To drown my sorrow down by [archiveofourown.org profile] alyse

Fandom: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Pairing: Hansel/Gretel
Rating: PG13
Word Count: 6,300
Author's Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] quarterturn for Yuletide 2013. Title from 'Dirty Little Secret' by Sarah McLachlan. Thanks to Aithine for the beta.

They say that the first time is always the hardest. As far as Hansel's concerned, that's just a crock of shit.

-o-

The first time is always the hardest.

That's what they say, at least, and Hansel thinks that they - whoever the fuck 'they' are - might have a point. The first witch they took down - just the two of them, two little kids lost and alone in the dark, with no one to turn to but each other - was a certainly a bitch and he still bears the scars of that little encounter to this day.

The first night they spent alone in the woods was a fucking doozy, too. The first time the sugar sickness hit him, the first time Gretel's eye was blackened and the first time his arm was broken... He could go on, but what would be the fucking point?

Of course, they also say that things get easier with practice.

Well, as far as Hansel's concerned, that's just a crock of shit.

-o0o-

Weisenberg is a shithole in Hansel's considered and experienced opinion, nothing to distinguish it from any of the other one-horse and possibly single goat towns they've hunted in over the years. This one's a little further north, so it gets a little colder a little earlier in the winter, but other than that it could be Heiseldorf or Glashof or fucking Shitsberg... who the hell remembers all of the names of these places? They blur into each other after a while. Even the faces look the same - the mayor of this town looks like every other one that Hansel can remember, and this grieving mother and guilt-ridden father look like the next. The people they pass in the street are just as furtive and fearful, all sidelong glances and skittering feet as they hurry to get the hell out of Gretel's way.

His sister doesn't seem to notice. She strides down the street as if she fucking owns it, and if witches keep popping up with the same frequency as they have of late, it might not be that long before she could if she wanted to. Not that they have any time to spend any of the gold they earn. Not that Gretel seems to care. Hansel has to lengthen his stride to keep up with her, and from the sidelong look she gives him, all dark amusement under the surface, she's not going to let him forget it in a hurry.

"So," he says slowly. He lets the word slide out of the side of his mouth as his gaze takes in the rapidly emptying street, all of Weisenberg's upstanding citizens sidling out of sight as soon as his eyes fall upon them. "Any ideas about what we're up against this time?"

Gretel pauses, all graceful, fluid lines and arched eyebrows as he stumbles to a stop beside her.

"Guess," she says, and her smile is sharp and pointed, something feral in it, a bloodlust that would mirror his if he wasn't already made wary by her amusement.

"Oh, no. Please tell me it's not..."

Of course it would be, this close to winter when a man could freeze his fucking balls off hunting things he shouldn't if he's smart. Her smile widens as she breaks the news.

He's right. It's a fucking Swamp Witch.

He really hates those.

-o0o-

The second time they fought a witch, they really weren't intending to. They were still kids, for God's sake, not that Hansel thinks God is much interested in the affairs of men - or women - these days. He can't remember how it came about, but he remembers his sister, how Gretel stood up in a room full of sombre men with terrified faces and eyes that wouldn't meet each other's and told them that she'd do what they wouldn't.

Oh, yes. He remembers Gretel and how bright she burned that day, how she was all fire and fury at the thought of a child as lost as they had been, an avenging angel back when he believed in them. His Gretel and her certainty. She'd dragged him after her that day, even though there was no way he wasn't following hard on her heels; he didn't need her cold hand wrapped around his, her fingers gripping him so tightly that it hurt, to keep him there. He hadn't let go in spite of the bruises she'd left.

He'd never let go. He never would. Even as a child he couldn't imagine not being right beside her when she faced whatever fate threw at them.

Hansel and Gretel.

Like that ever made any sense. It's always been Gretel and Hansel. She's first. She's always come first as far as Hansel is concerned. He's been following her his whole life.

He'd follow her straight through the gates of Hell if he needed to.

One of these days she's going to drag him there, too.

-o0o-

Swamp Witch. Story of his fucking life. There's a reason he hates them, and not just because Swamp Witches are ugly, even in comparison with their witch-kin. Part of it is that they stink like open sewers, and Hansel is better acquainted with the smell of those than he'd like, given some of the so called 'towns' that call them in. Frankly, the only positive thing about a Swamp Witch's stench is that at least it makes them easier to hunt - all he has to do is follow his nose and hope like fuck he manages to keep his breakfast down.

But mostly? It's the 'swamp' part that earns his hatred. Not the stench or the overgrown and rotting greenery, even though it makes his nose itch and his skin crawl. Not the cold or the damp that settles into his bones and slicks his clothes to his skin.

No. It's the fucking water. There's something unnatural about the way that the ground moves and sinks under his feet, water collecting in his footsteps the deeper he moves into the swamp. It's the way that it's lurking under there, under all of the straggling and unhealthy looking greenery, just waiting to trap the unwary, like some vast, weird predator.

Hansel is wary as fuck.

At least if they were hunting by a river and he fell in then someone - Gretel, probably - would see the water closing over his fucking head. But this? It's just not right. The ground should stay fucking solid as far as Hansel's concerned.

But Gretel is ahead of him, staring back at him with her brow wrinkled, impatient to be getting on with things, as she always is. And so Hansel grits his teeth and takes another step, swallowing down the metallic taste of fear as the ground once again shifts beneath his feet.

-o0o-

The third time was far from a charm - by then, he and his sister were beginning to get a reputation, not all of it good. But at least it meant that people listened to them when they started talking, or listened to Gretel, at least. She'd always been the one with the mouth on her, even if her language was enough sometimes to make the more delicate townsfolk turn pale.

But they listened. Listened to the girl with fierce brown eyes and a sharp, unsubtle tongue. Listened as she laid it all out for them - what they were facing, what they were dealing with.

What they were losing against.

Oh, yes. They had a reputation even that early, but at least it was one they'd earned.

Their other reputation came later, and Hansel still wishes he'd shot the first bastard to believe it.

-o0o-

It's not long before they find the place that this particular Swamp Witch calls home - right in the middle of the Fens. The signs of her are everywhere - the water grows steadily more brackish and foul the further in they venture, and the trees are grey and withered, twisted and malformed. Hansel sees faces in some of the shadows, open-mouthed and screaming, at least until he grows closer and realises that it's nothing but moss and knots. That and an overactive imagination.

But there are other signs, too, ones that are more foreboding, less easily dismissed. The trees thin out, nothing but rotten stumps now, like blackened teeth in a pockmarked landscape, and the weeds that struggle to survive around their corpses are sickly looking, scabrous and yellowing as they strain in vain for a glimpse of the sun in the sky.

The sun has got to be up there somewhere, although Hansel is beginning to have his doubts. The sky's grey from horizon to horizon and even that looks wrong, too dark, too yellow-tinged, the clouds malformed and malevolent, like this bitch might be powerful enough for her influence to stretch that far.

Hansel is starting to get a really bad feeling about this.

He's almost disappointed when they finally stumble across the witch's home. Calling it a shack would be charitable - the wood is grey and warped, and the whole thing leans in a way that manages to be both disorienting and suggestive. The windows are cracked, like ancient, rheumy eyes, and the door sags on its hinges. Witches are hardly fucking house proud, but most of them - the powerful ones, the ones brave enough or stupid enough to snatch children - want a roof over their head that doesn't fucking leak.

Apparently this one doesn't give a shit.

Beside him, Gretel draws her bow, her face set and certain, full to the brim with a confidence that settles in his chest, loosens his muscles and calms his jagged heart. He cocks his gun, eyes alert for any sign of movement, but the bitch still catches him by surprise.

He gets in two or three good blows before she knocks him down into the water, all claws and scales and screaming fury. But then she hits him hard, hard enough to knock what little sense he has left out of him, and the world greys out for a moment, growing dim and echoing as he tries to stay awake, tries to stay with his sister. The last sight he has before the water closes over his head is of Gretel, full of a screaming fury of her own as she flings herself at the witch's back, silver blade flashing in the dim, gloomy sunlight.

And then everything turns green and wavering, his heartbeat echoing in his ears, beating in time with the pounding of his head, as he sinks down, down, down, the water closing over him.

Holding his breath is instinct, but that's all. It's almost peaceful down here - the weight of the water, the pull of the weeds is something distant, unreal, like the surface of the water rippling above his head. 'Pretty,' he thinks, and then the burning in his lungs starts to become unbearable.

But it's not the pain that finally gets him moving, kicking his legs weakly and aiming vaguely for 'up'. It's the thought of Gretel, his Gretel up there all alone, facing something even more vicious than she is and considerably uglier.

He kicks once, twice, the light in the water growing dim now, red-tinged instead of green-hued, and then the pain in his head sharpens, tugging him upwards.

He breaks the surface, spluttering, Gretel's fingers fisted in his hair.

There's blood on her chin and fear in her eyes and he only has a moment to take it in before the witch is on them again, howling with rabid fury, and he's back in the fray.

He fucking hates Swamp Witches.

-o0o-

The first time he heard the whispers, the first time Gretel came back with a bruise on her face that hadn't been left by a witch, he wanted to kill something.

"It's fine," she said, the colourless tone in her voice telling him that it was anything but. She shrugged off his hand, pulling away from the fingers that cupped her chin. "I took care of it."

"Took care of what?"

She didn't answer him, not at first, not if he'd expected anything more than an exasperated look and her normal reticence. But this was his sister, the other part of him, and someone had hurt her.

Yeah, he was fucking irrational about things like that.

"Gretel, who hurt you?"

She shrugged, her attention focused back on their bundle of weapons, the one she'd rolled out onto her bed. There hadn't been that many - the toys came later, like the scars.

"Some asshole who thought that me not wearing a skirt was an invitation I wasn't interested in extending."

He saw red - literally. The kind of blood mist he'd only ever got once or twice in the middle of a fight for their lives, somewhere far from towns like this or from 'decent' folk. Gretel was still talking to him but he couldn't hear her, not over the roaring in his ears, the raging in his heart.

"Hey!" That finally caught his attention and he looked up to find Gretel scowling at him, fierce and focused as she always was. "I took care of it," she repeated, and she had that look on her face, the one that said he was about to get his ass kicked. "I can look after myself."

"Yeah." The word felt like it was forced out of his throat, harsh and hurting and leaving so much behind unsaid. "I know you can. But next time..."

She arched one eyebrow, the look on her face enough to silence him. On the surface, at least.

"Next time you can hold my coat," she said, and gave him a smile that he had to return, hers a little more lopsided with her cheek still swollen.

This time when he cupped her chin, turning her face gently so that he could see the damage left more clearly, she let him. The skin was tight over her cheekbone, red deepening to purple in the centre, and he stroked his thumb over the soft skin beneath it apologetically while she watched him with serious eyes.

"I won't let it happen again, Gretel. I promise."

She smiled, sweet and low, the kind of smile she only gave to him, and reached up to press his hand against her cheek, turning her head to kiss his palm.

"I know," she said.

Even then she must have known it was a promise he couldn't keep.

-o0o-

As witches go, this bitch isn't going down easy. She's strong and ferocious and she looks like a fucking toad, all green, warty skin and wide, drooling mouth. She looks like a witch ought to look if you go by the stories, and Hansel knows that they're usually a crock of shit, too.

But she's fast, too, far faster than her girth and her thick-set, wide-spread legs should let her be. She bounds instead of waddles, and she covers the ground far faster than he can, especially with his head still spinning and his lungs still heaving.

He's hard pressed to keep up with her, especially with the ground wet and uneven beneath his feet. He slips and slides, landing on his ass more than once, jarring his knees and biting his tongue.

The witch changes direction suddenly, sending him reeling again, and he lands with a wet splat in mud that oozes down his shirt neck and the back of his breeches. He scrabbles to get up again but she loops back around, leaping towards him with a feral shriek of rage, her fingers curled into sharp and deadly claws.

Gretel hits her from the side, low and hard, before the witch can reach him. His sister is screaming like a bean sídhe herself, and for a moment Hansel isn't sure which of them is the most terrifying.

What the hell is he thinking? It's Gretel, of course.

The witch stumbles, Gretel's fists and feet pounding into her, but she's fucking strong. Swamp Witches always are: half-toad, half-tree, all trouble. She's already recovering from Gretel's attack, regaining her feet just as Hansel finally manages to struggle to his.

He lurches back into the fight, getting another blow to his head for his troubles, one that sets his ears to ringing but that at least doesn't come close to fucking drowning him. Not this time, anyway.

They attack the witch from both sides, falling into a rhythm that's familiar and just too damned easy these days. Gretel hits the witch in the face with a roundhouse kick, and he's there waiting, ready to punch the bitch as soon as the momentum sends her in his direction. It's a bloodbath, but the witch isn't the only one who's bleeding. She splits Hansel's lip and Gretel's cheek, punches him in the neck and sinks her foot into Gretel's belly, driving his sister's breath right out of her.

Hansel is about ready to fucking end this, and not just because he's started to see double. Who the hell wants to see something this ugly twice?

He catches Gretel's eye as he pulls his weapon, and his sister grins at him, blood on her teeth and fire in her eyes. This time when she kicks out at the witch, driving her backwards, Hansel is there, ready and waiting, knife in hand and murder in his heart.

The witch is driven onto the blade, the force of Gretel's kick pushing it deeply into the folds of her body, black, thick and viscous blood surging forth. The witch hangs there, flopping like a fish, still screaming at the top of her lungs, more fury than pain, Hansel thinks. But it slows her down enough for Gretel to leap at her again, her own knife flashing in the dim, murky sunlight as she drives it down into the witch's throat.

Even that only slows the bitch down. It takes the two of them to wrestle her to the ground, the two of them to force her head under the water while her hands claw at them, drawing more blood and leaving more bruises.

"Think this bitch can breathe underwater?" Hansel gasps when she shows no sign of stopping, the words harsh in a throat that's already raw from swallowing half the fucking swamp. It wouldn't be the first time they've been caught out like that - Hansel still has the scars from that last Serpent Witch.

Gretel's face is both grim and gleeful. "Let's see if she can breathe without her head."

Hansel takes the hint. He shifts his weight, pinning the witch down while Gretel hacks at her neck with her blade. It's not subtle and it's a hell of a long way from elegant, and Gretel's hair is plastered to her face and neck by the thick, dark blood that gushes forth, but it works, after a fashion. His sister's chest is heaving with effort when she finally steps back and the witch's head goes with her, and Hansel can finally let go of the still twitching corpse, his head pounding and the world spinning as he lands on his ass in a cold, wet puddle.

He fucking hates Swamp Witches.

-o0o-

The first time Gretel came back to their room smelling of someone else, he was back to wanting to kill something.

He had no right - he knew he had no right; she was his goddamned sister - but it wasn't protectiveness, not entirely. Not about reputations or the kind of twisted out of true morals they saw all around them, where propriety was valued more highly than the safety of children.

It was about them, Hansel and Gretel.

It was about him. He was the one twisted out of true.

There was a vague, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as Gretel stared him down, her expression defiant, just waiting for him to say something when there was nothing for him to say. How could there be? She wasn't the only one to have crept in silently in the early hours, stinking of cheap beer and someone else's body.

He opened his mouth but the words died on his lips, unsaid. It was better that way. Better to grunt and roll his eyes than let out the howl twisting in his gut, stabbing in his heart.

It was only later, when the night sounds of the town around them had finally died down - when the only thing he could hear was the soft, steady breathing of his sister - that he could finally find some words to say. They weren't the words in his heart, but they were close enough to ring true.

"If anything happens..." He cleared his throat, knowing that she was listening. "I'll take care of you, you know?"

The silence stretched out between them, something poignant, heavy with meaning.

"There are herbs," she said softly, speaking of a whole world he knew nothing about, and something settled in his stomach, heavy and sad. "I already took care of it." Of course she had, his sister. His Gretel who was smart and brave and took care of everything. "But thank you."

Her hand slid out from under the bedclothes, reaching for him, and he wrapped his callused fingers around hers, just as strong, just as rough as his, holding onto them as tightly as he could.

It could never be tightly enough.

-o0o-

It's Gretel's considered opinion that he stinks, and, really, he can't argue with that. There's thick, reeking mud in his hair and down his shirt, coating his whole body, and underneath it all he's beaten black and blue.

Gretel's not in much better shape. There's still blood around her mouth - her blood, given the colour, since witches' blood is as dark as their souls - and her cheek is swollen, cut where the witch's fist hit it. She's limping now, too, and it's a hell of a long walk back to town. Longer still when you're weaving the way that Hansel is. It's going to take him three times as fucking long to cover the distance as it should do.

He has no doubt that they're a sight, the pair of them, and when they finally make it back to Weisenberg it seems he was right about that. In fact, it seems that they're the kind of sight that has mothers clutching their children to their bosoms as they pass, or has respectable townsfolk crossing the street to avoid them, hurrying on by with their faces averted just so they aren't tainted. Hansel's pretty sure that's not just because of the stench that still clings to them.

Fuck 'em. None of those prissy madams are worth a candle to Gretel, and all he's interested in right now is their gold.

That and the bath house.

He starts to steer himself towards it, determined to scrub himself until he's raw - he's half-convinced that's what it's going to take before he's clean again - but Gretel grabs a tight hold of his elbow and steers him resolutely back towards the inn they're staying in. He'd protest, but that requires energy he doesn't have right now, not when his head aches the way it does and his feet have blisters. Besides, he knows Gretel well enough to know when to let her have her way.

Which is all of the time, of course.

The innkeeper blanches when he sees them coming, flapping his apron uselessly in their direction, as though it's going to stop them from going precisely where they want to - at least in Gretel's case. Hansel still doesn't have a fucking clue where she's leading him. He's just content to let her lead. But then, when isn't he?

"I need you to draw two baths," Gretel snaps, pausing just long enough to give the innkeeper a look that stops him in his tracks when the damned fool actually thinks about opening his mouth. "Both hot as you can manage. Got it?"

The innkeeper opens his mouth again, but Hansel has never met anyone yet who can actually win a staring contest against Gretel. Usually because she goes in armed to the teeth. It's only when the man's mouth finally snaps shut and he treats them both to a sullen nod that Gretel finally takes pity on him and releases him from her death glare.

"Is he melting?" Hansel asks as she steers him through the bar to the door to the stables. He has no fucking idea where they're going when their room is upstairs, and with Gretel in this kind of mood he'll be damned if he's going to ask.

"What?"

The word is distracted and there's a frown gracing Gretel's face. She's going to get wrinkles if she's not careful. Wrinkles and grey hairs from worrying about him. He thinks about explaining what he meant, but again that requires effort. Effort and a train of thought that's rapidly escaping him. Something about the heat of Gretel's glare, maybe, and the effect it has on the unwary, but it drifts away again, the words evaporating from his tongue before he can give voice to them.

It's possible that the Swamp Witch hit him harder than he thought.

"Stand there."

Gretel's tone is brusque, all business and practicality. All Hansel can do is stand where she wants him to, do as she tells him to, like one of the little wooden dolls she hasn't played with for years, not since their parents abandoned them to their fate. He closes his eyes, slumping against the wall. Right now, he feels just as fucking useless as one of those dolls.

"Ready?"

He snaps awake again, eyeing Gretel blearily. She's holding a bucket and his brain slowly starts putting the pieces together. Too slowly - before he can do more than open his own mouth, she's dumped ice cold water over his head.

He stands there, staring at her while she moves back to the water pump and the water drips slowly down his face.

"I fucking hate you," he says conversationally, and she grins back at him, her hair in her face and dried mud on her neck, her hands busy with the pump. "I really fucking hate you."

"Yeah, yeah. Quit whining." She picks up the now full bucket, eyeing him with intent, and he sighs. Isn't this just the story of his life? Even his sister is trying to drown his ass.

"Bath, Gretel. You said bath. In fact, you have that poor bastard running around right now trying to fill one."

"Baths are all very well, but do you really want to sit in swamp scum?"

She has a point, but then she usually does.

He still fucking hates her, though. Well water is cold.

-o-

Cold baths didn't help. They didn't silence the thoughts, the ones he shouldn't be having. They didn't quench the need he had to always be by his sister's side.

Nothing did. Not cold baths, not fucking every available barmaid - and he was twenty, taciturn and scarred, rough and ready with an air of danger about him; Hansel was under no illusion that there were a hell of a lot of barmaids who were available - not even killing witches could soothe the restlessness, the fever in him.

Only Gretel could do that, with a word, with a smile, and he fucking lived for them.

He'd lived for his sister ever since their parents abandoned them, but not like this. Not sick in spirit and made wrong like this. Sometimes he wondered if that was why he hunted witches, if that was why he was so good at it. Flip sides of the same coin, both damned by their appetites, by their needs.

Both destined for hell.

It should worry him more that the thought of being separated from Gretel for all eternity troubled him more than the eternal damnation of his soul. It should worry him more that he considered it a price worth paying.

But losing Gretel was a price too high, one that he couldn't even contemplate. Losing his sister would be like losing himself, like being cast into hell while he was still breathing, a walking corpse. And if she knew of this, knew of this sickness in him, the one that had nothing to do with sugar and everything to do with dirt and sweat and pain...

He'd lose her. He had no doubt about that.

But then, Gretel always had been smarter than he was about the things that really mattered. It figured that she'd outthink him on this.

-o-

The bath is a fucking godsend, not that he'd ever admit that to Gretel. Not that he needs to admit it, not when the groan he lets out as he lowers himself into steaming water says everything he won't.

He's beginning to think that his toes might actually thaw at some point tonight.

Gretel lets out a soft chuckle, watching him indulgently, her expression smoothing about and the stress lines slowly disappearing from her face. "Enjoying yourself?" she asks, and there's no tartness in her voice.

Hansel ignores her, too busy concentrating on feeling his fingers and toes slowly coming back to life. They prickle painfully as they warm but it's bearable, especially when the heat of the water is soothing away his other aches and pains.

Of which there are many.

He takes a deep breath, one that tastes of clean steam and soap, not the stench of rotting undergrowth, and slides down the tub, sinking into the water. It fills his ears, bubbles through his hair, and he scrubs his hands over his face, his head, ridding himself of the last of the grime, the dirt of the fight.

Gretel is humming when he surfaces again, a low melody that's not quite happy and not quite sad, but still manages to be uniquely Gretel. Her back is to him as she strips, and he watches as her body is slowly revealed - the strong, lean lines of her form, the skin that's much paler where it's covered by her clothes than her tanned face and hands. There are red mottled marks on her body where she's going to bruise and pale white lines where she's already scarred, but there's nothing mar or mask her strength.

She's beautiful. The most beautiful thing he's ever seen.

And she's his.

-o-

In the end, it was the sugar sickness that caught up with him, that made things real and true.

He'd been stupid and reckless, even by his standards, and as Gretel had pointed out more than once, her lips pursed and her tone tart, his standards were remarkably low.

He'd been too wrapped up in finding new ways to fuck up, to deaden the pain. Bury things that just wouldn't die, trying to push them down so deeply that they'd never see light of day again. He hadn't noticed that his medicine was running low and that he was running out of time. And when it finally hit - the adrenaline of a fight, the blows that knocked the sense right out of him and that sent his body into overdrive - he reached for the syringe and came up empty.

It said everything that his first thought was not 'oh fuck, I'm going to die', but 'oh fuck, I'm going to leave Gretel all alone'.

It said everything that that might have been the only reason he held on to living.

He didn't remember much after that, not for days, and then there were memories he would rather forget. The nausea and cold sweats while his body settled back into health. The dizziness every time he tried to get up for a piss, and the need to drink his own body weight meaning he had to piss like a horse.

Most of all, he remembered Gretel's face. He remembered the pinched, tight expression, and the fine lines fanning out from her mouth and the corners of her eyes. He remembered the worry and the grief written clearly in her hollowed cheeks, and in every shadow and crease. The pain in her eyes as he rambled and shook, holding onto her as tightly as he could.

It would never ever be tightly enough.

If he couldn't forget - if he couldn't lose those memories in the haze of the last few days - then it was easier to block them out as much as he could, even if he'd never been one for the easy path. But once he was on his way to being back on his feet, he wasn't surprised when Gretel disappeared. There was an inevitability to it, one he'd always wanted to deny - but his parents had only been the first to leave him, and losing Gretel bit even more deeply than that.

He still didn't understand why he didn't just drink himself into a stupor and stay there.

She was gone for two days, and by the time she came back the anger and the grief had been overtaken by desperation. He was more than ready to forgive and forget, let her absence fall into the silence that sometimes lay between them, especially now. He could bear it if she could.

He'd bear anything for her.

She stood in front of him, her eyes burning, a fierceness clear in every line of her body. But her eyes were wet and her lip was trembling and Hansel was too fucking tired, too worn out to pretend he didn't notice.

"Stupid," she hissed, venom in every drawn out note. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

He was opening his mouth - to agree, to argue, he didn't know - when she landed the first blow, her fist on his chest. And then the second, and the third, each one hard enough to rock him back, to leave him reeling, hurt more by the broken catch in Gretel's voice with each repetition, more by the tears that streamed down her face than the punches that would leave bruises that would last for days.

"Stupid -" Her voice cracked again. "Stupid fucking idiot. Stupid -" Her breath caught in her throat and she swayed towards him, dizzy and consumed by her pain. "Don't -" His eyes started to burn, his throat tighten, mirroring her anger, her grief. "Don't you ever -"

He caught her, held her tight while she pummelled at him, while she fought like a wildcat, kicking and scratching and then finally letting go, her sobs as fierce and as harsh as she herself could be. She fisted her fingers in his hair, pulling his face down to hers where their tears mingled, salt burning in the ever present cuts and bruises their profession brought.

"I promise," he murmured against her hair, against the soft, tender skin of her temple, not daring to kiss her there even though his arms were wrapped around her tightly enough to crush her. "I promise."

"Good." She yanked at his hair again, dragging his head back until she could stare straight back into his eyes, the look in hers hard, uncompromising, demanding everything he was willing to give. "Don't ever leave me. Never, Hansel."

"Never." He'd have promised her the moon, the sun and the stars if she wanted. Never leaving her didn't need a promise, not from him. Hansel and Gretel, Gretel and Hansel. Two halves of one whole.

Looking back, the kiss was an inevitability, too.

-o-

Gretel raises an eyebrow when she turns and catches him watching her. "Enjoying the view?"

He smirks, settling back in the warm water and watching her with even warmer eyes as she snorts, leaning down lithely over the other tub and undoing her hair.

He watches while she washes it, running strong, deft fingers through the tangles, still humming softly to herself. Their mother used to hum like that while she cooked, and the thought - for once - doesn't cause Hansel a pang.

They don't talk about it, but then they don't need to.

Once her hair is clean, Gretel steps into the tub and starts rinsing the worst of the faint green and brown stains - from moss and mud - from her body. He watches that, too, too tired to be hungry for her, just content that she's there.

When she finally climbs out again, she pads towards him on damp feet, droplets of water still clinging to her lissom body.

"You know there are two tubs, right?"

She snorts again, indelicately, cocking her hip as she stares down at him, her expression faintly challenging.

"Are you telling me you can't make room for me?"

Always, he thinks, and she catches the thought, a faint smile forming on her face.

She settles between his thighs, her back to his chest, and he pushes her hair out of his face, running his fingers through the thick, dark length of it, loving the way that she comes close to purring at the touch.

"Comfortable?" he asks, and she smiles, something akin to a cream-fed cat in it, her satisfaction clear even from this angle.

"Hmm mmm," she murmurs, nestling in closer to him until they fit together perfectly. Hansel and Gretel, Gretel and Hansel.

He runs his hand along the length of her hair again, just to feel her body growing lax against his, all of the tension, all of the readiness for battle leaching out of her as he nuzzles at her temple.

His hand slips lower, stroking over skin that's satin-soft in spite of the scars, and finds her breast, cupping it and feeling her nipple tighten against his palm.

Maybe he's hungry after all. He always is after a good fight, and Gretel is the only sustenance he needs.

-o-

They say that the first time is always the hardest, but the second and third aren't any bed of roses, either.

But with Gretel, Hansel knows that he can weather the thorns.

The end.
.

October 2017

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