Max had never been one for driving.
That wasn’t to say that he couldn’t drive. His mother had insisted the two of them learn as soon as they turned sixteen, and would take them on endless, circling, practice drives of Fargo, tapping the glowing protection sigil on the dashboard every time one of them veered too close to the curb. “It’s my job,” she’d said with a wistful smile, “to teach you every way there is to survive in this world,” and Max had bitched and moaned and said he was going to live in New York anyways, where no one who was anyone so much as looked in the direction of a car.
Neither of them could say no to their mom for long, though, and when they got their G2 licenses, they clinked them together like champagne glasses, and Alicia said “Who needs New York?” and promptly decked out a flashy silver Jeep, with a silver knife in the glove compartment and demon warding scratched into the inside of the trunk and a handful of rose quartz crystals dangling from the mirror, “for your weird girl witch stuff. But it’s my car, don’t get it twisted.” Max had told her that actually, rose quartz did almost nothing for practicing witches, and she stuck her tongue out at him and he stuck his out back and when they moved to Montreal, she started driving the Jeep to classes while he took the train to work.
But yeah, he could drive when he needed to. And right now, with his undead sister asleep in the shotgun seat and the occasional million-watt anti-abortion billboard sending a wash of light over her sleeping face — was she breathing? He couldn’t tell if she was breathing, if she needed to breathe — he just needed to put as much distance between the two of them and whatever had just happened in Wyoming as possible.
Fleetwood Mac crooned from the speakers, a low, purple murmur that swelled like the sky. There will always be a storm.
Stevie Nicks, his mom had once told him with a wink, may not be a witch in the conventional sense, but she certainly knew her way around a different kind of enchantment. He waited for Alicia to make some dry comment about the danger of letting gay guys on the AUX chord. But of course, she slept right through it, as half-reanimated souls bundled into makeshift twig dolls tended to do.
Or didn’t tend to do. He was kind of out of his depth here.
Oddly enough, he didn’t care that he was going to hell. He tried it out on his tongue for a second, I’m going to hell, and it sounded more like a comeback than an actual final destination. Oh, sure, I’m going to hell, garnished with an eyeroll, an idle wave of his hand.
Because he planned to live for a long time yet, but right now, hell was the least of his problems. Right now he was in their shitty car, and his mother wasn’t in their shitty car, and Alicia was only half-in their shitty car, and the reality of that felt big enough to crack open the stupid empty sky over — was this still Wyoming? Montana? Utah?
He’d heard people say the word grief at Asa’s funeral and thought he understood. The two of them sunk blissed-out and stoned into a couch belonging to their dad-on-a-technicality, watching people they barely knew grieving. And they’d noticed it, and marvelled at how they were all chuckling and swigging back bottles of Molson like there was no tomorrow, celebrating a body well-tossed into the afterlife, and everyone said sad but no one was crying.
And now he thought he got it, just a little bit. He had sobbed his eyes out over his family's bodies and now he was wrung out like a damp dishcloth. He had nothing more to give; if someone had asked him to cry on command, he would have spat in their face
So I try to say goodbye, my friend, Stevie offered from the radio, which was a little too on the nose. So he picked a Lana album, sunk into the kind of sad that was so obviously pulled from a persona that it couldn’t touch him. Cocaine, cigarettes, Elvis, whatever. Lana wouldn’t last one night at a Montreal club. And for some reason, that made him laugh. And that was enough.
“Dude, have you been driving all night?”
“Hm?” He rolled his head wearily towards the passenger seat and saw Alicia struggling awake. Her hair was mussed, just this side of acceptable-threshold-for-sibling-mockery. He said “Worry about yourself, bedhead," which came out meaner than he meant it to, and she huffed at her reflection in the side mirror.
“Max. Okay, you’re clearly exhausted, look like you’ve just crawled out of Satan’s shrivelled asshole—”
“Yikes,” he grinned. “Vivid.”
“And accurate. I have exes doing a poetry MFA for a reason.”
“You are not singlehandedly responsible for Janay’s stupid poetry MFA.”
She wagged her finger. “That you know of.”
“Ah, shut up.”
Her body went totally rigid at that, mouth snapped closed. Silent.
Factory settings, Max thought, and his stomach twisted like he was about to yak up all his organs. He wondered if she still had organs, or just sticks — nope, not thinking about that.
“I mean. Fuck. Shit.” He hurriedly tapped the glowing witch’s ring on his left hand. “Keep talking? I mean, if you want to.”
“So, totally responsible for that, one,” she snapped back, as though nothing had happened. Two, Max, you’re exhausted. And I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re about to swerve off the road and steamroller some poor baby deer, and then that’ll be on your conscience for days. So let’s go get some real American diner food. Please?”
They were looking for some greasy smear on the map, owned by one cheery old woman who’d been in the same town for decades. (“The real Midwest experience. The kind Mom would never let us go to,” Alicia said, and he ignored the sourness in his stomach and said “I’m pretty sure Wyoming’s just the West” and she said “Ugh. Whatever,” and stuck her tongue out at him.) Instead, they found a tiny Denny’s at a rest stop, the kind with a couple ancient arcade games tucked behind the door, and neither of them felt like driving any further. The second Max sat down, he realised that he was actually starving, thank you very fucking much, and ordered a stack of those pancakes that swallowed up the whole plate. Alicia ordered a coffee, and toyed with the handle of her mug.
“So what’s wrong?” she said, clasping her hands over the table.
“Uh.” That was about all he could offer.
“Max. You cannot bullshit me. It’s against twin law or whatever. Even if you wanted to, which I know you don’t.”
“I couldn’t if I tried,” he finished. “Yeah. I, um,” and he took three bites of his pancakes in rapid succession, because his world might have just cracked to pieces like a broken bird’s nest, but Jesus, if his body hadn’t decided to cope by begging for sustenance. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
She shrugged. “Dinner with Mom and Sam and Dean. Dean laughing at Mom’s wine, and you stealing my car keys to go get laid, which, hey, screw you for that. And you said — you said there was something wrong with Mom.” She squinted, trailed off. “That’s all I remember. After that, it’s hazy.”
He took a deep breath. “Yeah. Uh. So Mom is.” There were too many chocolate chips clustered around the edges of his pancakes, not enough in the centre. “Mom is dead.”
“I think I knew,” she said, quietly, and then something wrenched from within her and shuddered over the table, and he didn’t have to look at her to know she was starting to cry, but he couldn’t look at her, not right now. And what kind of a fucking brother did that make him?
He reached his hand over the table and found hers and squeezed it so fucking tight, and she gripped back, and he was relieved to feel that at least her hand was warm and solid and human under his. It trembled as she did, and they held onto each other like that for maybe seconds and maybe minutes, until he didn’t feel like somebody holding somebody else at all. They were just there, all at once, MaxandAlicia, and only one of them was crying, or both of them was crying, and it really didn’t matter either way. There weren’t edges between them.
“What happened?” she asked, in a tiny voice.
“The owner of the B and B. She was a witch, a seriously fucked one. Would trap her guests in the basement and turn them— and just kill them. She got Mom. Tried to get you, too. I found a spell and healed you, Sam and Dean helped. But it was too late for Mom.”
And now he was all too aware of the part where his hand stopped being his hand and started being Alicia’s hand, because he was lying. He was lying, and that was the worst part of it all. Not about swiping her concealer for a night out, or catching up on Pretty Little Liars without her, but about something that would be at the centre of their lives. For as long as they lived it.
There was too much syrup in his mouth, tacky cornstarch crap. Not even real maple. It dried out the insides of his cheeks.
“This, uh.” She laughed and there was crying in it. “This sucks, huh?”
“Tell me about it.”
“Vibing pretty death-free for twenty-six years,” she pondered, “and then both Mom and Asa in, like, two months.” She paused. “Dad? Asa.”
“Asa,” he agreed. “Let’s be real, he’s not more of our dad just because he bit the dust.”
“It is weird, though. How most of the hunting parents we know are dead ones. It’s, like, some sick rite of passage. Or whatever.”
“Yeah. It’s, uh. Exactly what Mom never wanted for us.”
When they were growing up, even now that they were grown, Max and Alicia were expected to be sad about their dad not raising them. It was all there in the brimming blue eyes of elementary school teachers and college interviewers and family friends, the crooning Oh, I’m so sorry, do you ever hear from him? The whole performance made them feel, they confided in each other, like they were flunking out of Tragedy School, like these concerned adults would gladly shove them into traffic if it gave them the opportunity to weep over their hospital beds.
Sure, they saw Asa for a week or so most summers. It was a nice vacation — he’d order pizza nearly every night, and show a fascinated Alicia how to hurl knives at the target in his back plot while Max scratched sigils in the dirt. They’d giggle at the thrilling coldness in their mother’s voice when she drove up to Manitoba to pick them up at the end of the week, and tuck away the goodbye wink Asa throwed them like a shared secret. But they always meant it, though no one believed them, when they said their three-person family felt whole as it was. They weren’t missing anything.
“So many of your father’s people,” their mom would tell them when they got a little bit older, “they’re only in this life because of tragedy. A loved one is killed, and it breaks them apart, and they spend their whole life trying to get revenge for that. But that’s not why we’re in this, okay? We’re in this because we love each other, not because we could lose each other.”
And now they had lost each other.
In his memories, his mom flicked her wrist and ignited the stovetop under a pan of Tofurkey sausages. Alicia always complained about them when her friends came over from school, and privately admitted they were delicious.
In real life, right in front of him, the Alicia who was not Alicia said “So what are we going to do now?” and he didn’t know how to answer.
“I mean. We could go back to Montreal.”
Alicia had finished her Masters in History at McGill the semester before, hunting on the side. Study group over at the apartment to discuss data tables about incarcerated French women in the 1700s on Monday nights, Montreal Hunter’s Network meetings to swap notes about shifters on Tuesdays. Max, like any good twin brother, had come up to Canada with her, got a job pulling espresso shots at a tiny cafe filled with undergrads clamouring for oat milk and the odd hot guy his age who didn’t mind Max scrawling his number on the receipt. Witches tended to cluster in cities more than hunters did — knew there was strength in numbers, less chance of being ganked by. Well hunters.
“Yeah.” She sounded vacantly unenthusiastic about it. “Yeah, we should. But maybe we should go to Mom’s first?”
“Yeah. Yeah, she’d want us to. You can always come home, and all that.”
Because she’d been insistent about it. You can always come home, sweetheart, she’d murmured to both of them as she hugged them goodbye. And they did, again and again, like a finger bending to its own palm. Fargo was a long drive or a short flight, and they’d bicker the whole way there, and when they left they left with a promise to call on the fourth day of a hunt, just like she always did.
“I think we should host a funeral,” Max said, all in a rush. “I mean… like Asa’s, right? Let her friends say goodbye, celebrate her life. ”
She nodded. “You knew all the witches she did — do you have their numbers? I guess Sam and Dean burnt the- the body, but we could bury something symbolic. Is it Tuesday?” And if that wasn't Alicia, ever the pragmatist, always calmer when she had a knife to pin to a werewolf's throat or a date to pin to a calendar.
“Wednesday.” He took another swig of OJ. God, his mouth was dry.
“Let’s plan for next Thursday. That’s enough time, right? For people to come up. Or should it be on a weekend?” A patch of syrup had oozed its way off the rim of Max’s plate.
“Alicia,” he said. “I’m sorry. You didn’t— you knew she was in danger. And if we’d gone down earlier, she’d be okay.”
“And if I’d tried out for the musical in high school, maybe I’d be cast as Elle Woods. But we can’t — Max, we just have to keep going. Okay?”
“It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong.” And just then the waitress teetered over, a bubbly woman with shaggy black hair and too-high heels, and thank god for that, because pretty soon Max was going to have to figure out if it was “wrong” to sell your soul to Hell to half-resurrect your sister’s own, and that wasn’t a moral quandary he could do when he hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours.
“Hiya, folks. Can I get you anything else?”
“We’re good, thanks,” Alicia said with a terse little smile. “Actually, we’ll take the check now.” She slid her coffee mug from hand to hand, and it sloshed a little over the table as the waitress left. “It’s weird,” she said to Max. “I don’t want to drink this. Like, at all. My body’s yelling at me like I’m trying to drink motor oil.”
And they had to loop back on the twig doll thing, because he really, really needed to tell her, but right now he was watching the waitress watch them with a knowing fascination. He’d gotten good, over the years, at reading faces, and this one said she didn’t want to fuck either of them, but the jury was still out on if she was going to kill them.
“Al,” he hissed, and she snapped to attention — not the cold, obedient attention of enchantment, but the kind of attention that came from more than a decade of fighting at your best friend’s side. “That waitress. Can you spot anything suspicious on her?”
She pretended to be looking out the window as she craned her neck to watch. "Nothing on my end. Do you still have that revealing spell?"
Sometimes he forgot that he was a witch at the worst moments. "Right." He pulled out his wallet, unfolded a thin, unassuming sheet of plastic with a sigil printed into it. Portable spellwork. Never let it be said that Max Banes wasn't an innovator. Alicia moved to prick her finger with the tip of her knife, but he snatched it out of her hand and slashed open his palm, muttering the Ogham incantation under his breath.
There was a furious flash of white-blue light that was way too conspicuous for them to stay any longer, even if it didn't indicate what it did.
"We gotta go."
"Yep, sensing that." She scrambled to her feet. "Is she—"
"Angel," he confirmed between gritted teeth as he grinned cheerily at the gobsmacked diners. "Hey, guys. Good breakfast?"
They dashed out towards the Jeep. Alicia knocked over her cup of cold coffee as she went, and it oozed over the table like a dying thing.