You should stay with us this time, Alvin, Jude's letter said, innocent as anything. I checked with Yurgen, and he promised that he'd take care of anything that comes up in the next seven days.
"You double-crossing backstabber," Alvin said the next time he saw his partner, and the words sounded hollow. "What's this conspiring behind my back with the honors student?"
Yurgen didn't even bother to pretend to look ashamed. "Are you asking to borrow a wyvern so that you get there faster?" He tossed back the glass of what looked like milk liquor more spiced than he usually drank and stared a challenge at Alvin. "Jude says the last time you came out there, you left the next day. The way I heard it, you'd stayed for five days. I'd like to know what you were doing the rest of the time."
Alvin looked away first. "I found a few odd jobs." It was an art he'd perfected long ago-- the art of admitting something without actually telling the truth. "Don't worry, the money went straight to our business. You haven't missed out on a single gald."
Yurgen's expression didn't flicker. "Do you do the same thing when you visit your cousin?" he asked. "I'm starting to think I should enforce your days off."
Alvin winced. "Come on, give me a break. You need the time off way more than I do." He didn't have to fake the way his voice got lower as he put a hand on Yurgen's shoulder. "Trust me, I know what it's like taking care of someone." He cleared his throat and shrugged. "So I don't have to do that anymore and you do. It's no skin off my nose to pick up a few more jobs here and there."
Yurgen wasn't the type of man to slam his drink on the table, but his hand tightened around it. "I didn't agree to be your partner so that you could work yourself to death," he said, slow and careful. Alvin could hear the anger behind his words. There shouldn't be anything for Yurgen to get angry over, but, then, Alvin should be used to anger by now, and he was. He stared at his gloves and waited. Yurgen took a few slow, steady breaths. "Please go visit your friends and don't use work as an excuse to skip out on them."
"Wouldn't have thought you'd get so upset over a few more gald in your purse," Alvin said as a knot of panic clamped down on his heart and squeezed.
"Alvin." Yurgen's voice was quiet but strong. "You think I don't know what avoidance looks like? You think I don't-- I don't throw myself into work so that I can stay away from Isla's bedside a little longer when it gets to be too much?"
Silence hung heavy in the air. Alvin could have responded to that a thousand ways-- You really think you know what I'm feeling, Yurgen? You don't know the half of it. You were a normal man before your life got turned upside-down. You have parents, a clan, a home. I've lied to every single person I care about, and I lost them all.
Not that he would say that, of course. Not to someone like Yurgen. Not even to someone like Balan, who even after twenty years could read Alvin like a book when he didn't want to be read.
"Fine," he said after too long, because it was just easier to give in. "But don't blame me when the honor student comes complaining to you that I'm making a nuisance of myself."
"Alvin, he invited you," Yurgen said with a sigh. "But fine. At least you're going." He drained the rest of his glass. "I hope you don't mind an escort to and from."
Alvin minded. Alvin very much minded. Alvin also desperately wanted to leave. Instead, he reached for the empty glass. "So, hey, what was in this? Is it any good?"
Riding pillion on a wyvern because his partner didn't trust him wasn't the most humiliating thing Alvin had ever experienced, but it was up there, especially when it turned out that both Jude and Milla had come out to meet them. It felt more like a hostage exchange than a visit.
"Alvin!" Jude exclaimed brightly. The kid had shaped up into an excellent liar over the past few years; some of that had to be Alvin's influence. Alvin ran a hand through his hair and sighed, affecting a jaunty smile.
"Hey, kid," he said with a wave. He was tempted to sling an arm over the kid's shoulders for old times sake, but he wasn't about to do it when the Lord of Spirits was standing there, watching like a silent guard dog. "Here I am."
Jude beamed up at him. "Here you are," he said, his voice soft.
Behind Alvin, Yurgen coughed. "I'll get going, then. Jude, I'll be back to pick him up in seven days, like promised. If there are any changes, let me know."
"I'll let you know," Jude said. Alvin eyed him; the kid had a sneaky tone to his voice, like he knew that Alvin had been skipping out early and wanted revenge for it. Alvin didn't see what the problem was; the kid got some blistering hot three-way sex every so often and didn't have to put up with Alvin afterwards. Most people these days would consider that a good deal. "Have a safe flight back."
Before Alvin could say anything, Milla reached out and grabbed his wrist. He stared at her hand. "What-- Whoa, Milla?!"
"Farewell, Yurgen," she said over her shoulder as she walked back towards Jude's apartment. "Hurry up, Jude."
Behind her, Jude laughed. "I'll be right there."
Alvin felt sure he should protest this treatment. "Hey now, not that I'm objecting to the eagerness of a lovely young lady, but it's good manners to let a man say goodbye to his partner."
Milla didn't even bother to reply. Alvin felt something inside himself deflate, and he went along with her quietly, savoring the casual touch she rarely bothered to give to him outside of sex. He caught a few people looking at them as they went by, wide-eyed students and professors alike.
"Hey," Alvin said, his voice low, when they reached Jude's door. "These people know Jude, you know. They're going to talk."
Milla turned her head and pinned him with a glance. He felt breathless already. He hated it. "So let them talk," she said, unflappable as ever. "I care little for human gossip."
Alvin managed a low chuckle. "That's a lie if I've ever heard one, and I'm somewhat of an expert when it comes to lying. You'd hate it if Jude suffered because of it." Milla unlocked the door and turned to look at him. Alvin raised his hands. "All right, all right, I'm going in. What's the matter, is Jude having trouble getting it up without me? Even with such a beautiful woman in his bed? For shame."
"Jude is wonderful in bed," Milla said. "But he's upset that you've been lying to us again." She closed the door.
Alvin looked around the room and chuckled again, darker this time. Being here always made something press hard on his heart and throat, made it hard to stay, made it hard to leave. He could see the stacks of medical books, the carefully organized papers, the small, barren nook that Milla had cleared out as a sort of mini shrine. "Darling, I've been doing nothing else since I first met you. What did he expect? That's who I am." He swallowed his discomfort and sprawled onto the couch. He shouldn't feel so out of place here; Milla had ridden him on this very couch, with Jude pressed up against them as he swallowed breathless moans.
But this was Milla and Jude's place. Alvin was only a visitor.
Milla's eyes hadn't moved off of him. "I thought you were trying to be more honest with yourself."
Alvin shrugged. "It takes time." That, at least, wasn't a lie. The honesty came out like gobs of poison. Like pus. He hated it, hated every moment of it where he felt control being wrenched further and further away from him. The lies, at least, were safe and familiar. And this time, he wasn't hurting anyone with them.
Milla sat down next to him and changed the subject. "Have you been reading Jude's letters?"
"Yeah, I have." Alvin looked away. "He's really making a life for himself."
"So have I. So have you."
Alvin might have said something-- might have let some of that honesty come spilling out, because Milla couldn't possibly hate him any more for admitting that he didn't know what he was doing even now-- but Jude chose that moment to come in, slightly out of breath and his cheeks flushed. "Hey, what's the matter, kid?" he asked. "Don't worry, we didn't get started without you."
Jude shook his head. "No, it's not-- Professor Cruz--" He sighed. "It doesn't matter. And, you know, you don't have to wait for me. It's-- I don't have to be here, if you want…"
That tight sensation returned, hot and choking. Alvin could acknowledge, in these moments, that it was an intense, helpless, angry affection for these two people who had systematically dismantled what he'd worked so hard to make of himself with their beauty, with their honesty, with their unrelenting belief. He didn't want to love them, not like this, not when they had each other, but he could at least put a name to it these days for a few short moments before the sex started. "What, and here Milla was assuring me that you were keeping her satisfied. Are you calling her a liar?"
Jude's gaze rested on him for a long moment, and Alvin tensed. But Jude didn't say anything, didn't call Alvin on anything. He just came over to the couch and sat on Alvin's other side with a sigh as Milla leaned in to press a gentle kiss to Alvin's neck. Alvin closed his eyes and relaxed. He could do this. He'd just stay out of their way during the day and stay in their bed for the next seven nights.
He could ignore the way his pulse beat a steady rhythm under his skin. Liar, liar, liar.
In the end, Alvin only managed one day on his own in Fennmont, wandering aimlessly from place to place. "You can't just run off like that," Jude said that evening, his voice breathless as Alvin ran a hand over his ass. "We were worried about you."
"I'm a big boy; I can take care of myself."
"That's not the point," Jude protested, then moaned as Milla slid her mouth over his cock. "You guys, I'm-- I'm serious."
Milla, at least, didn't care, and Alvin held onto that as he reached for the lubricant.
The next morning, though, he woke up with Jude curled on his chest, still asleep. Milla was sitting up in bed, still naked, watching the two of them. "Don't leave," she said. "I have something for you."
Alvin's heart jumped and began to beat faster. "Oh, really? I'm not sure I like the sound of that."
She tilted her head. "You should. Humans like presents. They give them as a sign of affection."
Fuck. Alvin should have said something to that, but he found himself tongue-tied.
Milla must have taken that as some sort of sign, because she slipped out of bed and walked over to a chest of drawers. Alvin watched her go; just because he was terrified didn't mean that he couldn't appreciate a nice view when it presented itself. She walked around to his side of the bed and sat down, watching him.
Alvin flicked his eyes away for just a moment, just long enough that he could catch his breath. "Sure you don't want to wait until later? I think we wore out Doctor Jude last night; we should let him sleep."
"He's slept long enough," Milla said with a slow smile. "You forget, I can feel his mana like this."
Alvin tried not to look at her hands. "And you don't have big important Maxwell duties to attend to?"
Milla didn't even bother to acknowledge that question. She'd always been surprisingly good at seeing through his bullshit. Instead, she took his wrist in her hand and turned it up. His fingers twitched, but he couldn't close them without delaying the whole thing, so he let her do as she pleased. And as she pleased apparently meant fastening something cold and metal around his wrist.
"What's this?" he asked, pulling away from her grasp as soon as he could and blinking at the silver chain.
"It's a bracelet," Milla said. "I should think that would be obvious."
"But--" Why? Alvin stared at it for a long moment before a small charm caught his eye. He brought it close enough to see the small heart engraved with the word 'Leticia' in distinctly Elympian script. His throat closed. "What the hell?"
Jude's arm tightened around Alvin's chest. At some point he must have woken up. "You spent all that time looking after her," he said softly. "We thought maybe--"
Milla made a soft noise. "Look at the others," she instructed.
"The others?" Alvin said numbly, and Milla turned the bracelet on his wrist.
There were three other hearts, one with Presa's name, one with Jude's, and one with Milla's. "I wanted to add Balan and the others as well," Milla said, "but Jude pointed out that it would get crowded, and you might want to choose the names on your own." She held up a handful of identical silver hearts, all blank. "So you get to choose."
Alvin stared at the heart with Milla's name. "I don't understand. Is this all the dead people I've loved?" He tried to laugh. "Is this your way of saying you're going off to die for a third time? Because that's a really shitty way of saying it."
"What?! No! Nobody's dying." Jude sat up, his eyes wide and his hair mussed. "Why would you even think that?"
"What the hell else am I supposed to think? That's my mother's name there! And--"
"I just thought it would be nice to have a reminder of her!" Jude yelped.
"I have plenty of reminders! I have her murderer lying in her old bed if I want a reminder!" Alvin sucked in a breath; he hadn't meant to say that. His shoulders hunched. "Honestly, I'd rather forget."
Jude looked like Alvin had just stabbed him in the gut. "Alvin…"
"You don't mean that," Milla said, her voice calm. She curved her fingers around the bracelet. "You said it yourself: these are the people that you love. I find it hard to imagine you would want to forget her when you did so much for her."
The corner of Alvin's mouth twisted. "It's like you always say, Maxwell," he said. "We humans, we're pretty confusing."
"And yet I'm coming to understand you." Milla leaned down to kiss him, her breasts pressing warm against his chest.
In the silence that followed, Jude inhaled sharply. "Wait, you-- You said that twice! Alvin!" He sounded happy, and Alvin was confused for a moment before he realized.
"I love you, too, Alvin," he said, and when Milla pulled away he dove in for a kiss of his own, more sloppy enthusiasm than the skill Alvin knew he had.
Despite the kiss, Alvin could feel panic rising up, and he pulled away, twisting out of bed in the process and stumbling as he nearly fell onto the floor. "Whoa, hey now, don't get all excited," he said. "That's not what I meant. And that's not what you meant. I thought we all understood that this was a casual no-strings-attached sort of deal. There's no need to go pretending for good old Alvin's sake."
"Pretending?" The kid's voice rose up into something that sounded like what Alvin was feeling. "Alvin, you seriously think that I'd say something like that if I didn't mean it?"
Alvin shook his head and took a step back. Fuck. He was still naked. He needed to put on some clothes before he got out of here. He'd come back in five days, let Yurgen think he'd been here all along. He just needed to find some damn clothes.
"Alvin," Milla said. She rose up off the bed and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Alvin's spine stiffened; the touch felt very different from how she usually touched. She didn't stroke his skin. She just held him. "Don't run away." Alvin could feel pressure behind his eyes. He stood there, letting her warmth soak into him, unable to move away. "Jude, I think it's working. You should join in."
Jude stepped in front of Alvin, his expression unsure. He looked at Alvin's face for a while, and Alvin stared back, unsure what Jude was seeing. After a long moment, Jude breathed out and stepped in to hug Alvin as well, and Alvin found himself uncertain where to put his arms.
"Hey," he tried again, hating the way his voice shook. "You have each other. What's the big deal? We're all getting something we want."
"And if we want more?" Jude challenged.
"You… don't," Alvin said.
"I don't know why you're so resistant to the idea," Milla said, "since you've admitted that you love us."
"You can't be serious." Alvin dragged a hand through his hair. "I let you die! I tried to kill you!"
"You didn't let me do anything," Milla said, her voice getting hard. "I did it of my own will. It was my decision. I wanted to protect all of you, and I did. I regret nothing."
Alvin shook his head, wanting to argue, but wanting this conversation to be over even more. The room quieted. They didn't let go, and, gradually, Alvin's heartbeat slowed and his breathing returned to normal. "Okay, you can let go now," he said without looking at Jude.
Milla let go immediately, though she put her hand on his back instead. Jude took longer, gulping in a shaky breath, and Alvin realized that he'd somehow seriously upset the kid. Shit. As if they needed another demonstration of why he shouldn't be around them.
"Stay," Milla said. "I need to attend to business, and Jude gets lonely." And with that, she vanished.
Jude finally pulled away from Alvin's chest, his smile strained. "She's exaggerating," he said, "but I would like it if you stayed. Please?"
Alvin looked away. "Like I could say no to the offer of food," he said, but it didn't come out as casual as he wanted it to.
"We'll take it slow," Jude said, like he was having an entirely different conversation. "But I do want to try. If that's okay."
"I don't know what you're talking about, kid," Alvin said, and Jude, thankfully, dropped it.
Jude left after that when Prinn came to fetch him for some sort of medical emergency. Alvin could have stolen away in the confusion, but he didn't. He didn't even take off the bracelet, though he considered it. Instead, he lay on the couch and stared up at the ceiling as he rubbed the warmed silver links.
Seven days. After tonight they would have four more days to realize that they were making a mistake, that they were fucking up something beautiful by inviting him in.
Thoughts swirled around in his head, too dark and chaotic for him to want to hold any of them. Five more days. By tonight, four more days. He could stay that long. He could make them realize their mistake. Hell, he'd done it before.
But Milla and Jude always had a way of changing the game. And if they didn't change their minds…
Alvin tightened his hand around his wrist, hard enough to press the blunt edges of the silver hearts into his skin. He tried not to think of anything at all.
Milla and Jude didn't bring up love anymore after that, though Alvin kept himself braced for it. He did notice that they focused on him during the sex-- who wouldn't notice something like that? But when he mentioned it, keeping his voice casual, Milla smiled and said, "It's your turn."
Alvin could have argued that he didn't get a turn, that he wasn't part of this, but if they were going to keep the can of worms shut, he wasn't about to open it. And it wasn't exactly a hardship to lie back and let them do what they liked. What he liked. He stayed inside during the day, chattering aimlessly about his business because it was the only safe topic he could think of. It was nice, actually; he was used to crafting aimless happy white noise for his mother, and in exchange he got to hear about the ways Milla and Jude were changing the world.
At least, until he realized that he'd already heard some of this and interrupted Jude. "Wait, this is the same thing that Balan is working on."
Jude blinked at him. "Yeah, I've been working with him. He's the father of spyrite technology, after all, and we've been working to replicate some of his research in more mana-rich conditions. Didn't he tell you?"
"Obviously not." Alvin shifted and folded his arms over his chest. "I'm not sure I like the idea of the two of you getting together behind my back." He could feel Milla's gaze pinning him to the seat. Sure, he'd told the two of them plenty of things he'd never intended to share about his past, but the idea of them knowing when he didn't know what they knew-- sure, he was a hypocrite, but the thought bothered him.
"It's strictly business, for the most part," Milla offered. "I have also been working with him in the hopes of integrating spyrites into our new reincarnation cycle. It's been a shock for many spirits to have such a cornerstone of our world be disintegrated. Some spirits are afraid; I hope that by working with people like Balan and Jude, I can calm their fears."
She kept looking into Alvin's eyes as she said that, and he couldn't breathe right, suddenly. He looked away. "The unknown is always scary, isn't it?" he said, self-mocking.
"Yes. And I must give them the courage to keep moving past that."
"You've always been good at that," Jude said, his voice quiet and warm.
Alvin waited for Milla's attention to shift off of him and turn to Jude, but it didn't. When he looked back at her, he found himself caught in her gaze once more. She looked at him for a moment longer and smiled before looking away.
Courage. Jude was right; she had always been good at that. And Jude as well, though his drive was less refined and his own willpower more naïve. Alvin found himself laughing at nothing at all, but neither of them called him on it. Courage. Yeah. Okay, then.
Yurgen came by with the wyverns on the seventh day, as promised, and Alvin let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Nice to see you didn't decide to abandon me here, partner," he said.
"I thought about it," Yurgen replied, then nodded to Jude and Milla. "I hope he wasn't too much trouble."
Milla shook her head. "No trouble at all."
"See? I know not to piss on the carpets and claw up the furniture. No offense to your scaly friends." Alvin stepped towards the wyvern, only to be stopped by Jude.
"Hey," Jude said softly. "I just wanted to make sure you know you're always welcome."
Alvin still hadn't taken the bracelet off. He could feel the weight of it and the way it clinked with every movement. "Yeah, sure, kid."
"I mean it," Jude insisted, then frowned and leaned up to press his mouth to Alvin's. Alvin froze. Sure, they weren't in the most populated area, but they were still in town, and people were going to see. Jude pulled away after a moment and smiled again, lopsidedly. "Now you have to come back or they'll think you ran off with someone else."
"Oh," Milla said, her voice warm with approval. "What a good idea."
"Hey now," Alvin said. He held up his hands and stepped back, but something like that would never stop someone like Milla. She stepped under his defenses and kissed him as well, flicking her tongue against his lower lip before she pulled back. Alvin stared at them.
Yurgen coughed, and Alvin winced. "I'm sure we can work out some sort of schedule to fly Alvin out here."
Alvin should have protested, should have given in to the panic-pressure closing in around him, but instead he closed his eyes and didn't say anything at all.