No Rest for the Bewitched
(a.k.a Chapter 1 from Ren's POV)
There were markedly few days when Ren genuinely disliked being the head of a large coven in an equally large city. It's a challenge that many would, quite understandably, shy away from knowing just how much effort it requires. Still, he rather liked most aspects; sharing resources with other covens, facilitating research to make difficult magic more accessible, and providing as many valuable services as possible to coven members. Even the paperwork was not as daunting as it looked.
He wanted to crumple today into a ball and toss it out the window, perhaps also lighting it on fire on its way out. Saying that he'd woken up on the wrong side of the bed was wholly inaccurate and did a disservice to the idiom in general. He hadn't woken up at all. Waking implies a gentle release from a slumbering state. He was violently pitched into consciousness with a headache that seemed to hold his entire skull in a vice grip while prodding with a white-hot poker.
The entire day was a battle to focus on anything that wasn't blinking or breathing. He managed to fudge his way through two meetings but, back in his office, the emails on his screen mocked him. The letters seemed to dance before his eyes and rendered most of the words illegible.
Every spell he cast to, at least, get rid of the headache ended a dismal failure and mild pain-killers always made him want to retch. Honestly, he never should have assumed the day would surrender any ground to him.
"Why don't you just go home?" Yukihito asked him when he entered his office. This was the fifth time he'd made that suggestion since he first saw Ren that morning.
Ren rubbed at his temples to no avail. "Because I have too much to get done," he growled.
"Horseshit," the other man scoffed. "There's very little that can't wait until tomorrow and anything else I can handle in your place because, you know, that's my job."
The pain switched from searing to a constant buzzing that vibrated down his spine at some point and he wished he hadn't noticed it. So he pushed the full effect of his discomfort into his best glare. "You have your own responsibilities. I can't burden you like that."
Yukihito's exaggerated eyeroll was accompanied by a guttural exhale. Ren winced at both that and the throbbing in his head.
"Of course it's fine," Ren agreed, exasperated.
"Then," Yukihito said, dragging the word out and causing Ren to anticipate his follow-up with deep-seated dread. "Since you seem to be oh so conscientious, you won't mind me burdening you."
"You wouldn't da—"
"Our inventory manager wasn't able to finalize our list in time to place an order for our weekly delivery of supplies," he interrupted, producing a sheet of paper from the inner pocket of his jacket. "So someone has to go pick them up. Today, if possible."
"You were going to do it?"
"Oh, curses, no," Yukihito huffed an incredulous laugh. "I was going to see if an intern was available."
"So why are you forcing it on me instead?"
"Because you keep being difficult about delegating your workload." His lips tilted into a smile that smacked of reprisal and amusement. "And, hopefully, if you walk outside and get some fresh air, it'll convince you to just keep walking home and get some damned rest. I'm sure you've already tried everything you know to spell your headache away so, if this is strong enough to withstand even your magic, your body is probably trying to tell you to take it easy."
Ren stared across his desk at the smug expression on the man standing before him. The man was right, much as he hated to admit. Not everything could be fixed by magic—not yet, at least. When magic users become inexplicably ill and cannot be easily healed through conventional means, it's usually caused by one of two things; either their body and mind have been taxed to the point of exhaustion and they need to recuperate or they've been cursed. As far as he knew, he hadn't upset anyone to attempt the latter so the former was the obvious conclusion. To say nothing of the fact that he'd spent consecutive nights working late on a proposal for the next Board meeting.
"I really hate it when you're logical," he grumbled.
"And yet you pay me so well to keep doing it." Yukihito thrust the paper towards his face. "Off you go now."
Snatching the paper, he swept past Yukihito with a frown and a petulant slump to his shoulders. With a half-hearted wave of his hand and several muttered words, his coat flew off the rack near his door and buttoned itself around him and he stormed out of his office.
(Much later, he would wish that he'd noticed his headache had significantly abated the moment the paper was in his hands.)
The shop itself was a small one, nestled among its much larger and showier brethren on a quiet side street. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be little more than a book store but, to those who knew what they were looking for, it was much more. The tinkle of the bell at the door occurred almost simultaneously with the slight shudder that passed through him when he entered. It made sense that a place like this would be warded. It made it easier to distinguish what type of clientele walked through the door.
His eyes roved over the shelves on either side of him as he made his way to the counter near the back of the store where the sound of a soft voice drew his attention. "Welcome! Is there something I can help you find today?"
He would have blamed it on the headache, but the intense pain he felt earlier had vanished. Instead, he found himself gawking at the unparalleled beauty standing there, looking up at him with curious eyes of liquid gold framed by hair the color of a late autumn forest. His brain tripped over itself upon noticing his uncharacteristically detailed admiration of a complete stranger. Why did he see a soft-focus, dream-like haze around her and where had the sparkles come from? Ren tried to shrug off his confusion by concentrating on his reason for being there.
"I was given a list." He retrieved the paper from his coat and placed it on the counter in front of her while trying to hide his vexation at his sudden loss of conversational skills.
He watched her read through the list, painfully aware of the fact that his gaze was irrevocably drawn to the slight pout of her lips despite his best attempts to look elsewhere. Staring at her hands was just as bad as his eyes couldn't help but traverse their lengths and wonder how soft they would feel pressed against his skin.
First the headache and now this travesty. What on earth was wrong with him?
"I think I can put all of this together for you," she said finally. "If we're out of anything, we can order it and let you know when it comes in, if you'd like."
Her voice was lilting and melodic. A song he wouldn't mind getting stuck on repeat in his head. Comforting like a warm blanket on a—where were these thoughts even coming from?
"That'd be wonderful, thank you." The words started to leave his lips as a breathy sigh. He hastily forced more substance into them.
When she turned around to search through the rows of drawers behind her, he smothered a choking gasp. Ogling her lips was crime enough but, with her back turned to him, his eyes were heading down a very dangerous route that would end just below where the ties of her apron hung from her hips. Ren tore his eyes away before they could complete their journey and fervently bade them to study something else. Anything else.
He was being a textbook creep of the first degree. While he would never dare to say he was above admiring an attractive person, what he was doing in that shop felt licentious and possessive. He was disgusted. He felt disgusting. He'd need a cold shower after this, followed by a hot one to sear off the imaginary slime he swore clung to his skin.
"It's not often we get witches from uptown coming here," she called to him from over her shoulder. "Did your local supplier run out?"
His eyes snapped back to meet hers where they peered at his reflection in the mirrored wall above the drawers and all he wanted to do was drown in their amber depths. Alas, metaphorical death by aquatic asphyxiation would have to wait. She was expecting an answer.
"My coven typically has our orders delivered, but we hadn't finalized the list until this morning and it was too late to put in an order for today." There, that wasn't so difficult.
"Warrens or Vandersud?" She'd turned back towards him and the scant bit of control he managed to muster immediately vacated the premises.
"I'm sorry, what?" Apparently his hearing didn't want to be associated with the bumbling mess he was either.
"Which coven, Warrens or Vandersud?" she clarified. "They're our only regular clients from uptown."
"Uh, Vandersud." He blinked and refocused on her. A terrible idea, he realized. Looking her in the eye without a functioning life vest was far too perilous.
"I deliver to them all the time," she said, narrowing her eyes with understandable suspicion. "I've never seen you before."
"Taking care of getting supplies is usually not my responsibility." But I'm about to make it mine if it means I can see you every week. He coughed to buy him some time to revise that thought. "But, I'm glad I agreed to help today."
It wasn't the best revision, but he was panicked and pressed for time. He hoped she'd ignore the opening he provided.
"Oh? Why's that?"
To be fair, the opening was at least a meter in width and surrounded by flashing neon signs. There was no way she'd miss it. First he'd lost control of his wandering eyes and now his words were set on betraying him. Whatever was causing this—and he had an inkling it had something to do with her—he needed to put a stop to it along with this conversation.
"Ah, because I get to meet the…" Stunning, entrancing, captivating, "lovely person who helps keep us stocked every week." What a miracle it was that he could even form proper words.
"Thanks, I guess."
A wrinkle formed on her brow and he clashed with his inhibitions. All he wanted was to reach out and touch it. Was that so wrong? (Yes, yes it was) He knew attempting to speak then would only end in more poorly chosen words, so he opted to nod and hum his affirmation instead. This was a disaster. None of this would have happened if he never entered the shop in the first place. Conclusion: he needed to get out of there.
"Here's everything except for the birch bark," she chirped, pushing a small cardboard box onto the counter. "We'll be getting more later in the week. Since you typically get deliveries, I'll just arrange to take it to you by Friday. Sound good?"
He nodded again, praying to anything that would listen to let this be the end of their exchange so he could leave with what remained of his dignity.
"Will there be anything else?" Sadly, his dignity had other ideas and several more shards broke away. He scrambled to keep the rest of it together.
"I'd love to— I mean, no. No, there is nothing else." He was definitely not trying to ask for her number. Nope. Not at all.
"Are you sure?"
She had to be doing it on purpose. Any sensible retail worker would have sent him on his way by now but she kept him lingering with each new, inane question. Holding him hostage as she chipped away at his control. Shutting his eyes tightly, he reached for one of his buttons. This was a last-ditch effort. A spell that would hopefully clear his mind of whatever she'd done to pollute it with vivid daydreams of his mouth on hers.
"Okay, seriously, how are you doing this?" he asked as soon as his eyes opened, though it came out as more of an accusation. "Is it some sort of affinity spell?"
"How am I doing what?" She tilted her head to one side and his treacherous gaze followed the line of her slender neck. His kingdom for a temporary blindness spell. Sadly, he hadn't the capacity to remember if those even existed.
"Maybe it's an enhanced glamour of some sort," he wondered. "I don't understand how it's strong enough to affect even me."
"I'm sorry, but what are you talking about?"
And that was the straw that took a sledgehammer to the back of the poor proverbial camel.
"The entire time I've been in this shop, you've been driving me to distraction and it's taking everything in me to not blurt out how breathtakingly beautiful I think you are. If you aren't doing it on purpose, I suggest you figure out who, or what, has charmed you because I can't stop staring at your lips and wondering what they taste like." By the time his rant came to an end, he was out of breath.
And out of his mind.
"I… uh…" Her mouth hung open in shock and he wondered how difficult it would be to move to another country and change his name. Again.
"And, apparently, that focusing spell did not last as long as I thought it would," he snarled, covering his self-consciousness with aggravation. "Now that you've succeeded in making me embarrass myself, I'm going now. Goodbye!"
The box was in his hands and he rushed out without a glance backwards. He wanted to break into a run by the time he was outside, but settled for a clipped pace. The bustle of the city around him did little to drown out the screaming of his own mind as it revisited the worst parts of their conversation. It caused him to walk past the coven entrance and he had the horrid pleasure of making an abrupt u-turn in the middle of the sidewalk.
He left the box with a bemused receptionist along with gruff instructions to inform his second-in-command that he decided to take the rest of the day off. Sure, his head was feeling better, but his morale was shattered and ground into fine powder. He only had enough willpower remaining to trudge back to his apartment and throw himself face first into his bed.
Most of his night was spent flirting as awkwardly with sleep as he had with the young woman from the shop. Evidently there were lingering side-effects from their interaction. The sound of her voice echoing in his ears, enchanting as it was, made for an ineffective lullaby. Particularly when all he could see was her face behind his eyelids.
Yukihito took one look at him upon entering his office the next morning and shook his head. "I'm not even going to bother telling you to go home if you insisted on showing up in this state."
"It wouldn't matter anyway," Ren groaned, pushing the heels of his hands against his eyes. "Not like I'd be able to sleep."
"Oh lovely," Yukihito whistled. "On top of the headache?"
Ren shook his head, hands still firmly in place. "That's gone. Mostly."
When he finally looked up, Yukihito had his arms folded across his chest, looking more concerned than irritated. "What's going on with you? This doesn't sound like run-of-the-mill exhaustion."
"Well, the headache was one thing but…" The squirm he did in his seat exposed his embarrassment and Ren watched the other man take a seat in the chair across from his desk.
"All right. Out with it."
"That errand you sent me on yesterday for our supplies?" Yukihito nodded. "Well, I'm pretty sure I can never show my face there again."
He explained the events of the day before. Even as he spoke, he had a hard time believing any of it actually happened. It sounded like something out of a crazed fever dream. Even the cringe-inducing moments of his younger days seemed to pale in comparison.
"I swear to you, she did something to me," he insisted. "It felt like a truth spell, except the words that wanted to come out of my mouth came from a version of myself that spent a year doing nothing but marathoning cheesy romantic comedies."
"It just sounds to me like you developed a very intense crush on her." Yukihito shrugged.
"She might be incredibly gorgeous but there's no way," Ren protested, ignoring his confidant's raised eyebrow at his slip-up. "I've never acted like this with anyone else. Ever."
"Well, there's a first time for everything."
"Impossible," he grumbled. "I'm not some hormonal teenager." The lie burned on the way out. The way he felt was almost identical to the ardent yearnings of his youth.
Yukihito sighed. "At the very least, you should probably apologize."
"I can't see her again." Ren shook his head. "Or whatever she's done to me will probably have me waxing poetic about how her hair shines like polished copper."
He instantly wished he could take back the wistful tone that appeared without his permission. Barring that, he wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole. Despite his statement to the contrary, he very much wanted to see her again. If only to confirm that she had some sort of unnatural hold on him. And, perhaps, to also get lost in her eyes one last time.
"I think you seem to run that risk regardless, loverboy," Yukihito teased. Ren groaned in frustration. "And I'm not letting you jeopardize our relationship with one of the most reliable magic supplies shops in the city."
It was true that trying to find a new supplier would be somewhat time-consuming. Still, it sounded a lot more preferable to setting foot in that shop again. He knew it was the responsible adult thing to do, but being a responsible adult could really be a pain in the ass sometimes. Couldn't he just hide under a rock until it all blew over?
"Just—I don't know—send her some flowers or something if you're so afraid of seeing her," Yukihito huffed in mild annoyance, getting up from his chair.
"I'm not afraid." Ren pouted in defiance. "Just realistically cautious."
"Look, I don't care what you do," Yukihito snapped. "Just take care of it."
A swift turn on his heels and purposeful strides took the Assistant Head out of his office with the door slamming shut behind him. The jarring noise harkened the return of his headache and Ren let his head fall into his hands breathing deeply and loudly for several seconds. How was this his life? Someone toyed with his emotions without his assent and yet he's the one who is supposed to make amends? None of it seemed right or fair.
Even so, he did like the idea of sending her flowers. Plus, there was a florist less than a block from the coven. A plan formed in his mind and he allowed himself a wicked grin. Forget apologizing. Forget being an adult. Yukihito couldn't tell him what to do. If he needed to find a new supplier for the coven, so be it.
The florist kept asking him if he was sure about his selections. Of course he was sure. White lilacs for innocence, mallow for consuming love, witch hazel for magic, and striped carnations for refusal. He couldn't be more sure. He certainly wasn't eyeing the tiger lillies that reminded him of her hair. The giant, long-stemmed rose on display in the front window was absolutely not beckoning to him with its petals of soft velvet.
Fortunately the florist knew his intended recipient when he realized he didn't know her name. It was Kyoko, he learned. Even her name was lovely and rolled off the tongue with an exquisite—but he digressed. He signed the confirmation for the arrangement to be sent on its way with a sigh of finality. That would be the end of it. He would have nothing further to do with her.
However, the knots that formed in the pit of his stomach knew better.
IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO BLAME, it's a review by midori144 that innocently suggested the first chapter from the opposite point of view would be really interesting. Suffice it to say I agreed and then tortured myself for three days trying to remember what exactly Ren was thinking when I wrote that chapter... over two years ago. That was... fun.
We're a little past the 2 year mark of the day I published the first three chapters of this but, eh, close enough. Happy 2nd Anniversary, Spell It Out!
Well, midori144, if you're reading this. This one's for you.