.

And then, brief like a bad stomach cramp, the feeling was gone. Travis slumped against Carter’s chest, breathing loudly like he’d just run a mile.

“Sorry,” he said into his sweater.

“What happened?” Carter asked as he half-lifted Travis to his feet. “Did I do—“

“It wasn’t you, Harts, I promise.” Travis massaged his chest, but nothing felt weird or out of place. “Ever since this morning, I’ve been feeling. I don’t know. Weird.”

“Did you—“

“Yeah, Claude knows.”

He doesn’t know about you, though, he thought, glancing over at the entryway were Cat still sat on his haunches, eyes locked onto Travis. Carter took his face in both of his warm hands and turned his head back and forth, like he was checking if Travis was still alive. Travis forced out a laugh and pushed him away.

“I’m fine, promise. Thanks, though— holy shit.” He grabbed Carter by the shoulders and forced him to turn around. The last rocket he’d shot was torn in two, just like the one from that afternoon. “Check that out.”

“It worked,” Carter breathed. Travis clapped him on the shoulder.

“You fuckin’ rock, man.”

Carter’s face split into a huge grin as his hair flopped into his eyes. He pulled Travis closer, wrapping him in a hug. Travis could feel his heart racing.

“You should go to bed,” he said, for the second time that night, into Carter’s sweater. 

“Yeah.” As if to prove his point, Carter pulled back and let out a giant yawn, right into Travis’s face. “Gotta clean up this stuff, and then I can… Then I can…” Another yawn, and Travis bumped him with his hip. Together they gathered the rockets and dragged the bins and launchers into the small shed off of fifth yard. Travis ended up walking the whole way to Carter’s room with him; he’d started telling him about Cat (who was still adamant about following Travis), and Carter had a lot of thoughts, mainly about linking Cat to Travis’s weird chest feeling (but Cat showed up after that started happening, Travis argued) and about letting Claude know as soon as possible (already promised Oskar I’d tell him first thing in the morning, Travis insisted). 

Cat didn’t yell at Carter when he touched him, either, and Carter was probably one of the most magical witches Travis knew. Cat did the opposite, and actually pressed further into Carter’s hand like he was looking for some extra affection. Travis crossed his arms as Carter and Cat said goodbye outside of his bedroom door, the one with the metal 79 in the same hallway as Kevin’s. 

“Let me know if Claude has any idea what’s going on,” Carter said, giving Cat one last scratch behind his ears. Travis promised that yes, Hartsy, as soon as he found out the exact cause of the Cat weirdness, he’d be the first (okay, maybe fourth) to know. 

“You like him a whole lot, huh?” Travis asked Cat as they headed up another flight of stairs to the hallway Travis’s room was in. Cat didn’t answer. 

Cat didn’t do much of anything after that, just jumped up onto the little bed Travis made up for him on the plush chair in the corner of his bedroom, curling up and laying his head down on top of his paws. His eyes followed Travis as he got ready for bed; took off his fleece and the shirt underneath, ran a comb through his tangled hair, ducked down into the hallway’s bathroom to brush his teeth. He changed his pants there, too. For some reason he felt like he shouldn’t change in front of Cat, like he was a new roommate and not, well, a cat.

When he returned to the room it looked like Cat was already asleep. He doused his big lamp and the few candles that had started burning when they’d first come in, and fell back into his bed. He whispered a spell and he heard his door’s lock click. Normally he had nothing against Oskar or Beezer or Sanny or whoever coming in his room in the middle of the night, but it was Cat’s first night in his room, and Cat was weird. It felt right to give him some privacy.

Travis made a nest for himself in his pile of blankets and arranged his two flat pillows just the way he liked them. The day’s exhaustion began seeping through his bones as he relaxed, and his eyelids felt like they were attached to bricks, drooping lower, and lower, and—

Travis opened his eyes. Dreamspace, he thought, but this was a wide expanse of white nothing. This wasn’t his dreamspace. He also didn’t initiate this dreamspace, and that was the whole point of it. It was a meditation thing, a get in your own head and calm the hell down thing. Was he in someone else’s dreamspace?

That wasn’t, like, a thing that could happen, was it?

He looked around. It seemed like he was in a giant white box, with blank walls, a blank floor, and nothing for what felt like miles and miles. He turned. There— a tall mirror. What was a mirror doing in this dreamspace-that-definitely-wasn’t-Travis’s-dreamspace? 

Hell, he’d worked for years to curate his dreamspace into somewhere where he felt fully relaxed and at peace. His dreamspace had a lake and a cute little dock, for fuck’s sake. 

He approached the mirror. It took him a while to get there, and his footfalls started out soft, but grew louder and louder as he approached it. As he walked towards it, he could see his reflection, dark and fuzzy at first, brighten and sharpen. 

And morph.

With every step he took, the mirror changed his reflection. He grew taller, his shoulders broadened, his hair gained a few inches and a few more waves. By the time he was close enough to the mirror to touch it, he was looking at an entirely different person.

And an entirely different person was looking back at him.

His reflection-not-his-reflection tilted his chin. He had an angular, perfect jaw painted with a brush of stubble and the barest dusting on his upper lip. His hair fell in soft waves and, as Travis watched, he reached up impatiently to tuck a few errant strands behind his ear. He was blushing, or maybe his cheeks were always that pink. 

Dark brows hovered like a warning over storm-cloud eyes. Slate mountain eyes. Ocean colored eyes. Travis took a stumbling step back.

Cat’s eyes.

“You’re Cat,” he choked out. He couldn’t hear himself talk. The dreamspace swallowed his words before they reached his ears. “What’s going on, what can I do?” 

The man, Cat, opened his mouth to answer, and he, the mirror, and the unfamiliar dreamspace shattered into a thousand pieces.

 

Chapter Text

Travis was out of bed, out of his room, and halfway to Claude’s before his brain caught up to him. He skidded to a stop somewhere between a staircase and another staircase, leaned against a dusty tapestry hung to the wall, and tried to stop freaking out. If he barged into Claude’s room at —he paused, breathed, and felt for the time— one forty-six in the morning, feeling like this, he’d be able to do nothing but scream and Claude would have to punt him out of his tower window to get him to shut up.

“It’s okay, Travis,” he told himself out loud as soon as he caught his breath. Himself didn’t listen; his heart rate sped up, if that was even humanly possible. He slumped to the ground and hid his head in his arms. Deep breath in, deep breath out. “What the fuck.”

What the fuck, indeed.

He’d spent a lot of time in dreamspace. AV, and by extension Claude, seemed to think he was pretty good at it, and he was often tasked with walking the less experienced witches through accessing dreamspace. Being good at dreamspace wasn’t really a thing, he tried to explain, it was more about openness— having an open mind, being emotionally vulnerable, wearing a metaphorical heart on a metaphorical sleeve, all things he, well, was more than used to.

But, whatever. Being helpful with one small facet of magic was enough for him.

So, he’d spent a lot of time in dreamspace. And never, in his entire life, had he even heard about being in dreamspace with another person. It wasn’t possible. It was like being in another person’s head. It was the innermost core of them, where they, with time and training, could hide away to recharge, to calm down, to center and protect themselves.

And the weirder thing was that it hadn’t been his dreamspace.

Travis ran both hands down his face. Every time he closed his eyes, that face… God, that face— it was branded on the inside of his eyelids. The clenched jaw, the hard-set eyes, the blush red swept up both of his cheekbones like angel wings. If that dream-mirror-apparition man was actually Cat, if that was actually his dreamspace and somehow Travis had intruded, what in the actual fuck was that supposed to mean?

“Go talk to Claude,” Travis told himself firmly (he was not having an existential crisis in this random hallway until he passed out), and this time he listened. Half-using the edge of the tapestry to heave himself off of the floor, Travis brushed off his knees and started climbing stairs again. There was something to be said about the panicked thoughts racing through his mind; he barely noticed his legs burning as he climbed, and he made it to Claude’s door in record time.

Claude lived in one of the Niche’s towers, affectionately known as the Icicle, and honestly one of the coldest places throughout the entire compound. Claude always said he liked it; said it gave him an excuse to work on his heat conjuring. Travis thought that at least part of it was Claude liking the fact that he was able to make it his, the act of making the previously uninhabitable tower into his own little home. 

It was still cold as shit. Travis shivered as he braced himself on the oak frame and pounded on the door loud enough to wake people in downtown Volantes. 

The door opened a little too quickly. Travis figured Claude might know he was coming. Nothing much got past him, even at two in the morning.

“TK,” Claude said, in a way that meant fuck you. His eyes, stuck at half-mast, gave him a quick once over, and his ginger hair curled in a sleepy, ruffled sort of way that made Travis immediately feel bad for, well, all of this. He only had to remember the dreamspace to not feel bad anymore; Claude was his leader. This was exactly the kind of stuff he was supposed to help with.

“Hey, G,” Travis said. He was out of breath.

“It’s two in the morning.”

“Yeah, uh.” Travis twisted his hands together. “Something happened.”

Claude pushed open the heavy door with his foot, and gestured deeper into his room. A come in, come in, tell me all of your woes gesture, but still with an undertone of seriously, man, fuck you. Travis started talking the second he crossed the threshold.

He told Claude everything, even rehashing the stuff from huddle the previous morning, the first time he’d felt the pain deep in his chest. Finding Cat on the stoop of the Niche, how Cat had screamed at him but not anyone else, how Cat and the chest pain seemed to be linked when he was with Carter in the fifth yard. And finally, sitting on a round velvet ottoman in front of the fire Claude had poked at the entire time he’d been talking, he told him about the dreamspace, the mirror, and the man with Cat’s eyes.

That made Claude put down his fire iron, pull up another ottoman, and look him in his eyes.

“Travis,” he said, in his Very Serious voice that he only used when things were Very Serious. (Frosty got it a lot, more than Travis did, now. Sanny, a few times in recent memory. He used it one very memorable time with Carter, who’d almost dug his own grave right then and there. Hartsy hated being wrong, but he hated being reprimanded even more.) 

“Yeah?” Travis answered.

“You were in someone else’s dreamspace?”

Travis picked up his own fire iron and began moving coals around just to give his hands something to do. Sparks twirled lazily up the tower’s chimney. 

“Yes,” he finally said, still watching the embers burn. “I don’t know how. I didn’t even know it was possible.”

“It’s not possible,” Claude said. “I’ve never heard of that before in my entire life, and I’ve been around the block a couple of times.” He stood, pushing his ottoman back with his foot, and scraped his hands through his hair to make it stand even more on end. “I have to talk to Coots and Raff about this, okay? I might have to take it to AV.”

He paused.

“And you’re sure about this?”

Because you’ll be in huge trouble if you’re lying hung unsaid in the air. Travis, however, had never been more sure of anything in his entire life. Somehow, seeing Cat in that mirror felt more tangible and real than Claude standing in front of him, than the sage-tinged smell of smoke in the air, than the stone floor cold even through his thick wool socks. Help me. His cutting gaze. The shattered dreamspace. 

“I have to do something about it,” Travis heard himself say, in a small voice that didn’t sound at all qualified to do anything about anything. This was huge magic, bigger than anything he’d ever been involved in. He believed in himself, like, for the most part. He could help Beezer access his dreamspace and perform a ritual and chant with Oskar and care for the crystals on his windowsill, no problem. He was good at being a witch. 

But this?

Claude ran both hands through his hair again, looking like he wanted to argue, but Travis steeled his jaw and felt the stubbornness set and settle through his bones. Cat came to him for help— well, kind of. He was the one who was given the order, help me. He was the one who was dragged into Cat’s dreamspace for whatever reason.

For some reason. 

“I have to do something about it,” he repeated, stronger, more confident. Claude shook his head like it was either too late at night or too early in the morning to deal with all of this. Well, he was the one who decided he wanted to lead a group of mostly dysfunctional witches, so. Maybe a bad decision on his part. One that meant some late nights, for sure. 

 “Let me at least see the cat,” Claude said. Travis jumped off of his ottoman. 

“He’s in my room,” he said, and Claude let him out the door first. “We tried to name him earlier, well, Laughts did, but he hated being given a name, I think. I’ve referred to him as Cat this whole time, you know, with a big C, and he seems okay with that.”

“Fantastic,” Claude said in a way that meant the opposite.

They wound down the tower’s staircase and Claude led the way through the Niche’s maze of hallways and secret passages until they made it back to Travis’s room with the metal 11 on the still-open door. Travis caught Claude’s look and shrugged.

“I kinda sprinted out of here earlier.”

Travis poked his head through the opening and looked around for Cat. One by one candles winked into light, each of their flickering beams illuminating the same damning scene— Cat was nowhere to be found.

“I left him right here.” Travis gestured to the chair in the corner before looking under it. He tossed all of his blankets onto the rug, peered under his bedframe, shuffled all his pillows around. No Cat.

Claude peeked into Travis’s tiny fireplace like Cat was halfway up the chimney no bigger than both of Travis’s hands. 

“He’s a big cat, G,” Travis said. Claude came out of the fireplace with soot on his forehead.

“He must have left the room. Maybe he went looking for you?”

“Maybe.”

Travis must have looked more twitchy than usual, because Claude came up beside him, made him sit down on the bed, and put one arm around his shoulders. 

“This is weird,” he said, and pulled Travis closer, “but come on. Magic is fickle, sometimes it doesn’t like to be understood or contained. Patience and persistence, right? All of us will take on this new weirdness together, like we always do.”

“Big sap,” Travis muttered into his chest. Claude squeezed tighter, if that was even possible.

“Shut up, Konecny.”

He let go and stood, holding out his hand for Travis to take it. He did, and Claude yanked him to his feet and wrapped him in a real hug, allowing the warmth from his body to seep into Travis’s. Claude’s magic smelled like firewood smoke and summer afternoons, and Travis ignored the beard hairs prickling against his forehead as he breathed deep and felt his heart rate slow.

“There we go,” Claude said, and stepped back, one hand already on the doorknob. “The cat will turn up. if not tonight, then tomorrow. And if he doesn’t, we can sic Lindy and Laughts on him, right?”

Oskar’s locating magic was unparalleled, and Scotty, well. If there was a cat to find, Scotty would find it.

Travis grinned. “Sounds like a plan, G.”

The corner of Claude’s beard twitched upward before he saluted and left Travis’s room, closing the door quietly behind him. There was a pause, and the door opened a crack again.

“For the cat,” Travis heard Claude say.

He sat back down on his bed and listened as Claude’s footsteps faded. He did feel better. Tomorrow was a new day, a day for advice from Coots and information from Raff and an examination of Cat. If Cat comes back. Travis shook his head. Cat had to come back. He was the one that needed help. He was the one haunting Travis, not the other way around.

The candles extinguished themselves as Travis gathered his blankets and pillows and rearranged both them and himself on the bed again. The open door was creepy, letting in a slice of dim light from the hallway. If he was honest with himself, he didn’t want Cat to come back, at least not into his room at nighttime. The last thing he wanted was to be pulled into another dreamspace incident against his will.

Fifteen minutes passed of just him staring at the door before he kicked off his blankets in frustration. There was no way he was going to fall asleep with the Cat mystery and the dreamspace threat and, just, all of it hanging over him like one of Claude’s heavy cauldrons hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen. Balanced precariously on a rusty old hook like one bump in the wrong space on the wall would send everything crashing down.

He looked back down at his bed, felt the tiredness sparking behind his eyes, and made up his mind. Leaving the door open wider, just in case Claude was right and Cat really was just out looking for him, he shrugged Kevin’s fleece back on, balled his favorite blanket (Moose had knit it for him last Winter Solstice out of thick gray yarn) in his arms, and went down the hall.

He left his door unlocked more often than not, but Oskar’s door was never locked. He scratched his fingernails on the wood lightly anyway, just as a precaution, before nudging the door open.

Three blanket covered lumps were vaguely outlined in the dim light. As he walked further in a single candle winked into flame, bathing the whole room in a low, buttery glow. Frosty, sprawled on the rug with his mouth hanging open, still had a faint grayish aura hanging around him. A bad dream, probably, and he’d relocated to Oskar’s floor instead of staying in his room a few hallways over. The residue seemed rough enough that he’d have to talk to Jake about it, maybe down a potion before tomorrow morning’s huddle. Oskar was curled up on his bed, wrapped in a blanket, and Beezer was closer to his feet, taking up a large part of the remaining open space and most of the remaining blankets. 

Travis stepped up onto a green velvet ottoman and onto the bed, maneuvering across various tangled limbs and pillows until he was able to squeeze into the space between the wall and Oskar’s top half. Beezer shifted until he was covering most of Travis’s legs. It didn’t matter all that much; he was warm at least. Travis leaned back to grab a pillow and laid down fully, feeling comfortable and safe and the farthest away from unfamiliar dreamspaces he could be.

Oskar cracked open one eye and regarded him in the dim light.

“Everything okay, Teeks?” His voice sounded sleep-blurred, and he leaned forward until their foreheads brushed. 

 “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Travis whispered back, and willed the candle to extinguish.

Darkness covered the room, and Travis sank into sleep so slowly that he didn’t know exactly when it happened. He didn’t dream.

*****

The next morning, he woke up in the worst possible way; someone yanking the summer-warm blanket right off of him. He yelped, his eyes still closed, as the cold air replaced his sleep cocoon, and grabbed blindly for the blanket.

“Come on, what the fuck—” 

A laugh. Bee. Oh, yeah— the Cat incident, the dreamspace, talking with G, falling asleep in Oskar’s bed… Travis cracked open one eye to glare. Yup, that was Beezer, holding his blanket and still chuckling to himself, as Oskar shrugged on a sweater in the opposite corner. Frosty was nowhere to be found. 

Oskar cuffed his sleeves, snatched the blanket from Beezer, and tossed it back overtop Travis.

“Come on,” he said, “Huddle’s in twenty, and I want breakfast.”

Travis kicked off the blanket and sat up, scraping his hair out of his face and rubbing his eyes. He needed a shower, but breakfast sounded way too good to pass up. Maybe if he rushed… But Cat was still missing, and he should probably hunt for him before G talked to Coots and Raff. Priorities. Food first, for sure. Maybe a quick shower. He should’ve woken up earlier.

He let out a huge yawn.

Who was he kidding, he wouldn’t have woken up earlier.

He walked to breakfast between Oskar and Bee, half-listening to them talk about the candles Oskar had requested from Provy and the design he wanted to attempt to carve into them later in the day. Bunny’s birthday was coming up soon, too, and Travis caught a bit of a back-and-forth about what to give him. The kitchen was already full and bustling; a good number of the Niche’s witches were morning people, and, as he got into the breakfast line, Travis wholeheartedly wished the general idea of morning people would go fuck itself. 

Sanny moved past him with a steaming bowlful of something and handed him a hot mug before heading out to the covered greenhouse courtyard. No smile, no greeting, just a mug full of coffee. That’s the morning interaction Travis wanted. Other Travis just got him. 

He sipped his coffee, allowed JVR to dish him a bowl of oatmeal, put some blueberries, hazelnut chocolate spread, and a handful of granola on top, and took it all out to the courtyard. He sat across from Sanny, and the two of them ate in silence and woke up at their own pace, allowing the warm breakfast and strong coffee to work its magic. Once he was pretty much upright and as awake as he was going to be at eight fifteen in the morning, Kevin bounded over to join their table, Provy and Ghost scooted down the bench on either side of the table, and even Carter stopped by for a while while they were arguing whether or not Sanny liking his oatmeal fully drowned in maple syrup was disgusting or not— verdict: uh, yeah. By the time the bells rang for eight thirty huddle, Travis’s bowl was empty and he actually felt ready to face the day. He looped his arm through Sanny’s and pulled him off the bench, ignoring his protests as he headed for the sacrarium. They bumped shoulders as they walked, ribbing each other and throwing insults back and forth, but as soon as they stepped onto the stone threshold they fell silent and broke apart.

The Niche’s sacrarium was in the very center of the compound, an ancient space carved out of speckled gray stone. It was circular inside, with large silver discs carved into the moon’s phases embedded into the wooden floor. Normally the heavy velvet curtains were held back by iron hooks jutting from the walls, but during huddle they were always drawn, cocooning the area in a hazy gray twilight. In the very center of the floor a few witches were already sitting in a not-yet-completed circle, as Raffl set up candles. A soft breeze through the still-open main doors made incense smoke swirl toward the domed ceiling, and Travis grabbed a cushion from the stack closest to him and made his way to the center of the room.

He set his cushion down between Kevin and Frosty –in the candlelight he could see that he grabbed one of the deep maroon embroidered ones that Moose had made a few years back— and got comfortable. Kevin passed him a candle and he set it in front of his cushion, relaxing his shoulders and trying to steady his breathing.

This was always the hardest part of huddle, for him, at least. The immediate focus to let everything outside the sacrarium fall away, to let his mind settle and still the moment he sat down in the circle, was a talent he still hadn't fully developed. Frosty hadn't either; it seemed like every other second he'd twitch and his candle flame would spark.

Travis shook his head slightly and focused on his candle flame. When he breathed out it shrank, when he breathed in it grew, the tip of the flickering flame reaching upwards to the ceiling like an outstretched hand. Sanny caught his eye, all the way across the circle, and he pulled a face at the exact same time Travis did. Both of their candles went out.

“Fuck,” Travis whispered, and saw Sanny laughing until he saw that, yeah, his candle was out too. Travis closed his eyes, breathed in, and felt the familiar little spark of energy between his thumb and pointer finger. When he opened his eyes again, his candle was re-lit. Out of habit, he glanced to his left, to the space in the circle farthest away from the double-door entrance. Claude’s eyes were closed, his candle flame completely still, but his eyebrow was raised in a very you better believe I know what’s going on sort of way. Coots was beside him, a picture of serenity. Travis wondered if Claude had told him about Cat yet, and if he’d still be that calm if he knew what was going on. Probably.

Travis re-focused on his candle flame, steadying his breathing and listening to the steady thud of his heart as the flame still shifted. Beside him, Kevin’s flame was barely moving, almost as still as Claude’s, undisturbed by his heavy breathing. Travis thought about poking him to see if he was asleep. He kind of looked asleep.

Travis’s candle flickered out again.

God fucking damn it, he thought, and lit it again.

This was all Cat’s fault, probably. Now that all of the comfortable tiredness from the morning was all melted away, he felt jittery, like he could run a few laps on the path around the Niche’s boundaries and still have pent up energy built up inside him. Like, he didn’t want to be thinking about dreamspace and the gilded frame of that mirror and the way that man with Cat’s eyes had tucked his hair behind his ear, the way the blush on his cheeks deepened, the way his gray-blue-green eyes flashed as he tilted his chin to look Travis in his eyes.

He looked down, even though he didn’t want to. Yup. The candle was out. A wisp of smoke curled towards the ceiling like a taunt.

At least my fire conjuring’s getting a workout this morning, Travis thought kind of bitterly as he re-lit the candle for what felt like the millionth time. It didn’t matter, though, because now everyone was opening their eyes and candles were winking out all around the circle as Coots stood and dragged his cushion to the middle of the circle.

Everyone took turns leading huddle, sometimes in guided meditations, sometimes in affirmations, sometimes in breathing exercises or stretches or salutations. Most of the time it rotated between the older or more experienced witches, but at least once a week the younger members of the Niche would be asked to lead. This was Coots’ second time leading in a row; he must be feeling strong, have something good going on. Travis’s last time leading huddle had been a few weeks prior, and he’d been so proud when it went well. Even Jake had complimented his affirmations, and Travis would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about that at least once a day since it happened.

“Eyes closed,” Coots said, and Travis rearranged his legs on the cushion before taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. “I want everyone to picture themselves in this room, right now, wherever you’re at, with no one else around. It’s only you.”

Only me, Travis thought. Alone in his own head. Alone with his thoughts. Banish the thoughts. Just him. Alone. Breathe in, breathe out. Be quiet, stop thinking about things out of your control. Breathe. Be alone.

“Picture a sphere around yourself.” Coots’ voice wove its way throughout the room. “A barrier. The only things that can get through are positive things— good thoughts, good feelings. Visualize positivity entering your personal sphere.”

Good things, Travis thought. His barrier shimmered in his mind's eye, soft and muted at first, but as he focused it grew stronger, more opaque. It glowed orange. I can figure this whole Cat thing out. I know it’s weird, but everything will be okay. I am capable. I am protected.

He felt his shoulders start to relax, a tightness between his eyes loosening that he hadn’t even noticed until it started to unravel.

“Visualize any bad energy exiting your sphere,” Coots said. He sounded far away, like he was speaking through a wall. “Nothing negative can stay. It doesn’t belong.”

I am protected, Travis thought again, and visualized all the confusion, all the stress, all the disturbance he’d been trapped in over the past twenty-four hours as pieces of broken glass around his head. One by one, they blurred and were sucked through his shimmering barrier, gone. He breathed in, and dragged the barrier’s energy closer to him. His sphere got smaller and smaller, siphoning all of its warmth into Travis’s body.

He felt good. Light as air. Inside the sphere felt like his dreamspace, a place just for him.

The barrier shimmered, and an object, too bright for his mind to comprehend what it was, entered his sphere. It approached his crossed legs and he felt the softest touch on his knee.

Travis?

His eyes flew open. The orange sphere around him hung around in reality for a heartbeat before it fizzled and disappeared; and Travis looked down at Cat, who still had a paw on his knee. He felt warm, like his sphere had been before it melted away, not painful like the first time they’d touched. It was a welcome change, but still .

“You can’t be in here,” Travis said, out loud, and immediately clapped both hands over his mouth.

On either side of him, Kevin’s sphere and Frosty’s sphere both crackled and broke, and throughout the circle, most other peoples’ did, too. Only Claude’s and Coots’ spheres stayed intact. Moose cracked open one eye and glared like someone had just woke him up, and Kevin breathed out heavily like he was breaking the surface and coming up for air.

“The fuck, TK, I was in the zone!”

The serene atmosphere shattered as everyone began talking at once, and with a wave of his hand Claude made his sphere vanish and stood in one fluid moment.

“Be quiet!” His voice boomed throughout the sacrarium, and everyone listened. Kevin made a locking-lips movement with his hand and then sat on both of them. Coots’ sphere finally dissipated, and he came out of it looking a little bit like he’d gotten lost in his own exercise and forgot the rest of them even existed. He dragged his cushion back to his original spot as Claude crossed the circle to get to Travis.

“Is that him?” he asked, obviously about Cat, who had turned around to sit very primly between Travis and Kevin. As soon as he caught sight of Cat, Kevin lit up.

“Oh, sweet, what’s up little man?” he asked, half-turning around to pet Cat, who shied away immediately, backing up until he was against a stack of cushions. “ Whoa, it’s okay, I don’t bite.”

“Hayes, don’t touch the cat,” Claude said, a wrinkle of visible annoyance clear between his eyebrows. “Konecny, is he going to kill me if I pick him up, or will he follow me?”

“Don’t pick him up,” Travis said, and then looked back at Cat. “Go with G, okay? He’s going to figure out what’s going on.” Cat tilted his chin –a lot like his mirror counterpart— but padded to the door anyway. Claude turned to help Jake up, and motioned to Coots and Raffl.

“It’s time.”

So they had talked about it. Travis watched as the group of four veteran witches followed Cat out of the sacrarium, flinching when Kevin reached over and slapped the back of his head.

“Shit, Kev! What?”

“What’s going on with that cat?”

“Nothing,” Travis said, and rolled his eyes because duh , of course it was something. “I’ll tell you all about it when G tells me all about it, okay?”

“Deal.” Kevin bumped his fist against Travis’s, and heaved himself up off the floor.

I really need to stop promising to drag people into all of this Cat drama, Travis thought as he, too, stood and picked up his cushion. He got in line behind Kevin to stack his cushion by the door. He’d promised Carter last night, he promised Oskar that morning… Actually. Travis looked around. There— Oskar was across the room, his area already all cleaned up and put away, and he was talking to Nisky and Moose. Travis balanced his cushion on top of Kevin’s head and ducked through the crowd.

Coming up behind Oskar, he poked him in the side. “Got a sec?”

Oskar jabbed him with his elbow before answering some question Moose had asked, promised to ask Jake about something to do with sage and twine, and backed out of the conversation in a gracious way that really only Oskar could pull off. He then rounded on Travis.

“You really don’t know what manners are, do you?”

Travis grinned. “I have you for that, Osky. Again, I ask— got a sec?”

“For what?”

“Me?”

Oskar rolled his eyes and then, like sunshine, a grin lit up his face.

“Of course.”

Travis grinned back and poked him in the ribs again. “Okay, but let’s just—” He cupped his hands to amplify his voice “Sanny!” Sanny raised his head from where he was kneeling beside Beezer, organizing candles in Nisky’s big wooden box, and caught Travis’s eye. Travis gestured frantically until Sanny stood and meandered over to them— for someone with legs as long as his, Sanny really fuckin’ meandered when he wanted to. 

“What’s goin’ on?” he asked.

“You want to know what’s going on with Cat?” Travis asked. Both of their faces lit up. News, including news that shouldn’t really be news, traveled fast around the Niche. Being privy to information before it was public information was rare. “Come on, I want to try something.”

Oskar and Sanny followed him as he left the sacrarium and practically sprinted the few staircases up to his room. They both settled on the rug as he dug through his drawers and rifled through the tall bookcase that took up all of his right wall, piling jars and crystals and one pot full of sage precariously in his arms.

“TK, what the hell are you doing?” Sanny asked.

Travis dumped his armful of, well, stuff in the center of their little triangle on the rug. “I want to try something.”

“You said that already,” Oskar said.

“Okay, so you know dreamspace?” Travis asked. They both hmmed noncommittally, because duh. “So last night Cat was in here when I fell asleep, right? And I ended up in his dreamspace.” 

“In that cat’s dreamspace,” Sanny said flatly, like Travis was an idiot.

“He’s a guy,” Travis argued. “At least, I think it’s him. They got the same eyes, dreamspace guy and Cat.”

Oskar picked up a particularly large piece of quartz and passed it back and forth between his hands. “There was a man in the dreamspace?” 

“Yeah, I mean, kinda,” Travis said. “I fell into the dreamspace, it was a big blank area, like blinding white, and there was a really tall mirror in this gold frame. When I looked into it, it was like I was this guy, he was taller than me—”

“No kidding,” Sanny muttered, and Travis threw a pillow at him.

“And he had this long hair and these wild eyes that looked exactly like Cat’s,” he continued. “So I asked him what was going on, but when he opened his mouth to answer me, everything burst into these, like, shards and I woke up.”

“And you’re sure it wasn’t just a bad dream?” Oskar asked.

“It wasn’t a dream, it was dreamspace. I felt it.”

“How on earth did you get into someone else’s dreamspace?” Sanny asked. Travis pointed at him.

"That’s what I want to try.”

Oskar frowned. “Absolutely not. We don’t know this magic, TK. Anything could happen.”

“G and Coots are looking into it, right?” Sanny asked. “That’s where the cat is now, right? With them?”

“And Raffl and Jake.”

“So that’s that, then. They do their thing, figure out what’s weird about the cat, and we go on with our lives, right?”

Or,” Travis drug it out into at least five syllables, “we cut out the middle man and test the dreamspace thing for ourselves, right here and right now.”

Sanny crossed his arms. “I suck at dreamspace, so why the hell am I here?”

Travis pushed the jar of sage towards him. “You’re here to drag us out of it in case something goes south.” Dreamspace was an interesting magic to learn, and oftentimes unsupervised witches could get stuck. Their bodies would look like they were sleeping, but their essence would be caught in a sort of dreamspace limbo. Burning sage under the nose was a quick remedy for that; Travis had been jolted awake by his dreamspace spotter too many times to count when he was first learning. 

Oskar also crossed his arms, same position as Sanny. “And what if I say no?”

Travis made big pleading eyes and aimed them right at him. “Osky— ” 

“This is stupid, Teeks—”

“Come on,” Travis said, and pushed his leg. “When have I ever steered you wrong?”

“Like fifty different times,” Oskar muttered, but still put the crystal back in the pile and got comfortable on the floor. “This week.”

“There we go,” Travis said encouragingly as he constructed a circle around both him and Oskar, using pink salt, rosemary, and amethyst chunks to build the barrier. Normally, there was no need for barriers or any kind of protection magic, really, but Oskar was right. This was unknown magic, to them at least, and there was no harm in being on the safe side. 

Travis finished the circle and sat down inside it, across from Oskar. Sanny hovered on his knees over Oskar’s shoulder like he didn’t want to get too comfortable. 

“How are we supposed to do this?” Oskar asked.

“Go to your dreamspace,” Travis said, trying his best to mask the fact that he actually had no idea how they were supposed to do this. “I’ll go to dreamspace, too, but I’ll… Think about you? I guess?”

“Romantic,” Sanny interred from behind Oskar’s head, and Travis thought long and hard about hucking a crystal at him. 

Oskar shrugged. “I guess we can try that.” He crossed his legs and straightened his shoulders before taking a deep breath. A breeze swept through the room, rustling the rosemary on the floor. Travis had known Oskar long enough to know when he’d entered his dreamspace, and knew that, yeah, it happened that fast. They practiced together, their times were a point of personal pride.

It’s not a race. He could hear Coots’ voice in his head.

Yeah, it fuckin’ is, he thought back, and got settled. He closed his eyes and fell backward into his dreamspace; a familiar patch of grass, blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, a wide expanse of lake. He lay on his back in the grass and let the sun warm his face for a heartbeat before closing his dreamspace-self’s eyes, too.

Oskar, he thought. He visualized a thread tying their bodies together, back in his room in the Niche. He pulled on the thread once, and felt a tug somewhere deep in his mind. A little bit of resistance. 

The tail-end of a breeze swept across his face. Clean laundry. A bright, happy smell. Oskar

Yes! He was so close, Travis could feel it. He was going to figure this weirdness out all on his own, he was going to take his findings to Coots and Claude and they’d be able to understand what was going on with Cat, he was going to help, he was going to be great—  

“Come on,” he grunted, and took the thread in both hands and pulled. 

A scream tore through his dreamspace, and it was like the sound pushed him back into reality. The circle was broken, amethyst and salt scattered all over the floor. Sanny knelt over Oskar, who’d been knocked flat on his back, a thin line of blood leaking from his right nostril, unconscious.

*****

Travis paced outside of his own bedroom door, feeling like absolute shit.

Oskar was fine, or would be fine as soon as the potion Jake had forced him to drink began to work. He was still in Travis’s room. Sanny had moved him to the bed as Jake, most likely summoned by the sheer terror emanating from room eleven, showed up with a crate of ingredients and his gigantic mortar and pestle and got down to business. Travis had been pacing in the room, distracted by Oskar cocooned in his favorite blanket, pale as a new snowfall, but Jake had forced him to leave.

Not only had his dreamspace plan not worked to a horrific extent, but he’d hurt Oskar.

He’d hurt Oskar. 

The scream that echoed through his dreamspace now echoed through his head, mocking him, almost. Oskar hadn’t even wanted to do it. Oskar had trusted him. Oskar was now flat on his back in Travis’s bed, his eyes moving restlessly under closed lids, as Jake shoveled foul-smelling potions down his throat and Sanny held him down. 

Travis leaned against the cold stone wall and allowed his body weight to pull him to the floor, where he hunched over his knees and just sat. He wasn’t ever getting up. Definitely not until Oskar was able to. Why’d you have to be such a fucking idiot?

It wasn’t until he heard a huff of laughter that he realized he’d said that out loud.

A warm body sat next to him, pressed close, and draped an arm across his shoulder. It smelled like mint and earth. Coots

“TK,” he started.

“I know,” Travis bit out, a little harsher than he’d meant to.

“I know about Oskar,” Coots went on, “but that’s not why I’m here. You’ll have to answer to Jake and G about that one.”

That made Travis raise his head. “Why’re you here, then?”

“Cat,” Coots said simply, and Travis’s heart started beating faster.

“Yeah?”

Coots shook his head, a shock of ginger hair flopping over his eyes and shifting with the movement. “Nothing.”

Nothing meaning…”

“There’s nothing,” Coots said. “No part of him is magical. He’s a normal cat, Travis.”

Everything went cold. Travis clenched his fingers into fists as he tried to comprehend what Coots had just said. 

“A normal cat who screamed at me,” he began slowly, and built up steam as he continued. “A normal cat who dragged me into his dreamspace, a normal cat who broke my barrier this morning and said my name—” 

“I tried,” Coots cut him off. “Raff tried, Jake tried, hell, G tried twice. There’s nothing magical about that cat, Travis, and now whatever happened with Oskar—”

“I’ll fix that,” Travis managed to grate out.

“You caused it.” Coots shook his head, stood, and offered Travis a hand. He didn’t take it. He didn’t deserve to take it, and besides, he’d told himself he’d sit by this door until Oskar walked out of it and forgave him himself. Coots wiggled his hand like he wanted Travis to stand up and stop being so stupid, but he’d never say that out loud. “There are a few spells we could test out on you, see if you’ve been cursed or hexed or anything nasty. Volantes is at peace, sure, but enemies are always looking for weakness.”

Weakness. Travis shrank back against the wall as Coots, who realized what he’d said, knelt down and put both hands on Travis’s shoulders.

“I didn’t mean it like that. You’re fine, TK. You hear me? Accidents happen, witches meddle with stuff. Oskar is on the mend, G already found a few spells that might help, and, as of right now, AV knows nothing about it. Now let me help you up.”

This time, when Coots held out his hand, Travis took it. Coots pulled him to his feet.

“This is all magic is, okay?” he said. “Experimentation and pushing limits and trying new things. But maybe it’s also consulting your vets before you do something dangerous, all right? It’s kind of what we’re here for.”

Travis actually managed a tiny little tight-lipped smile. “Thanks, Coots.”

Coots bumped him. “Come up to Jake’s after you get some lunch, okay? There’s some tests we can run to figure out if there’s a curse situation we should be worried about.”

“Will do,” Travis said, and Coots ducked into his room.

Not here for Oskar, my ass, Travis thought kind of bitterly as he kicked a tassel on the carpet beneath his feet and thought about sitting back down. He didn’t want to go get lunch, even though his stomach was rumbling and he was pretty sure it was Moose’s turn to cook, and Moose made some awesome chili. He didn’t want to go and navigate people asking questions about Oskar and what they’d been trying to do and why he was okay, but Oskar ended up hurt. He’d go crazy.

Accidents happened around the Niche all the time, sure, but the blame for this one rested heavy on his shoulders and his shoulders alone. And now that Cat was normal

The back of Travis’s nose burned as he swiped the back of his hand underneath it. God. What was wrong with him? Was he really cursed? All it took was a cry for help and a pretty-eyed man in a dream? Travis shoved his hands in his pockets and started off towards the floor beneath his, where the big bathroom with all the showers was. His stuff was back in his room, but there was always a stack of clean, generic towels and random soaps and scrubs in the closet down there. Maybe he’d duck into Kevin’s often unlocked bedroom and snag another fleece, and maybe a shower would be exactly what he needed to clear his head.

Ahead of him, he watched as a blur bolted around the corner— oh, shit. It was Cat. Travis held out a hand.

“Hey, don’t come closer—“

Cat didn’t slow down, but kept going anyway, straight at him. As he ran, the hallway bent and warped and blurred, and Travis stumbled as it curved suddenly and threw him to his knees. When he raised his head again, everything was white. Dreamspace.

Fuck.

“Listen, I don’t know what the hell kind of curse this is,” Travis yelled as he clambered to his feet, “but I’m just about fuckin’ sick of it!”

His words echoed. That was new. Last time he hadn’t even been able to hear himself speak.

“It’s not a curse.” A voice came from behind him, a deep, earthquake-rumble sort of voice. The same voice that had screamed at him for help, the same voice that had said his name as a question during huddle that morning. Travis whirled around again, almost falling back on his ass again, but managing to stay upright.

You’re —“

The man from the gilded mirror stood in front of him, only a few paces away. There was no mirror this time, and he was dressed mostly in black; socks, pants, jacket. His shirt was a dark green, and for some reason he wasn’t wearing shoes.

“We don’t have time,” he cut him off. His eyes —shit they were intense— bore into Travis like he could see right into his soul.  “Full moon, make a circle out of black salt on an obsidian slab and burn saffron crocus. Make sure I’m in the circle with you. That’ll let us talk for real.”

“Saffron crocus—“ Travis tried to start again.

“It’s already started,” Cat snapped back, and it was true. The dreamspace was beginning to melt, sinking and pooling around Travis’s ankles like chocolate on high heat. “Black salt, obsidian, saffron crocus. Full moon. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Travis said, and tried to walk towards him, but it was like trying to move in quicksand. “Cat—“

 “My name isn’t Cat,” he interrupted again as the dreamspace melted fully, dragging Travis, himself, and his voice along with it. Travis felt himself being pulled slowly downward, descending back toward his body in the Niche. He took a deep breath, just in case, before the melted dreamspace covered his face. The man’s final words followed him down, echoing in his ears, deep and grumbly and impossibly soft.

My name is Patrick.

 

Chapter Text

Moose made the best chili in the world, but Travis couldn't taste it.

He was eating it, sure. Like, moving the spoon from the bowl to his face, going through the motions. If anyone had been in the kitchen, they’d see him sitting alone on a stool at the counter and say oh, there’s TK eating some chili. But he was barely paying attention to the actual act of eating it, let alone enjoying the taste. He was moving on autopilot, completely zoned out.

Patrick, Patrick, Patrick…

He’d come out of that dreamspace in a haze, a fog of his own thoughts so thick that he’d made it to the floor beneath his, out of his clothes, and into the shower before he’d even noticed he was moving. The warm water hitting his face had been enough to jolt him back to semi-reality, but even that wasn’t enough to get him fully out of his own head.

Patrick, Patrick, Patrick…

A scrap of paper sat next to his half-empty chili bowl, a frantically scribbled list he’d written as soon as he’d gotten into the kitchen. In his barely legible handwriting, between water stains from his still wet hair: full moon, obsidian slab, black salt/circle, saffron crocus (burn). He’d started to write something about getting Ca— Patr— the cat in the circle with him, but crossed it out before finishing. This was all too weird and new to even think about doing something so normal as writing it down.

Patrick.

Travis shoveled the rest of the chili into his mouth before taking his empty bowl to the sink. After rinsing his dishes and balancing them precariously on top of the pile on the drying rack (that was somebody’s chore, and for once it wasn’t on him to put away dishes), he grabbed his scrap of paper and headed for the library. As he walked he felt for signs of life; mostly everyone was outside enjoying the day, tending to the gardens or training in one of the Niche’s many yards or down by the lake. One painful twinge told him that Oskar was up in the Lookout with him and Bee, awake but miserable. He needed to apologize, tell Oskar that he’d been stupid for not listening to him in the first place. Soon. When Jake wasn’t hovering like a prickly, ginger mother hen.

Travis let out a heavy sigh as he turned a corner. Life had been so much easier two days ago, when he’d only have slight twinges of pain in his chest and not huge, gaping holes. When the Niche’s cats didn’t talk to him or trap him in blank, white dreamspaces. When he’d just had a lingering feeling of not being good enough, like a phantom limb, not the glaring proof of Oskar in the medical tower.

And the worst part was, he was going to do it again.

What Cat —Patrick— had told him to do was what he’d done with Oskar; meddle with magic he didn’t know. He had no idea what obsidian and black salt and the full moon had to do with each other, and he didn’t even know where to find saffron crocus. He’d helped Coots catalogue his dried herb and plant closet one snowy day last winter and he’d done all the S jars and all the C’s. Saffron crocus wasn’t a thing, at least not in Coots’ extensive collection.

He did know one thing, the moon cycle schedule. He had it memorized, and it was an easy enough incantation to figure it out if he didn’t. He knew it, sure, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

There was a full moon tomorrow.

One day to figure out what saffron crocus was, one day to determine whether or not doing this thing for Patrick would hurt anyone else or himself, one day to choose whether or not to listen to Coots and tell his vets what was going on.

It should’ve been an easy choice. Coots and Jake could help with saffron crocus, Claude and Raff could run some tests with obsidian, JVR could crack open some of his magic history books and see if anything like this had happened to any other Volantes witch in the past. Moose, Nisky, hell, even Kevin could use their talents to help him. They were in a veteran position in the Niche because they were good witches, because they wanted to help and see their younger counterparts succeed.

Magic was weird, but magic was also consistent. Little sparks and flashes could be seen in babies and young kids, but it steadily climbed until it was strongest in those in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties. By mid-thirties, the magic would shrink and recede. When their magic started to fade, most witches left the coven and rejoined their families in Volantes; started their own, lived normal lives and tended their own little fire of magic until it flickered out completely.

Some witches, like AV, were able to keep their magic sense even as they aged, and became mentors, living reclusive lives and finding new magic users to keep the coven strong. Claude spent enough time with AV that maybe he saw something like that in Claude; that he’d be able to help Volantes even after his magic began to fade.

It hadn’t always been like that; magic growing in younger witches before shrinking and fading as they grew older. Travis had lessons about magical history, sure, when he was younger and first starting to practice. But he’d never forget sitting in the tiny corner of the main kitchen, crosslegged with a warm cup of spiced rum that Claude liked to make in the wintertime, listening with Sanny next to him and Oskar and Scotty crowded below their cushioned windowseat as JVR told them about the Cup.

It was almost a legend, the Cup. No witch alive had seen it in person, but there were more than enough stories and lore in JVR’s history books to back up his claims; that the Cup brought magic to whatever city it resided in. If the Cup lived in Volantes, the magic in her witches would never fade and flicker out.

But that was the problem, right? There was only one Cup, but there were way more cities than just Volantes out there. And all of those cities had witches, too, witches that were also training for both the possibility of attack and the slim chance that the Cup would reappear and they’d be sent on a campaign to find it and bring it back to their city. Even if the Cup somehow reappeared, even if the Volantes witches figured out where it was and how to get it, there was always the chance they'd be destroyed by some other city's witches before they even had a chance. And there were some really nasty witches out there; witches that, if given the Cup's power, definitely wouldn't stop at just taking that power for themselves and their city.

Snow had been falling in the dark outside and JVR had told them all of this in this hushed, slow voice, like he’d been telling secrets and they were lucky to even hear them. It made all of it seem kind of unbelievable, and Travis had asked Claude a few weeks later if it was even real.  

“Of course it’s real,” Claude had said, but Travis didn’t miss the way his normally open face closed off, and the way his shoulders tightened. “As real as anything else.”

As he turned away Travis had heard him mutter something about JVR giving the baby witches rum, even though he was the one who had made it and later dished it out in the kitchen that snowy night.

Travis had been eighteen then, not new at the Niche but new as a fully conscripted witch, cemented in the coven, old enough to feel the magic coursing through his veins and young enough for that to make him feel invincible in turn. Him, Sanny, and Oskar had talked about the Cup constantly for about a year after that, making notes in their grimores and talking about spells and plans and schemes for their coven to go on one of those campaigns to find it and bring full-fledged magic back to Volantes for good. That was even before they knew Hartsy would become a prodigy protector, before Provy and Sanny started to grow into their own as defenders, before Oskar… Well, Oskar was always good at magic.

JVR had said it wasn’t unheard of for mentors like AV to send their covens on campaigns, but all of that stuff was ancient history. When Travis and Sanny pressed him about recent things that could’ve been campaigns, like the way Claude or Jake sometimes disappeared to do mysterious things for AV, he clammed up. That was for them to do, for AV to know, and for them to find out if they worked hard, were good little witches, and ate their vegetables, blah, blah, blah.

Talk about the Cup waned soon after that. There was an overwhelming amount to focus on around the Niche, anyway, too much magic to learn, too many rituals to do. Travis wasn’t old now, not by any sense of the word, and he had ten or more good years of magic left, but he definitely wasn’t eighteen anymore. Every once in a while he’d think about the Cup, about AV, about possibility, and about how, if Claude’s magic wasn’t up to par to find the damn thing, what chance would he possibly have?

He just didn’t know what he’d be without magic. It was such a huge part of him, gave him the Niche, gave him Sanny and Oskar and Provy and Kevin and everyone else. Made him try , made him push himself and prove himself.

Magic was in him, woven into the fabric of his soul. He had no idea what he’d do when it disappeared.

“Can we calm down for a second,” he muttered to himself as he pushed open the library’s heavy door. There was no one else in this entire wing, but the darkness was soon pushed back by candles flickering to light along the tall bookshelves. Travis let the door thud shut behind him.

There was no use worrying about something that was ten years, give or take, in the future, he knew that. Was he still going to do it? Oh, absolutely.

He made it about five yards into the library before he stopped in his tracks and looked around. Bookshelves soared up to the domed ceiling on either side of him; rolling ladders attached by brackets ready for more adventurous witches and summoning incantations carved on the horizontal shelves for those with no time to waste.

Also, those who knew exactly what they were looking for. Incantations wouldn’t work for a vague a cat man in dreamspace told me to do this, what does it mean question. Travis scraped his hands through his still-damp hair. He wasn’t great at this whole thing, anyway, the research and reading and understanding-thick-dusty-books part of magic. This is when he needed someone like JVR, or Coots, or—

You know who would’ve helped you, no questions asked? he asked himself with more venom than he realized was still inside him. The only witch you know who reads magical theory for fun, and who you also almost deepfried with a dreamspace experiment earlier today.

And who was still up in the Lookout, trying to sleep and failing, from what Travis could feel. He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably as he kept reaching out, pushing to use his magic to make Oskar feel better just like Oskar always did for him. His chest ached; the carving, emptying sensation making itself feel known again.

He let out his breath in a frustrated huff and rubbed the aching spot in the center of his chest. Reading a bunch of unintelligible magical garble was only going to make him more frustrated, but he grabbed the biggest book on the nearest shelf and went to his normal corner, all the way in the back of the second floor of the library. He could see out through two stuffed-to-overflowing shelves, but no one could see him. There were two comfortable chairs and a big embroidered ottoman, and he’d spent countless hours with Sanny and Oskar holed away back here with assignments and work when they were still apprentices and not yet fully-fledged witches.

The library had a dusty, ancient sort of smell that always made Travis feel small. It was filled with so much knowledge, and he… Well. He knew where to start, at least.

He flipped open the heavy, almost wooden-feeling cover of the book he’d chosen and ran his finger down the table of contents. There, something recognizable. Black salt. He flipped to page five hundred forty-five, squinting at the words hard enough that his nose almost touched the page. Damn, did he need glasses? No, just… A few more candles flickered to life and his corner brightened. There.

Travis read the few pages detailing black salt, scratching notes on his scrap of paper as he went. It was mainly used for protection, he remembered that from Claude and Jake’s lessons on spellcasting and wards over the years. He didn’t know that it was way more powerful if one made their own using charcoal, sea salt, and a mortar and pestle, and that black salt was also mixed with eggshells and sometimes whatever herbs the witch making it deemed useful.

“I can do this,” he muttered as he underlined black salt at the top of his notes a few times. “Make my own salt, make it powerful enough to talk to…” He cleared his throat. It didn’t feel right to say the name, even though he couldn’t be sure it was Cat’s real name. Names held power. He wouldn’t give his real name to any random witch who fell into his dreamspace, and Cat – Patrick— seemed way cagier than him.

Whatever. This was a good first step, something to keep his hands busy as he tried to figure out if all of this was worth it, if doing unknown magic in secret was the way to go, or if he should try and explain that Coots, Raff, Jake, and Claude were all wrong and Cat was, in fact, freaky, magical, and a cute guy all at once.

Patrick. Travis’s cheeks got hot just thinking the name.

Coots’ admonishment still hung around his neck, though. Weakness. Cursed. He said he hadn’t meant it that way, but it sure felt like it. Hell, he could still be right. Travis rolled his shoulders back uncomfortably. There was no proof that Patrick was, well, good. There were a lot of cities around, a lot of witches with a vendetta against Volantes that ran deep, ages and ages old. Just because Volantes was at peace didn’t mean there wasn’t ever a possibility of an attack.

Always looking for weakness. Travis twitched again and closed the book, setting it down on the table next to his armchair before drawing his legs up to sit crosslegged. He leaned his elbows down on his calves and his forehead into his hands, letting his fingers press and scrape against his temples and into his hairline. Patrick didn’t feel evil. He felt different, and closed-off, and a little bit desperate. He’d asked Travis for help the first time they met, so something was obviously wrong.

And Travis wasn’t cursed. He’d never been cursed before, but he figured it would be a little more, well painful than whatever was going on with Patrick. Although, the chest pain thing wasn’t great. That was normal, though, and had been happening for years before this whole possible-curse business. It had been increasing over these past few days, though, and…

There.

“Oh my god,” Travis managed to grunt out, and curled over his legs. “Fuck.”

It felt like someone had started carving away at his chest with a butter knife. It lasted for maybe forty seconds (more like forty hours, but who was splitting hairs) before Travis could sit back up again, his forehead damp with sweat and his palms all marred by fingernail marks.

That wasn’t normal. That had been the worst one yet, barring the one that started this whole business during huddle two mornings ago. But— hey!

Oskar’s energy was burning strong, reaching out to him from the Lookout. Oskar was up and about, Oskar felt fine.

Oskar wanted him.

Travis hopped out of the dent he’d made for himself in the armchair, faster than someone who’d almost been killed by chest pains should’ve been able to. He waved his hand at the book and it hovered for a moment before shooting past him, heading back to its proper space on the shelf. Before dousing the candles, Travis read his list once more, folded it, and shoved it into his pocket. Black salt could wait, he had more important things to do.

 

*****

 

“You’re crushing me,” Oskar grunted.

“Don’t care,” Travis said into his neck, and got a mouthful of Oskar’s blond hair. He spat it out, and felt Oskar tense.

“Is my hair going to be covered in your spit?”

Travis buried his nose further into Oskar’s neck. “Maybe?”

“Gross.” Oskar stayed in the hug anyway, resting his chin on Travis’s shoulder and rubbing one hand in reassuring circles between his shoulderblades. “It’s okay, Teeks. I’m okay.”

“It’s not.” Travis, against all of his instincts, pulled away. “I’m so sorry, Oskar, I didn’t mean to—“

“I know.” Oskar took Travis’s face in both of his cool hands, and Travis felt the tension leak out of his temples, felt the pressure behind his eyes lessen. It smelled like sage and cinnamon and the last dregs of whatever potion Jake had made Oskar down. “Listen to me. I love you, Travis. It was a mistake, we all make mistakes.” He pulled him into another hug. “I’m okay, and so are you.”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Travis said quietly. Here, with him, but also here in the same dimension, safe and sound.

“You learned your lesson, I hope,” Jake grumbled from the back corner of the Lookout. Oskar squeezed his shoulder twice before breaking apart again.

“It was just as much my fault as it was TK’s,” he said, and Travis’s face, against all of his instincts and general feelings over the past few hours, split into a huge grin.

“You’re the best,” he said, soft enough that Jake couldn’t hear, and bumped Oskar with his hip.

“I know,” Oskar returned, and bumped him right back.

“…don’t know if we even can do that.” Travis caught the tail-end of Claude’s sentence as he burst into the Lookout, Coots directly behind him and a few others caught in their wake. JVR, Raff, Nisky, Moose… Oh, shit.

He turned to Oskar, whose eyes were the size of dinner plates.

“I’m in trouble,” Travis mouthed.

Oskar didn’t get a chance to respond before Claude came up behind him, clapped him on the shoulder, asked how he was feeling, and very politely, very firmly, and very definitively asked him to get the entire hell out of the Lookout so the vets could kick Travis’s ass.

(Okay, he didn’t say that, but that’s what Travis’s brain interpreted it as, and Travis’s brain was always right.)

(Okay, not always right, but right sometimes.)

Either way, Oskar scooted out of the Lookout as fast as he could, throwing a sympathetic look over his shoulder towards Travis and another look underneath that first look, an I’m-going-to-tell-Sanny-and-Laughts-everything-immediately sort of look. Great. Travis was a dramatic kind of person in general, and tended to do things in a go-big-or-go-home kind of way, but this was a lot of drama in a short amount of time. He needed a nap.

Claude closed the Lookout’s heavy wooden door, turned to face Travis, and crossed his arms.

Travis shoved his hands into his pockets. He wasn’t going to get a nap anytime soon.

“What were you thinking?” Claude asked, stalking around Travis to get to the clump of older witches in the middle of the Lookout’s sun-dappled floor. “Messing with stuff you don’t understand, dragging Lindblom and Sanheim into it with you?”

“They agreed to—” Travis started arguing, but clammed his mouth shut as Claude glared.

“Those two would do anything for you. And look where it got them.”

“We’re just worried about you,” JVR broke in before actual steam started coming out of Claude’s ears. “Your judgement about this whole thing hasn’t been the best, and…”

“We don’t want to see anyone else get hurt,” Coots finished.

From the very back of the group, Jake cleared his throat. There was some sort of dark powder coating the very bottom of his beard, and there was a bright swipe of teal across his forehead. He crossed his big arms in an exact replica of Claude’s pose. 

“I’m performing a ritual tonight,” he said. “Going to see if there’s been any wide swathes of negative energy focused on us over the past few days. I should be able to see trails and track it back to its source.”

“You guys still think I’m cursed?” Travis burst out. “I’m not, I promise, I think I’d know—”

“You think you’d know?” Claude cut him off. “Konecny, you’re a good witch. You have a lot of magic, you make the Niche better. But fuck, you can’t do it all on your own. Look what happens when you try.”

“I wasn’t on my own, Oskar and Sanny—”

“Did you listen to Oskar when he said it was a bad idea?”

It was Travis’s turn to cross his arms. “No.”

“You’re not the only person who you affect,” Claude said. “I want you to take a day, okay? No lessons, no practice. No magic. Clear your head.”

Indignation bloomed in Travis’s chest, made the tips of his fingers and his cheeks and ears flame with heat. “I don’t need to take a day—”

Claude tilted his chin and the temperature in the Lookout dropped ten degrees. Somewhere outside, thunder rumbled even as the sun shone. Travis unwillingly took a step back.

“A day might help,” he said.

“Jake will perform the ritual tonight.” Coots stepped in. “I’ll ask Hayes to help me prepare what he needs. We’ll figure this out, TK. We’re your family.”

The veteran witches all filed out of the Lookout; Nisky pressed the back of his hand to Travis’s forehead for a heartbeat, Moose gave him a one-armed hug, Coots plucked a few of his hairs to put in a vial he then stashed in one of his belt’s many pockets. Jake took Raff and JVR back into one of the side rooms to help him stack boxes of overflow dried ingredients, and Travis was left by the biggest window with Claude, who still didn’t look like the same guy who had hugged him at two in the morning barely twelve hours ago.

“I’m sorry,” Travis said eventually, and the lines in Claude’s forehead softened.

“I guess I don’t understand,” he said. “You’re passionate and flighty, sure, but damn. At least you usually make sense to me.”

Travis gave a very halfhearted shrug. “It’s been a weird couple of days.”

That made Claude laugh, a huff through his nose, but still a laugh. “I don’t want you to be cursed, Teeks, but we can fix that. It’ll at least give us a starting point, and maybe it’ll all make sense then.”

“Fuck, G, I don’t want to be cursed either!”

Claude really did laugh at that, one of the ones where he showed all of his teeth and the skin beside his eyes crinkled. “It’s not all that bad. I got used to it when I was your age.”

Travis tilted his head. “Volantes was still at peace when you were my age.”

“Maybe I’ll tell you all about it sometime.” Claude clapped him on the back and turned him towards the Lookout’s doorway. “I’ll summon you tomorrow so we can talk to Jake and Coots about the ritual, okay? Until then…”

“I’ll relax,” Travis finished. 

“Good man.” Claude patted his shoulder again. “No big magic, no helping others practice, no spellcasting. Cook something, maybe. That always makes me feel better.”

“I’ll perfect the tomato soup recipe,” Travis said, very obviously joking, but Claude’s face dropped into a frown quicker than Travis regretted joking about the tomato soup. “I’m kidding, G, yours is the best and always will be.”

“You better believe it.” Claude gave him a nudge towards the door. “If anything weird happens, you let me know right away.”

“Will do.” Travis threw a salute back over his shoulder and left the Lookout. On the second step down, right out of view of anyone directly leaving the tower, Cat —Patrick— sat with his tail draped over his paws, peering over the top of the step like he’d been waiting for Travis.

Travis, ever calm and collected, let out a yelp.

“You can’t be here,” he said, and started going down the stairs. He made little shooing motions at Patrick every time he took a step. “They still think you’re a curse, and I… Well, I’m not convinced you’re not yet, either, to be honest, my week’s kind of gone to shit ever since you showed up.”

Patrick looked up at him with those stormy eyes and Travis— damn it, he melted a little.

“Okay, you told me you’re not a curse and I believe that, I think. But everything’s weird. You need to lay low until I figure some stuff out.”

Patrick mrowed. 

“You stay in my room until tomorrow night, okay? I’ll get some food and water and bring it up.”

Another mrow, this one more urgent.

“Yeah, tomorrow night. The full moon.” Travis paused, one hand on his door handle. He hadn’t really committed until he saw Patrick again, but seeing those eyes just made him think about the dreamspace, about the cry for help, about the instructions for the full moon. “Fuck it all— we’re doing it. I’ll get all the stuff and we can talk, for real this time.”

 

*****

 

Travis sucked at lying.

It was part of the reason he was so good at emotional magic; he wore his heart on his sleeve day in and day out. Openness and honesty was pretty much his brand around the Niche, so much so that it got to the point where he’d gotten on the nerves of pretty much every witch he lived with at one time or another.

When they were younger, Sanny and Scotty wrangled him into joining a plan to cheat on one of Moose’s lessons; Travis had caved and told him about it immediately. Carter, fully colorblind, had stopped coming to Travis for opinions on his various outfits; he’d had his feelings hurt by brutal honesty one too many times. And if Travis was in a bad mood, everyone would know about it and be affected by it. 

However, for any part of this full moon plan to work, he was going to have to get good at lying, and fast.  

Okay, he was probably not ever going to be good at full-on lying. But half-truths? Little white lies? He could get good at those for sure. 

That’s when Bee rounded the corner, and Travis took a deep breath.

I can do this.

“Beezer!” he called. Bee’s face lit up and he actually jogged down the hallway to meet Travis.

“TK!” He slung his arm around Travis’s shoulders and pulled him close. “I’ve been hearing a lot of weird shit about you and that cat, you want to clear any of that up for me?” Travis wiggled around and pinched his side hard enough that he squawked and let him go.

“Yeah, sure, but you want to help me with something while I tell you?”

“Whatcha need?”

“Jake’s doing a ritual later to find out if I’ve been cursed,” Travis said, and Bee choked a little bit. He slapped him on his back.

Cursed?”

They rounded a corner. Travis had been subtly leading them to one of the smaller kitchens off of the fifth yard. “It’s been a long fuckin’ day, Bee.”

He blew a breath out. “I bet. So what do we have to do for Jake?”

“We have to make black salt,” Travis said, and propped open the heavy door into the kitchen with his foot, allowing Bee to enter first. He pulled the scrap of paper from the library out of his pocket. “It’s pretty easy, he gave me some instructions.”

Bee peered at it over his shoulder. “That’s not Jake’s handwriting.”

“Oh, uh.” Travis folded it up hurriedly. “I wrote it down, his hands were covered in, uh, goo.”

“Goo?” He raised his eyebrows. “Silver or green?”

“Uh, silver?”

Bee paused for a moment, allowed Travis to reevaluate his entire life, and then nodded sagely like Jake’s big hands being covered in strange silver goo made perfect sense. “It is a Friday.”

What the fuck— “Yeah, uh, sure. Help me with this?”

Together they hefted a huge marble mortar and pestle down from one of the higher shelves. Travis gathered the sea salt, charcoal, and eggshells (kept in the very far back of one of the furthermost shelves; he’d had to stand on his tiptoes and really dig) while Bee looked over his scrap of paper again.

“What herbs are we supposed to put in this?” he called back as Travis dug for the eggshells. “It says whatever necessary, Jake didn’t tell you for sure?”

Shit. “Uh, grab some mugwort, some lavender, and like a ton of sage,” Travis called back. Enhancement of psychic energy under the moon, purification, and protection from evil. That sounded like a pretty good recipe to him. He gathered up the various baskets and containers and transported them back to the big table, dumping everything out before reorganizing it quickly. He took the pestle from Bee and began to scrape the bottom of the mortar as Bee threw dried herbs into it one by one, crushing them into a fine powder. 

“So, Beezer,” he started as he poured probably more sea salt than necessary into the bottom of the mortar. “I was reading something about herbs and I came across one I’ve never heard of. Saffron crocus. Did Jake ever say anything about that, or—”

“Yeah, he has it,” Bee said, breaking the charcoal into smaller pieces before tossing them into the mortar. “I’ve never seen it, though, he keeps it locked up because it’s so rare.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“The plants are apparently super hard to grow,” Bee said, raising his voice over the loud scraping of the pestle. “Even Coots can hardly do it. So the flowers come around once in a lifetime or something else dramatic like that, and the inside bit of it looks like saffron, like the cooking kind but different. It’s like a crazy powerful energy booster. Makes spells way potent.” 

Patrick’s dreamspace, Travis thought. It must take a huge amount of effort for Patrick to pull Travis into his dreamspace in the first place; maybe the saffron crocus would help him keep it up long enough for them to have a real conversation. But it was locked up in the Lookout, and there was no way Jake would let him even look at it, let alone use some of it without an explanation. 

Even if he explained what was going on, there was still no chance he’d be able to do this by himself, the way he wanted to do it. The vets would get involved, or maybe the vets wouldn't even believe him. They definitely wouldn't, not since they decided Patrick wasn't magical.  No. He’d do this without involving anyone else, he’d get concrete evidence that Patrick was magical, and good, and definitely not a curse, and he’d bring Claude a solid enough plan to help him that there was no way he’d get in trouble over it. 

“A few more lies to help someone in trouble,” he muttered to himself as he ground the ingredients in the mortar probably more than necessary, just to make sure everything was mixed together.

“What was that?” Bee asked.

“Nothing,” Travis replied, dipping his hand into the black salt and letting it run through his fingers like sand through an hourglass. “Just talking to myself.”

Chapter Text

Travis didn’t sleep in the Niche that night.

After he’d jarred up the black salt he made with Bee and stashed it in a cool, dark space in one of the kitchen’s most out of the way cabinets, he’d raced up to his room, put on his warmest socks and wrapped the gray knitted blanket around his shoulders before heading to the kitchen to grab a sandwich from the pile where everyone else had already had dinner, and took himself down to the lake. This was where he modeled his dreamspace after, and where he felt most at home. The huge weeping willow on the lake’s shore, the smooth hollowed out area between two looming branches, the cool breeze making the vinelike leaves twitch and sway as the sunset filtered through.

Travis settled himself between the branches. There was enough space that three of him could fit, and he got comfortable as he listened to the small lake waves lap the shoreline. The sandwich he’d grabbed was made up of arugula and tomato with thick slices of roast beef and cheese between crusty bread, and he ate it quickly, not realizing how hungry he’d been.

He’d seen a few people between making the salt and heading down to the lake. Raff and Scotty tried to get him to join whatever game they’d been playing, and Hartsy wanted him to train with him in the fifth yard again, but Travis had made his excuses and made sure he was alone as soon as possible. Every once in a while he felt Oskar reach out, nudging with his energy and making sure Travis was okay, and Travis reached back if only to reassure him that yeah, he was fine. Taking a minute, but fine.

He leaned his cheek against the rough trunk and watched the sunset between the swaying branches. A squirrel at the base of the tree nibbled at the sandwich crust he’d tossed down.

He wanted alone time, sure. He didn’t really want to be hanging out at the Niche when he’d been told not to do magic, and Claude had been right. Maybe a deep breath and some space would be the best thing for his head.

Okay, maybe not for the reason Claude intended…

Because Travis had an issue.

He keeps it locked up ‘cause it’s so rare… Bee’s voice floated around in his head. A crazy powerful energy booster… Makes spells way potent…

Because Travis needed to steal something from Jake, and he needed space to figure out how to do it.

He half-expected the weeping willow to burst into flames from him even thinking about doing it. This was completely against, like, his moral code or whatever, not like he’d sat down one day and written one out, but shit. Sneaking around and stealing and doing probably illegal magic wasn’t really in his wheelhouse, normally. He felt his hands begin to get clammy.

Stealing. From Jake. Holy shit, what was he getting himself into?

Travis felt himself drifting, unable to keep his eyes open anymore as the sun fully set and dusk spread over the lake. He honestly hadn’t been sure if he’d be able to relax ever again after a day like he’d had, but exhaustion, bone-deep, was the only thing able to knock out his anxiety long enough for him to actually fall asleep. The faint squeaking of bats swooping above him and the soft waves of the lake were the last things he heard before falling into darkness.

 

*****

 

He woke up the next morning, damp with dew and shivering. There were some balmy nights in the spring, sure, but the mornings were fucking cold. The sun was just barely coming up, and he had just enough light to shimmy down the tree trunk, push his way through the weeping willow’s hanging branches, and pick his way through the wet grass towards the Niche’s main door. He hung up his blanket on one of the unlit wall lanterns, and went to the big kitchen.

He’d gone to sleep with absolutely zero clue of how to get the saffron crocus for Patrick, and he’d woken up with about fifty, probably none of them very good. Well, maybe one could work.

The kitchen was empty, thankfully, and he put a small kettle on and started making himself the biggest mug of tea he could find. His toes, even in his thick socks, felt like ice. The kitchen was always warm, though, and as he stood by the stove he began to thaw out.

“Okay,” he muttered to himself as he waited for the kettle to go, “Kevin’s cloak. It could work. I don’t know where he keeps it, and I’d have to…” He blew out a breath. His list of sins kept piling higher and higher, but come on. The end would justify the means, right? If he could help Patrick?

Kevin owned a cloak. It was actually more of an ancient family heirloom, going back so far that even he couldn’t remember who’d actually made it or where they’d gotten it from. He never used it, or maybe he did and Travis just didn’t know, because it made the wearer invisible. Not just invisible to the eye, but invisible.

Cloaked from perception by magic. Undetectable by any protection wards.

It made the person wearing it vanish.

If Travis were to sneak into the Lookout and take something from Jake’s private stores, he’d have to not only be invisible to the eye, but completely gone. If he were to pass Jake’s protection wards, his own magic would definitely not be sufficient, it would be easier to bypass them completely. And if this were to work, Oskar or Sanny or Claude definitely couldn’t reach out with magic to see where he was. He would need to disappear entirely until he’d done what he needed to do. The cloak made all of that possible.

But first, he’d need to find the damn thing.

His only stroke of luck so far was that the cloak belonged to Kevin. Open, fun-loving, general goofball Kevin. There was no way he’d have any kind of wards or spells protecting his things, because he trusted the people he lived with and believed the best of everyone he met, as kind of a rule. If Travis asked, he’d lend the cloak to him, no problem.

Travis couldn’t ask, because that meant Kevin would open his big mouth even without meaning to, and more suspicious people would start poking around and asking Travis what he needed with Kevin’s cloak in the first place. Nope, he’d have to steal again, from a person who never would suspect it in the first place. Just thinking about it made his palms sweaty again.

“He doesn’t even use the thing,” he said to himself as he poured his tea and inhaled the minty steam. “It’s one day, he won’t even notice it’s gone, and I won’t give him any reason not to trust me.”

He gulped down his tea (the mug he’d grabbed had made it the perfect temperature), and ducked back into the vestibule to grab his blanket. He made one pit stop in his room to dump off the blanket and to check on Patrick (fast asleep on his chair) before heading to Kevin’s room.

As a general rule, Travis wasn’t the best at plans and schemes. As soon as he cracked open Kevin’s door he realized he hadn’t thought anything through besides get the cloak.

Too fuckin’ late, bud, he thought to himself in a panic as Kevin cracked open one eye.

“Teeks?” he muttered in his deep, gravelly morning voice. His hair looked absolutely crazy.

“Hey, Kev,” Travis said, kind of poking half his face through the door crack. “Sorry I woke you up, but, uh…” Kevin sat up with a blanket wrapped around his shoulder and the indent of a pillow seam cutting through his cheek. He motioned for Travis to come in, patting the space on the bed next to him. Travis slipped out of his shoes and stepped a few wobbly steps across Kevin's bed until he collapsed in a legs-crossed heap on his right side. Kevin threw half his blanket across his shoulders and yawned right into Travis's face.

"Gross." Travis pushed him away before leaning closer anyway, grateful for the warmth. He was finally starting to feel his toes again.

"What's up, Teeks?" 

"Just needed some company," Travis replied, keeping it simple. Kevin didn't press for more information, just like Travis knew he wouldn't. He was a good friend, half in the veteran squad because of his age and half with the younger witches because of his attitude. He was loud and goofy and kind of dumb sometimes, possibly on purpose, but he was fiercely protective and the kind of supportive that never felt fake. Travis felt the burn of shame deep behind his eyes, like he'd inhaled water.

A few candles flickered to life and a book landed in Kevin's lap, a thick one about hexes or something, and he flipped it open to where it was bookmarked as Travis huddled under the blanket and pretended to fall asleep. Shame burning be damned, he was doing his plan. 

His plan that he may or may not be creating on the fly, but shut up.

He let his eyes drift shut, intending to keep at least one cracked so he could monitor what Kevin was doing, but it, like, felt nice. Having his eyes closed and everything. The room was warm and smelled like the firewood candle he remembered Kevin requesting specifically from Nisky over the winter and he felt, well, safe. Specifically like he wasn’t lying his face off for once. He snuggled a little closer to Kevin— shit, I’m supposed to be waiting for Kevin to

Travis woke up however long after that, to Kevin shaking his shoulder and leaning close enough that he could feel the warmth from his breath.

“Teeks, I’m going down to get breakfast before huddle. It’s in a half hour.”

Travis made some sort of sleepy noise in response and tugged the blanket over his head until he heard Kevin’s bedroom door close. He pushed the blanket away, still keeping his eyes half-shut— he hadn’t meant to fall asleep, shit. He needed to be alert to do this, not tired and bleary. Why wasn’t he like Oskar or Provy, fully awake the second their eyes opened? Damn morning people.

He sat upright, allowed himself a brief moment to rub his eyes and contemplate crawling right the fuck back into Kevin’s bed, and started to look around his room. He felt around in his mind for protection spells, first. Nothing, exactly as he thought. Another twinge of guilt, right at the base of his throat. 

“Doin’ this for Patrick,” he muttered, standing and pushing a pile of clothes out of his way so he could bend down and peer under the bed. “Patrick, Patty, Pat. I wonder if he’d be okay with a nickname.”

From what he’d seen of Patrick, he wouldn’t be okay with much of anything. Travis pushed crumpled up notebook pages and forgotten books and half-filled potion bottles around as he looked under the bed. Nothing. Well, nothing except for Kevin’s stash of expensive whiskeys he liked to bring out on special occasions. Travis filed that information away for later; maybe he and Sanny could—

“God, fuck, stay on track!” Travis admonished himself, dusting his knees off before opening the first closet door. Kevin had two closets in his room; one was smaller and full of shelves, acting as a tall dresser with a door. The other was deep, with a bunch of boxes in the back, shielded by two racks of hangers. Kevin had a lot of clothes. Travis pushed through hangers of fur coats, floor-length duster cardigans, sweaters and tank tops, no cloak. There were a few cloaks, actually, a midnight blue one, a deep green velvet number, a couple black ones that he was sure had some sort of pattern enchantment on them if he’d pull them out and try them on, but not the cloak he was looking for.

He’d only seen it once, but it was this neutral taupe color that moved and shimmered in a mauve and silver peacock feather-ish pattern, dipping into a dark maroon if it caught the light just right. It had a large hood and two plush tassels, accented with carved silver beads. It— Hey! It was right there. In the very back. Pushed away like it was hidden, but far enough back in the closet that there was no way Kevin had used it recently. 

Travis grabbed it before he could lose his nerve, and Kevin’s door clicked open.

Holy fuck, ” Travis hissed in a panic, hurriedly closing the closet door as best as he could (it caught on a pair of Kevin’s almost comically gigantic shoes) and threw the cloak over his head. He could see the pattern faintly as the fabric settled, and then it melted into invisibility. It was like he was wearing nothing at all, but when he looked down at his body he was just gone.  

“Sick,” he whispered, before he remembered what, exactly he was trying to do, and shut the fuck up real quick.

He peeked through the crack in the closet door.

“Yeah, Hartsy, it’s around here somewhere.” Kevin was on his knees, rummaging around in a pile of stuff on the floor. Carter stood off to the side, half in the doorway like he didn’t want to fully come into Kevin’s tornado disaster room. “Thanks for letting me borrow it, I definitely need to get one of my own. Coots’s scale is gigantic and it would be way nice to have something to measure shit out in my own space.”

“Anytime, Hayesy,” Carter replied, politely as ever.

“Where the fuck…” Kevin muttered, before leaping up with a small scale in his hand. “Yes! Found it. I mean, it definitely wasn’t lost in the first place.”

Carter gave him a little look, a I don’t believe you for a second but I’m nice so I’ll let it slide sort of look. Actually… It was an even softer look than that. Way softer. Travis adjusted the hood, making sure it covered any and all parts of his face, and leaned forward to get a better angle.

“Yeah, um.” Carter swallowed, his normally very composed face turning pinker by the second as he fiddled with the ring on his right hand’s pointer finger. “You can actually, like, keep it. If you want.”

Kevin’s head shot up from where it had been bent over the scale, fiddling with one of the settings. It really was a nice one; all burnished pewter and dark wood. “What do you mean? It’s yours, man, I was just borrowing it.”

“I never use it.” Carter had switched his nervous tic and was now rubbing the back of his neck, trying resolutely to look anywhere but Kevin’s face and actually failing worse than he’d ever failed at anything in his life, probably. Travis was gleeful. He was actually sure the level of glee he was feeling was going to vibrate him right out of the cloak, the closet, and right onto the floor where he’d lay down and laugh for five hundred years.

“This isn’t fuckin’ fair,” he muttered into his hand, which he’d clapped over his mouth at the exact moment he realized that Hartsy, their prodigy protector, Volantes’ saving grace and one of the most powerful witches in the Niche (the world, probably) had a gigantic raging crush on Kevin Hayes.

(It wasn’t fair because he wanted to tell everyone, immediately, and their first question would just so happen to be hey, TK, why the actual fuck were you hiding in Kevin’s closet in the first place? Already flimsy cover? Immediately blown. Not fair.)

Also, hey, Carter was his friend. So was Kevin. Him blabbing his mouth would probably be the best thing for them in the let’s-get-together department, because Carter sure as hell wasn’t doing himself any favors.

Travis thought for one half-second about how damn funny it would be (it would kill at the lunch table, Sanny and Scotty would lose it), and also for one more half-second about how Carter and Kevin could actually be kind of great together, and spent an entire ten seconds cursing invisibility cloaks and how they were the best thing for drama gathering he’d ever come across but fuck them, seriously, because now he had all this intel and nowhere to put it, and, fuck, Hartsy was saying something else! He shuffled closer to the crack in the door.

“You’re so good at that stuff you do with Coots,” Carter went on, still blushing viciously, as Kevin smiled at the compliment in that sort of way that let on he had no idea what was happening. Travis caught himself before he banged his forehead into the closet wall. “Drying and measuring all those herbs for spells, and, um, stuff. And I don’t do that, so.”

“I can show you some tips and tricks,” Kevin said. “It’s a lot of fun. A bunch of math’s involved.”

Travis had been in the same lesson rotation as Carter when they were kids and Jake had taught them math. Both of them had spent more time learning cheating spells than actually learning equations. Carter hadn’t wanted to, of course, but caved when letters were introduced. Travis didn’t know a lot, but he knew that Carter fuckin’ hated math.

“Sure,” Carter said, “I love math.”

Travis choked. Kevin grinned brighter than the candles glinting off of the scale still in his hands.

“Great! How about tonight? I can bring some stuff into the big kitchen, we can get some snacks. It’ll be fun!”

“And you’ll keep the scale?” Carter asked.

“Only until I teach you how to use it,” Kevin said, and placed it on the bed before going in for a hug, engulfing Carter in his arms. “You’ll be awesome at it, Hartsy. Promise.”

“I’ll have a good teacher,” Carter said, and Travis was sure if his face got any redder it would catch on fire. Kevin clapped him on his shoulder.

“It’s a date, then. Can I walk you to huddle?”

Okay, Travis was wrong, and Carter’s face found a completely new, hitherto unfound and unnamed shade of red. Like, sunset red. Frosty smacking his forehead into the floor after trying a levitating spell red.

“Yeah,” he managed to squeak out. Kevin flung an arm around his shoulders and led him out of his room, kicking the door closed behind him. Travis burst out of the closet and, making good on his word, sprawled out on Kevin’s messy floor and laughed harder than he had in a long, long time.

 

*****

 

Travis moved hurriedly down the hallway, the cloak balled up as best as he could get it and shoved under his sweater. It made him look about six months pregnant with the worst fake baby he could find, but he didn’t want to risk putting it on again just yet. If someone was looking for him before huddle and it looked like he’d dropped off the face of the earth, it would be definite grounds for suspicious questions.

Making his way back to his room without incident, Travis folded the cloak a little better and wrapped it in one of his blankets before stashing it under his bed for safekeeping. He looked over at Patrick, who was still curled up on his chair, basking in a sunbeam.

“So I’ve been thinking,” he said. Patrick cracked open one eye. “What about Patty? You know, as a nickname?”

Patrick (Patty!) closed the eye again and shifted to a better position in the sunbeam, but didn’t protest. Travis resisted the urge to pump his fist victoriously.

“Things are falling into place for tonight, too,” he continued, showing Patty he was chill and normal and not at all thrilled about the new nickname. “I got the cloak, all I have to do is make it through huddle and lunch, and when everyone’s busy doing their own shit I’ll get the saffron crocus from the Lookout.”

He’d thought this through, too. Last week he’d overheard Jake and Coots making plans to do a harvest in the garden, and since today was the only day the forecast called for sun, they’d be out there trying to get as much as they could in the warmer afternoon hours. The only person that could be up there alone without Jake throwing a fit would be Bee, maybe labeling jars or doing some other grunt work that Jake would give his apprentice, but Bee had spellcasting practice on Fridays. The Lookout was guaranteed to be completely empty.

Well, except for one witch with (hopefully) sticky fingers and enough audacity to pull this off.

“I’ll bring up some food after lunch,” Travis said, “and we’ll reconvene tonight after everyone’s asleep and the full moon’s at its peak.” He took a deep breath and focused like he’d been taught, finding the moon on its axis, and where it would be when... “One in the morning. Fuck, I want to be asleep then, but whatever.”

He gave Patty a scratch behind his ears and took it as a personal victory that he didn’t get his hand clawed off. “One in the morning.”

Patty grumbled out a mrow. Travis grinned.

“It’s a date.”

*****

 

Huddle was, for the most part, pretty normal. Travis kept to himself and kept quiet, which probably meant that the others thought it was the most abnormal thing that had ever happened, but no one called him out on it. As always, information traveled like wildfire around the Niche. He was pretty sure everyone knew about how Claude admonished him the previous day and thought he was just being in his bag about it.

(He kind of was still being in his bag about it, but he was also scheming. Different, cooler thing.)

Speaking of information traveling (or not) around the Niche, Travis watched Kevin and Carter surreptitiously out of the corner of his eye whenever he could. They didn’t sit near each other. They didn’t even look at each other. Kevin paired with Bee during the quick affirmation exercise Ghost led them through, and Carter paired with Moose. In short, for the monster crush that was apparently brewing between them, they were pretty fuckin’ boring.

Lunch passed quickly. Travis sat with Oskar and Sanny, like he normally would, and tried a little harder than he had during huddle. He cracked jokes, he poked at Oskar until he laughed at said jokes, he helped Sanny rig a slingshot with a rubber band and two forks and launched grapes at Frosty and Bee at the opposite end of the table until Claude flung his own handful of grapes across the yard that pelted both of them with unerring accuracy.

As everyone was cleaning up (it was Carter’s turn to do dishes, and Travis did not miss how Kevin eagerly volunteered himself and a very grumpy Scotty to help), he made a comment to Oskar, within Claude’s earshot, about going to take a nap.

“Clear my head, rest up. You know,” he continued as Oskar nodded like it all made sense, like that’s what he needed to do.

Claude’s eyebrow twitched, but that was the only sign he’d heard.

Travis ducked back into the kitchen, handed Kevin his plate, and almost sprinted back to his room. He needed to do this and do it fast or he was going to lose his nerve entirely. He emptied his pockets onto one of his unused candle trays for Patty, who was still in the sunbeam, flipped onto his back this time; if he didn’t want to eat shredded chicken and rice, that wasn’t Travis’s fault. Nisky made it a little spicier than usual today, anyway, maybe Patty wouldn’t even like it.

Travis grabbed the cloak and flipped it around his shoulders. Looking down at himself and seeing nothing still gave him a little bit of vertigo, and he shook his head back and forth to get himself righted before heading out the door.

He took the stairs to the Lookout slowly, pacing himself. He wasn’t sure if the cloak blocked sound, and he didn’t want to get winded halfway up the winding staircase and alert everyone to exactly what he was doing because he couldn’t catch his breath. Even so, he still had to take a second to slow his racing heartbeat when he finally reached the top.

“Forget protection spells,” he muttered as he cracked the door open and peered into Jake’s space, “it’s enough to just have it up a million fuckin’ flights of stairs.”

He walked warily farther inside. The entryway to the Lookout was pretty dark, but the soaring windows let in enough sunlight that he didn’t need to light any candles. Dust floated through the sunbeams like illuminated snow. Travis dug in his pocket hurriedly and took out the few dried peppermint leaves he’d snagged from the kitchen, crushing them between his thumb and forefinger over his other hand until his palm was covered in a fine powder. He muttered an incantation and blew.

The cloud of powder burst from the slit in the cloak, hovering for a second before moving forward, taken on an invisible gust of wind. This was a textbook locating spell, and Travis had asked it to find the most magical thing in the room. He wasn’t disappointed.

The peppermint led him to a smaller room off of Jake’s main work area, blocked off by a large tapestry. Travis moved it aside, leaving a crack big enough for him to slip through. The peppermint was already inside, swirling around a medium sized chest. It was wooden and very pretty, carved with different styles of plants and flowers, but didn’t seem like much until Travis touched it. His hands twitched— it was humming with power. The peppermint fell to the floor and scattered into nothing.

The wards on this chest were thicker than Travis had ever felt. There was no way he’d be able to break through normally, but as he drew the chest underneath the cloak with him, he felt the magic fall away. There wasn’t even a real lock on it.

“Thank fuck,” Travis muttered as he flipped the latch. He sucked at lock picking. Ghost had tried to teach him once, and it hadn’t ended well.

The chest was full to bursting with things Travis didn’t even have names for. A jar of electric blue flower petals, a tiny open cauldron bubbling with a thick copper liquid, a bundle of sticks tied with silver thread, a few carved wands, a stoppered vial filled with what looked like tiny, glowing stars, piles of rocks that didn’t look very magical.

And— look at that.

A bundle of what looked like, what had Bee said? Cooking saffron. But this was larger and undeniably magical; the orangey-red shimmered in the low light and the peppery, strong smell burned Travis’s nose even as he kept his distance. He took a small canvas pouch out of his pocket and put a few strands of the saffron crocus inside, suddenly unsure. Patty hadn’t said how much they needed, but he also didn’t want Jake to notice if a huge chunk of one of his most magical herbs was suddenly missing. He took a few more pieces and closed up the chest, pushing it back underneath the shelf.

He put a quick spell on his pouch to keep the saffron from breaking, and shoved it back into his pocket. He exhaled. Okay. That hadn’t been the worst thing in the world. He was still alive, at least.

“You’re sure you have it up here? I can ask Coots down at the shed.”

Travis froze, halfway through the gap in the tapestry. That was Claude’s voice. He hadn’t even heard anyone else come into the Lookout.

Claude and Jake walked around the corner, thankfully moving away from Travis and toward Jake’s long work table in front of the main group of windows.

“No, I have a bunch already dried. It always works better dried.” Jake took a large jar in both hands and shook it. “Damn, okay, I think I have more in the back.”

Claude fell back into Jake’s huge armchair he always kept by the Lookout’s fireplace. “How’s it always so warm up here?”

Jake laughed as— fuck, he’s coming this way! Travis hurriedly left the doorway, making sure not to move the tapestry or trip over the uneven flooring, and moved toward Claude and the fireplace. There was a little space where the bricks of the fireplace wall jutted out from the actual wall, and he fit perfectly. There was no way he’d be accidentally bumped or jostled. He’d just wait until Claude and Jake left and he’d be free as a bird.

“Notice how I never go to your tower.” Jake pushed the tapestry all the way over and dust flew. “Fuckin’ Icicle. You’re damn right.”

“It’s not that bad.” Claude crossed his arms and glowered at nothing as Jake rummaged around.

“Huh,” he said, poking his head back through the doorway. He had a sprig of leaves stuck in his hair. “I swear I put my chest in a different spot this morning. It’s clear on the other side of the floor.”

Fuck! Travis’s heart made a bid for his throat. Fuck, fuck, fuck—

Claude laughed. “You’re getting old, Jakey.”

That made Jake scowl. “You’re getting old, you old fuck. You’re lucky I’m willing to do all these damn rituals for you.”

When Jake’s back was turned, Claude stuck his tongue out at him. Jake scoffed.

“I saw that.”

“You saw shit.

Jake left the smaller room, his arms full of jars. “Okay, we got some mugwort, some chervil, and a shit ton of cayenne. You said Coots is helping, too?”

“I told him we’d meet behind the shed in a half hour, give or take.”

“And you remember I told you the Konecny ritual came back negative, right?”

Travis froze, or, well, continued to freeze. He’d almost forgotten that the veterans had done some sort of ritual last night, supposedly seeing if he was cursed or not. Negative. That sounded like a good sign. He wondered why Claude hadn’t said anything about it.

“This isn’t about TK,” Claude said. “Well, not really. I do think he messed with something out of his control, and I do think the Niche is vulnerable in some way, shape, or form. I’m not sure if those two things are connected. I need some time to figure it out.”

“The kid’s not cursed, Claude.”

“AV said—“

“You told AV?” Jake cut him off. Claude lifted and dropped one shoulder.

“He’s our conscriptor, Jake, he knows more than we do.”

“What ever happened to we want him in our business like we want a hole in the head?” Jake shot back. Claude frowned as Jake moved to the table, taking the jars in his arms and lining them up before putting scoops of herbs in different canvas bags, like the one currently burning a hole in Travis’s pocket. Jake huffed out a sigh. “What did AV say?”

“He thinks TK is an issue,” Claude said after a long pause. “The judgement, you know, about the whole cat thing. Even if he’s not cursed. It’s good he’s not cursed, but still…”

“And he thinks…”

“We’re just going to keep an eye on him, Jake. Make sure he’s doing okay, like we always do for the rest of them anyway. Maybe something’s going on with him, you know, in a non-magical sense. Like what Morgan’s going through.”

“And AV’s going to keep his nose out of it?”

“He said so.”

Jake snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“He does think I’m right, though.” Claude crossed his arms. “About us being vulnerable.”

“Vulnerable to who?”

Travis didn’t miss the subtle way Claude’s eyes flickered to the floor and then back up to meet Jake’s.

“Come on, G, there’s no way he—“

Claude slammed a jar down onto the table so hard it shook, and immediately looked like he regretted it. His eyes were dark and stormy, brows drawn over them like two ginger wildfires.

“I’m not underestimating him. Ever again.

“Let’s do the ritual, then.” Jake gathered the canvas bags in one hand and held the other out for Claude, who took it after just a moment’s hesitation. Jake pulled him toward the door, pushing him in front to lead before clapping that same empty hand on his shoulder. “Find the vulnerabilities and shore up our defense, right, captain?”

Claude turned, just slightly, and Travis caught a glimpse of his white-tooth grin through his fiery ginger beard before the Lookout’s door slammed shut.

He didn’t dare take off the cloak, not with Claude and Jake still so near (he could hear their footsteps trailing downward as they left the tower), so he just sank down into the same chair that Claude had been sitting in. It was still warm.

He thinks TK is an issue…

Claude talked to AV about him. Travis had never once met their conscriptor; Claude had been the one to come to his parents’ house, Claude had been the messenger and the friendly face, the one with all of the answers. AV was a looming presence, a power that Travis didn’t understand. One that apparently understood him, though, all of the darkest parts of him that he tried so hard to keep hidden. An issue.

Fire bloomed in Travis’s chest. A deep, hot feeling that might have been anger, might have been humiliation, but all he felt was resolve. If he was an issue, if he was a liability, a damn flight risk, he was going to make it worth his fuckin’ while. He took the inside of the cloak in both hands, about to rip it off completely and announce his presence to the entire Niche —look where I am! Look what I’m doing!— but he didn’t.

He still had responsibilities. To himself, sure, to keep himself out of trouble until the full moon, but also to Patty. He only had to think of Patty’s cutting eyes and deep voice and broad shoulders… Travis took a few deep breaths in a row. He was doing this for both of them.

To prove to Claude that he knew what he was doing.

To prove to Patty that he was a capable witch.

To prove to himself that…

That what?

Travis shook his head and stood. He could figure that out later. Or maybe never, because fuck it.

He took the stairs two at a time, leaving the Lookout far behind him.

 

*****

 

“You disappeared for a little bit this afternoon,” Oskar said as they ate dinner. Travis had a mouthful of roast beef and gravy, and felt it dripping down his chin as he answered with his mouth full.

“What?”

“I needed a partner earlier and Sanny already paired with Laughts,” Oskar continued. “So I went upstairs, but you weren’t in your room.”

Travis’s shoulders slumped in relief. Not literal disappearance, then. He swallowed and turned back to his plate to take another bite. “Took a walk around the lake, needed some fresh air.”

Sanny swung his legs over the bench and wedged himself next to Travis, scraping the peas off of his plate and right onto Travis’s pile of meat and potatoes. “Lindy’s just mad that I picked Scott to practice shatter spells with, because he—“

“I did not try to break that window,” Oskar argued. Sanny grinned.

“Sure about that? It was pretty thick glass and a pretty strong spell.”

“Shut up,” Oskar grumped, and Travis refocused on his dinner. One in the morning was creeping closer and closer, and with every lie or half-truth he told he was getting more and more uncomfortable. He felt like he was getting good at it. One or two, over like, a month period, sure. But now he was digging deep holes for himself, and at some point he wouldn’t be able to get out on his own.

After tonight, everything will be different, he told himself as he scraped his plate clean. Pulling off this thing with Patty under the full moon would be enough to prove to Claude that he was capable of strong magic, and, more importantly, might help him save Patty from whatever happened to him. That was the goal. That was worth anything.

“What are you guys doing the rest of the night?” he asked.

Oskar motioned for his empty plate and he handed it over. “I’m on dishes with Bee, and after I think I heard something about a fire by the lake.”

“Sounds good,” Travis said, and thought about it for a second before taking the stack of plates back. “I can help you with dishes and we can head down there after.”

Oskar pulled the plates back towards him. “Since when do you want to do dishes?”

Travis yanked the plates back and hid them under the table on his lap before one of them broke. “Since always, stupid. Let me spend some quality time with my best friend, or whatever.”

“Hey!” Sanny looked up from the spellbook he was reading and leaned over the table to punch Travis on the arm, probably a little harder than necessary. Travis kicked him.

“I can have two best friends, but I won’t if you keep fuckin’ hitting me.”

“You can help with dishes, too,” Oskar said, giving Sanny a winning smile that would’ve probably worked on anyone with a soul, but Sanny just crossed his arms.

Fuck no. You guys have fun.”

Travis gathered the dishes from their table while Oskar got the ones from the table closest to the kitchen. Bee finished his food and cleared his table, too, the far one where Claude was defending his title as the Niche’s arm wrestling champion, a title that was challenged about once a month when Raff or JVR got a little too mouthy during training.

The big kitchen was empty, those who had already finished eating and left had just stacked their dishes in a sprawling, precarious pile next to the main sink. There were a couple of roasting pans and large pots still scattered across the stovetop. Travis instantly regretted offering to help. Dinner was the worst time to clean dishes, and damn, Braun and Nisky made some good food but it seemed like they used every single dish in the entire kitchen to do it.

“I’ll wash, you dry?” he said, grabbing a clean dishtowel and offering it to Oskar, who nodded. “Beezer can take on those pans over there.”

The pans in question were crusted in dried roast beef leavings, and Bee gave Travis a hurt look.

“Fuck that, how about you do the pans and I’ll help Lindy wash?”

“I’m not even on dish duty tonight, so be grateful you don’t have to do both.” Travis grabbed the dishtowel back from Oskar and swatted Bee with it, who yelped in indignation and grabbed a dishtowel for himself to retaliate.

“Okay, okay.” Oskar waded into the fray and grabbed both towels, sticking one in his back pocket and wrapping the other around his hand. “We’re gonna miss the entire fire unless we do something about this mess.”

“You got it, boss.” Bee made a face at Travis and turned to scrub at the first of many dirty pans.

“Why are you the boss?” Travis grumbled to Oskar as they moved to stand side-by-side at the largest sink. Oskar didn’t answer, just gave Travis one of his sunshine grins before they fell into a familiar rhythm; Travis grabbing dishes out of the pile, dunking them in soapy water before scrubbing them clean and handing them off to Oskar to rinse and dry them. Travis used small magic to heat the water, to keep it soapy and clean, as Oskar put a location spell on the shelf above the sink; every dish placed on it levitated and moved to its proper place.

It was nice, he thought as he dunked and soaped and scrubbed, to do something with your hands that could have feasibly been done completely with magic. Claude was a big proponent of that, of getting your hands dirty if you wanted something done correctly. He claimed that’s why his tomato soup was so good; he grew the tomatoes himself in a small patch of Coots’s garden, cut them himself, cooked them himself, no magic necessary. Travis thought sometimes that even if Claude had been born with no magic he’d have stormed the Niche anyway, claiming he could do anything that any given witch could do, with or without magic.

It was a little ridiculous, but it was Claude, and Claude was the greatest witch Travis knew.

Even with the sheer amount of dishes to do, three people made the task fly. It felt like no time before the three of them started walking down to the fire pit by the lake. Oskar had gotten them a few flannel blankets out of the closet attached to the kitchen; Travis was pretty sure they were meant to be picnic blankets and not keeping-warm blankets, but whatever, they worked. The bonfire was already raging, climbing high up to the stars and throwing sparks like confetti over the gathered group of witches at its base.

Bee split off from them, plunking down beside Frosty and wrapping half his blanket around his shoulders. Travis followed Oskar around the fire until they found Sanny and Scotty, together they made a tight knit bunch that, between body heat and the warmth from the fire, kept the spring night’s chill at bay.

Travis, huddled between Oskar and Scotty, couldn’t help but think about Patty. He wondered what he was like, well, not in a cat body. Would he like bonfire nights at the Niche? They were one of Travis’s favorite things. The heat of the fire, the crisp air, the warmth of bodies pressed around him. Maybe the next time they had a bonfire, Patty would be sitting next to him, sharing his blanket and watching the flames climb higher and higher. Travis couldn’t help but wonder if he’d like early morning coffee with Sanny, or listening to Scotty’s dry ass jokes that always made Travis laugh so hard he choked, or staying up late with Oskar and talking about nothing until the candles doused themselves in an effort to make them shut the hell up and go to bed.

He couldn’t help but wonder if Patty would fit in at the Niche, if he would fit into Travis’s life. If he would even want to.

Or maybe he was nothing like Travis, and just using him as a means to an end. He had to be a powerful witch; Travis had never heard of anyone pulling off a transformation like that, even a failed one. Maybe Patty, with his long hair and expressive eyebrows and blushy cheeks, was actually an arrogant asshole. That would suck so hard.

(There was also still the possibility that he was either the wielder or the recipient of a curse, but Travis definitely didn’t want to think about that.)

Someone was passing around mugs of steaming cider, and Travis accepted one gratefully. Even more gratefully when he actually took a sip and realized it was mixed with a little too much rum. The alcohol warmed him up from the inside out, loosened the tangle of emotions in his chest, and blurred his thoughts enough that every time he thought the name Patty, it was accompanied by nothing more than a vague sense of contentment and a few other thoughts that made the tips of his ears burn.

He drained that mug and then another, and when Oskar motioned to refill it, he shook his head no.

“Can’t,” he said, and leaned his head onto Oskar’s shoulder instead. He knew his limits, knew he was teetering on the edge and needed to be focused when one in the morning rolled around. That didn’t stop him from pressing closer to Oskar anyway, drifting between consciousness and sleep, just happy to have a solid body next to his.

 

*****

 

The rest of the night went about the same as it always did when the Niche had a bonfire. Frosty drank a little too much and Bee had to take him back to his room, Claude and Jake showed off their fire breathing tricks, Raff and Scotty got into some halfhearted fistfight over some inside argument they’d been having for years, Travis fell asleep on Oskar’s shoulder.

He actually ended up leaving a little bit earlier than he normally would. There was still a lot of bonfire left, Oskar argued, but Travis made something up about a stomachache or a headache, waved away Oskar’s offer for help, and climbed the rolling hill back to the Niche alone. He’d left the blanket back by the fire for Sanny, and regretted it as he crossed his arms against the chill.

The hallways were empty. Travis took a shortcut around the main kitchen and paused—

“Oh come on, you got this!” Kevin’s voice.

Oh yeah, his and Hartsy’s weird math date! Travis hid behind a column and peeked around it into the far side of the kitchen. It was fuckin’ late. They must be having a good time.

Carter’s face was screwed up in his I’m concentrating, leave me the hell alone expression that Travis was more than familiar with as he stared down the scale, a pile of crushed up something (sue him, Travis wasn’t Coots), and Kevin on the other end of the table with a very encouraging expression on. He muttered an incantation of some sort and the scale began to glow very faintly. Kevin whooped and the glow disappeared.

Hayesy,” Carter breathed out, exasperated, sure, but nothing like what he’d be like if literally anyone else in the Niche broke his concentration like that. Travis had seen him snap at Jake during a drill.

He waggled his eyebrows at nothing in particular, wishing with all his heart and soul that Sanny was there with him. Carter had it bad.

“Okay, okay, okay.” Kevin held up his hands in surrender, apparently not understanding that he could have been stone cold murdered for what he’d just done, “I’ll shut up, promise. Just try it again, I’m sure you’ll get it this time.”

Travis snuck away before Carter tried again. He had about three hours until the full moon reached its peak, and he wanted to sleep at least a little bit before then. He took the stairs two at a time and nudged the door open to his room, peeking his head in first just in case something weird was going on in there. Nothing much. Patty had relocated, and was now on Travis’s bed, curled up with his head on his paws right next to Travis’s normal stack of pillows.

“Hey, bud,” he said. Patty cracked one eye open and regarded him.

Mrow. Okay, that sounded a lot like you smell like booze.

“We had a bonfire,” Travis offered up before kicking off his shoes and sitting down on the other end of his bed. “You’d like it, maybe.”

He paused. Patty made no indication of his thoughts and feelings toward bonfires.

“Anyway, I’m going to sleep a little before the full moon.”

Nothing. Patty didn’t move, either.

“Okay,” Travis continued, and maneuvered so he was laying in his usual divot in his mattress, so close to Patty that he’d probably be able to lick his nose if he, like, tried. Or wanted to lick a cat’s nose, which sounded not ideal. “This is chill, I guess.”

Patty nestled his head back down into his paws and closed his eyes again. Travis pulled a blanket up so it was covering both of them and fell asleep.

 

*****

 

“Get on my fuckin’ shoulders,” Travis said, kneeling down in front of a cat in a way he never thought he would have to, ever in his life. He reached his arm out and Patty just glared in that way he did. “I have to cover us both in that damn cloak, and if you want to do this ritual you’ll do what I say. Get on my fuckin’ shoulders!” Patty glared more, if that was even possible, but leapt up onto Travis’s shoulders anyway, and Travis didn’t know for sure, but it felt like he was being laughed at when his knees buckled under the new weight.

“Okay, hold on,” Travis said as soon as he righted himself and was able to stand. He flipped the cloak around his now be-catted shoulders and tied it loosely, flipping the hood up to cover his face. The pattern of the fabric melted imperceptibly into the background until Travis could see through it like he wasn’t looking through fabric at all. “You ready?”

Patty dug his claws into Travis’s shoulder.

“You don’t have to be a dick about it. Let’s do this thing.”

The fifth yard was definitely not close to Travis’s room. It took him about fifteen minutes to navigate the hallways and passages throughout the Niche (avoiding the faint glow of light coming from the main kitchen, damn, were Kevin and Carter still hanging out?) before he was in the wide arched hallway, and that meant he only had about fifteen more minutes until the full moon was at its peak. He crossed through the biggest arch and into the fifth yard, the damp grass squelching under his bare feet, until he reached the obsidian slab in the very farthest corner.

There were a few places in the Niche that had obsidian built in for ritual purposes, but this one was the largest. Travis took off the cloak, placing it underneath one of the arches so it wouldn’t get wet, and bent down so Patty could leap off of his shoulders. He took the bag of saffron crocus out of his pocket and laid it on the slab before ducking into the small kitchen off of the fifth yard, the one where he’d made black salt with Bee. The jar of salt was exactly where he’d left it.

Patty sat perfectly still as Travis made the salt circle around him, large enough that they could both fit comfortably. He poured out the saffron crocus stalks and gathered them into a bundle so he could tie them with a bit of twine, but Patty batted at his hand until he let them fall back onto the obsidian. He nosed at a few stalks, pushing them away from the main group.

“Okay, let’s keep those apart,” Travis said, and put them back in the linen bag. He gathered the rest and tied them quickly, making a knot and biting off the rest with his teeth. He sat in the circle and crossed his legs. Opposite him, Patty tilted his head down.

The clouds parted as the full moon reached its zenith right above them, a moonbeam cutting through the darkness to bathe the fifth yard in silvery light.

Well, Travis thought, it’s now or never.

He whispered an incantation and the bundle of saffron crocus began to smoke and burn, releasing tiny orange sparks that swirled around the salt circle, lazily at first, but then with more and more urgency. They burned brighter and brighter as the ground underneath Travis began to shake. He planted his hands on either side of him just to keep himself steady; he could feel the grit of salt under his palms.

The tornado of sparks split and tore in two, horizontally, releasing a stream of light so unbelievably searing bright that Travis’s arms flew up to shield his eyes on instinct. When he lowered them, blinking his eyes to get rid of the light’s imprint on his retinas, he was somewhere new.

A forest. He could hear the burbling of some creek off in the distance, and the slices of sky he could see through the trees was overcast and cloudy. And, there—

“Patty,” he breathed.

Patty got to his feet at the same time Travis did, fully human and, yep, still taller than Travis by a few inches at least. He clenched his fists a few times, ran a hand through his hair, blinked rapidly, almost like he was testing if he was really human. He was dressed differently this time; a pair of shorts, a cropped tank, a cardigan that looked straight out of Kevin’s wildly unpredictable closet. He, like Travis, was barefoot.

“Where are we?” Travis asked.

Patty cleared his throat. “This is my dreamspace. Took some good stuff to get us here.” He paused, his cheeks pinker than they had been before he started talking.

“Your dreamspace? How on earth—“ Travis started, but Patty shook his head hard enough to make him stop.

“We still don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “Back in the real world, that saffron’s still burning. When it goes out, the power it has will stop assisting us and we’ll get thrown back into our bodies down there.”

“Okay,” Travis said slowly. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you? Because my whole coven thinks I’m cursed.”

Patty’s eyebrows drew together. “I told you, I’m not a curse.”

“And I believe you, but come on, they have a point. They can’t even tell you’re not a real cat.”

Patty had the unmitigated audacity to fuckin’ smirk. “Strong magic, I guess.”

Travis barked out a laugh and dropped to the forest floor, crossing his arms like Claude had just told him to do something he didn’t want to do. “Two can play at that jackass game, bud. Tell me what’s going on with you or I’ll sit here until that fuckin’ crocus burns itself right out.”

Patty looked down at him. “You’re kidding.”

Travis jutted his chin up at him in that obstinate way he knew everyone at the Niche hated. “Try me.”

Patty huffed out a long breath and took a seat, too, about a yard away from Travis with his long legs splayed out in front of him. “We’ll start at the beginning, then. My name’s Patrick.”

“Is that your real name?” Travis challenged. Patty gave him a look.

“Last name.”

“What’s your first name, bud?”

“Not on your life.” Patty crossed his arms and Travis almost argued. It wasn’t like he didn’t know Travis’s first name, and he was being kind of ridiculous about it, but he was already steamrolling ahead. “I was born in Volantes, but my parents moved to the borderlands before I could get conscripted.”

Travis frowned. “Why’d they—“

“They didn’t want their kid taken away from them just because of magic,” Patty shot back. “They didn’t trust the Niche, never had.”

“Wait, didn’t? What happened to them?”

Patty’s eyes darkened and he drew his legs closer to his body, curling in on himself in a way that reminded Travis very much of his cat counterpart. Travis lifted his hands.

“I’ll drop it. Not my place.” He thought for a second, and forged ahead. “And the Niche isn’t bad. Getting conscripted was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

He lifted up his shirt and shimmied his left arm out of it, hiking the fabric up far enough that Patty could see his upper forearm and shoulder. It looked like a tattoo, his mark, but it was actually a magical brand. A wing with four main feathers, smaller feathers circling the part at the bottom, the muscle that allowed the wing to beat hard enough to fly. It was the exact size of a grown man’s hand.

“My conscriptor, AV, put it there when I became a fully-fledged witch,” Travis said. “It was a crazy ceremony. The room was all dark, I couldn’t see anything. Hurt like hell, but worth it. It means I’m part of the coven.”

“It means you’re owned by someone,” Patty shot back.

Travis felt ire rise in his chest. Who on earth was Patty to judge him like that? “It means I have a family.

Patty crossed his arms, sinking back to lean against the tree behind him. “Some family. Didn’t Giroux punish you for just trying to do something good?”

Travis leapt to his feet, his hands out. Magic crackled between his fingertips, heavy and strong in Patty’s dreamspace. He felt like he could burn through the sky. “Don’t you dare talk shit about G.”

Patty stayed on the ground, and it was his turn this time to raise his hands in surrender. “Didn’t mean to. Giroux is a legend.”

Travis stayed on his feet but lowered his hands, feeling the magic sizzle out.

“You said you were from the borderlands,” he said, prodding Patty into continuing. Patty shrugged.

“I’m from Volantes. I grew up in the borderlands, sure.”

The borderlands belonged to no city and weren’t under the jurisdiction of any conscriptor. They were rugged and dangerous, with no rules and no witches to enforce them. Some borders between cities were only a few feet wide, but others were miles and miles long, a lot of space for people with magic to hide if they wanted to. Travis wondered why Patty wanted to, and for so long.

“So why…” Travis gestured toward him. “Why the whole cat thing?”

“People were after me.” Patty lifted and dropped one shoulder, like it was normal to have strong enough magic that it could be sensed by conscriptors even in the borderlands. I fought off witches from Teufel and Arktos, mainly. I didn’t want to get conscripted by choice, I wasn’t about to get fuckin’ conscripted by force.

“Huh.” Travis sat down again, crossing his legs and leaning his elbows down onto his calves, letting his chin drop into his hands. “You’re really dancing around that cat question, huh?”

Patty blushed, his entire face going red. “I got caught.”

“Yeah?” Travis crowed. “So much for high and mighty Patty.”

“Shut up, Travis.” Patty ducked his head and made a big deal about rubbing the back of his neck before he finally showed his face again to continue. “They were from Teufel for sure, because they made a big deal about…” He wrinkled his nose and seemed to reevaluate the amount of information he was willingly giving. “Whatever. They put me in chains, is the end of it, and I was finally able to transform. The panic of it helped, maybe.”

“What do you mean, finally?”

“I’d been trying for years,” Patty said. “I learned about it from these old books my parents had. It’s a dead magic, supposedly, but I trained and trained with those books. When I reached out that day I was captured, the magic was there. The cat thing, though, that was a surprise. I wasn’t really trying for anything in particular. I think once I get better at it I’ll be able to control it.”

“Control it? You can’t even turn back!”

Patty rolled his eyes. “Thanks for reminding me. That’s why we’re here, right?”

“Yeah,” Travis said. “How do we do this?”

He could feel it now, the heat from the burning saffron crocus, the cold obsidian slab beneath his legs as the full moon slipped out of sight behind the clouds. Their time was running out.

“I’m strongest here,” Patty said. “In the dreamspace. I’ve been here a lot these past few days, shoring up my energy. I think I can transform back, but I need the rest of that saffron crocus to really amp up my magic. You have it, right?”

Travis patted his pocket, and sure enough, the little bag with the sprigs of saffron crocus was there. He tossed it to Patty, who emptied it and tossed it to the side. Wasting no time, he shoved the sprigs, stems, flowers, all of it, right into his mouth.

“Hold on,” Travis said. The magic from the fifth yard was really burning, now, rending the dreamspace in clawlike shreds. He could see glimpses of the outside world through the fiery tears. “What if this doesn’t work?”

Patty looked at him, still chewing the saffron crocus, and, for the first time, he looked scared as hell.

“I don’t know.”

His teeth are orange, was Travis’s last thought before Patty raised his arms straight out in front of him, waving them out in a decisive swooping motion, and the entire dreamspace blew apart like a bomb had gone off. A slice of orange fire cut through everything like a knife through butter; Travis felt it pass through him, burning but not hurting, intensity and strength and magic.

He fell back into the cool grass of the fifth yard, chest heaving, skin crackling with magical residue. The air smelled like fire and metal.

“Holy shit,” he said, propping himself up on one elbow and looking around. “Patty, I—“

Patty wasn’t there. The entire fifth yard was destroyed, pillars fractured and smoking, the obsidian slab cracked right down the middle. The bushes that lined the far wall had gone up in flames and were still smoldering, the shed on the other side of the yard had its roof caved in, and—

Travis screamed.

Broken obsidian scraped his hands and knees as he got to his feet and ran, stumbling and slipping on the dew wet grass.

He fell to his knees beside Carter, hands trembling over the gash across his chest and both arms, like he’d taken the full blast of whatever magic had happened in Patty’s dreamspace. Travis screamed again, screamed for help as Carter’s chest heaved and Carter's heart raced and Carter's blood stained the moonlit grass red, red, red.

 

Chapter Text

The grass underneath Travis was charred and still smoking. He could feel the blades crumble beneath his fingers as he dug them deep into the warm earth underneath, like that would hold him steady as his entire world fell apart right along with them.

He kept his eyes resolutely fixed on his bare feet, drawn close to him so he could rest his arms on his knees and his chin on his arms, sitting on his ass in the dirt and probably looking more miserable than he'd ever looked in his entire life. He didn't dare lift his head, but he still knew exactly what was happening around him.

Carter was on his back, still, right by the stone arch entrance to the fifth yard. Travis could hear the awful, raspy breaths moving in and out of his lungs as Jake knelt over him with both hands over his ears and muttered incantations. Coots was on his knees on Carter’s other side, coating his raw, open wounds in a mixture Claude had whipped up with impressive speed in the tiny kitchen off of the fifth yard. Oskar was standing over them, his hands up, keeping a shimmering barrier around them to ward off anything dark.

Travis tried not to think about how he was firmly on the other side of that barrier.

And Kevin— oh god, the noise Kevin had made when he ran through the stone arch and seen Carter in the grass, Travis over him with his hands covered in his blood…

He hadn't even looked at Travis, and, honestly, Travis would be surprised if Kevin had even registered his presence. He flew across the fifth yard, faster than Travis had ever seen him move, bellowing something intelligible that turned out to be an incantation as the ground underneath Carter started to heat up. 

Travis had scrambled backwards, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire of whatever magic Kevin was doing, which, turns out, was a complicated spell that kept Carter on his back in the dirt, applying pressure on his wounds to stop him from bleeding out. Kevin held him like that, muttering incantations and staring at the sky like he couldn’t handle looking down at Carter’s prone body, until Jake and Coots had burst into the fifth yard.

As they worked, Claude stood off to the side, his arms crossed, staring at the flurry of movement around Carter like he could heal him through sheer willpower.

Maybe he could. It wasn’t like Travis knew anything about magic.

Travis huddled further into himself, curling his shoulders uncomfortably, furious with the grass for being too cold and furious with his feet for not having socks on and furious with himself for hurting Carter and furious with himself for not being more careful and furious with himself for trusting…

Even thinking the name made his chest ache.

Patrick.

Fuck. Travis ducked his head lower as the corners of his eyes prickled and his nose burned. What had his plan been, anyway? Sneak into the Niche as a cat, find a vulnerable witch to trust him, get his hands on one of the rarest and most magical herbs to boost his power enough to take out Volantes’ prodigy protector, and disappear without a trace?

Hell of a plan. Complicated as shit. If Patty was going to be an evil villain, he should have at least done a dramatic monologue at the end of it all so Travis knew exactly where he stood.

What had he said in the dreamspace? He’d been captured by witches from Teufel. Maybe he’d made some sort of deal with them, a strike back against Volantes in exchange for his freedom. Or maybe all of his story had been a lie, and he was a witch from Teufel. Or any other city, really. Haadstêd, Scire, Yerkar Island… Maybe he was even one of those bastards from Mörgæs. They’d want to fuck up Volantes any way they could, based on how Claude talked about them. What was one more lie?

I told you, I’m not a curse.

And I believe you, but…

The worst part of it all was he had believed him. He’d have followed Patty wherever he led, no question, and he’d barely known him. Travis hid his head in his arms and focused on breathing in, out, in, out. All he could smell was smoke and the sharp acidity of whatever mixture Coots had made for Carter. All he could hear was Carter’s ragged breathing.

And then, softly—

Ow.

“Hartsy!” Jake.

“Don’t move, don’t move!” Coots.

—and a flurry of movement and kicked up rocks as Kevin scrambled to his feet and fully leapt over the short wall separating the fifth yard from the corridor. Oskar laughed, a quiet, bright sound, and Travis lifted his head.

Jake and Coots were on either side of Carter; Coots scraping off the plant mixture with a sharp-edged jade knife as Jake followed along the wounds with his bare hands, slowly and carefully. Under his palms the skin knit itself back together, still pink and raw, but a lot less deadly than open, bleeding wounds. Oskar still had his arms up, his barrier now silvery white as he steadily lost energy. Losing energy from the amount of exertion it took to keep up a barrier like that, but also because he was holding up the barrier while arguing under his breath with Kevin, who wanted nothing more than to get through to Carter. Oskar was having none of it.

On the ground, Coots pushed a sweaty shock of hair off of Carter’s forehead as his chest heaved. He was saying something, or trying to, and Jake’s head snapped up to glare at Coots.

“Can you knock him out so I can fuckin’ finish with this?”

Coots said something to Carter, speaking soft enough that Travis couldn’t hear, and put both hands over his eyes. They glowed silver for the briefest second before Carter went limp. He gestured to Oskar, who lowered his hands and allowed the barrier to dissipate, and both Oskar and Coots backed off to give Jake space to continue knitting the torn skin back together.

Kevin didn’t back off, but sat cross-legged by Carter’s head, where Coots had been. Jake’s shoulders tensed as he worked, but he didn’t tell Kevin to leave.

The fifth yard was quiet for the first time. The only thing Travis could hear was the sizzle and crack of Jake’s magic working and Kevin’s heavy, stressed-out breathing as he watched without being able to help.

Coots broke the silence. “He’s going to be all right.”

This was towards Claude, who hadn’t moved an inch since handing the potion he’d made off to Coots at the very beginning of it all. A muscle pulsed in his jaw as he stared down at Carter’s prone body.

“How did this happen?”

His voice was so low that Coots leaned forward a little.

“What?”

Claude wheeled around, his teeth bared and furious as he advanced toward Travis. “How did this happen?

Travis scrambled to his feet, backing up to keep a good few feet of space between him and Claude. Coots raced to Claude’s side and Oskar sprinted across the fifth yard to stand next to Travis, keeping one cool hand on his shoulder as he, wide-eyed, took in Claude’s furious expression. He’d never in a million years seen the Niche’s leader this angry.

“Hold on, hold on.” Coots put both of his hands on Claude’s chest. “This was huge, destructive magic, G. This wasn’t TK’s fault.”

“Travis would never hurt Carter,” Oskar said.

Claude’s burning eyes hadn’t left Travis’s face.

“Tell me what happened.”

Travis took another step back, away from Oskar rubbing reassuring circles on his back, away from Coots’s encouraging expression, away from Claude. He crossed his arms over his chest to ward off the night’s chill as he dug his toes into the soft earth underneath him.

“I did it.”

He looked down at the ground, not quick enough to miss the way Oskar’s face fell.

“I did it,” he said again, still not daring to look up. “I stole saffron crocus from Jake and gave it to Patrick in his dreamspace. We did a full moon ritual to try and get him back in his human body, but everything exploded and Carter was there, I guess, and he got hurt, and…” Travis choked to a halt as Claude lunged forward and grabbed him by the shoulders.

“That cat was a part of this?”

Travis twitched uncomfortably under Claude’s grip. “Yes.”

Claude shook him a little bit as he released him and rounded on Coots. “Get JVR and Raff. Hell, get fuckin’ everyone. This was an attack.”

Oskar’s eyes grew to the size of dinner plates and Coots grabbed Claude by the arm.

“You think that cat—“

“I don’t know what the fuck happened with that cat,” Claude growled, shaking his arm free, “but something happened, and TK’s in the thick of it. Someone take him to the sacrarium so I can deal with him later.”

“G, can I—” Travis started, but Claude turned and glared.

“You almost killed Carter,” he said, and his voice boomed across the fifth yard. “You’ll do nothing but sit on your hands and shut up about that damn cat until I figure out what to do with you.”

Travis deflated. Claude turned on his heel, bringing Coots along with him as he barked orders to Jake, who had finished with Carter and now held him in his arms like a half-stuffed scarecrow, to Kevin, to Oskar, to the entire yard, now full of witches brought by the wild magical energy emanating through the night air. Claude handed out assignments, yelling at Bee to help Jake with Carter, at Ghost, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand like he’d just been rudely woken up, to walk the perimeter of the Niche with Nisky and Moose to shore up the defensive spells, at Raff and JVR to follow him.

Travis stood in the middle of the fifth yard, silent and still as everyone raced around him. Behind him were the shattered remains of the obsidian slab, and he could still faintly smell burning saffron crocus in the air. Claude yelled something else that he barely heard; he felt sick, like he was going to…

The ground shook and Travis stumbled, almost falling to his knees. Bile rose in the back of his throat but he choked it down and managed to clamber back to his feet, looking up and seeing…

A strange man stood in front of him, in a long black coat and dark shoes so shiny that Travis could see his scruffy reflection looking back up at him. The man raised an eyebrow and looked over his shoulder.

“He’s not much,” he said. This was to Claude, who, for the first time Travis had ever seen, looked horrified. The man turned back to Travis. “I remember you. You wouldn’t sit still, they had to hold you down.”

Travis’s shoulder burned. His mark, his tattoo. This was… Holy shit. He took a step back.

“AV?”

AV’s eyebrow arched higher as he regarded Travis. “Number Eleven, this display tonight is the highest offense of magical irresponsibility the Niche has ever seen.” The eyebrow lowered and flattened into an ice cold stare. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I…” Travis started, but clammed up when AV waved his hand dismissively.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve seen and heard enough. I’m assuming you’ve heard of the process of expulsion?”

Expulsion— Travis took another step back and tripped over the broken obsidian, sprawling on his back in the wet grass. The world spun. This man could take his magic, could strip him of everything he had. He wanted to. He was going to. He couldn’t—

TK? A voice knocked on the back door of his brain, quietly making itself known. Travis?

He’s going to take my magic, Travis thought frantically. The voice, the familiar voice, deep and grumbly... It was Patty’s voice—

I’m here, I’m here. Patty’s voice echoed, calming, exhausted, a balm. Travis closed his eyes for the briefest moment and allowed himself to feel what he'd felt in Patty's dreamspace— safe. Patty was still out there, and now was in his head, somehow. Not a curse, maybe. Maybe he was right all along and he was the one that was cursed. Maybe he still needed Travis.

Patty took a deep, shuddering breath. I don’t know what happened, Travis. I’m hurt, I think, and I’m still a cat, and I don’t know where I am—

You’re hurt? Travis thought, and then, you hurt Carter! How am I supposed to trust you?

Carter? I don’t know who Carter is!

He got injured in the fire blast or whatever all that magic caused, and now… Travis jolted back into reality as Claude bent down beside him, wrapping one arm through his to haul him to his feet. He heard Patty exhale in the back of his mind.

I’m sorry he got hurt, but so did I. I didn't know what that magic would do. I'm in over my head, and... Travis, please. I need help.

AV looked down on him. Claude’s heart was beating hard enough that Travis could feel it through the tight grip he had on his arm.

“You’re not taking Travis’s magic,” Claude said. “I won’t allow it.”

AV’s brows knit together for the briefest, damning second before he opened his arms, palms up, in a placating gesture. “Well then, captain, what do you suggest we do with him? He’s a liability to the Niche, to everything we’ve built.”

“He’s a kid,” Claude argued. “He needs training, he needs discipline.”

He needs, he needs, he needs... The words echoed in Travis's head. What do I need? I need time to think. I need to figure out what to do. I need to be alone. I need to talk to Carter. I need to get my head straight, I need to listen to Claude, I need to listen to AV, I need, I need...

Patty's dreamspace flashed through his mind, the calming yellows and greens of the forest. Patty sitting at the base of a towering tree, bare feet in the grass, a strand of ivy curling over one of his broad shoulders. Tilting his chin and looking at Travis in that asshole way he did when he questioned Claude and the Niche and everything Travis knew to be true and good and his.

What do you need, what do you need, what do you need. What do you want, Travis?

“I want to help Patty,” Travis blurted out. “He’s hurt somewhere, I have to go help him.”

Claude released his arm and took a shocked step back. “You have got to be shitting me, TK.”

"The cat." AV crossed his arms again. Claude looked at Travis like if he said another word, Claude was going to dig his grave himself. Travis rolled his shoulders back uncomfortably.

"He needs my help."

"Magic is a responsibility," AV said, turning pointedly to speak to Claude like Travis wasn't even there anymore. "Being here, being part of the Niche is a responsibility. If he no longer can bear that responsibility..." Claude shook his head.

"He's going through something, a rough patch, I can work with him."

"Like you've worked with him for years?"

Claude's face fell, and he shrank back. AV took a step towards Travis, the air around them crackling with magic. A sharp pain shot through Travis's chest and he fell to one knee in front of AV, clutching at the front of his thin t-shirt like he could stop the pain if he could just grab it and control it. He gasped out a sharp breath and it stopped as quickly as it came.

"Don't—" he managed to choke out.

"Don't what?" AV's shoes were right in front of him, he could see his reflection in the shiny black surface. Dark bags under his eyes, wild hair. He looked unhinged. He felt unhinged.

"Don't take my magic," he said.

"You're a liability. If not cursed, obsessed. That has the strong potential to be worse."

Travis glanced up just in time to see the worse leave AV's lips, clearly pointed at Claude, who still hung back, cowed into submission. AV knelt down, holding out a hand for Travis.

"I will allow things to return to normal if you let it go."

Let it go. Did he mean...

"Patty?"

"Everything from the past few days." AV flexed his fingers like he was waiting for Travis to grab hold. "Forgotten. Gone from my memory, if you allow it to be gone from yours."

"He's forgiving you, Travis," Claude hissed from behind him. "Take his fucking hand."

Travis pressed both of his hands into the soft earth and stood on his own. He shoved his hands into his pockets and hoped Claude knew he was sorry about everything.

"I'm going to help Patty," he said. "He's a witch, like us, and he's in trouble. I was taught here to use magic for good, and Patty is good. I know he is, and I know I am." He took a deep breath and looked AV right in his eyes. "No matter what you do to me."

AV raised an eyebrow before his hardened expression melted into a full laugh, open mouth, crinkled crows feet, the whole nine yards. He pulled Travis close to him, wrapping one arm around his shoulders and patting him hard on the chest with his other hand. 

"I forgot how gutsy you are, Eleven! Okay, I'll cut you a deal." He released Travis so quickly he stumbled. "You're banished, gone from the Niche for good."

Travis's head whipped around. "What?"

"What?" Claude said at the same time.

AV held up a finger in warning. "Unless..."

A dramatic silence.

"Unless..." Claude prompted.

"Unless you do what you need to and fix this cat situation. What did you call it? Patty?"

"His name is Patrick," Travis mumbled. AV clapped his hands once and it sounded like thunder.

"There you have it, then. Fix Patrick and you can come home."

"How am I supposed to—"

AV shot him a look harsh enough that he shut his mouth without really wanting to. "You said it yourself, you were taught to use magic for good. Prove it." 

Travis clenched his jaw. "Fine."

"Not so fast. If you want to strike this deal with me, there's one more catch." Travis met AV's eyes. They were no longer laughing. "You have until Last Quarter. Fail to complete this task, and you will not only be banished from the Niche for the remainder of your life, but I will perform expulsion immediately and you will no longer be able to practice magic."

"Last Quarter," Travis said, "but that's—"

"A week from now." AV pointed up at the full moon, half-blocked by clouds but still shining brightly. "When the moon reaches the Last Quarter stage before the New Moon, you will have either succeeded or failed."

He took Travis's chin in his hand and tilted his face upwards.

"Is this worth the trouble?"

Travis breathed in deep through his nose, closing his eyes as AV's fingers dug into his cheek. The Niche was his home. AV was his conscriptor, Claude his leader. Is this worth the trouble? 

He opened his eyes. "Yes."

AV released him and turned to the congregation of witches, still huddled under the stone arches in front of the fifth yard. The only ones absent were Jake and Carter.

"I am sending Number Eleven on a campaign," he said, and his voice boomed. "Every last one of you are barred from offering your help or services, and he is, from this moment forward, banished from the Niche until the campaign is completed."

He turned to Travis and spoke soft enough that he was the only one that heard.

"I will give you ten minutes to gather your things. Seven days."

"Seven days," Travis repeated. To do the impossible.

AV moved back to the crowd, saying something that Travis couldn't hear through the rush of blood in his ears. What the actual hell was he doing? His life, his home— Behind him, Claude put a hand on his shoulder.

"Be safe," he said before passing by Travis and back towards the Niche.

In the crowd of people under the granite arches, Travis found Oskar. His eyes were red, his face like stone. Before he could say anything, anything at all, before he could even reach out with magic, Oskar turned and pushed through the crowd of people, away from the fifth yard, away from Travis.

 

*****

 

The stone floor was cold under his bare feet, but he barely felt it as he sprinted through the halls. 

He didn't have much time. AV had said, what, ten minutes? Ten minutes to gather whatever he needed to survive the next seven days and get out of the Niche. What he wanted to do was sit down (where? It didn't matter) and just feel feelings for about an hour and a half, but he couldn't do that. He skidded to a stop outside his bedroom door and took a moment to catch his breath, planting his hand right underneath the metal eleven.

"Patty's hurt," he muttered to himself, making a mental list in his head before entering his room. "Healing herbs, something to bandage, a blanket..." He pushed the door open and quickly found his backpack, an old, beat up thing that he barely had any use for, shoved in the back of his closet. He folded the blanket Moose had knit for him and shoved it to the very bottom along with one more, padding the sides with a change of clothes and...

He went back to his closet and picked out a pair of dark fabric pants and a tie-dye sweatshirt that Oskar had made him for his birthday last year, folded them, too, and into the bag they went. Who knew what Patty's clothes situation would be once he transformed back? Maybe he'd appreciate tie-dye, maybe he wouldn't. Either way, Travis would hopefully, one day, get to see Patty's big shoulders shoved in his brightly colored sweatshirt, so. Win-win.

His supply cabinet posed a different problem. He didn't tend to keep a whole lot in his room, and there was no way he'd be able to make it to the kitchen or another supply room in time, and running around the Niche also meant the possibility of bumping into someone who really might not want to see him. He wouldn't be surprised if Kevin was out for blood, and he didn't have time to explain his situation, and Patty's situation, and how he really, really hadn't meant for Carter to get hurt, and—

He forced himself to stop and breathe, and opened his supply cabinet. Trying to ignore the frustrated tears prickling at the corners of his eyes as he looked at, well, a whole lot of not much on the shelves of his cabinet, he tentatively reached out.

Patty?

A too-long silence, and then Patty's voice, thank god, sounding weary to the bone but still alive.

Where the hell are you?

Travis snorted out a laugh (a laugh!) through his nose as he rummaged around. I'm hurrying, okay? Don't get your flowing hair in a twist.

Patty grumbled something that Travis couldn't quite understand; even in inexplicably strange mental connection conversations he sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles. As long as you're hurrying, I guess.

I am, so shut up. Travis shook his head. Patty might just be bitchy enough to take that as more than a joke. No, wait, don't shut up. What kind of hurt are you? I'm packing a bag and... I have no idea what to bring.

A bag? Just take me back to the Niche. I'm sure one of your people can heal a cat just fine, even if they don't think I'm me.

The tears came back in full force, and Travis swiped an arm hurriedly across his eyes. Um, I can't take you back to the Niche. Once I leave to come find you, I can't really go back at all.

What?

I'll explain later. Tell me what you need.

An exasperated sigh from Patty, who then explained his wounds and their severity. It sounded a lot like what had happened to Carter, cuts from the dreamspace exploding. Cuts, Travis could deal with. Probably with not as much expertise as Jake, Coots, and Claude, but he at least knew how to make a salve. He gathered a bunch of different colored candles and a box of matches and wrapped them in a piece of linen, and stacked jars of herbs on top of each other before tying them tight with twine. A few tiny bottles of oil, the thickest spellbook he could find on his small bookshelf, his grimore, and all of the crystals he had under the light of the full moon on his windowsill also went in his bag. Food, that was going to be a problem. He had a bag of dried fruit from when he helped Coots harvest and dry the past week, and a bunch of healthy granola from Carter (that, honestly, was kind of gross). He packed both of those things in his bag, anyway. They'd find more food somewhere.

Not allowing himself to dwell on literally any part of what he was currently going through, Travis changed into a pair of sturdy jeans and his boots, layering a short sleeved t-shirt with a hooded sweatshirt and a thick hooded flannel. He wedged his favorite beanie over his ears and, after a split second of contemplation, grabbed one for Patty, too. Hiking the backpack over his shoulders, he clipped a half-full water bottle to one of the straps, took one last look around his ransacked room, and let the door thud shut behind him.

Okay, he thought, where are you?

By a wall, came Patty's voice. Crumbly, gray stone. Old as hell. There's a tiny thatched roof a little ways off, but it's too dark to see anything else. I hear water.

Gotcha. A win, for once. Travis knew exactly where that was. When he was a kid, new to the Niche, he and Sanny had spent hours playing by the small river that cut through the property, and there was part of a wall that, yeah, was crumbly and old as hell. The thatched roof was one of the maintenance sheds that held gardening stuff, and bulk herbs and... Fuck yes. Maybe there were even more supplies there. 

I'm on my way, he thought, and Patty grumbled something affirming in response.

The hallways he raced through were dark and quiet. Travis had no idea if his ten minutes were up or not, but he couldn't help but stop and fill his water bottle in the deserted kitchen and snag a few tarts, a pear, and half a loaf of bread left over from someone's dinner. A pie was covered up on the cooling rack, a note on top of it— Oskar. He must have made it for Bunny's birthday. No one would dare touch it but Oskar.

Travis tore a piece of paper and scribbled a note onto it, slipping it underneath the pie dish.

Taking Pat to the shed by the river. I need to figure this out and help him, even though I know it sucks. Love you, Osky. -Trav

He paused, and fished the note out to add one more thing.

Tell Carts I'm sorry.

He slipped out of the kitchen, through the courtyard, and into the moonlit night. 

 

*****

 

Travis could tell Patty was hurt because he literally wouldn't shut up. His deep, rumbly voice was a constant in the back of Travis's mind as he picked his way through the dark grounds of the Niche, asking him where he was, how long it would take him to get to the wall, and, at least three separate times, if Travis really knew how to find him. 

You really don't have any sort of faith in me, do you? Travis finally asked after the fourth time Patty questioned him. It was quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time, in which Travis tripped over a gopher hole, got tangled in a prickle bush, and skidded on something that he definitely didn't want to know what it was. Patty then let out an audible sigh.

Do I have much of a choice?

Nope. Look to your right, bud.

Travis watched as Patty craned his little cat head over a tuft of grass, his glassy eyes shining like tiny stars in the darkness. Another sigh echoed in Travis's mind, this one relieved.

Finally.

Shut up, I came as fast as I could. Can I pick you up, or can't you be moved?

Patty made a noise as Travis conjured a few sparks and had them hover over his prone body. The cuts looked awful at first glance, but after he looked around a little more they seemed manageable. They were still bleeding sluggishly, and the dried blood all over Patty's fur made it look a lot worse than they really were. Travis felt the tension in his shoulders start to relax, only marginally, but still something.

You're gonna be fine. We're moving into that shed down there, okay?

He wedged his arms underneath Patty and hefted the cat, bridal style, in his arms. Other than a few muffled whimpers, Patty was silent.

You doing alright? Travis thought. Patty responded with a few choice words that Travis thought were actually pretty rude for someone who was trying to keep him from bleeding out in a field, thank you very much. Thankfully, the shed was close, and there was a large open area in the back corner, the perfect size for him to lay out one of the blankets he'd brought. He arranged the pants he'd brought for Patty into kind of a nest shape, and allowed Patty to maneuver himself into the center. The sparks Travis had conjured floated lazily above them, bathing the shed in a soft glow.

"Okay," Travis said out loud, and emptied a little bit of the water from his water bottle into a shallow bowl. He found some clean rags in a drawer and dipped them into the water before wringing them out. "Talk to me, Pats. Distract yourself."

I don't need to— he cut himself off with a shocked hiss as Travis dabbed at the first cut. Shit!

"Don't make me say I told you so."

You talk, Patty said, sounding like he was speaking through tightly clenched teeth. What happened after the dreamspace blew up?

So Travis talked, going through four rags and half his water bottle until Patty's cuts were cleaned. He used a little more water to make a paste with chamomile, honey, and a bit of dandelion, and placed a piece of clean linen over the cuts before layering the paste overtop. He lit a white candle and dripped the wax overtop it all, trying his best to make a crescent moon pattern, but it ended up looking like a crooked pancake. He told Patty about Carter, who he was to the Niche and how much he meant to Volantes, and how awful it had been to watch Coots and Jake try to heal him. He told Patty about Oskar, how he was Travis's best friend and how much it hurt when he wouldn't even look at him. And, finally, he told Patty about AV, about the task he'd been given, about the consequences that would fall on his shoulders if he failed.

He told Patty everything, but left out one detail. He didn't mention how AV threatened him with expulsion, and how he'd lose his magic if they couldn't figure a way to fix Patty for good. There was no point, he told himself, in making Patty worry about that on top of everything else.

Patty was quiet after he stopped talking, quiet enough that Travis was pretty sure he'd fallen asleep. He started cleaning up, but then Patty shifted.

Travis, I— He cleared his throat. I don't think I'm worth it.

"What do you mean?" Travis gathered the bloody rags and shoved them deep into a metal bucket on the other side of the shed. "Of course I was going to come help you."

If we couldn't figure it out in the Niche, with all of the magic shit we could ever need, how are we going to figure it out here? I can't ask you to give up your home for me, that would be... He paused. That would be unfair.

Another, longer pause, before— Go home, Travis.

"Good thing I don't have to listen to you," Travis said cheerfully, trying his best to mask how close Patty's words had hit to his heart. Of course he didn't want to leave the Niche, of course he didn't want to leave his family, but what else was he supposed to do? "I can try my best to heal those cuts tomorrow morning when it's light out, and we'll go from there."

Patty breathed out heavily, like he was thinking about arguing, but didn't push back.

I'm going to my dreamspace, get some energy back. Um...

"What?"

Do you want to, I don't know. Try something?

"Try what? You gotta work with me here, bud."

We have this weird bond now, right? Where we can hear each other? What if it started because you were in my dreamspace?

"You think I can come back into your dreamspace?"

I think we should try it.

Travis sat on the blanket beside Patty and crossed his legs. "All right, I'm in. Things literally can't get any worse, eh?"

He had the pleasure of watching a cat roll its eyes as they both got comfortable. Like he had only an hour prior on the obsidian slab, he closed his eyes and lowered his mental defenses, ready to receive. This time, instead of the ground shaking under the power of the saffron crocus as reality was twisted around him, Travis only felt a tiny bit of vertigo, like he did a flip underwater. He opened his eyes.

Patty's dreamspace seemed to follow the rules of the real world. It was dark, fireflies blinking deep in the forest, bats flitting overhead. Patty was on the ground, leaning with his back against a gigantic tree. He looked awful, pale from blood loss with dark bags under his eyes, but he still smirked as soon as he caught sight of Travis.

"It worked." He sounded exhausted. "This is so weird, but fuck. It's still cool as hell."

Travis took a seat next to him, cushioned by the plush grass in Patty's dreamspace forest. He poked his arm. 

"You wounded?"

Patty lifted his shirt and Travis leaned forward with probably a little more eagerness than necessary. Angry red stripes slashed across his pale skin, but they looked like wounds in name only. No blood, no salve. Nothing from the real world.

"I feel whatever my cat body feels," he said. "So I can feel the pain, but I don't think the physical stuff shows up here. Being in dreamspace will help me gain strength to help you, tomorrow, when we do some healing." Travis hmmed. 

"And who said I need your help?"

Patty scoffed, a small, tired sound as he leaned his head back against the tree trunk, letting his eyes drift shut.

"Least I can do," he muttered. Travis scooted back to lean against the tree next to him, moss cushioning his head as he let it rest against the trunk. Patty shifted, closer to Travis than he'd ever been. 

Travis looked at him, tracing the line of his jaw with his eyes. The slope of his nose, the soft waves of his hair, dark in the forest twilight. "I can't believe I thought you were a curse."

Patty didn't open his eyes. "I might still be."

"Nah." Travis said. "I don't know much, but..." He trailed off, thinking about how, through everything, there had been a small part of him that always wanted to trust Patty. Even at rock bottom, when every shred of evidence pointed to the contrary, he couldn't let him go. How easily they'd been drawn to each other, how strong their connection seemed. Travis knew himself, knew he wasn't bad, had never used magic for anything other than the good of himself and those around him. Patty fit beside him too well to be a curse.

"You're good, bud," he finished. "Good as they come."

No answer except for steady deep breaths next to him. Patty had finally fallen asleep. Lulled by the muted noise of the dreamspace forest, cicadas and rustling leaves, the babbling of an unseen stream, Travis followed his lead. 

When he woke up, he was curled protectively around the nest he'd made out of the pair of pants, with Patty's head nestled in the crook of his arm.

 

*****

A yowl, louder than any cat alive could scream, probably, ripped through the tranquil morning air.

You fucker, can't you just do magic better?

Travis thought long and hard about punting Patty right out the shed's window. He was a cat, Travis had pretty impressive leg muscles. He could do it, so Patty needed to watch himself. "Whatever happened to the least I can do is help you out, TK, you're so capable and wonderful, thank you so mu—"

Patty hissed, literally, because he was a cat.

It feels like you're stitching my intestines together!

"Well, it looks pretty damn good from my point of view, so shut up and let me finish!"

Grumbling still, because he was a grumbly son of a bitch, Patty laid his head back down right on the pocket of his pants nest. Travis started up again, hovering his hands as close to the (almost fully healed, so suck it Pats) wound as he could get. He began muttering the circular healing incantation, letting the words loop back around and over each other like Claude had taught him, until the open skin under his hands started mending. He could hear Patty saying the incantation, too, looking resolutely at the shed's wall as he willed his own body to heal from the inside out. Travis had never done that before, but Patty had done a lot of magical stuff he hadn't. He did his part and let it happen.

The rest of the healing passed without much incident, except for Patty trying his best to bite his hand off when one of his fingers strayed too close to the wound. Eventually Patty was able to stand on his own, stretching out his newly healed side and turning in circles like he was testing out his and Travis's handiwork. He eventually sat back down in the middle of the nest, and Travis could hear the satisfaction in the back of his mind.

Pretty good work, eh?

"You said it." Travis held out his fist, and Patty gave him a brief you're kidding before tapping it with a paw. Travis grinned. "Okay, game plan. What are we thinking?"

What did you say earlier, we have until Last Quarter to fix me? That's seven days, well, counting yesterday. So we're on day six.

Travis nodded. "Day six."

Okay, so what if we—

Patty cut himself off, and tilted his head. One of his ears swiveled.

That's weird.

Travis felt it too. The tiniest blip of magical energy, right outside their door, there and gone like a snap of the fingers, quick enough that he had no idea who it was. He made a shushing gesture towards Patty and slowly stood up, doing his best to move to the door without creaking any of the floorboards (impossible, the floor was like a million years old). Pushing the door open, peering outside...

"Huh," Travis said.

What's out there?

He grabbed the plate, shut the door again, and took it back to the blanket pile in the farthest corner. 

Patty craned his neck to try and see what Travis had. What’s that?

Sitting back down in his original spot, Travis set the plate between him and Patty. It was the most perfect slice of blueberry pie he’d ever seen in his life; topped with a generous scoop of cream that had slid a little in transit, dripping down the glistening side of the pie. Patty stuck his paw right in the cream and licked it off before Travis could smack him away.

“Come on!”

Why’s a magic pie showing up on our doorstep, anyway?

“It’s a peace offering,” Travis said, and scooped up a piece with his own fingers, ignoring how he was probably getting blueberries all over his mouth. “From Oskar.”

The pie tasted better than anything Oskar had ever made, and Travis was pretty sure it was because it meant his friend had forgiven him, or at least was okay with him leaving the Niche to help Patty. It was probably killing him that he couldn’t help. Travis didn’t know how he was able to get to and from the shed without alerting Travis to his presence, but whatever. He had pie, and he had the knowledge that at least one witch in the Niche wasn’t calling for his head. At least one of his friends knew what he’d done was an accident, that he was only trying to make it better.

So he shared the pie with Patty, laughing at the way his whiskers got stuck in the cream, and told him stories about Oskar. His affinity with the Niche’s cats, and how he memorized every single name Scotty came up with so he could address them correctly. How he always let Travis drag him down by the lake every day in the summer, how he’d burn so bad Coots had a jar of magic infused aloe set aside specifically for him, how he still did it all over again the next day anyway, just because Travis loved the lake. The way he never complained about the younger witches (and, honestly, Travis and Sanny) bugging him to bake pies just like the one he’d made for Bunny’s birthday, and how he’d make fun of them when they inevitably ate too much pie before one of Claude’s exercises.  

Patty, shamelessly, licked the remainder of pie off of the plate. Travis didn’t blame him; Oskar’s pie really was just that good.

So, you like this guy a lot, huh?

“He’s probably the best person I know,” Travis said. Patty made a low, grumbling noise in response to that, and it took Travis another second or two to understand what he meant. “Oh, like that. Nah, Osky and I are more of a partners in crime kind of thing, dynamic duo until we die, or whatever.”

Patty gave him a look, like he really didn’t believe him.

“And it’s kind of frowned upon, anyway. By AV, not like, G or anyone. No one’s going to, I don’t know, get in trouble, or whatever, but we’re not really supposed to.”

You’re not supposed to, what? Fall in love?

The casual way he said it made Travis’s mouth go kind of dry. Fall in love. Like it was a normal thing, a Tuesday afternoon activity. Witches did that all the time, or so he’d heard. Met a girl or a guy while in the city, left the Niche before they were released, rejected their magic, fell in love. Started a family, or became part of someone else’s.

AV discouraged it, though, going and exploring. Discouraged it way heavier in the years Travis had been in the Niche, if talk between the older witches was anything to go by. Travis hadn’t even ever been to Volantes city proper; he honestly wouldn’t really even know what to do with himself, and he told Patty as much. He just snorted derisively.

How are you even supposed to know what you like, all cloistered away from the world?

Travis tilted his head. “Do you know what you like?”

That made Patty squint, and settle back down into the pants nest. Travis laughed, a little louder and a little more triumphant than he’d meant to.

“Feral witch baby living in the borderlands doesn’t have much experience with romance either, huh?”

I have experience. Patty rolled onto his back, clearly done with the whole conversation, even though he’d initiated it in the first place. Sore loser. Travis pushed him right where his wound used to be, and took it as a victory when Patty made no indication that it hurt.

“Me too, dude, I’ve kissed half the witches here. Doesn’t mean I’ve fallen in love, though.”

Patty cracked an eye open and regarded Travis. Like who?

“You don’t even know anyone!”

Oskar?

“Yeah, once.” Travis didn’t know why he was getting defensive over it, he’d never been defensive over anything before. It had been nice. It was a bonfire night, they’d both been tipsy, Kevin had cheered. Oskar slept in Travis’s bed, they’d laughed about it the next morning, decided it meant nothing more than the close bond they already shared, and nothing had changed. “I’ve kissed Provy way more times than that.”

Who the hell is Provy?

My friend, Travis shot back in his thoughts, not counting on his voice not to crack or do something equally embarrassing. Why was he getting the third degree about where his lips had been, anyway? It’s not like Patty was giving up any information willingly. And kissing Provy went about the same way that kissing Oskar had, it just happened more frequently. He’d known Provy forever, it was just another layer of familiarity at this point. He’d kissed Sanny, once, and they’d both died laughing. He’d kissed Scotty as a dare during a particularly rowdy card game, caught a look from Raff, and never done it again. Claude had kissed his forehead so many times, a familial in-passing kind of gesture, and so had Coots. Kevin once sloppily kissed the palm of his hand before smacking Travis across the face with it. Kissing, while fun, wasn’t particularly tied with romance in Travis’s mind.

Although, he supposed, he never really met anyone that made him intrinsically want to kiss them, kissing in the sense of it’s meant to lead to more. He’d never felt that with Oskar, never felt that with Provy, never felt that with Sanny for sure.

Never felt the mushy way that Carter obviously felt when he was flirting (or at least trying to flirt) with Kevin. Never felt the heat blazing from Raff’s eyes that seared him to the bone after he kissed Scotty. That was romance, he guessed.

A bunch of guessing going on, really. It’s not like he’d had any classes on romance wedged between all the lessons on spellcasting and potion mixing, and he said as much to Patty, who stood and stretched.

Well, I guess that's our first hint of where we need to go.

"What do you mean?"

To Volantes. Get you some—

"I'm not going into the city to get laid, you freak."

Patty actually had the audacity to laugh, a deep chuckle right in the back of Travis's mind. I was going to say life experience, but whatever you want, I guess.

"Life experience like how? Who's going to lead? When it comes to Volantes, you're somehow more sheltered than me."

Patty nudged the blankets into a ball like he wanted Travis to start packing up. I guess we'll just have to figure it out as we go then, huh?

"What we need to figure out is how to get you human again."

We're definitely not going to do that in this shack, that's for sure. Do you have a better idea?

Travis frowned. For some reason he'd pictured them staying here, right on the edge of the Niche's property, for... For what, exactly? He wasn't welcome back there until he did what he needed to do. There wasn't really any reason they shouldn't leave the Niche, and maybe Patty was right and a change of scenery would help. He refolded the blankets quickly and packed the backpack.

"Okay, let's do this."

Just a blind plunge into the unknown?

"That sounds like a plan to me." Travis got to his feet and slung the heavy backpack over his shoulder. He held the shed's door open for Patty, who slipped through it and looked back over his shoulder as Travis followed, shielding his eyes against the bright morning sun.

Chapter Text

Travis poked his head over the short stone wall to do a little recon, for like the fifth time. Like the other four times, nothing had changed. A big stone house down the way a bit, flowerbeds blooming in the mid-spring sunshine, a rickety fence, the wall he and Patty were currently hiding behind. And a clothesline, hanging from a hook on a shed all the way to a post by the entryway, full of various clothing pieces in various drab colors.

"Give me one good reason I need to steal that ugly ass shirt," Travis hissed down to Patty, who was curled up by a mossy rock like he didn't have a care in the world.

Have you seen what you're wearing?

"What?" Travis looked down at his clothes. The day had gotten progressively hotter as they walked the main road towards Volantes, and he'd started playing a game of how many layers can Travis strip off and shove in his backpack. He was currently winning, and also now just wearing a top that hit right above his navel, the sleeves artfully torn off. He'd actually forgotten that was the shirt underneath all of his layers, and his heart kind of ached a little bit looking at it. One year he'd been really bad at collecting his laundry, so every time it was Claude's turn to do laundry he'd hex one of Travis's clothing items every time he picked it up late. This particular crop top had been hexed to be full of holes, and the holes were constantly moving. Travis watched as a big one morphed together with a smaller one, making an obscenely large hole right in the middle of his chest. 

It's a magical fuckin' shirt, TK.

"I'm a magical fuckin' guy, Pat."

Patty made a snorting noise that Travis was getting more and more used to as his you're an idiot, that's what you are noise. We're going into the city, okay? You don't want to be targeted as a witch alone in Volantes, I'll tell you that much.

"What's that supposed to mean? G goes into the city all the time." Well, not all the time, but more than Travis's hardly ever. Patty shook his head.

Giroux is your conscriptor's mouthpiece. He can go wherever he wants. You just need to trust me, it'll be better for both of us if people think you don't have magic.

"Okay, okay. Let me just grab an awful shirt and we can keep going." Travis swung his legs over the stone wall and ducked through the clothes waving in the wind, snagging a dark green short sleeved shirt from the line and ignoring the clothespins that clattered all over the ground around him. He vaulted back over the wall, grabbed the backpack, and sprinted away through the field, not even checking to see if Patty was behind him until he reached the main road again. He laughed when he turned around to see Patty far behind him, following at a decidedly slower pace.

Calm down, you stole a shirt, not an entire bank vault. 

"You steal a lot of stuff?" Travis asked as he wiggled out of his colorful, albeit hole-y, crop top and tugged the new shirt over his head. It smelled like crisp spring air, and he tucked the front into his waistband and bent over to cuff his pants a few rolls above his boots. It was getting hot out for sure. "Y'know, when you were a vagabond on the run."

I was never on the run, Patty grumbled, and then— yeah, I've had to steal a lot. It gets easier.

"Well I'm not a fan." Travis hefted the backpack onto his shoulders again and they continued on, following the wide main road as it cut through a field of tall, swaying wheat. "Maybe I'll find a place that needs some help, when we get to Volantes. Earn some money. Buy myself my own dumb non-magical shirts."

We have a tight deadline and you're worrying about, what? The ethics of being banished?

"We need food and board," Travis said in his most decisive voice. "And we can't steal a place to stay. I know there's a big library in the city center, Coots has told me about it. We'll start there once we find our new home base. Maybe city books will be more helpful on magical cat transformations."

I doubt it.

"Well, let me know when you have a better plan, and we'll go from there."

Patty was silent besides a few muttered words that Travis chose to ignore, and they traveled on in silence. The sun beat down on Travis's shoulders, and he pulled his hair back into an almost-ponytail (the amount of hair that fell out to frame his face rendered it pretty much useless). After an hour or so had passed since leaving the Niche, they stopped in the shade of a large tree to share some of the food Travis had taken the night before.

"How's your side?" Travis asked through a mouthful of tart. It had gotten a little crumbled in his backpack, but still tasted just as good. He glanced down at Patty, who was settled on his haunches with his head nestled between his paws; either asleep or in his dreamspace. Travis rolled his eyes, shoved the rest of the tart in his mouth, and fell backwards into nothingness like it was normal.

He stood up in Patty's dreamspace, mouth still full of tart. Patty was laying on the grass, shirtless, stretching his arms above his head.

"It's getting better," he said in reply to Travis's earlier question.

The red marks were still there, raked across the side of his chest, but they were a lot less angry and a lot less pronounced than they had been the previous night. Travis collapsed next to him, rolling onto his back and staring up at the bright blue sky above them, tracking a few small, puffy clouds as they made their way across the hole in the treetops. He wasn't sure when it happened, but he dozed off, the dreamspace's sun warming his face.

 

*****

 

When Travis was little, his dad would go into the city once a month, barring the cold and snowy winter months. He always begged to go with, helping to load their family's rickety wagon with their crop of corn, or his mom's dried and bundled herbs, or their jarred pickles made from the cucumbers that took over the northern half of their farmhouse. Every month, without fail, his dad would say no. 

He knew had a lot to do with him being a witch, a lot to do with the whole keep-the-first-name-a-secret tradition that he still didn't fully understand when he was that young, and a lot to do with the list of instructions AV's mouthpiece before Claude had given his parents when he visited their home shortly after Travis's first birthday. He'd still ask, every time his dad made him help pack up. The city, to him, was opportunity. It was shiny and new, full of adventure and possibility. 

That hadn't changed when he left for the Niche. He'd still been enamored by the sheer possibility of Volantes, and had always tried to weasel his way into the good graces of whatever veteran witch ended up making the trek at any given time. Every time, without fail, Claude would say no.

Neither his dad or Claude were here to say no anymore. Travis couldn't help but grin to himself as he and Patty passed through the huge stone archway separating Volantes from the surrounding countryside, taking a second to admire the flags lining the wall and the ancient oak trees towering overhead. The city was sprawling, taking up acres of country and crawling halfway up the mountainside. Travis knew the city's Chamber met in the hall carved into part of the mountain, a group of governing individuals that AV was also a part of. He'd always wondered if they were just as mysterious as he was.

You've really never been here? Patty asked as they joined the crowd entering the city square, buffeted along on all sides by people hurrying to get wherever they were going as quickly as they could. Patty wove in and out of sight, dodging feet and keeping close to Travis.

Never seen the city, never seen the ocean. Heard lots of stories about both those places, though. 

You've never seen the ocean?

There was an ocean, supposedly, on the only coastline Volantes had, but Travis had never had any reason to be sent there. Sometimes Coots traveled there, to gather items for particular spells or sand to use for gardening, sometimes he'd take older witches like Kevin or Ghost for help, but there was really no use for the younger witches to go. For fun wasn't really the kind of criteria AV used to send his witches on missions. 

I was born pretty far away, Travis replied. Way on the other side of the mountain. Still Volantes, but the part that's nowhere near anything. 

Country bumpkin.

Travis grinned. It was true, and he didn't really care.

I thought I'd get into the city when I was finally conscripted as a witch, he continued. Just traded the farm for another remote territory, I guess. Opposite side of the mountain, though. 

Let's see what the city has that the country doesn't, then.

Before Travis could stop him, Patty darted through the crowd, almost too quick for his eyes to follow. He scrambled to run after him, backpack thumping against the small of his back as he ducked under elbows and around carts loaded with produce. No matter what Patty said, he wasn't about to cause a scene knocking over anything, so he used magic to form a sort of malleable force field around his extremities; whenever he got too close to someone or something it gently pushed him away and kept him on track as he barreled through the town square. 

Patty hopped up onto a short wall built around a fountain, sitting back on his haunches and tipping his chin upwards to look around. Travis collapsed next to him and did the same thing.

Buildings soared around them, made from rickety old wood or carved out of polished marble or built with bright red brick, diverse and beautiful, leaning onto each other, sun glinting from stained glass or metal accents. Flags flew from balconies or rooftops, a myriad of rainbow colors, each meaning a different municipality or town, with the orange wing of the Volantes flag the most prominent of all. And people. People were everywhere

Hanging laundry out between buildings, hawking their wares on the side of the street, pressing around the fountain, always close, always loud, smelling like fire and sweat and the meat roasting on the huge spit smack dab in the city center. 

Nothing like the overwhelming silence that sometimes overtook the Niche. Nothing like the uniform gray stone that built the walls, towers, doorways. Nothing like the contact he'd always have to search out; here, it didn't seem like people understood the meaning of personal space. Travis turned slowly, trying to take everything in and probably failing.

His mouth was gaping, but who gave a shit.

It's a lot, Patty said. 

"I love it," he replied out loud, earning himself an imperious snort from Patty.

It's fine. What do you want to do, find the library?

"Yeah, we can scope it out. Find our way around, maybe find some food." Travis stood, bending down enough so Patty could jump up onto his shoulders. He draped his tail around Travis's neck like a fluffy scarf as they walked, heading up and down wide streets, cramped side alleys, tiny spaces between buildings. The city was huge, but Travis quickly got his bearings with a little bit of location magic and landmark branding. If he could find his way around the Niche at twelve, racing around the halls with Sanny, he could find his way around anywhere.

They found the library, an intimidating structure built from huge blocks of white marble, with high-arching double doors and a huge golden lantern hanging from the front. The woman manning the desk told them to obtain a permit for research from the city hall's main office, or they could come in and browse, but not touch. Patty grumped about it, but Travis's stomach was growling anyway so he just thanked her and left.

How hard can it be to get a permit? he asked as they walked back towards the main square and the fountain. There were a lot of competing smells going on from the various street vendors they passed, and he honestly wanted to try everything. The few coins he had in his pocket told him that he was definitely not going to try everything. 

Knowing this place? Patty replied. Probably really fuckin' hard. 

Get your negative ass out of here. Travis bumped his shoulder up, making Patty grip his claws harder. Want whatever that is for lunch?

Whatever that is turned out to be a deep bowl full of layers of hot food; potatoes at the bottom, thinly sliced meat and mixed vegetables in the middle, and cheese melted over the top. Travis paid and reconvened with Patty by the fountain; he sat on the ground with his back against the wall, feeling the soft spray on the back of his neck as he scooped some food onto a separate dish he dug out of his backpack for Patty.

The afternoon sun warmed the cobblestones around them as they ate, Travis using small magic to cool down the food enough for him to eat it quickly. He hadn't realized just how hungry the walk from the Niche to the city and the subsequent hunt around for the library had made him. He'd just finished the last bite and was in the middle of washing Patty's bowl out in the fountain when a kid raced by them, collapsing in a heap next to the fountain and hiding her face in her arms.

Travis could hear muted sniffles coming from her sad little huddled form, and he glanced over at Patty.

"Give me a sec," he said, ignoring Patty's warnings to not engage. that they needed to keep going, and slid down the side of the fountain to sit next to the kid. "Everything okay?"

She lifted her head, her dark hair half-out of the braided style it had been done up in, tear tracks trailing down her ruddy cheeks. "I lost my mom."

"Your mom, huh?" Travis said. "Well, you came to a good spot. The fountain's right in the middle of town, I bet she comes here first to check."

Her eyes widened. "You think so?"

"I know so." Travis stood and offered her his hand. "Let's sit up higher, so she can see you better, okay?"

The girl took his hand, gripping her little fist around his first two fingers like she was scared he would disappear, and Travis helped her to her feet and swung her up to sit on the tall rim of the fountain. He settled down next to her as Patty jumped up, very seriously bending his head down and allowing her to pet between his ears. She was still crying, but let out a little hiccupping giggle as Patty began purring.

"Pretty," she said, mesmerized by the way Patty's brown fur shifted to golds and reds under the sun and dancing reflection of the fountain.

Travis laughed. "He is pretty, huh? We'll hang out here, and your mom'll find us in no time."

At the mention of her mom, the little girl retracted her hand, crossed her arms, and jutted her lower lip, tears quivering in the corners of her eyes again, threatening to fall at a moment's notice. Travis sucked in a breath.

"Shit," he muttered, and then hoped she hadn't heard him. He liked kids, sure, but it sucked that they couldn't swear. "Uh, hey, check this out!"

He put his hands out, splaying his fingers so she had a good view. He connected both of his thumbs and conjured a spark on the tip of his right pinkie, making it twist and spiral around his fingers, speeding up and slowing down, trailing smaller sparks as it leapt and twirled. Her eyes widened, tears gone, as she got to her knees and leaned onto Travis's shoulder, clutching his arm with both of her tiny hands for balance.

Travis grew the spark a little and gathered it in his palm before tossing it back and forth between his hands. He threw it upwards and it exploded into a shower of rainbow colored beams, and she let out a little shriek of laughter.

"Want to try?" he asked, conjuring another spark, smaller this time, and holding it towards her on the tip of his finger. She reached for it, but Patty jumped between them, knocking Travis's hand down and extinguishing the spark. Before either he or the girl could yell indignantly, a woman bore down on them and scooped the girl into her arms.

"Hildred, there you are! You scared me half to death." She put one hand protectively on the back of Hildred's head as she hid her face in her neck, and looked down on Travis with a withering stare. "What were you doing near my daughter?"

Patty bristled next to him, but Travis just smiled one of his relaxed smiles and patted the fountain rim. "She ran by crying, so I put her up here to help whoever was looking find her, easy. And here you are!"

Hildred's mom furrowed her eyebrows for a brief, suspicious second before Hildred whispered something in her ear, and then she smiled, too.

"Well, it seems like you made quite the first impression. Thank you." She inclined her head towards Travis, still smiling her soft little smile, and reached up to tweak Hildred's nose before both of them melted into the bustling crowd. Travis waved after them, and Hildred waved back.

Well, she was adorable, Travis thought. Patty flicked a droplet from the fountain off of his whiskers. 

She's going to tell her mom all about your magic show.

Don't be such a downer. Travis, after glancing around to make sure no one was watching, brought back the spark. He weaved it through his fingers, faster than he had while the little girl was watching, making it travel up his arm and through his hair like he always did during lessons when Oskar was trying to concentrate behind him. Patty headbutted his leg.

We're in public, get rid of it!

What did I say about being a— Travis started, but cut himself off as someone tapped on his shoulder. A light voice hissed in his ear.

"Have a minute, witch?"

"I'm not, I've never, you don't know what you're..." Travis sputtered as he spun around, almost knocking his mostly-empty bowl into the fountain. A woman, nearly as tall as him, caught the bowl before it sloshed everywhere, steadying it on the fountain rim before taking a step back, crossing her arms, and grinning widely.

"You got a little magic in your hair."

Patty groaned as Travis looked up, saw the spark still clinging to a strand of his hair that had come out of his ponytail, and hurriedly extinguished it. The woman made herself comfortable on the fountain rim next to him, keeping Patty between them.

"Don't worry, I don't care if you have magic," she said. "In fact, that's why I stopped. I have a job for you. I mean, if you want it."

Travis ate a spoonful of now-cold potatoes as the woman looked at him expectantly, one thin eyebrow raised. She had a light linen dress on, slightly longer than knee-length, with a bulky jacket on overtop. The bag slung across her shoulder was full of produce like she'd just come from shopping. He chewed his mouthful, waiting for her to elaborate. She didn't.

"Okay, I'll bite," he said, scooping the rest of the food into his mouth and talking around it. "What's the job?"

"My wife and I run an inn on the outskirts of town," she said. "There's always odd jobs to be done, but there's a few that definitely could use an, ah, magical touch. Herb work, detoxifying, wards. All that jazz."

Patty made a noise that sounded kind of like he was hacking up a hairball, and the woman ran a hand down his back.

"Cute cat."

"He's all right," Travis said, making a mental note to make fun of Patty later for how he immediately relaxed under her touch, laying his head between his paws like he was about to fall asleep. "You and your wife. You're okay with magic?"

The woman hummed affirmation. "We moved the inn to a new, bigger building, and there's a bunch of, I don't know, bad energy. My wife thinks I'm nuts, but recently even she's been admitting there's weird shit going on."

"Weird shit how?"

"Bumps in the night, things moving when they shouldn't, missing stuff. The whole nine yards. We should have just bit the bullet and hired one of those Niche witches to come out and do an inspection when we first got the place, but the fees are getting way too high."

Fees? Travis shrugged. "I can take a look, I'd be glad to."

"Are you just passing through, or do you live around here? We've been in business for a while, I don't think I've ever seen you around."

"Just passing through," Travis said. "We'll be in town for a few days."

The woman laughed. "I like how it's we, you and your cat. Well, you can stay in the inn as long as you need, room and board for your services? I make a mean chocolate cake, too."

Travis stuck out his hand and the woman shook it. "You got a deal. Call me TK."

"Ah, you witches and your first name superstitions. My name's Taryn."

"This is Patty," Travis said, gesturing down at Patty, who seriously kind of did look passed out as Taryn scratched behind his ears. Maybe he was in dreamspace, plotting up ways to murder Travis in his sleep for trusting strangers and doing magic in public. "We're kind of a duo, so I hope your wife isn't allergic to cats."

"They're not her favorite," Taryn admitted, "but you're more than welcome to bring him with. We do have a dog, though, so I hope he and Benji can get along."

Travis lit up. "I love dogs."

"Oh good." She beamed. "Drea's gonna like that. I'm heading back now, I can show you the way." She stood and so did Travis, maneuvering himself so that Patty could climb on his shoulders. For once he did so with no complaints, settling around Travis's neck like a particularly heavy, hairy scarf. Taryn reached up to tap him on the nose once before taking the lead through the crowd.

This is a mistake, Patty said, his voice a low rumble in Travis's ear. 

This is the first stroke of luck we've had this whole time, Travis retorted. She's nice, and we get a place to stay while we try and figure this out. Just trust people for once, Pat.

For once?

You're a suspicious little bitch, and you know it.

Patty snorted but didn't argue. Taryn led them through the crowds and into a less busy side street, always glancing over her shoulder to make sure they were keeping up. Every time she caught Travis's eye she gave him a big, genuine smile, like she didn't want him to bolt, like she was constantly reassuring a potentially skittish witch that yes, she was okay. Travis was sure if Claude was there he'd be admonished for trusting so easy, or if AV was at his shoulder he'd snatch his magic in an instant for helping a stranger.

I'm on my own now, Travis thought, not directed towards Patty but deep inside, towards himself. They don't make the rules here. I have magic, for the next few days at least. I'm gonna do something good with it as long as I can.

Taryn spun around in front of a large cottage built from marbled gray stone. There were flower boxes in the windows, bright red shutters, and a tall, gabled roof with a balcony off the back. A chimney puffed smoke into the clear blue sky. A swinging sign off of the front door proclaimed, in loopy gold script, that this was the Spotted Dog Inn. True to its name, barking erupted from behind the door. Taryn grinned.

"Benji. He must smell new friends."

She nudged open the door and a dog burst through the tiny crack, spotted just like the sign said. He had bright blue eyes and a lolling tongue, and Travis bent down the best he could with Patty still wrapped around his neck. He got down to business, scratching behind Benji's ears as he licked his face. Patty dug his claws into Travis's shoulder and hissed.

"Be nice," Travis admonished. Taryn whistled for Benji who, despite getting exactly what he wanted from Travis, pulled away and went to her side. 

"You passed the first test," she said, and peeked inside. "Here comes the second."

Another woman pushed open the door fully with her hip, balancing a basket full of what looked like loaves of bread on the other. "T, you said you were gonna be a half hour at most, and we're pushing at least two now—" She trailed off, readjusted the basket, and looked Travis up and down. "Who's this?"

"TK, Andrea." Taryn leaned over and took the basket from her wife, hefting it in her own arms. "Andrea, TK."

"I thought you went to Al's to get leeks for soup, not a guy."

"I got the leeks too," Taryn said, lifting her elbow to jiggle the bag hanging from her arm. "And he's not just a guy, he's going to help with our, ah. Problems."

Andrea's forehead creased as she frowned deeply, before she snagged Taryn's arm and pulled her into the inn, whistling for Benji to follow. Travis just kind of stood there, until Andrea poked her head back out of the doorway. She made a gesture like what are you waiting for?

"Get in here," she hissed. Travis ignored the claws still dug into the meat of his shoulder and ducked through the doorway.

"What are you thinking?" Andrea shut the door and bolted it before rounding on Taryn. "Bringing a witch in here? Where'd you even find a witch, anyway?"

"You know." Taryn shrugged. "The witch store?"

Travis laughed a little —witch store, come on— and Andrea turned on him. "I have no idea what you told her that made her think it was okay to bring you here, but we're fine. We don't need Niche witches telling us how to live our lives, okay? So run along and tell your conscriptor that—"

"Drea," Taryn broke in. "He's not from the Niche."

Andrea shut her mouth, shifting her shoulders back uncomfortably before crossing her arms. "Huh. You're on your own? Where are you from?"

"I'm from Volantes," Travis said,  "grew up in the borderlands. Never really wanted to get conscripted."

"And you're sure your magic is strong enough to help us?"

"I guess there's only one way to find out." Travis held out his hand, and Andrea twitched her lips to one side, chewing on her cheek and contemplating, before she grabbed his hand and shook it with more force than Taryn had earlier. 

"Dinner's in an hour," she said like it was final. "You're our only boarder right now, but when the weekend crowds come in I'm sure it'll get busier."

"And once we get all the magic shit straightened out, we'll never be slow again." Taryn grinned, squeezing Andrea's arm before beckoning to Travis and Patty. "I'll get you guys set up on the fourth floor. It's nice and private."

And tiny, but Travis wasn't about to complain. The stone walls made an inverted V over his head, and there were strings of drying vegetables hanging from the wooden beams. He helped Taryn set up a cot; she piled blankets and quilts on one end while he hung his backpack up on a twisted hook jutting out of the farthest wall. There was a large window that looked out over the inn's backyard, the small vineyard, the sprawling garden and gazebo sitting area.

"You guys really have a nice place here," he said. 

Taryn nodded as she joined him at the window. "It's a labor of love."

"Has your, uh, magic shit been putting you out at all?"

"It's definitely slowed business for sure." When she was uncomfortable, Taryn chewed on the inside of her cheek just like her wife did. "People around here, even travelers, aren't the biggest fans of magic. The Chamber treats it like a business, and the taxes are insane."

"Taxes?"

"And fees." Taryn rolled her eyes. "A few years ago, witches would leave the Niche when they could no longer serve, but they'd still have some magic, you know? Those kind of witches were always popular, helping folks with small problems. The kind of person me and Drea'd ask for help for our shit."

"What happened to them?" Travis asked.

"I have no idea. I didn't really know any witches personally, but Drea was friends with this one man, Danny, before she met me. He was a big deal at the Niche at one point, and left when his magic started to fade. He was apparently really great, Danny was, one of Drea's best boarders and always helped around the inn when he was around. One day he just... Disappeared."

"Disappeared, like, into thin air?"

"Disappeared like stopped coming around. Drea hasn't heard anything about him since." Taryn shrugged. "She's told me she thinks it's 'cause she got married and all, but I've heard enough about other people who knew witches. I think it had to do with his magic."

"But..." Travis raked a hand through his hair, glancing back at Patty who was sitting on the bed, chin on his paws, his bright eyes locked onto Travis. "When witches start to lose their magic, that's it. I don't know why using the last dregs of something already lost would be a bad thing."

Taryn shrugged again. "You and me both. People tend to avoid witches now, and more and more families avoid conscripting by any means necessary."

Like Patty's parents. Travis shoved both hands into his pockets. "I didn't know about any of this."

For a third and final time, Taryn shrugged. "How could you?"

Andrea's voice floated up the spiral staircase, something about Benji and a soup bone. Taryn squeezed Travis's arm.

"Don't worry about it, TK. You're helping us, and that's all that matters to us. No one outside of us three will know anything about your magic, you have my word."

"Thanks, Taryn." Travis meant it. He had a lot to think about, sure but at least he had a roof over his head as he did it. "I'll unpack a little, and meet you guys downstairs for dinner. Is Patty welcome?"

"Patty's always welcome," she said over her shoulder as she descended the stairs quickly, sure on the spiral like she'd built it. Travis turned to the bed, arms spread out like he'd just won a championship.

"You're always welcome," he said to Patty, who rolled his eyes.

She has a lot of thoughts about magic, huh?

"You have a lot of thoughts about magic, bud." Travis sat on the bed next to Patty, the mattress folding and sending Patty rolling right into his leg. He just maneuvered a little bit and dealt with it. "All that stuff about the Niche and the Chamber, though. That's weird. I wonder if G knows anything about it."

The system he's stuck in? Patty snorted. Yeah, I think he knows. 

"Did you know?"

As much as you know right now. The Niche is weird, the Chamber is shady, and AV pulls puppet strings like they're going out of style. Patty rolled onto his back, opening his mouth into a gigantic yawn. His pink tongue lolled, teeth glinting in the attic's low light. Sometimes being a suspicious bitch pays off.

Travis huffed out a laugh through his nose. "That's why I have you."

He got ready in silence as Patty lounged on the bed; he organized their things, used the boot brush in the corner to make sure his shoes were clean, combed his hair out of his eyes and tying it back into a tiny little knot. Dinner was uneventful but nice, Travis joining Taryn and Andrea at the small table outside beneath the gazebo, easy like he was family. Andrea had made tomato soup, full of shredded chicken and corn pieces, and didn't even object when Travis poured a bowl for Patty, too. 

The soup wasn't nearly as good as Claude's, but what Andrea didn't know wouldn't hurt her.

Taryn asked him a few questions about living in the borderlands, some that Patty had to feed him the answers to, like where he got food (there were a lot of small villages and towns in the wider parts of the borderlands, with markets and vendors just like Volantes), and some that he made up, like what made him come back to the city (he had been attacked one too many times and just wanted to lay low, maybe make a life for himself within the borders, see what that was like, do some research, get better at magic). Aside from the few questions about him, most of the conversation circled around the Spotted Dog and, as Taryn kept artfully putting it, their magic shit.

"I can start crafting some wards tomorrow and see where that gets us," Travis said, his mouth full of soup. Andrea nodded.

"That sounds like a plan. Do you think it'll be a tough fix?"

"I'll know more about it once the wards are in place," he said. "Hopefully not too bad. The energy's pretty good from what I've experienced so far." 

He didn't say that, once the sun finished setting, he would only have six days left to figure out their magic shit before his own magic shit left him forever. Not to mention Patty's magic shit. A headache started to form right between his eyes; he wanted to go to bed. Save up his energy for whatever he needed to do the next day.

He finished his soup and gestured for the other bowls on the table. Andrea shook her head.

"Don't worry about it, you're technically a boarder. Me and T got it." 

Travis raised his eyebrows and whispered an incantation that Oskar created, back when they were still new to the niche and given homework to make up practical spellwork to use daily. Oskar's, of course, was circled around doing the dishes.

The bowls, drawn to his hands like magnets, stacked up in front of him. The utensils filled the top bowl. He gave Andrea a little salute before taking his dirty dish stack back inside, piling it in the small sink and starting the water running. He could hear Taryn still laughing by the gazebo.

Patty hopped up onto the counter next to him and Travis flicked him with some soapy water, cackling when he scrunched up his face and batted at Travis's hands. The dishes went quickly, nothing like the piles and piles of dishes he'd have had to do at the Niche after dinner, but there was also no Oskar bumping his hip with Travis's, no Bee complaining about the mess, no Claude coming in at the very last minute with a shit-eating grin, depositing another huge, dirty pot right in front of them that he'd been using in one of the spellcasting kitchens. 

He hadn't realized he'd been staring, still and quiet, into the swirling soapy water in the sink until Patty flicked his tail underneath his nose.

Something wrong?

Travis shook his head, jerking himself out of whatever stupor he'd fallen into. Nothing's wrong, I'm just... To prove his yet-unsaid point, he yawned. Tired.

It's been a long day. Think we can sneak away without saying goodbye?

Travis laughed a little. Don't be an asshole. 

He ducked into the backyard again, watched the rest of the sunset, made empty promises to never do the dishes again because he was a guest and an employee, technically, damn it (according to Andrea), scratched Benji behind the ears, and finally, managed to get away with a promise to come down early the next morning for breakfast. Taryn was making crepes, and, also according to Andrea, if Travis missed Taryn's crepes he'd regret it for, quote, the rest of his living days. 

Travis had never had a crepe, and he wasn't about to carry that kind of regret around if he could help it.

He climbed the spiral, used small magic to heat the bowl of water in the corner of his room, and scrubbed his face clean before collapsing onto the bed. Patty curled up beside the pillow, draping his tail across Travis's face. He was so tired that he just let it happen.

Dreamspace? Patty asked. Travis murmured assent and felt his body fall into nothing.

He cracked one eye open, just to make sure. The sun was still up in Patty's dreamspace, just brushing the horizon and bathing everything in orange. It looked a little different, too. The forest was thinning, and he couldn't really hear the river babbling anymore. Patty sat next to him, his legs stretched out as he watched the sun set over a field in the distance. 

"Your dreamspace is changing," Travis said, and closed his eyes again.

Patty didn't reply, just hummed a little and shifted in the grass. 

Minutes passed. Travis opened one eye again, squinting a little at Patty through a sunburst.

"You're not that mysterious, bud. Just talk to me."

Patty made a tiny little scoffing noise. "I don't want to be mysterious."

"Hm, let's see. I don't know your first name, I don't know your backstory, I barely know where you came from, and now you won't even tell me about your dreamspace?" Travis closed his eyes, again, and let the setting sun warm his face. "That's like the easiest magic to explain. My dreamspace is a lake, a smaller one than the one at the Niche. It's private, just for me. I have a dock, and I go sit on it and dip my feet in the water." He lifted his arms to make a pillow for his head. "It's where I feel most at peace."

A few more minutes passed, and Travis was pretty sure Patty had fallen asleep, although he wasn't about to check. Then, more shifting in the grass. Patty cleared his throat.

"This isn't my dreamspace."

Travis sat up. "What?"

"It was," he said quickly, "at first. The big tree, the forest. That's mine. It's near where I grew up in the borderlands. I hid in the tree branches a lot as a kid; it always made me feel safe. Protected." He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, his cheeks covered in blotchy blush. "But this is... It keeps shifting, ever so slightly, the more time we spend in it. Together."

Travis cocked his head. "You think it's changing because I'm here?"

"I don't think it's my dreamspace anymore," Patty said. "Whenever I'm in dreamspace alone, it's the tree. Whenever we're together, it's... This."

"You think it's our..." Travis couldn't bring himself to say the word dreamspace. He'd never heard of magic like this, twined together and natural as any other magic he'd ever done. "We share it?"

"That's the only thing that makes sense."

"None of this makes sense."

Patty laughed, a rumble in his throat, and Travis fell back onto the grass. "Agreed."

It fell quiet again. Travis's eyes drifted shut and he listened to the wind blow through the leaves, felt the grit of the dirt under his bare feet. In the vast distance, he could hear a slight roar, like a waterfall's stream hitting rocks.

"I like it when you laugh," he said. Patty didn't answer, and Travis wondered if he'd fallen asleep. He was about to fall asleep. "It's nice. You have a nice laugh."

No response. Travis let himself drift, comfortable laying on his back in the dreamspace's cool evening. It had changed. When he'd first entered Patty's dreamspace he couldn't feel it, but now he could. The magic that permeated his own dreamspace, giving him energy and strength and rest. That could only happen if it was his dreamspace.

But it wasn't his, not really. It was theirs.

The grass beside Travis's head rustled as Patty moved closer. The entire dreamspace seemed to be holding its breath, and Travis was about to sit up and see what was going on when Patty's fingers brushed against the very top of his hairline, combing down through his hair in slow, continual movements. 

The dreamspace exhaled at the same time Travis did. The entire atmosphere felt calm, reassured. Safe.

It took Travis a minute through the somehow both relaxing and jittery sensation of Patty combing through his hair to realize that he didn't feel safe because the dreamspace wanted him to, which was usually how witches gained energy from dreamspaces. The dreamspace felt safe because they both felt safe, together.

 

*****

 

Six days until the new moon, Travis tried crepes for the first time. 

They were good, he figured. Taryn topped them with a generous scoop of strawberry preserves and cream she'd whipped fresh that morning, and... Yeah, okay, they were really good. Patty liked them, too, if the red stained fur around his mouth and the slowly drying cream on his nose was anything to go by.

Travis had decided to split his remaining days with magic into two parts. The first part would be spent helping Taryn and Andrea from after breakfast until mid-afternoon. The second part would be spent either making the trek back into town to visit the library with the permit that Andrea had loaned them, or up in his attic room, trying to figure out Patty. He hadn't told Taryn and Andrea about the Patty part, just used the excuse that he came to Volantes to do some research. They gave him directions to the library and the permit and didn't bring it up much after that. Travis figured that research, no matter how magical, didn't seem very exciting. 

Either way, he was prepared to give his magic a workout for the next few days.

Use it or lose it, he thought rather grimly to himself as he handed his plate over to a very smug Andrea (she'd started doing dishes before he even finished breakfast) and gathered a few herbs from his backpack to bundle together with twine.

What's the plan? Patty asked as they headed downstairs again, taking the spiral steps two at a time. What do you have, sage? Lavender? 

Okay, I don't need your condescending Big Badass Witch energy right now, Travis said, plunking himself down onto a stool at the kitchen's high countertop and spreading out his choices of herb stems in front of him. Patty sat at his feet, draping his tail across his front paws in a way that really felt like a rebuke. 

I was being genuine, but fine.

Travis huffed out a breath and restarted the small pile he was trying to make. I know you're better at magic than me, but I was the one who said I'd help them. You need all the energy you can save up for whatever we'll try later.

Patty stood, stretched, and leapt up onto the counter. He nudged a pile of sage stems closer to Travis's hand.

I can help you. I... Want to help you.

I thought helping them was a mistake?

Patty rolled his eyes, but still looked pleased when Travis scooped up the sage he'd suggested and deposited it onto the laid-out twine. Maybe it's the right thing to do.

Look at you, having a good attitude!

The crepe helped. Patty used his tail to brush a few stems of lavender towards Travis. Together they made the bundle, securing it with intricate braids woven into the twine, Patty reciting a spell that Travis repeated out loud. He'd never heard it before, but it worked; the twine glowed silver and finished the knot itself, slipping out of Travis's fingers and winding around each other with a flourish. They took it to the very center of the inn's backyard, dug a hole, and buried it there. 

From then, it was a waiting game. The bundle of herbs and magic eventually began to send out silver tendrils that weaved across the ground, snaking through the grass like cracks in the earth. They concentrated on three major spots; a space between rocks near the edge of the gazebo's base, a fence post all the way across the yard, and a patch deep in Taryn's garden. 

Their backyard is super unhappy with them, Patty commented.

It's all separate, though. And not necessarily directed at them. Travis wandered over to the spot that was closest, the rocks near the gazebo. He knelt and closed his eyes, placing his left hand, fingertips first, onto the area where the magic concentrated. 

He muttered a few lines of a revealing spell, and the magic beneath his hand began to pulse a yellowish gold.

He jolted back a little bit, but still kept his hand firm. Breathing deep, he concentrated. His surroundings shifted and blurred.

There had been a man, earlier, back when the inn was just a family's home and there was no fence, no garden, no gazebo. He'd knelt in the same spot that Travis was kneeling now, the hilt of a weapon in his left hand plunged into the soil to keep him steady. Travis could see his black boots, his clean hands, the dirt under his nails. At the time he was young, younger than Travis. Travis could feel the magic course through him, different than Volantes magic, but still ripe, strong.

Dark.

He wasn't from Volantes. He had been there to do something, something sinister. The residue was still pulsing in the soil, still giving off negative energy years later. Travis didn't know the man's name, didn't know his motive, didn't know where he was from or where he was going. 

It was an easy fix, anyway. The residue was years old, didn't even hardly have any true power left. Travis gripped the stone harder, speaking another spell into existence, close to one of the tests Claude had done on him when he'd started first feeling that pain in his chest years ago. A banishing spell, a rejection of negative energy.

The stones holding up the gazebo shuddered, and the yellow magic faded into nothing.

That night, after he'd told Taryn and Andrea about the first magical task he and Patty had tackled, Travis asked about the inn. Who lived there before they'd bought it, more specifically. They didn't know for sure; they dealt with an older man who had been keeping the property for the family who had wanted to sell it. Andrea took him down into their cellar, where there was a small chest hidden behind baskets of root vegetables and bottles of wine. 

The chest wasn't helpful, either, and Travis emptied it of all of the land deeds and financial papers with no real information scrawled alongside the numbers and figures. In a last-ditch attempt, he cast a locating spell over it and...

A false bottom wiggled free. Inside was nothing but a crumpled up spell list, a rusted silver chain, and a portrait of a family standing in the inn's backyard. They looked happy, arms slung around each other, and there was a little boy front and center with missing teeth and wild red hair. He must have been about eleven, shiny with magic and ready to leave for a new life, a new adventure, a new home. He looked an awful lot like Claude.

 

*****

 

Five days until the new moon, Travis helped Andrea mend a fence.

He and Patty had destroyed part of it the night prior, digging up and relocating the small cache of bones they'd found to a cemetery and creating a marker. The bones were gave off a vaguely magical energy, but nothing menacing or evil. They might have been the bones of a witch's pet, around magic so often they soaked some of it up. Travis said a few words under the glowing moon, laying the bones to rest in their new location. 

Later, after the fence had been all patched up, Travis and Patty took their permit back into town and headed towards the library. Even with the assistance of muttered location magic when no one was looking, the tall stacks of books were wildly unhelpful. Neither Travis or Patty had much of a mind for research, anyway, and they both got frustrated quickly. After a few hours of research staggered with complaining, they picked up the bushel of potatoes Taryn had requested they get from the vendor nearest to the fountain and headed back to the Spotted Dog. 

They ate potatoes with roasted lamb that night, and Travis played dice with Andrea as the moon rose higher and higher, a constant reminder that he was running out of time.

Four days until the new moon, Travis and Patty got into a fight with some jewelry.

The patch in Taryn's garden was the most concentrated magical spot in the entire yard, and when Travis picked through the spiraling pumpkin vines and tall sunflower stems and plunged his right hand deep into the dirt, whoever had put the magic there had not been happy about the intrusion. 

He'd talked it through with Patty earlier. It happened often at the Niche; where a witch would dig a hole and bury a magical artifact or something linked to their magic, for use in binding them to that area, or possibly for scrying or another form of war magic. Since the Niche was so ancient, there were bits buried all over the place, decades or centuries old, and sometimes they'd act up. If Andrea and Taryn had had a witch come in and inspect the Spotted Dog before moving in, whatever was causing their issues would have been found and dealt with.

Either way, Travis ended up digging a hole in Taryn's garden, displacing some of her green beans, and finding a large, very rusty locket the size of his fist that, even with magic, couldn't be opened. After putting the bean plants back in their homes, Travis, on Patty's instructions, built a circle out of salt and lavender, setting himself, Patty, and the locket within its borders. Travis wasn't sure if it was a curse or not, but it certainly hadn't been nice to the Spotted Dog, so he treated it like one. 

Dousing the locket with a vial of solar water, Travis lit three black candles and allowed their wax to melt, dripping onto a small piece of parchment he'd ripped out of one of his blank books. He drew a sigil in the wax with a needle, muttered a spell, and the paper began to smoke in his hand. Patty pounced on the locket as it started to shake, keeping it still as the spell's effects did their work. The smoke from the paper and a thin line of smoke that seeped from the locket twined together in the air before dissipating. The locket gave one final shudder and lay still underneath Patty's paws. The wax slipped from the paper like water on a duck's back, puddling in the grass as Travis took the paper, crisp and new like he'd just torn it from the book, and shoved it in his back pocket.

He hefted the locket in both hands and said another spell. Nothing. Just a harmless hunk of metal that... He tried to open it, to no avail. Well. That still didn't want to divulge its secrets, but that wasn't why they were here, anyway.

He showed the locket to both Taryn and Andrea, but neither of them had any interest in it. Andrea explicitly said to get it the fuck out of her house, and Taryn, with a shrug, agreed. So Travis stashed it in his backpack, along with the pile of papers and the photo from the chest in the basement. He strung the rusty chain through the locket's loop; both metals matched perfectly.

All mysteries, but he had bigger mysteries to solve.

For good measure, he ended up mopping the entire bottom floor of the inn. He'd infused a bucket of water with poke root and rowan, and used Taryn's oldest, grungiest mop to spread the water across the stones in the kitchen, and rolled up the living room rug to get the floorboards and in all of the corners. There were a few new boarders, and he overheard Andrea make some excuse about hiring on help to do chores that neither of them were physically able to. He'd seen both of their forearms; they were more than capable of dragging their living room furniture around if they'd wanted to.

He mopped up all of the water and squeezed it back into the bucket, tossing it out the back door like Coots had taught him to do after breaking a hex. He built a small bonfire in the backyard, breaking the mop into small pieces and tossing the bucket in, too, for good measure. Taryn had made her chocolate cake that afternoon, and they completely demolished it while sitting around the fire. A party, Taryn said, for the end of the inn's era of magic shit. She told stories from her and Andrea's dating years that made Travis laugh so hard he cried, and Patty sat in his lap, curled up with his head on his paws.

He fell asleep in their dreamspace that night, more exhausted than he'd ever been in his entire life, with his head resting on Patty's chest and one of Patty's arms draped heavily around his shoulders.

Three days until the new moon, Taryn gave Travis a haircut.

It made him homesick almost immediately, the feeling of shears snipping away the dead ends, the way Taryn ran her hands through his hair to make sure it looked even. Coots had given him haircuts back at the Niche, with a tiny pair of shears he used for more delicate gardening (and cutting the hair of errant witches who, honestly, didn't even need a haircut, come on). Sitting on the ground while Taryn snipped away made him feel fourteen again, made him feel like he was late to one of Claude's spellcasting classes while Coots cut the front of his hair a little too short. 

Patty sat on the ground beside him, far away enough that none of the clumps of hair would get near him, and made snarky little comments the entire time. Travis refrained from making any comments of his own; Patty's hair was growing, too, even if he was a cat most of the time. In dreamspace his hair was long enough to braid. But, hey. To each his own. Travis kind of liked Patty's long hair. It was him in that way that most things about Patty were, and, like everything else about Patty, it grew on him after a while. 

In the afternoon they went back to the library again, just to make sure they hadn't missed anything the first time around. Travis used locating spells to find books with any mention of transformation, animal or human, and together he and Patty pored over tomes thicker than Travis's arm and scrolls that needed anti-aging spells to keep from falling apart and turning to dust. Some of the older books were in a language neither of them could make heads or tails of, and that language charms fell apart trying to translate.

It was weird. There had to be other witches that could transform themselves into animals, or Patty couldn't have been able to do it. Patty had read about it when he was younger, that's how he knew to try in the first place. It was almost like the library had been scrubbed fully of any mention of that magic. 

And there was no use in asking, as any mention of magic as deep and unknowable as transformation magic would've surely outed them as witches in seconds.

It was frustrating. Travis went to bed that night in a huff, and not even the familiar warmth of Patty pressed next to him, purring in a quiet, comforting way he almost never did, helped his outlook. He just wanted this to be done

He wanted to go home.

Two days until the new moon, Patty said he wanted to leave. Travis knew it was time, had felt ready to move on, too. He just hadn't wanted to; leaving the safety of the inn, of their little room right under the roof's topmost spire, of Taryn and Andrea and Benji... For what? More of the unknown? 

But it was time.

They hadn't gotten anywhere with Volantes' library, hadn't gotten anywhere with the strength given to them by dreamspace. Hadn't gotten anywhere with Patty's magic, hadn't gotten anywhere with Travis's. 

So he packed his backpack, accepted a bundle of scones and a small pot of jam from Andrea and a hug from Taryn, let Benji lick his face a few more times, and even Patty bent his head for behind-the-ears scratches from both Andrea and Taryn before they walked out of the Spotted Dog for the last time.

He felt full, satisfied. Magic coursed through his veins with more power than ever, he was rested and strong. And yet there was still a cat on his shoulder instead of Patty walking beside him. 

Travis really didn't do discouragement, as like, a general rule. And even he was getting frustrated. 

And if he was pissed off, he had no idea what Patty was feeling. So he kept all that inside. He wasn't going to make a scene like he had last night, falling asleep in a huff. So he just reached up to smooth down a flick of fur that was sticking up from Patty's forehead like one-half of a devil horn pair, and laughed.

So, bud, he thought, what now? Want to find a witch hiding somewhere and see if they have any idea what's going on?

It was an idea that he'd thought about for a while now. Taryn had said there were people with magic in Volantes, somewhere, hiding their waning skills from the Chamber's watchful eye. If they could find one, maybe their expertise and age would help two inexperienced, young witches with a big stupid problem. Maybe. It was worth a shot.

No, Patty said, and hopped off of his shoulder. He looked backwards at Travis, expectantly, like he wanted him to follow. Do you trust me?

What kind of question is that? Travis asked. Of course I do. Where are we going?

Just trust me, Patty repeated, and together, they walked through the city, past the street vendors, past the fountain, and through the huge arch separating Volantes city proper from the surrounding countryside. At the fork in the road, the right leading towards the Niche and the left leading towards the unknown, Patty took the left.

And, shrugging his backpack higher onto his shoulders, Travis followed.

 

*****

 

That morning, Travis got a rock stuck in his shoe.

"Okay, I know I said I trusted you," he said as they stopped so he could bend down, untie it, and shake it out onto the dirt road, "but you gotta give me this. Do you know where we're going?" 

They had been walking for at least three hours, and Travis's legs hurt. Patty, with a spring in his step undeterred from all the fuckin' walking they'd been doing, looked up at him.

Yes.

"Oh, fuck you." Travis laughed anyway, and readjusted the backpack on his shoulders as they kept on. It really wasn't that bad, he just liked to see Patty's little grump face whenever he complained out loud, like he should always be able to complain, but not Travis. It was funny. 

In reality, he liked walking with Patty. He liked doing most things with Patty. Working out the magic to tackle all of the issues at the Spotted Dog hadn't felt like work at all, it had been fun to put his head together with another witch, arguably more proficient in magic and all things surrounding it, to try and figure out a problem. To do something and have it actually work

Doing magic with Patty felt good. Easy. In a strange, new way, a way he'd never really felt with anyone else at the Niche.

And everything that they did just, well, worked.

Every time he thought about it, though, he got more and more sad. He was going to lose it, all of it, as soon as that new moon hung in the sky. And what was worse, was that he didn't even consider losing his magic or his spot at the Niche the most horrible thing to lose anymore.

When he thought about what he stood to lose, his connection with Patty was the first thing in his mind.

It scared him to death.

That afternoon, they found an old dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and stopped to rest. There was a wide pond nearby, and Travis found an old fishing line in the cellar, strung it up, and waded into the pond, not really caring that his pants were getting wet. Patty, sunning himself on a log, provided commentary as Travis fished, and fished, and fished. And caught nothing.

You know you can use magic to see if there's even anything alive in there, Patty said, stretching out on his log as Travis cast his line again.

"Magic isn't everything," he snapped back.

He kind of regretted his tone immediately. It wasn't fair for him to get frustrated at Patty for everything going on in his own damn head. But, the back of his neck was sunburnt. His feet hurt. He'd just wanted to fish like he fished at the Niche, easily and with no resistance, and then he'd cook the fish over a small fire like he did for Sanny and Oskar. He was good at it, and they loved it, and he just wanted to do something worth doing without magic.

If you don't know the spell, I can teach you. Patty sat up on the log, the sunbeam catching and illuminating the cat hair floating around him, kicked up by the movement.

Travis cast his line again. "By tomorrow night, it won't matter what spells I know."

What does that mean?

"Nothing."

The wind blew through the surrounding trees as frogs croaked in the distance. Patty fixed him with a stare.

Travis, tell me what's bothering you.

"Nothing's bothering me."

You're an open book, you piece of shit, just tell me what's wrong.

"Nothing's wrong!"

Tell me what's wrong!

Travis reeled back and threw the fishing pole into the lake, hook, line, everything.

"If I don't transform you back, my magic's gone," he said, watching as as it sank. "AV's taking it tomorrow night."

He kept his eyes on the lake, but he still heard the loud rustle as Patty jumped off of the log and made his way back to the farm house and their pile of things. After a few minutes of staring, waiting for the pole to float back up like he knew it would never do, Travis followed. 

He gathered their things and they journeyed on in silence. Travis's heart hurt, a hole the size of Patty that he knew would be carved out of him just like AV would carve out his magic. The man in their shared dreamspace would disappear, their connection would disappear, everything that Travis held onto so tightly, gone. Taken from him. 

He watched Patty walk a few paces ahead of him, gaze fixed resolutely ahead.

Maybe it had already been taken from him.

That night, Travis collapsed underneath a tree and curled in on himself, not checking to make sure Patty had stopped. He was hungry, and there was food in the backpack, but he was too embarrassed and tired to really do anything about it. He didn't ask about dreamspace, and Patty didn't say anything, either.

He fell asleep, his legs aching and stomach rumbling, missing the warmth of Patty next to him.

Early in the morning on the last day until the new moon, like, early enough that the sun wasn't out and the sky was a deep gray marbled with muted blue, Patty nudged Travis until he woke up, until he put the backpack back on, until he agreed to keep walking. They didn't talk much. Hadn't talked much since yesterday afternoon. Travis still kind of regretted telling him about AV's threat, it really had only made him feel worse. It wasn't like Patty could do anything about it.

The sun started to rise directly in front of them, tendrils of purple snaking across the sky.

"I'm sorry I said what I said." Travis kicked a rock out of Patty's path. "I didn't mean to, I wasn't going to."

It was quiet. Patty padded next to him like a shadow, until he bumped into Travis's leg on purpose.

Just kinda pissed you didn't tell me earlier. His voice was a rumble. 

Travis frowned. "What good would that have done?"

You talk about everything, Trav. Heart on your sleeve bullshit, right? It's weird you'd hide this... A pause. From me.

A longer pause. Travis could see streaks of orange on the horizon, and the same roaring noise that filled their dreamspace was here, too. Grass turned to sand under his feet as they walked.

I don't want you to think you have to hide.

Travis snorted. "Says the most secretive person I know."

Patty was silent as they traversed a field full of dunes, long grass swaying in the slight breeze and tickling Travis's hands. Up and down, left and right. It was mostly sand, now, and Travis thought about complaining as Patty picked the biggest dune and started climbing. He didn't. 

They crested the dune, and Travis's jaw dropped. He shimmied the backpack off of his shoulders and his shoes off of his feet, and skidded down the other side of the hill, slipping and sliding in the sand. He laughed, the sound carrying across the emptiness of the beach, as the sun continued to rise over the thundering ocean. Gulls dipped and danced along the waves, watercolor streaks of gold and pink melding with the oranges and reds already smeared across the sky.

"Holy shit!" he crowed, spinning back around as Patty followed him down the hill, his paws making tiny marks in the sand alongside of Travis's bare feet. "Patso, did you know about this?"

You said you've never seen the sea. Patty twined through Travis's legs. Travis reached down and picked him up, pressing him against his chest as he sat right down in the cold sand, digging his toes deeper. 

Together, they watched the sun rise over the waves, everything from the past day forgotten. Travis crossed his arms over his knees, and Patty wiggled his head between his arms. Travis leaned down to rest his chin on the top of Patty's head.

"I've never seen anything like this," he said. Patty hummed in agreement.

Some good things happen with or without magic, he said. Travis leaned back, planting his hands in the sand.

"What're you saying?"

I'm saying that whatever AV does or doesn't do can't take this from you, Patty said. We're still us. You're still Travis. I'm still Nolan.

"I know, but—" the words caught in Travis's throat. "Nolan?"

Patty huffed out a laugh. My first name, dipshit.

Travis laughed too, pushing Patty off of his lap. "You have to be kidding me! It only took you, like, fifteen years to trust me, Nolan."

I haven't said my first name out loud in about that long, Patty said. It's been long enough, I guess.

"It's a good name." Travis fell back onto the sand, not caring that he was probably going to have grit in his hair for days. "Nolan Patrick. Nolan. Nols. Noley-o."

Patty still works, especially out in public.

"Can't take the suspicious out of the bitch, eh?"

I trust you. Patty curled up next to him on the beach. Doesn't mean I have to trust anyone else.

Travis closed his eyes, felt the subtle shift that indicated he had entered the dreamspace, but nothing else changed. He cracked open one eye; still sunrise, still ocean, still sand beneath him. The only difference was Patty next to him, human, pressed close and intimate and familiar. This was what their dreamspace had been subtly changing to over the past few days; the roar of the waves in the distance, the gritty sand mixed with the forest grass. Pushing them towards the unknown, urging them forward. 

For what? Travis couldn't help but wonder.

And then Patty reached over and twined their fingers together, his large hand engulfing Travis's, his palm warm and sure against his, and Travis stopped wondering much at all.

 

*****

 

Travis stood across from Patty in the dreamspace, and held out both of his hands. Patty took them, a grim expression on his face.

"One more try," he said.

"One more try." Travis nodded. They were both full of energy; Travis had swam in the ocean all morning, Patty watching from the shore, and in dreamspace he had a slight brush of sunburn across his nose. It was now or never, honestly, and Travis felt pretty good about it.

"Okay, I have to do this by myself." Patty squeezed Travis's hands and let go, stepping back and squaring his shoulders like he was about to jump into a fight. The dreamspace's sunlight glinted off of his auburn hair, making it shine almost red.

"You got this, Nolan," Travis said, and Patty breathed deep and closed his eyes.

He began muttering something under his breath, an incantation, and wind whipped up out of nowhere, making sand swirl around his feet. Fire sparked around his fingertips and around his head. He was actually doing it, the magic was working, he was going to...

He faltered, stumbling backwards a little bit, and Travis instinctively reached out with his own magic to steady him. It flowed from him naturally in the dreamspace, an orange haze drawn from his chest, and Patty grounded himself and continued on. Travis pushed. The connection strengthened. He pushed more —come on, come on— and... Travis screamed as the magic warped and strained, a tearing pain that felt like two hands slowly ripping his ribcage apart. 

The dreamspace shattered apart, throwing Travis and Patty backwards and away from each other, Travis human, Patty decisively not. No injuries this time, but there was a smoking crater of sand between them where they had stood in the dreamspace. Travis raked his hands through his hair as Patty spat every curse Travis knew (and some that he didn't) towards the raging ocean.

"I'm sorry," Travis said. "Maybe if I could figure out how to not make that hurt so bad I can be more help but..."

Hurt? Patty asked. What fuckin' hurts? And maybe don't yell next time, I need to concentrate, okay?

"I was trying to use my own magic to help," Travis returned. "And it was working. Up until that pain in my chest."

What pain?

"It happens every once in a while." Travis massaged the center of his chest, right where the pulling sensation and subsequent agony manifested. "That was the worst one, though. But like, when I watch Hartsy train it happens sometimes, and when I'm in huddle with all the other witches doing affirmations and group magic it happens sometimes. I don't know, it's just like a side effect of magic. G tested me and it's nothing."

Patty's eyes widened and he slowly backed away from the crater, still softly smoking, the ocean's edge, and Travis. 

"It's not a big deal," Travis said, and Patty turned.

"Hey, wait!" Travis yelled, and Patty ran.