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The Wildness Within

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Augus Each Uisge, predatory waterhorse, Unseelie fae, was bored.

He wasn’t hungry – he’d hunted only two weeks before, finding a delectable young woman to drown in his lake, her blood like so much liquor upon his tongue that he’d felt drugged for several days after returning to his own human-form – and he had no clients on his schedule for at least a month. While many fae didn’t have to work, especially waterhorses, Augus had found his vocation as dominant and sexual healer to the fae decades ago. Unusual, yes – but then, the fae overall tended to specialise in the unusual and the fantastic. They were, after all, fae.

But it was rare that his schedule cleared up enough that he had weeks of his own free time. Unlike his adopted brother Ash, he wasn’t one to lie around and do nothing all day. He could read, yes. He could harvest herbs. He could dry foods and cook and create healing poultices, unguents and ointments, but he had done all of those things over the past week and a half. He would continue to do them as the weeks progressed.

Still, boredom had always been something that plagued him from time to time.

He wandered through the woods of Ethallas. These were the woods of his birth. The lake that was both his parent and his current shelter was cloistered within these trees. It was a forest lightly populated with fae; bordering on Seelie Courtlands – not an ideal place for an Unseelie waterhorse to live, but he was mostly left alone – and more often used for the richer fae to do their hunting, than anything else. There were times when he caught the thundering of hooves and the baying of hounds and he would rush back to his lake to avoid being the victim of a stray arrow.

It is a woodland of strange noises. Of screeches in the night. Howls that sounded like wolves, even though Augus had never come across wolf spoor in these particular woods. He’d hear strange cackling in the shadows and suspect fellow Unseelie fae, only to see nothing at all. Whatever the Ethallas woodland was – it was certainly eldritch. He suspected if he was more able to sense magic, he’d know this place as being filled with the stuff.

Yet very few fae gravitated towards this place.

Which was good, because he valued his privacy.

It was late autumn, he wandered deeper into the woods, wondering how far it stretched. Like many fae forests, it had a sense of being folded in on itself, far bigger on the inside than it would appear on any map. It played with physics, the senses, could entrap and enfold even fae into its being. Augus was careful as he followed a deer-path beyond sun-dappled shadows, further still. Here, the remnants of leaves on the deciduous trees were even more stunning in the mostly-dark. Vivid reds and crimsons, even violets and blues on the fae species.

He could use fae abilities to make his steps silent if he wished, but he thought it was more polite to let other fae know he was coming. He wanted no quarrel, and he was stalking into no one’s territory to make a challenge. Not that he could, as underfae. He might be strong enough to protect his own territory – so far – but he was nothing more than fodder to higher class fae. For war, for sport, for whatever they wished.

He looked behind him, noticing the way the trees seemed to bend towards each other. Branches reaching across the path and tangling, blocking out the lacklustre autumn warmth. He shivered. He preferred to be within the depths like this. The open sky intimidated him. He was destined for dark, watery places. He loved the murk. The deeper he walked into the woods that would intimidate most others, the more his breathing relaxed, his muscles loosened.

The only problem was the cold, which clung to his green, collared shirt and his thin pants. The cold of the water was somehow never as bothersome. But the wind and breezes picking at his skin felt like little insects that wouldn’t leave him alone. He even, absently, tried to swat a particularly sharp breeze away.

He had wandered into a forest of almost complete darkness – night vision adjusting to the deep – when he heard a thin moan. His head turned towards it sharply, his fingers curled.

Then he decided it was none of his business, and he continued on down the unexplored deer-path. He saw no deer, though he did see plenty of owls, and once or twice, the melanistic lynxes of Frycht.

The moan again, and Augus shivered to hear the pain in the sound.

He turned towards it, curious. Had there been an attack? Had the hunters from that rich An Fnwy estate come through and put an arrow through a fae, as he always knew they would?

He frowned.

Leave it to die on its own then, it’s none of your concern.

There came a fierce scream, outraged and pained at once, muffled by the leaf litter on the floor, reflected off the shiny surfaces of the leaves still on the trees. It made the sound strange, unearthly, but Augus could still tell what direction it was coming from.

Unbidden, he took a step towards it.

There were no more sounds for a good ten minutes as he moved – quietly now – through the woods. He had to twist around shrubs and bushes in the understorey. Stepped over fungi and other small plants and herbs. Though he did take note of several that he could harvest later for his medical kit. At one point there was some shrubbery so impenetrably thick that he needed to skirt around it, moving off the deer path with some reluctance – what were the deer doing, jumping over it? – and feeling a wave of relief to find it again.

His nose prickled to smell a deep but small pool of fresh water. He’d sensed the spring long ago in his own lake, stretching out his senses to map all the local waterways. Nothing lived in it – too small to be much of a home to most fae – but the freshness of it made his mouth water. He stopped briefly, scooped the sweet, pure stuff into his mouth. And then his nose prickled at a strange, alien scent. Copper, iron, something more.

What are you?

As he crept closer, the scent became stronger. Blood, a lot of it. An unmistakeable scent of rusting metal. Then he heard the clinking of chains and he frowned. Was he stepping into…someone’s feed? He didn’t know of anything that fed on fae that lived in these woods.

He hid himself behind the bole of a large oak, knowing that in the space beyond, he would find whatever it was. He hoped he wasn’t stumbling across some territorial fae feeding on prey. He could use the spring to teleport away if he needed to reach it fast enough.

He peered from behind the bole slowly, silently, skin prickling as the wind soughed through the leaves above, and creaks sounded around him.

A fae, staring right at him.

Augus stared back.

Details filtered in quickly – a young man, naked, wild. He looked like common fae, which didn’t seem right. They weren’t wild fae, they lived in houses. The trap – a horrible bear trap – teeth digging so deeply into his ankle that Augus could see muscles and ligaments exposed. Some faint bruises and blood all around his fingers and palms where he’d tried to prise the trap off himself. Why couldn’t he move it? A long chain attached to a root system. Augus swallowed.

This was no underfae.

He couldn’t tell exactly how he knew. Perhaps because the creature looked so vibrant with energy despite being obviously exhausted, in pain, terrified. Perhaps some older, deeper instinct.

Why hadn’t he just released himself?

‘Greetings,’ Augus said quietly. ‘You seem to have yourself quite caught, don’t you?’

The creature stared at him. His body was formidable, even hunkered down against the tree trunk. Broad shoulders, a wiry, muscly strength, and long limbs that spoke of height. His hair was a matted leafy tangle of bark and twigs and bits of leaves. A chunk had been pulled out at some point, and was still growing back. Augus could pick that he was blond, but there was so much muck in his hair that he couldn’t be certain what shade.

Pale lashes blinked at him, a face blank of all response except fear was all the man was offering.

‘What’s your name?’ Augus tried.

The man stared.

Was he cursed? Had his voice been taken away from him? His mind, perhaps? But then why the trap? Augus shivered to remember the outrage in the scream.

He took a tentative step forwards.

The creature reacted explosively. Scrambling backwards, leg tugging so hard that he gave a pathetic cry as the wound opened again. Augus’ breath was taken away when he realised that the wound had been healing and re-opening, healing and re-opening, because the foreign object wasn’t being removed and the creature had…healing better than underfae, that much was certain. His nostrils flared. The steel trap had an incredibly high iron content. It would weaken even a Capital or Court fae.

‘Easy,’ Augus whispered, holding up his hands automatically. The man was making sickened, weak noises as he tried crawling out of the way. ‘Easy. I’m not here to hurt you. I’m not going to hurt you.’

The noises were rising in pitch, becoming more frantic, as Augus crept closer to the ankle trapped in the chain, the arch of the foot, the curling toes. He saw deep lacerations on the man’s back, the back of his thighs, but they were mostly healed over.

‘What’s been done to you, hm?’

As Augus reached out towards the trap, knowing he was likely about to do something very stupid – perhaps the fae was trapped for a reason – the man suddenly stilled.

Augus began to sigh in relief, thinking that perhaps he’d finally realised what Augus was attempting to do.

Another roar, and Augus scrambled out of the way when the man suddenly turned on him. A fierce, mindless rage in his eyes and a vicious hunger in his hands. One moment struggling to get away, the next, looking like he would tear Augus apart through sheer force of will.

‘Fine then,’ Augus said, pushing himself to his feet and shaking his head at himself in disgust.

Ropes of waterweed – thick and strong – shot from his wrists and slipped around the man’s torso and arms, binding him. Rage turned to terror again, and – caught – he tipped his head back and shrieked. Augus kept binding him, noticing the way he was able to get the leverage needed to sever the first piece of waterweed, but nothing after. Augus had him bound too tightly.

‘Now,’ Augus said, walking forwards again, raising his eyebrows in displeasure as he looked at the wound on the creature’s ankle. He could hear the wretched, wet gasps of the man’s distress, and lowered his hand tentatively to the trap.

As soon as his fingers touched it, it fell open with a series of clicks.

Augus stared in shock.

Magicked to open for me, for others…but not him? Someone is trying to catch him specifically? Who could afford a trap like this? And why this?

The man hadn’t moved. His ankle still lay on the barbs of the trap.

Augus stared at him, realisations stirring within him. A man of higher status than underfae, trapped in the woods for what could have been days with so much evidence of healing and re-healing. A trap crafted for him. Was this a curse? Torture? Something else? The man was clearly terrified. Augus was familiar with clients who had been tortured.

‘Who did this to you?’ Augus whispered.

The sound seemed to make the man realise that he was free, and he was galvanised into action. He pushed himself up, and took a single step to flee, then collapsed. The pain in his ankle, the fact that his arms were tied to his torso.

‘You’re far too hurt for that, I’m afraid,’ Augus said.

The man had struggled onto his side, was trying to push himself up again with his forehead.

‘Can you understand me, I wonder?’

The man turned back to him, eyes meeting his for several seconds. And in that moment, Augus was sure he saw something like recognition, understanding. But it disappeared behind a feral fear, and he was struggling to get up again.

‘I can’t let you go,’ Augus said matter-of-factly. ‘You’re far too interesting to just leave here. And, I suspect, your torturer will return.’

He’d gotten himself upright again, took a very game step on what was a terribly wounded ankle, and made a sound of sheer frustration when his knee buckled and his ankle twisted. Augus took several steps forward, and the man looked up at him, a snarl on his face.

So much fight after what had to be…so much harm. Augus found it intriguing.

‘Stop fighting me,’ Augus ordered, compulsions strong in his voice.

The creature flinched, and then growled angrily, grimy fingers curling. Augus’ eyes widened in surprise. The compulsions worked on all common fae, no matter what their status. It was one of his most powerful abilities; he could use it to force most to obey his will – used first and foremost for hunting humans, but it came in handy when he was protecting himself amongst the fae.

‘Come here,’ Augus compelled, and the man just stared at him, something rebellious in his blue eyes.

‘Well,’ Augus said finally. ‘Isn’t that curious?’

He lazily shot waterweed out of his wrists again, binding the man’s legs, watching his struggles dispassionately. If he let himself get too involved, too upset, he’d not be able to think. And if he was going to get involved, he needed to able to think. If he took the man with him – he’d need a name too, if he truly couldn’t talk – he’d need to make sure he didn’t leave a scent trail. Using the spring to teleport directly into his lake would solve that problem.

He had the equipment needed to secure the creature for as long as possible. After all, he specialised in bondage, against some very strong fae indeed. That wouldn’t be a problem.

He could tend to his ankle and…and then what?

Augus stared at him.

Why was he even considering this?

You can always turn him loose if you get bored with this project.

He nodded once, in response to that thought. It was true. If it all became too tedious, he could simply turn the wild man loose into the forest once more. If he hadn’t come across him in all this time living here, he likely wasn’t going to come across him again.

The man struggled, screeched, cried out, as Augus dragged him by several ropes of waterweed. It couldn’t have been comfortable. They were sliding over tree roots, small rocks, larger rocks, and not always on the path itself – which wasn’t wide enough for the man’s shoulders anyway. Thankfully the spring wasn’t too far away.

Getting the man into his arms and into the water at the same time to teleport them both was a far more complicated matter. One that wasn’t assisted by the narrowness of the spring itself, and the fact that the man was struggling for all he was worth. At one point, when half his torso was in the water – Augus was certain now that he’d experienced drowning before – the man turned and bit him so hard that his blunt teeth broke through the fabric of Augus’ shirt and sunk into his flesh. Augus hissed and his grip tightened angrily.

‘Don’t bite me,’ Augus growled.

His teeth lengthened in defence, retaliation, and he turned, sinking his teeth just as hard into the man’s shoulder, drawing blood, a despairing moan. He closed his eyes and sank his own poison into the wound for good measure, and the man’s breath hitched, he shuddered in pain and sedation both. He blinked slowly at Augus, pupils dilated so wide to speak of nothing other than terror and mindlessness. Augus was caught up by the paleness in the ring of blue around the black. Was it an aristocratic shade? Did it belong to a particular bloodline?

Augus sighed, used his waterhorse weight and gravity to drag them both underwater, before turning them both into fluid and teleporting into the black.

*

He thankfully had a lot of experience teleporting struggling victims, so he didn’t lose the man during the shift from the spring to the depths of his lake; but it was a close thing. The sedation from his poison had lasted hardly at all. Then again, Augus hadn’t exactly given him a large dose.

He dumped him into the foyer, and then shook water off his clothing. Squeezed it out of his hair. It was simple enough then to drag the man inside, ignoring his struggles, calling on his waterhorse weight to make sure he stayed the stronger of the two. Even easier to drag the man down the corridor of his underwater home – protected by its green, insulating dome – and choose not the first room on the right, nor the second, but the third. The one he reserved for harder play, with clients who…could take a great deal more than average. And there, conveniently low to the floor, metal rings in the wall that were spelled to be able to hold even Inner Court fae, if necessary.

Not that he’d ever been patronised by Inner Court fae – but always best to be prepared.

He worked quickly, using up spare minutes while the creature seemed too tired to move. That or he was shocked by his new surroundings. Augus’ eyes flickered to him constantly. The way his mouth was open and panting for breath. How his eyes roved the room constantly, in confusion. As though he’d never been inside before – or at least not for a good long while, Augus thought.

He looked down at the collar with some regret. He doubted this would go down well. But for their own safety, he needed to make sure the man was restrained. A higher status fae could kill him. And he suspected this one might try.

Augus wondered if he should have just given him his freedom, and then dashed those thoughts immediately. This man had been caught in a steel trap before; he was certain of it. Augus had come across rusted iron-steel traps in the forests before. Always blood-stained, that same carbon-lightning smell caught on the barbs.

Caught over and over again.

He hoped he’d not brought a cursed fae into his home. The creature wasn’t even Unseelie. He was one of the good ones. Had this creature caught the sights of an Unseelie fae perhaps? Was this…revenge?

The man didn’t look at him when Augus bent down behind him, too tired, maybe. But as soon as Augus slipped the collar around his neck, there was a jolt of recognition, and blue eyes flicked to his, mouth opening on a cry. Augus snapped the collar shut quickly – enough room to not chafe at his neck, but not enough that it could be slipped off his head. And even as the man started to struggle again, Augus had a clip and chain hooked into the back of the collar and clipped the other end to the steel ring.

Several feet of movement – enough to perhaps allow him to stand, to allow him some mobility.

‘Do stop struggling,’ Augus said quietly. ‘This is for your own safety.’

The man screamed at him.

Augus rubbed at the back of his head and walked to the other side of the room, opening a drawer and pulling out a small knife. He expected even more fervent struggles now, but when the man caught sight of it, he shuddered to a stop, and then went completely limp. His eyes welled, and a moment later, tears tracked through the grime on his face.

‘You wear the products of your torture quite obviously,’ Augus said softly, kneeling before the man and slipping the knife quietly through the waterweed. His ankle was bleeding copiously, and Augus wanted to clean and bandage it. He grimaced at it and kept cutting through rope after rope of waterweed. It disturbed him to see that the man had already started to break and wear through some of them. He was strong.

Court status? Augus couldn’t be certain. Court status fae were in the Seelie and Unseelie Kingdom registries.

Did he have a name? A family? Did anyone miss him?

Could he be ransomed?

Augus’ eyes brightened as he looked at him, he smiled faintly.

‘Are you worth anything to anyone? Hm? A pale thing like you?’

The man stared at him, faintly trembling, trying to hold as still as possible. Obviously used to being tortured by a knife. Those who had experienced prolonged knife attacks knew very well how struggling could worsen any wound in an instant.

Trained with torture then.

Augus sighed.

‘I’ll need a name to call you by, until we find your real one. You might not be Welsh, but you’re on Welsh lands, so you’re stuck with what I give you, unfortunately.’

Augus turned the language of his home over in his head. The creature was startlingly pale, even after exposure to the elements. His eyes pale also. He thought of words that might describe him: golau, olau, gwynion, channaid, wyn, glaer, gannaid…

‘Gannaid, perhaps?’ Augus said aloud. He reached up to Gannaid’s torso, slicing the knife through waterweed.

Gannaid whimpered once.

‘Hush,’ Augus said crisply.

He subsided into a shaky silence, as Augus continued to cut away all the waterweed. And though Augus expected attacks at any second, they never came. Gannaid’s hands limp by his side, and something paralysed in his bright eyes. Augus wanted to reach up and fuss over his hair, but the reality was that it was so matted it might need to be shorn. He needed to tend the ankle, that was a certainty. But how? Perhaps while he slept? Augus had no idea.

‘This is why I shouldn’t mess in other people’s affairs,’ Augus said, smiling to himself. ‘But I suppose if you are too much trouble, I can always dump you back in the wilds again, for whatever monster wanted you.’

Augus tucked the knife away once he was done and then moved carefully back, watching for what Gannaid might do.

He did nothing.

‘I need to treat your ankle.’

Said nothing.

‘If you can talk, now would be an opportune time,’ Augus said. ‘A name, perhaps?’

Augus huffed out a breath and put the knife away. He thought about restraining the creature’s – Gannaid’s – arms, but then thought the better of it. Perhaps he’d do better by showing this man that he had no obvious intention of harming him. Just keeping him…secure, for now. Augus did find himself wondering if a ransom was at all possible. It wasn’t as though he needed the money, but he would find it deeply entertaining to ransom a member of the Seelie back to the Seelie.

‘I’m going to get my medical kit and tend your ankle. And then I will eat lunch. And then we shall see what happens with you, Gannaid.’

The name didn’t feel quite right, but it would have to do.

He walked from the room, and just as he started to close the door, he heard a cough and a rasp. He turned back, eyebrows furrowing.

The man had twisted to see him leave, something strange in his eyes.

His chapped lips were parted, he looked like he could do with about ten consecutive baths before he’d be anything approaching clean. What did he even eat? At least if he was Seelie, he shouldn’t be too hard to keep fed. He wouldn’t need to feed on humans, or anything like that.

‘Yes?’ Augus said after a minute of discomfiting, prolonged eye-contact, as the man stared at him unblinking.

Gwyn,’ the creature rasped, voice thick with disuse.

Gwyn – white, silver, darling, fat, ripe, blessed, shining.

‘Someone loved you once, didn’t they?’ Augus said, blinking at him. ‘Do you think you’ll be worth much to them? Gwyn? Do you have a last name?’

But Gwyn’s fingers were finding their way to the collar, and then his blue eyes were blinking in growing fear and rage.

That was when the howling and struggling really began.

Chapter Text

Two days later, Augus nursed a splitting headache and sat, curled on his couch, while the clanking of chains and the roars and shrieks continued.

Gwyn was obviously Court status, because someone with his injuries should have been well and truly asleep by now, or unconscious. He was common fae, Augus could tell that much, but his resistance to compulsions was unusual. And unfortunate.

‘Keep it down!’ Augus shouted again, but the roars didn’t even pause. The creature – Gwyn – had to have shredded his throat raw more than once.

He sometimes quietened for an hour, two, but if he heard any sound – Augus moving to approach him, or even just shifting too loudly on his couch – the roars would start again. Sometimes the force with which he tore at the chains was strong enough that Augus could feel vibrations in the walls. But the chains were spelled.

The walls aren’t.

He smirked to himself and then pressed his thumbs to his temples.

Hours later he looked up when the front door opened and closed. Ash walked in, shaking water out of his hair and rubbing himself dry with one of the towels Augus kept in the foyer just for him. He saw Augus and beamed, then froze when he heard the roaring.

‘Sorry, bro. Didn’t know you had a client.’

Augus gave him a look, then rubbed his hands over his face.

‘Not a client. A very large mistake.’

Ash squinted, his smile vanished. He tilted his head towards the sound of the incessant, rage-filled noises, and his hazel eyes narrowed. He had always looked attractive enough in human-form, but overall – ridiculous for a waterhorse. They were all supposed to have long, straight or wavy black hair. Green eyes. Ash was something of a runt – though he’d certainly grown into himself now – his hair persisted in multi-shades of red, brown and blonde, and was so coarsely curled that even when completely waterlogged, they held their cropped shape.

‘Okay, so, what the fuck?’ Ash said, rubbing at his arms again.

‘He was injured in the woods. And somewhat mute. And Court status. And shows signs of repeated, prolonged torture. Also Seelie.’

‘There’s so many things wrong with what you just said.’ Ash threw the towel at Augus and then sat in the armchair opposite, while Augus moved the damp, offensive towel away from himself, folding it as he did so. ‘So you have him because why?’

‘Because…’ Augus couldn’t lie to Ash. It hadn’t initially been about a ransom at all. He was at a loss how to explain himself. He would have set the creature free, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was quite sure he’d be overpowered and killed in the process. ‘Boredom.’

Ash made a face, and then winced at a particularly ear-splitting roar.

‘Geez, he’s got some lungs, doesn’t he? Why don’t you just compel him?’

‘He’s immune.’

‘No shit,’ Ash said, staring at him. ‘I’d normally say ditch him, but it’s not like you to pick up a stray. So let’s check him out then.’

Ash headed blithely towards the corridor and several seconds later Augus got up and followed, trying to shake the pounding out of his head.

‘He’s just going to get worse,’ Augus muttered.

‘Yeah? I dunno what kind of company you keep, but I’ve been around this kind of racket before. Got a lot of unhappy people in the human world. Especially drunk ones.’

Ash swung into the room and then paused. Just like that, the mood changed. Ash turned back to him and looked reproving. His lips had tensed, his eyes lost their glint of good humour.

‘You think maybe the metal cuffs that he’s worn down to his joints are part of the problem?’

‘He’s Court or higher, I’m sure of it. We’re underfae.’

‘He’s still a fucking fae. Get your kit, we’ll get him sorted. And get some food. Something starchy. Actually, no, I’ll get all that.’

Gwyn had settled enough to watch the exchange between them. Now – oddly – he subsided into silence. It made no sense. Augus had offered food. Had offered to tend him. Had asked for silence so he could help. Had tried a great deal before giving up. It wasn’t as though he’d just spent two days ignoring him.

Ash noticed that Gwyn was now silent.

‘Hey,’ Ash said, turning back to Gwyn. ‘You can probably tell that the screaming’s not really getting you anywhere. And you’re bleeding a heap. So you probably don’t get that we want to help. I know, like, I bet you’ve not had anything like real help for a long time.’

Ash took a step towards Gwyn, and Gwyn scrambled back as far as the bonds on his brutalised wrists would let him. Augus hadn’t checked on him for most of the day, and it turned out that Gwyn could do a lot of damage to himself in that period of time. His ankle still bore signs of injury, even trickling fresh blood from a couple of places. But his wrists were a mess. Gwyn had started cutting through ropey strands of muscle, tendon. Ash was right. He was wearing himself down to the joint to get the cuffs off himself.

‘What’s your name?’

Gwyn said nothing, and after a while Augus cleared his throat.

‘He said it was Gwyn. Then the screaming started.’

‘So you’ve probably not really heard it in the best way lately, huh? I get that.’

‘I very much doubt it,’ Augus said quietly.

‘Just shut up a minute,’ Ash said, glaring at him. ‘You brought him here. I bet he didn’t come willingly. He’s scared, man. Scared of you. This creepy room which he doesn’t know is a sex palace – it looks just as much like a new torture chamber, doesn’t it? Think about that for a second. You can’t just- I mean I get boredom, I do. But when I fucking took Lucky in, I had to look after him. Like, here’s a thought, you can’t-’

‘I did try,’ Augus said, staring at Gwyn. ‘I know he’s afraid. I was contemplating how best to let him go while not being killed in the process.’

‘He’s violent?’

‘He tried to attack me when I went to release him from the trap. Which, I might add, was spelled to release for me, but not for him.’

‘That explains the ankle then.’

Ash crouched on the floor, close enough that if Gwyn decided to change tack and move forwards, Ash would be in the danger zone. Augus wanted to say something, but Ash had his own way of doing things, and Augus knew everything he’d tried hadn’t worked so far. He retreated to a chair by the wall and sat down quietly, noting the way Gwyn’s eyes flickered to his. Once, twice, then again.

Ash folded his legs, tilted his head to the side.

‘Hey there, Gwyn.’

Gwyn’s attention shot back to Ash, and Ash held up his hands slowly.

‘It’s your name, right? I’m not gonna hurt you. My name’s Ash. I’m Augus’ brother, he’s the dour one over there.’

Augus crossed one leg over the other as Gwyn – predictably – said and did nothing. At least Ash was holding his attention, and Augus’ headache was already starting to recede. He rubbed carefully at the side of his head, and Gwyn watched him, then turned to Ash again.

‘Okay,’ Ash said. ‘Can you go get that food now? And your first aid kit?’

‘I literally just got comfortable.’

‘And you can ‘literally’ just go get the stuff now, go on. We’re gonna be fine, Gwyn and I, aren’t we, buddy?’

Augus huffed out a laugh under his breath as he left.

It was easy enough to find everything he needed. He had some fresh, starchy roots which might not be palatable to a common fae but would have to do. He also got some of the dried apples he kept in his pantry. They weren’t to his taste, but he kept his home stocked to Ash’s tastes as well – so that whenever he happened to visit after a bender, or a night carousing in the human world, there was food he enjoyed eating. He also took his first aid kit down from the top shelf, and checked it for bandages. It wasn’t as though it particularly needed checking, he always kept it fully stocked.

When he came back, Ash was holding his palm extended out towards Gwyn, and Gwyn was looking at it with something that could have been offense. The effect was weakened by the fact that he was covered in grime.

‘He’s not a dog.’

‘Yeah, well, he’s not exactly one of us either. Give me an apple or something. I can smell them. Actually give me two, I’m hungry.’

Ash held out his other hand without looking, and Augus placed two dried apples into his palm, placed the bag of food by his side and sat down again, keeping the first aid kit near him. At least now, if Gwyn attacked Ash, Augus would be prepared. He rolled his eyes.

Gwyn was clearly interested in the apples. When Ash bit into one, he trembled, leaned forwards.

‘Yeah, I know, buddy,’ Ash said quietly, transferring the other apple into his palm. ‘Jesus, Augus, did you even try this?’

‘Actually, yes.’

‘Sorry,’ Ash said, sounding contrite and turning towards Augus. ‘I didn’t realise you-’

In a flash, Gwyn leapt forwards and snatched the apple out of Ash’s palm, scrambling back again, chains clinking, wrists trickling rivulets of blood. He shoved the whole thing into his mouth and chewed hungrily, turning away and hiding his face from them both as he did so.

‘Good job, Gwyn,’ Ash said, making his voice so soothing that Augus wanted to close his eyes. Ash just had a way with his voice. It probably helped that his glamour was so friendly. Ash’s glamour – or dra’ocht, that magical energy all fae had to gull humans into coming closer or staying away – was the most genuinely engaging he’d ever come across. Ash kept eating his own apple, then reached down into the bag and put another apple on his palm and held it out for Gwyn.

This time, he kept his arm closer to his body. Not truly close, but his arm was no longer fully extended either.

Gwyn looked back at Ash, noticed that the arm wasn’t as extended as before. After a long moment, his eyes were drawn to the new apple.

‘He’s gonna need some protein,’ Ash said to Augus, even though he didn’t look away from Gwyn. ‘I dunno, meat or something. I can go to the human world and get it. To be honest he could probably do with a bucket of KFC, or like sixty cheeseburgers.’

Gwyn crept forwards, watching Ash closely. He reached for the apple slowly, as though he expected it to be snatched away.

‘He’s wild though,’ Ash said, staring at Gwyn. ‘I mean, at least a little. He moves like someone who’s been living out in the forest. I dunno, in the human world, you see some things. But he can say his name, and I see what you mean about Court status. He’s definitely something. There you go, friend. Take it, go on. I’m not going to hurt you. They taste good, right? My brother picked them. He’s really a good guy. I know he seems scary right now, but you can trust him.’

Gwyn’s gaze slid to Augus – and once more Augus was surprised at how much Gwyn understood. He was a creature of contradictions.

Gwyn plucked the dried apple out of Ash’s hand with a gesture that was graceful, though still clearly timid. Once he had it, he backed off again, just as slowly, then turned away and ate without showing his face.

‘Those cuffs are awful,’ Ash said, voice thick. ‘Do we need them?’

‘He’s dangerous. If we keep him here, we need a way of keeping him under control. If we let him go, then… Is that what you want to do? Let him go?’

‘No,’ Ash said slowly. ‘Nope, actually. I can see why you grabbed him. But-’

‘If he’s Court status, and stops fighting all the time, he’ll heal.’

‘Yeah, but he’s in pain now,’ Ash said, twisting on his feet and staring at Augus. The move caused the soles of his sneakers to squeak, and Gwyn turned to them hurriedly, breath hitching. His mouth was comedically full, apple and drool clinging to the underside of his lower lip, but Augus just found the whole thing made him sad. Gwyn turned away again when he seemed to realise there was no immediate danger.

‘I have an analgesic but I’m not sure he’ll take it,’ Augus said. ‘They tend to make one drowsy. I don’t think he’ll trust that.’

Gwyn made a low sound in the back of his throat and looked at Augus again. He was wiping his face with the back of his hand, had swallowed down the apple.

‘He understands most of it, doesn’t he?’ Ash said. ‘When he’s not too scared. Someone’s been talking to him.’

‘Yes. Though I doubt they were saying pleasant things. You should see his reaction to a knife.’

‘And why the fuck do you know how he reacts to one of those?’

Augus winced at the tone in Ash’s voice.

‘I had to tie him up to get here. The knife was more expedient than tearing apart the waterweed with my bare hands.’

‘Yeah, no offense, but I wouldn’t trust you either. Still,’ Ash turned back to Gwyn, ‘you can trust him. You can-’

Gwyn leapt with no warning. His expression didn’t even change. One moment he was watching Ash, and the next he’d taken two awkward bounds and had knocked Ash on his back to the ground and had him pinned. Augus stood, but Ash – aside from his shout of surprise – was already telling Augus to back down.

‘Wait! Wait!’

‘So I’ll just watch him kill you, then?’

‘Just wait,’ Ash said, and then seemed to shut Augus out and focused all his attention on Gwyn. ‘Hey. Hey there, buddy. Geez, you could use a fucking shower. What are you gonna do?’

Gwyn’s teeth were bared, his whole body shook. His fingers – bloodied and almost blackened with dirt – were clenched so hard into Ash’s shirt that Augus knew it had to be bruising him at the least. But he hadn’t bitten, hadn’t done anything more than pin Ash down. He crouched over him, pushed his face close to Ash’s, then inhaled deeply. The feeling of warmth shot up in the room, and Augus realised that Ash was really cranking up his glamour to its highest level. Even he was feeling soothed, despite seeing his brother in the position he was in.

‘Easy boy,’ Ash said under his breath. ‘Easy. Do you just want to know what I’m like? It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. But it’d be really nice if you didn’t hurt me too. Yeah? Tit for tat, okay? I don’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me.’

Gwyn stared at him for several more seconds, back heaving with his breaths, and then he slid backwards. A few moments later, he crouched on the floor, looking at his wrists in manacles, as though he’d only just noticed – which couldn’t have been true. But he examined the ruin of his wrists curiously, and then he looked over at Ash.

Augus closed his eyes when Gwyn held his shaking arm slowly out to Ash, presenting the manacle first. It was obvious what he wanted.

Ash sighed, and Augus knew a lecture was going to come at some point. The sigh must have startled Gwyn, because he flinched backwards and drew his wrists towards himself, holding them up near his chest. Augus realised now where all the blood smears on his chest had come from.

‘Augus, even if we put them back on after – we can’t treat his wrists without taking them off.’

‘You have no idea what you’re doing,’ Augus said. ‘And, keep in mind, those manacles are locked to my energy signature. I’ll have to stand pretty close to him to take them off.’

In response, Gwyn crouched even lower until his head nearly touched the floor. His trembling became visible. Augus wasn’t accustomed to feeling like a monster amongst the fae, and he wasn’t sure he liked it now. Ash reached into the bag and drew out a dried apple and rolled it towards Gwyn. It bumped off his thigh and then stopped. Gwyn’s head moved towards it, but he didn’t reach for it.

‘I think we should do it,’ Ash said. ‘You were strong enough to subdue him the first time. If he tries to kill us – we should both be more than a match for him this time. Yeah? Okay, okay then, let’s…’

Ash scooted a little closer to Gwyn.

‘Hey there,’ Ash said, his voice quietening. ‘Let’s get those cuffs off you, okay? But, Augus, my brother, has to do it. And then he’s going to treat your wrists. Do you know what that means? He’s going to clean them, and put some herbs on them, and then bandage them up for you. You’re going to let him, aren’t you? Because you want your wrists to stop hurting? They must be hurting a lot.’

There was no response for a long time, and then Gwyn’s nodded faintly. It looked like a more exaggerated form of shaking, but there was no mistaking it.

‘That’s really, really good – what you just did,’ Ash said, his voice so warm that Augus shivered. ‘That kind of communication is great. You don’t have to talk to us, that’s cool, I understand that. But if you can shake and nod your head at things, that would be really awesome. Yeah? Do you understand us?’

Another faint, shaky nod.

‘We gotta find a way to get Augus over here so that you won’t hurt him. Do you think you could push your arms way out in front of you, so that he doesn’t have to come too close?’

Gwyn extended his arms and then made a low, pathetic sound.

‘Bring the kit with you,’ Ash said, and Augus stood, picked up the healing kit and walked over, keeping his steps measured. Gwyn visibly tensed when he approached. Augus ran over what he’d said to Gwyn before, and realised he’d mentioned ransoming him back to those who knew him. If they were the ones who had been hurting him, he would have known that Augus was thinking of selling him back to his captors. He lowered himself carefully to the ground. He looked down at the manacled wrists, Gwyn’s shaking hands.

‘I’m not going to send you back there,’ Augus said, ignoring the way Ash looked at him. ‘I didn’t know you could understand me, and I was…not quite serious about it. Gwyn, I’m not going to ransom you back to whoever did this to you.’

‘Augus, I…fucking can’t with you, sometimes.’

‘Shut up,’ Augus muttered, and lowered his hands carefully to the cuffs. Gwyn stayed still. He didn’t appear to have heard Augus’ words, but he didn’t attack him either. He flinched hard when Augus touched metal, and Ash began crooning a steady slew of soothing things to him. Augus found the fixtures, sliding his fingers down the metal, not once touching Gwyn’s blood-slicked skin. A moment later, both the cuffs snapped open. Gwyn didn’t move his hands away. It reminded Augus of how he’d left his ankle resting on the trap once it had been opened.

Had he been trained to do that?

Carefully, slowly, Augus took one of Gwyn’s clenched fists and eased it out of the cuff. He noticed the way Gwyn’s skin and more stuck to it, but Gwyn did nothing more than shake. He drew the cuff away and kept it within reach. Unlike Ash, he wasn’t sure Gwyn could go without them. He did the same with the other wrist and winced at the damage.

‘Wait,’ Augus murmured, when Gwyn tried to half-heartedly yank his fist out of Augus’ hands. ‘Careful, I just want to look.’

Miraculously, Gwyn stayed put. Augus opened his kit and then looked back at the wounds. They had dirt in them, more, but they hadn’t infected. Any fae lower than Court status would have infections from those sorts of wounds.

‘He’s definitely Court status,’ Augus said. ‘I won’t have to clean these. His body is doing it for him.’

‘I don’t know how I feel about that,’ Ash said. ‘Not about you cleaning them. I trust that, but…doesn’t that mean that anything that’s been done to him – no matter how severe – will like, he’ll have no signs of it?’

‘He has plenty of signs of it,’ Augus said, inclining his head towards the shaking form trying to make itself as small as possible.

‘True. Can we get him cleaned up at all? He’s probably not gonna…want to shower, is he?’

At that, however, Gwyn’s head snapped up and he stared at Ash like he’d said a magic word. His whole body leaned forwards.

‘Shower?’ Ash repeated, and Gwyn nodded. ‘You remember what a shower is?’ Another nod.

‘This can wait then,’ Augus said, closing the kit quietly. ‘At least it will get the wounds clean and help speed up the healing process. But, he’s tried to attack me at least once, when I was trying to release him.’

Gwyn shook his head.

‘Yes, you did,’ Augus said stiffly. ‘You might not remember, but that’s what you did. You’ll forgive me if I’m cautious.’

Gwyn’s head tilted and Augus caught a brief glimpse of pale blue eyes before he looked down again. He thought it counted as progress. He was grateful for Ash’s presence. He didn’t know what he would have done without Ash there. He reached out to Ash’s knee and squeezed it in thanks. Ash smiled at him, and Augus offered a twitch of his lips, he didn’t have the heart to smile. His head still felt heavy. He wondered if he could ask Ash to take care of things while he caught up on some sleep.

‘You should take the lead,’ Augus said, and Ash nodded.

‘Yeah, hey, Gwyn, we need to go into another part of the house for a shower, okay? You need to try and stand for me, alright?’

It was a labour to get Gwyn from the room to the shower. He couldn’t stand properly on his ankle, and he didn’t want to lean on Ash – and Augus knew he was out of the question. He wouldn’t take their hands, and the second time he fell, he made a frustrated sound and didn’t get up for a solid fifteen minutes. Augus could feel the outrage emanating from him in waves, and Ash had to crank his dra’ocht back up again to lull Gwyn slowly. That was the moment when they both expected another attack, watching Gwyn’s fingers curl like he wanted to claw something apart.

He’s proud, Augus realised with surprise. He doesn’t like us to see him helpless.

But eventually he’d pushed himself up again with the help of the wall, and now stood – naked except for being covered by dirt and blood – in a tiled room. Ash turned on the water and tested it, as Gwyn looked around at everything – the basin, the generously sized bath, the tiles, the window to the lake, the cabinets, the chair. He was certainly a lot more alert. He hadn’t eaten nearly enough, but food and Ash’s presence had helped. He was probably dehydrated. Augus wasn’t sure how that worked with Court fae.

As soon as Ash said the water was a good temperature, Gwyn stepped in, holding onto the screen with a shaking grip. He ducked his head under the water immediately and then reached for the tap and made the water so hot that steam rose from his body, his skin pinking underneath the dirt. He tilted his head back and drank from the spray, over and over, eyes closed, not caring about the heat of it.

‘He knows all of this,’ Augus said, looking at Ash.

‘Yeah, but not for a long time, I’m guessing. Hey, Gwyn, we can leave you to it if you know what you’re doing. All the shampoo and conditioner and soap and oils and shit are there if you want them.’

Augus had taken a long time to make some of those items, and he opened his mouth to protest.

‘I-’

‘Augus is happy for you to use them, aren’t you, Augus?’

Augus glared at him and then walked away and sat on the chair.

They both watched in fascination as Gwyn showered himself thoroughly. He was too harsh on his skin with the soap, which was fine the first couple of times he soaped himself – there was a lot of grime caked into his skin. But it became obvious that Gwyn wasn’t letting up, and just as Augus started to intervene, Ash called out:

‘You can go a bit gentler now.’

Gwyn flinched, badly enough that his hand flailed out to catch himself on a railing. Augus wondered if he’d forgotten they were even there. Not for the first time, he wondered how much damage had been inflicted on him and sighed quietly, wondered how to begin checking who he was. There were local estates with Court fae – but he couldn’t just go and ask them about Gwyn; not if he was some family secret. If he was a captured prisoner in a civil war – he wouldn’t be related to any of them. And Unseelie fae of the lower classes had no right to look at the Seelie registry of births.

Ash walked to the shower, leaned against the screen, watching Gwyn closely. Gwyn had steadied himself once more, stared at him. The water around his feet was thick with dirt. Gwyn had scrubbed at his hands, his nails, his body, even reaching down and managing his feet and toes with some careful bracing of himself on the walls. Someone who wanted to be clean then. Who once had access to all of these luxuries.

Gwyn looked away from Ash once he’d seemed to judge his presence as unthreatening. Instead he reached for a bottle, opened it and sniffed it carefully. Augus didn’t have anything labelled – he didn’t often expect to be sharing his shower with anyone other than an occasionally visiting Ash, after all – but Gwyn found the shampoo on the second try and started lathering his hair. He made a small sound of frustration.

‘It’s all matted,’ Ash said, and Augus nodded.

‘I think it needs to be cut, but it won’t hurt to get as much dirt out of it as possible before that happens.’

Gwyn looked between them both and must have ended up cleaning his hair three or four times. Augus lost track, finding himself watching Gwyn’s body instead. Ash was right; he was Court status, there were no signs of scarring anywhere that he could see – except a small pale glint on his right side, around the back of his ribs. That must have been a Mage attack, or something similar – only Mages and magical circumstances could leave lasting marks on fae who were Court or higher.

Otherwise, he was incredibly pale – easy enough to tell even with the redness of his skin in the shower’s heat. Even his eyelashes and eyebrows were wheaten. He grew no body hair that Augus could tell. His waist was narrow, taut, his shoulders broad. Augus had the sense he once had more musculature than he wore now. He was a wasted version of himself and still broad, his arms and legs showing ropey, thinner muscles in sharp definition. But like this, Augus could see more of his ribs than he cared to. His collarbones stood out too sharply. His ankles and knuckles were bony.

He was feeding himself in the forest, perhaps, between the times when he was being trapped and hurt. But a common fae was meant for a diet of fruits, vegetables, fats, starches and much more. Raw meat and green plants alone wouldn’t have been enough, and Ethallas forest wasn’t abundant with fruits that were edible for common fae.

‘That’s as good as it’s gonna get, I think,’ Ash said quietly, and Gwyn put down the bottle – nearly empty now – and reached up to his hair and touched it with gentle fingers. He seemed unhappy that he couldn’t truly fix it, and Augus knew it would have to be cropped a great deal before any of the matting would come out. Ash reached for a large towel and went to shut off the shower, but Gwyn was already turning the taps.

His wrists rapidly dripped blood and Augus shook his head. Those injuries were serious. They had to hurt. Yet Gwyn had done everything like they weren’t a problem.

High pain threshold. Not truly surprising, given everything.

‘I need to look at those wrists,’ Augus said. ‘Can you sit down over there and wait a moment, please?’

He pointed to the chair that Ash had vacated, and then walked out of the room to get his healing kit. When he returned, Gwyn was sitting. He looked exhausted. Perhaps all the roaring, as well as the shower and the stress of everything was getting to him.

Finally. Maybe I can get something approximating sleep.

Ash sat on the other side, while Augus crouched on the floor and held his hands out.

‘Wrist,’ Augus said, and Gwyn hesitated, watching Augus warily, before stretching it out. He’d started shaking again, but it looked more like true fatigue, than terror. He seemed too tired for terror.

Gwyn didn’t hiss or pull away from the powdered coagulants Augus sprinkled over the open, raw wounds. He watched Augus place gauze, and then bandage his wrist with a detached curiosity. Augus decided not to pin the bandage, in case Gwyn did something dangerous with the fastening later. Instead he tucked the end of the bandage back into the rest of it, and then turned his wrist carefully to inspect the work. It would have to do.

Gwyn held out his second wrist without being asked, and Augus’ lips quirked in a half smile.

‘Thank you,’ Augus said, and noticed the damage was worse on his left hand. Left-hand dominant then? Perhaps. He wiped away excess blood, repeated the pattern of cleaning and bandaging, and then left the second bandaged wrist as he leaned down to look at the ankle.

‘Ah, it is healing. I don’t think this will need bandaging.’

‘You sure?’ Ash said.

‘I’m sure. I’d say his wrists are so bad because his body is funnelling its energy towards healing his ankle. But overall, with some food and water, and rest, he’ll shape up. Now – about the hair…’

Gwyn stiffened and jerked back in the chair.

‘And I haven’t even brought out the scissors yet,’ Augus said, stepping away and closing the kit as he went.

‘I can do it,’ Ash said. ‘I know how to cut hair. I have to do mine all the time. Besides, it doesn’t have to be neat, right? Just get the worst of it out?’

Augus sighed and handed the kit to Ash, who rooted through and found the scissors.

As soon as he saw them, Gwyn closed his eyes and bowed forwards until his head was practically touching his knees. Augus could see all the bumps in his spine. He wanted to run his fingers over them, and found the impulse odd.

Despite all the soothing words, despite the warmth of Ash’s glamour, nothing stopped Gwyn from shaking and moaning low in his throat, over and over, as Ash worked the scissors through his hair. And, even after several minutes, when it became increasingly obvious that Ash wasn’t hurting him beyond trying to find the best place to cut at the matts, the moaning showed no signs of stopping. Ash’s eyebrows pulled together as he spoke, but Augus watched it all with a sense of detachment. No point getting upset over the fact that they were making progress; of course it was going to be distressing.

After Ash was done, there were clumps of matted, dirty hair all over the floor, and Augus decided Gwyn had been through enough. Combing through the rest to see what they could salvage could wait. His headache had come back with a vengeance, and he suspected that if he was feeling miserable, Gwyn was definitely feeling miserable.

‘He needs to rest,’ Augus said, and Ash nodded, looking as tired as Augus felt. ‘One of us has to watch him, if we’re not putting him back in manacles.’

‘I’ll do it,’ Ash said. ‘Gwyn’s gonna be good, right? Aren’t you? See how well things go when you listen to us?’

Gwyn nodded absently, but he looked like he had no idea what he was nodding to. Augus blew out a tired breath.

‘I suppose I should go ready a guestroom.’

Despite my doubts that this will work out.

*

Gwyn’s reaction upon seeing a bed made Augus’ chest hurt, and he could tell Ash felt similarly. Gwyn walked into the bedroom – following dumbly – until he realised it was a bedroom. Upon seeing the bed, he’d backed out and shaken his head quickly.

For a moment, Augus immediately assumed he’d been raped on one, at the very least assaulted, but Ash must have assumed that too because he was already promising that nothing bad was going to happen to him, that no one was going to hurt him, and Gwyn was still shaking his head like that wasn’t it. Or like he couldn’t hear.

‘Hey, it’s for you,’ Ash said finally, completely changing tack. ‘You haven’t slept on one of these in a while, have you? Or…haven’t been allowed one?’

Gwyn looked up at Ash slowly, and then – surprisingly – shrugged.

‘You’re allowed one here,’ Ash said quickly. ‘We’re not the people who were doing whatever they were doing to you. Are we? Look at us, we’re Unseelie underfae waterhorses man, we have nothing to do with those people. And this is a bed, and it’s yours to sleep in and lie down on. Okay? Go on, go and touch it.’

Gwyn stared at it with an open, frightened longing. His gaze then flickered quickly between Ash’s, Augus’, and back to the bed, and on and on in that loop as he approached the bed with tiny, limping steps. As though he expected to be told it was a trick, or that he had misinterpreted.

Finally he stood by the bed. His bandaged wrists came up and his fingers hovered over the linens, not quite touching.

He placed his palms flat on the bed and pressed down, making a faint noise of pain as he did so. He turned to Ash and Augus.

To see what we’ll do.

‘Excellent, he understands a bed. That’s where I’m going. Wake me if there’s any problems,’ Augus said, finding that – suddenly – he was too tired to deal with any of this.

He held back his laugh as he walked from the room.

At least I’m not bored anymore.

*

He woke to screaming. He tumbled out of bed, almost falling to the floor, and then ran down the hall in case Ash was in danger. Instead, he found Ash hovering by the bed while Gwyn – blankets around him and covered in sweat – let off blood-curdling screams, one after another. It took a few seconds for Augus to realise he was still asleep.

‘This won’t do,’ Augus snapped, and Ash looked at him with a pained expression.

‘I can’t wake him.’

‘We shouldn’t wake him,’ Augus amended. ‘He’ll likely attack. Step back.’

Ash moved back hesitantly, then stood close enough to Augus that their shoulders brushed. Augus felt a head rest on his shoulder, and reached up absently to tangle his fingers through perpetually damp curls. Like his own mane, they never stopped shedding water.

Augus hadn’t even gotten a chance to ask how Ash had been lately.

They stood as Gwyn tapered off to silence. Then another series of hiccupped whimpers built into a harrowing scream. Augus sighed.

‘Are you sure he’ll attack?’ Ash asked, in a small section of silence.

‘I can guarantee it,’ Augus said, watching him. ‘His fight and flight instincts are too finely honed. He’s obviously dreaming about someone hurting him, and he tends to become disoriented easily. If he doesn’t hurt us, he’d run. And for whatever reason…I find I want him to stay.’

‘You know this is a big decision, Augus,’ Ash said, half the words swallowed by screams.

‘Is it?’ Augus said, dry.

It was an hour before Gwyn screamed himself awake – though thankfully there was a break of about twenty minutes where he was simply twitching and shuddering, then dripping sweat. Ash had already started ratcheting up his glamour, and in response, Augus leaned his head on Ash’s and closed his eyes. The warmth of it gentled his frayed nerves. Neither of them were gifted with a great deal of fae magic, but they were strong at their own innate abilities; and the glamour was one of them. Unfortunately, Augus’ glamour didn’t naturally soothe others, so he kept his muted.

Gwyn shot bolt upright, struggled with blankets and sheets and Ash stepped forward, holding his hands up.

‘Shh,’ Ash was saying, so quietly that Gwyn had to stop what he was doing to hear him properly. ‘Shh, it was just a bad dream. Just a lot of bad dreams, okay?’

Gwyn stared at Ash with an alertness that made Augus’ entire body tense. But then he looked down at the bed, stared at his bandaged wrists, and looked between the two of them – noticing Augus for the first time.

‘Easy, easy there, friend. No one’s going to hurt you, remember? You don’t hurt us, we don’t hurt you?’

Gwyn nodded slowly. His eyes were wet. Sweat still dripped down his temples. Augus thought about changing the sheets and then realised this was likely to be a regular occurrence.

You know this is a big decision, Augus. The words mocked him.

‘Awesome,’ Ash said.

Gwyn looked down, his body hunched, he made a broken moan so pathetic that Augus sighed.

‘It’s going to be all right,’ Augus said, stepping forwards. Both Ash and Gwyn looked at him immediately, and he almost laughed to have their undivided attention. ‘I mean it. It will take time, perhaps longer than you want to give it – but it’s going to be all right. But you’ve had a scare, quite a few in a short amount of time, and nightmares are to be expected. I have some herbs that can assist, but they will make you sluggish, and I expect you won’t-’ Gwyn was already shaking his head rapidly. ‘Exactly.’

Ash sat down on the very corner of the bed and leaned against the bedpost, closing his eyes. Gwyn watched him with eyes narrowed, and then seemed to realise that Ash meant him no harm and looked over to Augus once more. There was something…open in that gaze. Open, curious, though still wary.

It was progress, wasn’t it?

‘You have some options, I suppose,’ Augus said, resting a hand on his hip and rubbing at his eyes quickly with his other hand. ‘The first is that we can set you free. You can try your luck in that forest, running from whatever you were running from.’

Gwyn stayed very still, but his pupils dilated.

‘The second is that you can stay here, for a time. But you live by my rules – and Ash isn’t here all the time. But I keep to myself, and I suspect you do as well. However, if you live here, you have to stay here. I’ll not have you drawing whatever is after you, to my home. Do you understand?’

Gwyn nodded once. The movement tiny.

‘The third, I suppose, is that we take you to the Seelie Kingdom, and deliver you to the Oak King himself, to see what-’

Gwyn shook his head violently, then started to ease away from the both of them, towards the other side of the bed.

That damned flight response.

‘I’m giving you options, you daft fool,’ Augus snapped, not having the patience for a constant, soothing tone like Ash did. If Gwyn was going to stay, he would have to get used to Augus as he was. ‘I’m not going to do it unless you tell me you want it to happen. Do you understand?’

Gwyn had already slid a leg off the bed, but he paused, then nodded again. He scowled at Augus, and Augus raised his eyebrows in response. Then sighed.

‘Which is it then? First or second option?’

Gwyn held up a hand with two fingers, though it shook, and he didn’t look certain. Still, it would do.

‘I’m going to have to reschedule some clients in the morning,’ Augus said, wincing. ‘I doubt he’s going to understand my line of work.’

‘Uh, yeah,’ Ash said. ‘I can stay too, I think? For like a couple of weeks. If you can stand to have the both of us here, that is.’

Augus made a faint sound of disgust and walked out of the room, and he heard Ash chuckle as he left.

‘Don’t worry, buddy,’ Ash said to Gwyn. ‘He gets better with time.’

*

Gwyn was quiet after that, and Augus suspected he was too afraid to fall asleep again. Or perhaps contemplating his new circumstances. When Augus ducked his head into the room hours later, Ash dozed in an armchair, lips slack and head resting on his arm. Gwyn was sitting cross-legged on the bed, back against the headboard. He looked at Augus warily, though not with as much fear as before.

Augus didn’t think things were likely to stay this easy. He lifted his healer’s kit and bags that he held.

‘I’m just going out to get some more healing herbs,’ Augus said, then glared at him. ‘Don’t destroy my home.’

Gwyn shook his head, like he wouldn’t even dream of it. Augus felt like laughing.

Don’t hurt Ash.’

Gwyn looked over to Ash and then shook his head once more. He looked back at Augus like he was just being insulting now.

‘You can look at me like that, but twenty four hours ago you’d spent two days screaming non-stop like a child. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t think your judgement is as up to par as you think it is.’

The eventual nod that Gwyn gave him was considered. Augus had the feeling that a bright mind lurked behind all that fear and trauma and lack of trust. He wondered what he might be like to talk to. What his voice sounded like beyond that single rasp of his name.

*

He spent most of the morning outdoors, harvesting and visiting small stands of herbs, moss, even climbing trees several times to scrape rare lichens and fungi off their branches, sending small bursts of warm, growing glamour to everything he visited. Ethallas forgave what he took, because he never took more than could be safely grown back before he visited again.

Back at the lake shore, he sorted everything he’d gathered. He paused when he heard the unmistakeable sound of hooves, then froze when he realised he wouldn’t have enough time to sort everything and pack it away and disappear without a ripple into his lake.

Instead, he looked up expectantly – the cantering heading directly towards him.

A fae on a white horse appeared between the trees, circling into the clearing around the lake. A common fae on a white, well-bred horse. The horse itself was immaculately groomed, the saddle newly polished, the reins embroidered with a pale yellow and blue. An Fnwy colours; Augus would know them anywhere. He’d seen enough torn pennants left behind after their hunts.

But it was the man that drew Augus’ attention. The resemblance between he and the creature that currently lived in his house was uncanny. Where Gwyn was paleness – almost an albino with blue eyes – this one looked like the golden, tanned version. The same rich curls in his hair, his eyes a deep, ocean blue. He grinned to see Augus crouched on the ground, and gave a desultory sweep of the herbs with his eyes before turning his horse to the side. He didn’t dismount, but looked around curiously.

‘Greetings to you, friend underfae. I’m Efnisien ap Wledig, of the An Fnwy estate near here. I must say, I wasn’t aware of any Unseelie waterhorses living so close to my Aunt’s estate!’

‘I keep to myself, primarily, Lord,’ Augus said, bristling at using the correct honorific, even as his mind raced. Gwyn was related to the An Fnwy estate – to Crielle and Lludd possibly? But how? Was he a brother to Efnisien? Son of the other two that lived there? He wasn’t aware of any children; but he didn’t particularly keep up with formal matters. Those sorts of politics were far above him, and he found it all profoundly uninteresting.

‘And so,’ Efnisien acknowledged. ‘You likely won’t be much help to me, I’m afraid!’

‘I’m not sure what help I could offer one such as yourself, either way, my Lord,’ Augus said.

Unless you want to experience my rack or whip.

‘We’re most upset at the estate, you see,’ Efnisien said, looking over his shoulder, as though he could see it. ‘My cousin has escaped.’

‘Escaped?’ Augus said, letting his eyebrows rise, a dash of confusion enter his face.

‘It’s a complicated situation,’ Efnisien acknowledged, sighing melodramatically. Augus couldn’t stand him already. He already knew this was the torturer. Or one of them. Was it the whole family? He saw a coiled whip attached to one of the saddle-bags, and from the make of it, knew it wasn’t intended for a horse.

‘I stay out of such affairs, my Lord. Seelie and the upper classes are obviously beyond one such as I.’

Efnisien wasn’t buying it. He leaned forwards, smirked.

‘Interesting scent you have,’ he said. ‘Like…the freshest of spring-water. Quite lovely. I think I scented it where my cousin was last seen, did you know? You see, he is not quite in his right mind, and he regularly escapes. We trap him, take him home, make sure he gets the best medical care. He is quite beyond us. Cursed you see. But someone might feel sorry for him, if they didn’t understand the situation.’

A cousin to Efnisien, which means a son to Crielle and Lludd. Rejected – why? Truly cursed? No. There are no signs of a curse, only unending trauma.

His skin prickled unpleasantly underneath that calculating gaze. He did not need the attention of the An Fnwy estate in any capacity.

‘You haven’t seen him, have you?’ Efnisien said, and Augus smiled.

‘I think I would have known if I’d seen another such as you! No, Lord, I keep to myself, as I said. Aside from other of the lowborn wights in this forest, I keep in touch with no one except my clients.’

‘Yes,’ Efnisien said slowly. ‘The Each Uisge, am I correct? Why, everyone has heard of you.’

‘I doubt that. You didn’t even know I was here.’

Efnisien was lovely in a way, Augus decided. His skin golden, his nails perfectly manicured. He had thick lashes and a somewhat jovial air about him. If Ash had turned out to lack all compassion, he may have had an attitude like his. That was all the more worrying. Ash’s darkness ran deep, and he suspected the same could be said for this one – no matter how Seelie he was.

Augus almost opened his mouth to ask why Efnisien didn’t just spell Gwyn to stay within the walls of the An Fnwy estate, but his heart skipped a slow beat.

The constant escapes likely spoke of a torturer who enjoyed the chase. The An Fnwy estate were known for their hunts. Known for them. Augus made himself scarce whenever he knew one was approaching.

And here was Efnisien, on a horse, looking like he had enough equipment to run someone down. To go after someone who was injured and limping, bring them to the ground on horseback, with a whip and whatever else he had in that saddlebag.

Efnisien breathed in deeply, and then made a faint sound in the back of his throat, looking pleased.

‘He has a particular scent,’ Efnisien said, smiling slowly, showing perfect white teeth and dark blue eyes twinkling. His dra’ocht was a strange thing, charming and hostile all at once. ‘How fascinating. I thought I caught a bit of it, just then. Must be…that he passed through here.’

‘Must be, my Lord,’ Augus said, expression remaining indifferent.

‘Then I’ll be on my way. Can’t have my cousin lost in the woods now, can I? Poor thing. You know how curses are.’

‘I’ve never had the misfortune, I’m afraid.’

Efnisien’s smile briefly widened, and then he nudged his heels into his horse and they trotted away, Efnisien posting easily, never once looking over his shoulder.

Augus waited until he was gone before letting out a long, tense breath.

He had to get to the bottom of this mystery, and quickly.

Chapter Text

The Mage paced the steps of Augus’ foyer, frowning.

‘This is already very well warded,’ the Mage said finally. He was a tall, stiff creature whose eyes were black and compound beneath his eyelids. His dragonfly wings fluttered every now and then, stirring a breeze. He wasn’t a dragonfly shapeshifter, but one of the rare bro’das, keeper of insects and flight. In particular, however, he was the best Mage that Augus could source on short-notice to deal with permissions and wards in his house.

‘I need to be certain that I am protected from incursion,’ Augus said, glad that Gwyn was shut away in a soundproofed room for now.

It wasn’t hard to do. Gwyn hadn’t actually seemed to want to leave the bedroom once he’d been given it. Perhaps he was afraid it would disappear. Augus hadn’t mentioned his encounter to Efnisien to either of them, just yet. First things first – best to make sure the permissions were An Fnwy proof before he did anything else.

‘I also want the option to eject unwanted or unwelcome fae from my territory, should they arrive. It is not enough that they cannot come in without my permission. I need to know they will not be hovering in my foyer or on my porch to ambush me.’

The Mage’s eyes glittered curiously, but he didn’t press. Mages were paid for confidentiality as much as their magic. Eventually he smoothed hands down his blue motley and paced the boundaries again.

‘It’s sophisticated magic. I may need half a day to set it. I can lock it to a stone or other charm that is keyed to your energy signature. That way, instead of telling me who you wish ejected from the boundary, you can squeeze the stone and will it yourself.’

‘Is it permanent?’

‘In a sense. To reverse it, you must be the one to grant them permission to access any of your territory. I assume you don’t want them hovering above your lake either? We’ll extend a perimeter that is sensitive to incursion; if you can afford that. And then we’ll make sure that anyone who is not welcome, cannot cross into your territory at all.’

‘That would be very welcome,’ Augus said. It was better than he’d hoped. He had a terrible image of Efnisien turning up on his doorstep and just not leaving.

After all, Augus welcomed newcomers to his home – those in need – and so he had an unusually open home territory, especially for an underfae. All fae were welcome to turn up on his doorstep, just as he was welcome to turn them away.

But for Court fae beloved of the Oak King, he wanted more oomph. Thankfully, years of seeing high profile clients and keeping their secrets for them, had put him in a financially advantageous position. Even so…

Mages were expensive. This consultation alone had cost several uncut gems. None of that would count towards the magic itself.

Augus questioned his own sanity as he’d looked through a list of Master Mages he’d acquired. What was he doing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just turn Gwyn loose and never think of him again?

But he was fascinated by recent events; and – it occurred to him – it might be good to have this sort of perimeter magic set up anyway. Just because unwanted guests hadn’t often crossed his path in the past, didn’t mean they wouldn’t in the future.

‘Let’s negotiate the finer details, as well as price, inside,’ the Mage said finally, and Augus nodded. ‘Do not worry yourself. Despite the sophistication of the magic required, you have paid for good Magecraft in the past, and that makes it much easier to build upon. Nothing but the best, yes?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, inviting the Mage into his home and wondering how much he’d have by way of funding after all of this was done.

Ah, well, it isn’t as though you were using the wealth for anything else.

*

In the end, it didn’t cost quite as much as Augus had dreaded, but it still blew a hole into his savings – the biggest expense he’d paid for since the first wards had been placed down years and years ago. He could never quite parse the extortionate prices that Mages charged for their services. He knew they trained hard, he did, but it seemed that a long time ago they’d just started charging prices that exclusively suited the wealthy upper classes of fae, and never negotiated their prices down for those of lower status.

While the Mage worked his magic, Augus walked down the corridor to Gwyn’s room. Ash was in his own room – the one Augus kept for him – sleeping off what had actually been a rough few weeks before he’d even arrived, further compounded by stumbling across Gwyn and offering so much of his help. He’d never admit it, but it could tire him to use so much glamour at once, so consistently. Even now – as he slept – the house felt a little colder without it.

Augus knocked quietly on the door before entering. He’d learned that Gwyn preferred it. They needed to have a talk, and he suspected it wasn’t going to be a pleasant one.

He entered and Gwyn was already sitting – no longer naked, but wearing a plain navy t-shirt that Ash had stolen from the human world, and a pair of jeans that sat loose on his narrow waist. His hair was still a mess, and Augus planned on combing out what he could soon. Very soon.

Augus pulled up a chair and sat facing him, sighing.

‘As we speak, there is a Mage outside, making sure that your family can’t incur upon my territory.’

Gwyn’s eyes shot open. The fearful response that Augus expected came, and he watched with disinterest as Gwyn scrambled off the bed to the opposite side of the room, staring at Augus, mouth already open as he fought to catch his panicked breaths.

‘Take a moment,’ Augus said sternly. ‘And realise that I just said we are using Magecraft to keep your family away.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said hoarsely.

Augus leaned forwards, eyes widening. His voice was low, deep, something that could have been strident and commanding in other circumstances.

‘No? Do you want them here?’

‘No!’ Gwyn said, shaking his head rapidly.

‘Then be clearer, please,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s face scrunched up. After a moment he stared at the floor, and Augus realised he was concentrating hard. How long had it been since he’d spoken complete sentences?

‘I-’ Gwyn began. Augus knew Ash would be upset that he wasn’t here to see this particular breakthrough. ‘I- They- They know?’

‘That you’re here?’ Augus said.

Gwyn nodded quickly.

‘Yes. Unfortunately. It wasn’t by design, trust me. I went aboveground yesterday, and Efnisien was looking for you. I think I left rather more of a scent trail than I was aware, when I removed the trap from your ankle.’

Gwyn blanched, his skin turned greyish. He sagged against the wall, stared up through the ceiling as though he could see through the length of the lake to where Efnisien might be. He was holding his breath, or breathing so shallowly that his chest was no longer moving. The fear was piquant. It stirred something in Augus’ gut, and a low, hungry, predatory instinct roused inside of him.

‘No,’ Gwyn said again, voice weak. He closed his eyes, sagged further. Augus was struck by the strange impulse to assist him, to see him back to the bed and tell him that it was going to be okay. Instead he crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in the chair.

‘It’s happened,’ Augus said brusquely. ‘I’m taking steps to ensure your safety. And I think I’ve learned some things about you, Gwyn…ap Nudd?’

Gwyn didn’t even try to make it back to the bed. At that point he simply sank to the floor, and all Augus could see of his head was the top of it. He stood up and walked around, facing Gwyn on the floor. Gwyn tried to make himself as small as possible.

‘Son of Crielle and Lludd, heir to the An Fnwy estate?’

Gwyn shook his head. He moaned low in his throat.

Augus crouched, then knelt, moving forwards until he was close enough to Gwyn that – if this had happened several days ago – he would have been scared for his own safety.

‘Are you under a curse?’

Gwyn shook his head.

‘But you are somehow maligned by them, aren’t you?’

He nodded, then started shaking.

‘Don’t send me back,’ Gwyn said, and Augus was surprised to hear a complete sentence. But the words themselves made him exasperated.

‘Gwyn, I am currently spending an inordinate amount to make sure you don’t have to go back. Do you understand that?’

Gwyn glared at him with suspicion.

‘Why?’

‘Boredom,’ Augus shrugged again. He had no lofty reasons for it. And those reasons he did have beyond boredom, he suspected Gwyn didn’t want to hear very much.

Because I want to see what you become when you’re not being treated like an animal. Because you intrigue me.

‘He won’t kill you, will he?’ Augus said quietly. ‘You’re not afraid of that. He comes after you, over and over again. He was going after you before. And they let him. He said he takes you back to the An Fnwy estate, is that true?’

Gwyn shook his head.

‘Not…anymore,’ Gwyn said, blinking at him.

‘But Crielle and Lludd know this is happening?’

Gwyn hesitated, then nodded.

‘And for how long has this been going on?’

‘I was…s-seventeen,’ Gwyn said, wincing.

Augus stared at him. Gwyn had to be an adult now, and he was only a child then – which meant…two centuries? No, that couldn’t be right. Surely that wasn’t right. And why? Why would they turn him out like that? But it would explain his feral nature.

‘How did you survive?’ Augus asked, and Gwyn shivered.

Augus reached out and placed a palm on Gwyn’s shoulder, rode out the full-body flinch that followed.

‘How?’ Augus persisted, and Gwyn shrugged.

‘Escaped. Ran. Ate. Hid. Covered tracks. Was also…a hunter, once.’

Gwyn hunched on himself a little more.

‘Sometimes…help.’

‘You’ve had help before?’ Augus said. Though he wasn’t surprised. Surely he wasn’t the only one to find the wild fae of obvious Court status intriguing. ‘And?’

‘Sometimes…bad,’ Gwyn said, looking up. ‘Bad fae. Ransomed back. Or…if good, he- They- Are killed.’

They are killed.

Augus grimaced, suddenly grateful for the Mage fixing the boundaries of his property. He knew the An Fnwy could afford their own Mages, but there was a Code of Honour amongst Mages that might protect him. The Mage he’d hired couldn’t undo his own work unless Augus willed it, no matter how much someone else paid him. And another Mage couldn’t take down the barrier once erected, because he’d sought out the best. He was very grateful that he had.

‘Why are you still in this godforsaken forest?’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘Why didn’t you get away? Go beyond the bounds?’

Gwyn shook his head, then shook it again.

Gwyn.’

Gwyn’s breathing hitched.

‘He tells me to…stay,’ Gwyn said, voice weak.

Augus pursed his lips. A lot of conditioning then. There was no telling what Gwyn might do if he encountered Efnisien again. He might even go back, for all that he was physically strong and could fight back. Augus stroked Gwyn’s skin with his thumb, and Gwyn didn’t appear to react to that at all, so he kept doing it.

He kept slowly stroking Gwyn’s shoulder, and after a few minutes, Gwyn leaned into the touch. Not much, another person may not have noticed. But Augus noticed. He squeezed Gwyn’s shoulder and sighed.

‘Why,’ Gwyn said, quietly. ‘You think…you can save me?’

‘No,’ Augus said, and Gwyn looked at him, sceptical. ‘No, that’s not why. You’re intriguing. A wild thing. I like wild things. And they abandoned you, worse than abandoned you. Maybe you were a wild thing even before you lived alone in a forest.’

Gwyn’s eyes widened, as though Augus had just seen something that others hadn’t.

‘They had a reason for turning you out, for maligning you, didn’t they?’

Gwyn nodded, then winced, as though Augus would malign him too.

‘Ah, you forget, I’m Unseelie. Whatever they don’t like, is likely to work in my favour.’

‘Is it?’ Gwyn said.

Then he looked around the room and finally, tried to look at the hand on his shoulder.

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘And you? What secrets do you harbour?’

‘I was made wrong,’ Gwyn said, and then laughed in a way that reminded Augus of people who were shattered. He’d met enough of them after all. ‘I was made like you.’

Augus’ eyes narrowed in what could have been offence. But the words were strange, and Gwyn had gone terribly still, like he had just said something very significant. But the realisation was elusive.

I was made wrong. I was made like you. Augus’ eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.

‘Unseelie,’ Augus said, staring at him.

Gwyn didn’t answer.

Didn’t nod or shake his head.

And no matter what Augus tried after that, Gwyn refused to respond at all.

*

Ash got up well after the Mage had left and been paid. Augus watched as he walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge powered by magic, and rummaged around until he found some fresh strawberries, munching into them – leaves and all. He walked over and joined Augus on the couch, looking at him curiously.

‘You don’t look happy,’ Ash said, and Augus nodded slowly. He felt dazed. If he hadn’t misinterpreted what Gwyn had meant, what he had said, then…it explained a lot. And yet didn’t, at the same time.

‘I think Gwyn’s Unseelie,’ Augus said, keeping his voice hushed.

‘What?’ Ash said, fumbling his strawberry and grabbing at it before it rolled off the couch completely. ‘I’m sorry, what? He feels Seelie.’

‘I think it’s a spell,’ Augus said. ‘He has a scar on his back. Just the one. If it was left by a magical means, then…’

‘Wait, I feel like I’m missing something here.’

‘You are,’ Augus said tiredly. He ran two hands through his hair, settled it on his shoulders, and then squared them. ‘Efnisien ap Wledig came to visit when I went aboveground to fetch some more herbs for Gwyn. You know the one – nephew of Crielle ferch Fnwy, belongs to that estate. Said he was looking for an escaped, cursed cousin. And strongly indicated that he knew that we had him. At which point I hired a Mage and got the boundaries and perimeters seen to. I’m not quite a pauper, but I may need to borrow some-’

‘Yeah, whatever, it’s yours. God knows you gave me all my start-ups in the first place. You’re the only reason I have any money human-side anyway. Okay, so, okay,’ Ash said, nodding like he didn’t really understand. ‘Keep going.’

‘I told Gwyn, to warn him, and-’

‘He panicked?’

‘Not exactly. He spoke.’

‘I swear to god, when I fucking sleep, I miss everything.’

‘I rather think you do,’ Augus said, smirking. ‘But, at any rate, he made it clear that he’s been…on the run from them for some time. Hundreds of years possibly. Since he was very young. He’s been taken in by other fae, some have ransomed him back. Which explains his reaction to me mentioning it. But in addition, when I asked him what secrets he harboured, he said he was made wrong. Like me. And when I asked if he meant…he was Unseelie, he has – he’s been unresponsive since.’

‘Maybe you got it wrong then,’ Ash said, scratching at his head.

‘I doubt it,’ Augus said. ‘It would explain why he has been so maligned, and also why they have not permitted him…to leave, in a way. I don’t understand why they won’t just kill him. But I suspect perhaps Efnisien’s predilections have something to do with that. He clearly enjoys torture.’

‘Yeah, but…what about those old laws? The accord that the Seelie and Unseelie came to? Aren’t they supposed to adopt him out to the Unseelie Kingdom? Find him an Unseelie family? Or are they all Unseelie and hiding it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Augus said. ‘I just don’t know.’

‘Fuck,’ Ash said.

‘Quite.’

They stared at each other in silence, and then Ash went back to silently munching on the strawberries, lost in thought. Augus felt rather the same, and he found his thoughts drifting back to what it felt like to be so close to Gwyn. To touch his warm shoulder. To smell the scent of carbon burning, the aftermath of a lightning strike and wonder about him.

*

They both entered Gwyn’s room that evening, when it became obvious he wasn’t going to leave it. Ash had gone back to the human world and come back with watertight bags of synthetic food – all Augus could smell was plastics and chemicals and he didn’t understand the crinkly packets or why Ash seemed so happy about everything he had. Still, Augus didn’t criticise, because Ash returned with gold bullion and pearls – most of his investments in the human world were in items that could easily be taken back to the fae world and bartered.

Gwyn didn’t take the food from Ash when he entered. He was still crouched in exactly the same space that he’d been in hours before.

Ash looked over at Augus, and Augus shrugged, deciding to sit this one out. Generally, when Ash was in the room, he was far better at getting Gwyn to relax. Augus seemed to be the one who always brought bad news with him.

Ash moved over to Gwyn, crouching beside him, and Augus sat and watched them both, curious at the way Ash was so deft with his glamour.

‘Easy,’ Ash said. ‘Be easy, okay? It’s going to be okay. You’re doing great, you’re doing really well.’

Gwyn said nothing, didn’t react.

‘I know it’s scary,’ Ash persisted. ‘But you’re going to be safe here. Augus has made sure of it. And I know you might not want us to know certain things about you, but-’

‘I have put your lives in danger,’ Gwyn said, the words stilted, like he still wasn’t quite sure of sentences. Ash froze. A moment later he slid his eyes to Augus.

‘You weren’t joking,’ Ash said, and Augus smiled faintly. Ash turned back to Gwyn.

‘Okay, no, it’s not that simple, Gwyn. Augus was pretty sure when he got you out of that trap, that he was putting his own life in danger. Okay? That’s on my brother, and he knows that. We’ve protected the lake with high-end Magecraft.’

‘I should go,’ Gwyn said, making no move to leave.

‘You’re being an idiot,’ Augus said, and they both looked over to him. Gwyn looked surprised, and Ash had a look of dismay on his face.

‘Augus-’

‘No, Ash. Gwyn, what did I tell you earlier? I’ve just put up a high quality Mage barrier around my territory.’

‘You should have told me about your- my cous- the…visitor before- Before.’

‘How dreadfully self-serving of you,’ Augus said, standing up and sneering. ‘As though you haven’t been tortured within an inch of your life on a regular basis.’

Gwyn flinched away from the both of them, and then scooted along the wall until he was between a dresser and the corner of the wall itself. Augus stood and advanced upon him, overcome with a strange impulse to prod. Things he knew about Gwyn: he was proud, Court status, he came from a good family but he had no perception of himself as good, and he was – apparently sometimes – intelligent.

Ash stared at him.

‘Augus, I think you should-’

‘Are you Unseelie?’ Augus said, standing next to Ash and folding his arms.

Gwyn stared at him, pupils dilating enough that Augus had his answer. He grimaced.

‘Is anyone else at the An Fnwy estate Unseelie?’

Gwyn shook his head after a long hesitation.

An Unseelie fae turned out by Seelie fae. Long-term torture, perhaps they did always plan to kill him. Is he even in the registry? Or did they keep him a secret? And if not, how do they explain him to others?

‘Shit,’ Ash said, running a hand through his hair. ‘Augus, we have to take him to the Unseelie Court. If there’s this whole…shitstorm going on that no one knows about; that family have broken the fucking old laws. They’ve…I dunno, there might not be any consequences Seelie-side for their actions, but you know the Raven Prince wouldn’t stand for something like this. It could be pretty helpful? I mean, if you’re concerned enough to Mage-proof the barriers of your home, maybe we should have… I mean you’ve met him right? The King? You could get an audience with him?’

‘Perhaps,’ Augus mused. He met Gwyn’s eyes. ‘Do you have a spell upon you that makes people sense you as Seelie?’

Gwyn shuddered, and then ducked his head behind his pulled up knees and nodded.

‘The Raven Prince is wise with magic,’ Augus said, and then sat down on the bed and tucked his legs underneath himself. ‘I think it may be our only option. We cannot…live in such proximity to the An Fnwy estate and not expect some form of retaliation. Even if the barrier stays intact, they will not permit this secret to be known.’

‘So we blow it open,’ Ash said, crouching down to Gwyn’s level. ‘I know that’s scary, buddy. I do. Right? I can see you shaking from here. Maybe we should’ve waited like…a week or two before bringing all this up. By law though, by the oldest laws, you have a place in our- Jesus, I can’t really believe I’m saying this – but you have a place in our Court. And your parents, no matter…what happened between you all…they did the wrong thing by not fostering you out.’

‘No,’ Gwyn whispered, shaking his head.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, lowering his voice too.

‘No,’ Gwyn said, voice breaking. ‘I am- I am lucky that they let me live. I have…disgraced them.’

‘You are a product of torture and conditioning,’ Augus said, and after a few long seconds, Gwyn looked up at him with bright, hurt eyes. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying.’

‘That’s nice and invalidating of you, bro,’ Ash said, and Augus shrugged.

‘As to the Raven Prince – we’ll need to present Gwyn. He’s in no fit state to travel. And I doubt the Raven Prince would come here.’

‘Could you at least like…tell him?’

‘Perhaps.’

Augus found the Raven Prince quite intimidating, overall. He would rather have Gwyn be in a position of at least being able to communicate more clearly – though…that could take weeks, or months, and they might not have that sort of time at their disposal.

‘I’ll request an audience,’ Augus said finally. He cleared his throat and Gwyn looked at him once more. ‘But not without your approval. And if you are to stay here, or live here, the earlier rules of before apply. You live by my rules, do you understand?’

Gwyn nodded.

‘You’re too old to be fostered into another family, if you are truly an adult – how old are you?’

Gwyn shrugged and looked between them.

‘I lost count. Two hundred and…something. I used to – mark the Solstice. But not…not for a long time.’

‘Are you in the Seelie registry?’ Ash said, muted.

‘The what?’

‘Right,’ Ash said, laughing bitterly. ‘Probably not though. Or if he is…maybe as someone deceased. I dunno, Augus. He’s fragile, I mean look at-’

‘Gwyn, I think, is actually quite resilient,’ Augus said, watching his quarry with a calculating gaze. ‘Torturers find no sport in breaking the broken. And you fought me.’

Gwyn’s eyes went wide at Augus’ words.

‘Fragile? Yes, of course. But resilient. And I think we do need to ‘blow this open,’ as you say, Ash. That family is hiding behind a great deal of wrongdoing. They cannot go after him without breaking further laws, once this is exposed. It doesn’t matter what status they are. If being Seelie wasn’t enough to stop them; then clearly nothing is. Though it may mean that the spell you are under will need to be lifted.’

Gwyn shuddered again, averted his eyes.

‘What do you eat?’ Augus said, eyes widening. ‘What is your true appetite?’

Gwyn shook his head.

‘Whatever…whatever you like…it’s fine.’

‘No, Gwyn. What do you eat? Humans? Fae? Feelings? What?’

‘Food,’ Gwyn said in confusion, looking up. ‘I just eat...what everyone else eats. Everyone…what they- what… Why?’

Ash made a small sound in the back of his throat.

‘Can a Court status fae survive without feeding their true appetite?’

‘I don’t know,’ Augus said. ‘Perhaps we have the evidence of that in front of us.’

After that, the conversation petered to a halt. Gwyn wasn’t forthcoming on any other subject, not even to the point of shaking or nodding his head. Communication was obviously something he could only manage in small bursts, and – Augus thought – perhaps he’d learned early on that talking was only a way to fast-track more torment.

In the end, Ash opened several things that he called ‘chip packets’ and started munching on the contents – handing each of the packets over to Gwyn once he’d had a few.

Augus left them both sitting on the floor, eating together. He wondered if he could truly gain an audience with the Raven Prince.

*

After that conversation, and a night of rest for all of them – though he suspected that Ash was the only one who truly slept – Gwyn seemed to regress overnight. He no longer spoke, and he only nodded and shook his head on the rarest of occasions.

Augus didn’t push him. Healing never ran in a straight line, and who knew what was going through the fae’s head? He was likely terrified that Efnisien might turn up at any moment, and suspicious of all that had come into his life that didn’t seem to harm him immediately.

Later that day, when Ash had left to fetch more food for Gwyn, Augus walked into the bedroom with a comb and some oiled spray for Gwyn’s hair. He found Gwyn curled up on the covers of his bed, eyes open, fingers tapping absently on the sheets. His eyes marked Augus’ entry, went to the comb, and then he grimaced.

‘Ah, yes, it’s that time. We’ve left it far too long, I’m afraid.’

Gwyn – predictably – said nothing. Augus continued as usual. He simply got onto the bed behind Gwyn and sat, cross legged, pressing his hand to Gwyn’s head and marking the flinch.

‘This may tug,’ Augus said. ‘And it may hurt somewhat; but it will be nothing like what you are used to. I’m going to try and avoid the need for scissors, do you understand?’

No response, but Augus supposed that he wasn’t being attacked, and Gwyn hadn’t slid away or any of those things, which likely meant it was fine.

He started carefully. One hand curved around his scalp, thumb and index finger holding a section of hair still while he worked at it from the tips to the roots with the comb. He kept the motions gentle but thorough, teasing apart the remnants of matts and noting the hair that broke away and fell to the bed as he went. After a few minutes of taut tension from Gwyn, he sagged into the bed, and Augus hummed softly in approval.

Gwyn made a faint sound in response, and Augus pursed his lips and continued.

After a moment, he firmly stroked the back of Gwyn’s neck, as though he was brushing away hair. Gwyn flinched, but otherwise stayed relatively relaxed. He repeated the motion, and Gwyn exhaled slowly – as though letting go of a breath he’d been holding.

‘Good,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Very good.’

Gwyn stilled at that, as though he’d been caught out, and Augus simply went back to the slow, laboured process of de-matting his hair without shearing the pale blond hair from his head entirely. There were particularly stubborn places which were matted through thickly with dried blood – yet there were no scars beneath; no signs of head wounds. Technically, Efnisien could have cracked his skull open over and over again, and Gwyn would always have healed.

Augus bit down gently on his tongue and kept working, occasionally moving his hand down to smear away non-existent pieces of hair from Gwyn’s neck, keeping up a steady flow of touch amongst the movements.

‘I know Ash would prefer it if you kept speaking to us,’ Augus said, when he realised he was approaching the end of the task, and Gwyn’s shoulders were rising and falling on slower breaths. ‘But you do not have to speak or communicate to us – you are under no obligation. You must remember, however, that if you are not communicating with us – we cannot read your mind. We may – without your offers of clarity – misread situations. Also, after this, you should likely shower. I suspect your ankle and wrists are healed well enough that it won’t present a problem for you. I’m not sure if you know, but there’s an adjoining shower in this guest-room, behind the closed door by the armchair.’

Gwyn didn’t respond, but Augus knew he was listening. Soaked far more up than he reflected back to the world around him.

At the end, he let his palm linger on the back of Gwyn’s neck, and made it clear that the touch had nothing to do with his hair now. Gwyn’s skin was hot, radiated heat into his lukewarm palm, and otherwise, Gwyn stayed still. He didn’t shake, didn’t move into the touch, didn’t move away from it.

Augus’ eyes narrowed.

What on earth are you doing, anyway? He’s not a client.

Augus swallowed and removed his hand.

He was at the door when Gwyn cleared his throat.

‘You said…it was boredom,’ Gwyn said, his voice rough. ‘What happens when you are bored of me?’

Augus paused, his hand on the doorway. He turned back and met Gwyn’s gaze, reasons and words floating through his head. That he didn’t think he was likely to get bored, that it wasn’t that simple, that he’d taken on a responsibility and he planned on seeing it through. It was a reasonable question, and Augus wasn’t sure he had a reasonable answer.

‘What do you think will happen?’ Augus said, finally.

‘Sell me back,’ Gwyn said. ‘They always pay.’

‘I bet they do,’ Augus said, shaking his head. ‘It’s about time they learned that they can’t simply buy their way out of any situation they don’t like. I’m not going to sell you back.’

‘You will make me leave, then,’ Gwyn said.

‘Ash would kill me.’ Augus smiled. ‘Even if you drove me up the wall, he wouldn’t allow it.’

‘You…listen to him?’ Gwyn said, sceptical.

‘He’s my brother.’ Augus leaned against the doorway and wondered about these conversations Gwyn seemed willing to have with him. With Ash, he was often a lot less vocal. Yet it was clear he was far less afraid of Ash. Augus admitted his hair looked a lot better, if a little uneven. It was frizzed from the combing, but already starting to settle into the same rich curls that Efnisien sported. The resemblance was even more undeniable now.

‘You…chained me up,’ Gwyn said, something hardening in his gaze. ‘You have chains.’

‘Are you asking if I’m a torturer?’ Augus drawled.

‘Are you?’

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘But I doubt you’ll understand my line of work. If you’re truly interested, you can ask me about it. But not today.

‘Okay,’ Gwyn said, his own eyes narrowed. ‘Tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow,’ Augus said, ‘I am going to see if I can gain an audience with the Raven Prince. But if that does not take all day, and I am not too tired, then yes. Tomorrow.’

‘Okay,’ Gwyn said, nodding once.

Augus shook his head as he closed his door behind him.

He’s pushy for someone who spends most of his time as a mute ball of fear. Then again, he did manage to scream at the top of his lungs for two days straight. I suppose I shouldn’t be entirely surprised.

At the last minute he went to Ash’s room, instead of his own, and curled up on Ash’s bed. Gwyn wasn’t the only one overwhelmed. The Raven Prince intimidated him, and just because the King – despite choosing to go by the honorific of Prince, he was King of the Unseelie – had a soft spot for him, didn’t mean he would be received at all. Ash assumed Augus had a magical line to the Raven Prince – but Augus had refused all his overtures to increase his status and spend more time at the Court…

He wasn’t sure how he would be received.

Chapter Text

Augus chose his finest clothing, cut to flatter his figure, refining his appearance. There were water-wicking black pants, knee-high black boots that would not be spoiled by water, and had vents cut into the soles to allow water to seep from them. He chose a deep green, long-sleeved shirt, and wore no jewellery.

The Unseelie Court was an intimidating place. Underfae had to be granted permission to enter, and he wasn’t even certain he’d get an audience with the Raven Prince who, despite having the lesser title as his name, was the true King of the Unseelie Kingdom.

Augus had been invited to the Unseelie Court by a Court status fae some time ago. He knew firsthand that underfae weren’t particularly welcome. The Raven Prince had taken notice of him, offered to make him Court status from, Augus concluded, his appearance and demeanour alone.

Augus had refused him, discomfited, sure of his rejection from the Court. He’d been surprised when a second invitation to the Court came, and then another. He’d disdained the Courtiers and their ways his entire life, and knowing that there was pressure for him to accept a higher status never sat well with him.

But the invitations had stopped two years ago. Perhaps he’d slighted the Raven Prince one too many times. Truthfully, standing before him and apologising for not accepting an offer for higher status, still sent prickles of dread through his body. The Raven Prince carried a cold glamour around him, pushed an eldritch, destabilising energy onto anyone around him. Or, Augus considered, perhaps the Raven Prince only did that to him.

He would have to teleport to the Unseelie Court and was lucky he was powerful enough to manage it. Not all underfae could teleport, and he would be exhausted on the return journey. But his schedule was thankfully clear for the next week, he could afford to rest.

Turning to water in his lake took some effort, and he teleported through to the lake situated in the Gwylwyr Du, the outer barrier to the Unseelie Court forested in large, black trees. The trees were stern sentinels that lived under the cover of a constant night sky, all manner of poisonous creatures lurking within. A bite from a tiny centipede could kill him in a moment, yet Augus had to do this. He could not keep Gwyn ensconced in his home and expect there to be no consequences. More than that – Augus needed the freedom to forage. And he needed the freedom to mean not worrying that Efnisien would put a knife in his back, at best, when he least expected it.

Silent guards wearing mail and spider-silk, holding long spears, ringed the lake of the Gwylwyr Du when Augus arrived. He pushed himself out of the lake, shook droplets off his shirt, feeling water pool beneath his feet. Augus looked at them all, shaking water off his hands, then squeezed the excess out of his hair and settled it at his back.

The magic of the Unseelie Court stretched thick around him. A night sky enchanted to never show the sun, a sense of welcome for the creatures of the dark, those who had feral and foul appetites. It wrapped around him, encouraged him to walk towards the pale blue, crushed gravel stones of the central path through the Gwylwyr Du.

The guards left him alone, but Augus marked their gazes on his back as he walked. His boots crunched into the gravel – there was no chance of a silent approach here. In front of him, giant, double wrought-iron gates were embedded into a wall that soared almost as high as the trees themselves, constructed of a forbidding, dark grey stone. Beyond the wrought iron gates was a hillock with a stately tree upon it, an illusion.

Despite having been here before, despite knowing he would affect confidence when the time was right, the place set his skin to crawling. Augus was not a magical creature, and when the magic of a place was strong enough to affect even he, it became intimidating.

Guards stood at the imposing gates, and Augus bowed slightly, met the eyes of the one standing – weaponless – in the centre.

‘Greetings, to you. I am Augus Each Uisge, and I wish to request audience with His Majesty, the Raven Prince, if I may, regarding grave matters concerning the Unseelie and Seelie Kingdoms both.’

The Guard stood motionless for some time, and then took a string of crystals out of his pocket, holding them in his palm and closing his eyes. When he opened his eyes, he looked up at Augus with a glittering, hard gaze.

‘You are lucky, Each Uisge, that the Raven Prince includes you on a small list of privileged visitors; though why one such as you has been granted such privilege remains unknown to me, since it is not immediately obvious, underfae. Do not overstay your welcome.’

‘Of course,’ Augus said.

Behind the guard, the gates were drawn open – silent despite their size – and Augus stepped past the guard, ignoring the desultory gaze and walking into the Unseelie Court itself. The hillock and its tree vanished, a palace replacing it. The palace was impossibly tall, held together with magic rather than any feat of engineering. Spindly turrets twisted high towards the constellations. Augus looked up at them. Rumour went that the Raven Prince kept his rooms in one of the tallest turrets, but no one was sure what his rooms looked like, for the Raven Prince was so fiercely private.

Augus walked a stone pathway towards the throne room. Guards stood facing each other, at opposite sides of the path. Occasionally, Outer Court and Court fae dressed in the fashions of the time – feathers, animal skins, dark colours – passed him in both directions. Unlike Gwyn, they exuded their glamour, covering everyone in it. These were the Courtiers who were frequently seeking even higher statuses, visiting the Court to gain favour with the King, to position themselves well for present and possibly even future reigns.

It was difficult to maintain his calm, confident façade that he took into the Court. Some of the Courtiers recognised him. He even spotted one Unseelie fae who had been a client in the past. None of them spoke to him. There were those who had learned that he had some strange favour with the Raven Prince, and where they had tried to seek him for his attentions in the past, now many had become jealous, even spiteful.

Yet all of that was stripped away if they came to visit him as a client. He would never understand Courtiers, for all that the Raven Prince surrounded himself with them.

He was quickly intercepted at the entrance to the throne room by a servant, and taken into an antechamber filled with fragile-looking chairs, a table that shouldn’t have been able to balance on its delicate, wiry legs. All of it would hold his weight and the weight of much more, magicked to be strong and unyielding, despite its appearance. He didn’t sit on any of the chairs, but instead stood quietly near the table, arms behind him, hands clasped together.

His heart pounded a heavy, nauseating beat.

He settled himself, withdrew into the steady, constant stillness in his mind. He wasn’t sure how other fae worked, but living for so long in his lake, which was prone to stillness when the waves weren’t rippling it had given him a wealth internal resources to pull upon. In a matter of minutes, his breathing calmed, he felt focused, quiet, capable. A natural, neutral smirk graced his lips, his fingers relaxed where he’d previously been grasping them.

An hour later, Augus glad for the quiet in his own mind, the Raven Prince entered without any accompaniment.

Augus went down to one knee, bowing immediately.

‘Your Majesty, gramercie, for seeing me without an invitation.’

‘You have an open invitation, Each Uisge. Or, do you still prefer Augus? Please, stand.’

Augus stood fluidly, taking in the King of the Unseelie realm. He was a tall creature – even taller than Augus – white and pale, as though his skin never saw the sun, which wasn’t true. He was slender, lean, nose aquiline and his large eyes were black – a raven’s eyes. His chin was pointed, jaw square, and despite the strength he carried in his face, he gave the impression of being as spindly and yet magically reinforced as the furniture in the antechamber.

He was dressed in the fashion the others tried to mimic. A floor-sweeping coat of raven’s feathers. Black leather pants, angular boots with sharp heels, a simple black shirt set off with a thin, silver chain, charms at its base.

Augus thought he was stunning, but he pushed that aside, since he doubted his thoughts on the Raven Prince’s appearance would be welcome.

The Raven Prince considered him, then spoke once more. ‘And you stated, ‘regarding matters concerning Unseelie and Seelie Kingdoms both.’ What grand words, young Augus. Are you finally going to betray a client’s confidence?’

The Raven Prince did not sit, and did not gesture for Augus to do so either. There was an odd alertness in his stance, and his eyes were unblinking, direct. Power rolled off him. At once, the Raven Prince flashed a quick, knowing smile.

‘But look, how rude I am being, young Each Uisge. Did you know, I knew your predecessors? Two of them. The Each Uisge before you was quite beastly, almost no mind to speak of. Whatever intelligence he had, he cast only towards hunting. The one before him? Intriguing. I had him in my Court for a time. You’re the only one, I believe, who has ever found the title Each Uisge inadequate enough that he needed to give himself a name.’

Augus chafed beneath the attention, the sense that there were always games being constructed around him whenever the Raven Prince was near.

‘I did not send for you,’ the Raven Prince said, his expression cold ‘and you did not come. I suspect more than simple disrespect. You do not like it here, do you?’

He was Unseelie, and lying to his King would be permitted, but Augus didn’t see the point.

‘I’m afraid I do not, Your Majesty. Though your palace is grand and the Kingdom great, and your touch upon it fine and enjoyed by all your loyal subjects.’

The Raven Prince laughed, the sound harsh, the raven cawing from within. ‘Your disdain for Courtiers is belied by the fact that you speak so sweetly. Are you keeping well? You look well.’

‘Indeed yes, Your Majesty,’ Augus said. ‘But I have found myself in a strange situation, and it is of some importance you know what that is.’

‘Then expound, if you will,’ the Raven Prince said, finally sitting on one of the chairs, one leg crossing the other, his forearm coming to rest on the table.

Augus’ lips thinned as he thought of how best to say what he had to say. ‘Your Majesty, I live in proximity to the An Fnwy estate, which is owned by Seelie fae who are well-favoured by the Seelie King. I have recently come to discover that this family – Lludd and Crielle – had a son.’

‘Gwyn ap Nudd,’ the Raven Prince said, and then smiled at Augus’ expression. ‘I am very old, Augus, and have a very, very long memory. Gwyn ap Nudd was supposed to be heir. Did he not die in an accident? Before he could be added to their Registry?’

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘And – I do not know by which magic this is possible – but he is Unseelie, and masked to feel Seelie. By his own admission, he is Unseelie.’

That wasn’t entirely correct, but it was close enough.

The Raven Prince went very still, then his fingers curled upon the table. ‘Do you mean to suggest that a Seelie family, beloved by the Oak King, had a son – supposed to be an heir – who is Unseelie, and he was not fostered into my Kingdom?’

‘I’m uncertain, Your Majesty. I have no way of proving that Gwyn is Unseelie as he says he is. My instincts say it is so, but he does read Seelie.’

The Raven Prince tilted his head, gaze going far away. After a long minute, he stared at Augus, eyes narrowing.

‘There are ways to mask an alignment, and a family as well-positioned as the An Fnwy may be able to discover and utilise them. But how interesting, for I think the Oak King must have known of this. I…find I do not like the idea that the Seelie Court has kept something that is mine, away from me. Where is this potentially Unseelie fae now?’

‘In my home,’ Augus said, smiling ruefully when the Raven Prince’s eyebrows arched curiously. ‘He has been tortured for many years, and was – unbeknownst to me until recently – running feral in the Ethallas woods. He seems bright, but is mute for the most part, due to – I believe the damage done to his psyche. I found him secured by a spelled bear trap that would open for my hands, but not for his. Efnisien – also of the An Fnwy estate, and Gwyn’s primary torturer – has already visited my lake and I believe he suspects I have Gwyn ap Nudd in my custody. I have already sought the assistance of a Mage to strengthen the boundaries.’

‘Wise,’ the Raven Prince said quietly, ‘but it will likely not be enough. I must see this creature and divine whether he is Seelie or Unseelie. But you will bring him here, into the protection of the Unseelie Court. I will offer you assistance, for a price.’

‘You mean to make Gwyn stay here, in the palace?’ Augus said, uncomfortable at the idea. He couldn’t see Gwyn doing well in an environment like this one, and they’d only managed to get him relatively comfortable with the concept of having a bed.

‘Do you question what I intend?’ the Raven Prince purred, and then held up a hand at Augus’ protest. ‘It is no matter. If he is more comfortable with you, he may stay with you, on a few conditions.’

‘Thank you for even considering offering us your assistance, Your Majesty,’ Augus said, and the Raven Prince stood, walking towards Augus, standing only a step away from him.

‘As for the matter of price, I think it’s about time you became Court status, don’t you?’

Augus stared at him, then looked away, skin prickling, crawling.

‘Your Majesty, I would rather not.’

‘Then I’m afraid I can’t help you,’ the Raven Prince said.

Augus stared at him, and the Raven Prince stared back, gaze icy. Augus blinked, thought quickly, could he become Court status for this? The Raven Prince likely would never drop him back to underfae even if he asked it. He was proud of his status, downtrodden as it frequently was. He liked that it positioned him opposite to all those higher status clients who sought his time, who debased themselves for his pleasure, and ultimately their growth.

‘Never mind, I was bluffing,’ the Raven Prince said, laughing quietly. ‘Of course I shall help. And of course you’re becoming Court status. I’m the Raven Prince, and I’ve indulged your reluctance before now, but you really do need to be a higher status to deal with beloved Court families of the Seelie King, don’t you? Augus Each Uisge, I – the Raven Prince – remove your status of underfae and hereby award you with the status of Court. There. Simple.’

The Raven Prince stepped away from him as Augus stared at him in horror, one hand moving up to his chest as a strange energy inside himself blew wide open. The room shimmered, and there, along the ground, coiled strands of green in different shades. They swirled towards him and he stepped backwards, but they came from all directions. Tiny flowers and water sedges sprung from stone where the strands touched it. The power seeped into his boots, and he made a sound of alarm at the sensation of it pushing up into his skin, as though a wellspring had been found inside of him and new water was pushing its way within.

He was going to overflow, he was going to flood. He staggered back, thumped into a wall, both his hands at his chest now. It was pleasure and panic both, and he was aware of the dispassionate gaze of the Raven Prince, watching him unmoving nearby.

‘It is as I suspected,’ the Raven Prince said minutes later, as Augus gasped through the power that just kept swirling into the room, a green landscape at their feet. ‘You are possibly the most powerful Each Uisge that has existed to date. And you would deny this privilege? This status? Shame on you, young creature. You don’t even know what you are capable of. And nor – I have the satisfaction to admit – do I.’

Augus was hard in his pants, he couldn’t help it. The power itself was stimulating, arousing, sending his nerves tingling, the hair on his body rising. It was humiliating to experience such a lack of control around the King. It was somewhat gratifying that the Raven Prince seemed entirely nonplussed.

He’s seen this before. Countless times. He knows what to expect, even as I don’t.

The fury Augus felt at being treated so, having a decision being taken away from him, he pushed aside. He could talk to Ash about it later. Could find a way to vent it out of his system. It was simply unsafe to express it around the King.

Though he suspected the Raven Prince knew very well exactly what he’d done.

‘You will bring Gwyn ap Nudd to me in two days hence,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘No later.’

‘Your Majesty,’ Augus gasped. ‘I’m not sure he’ll be up for the travel. The teleportation alone presents a difficulty.’

‘You got him to your home under the lake, you can get him into the Unseelie Court. I will have my people meet you at the lake in the Gwylwyr Du, so that you may come by a more private entrance. But two days hence, Augus. And you will visit the Court more often, at least three times a year.’

Augus grit his teeth together. The influx of power seemed to be slowing. He pushed himself upright, away from the wall, and stared at what his power had created. The whole room smelled like pollen and the rich green scent of healthy plants.

‘It gives me peace of mind,’ the Raven Prince said, ‘to know that you will be harder to kill.’

Augus nodded, hardly knowing what he was nodding to. His scalp was itchy and he scratched at it, and his eyes widened when he felt new patches where waterweed would grow. He could feel it, even now, pulsing forwards. By the end of the day, there would be more of it in his hair, he could tell. His chest was too broad for his shirt to be a proper fit, his muscles had bulked where previously he’d simply been lean and fit. He stared down at himself, touching his chest, his abdomen. His legs remained strong, muscular, the leather pants only slightly too tight.

‘Go back to your lake and ready this Gwyn ap Nudd. You will not like it if I come and visit your underwater home, Augus.’

The threat in those words was implicit, and Augus shivered, nodded again. He was half-distracted, his glamour felt stronger, whatever innate abilities lurked inside of him felt more powerful. He no longer felt tired from the teleportation. His senses were heightened. He looked around the room, flared his nostrils. He saw better, scented better.

What have you done to me?

He cleared his throat, felt dizzy, unanchored.

‘You’ll never demote me, will you, Your Majesty?’ Augus said, avoiding eye contact. His hands were shaking, so he pressed his palms flat against his side.

‘Your affection for retaining such a status is becoming, yet redundant. The only way I would ever demote you, Each Uisge, is if you were to commit some crime against the Court. Rest assured you would be swiftly executed soon after.’

The Raven Prince examined his fingernails and then tilted his head and gazed at Augus. ‘Now thank me, Augus.’

Augus’ teeth clenched, then he forced his muscles to relax.

‘Gramercie, Your Majesty,’ Augus said, his voice even. He was still shaking, and his palms were damp, but the room no longer glowed green.

The Raven Prince looked down at the plants growing by his pointed boots, and lifted a foot, nudging a flower. He walked up to Augus, crowding into his space once more.

‘I am not unsympathetic,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice softening. ‘But you are a member of my Court and therefore subject to my whims. You must also understand that if what you say is correct, I will be obligated, no, I will want to confront the Oak King directly. There will be crossfire. And if you continue to house Gwyn, you are likely to be in it.’

Augus blinked when he felt fingers on his face. The Raven Prince turned his head one way, then the other, scrutinising him.

‘It would be a shame to see your beauty marred in any fashion.’ The Raven Prince let go, stepped backwards, and then inclined his head, expression inscrutable. ‘You are dismissed, Each Uisge. Go home to your feral creature, and bring him here bound if you must, but bring him here two days hence. We shall see whether that family has committed a crime against my Court.’

‘Thank you for your time, Your Majesty,’ Augus said, bowing deep, holding the position for several seconds. It chafed against his heartsong of dominance, but not as much as having his status taken away from him and replaced with another. After that, bowing almost seemed trifling.

He walked from the room, and no one escorted him from the Unseelie Court. The constellations stared down at him, winking as though they were privy to some cosmic joke.

*

Augus walked into his foyer, dripping water and squeezing it out of his hair, stamping his boots out on the floor. He walked quickly into his home, unaccountably furious at having teleported home so effortlessly.

He halted when he saw Gwyn – wearing clothing filched from the human world – crouched by the sofa, looking like he’d been sniffing the armrest before freezing in place. He now stared at Augus, eyes wide, pupils blown, fingers resting on the floor.

It was quite something to see him out of his room, and as far as Augus knew, this was the first time Gwyn had been brave enough to explore.

There was no chance to say anything before Gwyn scurried back to his room and the door closed with a click. And it was scurrying. An almost silent, stooped over run, which – Augus thought – was frankly ridiculous given the creature was tall and broad.

He walked into his kitchen and picked up a bitter yalwort root, biting into it with more force than was necessary. He finished and stalked down his corridor, stopping at Ash’s closed door. Was he there? Was he still sleeping?

Augus snarled and pushed on the door with both hands, shoving hard, calling waterhorse strength. The door splintered, squeaked, bowed forwards and then the hinges broke.

‘What the fuck?’ Ash shouted, and Augus saw his blanket covered brother half tumble, half fall out of bed. Ash yanked blankets off his head and stared at Augus in surprise.

‘Guess who’s Court status?’ Augus said, before continuing to not-quite-stomp into his room, pushing the door open and going straight to his wardrobe. He didn’t know if Ash was following, and it didn’t matter.

‘Augus, what are you talking about?’ Ash said, and Augus unbuttoned his shirt and then finally, frustrated, tore it so that the buttons popped off.

‘And now my shirt doesn’t fit,’ Augus snarled, tossing it to the ground, looking for something that would be looser until he could get more tailored shirts. He owned hardly anything that fit the bill, and finally found a looser, waterwicking dark grey sweater, pulling it on and looking at his carefully tailored collection of clothing. Years – years – of finding the right fabrics, making sure they fit him well, making alterations as necessary. ‘None of them will fit.’

‘Augus, Jesus, did you go to see the Raven Prince already? You were supposed to give me a heads up, hey. Can you-’

‘None if it will fit,’ Augus said again, staring at his clothing. He looked at Ash and realised this wouldn’t go away. It wouldn’t fade. It was permanent and fixed and he’d not wanted it. ‘I’m Court status.’

‘I thought you didn’t want to be Court status?’ Ash said, confused, still waking up, stepping closer as he caught the expression on Augus’ face.

‘I didn’t,’ Augus said, offering a stiff smile. ‘I don’t.’

‘He didn’t ask you?’

‘I could kill someone,’ Augus snapped. ‘But of course I can’t, because I’m to bring Gwyn to the Unseelie Court in two days.’

‘Gwyn won’t go for that,’ Ash said.

‘It won’t matter. The Raven Prince demands him bound if he won’t come voluntarily. I suspect you can’t help me, either. An invitation wasn’t extended to you, though you might want to brace yourself for a possible status raise, at some point.’

‘Hey,’ Ash said quietly, pressing careful fingers to either side of Augus’ jaw. ‘Hey, he seriously did that? He made you Court status when you didn’t want to be?’

Augus jerked his head out of Ash’s hands and walked back down the corridor, and Ash followed closely.

‘Augus, talk to me, don’t do that thing you do.’

Ash got a hand on Augus’ arm as they passed the sofa, and Augus rounded on Ash, grabbing his wrist. Ash made a sound of pain, trying to jerk free, and Augus let go instantly.

‘Are you all right?’ Augus asked, looking at his wrist, taking it up, running his fingers quickly over it for breaks. ‘It doesn’t seem broken. I didn’t-’

‘Hey,’ Ash said again, shaking his head. ‘Forget about it, it’s just bruised. Whatever. It’s you I want to know about. You’re not okay. Talk to me. I’m here, just talk to me.’

‘How many years have to pass before you realise I don’t do that?’ Augus said, lips quirking up, eyes closing with a different kind of exhaustion. ‘I’ve always maintained you’re dense, brother, but in this you go above and beyond the call of duty.’

‘You’ve taken someone into your home when you like to live on your own. You can’t really kick him out, and he’s super damaged. I’ve been living here for longer than I usually do. The Raven Prince just fucking- just blindsided you with a status change, and our lives are…changing. Just- Wow, hang on, did you put on more muscle?’

Augus laughed, ran a hand over his face. ‘None of my shirts will fit properly now.’

‘Whoa, will I put on more muscle?’ Ash looked down at himself. ‘I don’t really need to.’

‘And I did?’ Augus said, staring at him.

‘No, no that’s not what I meant! I just mean, you know, I do okay for myself in the human world.’

‘It’s called fae glamour, Ash.’

‘Oh, you did not just say what I think you just said,’ Ash said, and Augus wanted that to be the moment that broke the tension, expected himself to smile or laugh, but instead he felt his good humour melt away. The sweater was comfortable, but it didn’t let him feel like himself, and he grimaced.

‘I don’t think it’s safe for us to leave the lake,’ Augus said, raking a hand through his hair before he could stop himself.

Ash stepped closer, coming as close as the Raven Prince had, though he wasn’t nearly as threatening, lacking that agitating quality of glamour. Ash watched him carefully, lifting his hand slowly, so that it was in Augus’ view, before curving it around behind his head, cupping the back of his skull.

A pool of warmth spilled down his neck, all the way to the base of his spine. He closed his eyes, and Ash’s fingers pressed closer, he could feel Ash’s gaze on his face.

‘We’re a good team,’ Ash said, voice painfully earnest. ‘We can make this work, Augus.’

‘Your blind faith is hardly reassuring,’ Augus said.

‘It is totally reassuring,’ Ash said. Augus pressed his lips together when he felt the gentle roll of Ash’s warm glamour, the one that probably snowed every human he met. The hand at the back of his head nudged at Augus until their foreheads were touching. ‘Also, Gwyn’s been exploring.’

‘I saw.’

‘Yeah? I just sort of left him to it. He didn’t break anything, not that I can tell anyway. He doesn’t really speak to me.’

‘I suppose I shall go explain to him why there was that loud sound, and why there’s now a broken door in the house.’

‘Do you need me with you?’ Ash said.

Augus thought about how stubbornly Gwyn had insisted that Augus explain his chosen profession after he saw the Raven Prince. He sighed and reached up, squeezing Ash’s shoulder, before stepping away.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Though don’t mistake me, I’m sure I’ll need you soon enough.’

Ash nodded and walked over to the sofa, flopping down and picking up one of the books he’d brought with him – some human tome on some philosophical branch of thought that Augus wasn’t remotely interested in.

Augus walked back down the corridor and knocked quietly at Gwyn’s door, before opening it. He could only see the smallest amount of blonde, curly hair poking up from the other side of the bed, and he sighed, closing the door behind him.

‘I frightened you,’ Augus said. ‘It wasn’t my intention to frighten you. The noise you heard was me breaking a door, which will be easily repaired. I shall tell you why, if you deign to give me some of your attention.’

Gwyn looked up from over the other side of the bed, where he was clearly crouching. His eyes were wide, and Augus shook his head, went to sit down in a chair in the corner of the room.

‘Or you could just continue to hide yourself behind the bed,’ Augus drawled, leaning back, pretending that the day hadn’t been as disturbing as it had. ‘That’s brave of you.’

Gwyn scowled at him. His head disappeared behind the bed again, and Augus rolled his eyes at the ceiling and then shook his head in despair. He didn’t know what he was doing. And if the King of the Unseelie had told him a Mage of that calibre likely ‘wasn’t enough,’ then why had Augus gone and wasted all that wealth in the first place?

Gwyn crept out from behind the bed slowly, keeping one arm on the corner of the bed. Augus noticed the way his fingers curled on the fabric over and over again.

‘You’re exploring,’ Augus said, and Gwyn looked down at his own fingers, before his hand stopped moving. ‘It’s allowed, provided you don’t break anything.’

Gwyn’s eyes went wide once more, and he flinched like he was about to be hit. Augus sighed and leaned back in the chair even further, going against the undercurrent of tension in his body. Gwyn responded to shifts in body language, and Augus knew what Gwyn’s response meant.

‘You broke something, didn’t you?’ Augus said. ‘No matter. Since it didn’t seem to be any obvious piece of furniture, I’ll manage.’

‘You,’ Gwyn said, and Augus waited for the rest of the sentence, but it wasn’t forthcoming. He didn’t think that Gwyn meant to echo Augus’ statement of ‘I’ll manage.’ He wanted to express impatience, but after what the Raven Prince had done to him, he just wanted things to be easier for a few minutes. He closed his eyes and decided that if Gwyn wanted to talk to him, he’d just have to find the will to do it himself.

‘You are…’ Gwyn said again, and Augus shook his head, faintly exasperated, for all that it was progress, for all that Ash would likely coo and praise and celebrate. ‘You are unhappy.’

‘Very well intuited,’ Augus said, not bothering to open his eyes.

‘Because…I broke something,’ Gwyn said.

‘No,’ Augus said, opening his eyes and seeing confusion on Gwyn’s face, his eyebrows pulled together. ‘No, not because you broke something.’

‘Because…I was exploring?’

‘No, not that,’ Augus said. ‘Go on then, find some other thing you’ve done wrong, let’s pretend the world revolves around you a little longer, shall we?’

Gwyn flinched again, though the movement was more contained than before. He looked down.

‘Everything is different here,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t know…the rules.’

‘You mean the rules that will prevent you from being hit if you do the wrong thing?’ Augus said, sitting straighter.

Gwyn nodded.

‘You haven’t yet realised that those rules that you were expected to abide meant nothing? They would have hit you anyway. Or hurt you. I’m sure Efnisien loved to contradict himself if it meant he still hurt you.’

‘There need to be rules,’ Gwyn said, head snapping up, gaze hardening. ‘Always. You have a rule. And…I broke it.

‘And?’ Augus said, curious to see what happened now. Most people would avoid the prospect of a punishment, but someone with Gwyn’s conditioning might just want it over and done with, if they couldn’t see any form of escape.

‘I broke it,’ Gwyn whispered, standing there. ‘The rule.’

‘All right then. I’ve had a long day. Let’s get this over and done with. Show me what you broke.’

Gwyn stiffened, like the conversation was moving in a direction he didn’t want it to go, even though he was the one initiating it. Pushing it in that direction. He clearly had a concept of how events were supposed to go when he did the wrong thing. Augus speculated that Gwyn wasn’t aware there were other options aside from the one he was chasing.

It was a decent enough distraction from the power still increasing within him, swirling in his blood.

‘Show me,’ Augus said again.

Gwyn jumped, and then his shoulders bunched. He walked into the bathroom attached to his room, and Augus stood, following.

Augus saw, immediately, a section of the glass stall had been broken – spidery cracks moving from a central point where he suspected a fist had hit it. Gwyn stood by it, saying nothing, staring down at his feet looking not like the tall fae he was, but like a child. Augus looked at the glass and then shrugged, even though Gwyn couldn’t see the gesture.

‘Why did you break it?’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook his head in a tiny motion. ‘Tell me why.’

‘An accident,’ Gwyn said. ‘I got scared.’

Augus closed his eyes briefly. Scared. Flashbacks, very likely. Given that it had been such a long time since Gwyn had access to showers, and that was one of the few he’d taken on his own.

‘Did you break anything else?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, his voice small.

‘Then I don’t care,’ Augus said, and Gwyn looked at him, eyes narrowed in suspicion. ‘Truly, I don’t care. I’d get the Raven Prince to reimburse me, but there’d likely be some cost to that I didn’t want to pay. Now, shall we have this chat? Hm? About my profession? Or do you want to think of me as a torturer forever?’

Gwyn looked relieved at the change of subject, even though Augus’ presence still obviously frightened him and set him on edge. Augus half-wondered if Gwyn only spoke around him, because Augus reminded him of other people who had made him speak, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

‘You’d best follow me,’ Augus said, turning and walking out of the bathroom, hearing soft footsteps behind him. ‘And I want you to be patient with me, if you will, because explaining this to someone with your background is going to be rather complicated, I expect.’

Chapter Text

Gwyn followed Augus with increasing reluctance once he realised what room they were heading towards, but Augus didn’t pause or slow his steps. Either Gwyn wanted to know about this, or he didn’t. In the meantime, he tried not to think about the increased well of power within him. A part of him wanted to go outside, experiment, and it simply wasn’t safe. He couldn’t test the limits of his power until he knew that it was safe enough, and until then, he’d just have to be careful. He’d already hurt Ash’s wrist just by grabbing him.

He was physically stronger, and he’d always been strong for his species.

He was going to lose clients. He couldn’t imagine any underfae who would feel safe enough around Court status or higher fae to let him do what he did professionally. He started in his profession primarily to help underfae who couldn’t access more expensive forms of healthcare for the psyche, and who absolutely couldn’t afford Mages or healers. It might be an unusual profession, but he knew it worked for the right people, and now those ‘right people’ wouldn’t access him. Rumours would spread. His clientele would be limited from here on in, to the privileged.

His whole life had been constructed around – first and foremost – helping those who were like him. Except that he was no longer one of them, no matter how he felt on the inside. And he could quote the ‘if you’ve been underfae, you’ll always be underfae’ saying as much as he wanted, it wouldn’t work; a whole contingent of clients gone. They were the ones who needed him most, and the Raven Prince had cut them off with a smile on his face.

Augus stood by the door, watching Gwyn as he hesitantly walked in past him, and then closed the door quietly. At that, Gwyn’s shoulders hunched and he whirled, staring at Augus warily, arms out like he was ready to attack.

‘I’ve had a very long day,’ Augus said, pushing other, more complicated thoughts aside, ‘and I’m now Court status and we’d likely be close to evenly matched if you decided to take me on. I don’t want to hurt you, and I don’t want to be hurt. Get that through your thick skull.’

Gwyn looked around at all of Augus’ tools of the trade on public display. The hooks for chains, and chains themselves. The whips and canes that could not be easily stowed in drawers, and the countless chests themselves, each containing a confection of items that Augus selected for different clients, as he saw fit. When Gwyn looked back at Augus, he had an expression on his face that was a combination of sceptical and fearful.

Augus walked across the room to a large, circular rug where he sometimes had clients kneel. It was plush, richly soft, and he knelt down and then rested his buttocks on his ankles. Gwyn noticed, and Augus beckoned him over. Gwyn tore his gaze away from a rack of whips slowly, started walking to Augus while his eyes were still glued to them.

But eventually Gwyn stood before him. He looked at Augus curiously, examining every aspect of his pose, and then finally sat down about two metres away and crossed his legs. He went back to looking around the room, eyes wide.

‘Now,’ Augus said, drawing Gwyn’s attention, ‘we need to have a talk, for this to…go well, I think. However, I know you don’t often like talking, and sometimes you simply cannot. So, if at any point you need to stop, or you cannot talk anymore, I want you to – if you can – raise your fist for me like this.’

Augus clenched his left hand lightly, and raised it so that it was parallel to his shoulder. Gwyn watched, and Augus lowered his hand again.

‘If you do that, I’ll know that you’ve had enough, or that for whatever reason, you don’t want to have anything to do with talking to me. That way I know you’re not simply being silent or thinking something over, or thinking of what to say. Do you understand? Do you want to try it?’

‘I…understand,’ Gwyn said. He made the fist and raised it, mimicking Augus’ movements, then lowered his hand and loosened it. ‘I understand.’

Augus looked around the room himself and sighed. How to begin explaining what he did to a person who had only experienced anything connected to these tools negatively? He pursed his lips, and then had an idea.

‘Gwyn, do you know what consent means?’

Gwyn hesitated, then nodded.

‘Could you tell me?’ Augus asked.

Gwyn’s shoulders hunched, his toes curled on the rug. He reached down and buffeted the rug texture with his hand.

‘It means…saying yes to something, and meaning it.’

Just how bright are you behind that wild mind? Augus squinted at him, then shook his head and reminded himself to stay focused.

‘Thank you, yes. Now, have you ever had consensual sex?’

Gwyn’s face shot up and he stared at Augus with a mixture of horror and something else Augus couldn’t put his finger on. He was about to say that it was okay that Gwyn hadn’t, when Gwyn looked aside and nodded furtively. A flush crept up his neck to his cheeks.

‘I…wasn’t expecting that,’ Augus said, and Gwyn looked back to him, cheeks pink. He placed both his hands flat on the rug and Augus thought he was going to push himself up and leave.

‘It went badly,’ Gwyn said to the floor.

‘Did it become- Did you withdraw consent?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head. ‘Others. Others became very angry. Very angry. And then…then a short time later, I lived in the forest. That- The forest became my new home.’

Augus unobtrusively kept mirroring Gwyn’s movements, both of his hands now stroking the rug slowly, carefully, like he was offering comfort. He’d learned a long time ago that carefully mirroring the poses of others helped put them at ease. Likewise, when someone else started escalating a scene or an encounter, he would deliberately open up his body language and recline or lean against something, discarding tension to see what the other fae would do.

‘They couldn’t fix me,’ Gwyn said, looking up at Augus through thick, pale-blond eyelashes. ‘They couldn’t fix the wrong in me.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you being Unseelie,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s lips thinned. His hand fisted into the rug suddenly, and he tugged at it hard enough that several strands of material came free.

‘I thought you were- Tell me why you’re not a torturer,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t- I’m not living here, if you are.’

‘Be patient. This isn’t easy to explain to someone who is missing a basic education on how people are supposed to treat one another. You don’t understand a lot of what I’m going to try and tell you. I need to find something you do understand, and compare it to that. For that, I need to know what you do understand.’

‘Torturer,’ Gwyn muttered under his breath, then flinched hard. He looked at Augus warily, and Augus only raised his eyebrows and deliberately relaxed his arms. Gwyn noticed the motion, staring at both of Augus’ shoulders, and then scowled for good measure before looking at the floor.

‘Have you ever experienced non-consensual sex?’ Augus said, and Gwyn stilled, and then shook his head easily enough. Augus stared at him and couldn’t believe it. ‘Are you telling me, with so much torture having been heaped upon you for decades, and fae taking you in and exploiting you, you’ve never been raped? What about Efnisien?’

‘Efnisien…no,’ Gwyn said. ‘He…can’t. He can’t down here.’ Gwyn gestured to his crotch. ‘Nothing happens. He tried once. Nothing happened. Not with me. I know…when he is actively hurting someone or an animal he- There will be a response. But he can’t sustain it.’

‘He gets hard when he’s torturing people,’ Augus said flatly.

‘And animals,’ Gwyn said, nodding to himself. ‘If there is blood and…the insides of a body, yes, he gets hard. If he’s just causing pain then- then no. But he can’t- It doesn’t go anywhere.’

‘Then have you experienced non-consensual molestation? Do you know what that means?’ Augus said, and Gwyn shrugged. Augus found it odd that Gwyn didn’t seem to want to leave, wasn’t vibrating with fear despite the sensitivity of the subject. This wasn’t like the clients he saw who sometimes repressed terrible memories of awful deeds. Gwyn had a casualness about it. Augus realised he was so used to certain aspects of his experience that he no longer felt much stigma about it. What about shame? Augus pushed his thoughts aside, he could deal with them later.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. ‘I know. And yes…maybe. Other things that aren’t sex, yes. Without me wanting them. Efnisien has hurt me, here,’ Gwyn gestured between his legs. ‘And…elsewhere. I don’t like it. But I don’t like any of it. Efnisien sometimes rubbed himself against me but- The pain is usually too great then and I don’t notice. It’s bad because he has to stop and then he gets angrier at me.’

‘Because he can’t find release,’ Augus said, and Gwyn nodded.

‘Yes. And then, there were fae that rescued me, who wanted things in exchange for rescue. But I ran before it went anywhere. They are always- They didn’t know my strength. I can always run.’ Gwyn looked up and his jaw was set like stone. ‘I can run from you.’

Not before the Raven Prince sees you.

‘All right,’ Augus agreed easily. ‘Let’s assume that all the torture you experienced then, was non-consensual. You didn’t agree to it, and if you ever did agree to it, you never meant your agreement.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, though his voice had become wary, and he dragged the syllable out.

‘Look at everything around you. You’ve only ever experienced it in circumstances of non-consent. Now, you know the difference between sexual molestation that doesn’t happen with your consent, and sex that does. There’s a rather noticeable difference, isn’t there?’

Gwyn was staring at the tools around the room again, and then he squinted at Augus, sucked his lower lip into his mouth.

‘You are saying people consent to be tortured.’

Augus hissed with frustration and Gwyn flinched again, but Augus knew he was explaining it badly. How, how did he explain this to someone like Gwyn? He placed his head in his hands and tried to think it through. Gwyn made a sound of frustration that was closer to a growl, and then he stood up, and Augus realised he’d blown it. He could only make missteps in a conversation like this.

‘Show me,’ Gwyn said, and Augus stared at him, hands falling into his lap. ‘You say it’s consent, so show me.’

‘No,’ Augus said, feeling rooted to the floor. ‘No, there is no way that will end well for you.’

‘You can’t show me,’ Gwyn said, ‘because you’re lying.’

‘No, bone brain, I can’t show you, because you probably have a wealth of flashbacks to draw from no matter what I did to you.’

‘I’m not fragile,’ Gwyn said stubbornly, though his pupils dilated with fear. ‘You said so yourself. And I’m used to torture.’

‘Oh yes, you’re not fragile. I meant that on a spectrum, Gwyn, of fragile victims who can’t do more than sit in a corner and shake, you’re not quite that bad off. Though you do sometimes sit in a corner and shake, don’t you? You don’t have the resilience for this, and I’m not putting you through it at a time when you are finally lucid and talking to one of us.’

‘Show me,’ Gwyn said, tone turning antagonising, and Augus felt a corresponding surge of anger, and beneath that a slowly unwinding coil that wanted to tame and subdue, that wanted to steal that tone of voice away and replace it with begging, with apology. Augus clamped down on both and pushed himself slowly to his feet, watching the way Gwyn leaned backwards with apprehension. Augus sneered and walked several steps away from him, gathering his thoughts.

‘Show me,’ Gwyn said again, his voice quietening. ‘Augus, show me.’

‘Are you such a demented masochist that you would- You don’t even know what you’re asking me for.’ But Augus was tired of this, he was just tired. Frustrated with the Raven Prince, a fae angry with the King of all the Unseelie fae, it was ridiculous, unconscionable. ‘Fine. You want me to show you? Fine. Stand there. And don’t move.’

Augus stalked towards him and Gwyn’s shoulders were up to his ears, he stared at the floor, and clearly expected some kind of hideous punishment.

Augus sighed and stopped before Gwyn, holding out his hands so that they were flat, palms up, elbows tucked into his sides.

‘If you want to, place your wrists into my hands,’ Augus said quietly. He toned down his energy, schooled his glamour so that it became gentle. It was never truly lulling, not like Ash’s warmth, but he could afford to control it better than he was.

Gwyn stared at Augus’ palms, looked to Augus’ face, and then his eyes flickered back and forth several times. Eventually that stubbornness crossed his face again, his lips thinning, brow creasing.

He placed his wrists in Augus’ palms lightly. Augus could feel him shaking.

If Ash saw this, he’d kill me. Though he’d apologise for it, at least. Maybe.

‘Now,’ Augus said, ‘that’s very good. Thank you, Gwyn. I know that was difficult for you.’

‘Wasn’t,’ Gwyn said, and Augus thought that if there was a medal for resisting rolling his eyes, he deserved it.

‘I’m going to curl my thumb and fingers around your wrists, gently. I’m going to circle them, and then just hold them steady. That’s it. Are you ready?’

Gwyn made a grunt like he did this all the time, like he wasn’t shaking. Augus kept his breathing even and slowly moved his fingers so that Gwyn could see them moving. Giving him ample time to twist away, change his mind. But aside from tensing further and rolling his wrists in Augus’ hands, he didn’t back down. Augus felt Gwyn’s racing pulse beneath his skin, and slowly enclosed his fingers. Gwyn’s wrists were surprisingly fine given the thickness of his upper arms, his chest. Even so, Augus couldn’t touch the tip of his middle finger to his thumb when he was complete.

‘There,’ Augus said, as Gwyn looked down at Augus’ hands. ‘How does that feel?’

‘Like nothing,’ Gwyn said, faintly disgusted. ‘This isn’t what you do with the others.’

‘Patience is clearly not a virtue of yours,’ Augus said, ‘but no matter. I’m going to increase the pressure now.’

He squeezed his hands tighter, slowly shackling Gwyn’s wrists in his grip – which, now that he was Court status, was considerably stronger than before. Augus realised he could keep gripping tighter and tighter if he wanted, though he didn’t. Gwyn’s skin was compressed in his fingers, his face was losing its stubborn cast. Gwyn’s eyelashes fluttered, his mouth relaxed slightly.

Augus’ eyes widened, he licked his lips silently.

Surely not…

‘How does that feel?’ Augus said, and Gwyn shook his head like a fly was trying to settle there.

‘Strange,’ Gwyn said finally, voice thicker than before.

Augus crossed Gwyn’s wrists together, and increased his grip further. Gwyn’s wrists twitched once, his fingers flexed in spasm, and then his arms relaxed. His pulse was – Augus noted – slowing. Augus bit the inside of his lip, watching Gwyn closely as he increased his grip on Gwyn’s wrists until he knew it hurt. Was Gwyn going into shock? Was it something else?

Gwyn made eye contact, something confused in the twist of his pale eyebrows, though his lips were still relaxed.

‘Are you unresisting because I’m hurting you and you’re afraid?’ Augus asked. ‘Or because you feel strange, and you’re unsure?’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, voice rough. ‘The second one. A little the first. But the second one.’

‘That’s…’ Augus stared around his room and swallowed. ‘Then it’s a shame you’ve experienced all that you have, because I think you could enjoy this.’

‘Why do you do it to them?’ Gwyn said, though his wrists stayed lax in Augus’ hands, his voice was tense. ‘Why do you hurt them? What do they- What do they receive from you?’

‘Peace,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Catharsis. Pleasure sometimes. They come with an issue or hurt, and I locate its core and help them understand why they felt broken in the first place and why they no longer have to. Obviously it’s not for everyone. But some people cannot do it alone, and cannot rid themselves of something just by talking about it. They must have their bodies involved in the process, and so I take their control from them, and urge them to give me something they are too afraid to look at. And then…the simplicity in it, is that it is so easy for me to show them that their monstrousness is not awful at all. Sometimes it’s even beautiful.’

Augus dug his thumbs down into Gwyn’s skin.

‘If you were a client, I would hurt you, yes. But you would know that in advance, you would have the choice to say no in the beginning. Or if it became clear that you were unresponsive to my methods, I would stop, and make sure you were all right. But if it was tenable, I would show you both pain, and pleasure, and after, you would feel more whole. But you are not my client. And you are very damaged. But what a shame that is, because look at you.’

Indeed, Augus could hardly look away. There was a strange tension in the centre of Gwyn, and yet everything else had gone still, relaxed. Not the limpness of a prey animal surrendering to death or torment, but something else. And to have this tall, wild creature standing before him and breathing steadily through Augus’ grip on his wrists – after he’d torn his wrists apart because of the constraint of shackles not that long ago – was gratifying.

‘What Efnisien does is crude,’ Augus said. ‘Oh, I’m sure he has his moments where he’s a very effective torturer, but really all he is trying to do is hurt something until it breaks. At which point he gets bored, leaves you alone, and finds you once you’ve gathered your will to fight once more. Repeat, ad nauseum.’

‘Show me more than this,’ Gwyn said, his voice no longer antagonistic, but mild.

‘I’m not sure I should,’ Augus said, and Gwyn nodded, sighed as though disappointed. And Augus wanted to, he wanted to know how far this went. But his better judgement was thankfully louder than his impulses to get Gwyn on his knees, or restrained, and see what happened.

It didn’t help that Gwyn was stunning in his own way. It very much didn’t help that Augus was calming too, being able to do this, exerting control after his autonomy over his life had been ripped from him.

‘How do you feel?’ Augus said again. ‘With my hands around your wrists?’

‘Strange,’ Gwyn said once more. ‘Contained.’

Augus closed his eyes and slowly loosened his grip, before letting go entirely and stepping back. They couldn’t do this. Not now, not before Augus might have to betray him by binding him brutally to bring him to the Raven Prince. He hadn’t even brought it up with him yet. There was no way this was a good idea. But Gwyn watched him with something hurt in his gaze, and Augus knew he owed him more than just stepping away.

‘You have to understand,’ Augus said, looking at the faint bruises on Gwyn’s wrists. ‘I want to show you more, but it’s dangerous. You are sensitive, and there is much in this room that you’ve only known in the crudest, cruellest of ways. And I am not your saviour. Nor am I particularly nice. I am also cruel, and I enjoy pain. I just happen to enjoy pleasure and growth just as much, and I have learned how to combine them so that all parties benefit. But in order to do that, I need to trust my instincts, Gwyn. And my instincts tell me that this is a dangerous road.’

Gwyn was looking at his wrists, turning them, eyes tracing the bruises.

‘Will you do it again?’ Gwyn said. ‘Not now. But…soon? Hold my wrists like that? It makes my mind quieter.’

By the gods, Augus thought, looking up at the ceiling as though the answers where there.

‘Perhaps,’ Augus said. ‘But not now.’

Gwyn laughed to himself. The sound was charming. But then his demeanour changed, his arms went to his sides and he looked around the room once more with an increased wariness, like an animal had just realised it could be caught with a food it loved as much as it could by a steel trap. Augus realised Gwyn was regressing. Gwyn pushed forwards in huge leaps, and then needed days to process what he’d learned. They couldn’t afford days, but even as Augus opened his mouth to speak, Gwyn raised his left fist so that it was parallel to his shoulder, even as he refused to make eye contact.

‘All right,’ Augus said. He walked past Gwyn, wanting to reach out and place a steadying hand on his shoulder. He didn’t think the touch would be well-received. Still, he paused. ‘You did well, Gwyn.’

He left Gwyn standing alone in the room, the door open so that he could leave whenever he wanted. Augus wanted something to eat, wanted a place to process his thoughts in peace.

Chapter Text

 

Unsurprisingly, Gwyn retreated to his room, closed the door behind him, and then didn’t come out again for either exploration or any other reason. Hours later, Ash visited him for a few minutes, and then came out looking a little bereft, Augus marking the expression with some surprise.

‘You’re upset?’ Augus said.

‘He was just doing so well, I guess?’ Ash said, shrugging, plopping himself down in an armchair and hooking his legs over the armrest. Augus had given up reprimanding him for that decades ago. He went back to his book. A dense tome on different types of waterweed. He had much of it memorised, the pages well-worn, multiple bookmarks resting in the pages, but it was just dry enough to keep his mind occupied when he didn’t want to think about more complicated matters. After a few minutes, he closed it and sighed.

‘He is making progress, Ash. It just won’t be in a straight line. This sort of recovery is never linear. It’s back and forth. That he’s even had a recognisable ‘forth’ at this point is something to acknowledge, recognise.’

‘I know that,’ Ash said. ‘I just…it’s sad. It makes me fucking sad. He’s in there hiding behind the bed, acting like I’m going to- I don’t even know what. He won’t even look at me now.’

‘He just needs time,’ Augus said. ‘Give him some time to rest mentally, Ash. He’s going to be going through a lot in two days, at any rate.’

‘Does he have to?’ Ash said, plaintive, and Augus squinted down at his book before crossing one leg over the other and folding his arms.

‘Ash, he’s not a stray dog you’ve picked up. He’s a Court status fae, entangled in politics you and I know very little about. He may not even be permitted to stay with us.’

‘This is the best place for him,’ Ash said, incredulous, and Augus raised his eyebrows. It hurt him to say any of this, but perhaps it was a cold hard truth both of them needed to hear.

‘We don’t actually know that,’ Augus said. ‘We don’t know anything about what might be best for him. And-’

‘We care about him,’ Ash said, and then his lips tightened. Augus recognised that mutinous expression well. ‘We care about him more than as just some political bargaining chip or tool. If the Unseelie palace take him in, you know what’ll happen? I do. I reckon I do, anyway. The Raven Prince doesn’t care about anyone’s boundaries if they’re in the way of him getting what he wants. He made you Court and you’ve never wanted the Court status. He doesn’t care about any of us, beyond power and ambition and all that other shit. Gwyn needs people who will care for him. Like, for his sake. I can do that. You can do that.’

‘Can I?’ Augus said. ‘A week or two, perhaps. Two months, maybe. Do you really think I want to have some damaged creature roaming around my house, putting my clients in danger, for years? That’s not an outcome-’

‘You can try and hide it, Augus, but I know you care about him,’ Ash said, smiling, the expression weary. ‘Besides. He’s here now, isn’t he? Can’t rewind time. Can’t undo what’s already been done. You took him home. You did that. You got the Mage. You paid for new wards. You went to the Raven Prince. You’re doing an awful lot for someone who you don’t want around for more than a few weeks.’

‘Ah, yes, and what was I supposed to do? Keep a secret large enough that the Raven Prince could potentially kill me for it, were it to be discovered? Let alone Efnisien, or the other members of that deranged estate?’

‘You could’ve left him there,’ Ash said simply, spreading his fingers. ‘Someone like me, sure, I wouldn’t leave him there. But someone like you? Mister Unseelie waterhorse who lives up to that way more than I do? It wasn’t any of your business. You could’ve just left him. Maybe think about that.’

Augus was in the process of trying to think of the best way to insult Ash – so much fodder to pull from – when Ash got up and simply fell down next to Augus on the larger sofa, taking up one of Augus’ legs and laying it across his lap. He stroked the bridge of Augus’ foot, the strokes firm, easy. They’d always had an easy, affectionate companionship, and Augus was torn between jerking his foot out of Ash’s grip out of spite, and relaxing into it. After a few seconds, he frowned and looked at Ash’s ridiculous, short, curly hair instead.

‘I should have left him,’ Augus said.

‘But you didn’t.’

‘I couldn’t,’ Augus snapped. ‘He was in my forest. I was bored. I was only bored. Haven’t you ever done something you’ve regretted when you’ve been bored?’

‘Uh, hello, of course. But I don’t know that taking in some tortured Court fae was on the list. I swear, Augus, there’s a fucking short circuit in your brain whenever something interests you. God only knows how you turn it off for clients.’

Augus made a faint growling sound of displeasure, and then kicked Ash’s thigh when Ash pinched his little toe.

‘I will gut you,’ Augus said, the threat meaningless. He was quite certain it was one of the very first things he’d said to the tiny colt that had dragged itself out of his lake, and presented a clear – if pathetic – threat, centuries ago. He hadn’t done it then, he wouldn’t do it now.

‘You don’t like the truth,’ Ash said, rubbing his foot soothingly. ‘And you can tell yourself you were only doing it because you were bored, but dude, you take in sick people and try and make them better. You might do it in a way that most people don’t, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a healer. You really think you could’ve just left him there, even if you weren’t bored?’

‘Yes,’ Augus lied.

‘I’m really fucking mad at the Raven Prince,’ Ash said quietly, as though even now he was aware that expressing such dissent even when he couldn’t be overheard was still risky. ‘He shouldn’t have done that to you. You’re a healer, and he fucking ripped you away from most of your clients. And you bet your ass he knew exactly what he was doing.’

‘Of course he did,’ Augus said. ‘But it was also a favour. He’s also not incorrect, we are in more danger as underfae. We may not survive this, no matter what status we’re at.’

‘You think the fucking King of the Unseelie couldn’t have figured out a way around that? You think the great miracle worker himself, the Mage of Millennia, couldn’t figure that out? He gonna change you back after?’

‘You know he’s not. He said as much,’ Augus said, feeling heavy, tired suddenly. He tried to jerk his foot out of Ash’s grip, but Ash held onto his ankle, stroking his thumb around Augus’ ankle bone.

‘I’m mad at him,’ Ash said. ‘He shouldn’t’ve done that, and you know it.’

‘What good is your anger?’ Augus said, voice cracking like a whip. ‘What good will it do? Why rail against something we can’t change? I only have control over my responses; not his, not yours. Why not get yourself under control and-’

‘This isn’t about losing control,’ Ash said calmly, staring at him. ‘Does my anger look like loss of control to you? You think I’m gonna go up there and throw a tantrum at him when I know it’ll do jack shit? No. It’s not a waste of my time to care about you and what you wanted out of life. It’s not a waste of your time.’

‘Don’t you-’

‘Okay,’ Ash cut him off and Augus bristled. ‘Okay, sorry, I know you care. Okay? I’m just saying…my anger isn’t wrong. And I think if you won’t show it, ‘cuz you can’t, then I’ll do it. I can carry that for you, man. I know you think I’m just your little brother and you have to protect me all the time, but…’

Augus didn’t want to think anymore. Ash was raising a lot of good points. A lot of deeply annoying points. He tilted his head back into cushions and closed his eyes. Ash got a better grip on his foot and dug his fingers firmly into the arch, and Augus resisted the urge to groan.

‘Don’t think about it anymore,’ Ash said, his voice low, gravelly. ‘That fucker punished you for caring for someone.’

‘He didn’t even do that,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘He simply wanted to see me more often. Not because of my winning personality, or my talents, but simply because he finds me pleasing to the eye. A bauble.’

Ash’s hands faltered, and he swore under his breath. ‘What did he say?’

‘I am to visit the Court more often. Three times a year at least.’

‘You- Seriously?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said, and then flexed his foot in Ash’s hands. Ash apologised and went back to massaging, and Augus shifted his head so that he was on a dry section of cushion, despite his damp hair.

‘Is he going to ask me to do the same?’ Ash said, hesitantly. ‘Because, I don’t know if I can do that.’

‘I doubt it,’ Augus said, groaning around a particularly clever swipe up the arch of his foot that left him feeling more lax than before. ‘He doesn’t find you pretty. His loss.’

‘Damned straight.’

Ash continued the massage onto Augus’ other foot, until he was feeling pleasantly lulled and sleepy. He’d almost forgotten about Gwyn, hiding in his own room, content to enjoy the affection that passed between them. He was uncomfortable at the idea of Ash looking after him, but he was also far out of his depth with everything that was happening. He didn’t think he could look after Gwyn and Ash both. He reluctantly admitted to himself that he needed what Ash was offering.

*

Augus roused from his doze as the mattress dipped under a weight that wasn’t his. He felt several things at once – the dampness of his pillow beneath his head, the heaviness of another presence in the room beside him, the knowledge that he was in his own home. His nostrils flared, his teeth sharpened. He clawed his hands ready to attack. As he opened his eyes he paused mid-launch, night vision showing him the dully lit hair of Gwyn’s head, a glint in his eyes, even as he scrambled off the bed fearful at Augus’ sudden movement.

‘I thought you were here to attack me,’ Augus said, his voice even, but not whispered. Gwyn froze. He looked around the room, and then seemed to realise that Augus was speaking to him. Augus could see him well by the werelight outside his home, that constantly provided a bluish light when the internal lights weren’t on, artificially giving the impression of day, even though the sun didn’t adequately reach this far down into the water.

Gwyn still hadn’t moved. Augus saw fine trembles in the curls on his head. He had to hand it to that Court status, it let him see even more details than he usually did – and he already had heightened senses.

‘What do you want, Gwyn?’ Augus said, tired.

Gwyn cleared his throat, but didn’t open his mouth. Still hadn’t broken through his muteness again, then. Augus looked around his own bedroom, looked at his own bed, and then at his own hands where he’d left them. Gwyn had wanted something badly enough to come in here. His movements were stealthy enough that Augus automatically wondered if Gwyn had been trying to kill him in his sleep – but no, he didn’t feel that Gwyn was stupid enough for something like that. If he wanted to escape he’d simply go. Or he’d flail out in a panic and attack them without thinking. He seemed to have enough of a mind to realise that Augus was too alert to be killed in his sleep.

But then why would he be here? Did he want comfort? To sleep alongside someone else? And then Augus knew exactly what it was, and cursed his doze-fogged mind for taking so long.

Slowly, deliberately, he spread his arms apart and then turned his hands palm upwards, his fingers curling in a little, as though they were already holding Gwyn’s wrists. And Gwyn looked at the motion hungrily, his lips parting. He was crouched on the floor, but he leaned forwards all the same.

Augus said nothing, simply waited. Minutes drifted past them, and then Gwyn carefully placed the fingertips of his right hand in front of him, on the floor. Then his left. He crept forwards with the slow wariness of a wild feline, every movement calculated and hesitant, eyes focused and moving between Augus’ open hands, his face, and then slowly to the door which was ajar. Augus could see the shallow rise and fall of his back as he couldn’t quite contain his fearful breathing.

Augus maintained a masterful control of his own breathing, however, even as it wanted to quicken seeing Gwyn on the floor as he was, crawling towards him. And he knew he shouldn’t enjoy it, knew that Gwyn’s behaviour was not true submission but the abasement of someone who knew no different, and yet his traitorous mind told him that in other circumstances, other times, Gwyn’s submission could be beautiful. Those wide, blue eyes. Those broad shoulders hunched down as though he could ever, ever make himself seem truly small.

When Gwyn was at the side of the bed, he paused for a long time. Augus watched carefully, did nothing as Gwyn finally reached up and didn’t look away from Augus’ eyes as he touched delicate fingers to Augus’ palm, and then yanked back, as though expecting a vicelike grip to descend upon him. When the grip didn’t come, Gwyn first scowled, as though the world wasn’t working as it was supposed to, and he didn’t like it. Then his eyes widened with something that could have been wonder.

Gwyn stood upright, carefully, never looking away from Augus. He was trembling more visibly now, and Augus knew this well. He didn’t have to contemplate what was going through Gwyn’s head, he understood. When you had lived so long with extensive punishment for any slight infraction, the longer the wait came for a punishment, the more severe you knew it was going to be. It was basic victim logic. Gwyn found the whole situation unpredictable precisely because Augus wasn’t hurting him. If he wasn’t careful, Gwyn would work himself into a state and flee before getting what he came for.

Gwyn stared down at him, and the position did make Augus uncomfortable. He was only half-sitting in his bed, he was vulnerable, Gwyn was taller and possibly stronger than him, even though he was rangy and thin. He’d had a lot longer to know the bounds of his Court status. He’d never had to fear infection or food poisoning or parasites or almost all major injuries growing up. Augus did. Augus would always have a measure of fear and hesitance holding him back from putting himself in physical danger, unless bloodlust overtook him.

‘I could hurt you like this,’ Gwyn said, his voice threatening, even as Gwyn was clearly frightened.

‘Yes,’ Augus said, not looking away from that steady gaze, the trembling in his muscles.

‘You thought I was going to hurt you.’

‘No, I thought you were going to attack me,’ Augus said, making the distinction. ‘I was startled by an unexpected presence in my living space, and given the power of your family, I responded as though you were someone else.’

Gwyn nodded stiffly, and finally, finally looked to Augus’ open palms with hunger in his eyes. His hands twitched by his sides.

‘You know,’ Gwyn said.

‘Yes,’ Augus nodded. ‘I do.’

‘Do you think I miss being tortured?’ Gwyn said, his voice soft, his laughter even softer. There was something antagonistic in his gaze now. His eyebrows drew together, his lips thinned. ‘Do you think that’s it?’

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Not exactly.’

‘Then- Then what- Then why do you-’

‘Why don’t you climb onto the other side of the bed, and slide your wrists into my palms, Gwyn? You’ll find it easier to concentrate then, won’t you?’

‘Will I?’ Gwyn said, and the words didn’t sound like they were intended for Augus at all. ‘Will I?’

Augus wondered if Gwyn had spent time in the forest practicing his voice, talking to himself when he had no one else to talk to. Was that how he’d preserved so much of his diction? His vocabulary? His gaze had gone distant, as though he was having a conversation with someone else far away.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, anchoring him back in the present.

‘There’s noise everywhere,’ Gwyn said, as though he’d been asked a question, as though he was expected to account for himself. Augus wondered how much of it was Gwyn wanting to talk to him, and how much of it was Gwyn having been beaten into simply responding when a question was left hanging.

If Gwyn was Augus’ client, he’d not wait patiently in this moment. He would lash out quickly, bind Gwyn’s wrists in his hands tight enough that the worst of the noise would be silenced and Gwyn wouldn’t have to stand there agonising over what he wanted, he would simply be expected to take what Augus gave him. To realise that it was what he wanted too, that he didn’t need to agonise over it in the first place. But Gwyn wasn’t Augus’ client, was something quite different, so Augus waited, even though he wished he could make the anguish of indecision easier for him to bear.

Eventually, Gwyn slowly walked around to the other side of the bed. It put him further away from the door, from his easy escape, and he looked more frequently at the door now. Even so, he eventually put his palms flat on the bed and crawled onto it. He came closer, until his knees almost touched the side of Augus’ hips.

Augus stopped counting the seconds and minutes, he wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed when Gwyn – reminding him more and more of a wild forest creature – finally slid his wrists into Augus’ hands. The angle was clumsy, Gwyn had to hold himself a little upright to manage it, and it wasn’t a pose that would lead to any sort of relaxation. Even so, once his wrists were in Augus’ hands, they trembled, but they weren’t withdrawn.

Augus’ fingers closed slowly, giving Gwyn plenty of time to change his mind. Soon he was wrapping fingers around skin, harder and harder, and right when he knew Gwyn had moved from discomfort into pain, Gwyn’s hands twitched and his eyes closed, his mouth parted. He shuddered bodily, and then his shoulders slumped. Augus watched closely as he risked a tighter pressure than even before, one that would hurt enough that he’d have some of his clients pleading for him to stop. He felt Gwyn’s bones shift beneath his fingers.

Gwyn made a small, involuntary noise in the back of his throat, his fingers twitched, and then he sagged.

Augus kept the pressure up, counted off seconds very carefully now. Let Gwyn have this moment of quietness.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, voice firm, ‘how do you feel?’

‘Hurts,’ Gwyn said, his head dropping between his outstretched arms. His voice was faintly breathless and Augus clamped down on all of his own physiological reactions because they weren’t appropriate, and because he had to concentrate.

‘And?’ he said, and Gwyn nodded an acknowledgement. Augus doubted he knew he was doing it.

‘Hurts,’ Gwyn said again. ‘It’s good. It’s different.’

‘Different from what?’ Augus said, even as Gwyn’s arms slowly began to tense in his grip. The relentless pain would be building. There was no cease, and he wasn’t desensitising to it. Not yet. First the increased tension as the body had its own chemical responses, then, the possibility of true absorption, of a bone deep relaxation. He wasn’t sure Gwyn would get there. He was certain it wasn’t healthy for Gwyn to get there at all, especially now, no matter how much Augus wanted to see that surrender.

‘Different from other pain,’ Gwyn said. ‘You are a strange torturer.’

‘I am not a torturer,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s fingers flexed weakly. Blood circulation was being cut off, Augus could feel Gwyn’s pulse working hard, trying to push blood to where it was supposed to go.

‘You’re hurting me and you enjoy it,’ Gwyn said. ‘I know you do.’

‘So do you,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘I know that just as well.’

‘It’s wrong,’ Gwyn said, and jerked his wrists suddenly. Augus bit the inside of his lip and his arms gave with the movement, but he didn’t let go. Gwyn wasn’t fighting as strongly as he could have, and Augus released the smallest amount of pressure on Gwyn’s wrists, enough that Gwyn would notice. Enough that blood could flow more freely. Gwyn cut off a sound in his breathing, but Augus could tell it would have been a moan perhaps, or a whine.

He focused on his own blood then, the way it flowed through his body, made sure that he wasn’t any closer to getting aroused, erect, than before.

‘Why is it wrong?’ Augus said, letting his voice turn soothing, gentle. ‘Why is it wrong if we both like it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking. ‘It’s just wrong. There’s something wrong with you. I know, I know there’s something wrong with me. They couldn’t fix it.’

‘Oh,’ Augus said, nodding as though it explained everything. ‘I didn’t understand. So you enjoyed everything Efnisien did to you?’

‘No!’ Gwyn shouted, jerking his wrists away, and Augus let go. Gwyn hadn’t expected it and tumbled backwards onto the bed, even as he looked towards the door, his breathing quick and shallow. When he realised Gwyn had no intention of fleeing, Augus surmised Gwyn was still staring at the door to make sure that Ash wouldn’t wake. Was Gwyn feeling protective of Ash? Already? Augus didn’t know if he should be encouraging that level of bonding or discouraging it, but he certainly wasn’t helping discourage any bonding with what he was doing now.

He found he didn’t want to stop. His talk with Ash had revealed some truths to him, ones that he didn’t want to hide from.

‘You must have,’ Augus said, shrugging. ‘By your logic, enjoying pain is wrong, and you were born wrong. Therefore, you enjoy all sorts of pain. How fascinating. It’s not every day I meet someone who-’

‘I didn’t,’ Gwyn said, staring at him, eyes bright and stubborn and fists clenched into the bed like he wanted to drive them into something. Like he’d driven them into the shower stall and sent cracks spidering through the glass. So much suppressed violence in this one. So much rage. ‘I don’t. It’s not what I meant. It’s not.’ Gwyn’s expression twisted, showing far more pain now than he ever showed from what Augus had done to his wrists. ‘I’m sorry- I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t-’

This wouldn’t do at all.

Gwyn couldn’t stop his litany, eyes dropping down to the mattress, and Augus pushed his blankets back very carefully, as slowly as Gwyn had crept towards him before. He slunk towards him, keeping his body low, and reached towards Gwyn’s wrists where they now rested on his knees. He gave Gwyn many opportunities to pull away, listened to the broken apologies, knew how very hard Gwyn was pushing himself, how brave he was being. Gwyn couldn’t stand much more of this before he’d regress again. Just talking with Augus in a way that didn’t require him to abase himself every single sentence cost him so much energy. He shouldn’t have to do it alone.

‘Shh,’ Augus said quietly, sliding his fingers around Gwyn’s wrists. ‘Shh. You said it helped you to feel contained, remember? Shh, you’ve done nothing wrong, Gwyn. Nothing at all. If you want me to stop, tell me to stop.’

But Gwyn didn’t pull away, he didn’t tell him to stop. He fell silent, gasping through mild hyperventilation that began to still as soon as Augus’ fingers wrapped around his bruised wrists once more. And it had to hurt, even more than before, but Gwyn’s breathing continued to calm, his pulse slowed in Augus’ grip.

‘There,’ Augus continued, his voice gentle. ‘You’ve done nothing at all that’s wrong. Nothing to apologise for.’

‘He’s going to kill you,’ Gwyn said, staring at him now. ‘He’s going to kill you. And A-Ash. He’ll make me watch. He’ll make me watch, or he’ll make you watch, or he’ll-’

‘He’s not,’ Augus said, strengthening his grip until Gwyn did moan, the sound pained. ‘They cannot hurt you the way they used to. They cannot. They are strong, yes, Gwyn. But there are many fae in this world stronger than you or I, or your family.’

‘You thought he was here. You thought I was him. You don’t feel safe either,’ Gwyn said. ‘You’re nothing. You’re-’

‘Hush,’ Augus said, voice strong now. ‘Be quiet.’

Gwyn fell silent, trembling, fingers clutching like they wanted to grasp at something. If Gwyn were perhaps well-adjusted, even healthy, perhaps Augus could embrace him to give him comfort. Instead, he would offer it in this way, until they could progress to-

Augus caught his thoughts and stared at them. Progressed to what? Just how far was he going to take this?

‘The Unseelie King will protect you,’ Augus said, and Gwyn’s eyes shot up to meet his. ‘He’s sworn to help us. His price was steep, but it is a debt I have to pay – not you. But he has sworn to protect us. To protect you. You don’t have to believe me. Of course you won’t. But you need to know that we have the strongest ally we could possibly hope for, in this.’

‘But-’

‘Shh,’ Augus said, easing even closer, crossing Gwyn’s wrists over one another, resisting the urge to bend down and press lips to the fingers he knew would be cooling from lack of blood circulation even now. ‘Gwyn, you have so much time to panic and feel fear, why not try and feel something different for the next few minutes. Could you try? Shall I make it easier for you?’

Augus dug his fingers in hard enough that Gwyn jerked, gasped, and then pushed his wrists towards Augus like he wanted more. Augus licked his lips and decided this likely was some kind of cosmic joke, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t take advantage of it. If Gwyn needed more contact…

He tugged him forwards until Gwyn’s fingers brushed against Augus’ belly, and simply held him still. Gwyn’s face was closer, his head bowed, arms stretched out.

‘It contains you,’ Augus said softly. ‘You can question why later. Why not just let it contain you, now? You have been taught that you can trust no one. That’s all right, Gwyn. But you’ve been taught that you can trust pain, can’t you? It’s reliable. It always comes. Like this, at least, you have a measure of control. You can tell me when to make it stop. And you can make it all go away. Can’t you?’

‘Mm,’ Gwyn hummed, the sound thin. But he nodded, relaxed further.

‘I’ve got you,’ Augus said, a voice he used to hold his clients, to soothe Ash through the worst of his pains, his night terrors. ‘I’ll stop whenever you want me to stop.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn whispered, and Augus decided that was enough talking.

Apparently, Gwyn had decided the same.

The time between them passed not awkwardly, but with an intimacy that Augus couldn’t help but question, interrogate. He understood what Gwyn was getting out of this, but what was he getting out of it that he couldn’t get from a client? And should he be pursuing it? Or cutting it off now? If he took this too much further, how would he feel that it was ethical to let him go when the time came? Why start something like this if he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to see it through?

What did seeing it through even mean?

He grit his teeth together and risked tightening his fingers further, and when Gwyn moaned plaintively, leaned towards Augus like he could ease the pressure, even as he didn’t ask Augus to let go, Augus found his own thoughts disintegrating in the anchor of his hands around Gwyn’s wrists. It demanded concentration, care, skill.

At least ten minutes passed, Augus’ mind floating in darkness and focus, Gwyn relaxing more and more before him, when Gwyn’s fingers twitched and he exhaled shakily.

‘S-stop,’ Gwyn said, and Augus uncurled his fingers slowly, noting the hiss of breath as blood reperfused into Gwyn’s veins.

Augus carefully lowered one of Gwyn’s wrists to the bed, and kept one hand between both of his. ‘Let me rub the feeling back into your fingers.’

‘O-okay,’ Gwyn said, and then his breathing hitched when Augus started doing just that. He kept his motions firm, noting the coldness in Gwyn’s fingers, even as he paid special attention to the palm and back of his hand, before moving his fingers up each of Gwyn’s fingers individually, encouraging the blood to flow properly. He repeated the motions several times until Gwyn’s breathing came easily, his hand warming.

Gwyn promptly, obediently lifted his hand into Augus’ as soon as Augus had finished. A bloom of pleasure he chased mercilessly away, focusing on Gwyn instead. His palms were broader than Augus’, but their fingers were the same length. His wrists were elegant, and Augus examined them, frowning.

He wanted to ask if Gwyn knew how to write. If he was trained in a Courtier’s arts, or if he was kicked out of home too early. What was it like, growing up in the An Fnwy estate? Was he tutored at all, or was he raised out of mind and out of sight? Augus knew almost nothing about him, even as he knew so much about the brutalities he’d experienced. He certainly knew that he didn’t want to ruin Gwyn’s hard-won calm, the softness of his forehead, the gentle, open consideration of his eyes.

‘All right,’ Augus said, letting go of his other hand and leaning backwards, until he rested against the headboard of his own bed. Gwyn nodded, like Augus had said much more, and then slid off the bed awkwardly, trying not to put any pressure on his wrists in the process. Yes, they would certainly hurt right now.

Gwyn walked towards the door, and Augus pursed his lips. ‘Do you want something for the bruises?’

‘Oh,’ Gwyn said, surprised, looking down at them. ‘No, I’ll heal.’

‘I know you will,’ Augus said – though truthfully, he’d forgotten that Gwyn’s Court status would mean the bruises were erased by morning. ‘I’m asking you if you want something to help with the pain now.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, looking ashamed. One of his feet dug harder into the floor as he paused at the doorway and then he looked over his shoulder and shrugged. ‘I want to keep them.’

‘Then good night,’ Augus said, and Gwyn nodded. He closed the door behind him carefully. Augus lay back properly and looked up at his ceiling, wondering what the future would bring.

Chapter Text

Augus wiped at flecks of spit clinging to his face after Gwyn roared at him.

To say that trying to tell Gwyn about visiting the Raven Prince was not going well, was something of an understatement. What had first started as the word ‘no’ repeated mindlessly from Gwyn, had quickly become Gwyn throwing his fist up by his shoulder to signal he was done talking. After Augus continued talking after that, Gwyn had looked betrayed, terrified. When Gwyn turned to leave the room, Ash blocked him, holding up his hands to make him stay.

That was when Gwyn started shaking.

‘We can’t do this,’ Ash said, and Augus glared at Gwyn, his jaw firming.

‘We have no choice,’ Augus said to Gwyn, his voice hard. ‘Do you think I want to take you – a barely functional fae – to the Unseelie Kingdom? No. I don’t. I have no choice. And therefore, you don’t either.’

After that, Gwyn had used the significant capacity of his lungs to scream his dissent. Any time Augus tried to reason with him after that was met with noise. Augus took it as the slight positive that it was; Gwyn wasn’t attacking them, as he’d tried to the first time Augus had captured Gwyn. But if this was where his instincts were taking him, it wouldn’t be long before Gwyn tried to attack him or Ash, and Ash was still underfae. His neck could be snapped in an instant.

Augus had the same headache he’d had the first time he’d locked Gwyn up and Gwyn had proceeded to roar his disdain and rage and distress. It pounded in the base of his skull. Gwyn’s shoulders were locked tensely. Gwyn had a pattern of roaring for a minute, and then stopping and watching Augus closely. Augus assumed it was to see if his ‘convincing argument’ had won Augus over.

Reasoning wasn’t going to work. Gwyn simply wasn’t ready for such an excursion, and this would put him backwards in his progress. The sooner Augus accepted that, the sooner he would do what he had to.

But the idea of binding Gwyn again, after all their forward momentum…

Augus decided to try, one last time. ‘We are not going so that you’ll be hurt. We are going in order for the Raven Prince to know whom he is protecting. It won’t be long, and then we’ll be taking you back here. To recover. You can hide in that little corner in your room for days, if you want.’

Augus had no idea if he was telling the truth. No idea if the Raven Prince would claim Gwyn as a resident of the Unseelie Court. But he had no time to deal with his own anxieties, because he was dealing with so many of Gwyn’s. And Gwyn was nothing if not able to read the subtle cues and body language of others, after years of needing to know when someone would strike or hurt him. Augus could tell that Gwyn knew he wasn’t certain, Gwyn knew Augus was potentially lying.

Gwyn took a deep breath and roared once more, and Augus was two shades short of snapping and doing something he’d regret. His head throbbed.

‘Ash,’ Augus said, taking a slow, deep breath. ‘I want you to wait for us here.’

Ash nodded, frowning. His eyebrows were drawn together. Ash knew what Augus would have to do, and at least he wasn’t trying to talk him out of it. It turned out the Raven Prince had sway over everyone, even when he wasn’t in the room.

‘Do you need any help?’ Ash said, and Augus shook his head.

‘No. You’re underfae. Just stay safe.’

Gwyn snapped into action just as Augus did, bolting as Augus shot waterweed out of his wrists and lashed it around Gwyn’s arm and fingers. The waterweed was stronger than it had ever been, and instead of snapping when Gwyn tugged at it, it stretched and held, and Gwyn was brought down to his knees. Augus shot out more and more ropes of the stuff, tangling him up, jaw tight.

He steeled his resolve and ignored the background noise of Gwyn screeching his dissent with noises that were less fae and more animal, shattering through his ears. The screams were less rage-filled now, and Augus could clear the blatant betrayal in the sounds. Ash had a hand over his face, which wasn’t helping.

‘If you can’t watch this, then don’t stay,’ Augus snarled, looping even stronger waterweed around Gwyn’s forearms and wrists, keeping them bound behind his back.

Ash disappeared back down the corridor, and Augus yanked at Gwyn’s struggling form, glad for his waterhorse strength and – though he didn’t want to admit it to himself – thankful for the Court status that definitely gave him added strength against Gwyn’s.

Gwyn went abruptly limp, and Augus walked up to him, stared down at vacant blue eyes. His chest and head were doing painful things that he didn’t want to think about, and he bared his teeth in frustration. Gwyn didn’t notice. Didn’t flinch. Didn’t roar.

‘Perfect,’ Augus muttered. ‘Just…perfect.’

*

Gwyn was limp and unresponsive when Augus dragged him into the water, and he didn’t struggle when he was teleported. Nor did he show any sign of resistance when Augus dragged him up the bank of a lake within the Gwylwyr Du, only for armed soldiers to let him know that Augus needed to teleport to the next proximal lake in the east.

Gwyn didn’t struggle for any of it.

Augus was well and truly worried when he emerged from a secluded lake covered by the darkness of night and a thick canopy, by a private entrance to the palace that he’d never seen before. It was a single iron gate set into a tall, dark grey stone wall. On the gate, a metal raven with its wings outstretched and silver writing upon every feather. The palace of the Word Smith. Augus grit his teeth together and stared at the gate, then looked up the stone wall that didn’t seem to end.

What now?

He knelt beside Gwyn, smoothing some of the tangles of shaggy, wet blond hair away from his face. Gwyn’s eyes were still open and staring. When a trickle of water moved into his eye, he didn’t blink it away. Augus reached down and absently thumbed the water away from his mouth, his nose, the corners of his eyes.

A prickle of energy in the air around him, and he turned to see the Raven Prince standing a few metres away. He didn’t wear his crown, and instead was ensconced in a floor-sweeping cloak made of shining, glossy raven’s feathers. His hair was much the same, odd pinion and tail feathers poking out of his scruffy black hair. His raven’s eyes took in Augus’ appearance, and Gwyn’s, and then the hint of a smile touched the corners of his lips. He looked amused.

A swell of rage threatened to spill out of Augus’ throat, and he kept it back through force of will.

‘Your Majesty,’ Augus said, unable to keep the coldness out of his voice.

‘Augus,’ the Raven Prince said, his smile widening a little, the amusement practically dripping from his tone. ‘Have you brought me a present?’

The Raven Prince walked over slowly, picking his way across the damp bank, his nose wrinkling at one point. Augus had heard that the Raven Prince didn’t like for his bare flesh to ever touch the ground, so he frequently wore garments that covered his arms, his legs, wore boots that wouldn’t let his toes touch the soil. Augus could understand it to a point – though it was rare, bird shifters sometimes ended up with a phobia of walking on two feet, the constant reminder of their lack of wings. But Augus was a lake dweller, he digested his food in the bowels of the earth, he knew enough to know that the soil of the world was a miracle, it turned death into life and then allowed it to flourish.

The Raven Prince stood by Gwyn’s head, looking down upon him.

‘Oh,’ the Raven Prince said softly.

Augus was just about to ask what the Raven Prince meant, when a supernatural breeze swept up around him, cooling the water on his skin. He looked around, perturbed, and then the breeze moved through him and he was being teleported. He held onto himself awkwardly, not having experienced anything like it, and just as he thought he didn’t like this mode of teleportation, he landed – still in his crouched position of before – on a stone floor, in a room that could have easily been a cell, for all that it had a single wooden door and was surrounded on all sides by stone walls with no windows. There wasn’t a single item of furniture in the room.

‘Unbind him and come with me, Augus,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘We’ll leave him to recover himself.’

‘Your Majesty, I mean no disrespect, but he could take hours. Longer. I’m not-’

‘Then he will take hours. Come, Augus,’ the Raven Prince said, the tiniest hint of impatience in his voice. ‘We can explore my present in a bit.’

Augus tried to school his face to indifference but the Raven Prince must have caught a hint of his anger, for the amused expression crept back onto his face again. His eyes appeared alight with humour. It was captivating. Augus was torn between fury and a desire to do anything to please him, to earn his approval. He wasn’t sure how much of it was glamour, how much of it was the fact that the Raven Prince was King.

He snapped the waterweed from Gwyn’s body. If it weren’t for the fact that Gwyn’s chest was rising and falling in fast, shallow motions, he could easily be mistaken for dead. Augus couldn’t even feel any glamour rolling off him, so deeply had he gone into himself. He grimaced and squeezed the excess water out of his hair and followed the Raven Prince from the room, finding himself in a long corridor lit with werelight.

They had passed many other rooms of closed doors, the Raven Prince silent, his steps sharp, when the Raven Prince halted and Augus stopped. The Raven Prince looked over his shoulder, past Augus, back down the corridor where they’d walked.

Without another word, he turned and walked back towards where Gwyn was being held, letting himself into the room, Augus’ nerves jangling with apprehension. Gwyn hadn’t moved from the floor, and the Raven Prince left the door gaping open as he moved closer, looking Gwyn over like he was a curious piece of flotsam washed up upon the shore. Augus hung back, uncertain.

‘Gwyn ap Nudd,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice strong. ‘I am the Raven Prince, King of the Unseelie Kingdom and its Court. I know you can hear me. If you do as I say, when I ask it, I swear that no harm will come to you while I can prevent it. Now, stand for me.’

Augus opened his mouth to say that he didn’t think it was likely that Gwyn would respond to anything, when Gwyn’s hand twitched. Augus stared at him, wondered if the Raven Prince had some compulsion in his voice that he’d never heard of in stories or legends. Or was it Gwyn’s need to obey authority figures? Augus looked first at the Raven Prince, and then at Gwyn as he pushed himself slowly onto his knees, his arms shaking, waterweed falling from his body, his eyes still staring blankly ahead.

Finally, Gwyn’s eyes darted for less than a second to Augus’ face, and then he pushed himself into a standing position, resolutely looking away from the Raven Prince. His face was almost white.

The Raven Prince nodded and walked closer, peering into Gwyn’s face, not seeming to notice, or care, at the way Gwyn leaned back from him without actually stepping backwards. Then the Raven Prince walked around him slowly, examining him, one hand rising and fingers splaying, moving slightly. His hand tensed, and he paused at Gwyn’s back, his index finger pointing. His lips thinned and his eyes narrowed, but his gaze turned distant. He completed his circumnavigation and faced Gwyn once more.

‘Hold still,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘This will not hurt.’

Quickly, his fingers shifter and flickered, and then Gwyn’s body began to glow a dirty red. Through his clothing, underneath his hair, across his face. The reddish light painted stripes and lacerations across his skin, blotches and more, until finally there was nothing left of Gwyn’s skin but the red light, even glowing beneath his feet. Gwyn blinked rapidly now, staring ahead, shaking visibly. He didn’t move away, and the Raven Prince’s brow furrowed.

‘Do you know what this is, Augus?’ the Raven Prince said, and Augus shook his head.

‘No, Your Majesty.’

‘Court status fae always heal from their wounds, if those wounds are not inflicted by sorcery. You will find out yourself that you cannot be scarred from many of even the gravest injuries. However, every harm leaves a residue in the etheric energy of any fae. It is as you said. He has been tortured. The darkness of the red indicates severity.’

The Raven Prince’s fingers twitched and the light disappeared. Augus stared in wonder. The Raven Prince was a Mage, trained by the School of the Staff. It was said that every Mage needed a staff to use their magic, but the Raven Prince seemed to use none at all. Gwyn’s body no longer glowed, and he stood, trembling, his fingers clenching and unclenching by his sides.

The Raven Prince looked at Gwyn speculatively, then stepped even closer, placing one bare hand against the wet shirt Gwyn was wearing, where his heart beat. The other came and rested two hand-spans beneath. He looked at Gwyn hungrily, and then closed his eyes.

Augus felt nothing shift in the room, no energy change, but Gwyn stepped backwards as though struck. He made a faint, frightened noise, and the Raven Prince’s eyes opened slowly, his hands remained in place.

‘Step back towards me,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice quiet, but no less cold.

Gwyn stared at the Raven Prince and stepped further away. Augus wanted to tell him not to do that, you simply didn’t throw up anything that looked like denial to the Raven Prince. He was an Unseelie King. Petty, cold, vengeful. But the Raven Prince simply stared Gwyn down, until, after a long minute, Gwyn stepped back towards the Raven Prince, his shoulders hunching.

‘This is not painful,’ the Raven Prince said, faintly condescending. ‘Bear it better.’

The Raven Prince did…whatever he was doing – Augus had no idea, and Gwyn flinched, cringed, looked absolutely miserable. The Raven Prince’s hands didn’t move, his fingers didn’t press into Gwyn’s flesh, so Augus had to assume that everything he was doing was magical. It would explain why he couldn’t sense it. His own magical aptitude was poor.

‘Ah,’ the Raven Prince said softly, even as Gwyn’s head bowed to the side and he looked like he would disappear if he could. ‘They should not have toyed with you, little fae, should they?’

Augus’ lips quirked despite his fear, his apprehension. Hearing the Raven Prince call Gwyn ‘little fae’ was strange, given that he and Gwyn were of a height, and Gwyn looked like he could topple him over if he so much as pushed the Raven Prince with a single finger. Of course it wasn’t true, the Raven Prince had years of wisdom, magic and more on his side, but still…

Little fae.

‘They did you a favour, little fae,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice softening. ‘The light you hold so deep is very dangerous indeed, and it has a tendency to kill the few who are born with it. But it can be trained, tamed, brought to heel. And you have the aptitude to do so much more with it.’

The Raven Prince dropped his hands and stepped back, eyes narrow, mouth pinched in the corners.

‘They have taken a Mage from me,’ the Raven Prince said, meeting Augus’ eyes. ‘A Mage.’

‘Your Majesty?’

‘I do not like it when people take things that are mine and lie to me about it. I like it even less when they take something of value. He should have been trained in the School of the Staff years ago. They’ve wasted decades of potential. Centuries. I think I shall be having words with this Court family, and the Oak King himself. How I hope Quercus knew nothing about this crime, for if he did, I may even have to nullify what bond we have that resembles friendship. I somewhat doubt the Oak King would like the results of that.’

The Raven Prince smiled slowly. ‘Though I might.’

The Raven Prince turned back to Gwyn, eyes skating over his hunched, trembling form. Augus could see a range of expressions on the Raven Prince’s face. There was a hunger there, an avidity in his interest, but it was all locked behind the expression he usually wore; a calm composure, the faintest hint of constant amusement, as though the entire world was a game and no shift on the playing field truly surprised him. Augus’ skin prickled. He didn’t like the way the Raven Prince stared at Gwyn; as though he was a possession, an object to be used.

It was obvious enough to Augus that Gwyn had spent enough of his life as an object of other’s interests and whims. He couldn’t see how Gwyn landing in the lap of the Raven Prince was much of an improvement.

Ash was right, he realised. He and Ash were the only ones who seemed to care for Gwyn beyond a function that he could fill.

That can’t be a good thing.

‘I must gather some items,’ the Raven Prince said finally. ‘Please, both of you, wait here. I shall return shortly.’

He teleported in a whirl of wind and black feathers, a single piece of grey, feathery down falling to the ground after him. Augus and Gwyn were alone.

Gwyn didn’t move for long moments, and then slowly, as though his neck and shoulders were stiff, he turned to look at Augus. It was a wretched expression, one that Augus dearly wanted to soothe, and didn’t dare.

‘I…want to leave,’ Gwyn said, his voice breaking and whispery soft; far softer than Augus was used to hearing from him.

Me too.

‘We leave when the King of the Unseelie says we can leave,’ Augus said calmly.

Gwyn shook his head in a stilted, sharp manner.

‘I want to leave,’ Gwyn said, plaintive. ‘I want to go h- I want to go back to- to the lake.’

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, trying to think of what else to say. To hear that tone of voice, feel the desperation in every one of those words that must have been so hard to utter in this alien, foreign place. He was surprised at how stifling it was to watch Gwyn summon his courage, only to have to tell him ‘no.’

‘I want to leave, too,’ Augus said finally.

It didn’t help. Gwyn was becoming more tense, winding up tighter, his glamour turning agitated and brittle. Augus pursed his lips. Gwyn wouldn’t stand much more of this. It frustrated him that the Raven Prince likely knew that, could even be pushing Gwyn to break deliberately. Why, though? For what possible purpose?

He forced his breathing to remain slow and even, which lasted as long as it took for the Raven Prince to return in another whirl of feathers, a black medical kit in one hand. He opened it, withdrew a scalpel, and Gwyn made a short, sharp sound in the back of his throat. Fear drenched the room, leaving its scent thick and heavy on the stone walls.

‘I need to remove that aithwick,’ the Raven Prince said, almost to himself. But he turned to Gwyn, holding the scalpel in an artist’s hands, and Gwyn’s pupils dilated, his face blanched.

Faster than Augus would have thought possible, Gwyn bolted past them, straight through the door that was still open. His steps pounded away from them, and he fled, as fleet as a deer.

Augus turned to run after him, and an alien sensation locked his bones and joints together so that he could not move. He gasped, felt the Raven Prince walk alongside him.

‘I’ll follow him,’ the Raven Prince said calmly, and then waved his arm, unlocking the paralysis with ease. In that moment, Augus knew the Raven Prince had pushed Gwyn deliberately, for he could have stopped Gwyn with a single movement of his hand. Augus stared at him, dismayed, and the Raven Prince gave him a grim smile. ‘Follow the silver ribbon when you see it.’

Gwyn’s footsteps had already faded when the Raven Prince called his true-form to himself, turning from a tall, slender man into an oversized raven, adorned with a pelt of feathers so glossy and iridescent, they could belong to no one else but himself. He shot away, cawing raucously, his feathers leaving a jade, blue and violet streak in Augus’ eyes. He stood there, alone, a medical kit on the floor, a scalpel on the ground where it had fallen.

The silver ribbon? What did that even mean?

He walked hesitantly to the doorway and looked down a long, stone corridor. There were no servants or guards, he had no idea where he was within the palace. Gwyn would have no idea where he was going, and Augus didn’t like the idea of Gwyn running loose, pushed into a flight response.

‘Damn it,’ Augus whispered.

He blinked when he saw it. A silver glint in the distance, hanging about six feet in the air. It unspooled towards him, catching the torchlight; a silver ribbon. When it reached Augus it hung in the air, floating thanks to some unseen force. Augus took a step towards it, and a stretch of the ribbon closest to him disintegrated into silver flecks of light before disappearing entirely. He took another step, and the ribbon further disintegrated.

He tried to reach up and touch it, to see if it even felt like ribbon, but it frittered away from his touch into tiny, glowing particles of light, before even more of the ribbon fell out of existence.

Follow the silver ribbon.

Augus started walking quickly in the direction of the ribbon, and then finally, he started running, not wanting to leave Gwyn and the Raven Prince alone together for too long.

He ran through a maze of stone corridors, wooden doors, and the further within the palace he moved, the more he saw tapestries and maps, parchments and more hanging on the stone walls. Rugs began to appear. The doors became more ornate and outside some of the doors he spotted a pair of boots, a leaning umbrella, a gilt cage with a tiny midnight blue bird singing brightly within, its eyes and beak gleaming like stars. And still the silver ribbon unwound and Augus wondered how Gwyn could have covered so much ground so quickly, wondered if this was even the right path to his charge.

He passed guards at one point, and then servants, but they all left him alone. He felt their curious gazes on their backs, but they said nothing at all, and still he ran, chasing after the ribbon that hung and curled in the air.

The palace altered and he found himself amongst bare stone corridors and stone doors. He was taken down spiralling, winding staircases, one that appeared so frail he knew it only bore his weight due to the strength of magic within the palace; had Gwyn braved that? Windows began to appear down newer corridors marked with cool tones of marble, his boots clipping across the stone. He looked through stone archways through to night gardens, werelights floating within, landscaped gardens melding seamlessly into urgently wild forest. He caught the glint of feral, animal eyes watching him; the Unseelie beasts of the fae world that required the palace’s protection, too.

He took wide stone steps down onto a delicately lit cobbled path that quickly gave way to moss and compacted sawdust. He passed night-blooming jasmine, roses, the scents of medicinal and ornamental flowers both coating his senses and only then did he realise how much he’d been following the scent of Gwyn’s fear, and the bird musk of the Raven Prince behind it.

He kept running, an overgrown branch whipping across his face, until the ribbon disintegrated entirely and he was in a thick, dark forest.

A crooning sound nearby; a lost, lingering warble, like an animal moaning repeatedly before death.

Augus stepped across the grass and soil carefully until he rounded a thicket, and saw Gwyn behind it, balled up on his arms and knees on the ground, his head resting on the dirt. He was hiding like a mortally wounded creature might. He breathed in only to make that crooning sound again, his eyes open and unseeing, a self-soothing of the kind that Augus hadn’t quite witnessed before, and wasn’t sure he wanted to see again.

Even more surprising, the Raven Prince was in the exact same position, mirroring Gwyn, staring at him. On the ground. The Raven Prince in human form, wings and hollow bones shed in favour of a form everyone knew he hated. Just as everyone knew he loathed his skin touching the soil. Yet here he was, mimicking Gwyn, staring at him intensely.

The Raven Prince made a similar sound – lower and harsher, with his raven’s voice, and matched it to Gwyn’s carefully. His hand rested flat on the dirt by Gwyn’s hand, not touching him, but close all the same. The Raven Prince matched his breathing to Gwyn’s, synchronised his sounds, until finally they crooned a strange harmony.

Gwyn blinked in confusion and stared at the Raven Prince, then stopped making the sound.

‘Greetings,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice soft. ‘I apologise for distressing you. I assured you no harm would come to you, and then showed you a scalpel. Your reaction was somewhat predictable.’

Gwyn kept staring at him. He didn’t seem to know that Augus was there.

The Raven Prince watched Gwyn for several breaths longer, and then lifted his hand and touched fingertips swiftly and carefully to Gwyn’s forehead, even as Gwyn went to flinch away.

Gwyn slumped, limp, eyes rolling back in his head, and the Raven Prince stood easily, dusting his clothing off with a look of disgust.

‘Your Majesty, what did you do?’

‘He’s unconscious,’ the Raven Prince said calmly, shaking off his hands and wrinkling his nose. ‘We do need to remove that aithwick, but he doesn’t have to be awake for the procedure. Now, I’ve had quite enough of delays. I want to see this Unseelie fae the way he should be seen, without any of that revolting old lore attached to him.’

‘You knew he’d run,’ Augus said, and the Raven Prince lifted a hand as though it was obvious.

‘I wanted to see if he’d do what most wild creatures do when distressed, which is – usually – get outside as quickly as possible. Very predictable. Also,’ the Raven Prince smiled wickedly, ‘I am a predator, and sometimes I just want to make the frightened thing run.’

*

The Raven Prince teleported all of them back into the stone room, and Gwyn remained unresponsive. There, the Raven Prince fashioned a table of spindly metals, twining them together to form something of a medical stretcher that he lifted Gwyn onto as though he weighed nothing at all. The magic and might of the Raven Prince still surprised Augus, even though he’d heard rumours and legends and stories all his life. That such a slight man could lift someone so easily – even though Augus knew it was assisted by magic – was still something that his mind couldn’t quite wrap itself around; even as he called his own waterhorse strength to make his human-form capable of great feats.

There, with Gwyn lying insensate on his stomach, the Raven Prince lifted his shirt and located the small silvery scar that Augus had seen himself. His lips thinned as he held the scalpel up, and then he hesitated, squinting.

‘I don’t want his blood on my hands,’ the Raven Prince said, putting down the scalpel. ‘Not yet. I shall fetch someone else to do this.’

The Raven Prince teleported away and returned with a mouse maiden that Augus assumed must be Fluri, the Mage. She wore a harlequin’s motley of ochre, red and gold, and her long, shining black hair was tied behind her, decorated with flowers and shafts of wheat. She displayed her mouse ears proudly, and they complimented her dark brown skin. She – unlike the Raven Prince – had an obvious staff, and as soon as she was in the room, Augus could feel the presence of her power, radiating strongly despite her diminutive height.

She twitched her nose at the form on the table. ‘They are very effective, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, this is your first time feeling an aithwick in its true action, isn’t it? It is enough to cloud even our minds were the curtain of deception not pulled back by the Each Uisge,’ the Raven Prince said, staring down at the scar, and then delicately stepping out of Fluri’s way when she moved closer.

She leaned her long, wooden staff against the table, twitched a crease out of her sari and then placed human hands that terminated in mouse fingers and claws over Gwyn’s lower back, closing her eyes. Immediately, she opened them again, mouse eyes gleaming and her head turning to the Raven Prince’s.

‘Did they know?’ she said. ‘Did they know what they had? What they stifled?’

‘But of course,’ the Raven Prince said.

‘Will it mean war? Your warriors spoil for one.’

‘They spoil for death in any form that it comes,’ the Raven Prince said, one corner of his mouth curling into a sneer. ‘But to use old lore to complete a lie? It could mean war. I have grounds. I would rather use my own means to solve this problem, than to wield a crude lot of fae with weapons to smash another crude lot of fae with weapons.’

Fluri shook her head slowly, then opened the Raven Prince’s medical kit, removing gauze, bandages, more. She placed them around Gwyn’s bared skin, and then picked up the scalpel, turning it, poking her fingers over Gwyn’s back before pushing down hard, feeling for the aithwick. Gwyn didn’t twitch, didn’t wake.

‘Excuse me,’ Augus said quietly, as she started to lower the scalpel. ‘He’s unconscious, will he- Will he wake during the pain?’

‘No,’ Fluri said, her thick, sculpted eyebrows rising. ‘Do you wish to keep asking me questions as though you think I have no idea what I’m doing? By all means, continue to question the Inner Court Mage of the Raven Prince, I do so like to when nouveau-Court imply that I can’t do a simple task such as this.’

‘He’s concerned for the creature,’ the Raven Prince said, smiling indulgently at Augus. ‘I’m not sure he can help himself.’

‘Try,’ Fluri said, blinking at Augus once, before turning her head down to Gwyn once more. She pressed the scalpel into his skin quickly, and it parted before her blade, blood spilling down his side onto the gauze she’d already placed to collect it. She worked deftly, quickly, and though Gwyn’s breathing sped up, he did not flinch or show any other signs of pain.

The scent of Gwyn’s blood was, momentarily, intoxicating. There was so much of it, and Augus’ mouth began to water, even as he shoved all of those unwelcome reactions away. He stepped closer as Fluri the mouse-maiden dug her fingers into Gwyn’s flesh. She made a faint squeaking noise of success when she found what must have been the object used to gull fae into thinking he was Seelie.

‘This is very crude, and I do not think wrought by a Mage,’ she said to the Raven Prince, pulling Gwyn’s skin apart more even as he craned forwards, looking over her shoulder. ‘The aithwick was likely purchased by a Mage and then this was something they did themselves. I cannot save this section of the rib here. I need a larger knife, it has to be ingrit. Get it out of the kit.’

The Raven Prince moved gracefully to the medical kit and Augus watched in amazement. Fluri had just ordered the Raven Prince to do something, like a servant, and rather than throw up a fuss or even seem perturbed, he’d simply done it.

Augus stared at Fluri in awe, even as the Raven Prince returned with a stronger blade.

Fluri took the knife without saying thank you, and without hesitating, thrust the knife into Gwyn’s body. Her wrist moved back and forth – sawing at bone – and then Gwyn’s hands did curl, his feet tensed, he made a long, thin noise.

‘Is that his magic?’ the Raven Prince asked, though the look on his face suggested he already knew the answer.

‘Yes,’ Fluri said. ‘He’s fighting mine. He has no skill. Completely untrained. He’ll stay under. I may not possess his raw power, but I am stronger while I have the training.’

The Raven Prince seemed not to care whether Gwyn would stay under or not. Instead, he walked around the table, looking at Gwyn’s curled fingers, peering into his face, at one point barely brushing his fingertips over Gwyn’s hair. Augus felt tension ratchet through him. He wanted to get Gwyn back to his lake. He wanted to not have to deal with a world that felt so painfully separated from his own homely, simple life.

Fluri gasped, and the Raven Prince stiffened. Augus could see nothing different and then seconds later he felt it.

Gwyn was Unseelie. A change in the energy around them, as though a note ringing out on a tuning fork had been paused, then rang out on another note entirely. The air around them seemed to hum with it, even as Fluri removed a bloodied, black section of rib; a crystal soldered to it. It was pale, milky, faceted. It looked like nothing more than badly cut, poor quality opal. Fluri placed it down carefully on a clean section of gauze.

‘I want that,’ the Raven Prince said quickly. ‘I’ll add it to my collection.’

Fluri nodded, but was focusing instead on shifting Gwyn’s skin and then pinching it together with her fingers.

‘He’s healing,’ she said. ‘It’s slow. The aithwick and ingrit both will mean that this does not heal as a normal wound.’ She looked at Augus, her bright, beady eyes narrowing. ‘He’ll be in pain for a few days. The rib will always be more susceptible to injury than the rest of him. His skin and muscle and tendon will heal easily. The bone will be sore. Do you have basic painkillers for him?’

‘Yes, my Lady,’ Augus said. He wanted to say that he had better than basic painkillers, but he thought now was perhaps not the time to boast. Not with these fae who exuded power and who talked of making war with the Seelie King like it was nothing more than a crass, boring act.

‘He will be a Mage,’ the Raven Prince said, looking down upon him.

‘Even if he doesn’t want to be?’ Fluri said, echoing Augus’ thoughts.

‘What fae doesn’t want to obey their King?’ the Raven Prince said lightly, just enough edge in his voice that Augus swallowed and forced himself to stay steady, not to look away.

‘Ah, you do have that habit of simply steamrolling over freewill, don’t you?’ Fluri said, but she smiled at the Raven Prince fondly, even as she eased her fingers away from Gwyn’s wound. A small part in the skin remained, but it was obvious that the muscles had already started knitting together. She quickly wiped the excess blood off Gwyn’s skin, sniffing it curiously where it clung to her fingers, before lowering his shirt back down and wiping off her hands.

‘He will be my apprentice,’ the Raven Prince said, still looking at Gwyn as though he were a particularly fascinating toy. The Raven Prince’s gaze shot up to Augus and he raised an eyebrow. ‘He will train with me, Augus. Though I permit him to continue living with yourself and the Glashtyn. But he must train with me. I am of an age to take on an apprentice. I’ve made my choice.’

Fluri rolled her eyes, but said nothing at all. The Raven Prince touched his fingers once more to Gwyn’s hair, and then he tilted his head.

‘Two weeks. A week to heal, and one more for me to decide what it is I shall do about this situation as it stands. Two weeks he will stay with you and recover. I doubt he’ll remember me or this place fondly. After two weeks, you shall deliver him to me on the night of the new moon, no later than an hour after sunset. You can take no clients in that time, Augus. I will give you a protective ward for your home, your lake, but it will not be kind to anyone other than Gwyn, yourself, or the Glashtyn.’

‘Yes, Your Majesty.’

The Raven Prince smiled and stepped towards him, reaching out and touching Augus’ jaw with his fingers, lifting Augus’ head. His eyes narrowed in a way that suggested calculation and pleasure.

‘Do you know, Augus, that when I made you Court status, I did not expect you to become more timid.’

‘I imagine that you knew exactly what would happen, Your Majesty,’ Augus said, his voice stiff.

The Raven Prince’s smile widening indicated that yes, he did know. Even now, he was playing games with all of them, and who knew how many more fae besides. But his eyes were warm, not cold, and his touch was soft.

‘Where’s that fighting spirit?’ the Raven Prince said, tracing the tip of a fingernail across Augus’ skin and making Augus’ teeth clench. His heartsong of dominance that sang so loudly inside of him, tripped and faltered to be placed in such a position. His nostrils flared.

‘What do you want from me?’ Augus said, not looking away from that strong, bright gaze.

‘The other Each Uisge were not tender-hearted in the slightest. Are you so easily bruised? Where, I wonder, does that come from?’ The Raven Prince’s hand dropped away and he met Fluri’s eyes before turning to Augus once more. ‘I shall leave Gwyn ap Nudd, my Unseelie apprentice, in your capable hands. I shall fetch the ward for you now, and see you two weeks hence.’

‘And my brother’s status?’ Augus said, hesitantly.

‘Ah, him,’ the Raven Prince said, mouth curling again. ‘I suppose he might visit in two weeks also. Though I never thought I’d see the day when I’d bequeath a Court status on the Glashtyn.’

The Raven Prince was still chuckling, even as he teleported out of the room. Augus was left standing there, Gwyn lying limp on the table and Fluri still cleaning up, carefully moving the bloodied aithwick into a ball of protective gauze.

‘You have no idea what you’ve gone and gotten yourself into, have you, young man?’ Fluri said, not looking at him.

‘No idea,’ Augus admitted. ‘Though I suspect it’s not good.’

‘Oh,’ Fluri smiled, unexpectedly friendly. ‘There’s good in everything, in the end. At least for some of us.’

 

Chapter Text

Everything was wet.

His clothing was stuck to him, his hair was wet, and even as he struggled out of blackness – his nose telling him that he was in their house and no longer in that horrible stone castle – he knew he’d been pulled through the water again. They’d made him unconscious. The bird-King had made him blackout and now he was wet and there was fire in his ribs and the bird-King had rifled all the way through him with his magic and it was awful.

Gwyn screamed, flailed out before he’d even opened his eyes. Heard the clipped sound the cold one made, and then a cry when Gwyn managed to land another solid hit. He was in the lounge, dripping wet, the rug was beneath him and Augus was two feet away where Gwyn had managed to shove him.

Teeth bared, a growl in the back of his throat, Gwyn lunged at him. Gwyn had trusted him and the cold one – Augus – had said the bird-King would help them and instead everything was fire in his ribs and he knew it wasn’t a normal injury. He knew. They’d done something in exactly the same place where his parents had put the crystal in him.

The cold one scrambled out of the way, eyes widening, and then he was bellowing for the other one. The warm one.

‘Ash!’

Gwyn got a hand on Augus’ ankle, dug his fingers in, fingernails splitting through skin and now even more blood in the air. There were running footsteps and now, now they would betray him or sell him back or change their minds and Gwyn was bleeding all down his side and they’d done that. He hadn’t even wanted to go to the stupid palace. All life had taught him was that any edifice made of stone was something to be avoided.

The warm one – Ash – in the room now and he was normally the nice one, and there was even more shouting, and Gwyn didn’t care about words anymore.

Then, waterweed – everywhere. Four directions. He couldn’t fight back against four wrists shooting rubbery, wet, living rope at him. He tore through one, got sticky sap on his fingers, and then shrieked so loudly he hurt his own ears when they got it around his legs, and then his arms, and finally his torso, the stuff twisting painfully over the wound in his back.

‘Fucking hell,’ said the warm one. Ash.

Gwyn heaved for breath, still wet, blood still spilling from his flank. There were words tumbling in his head, piling up like unbalanced bricks until they’d topple over. Just syllables and broken sounds. He settled on a bitter, betrayed glare at the cold one. At Augus.

Augus stood up, swore when he stumbled slightly and then rested all his weight on one leg.

‘It wasn’t fun for me either,’ Augus spat at him, limping out of the room. ‘You deal with it,’ he said to Ash. ‘I’m…I can’t even look at him. Call me if you think he’s going to kill you.’

‘Yep,’ Ash called back, not looking away from Gwyn the entire time.

The room was already warmer. That’s what Ash did. He made the room warm. It was like…being in front of a fireplace in a room with soft rugs and blankets. Gwyn stared at him, his eyes flickering to the place where Augus had exited.

It wasn’t fun for me either.

His eyes narrowed. But then…the cold one hadn’t tricked him yet. Had he? Maybe he really didn’t know that it would end like this.

‘Hey,’ Ash said, crouching beside him. ‘Hey, easy, buddy. Easy there. Jesus, you’re a fucking mess. What did they do to you, hm? They hurt you? Fuckers.’

Gwyn blinked at him. Everything was so warm. Ash smelled of salt and chemicals and silt and water and the same hair products as Augus now that he’d been staying here for some time. He wore soft clothing, had curly hair, little springs of grass green-yellow waterweed, and his eyes were bright hazel instead of bright green like Augus’, but he made the same eye contact like Augus did. It was focused, unblinking. Gwyn returned it.

Then he looked away, in the direction where Augus had gone.

‘Easy,’ Ash said, his voice even quieter. ‘He’ll be fine, yeah? He’s stressed. I don’t even know what happened but…I’m sure he’ll tell me later. Anyway, hey, hey there, just look at me now. You don’t need to worry about him, okay?’

Ash sometimes talked to him like he was a child. And sometimes like an animal. Gwyn knew he should mind, should feel indignant, but there was nothing patronising about it. Ash didn’t seem to expect him to say anything, and Gwyn didn’t have to think about the sharpness of syllables around him.

Something quietened in his chest, though he stayed tense as Ash crouched beside him.

Ash was the one who had encouraged Augus to take the manacles off him the first time.

‘Okay, come on now, I’m not going to hurt you,’ Ash said. His nostrils flared and his gaze sharpened. In response Gwyn tensed even more, knowing that look. ‘Are you still bleeding?’

Gwyn’s lips thinned. He couldn’t exactly get away like this, not easily.

‘Oh boy, they did a number on you, huh?’ Ash said, he sighed and sat down properly, leaning his back against the couch and watching Gwyn with something almost sad on his face. ‘I really want to be able to help you. You know that, right? But I don’t want to stress you out more. It’s pretty obvious that whatever happened today, it put you back in a bad place. You’ve probably had enough of that. Will you let me come close enough that I can untie you just a little? Yeah?’

The room was getting warmer. That was…dra’ocht, like his mother’s, but different. It wasn’t sharp and harsh on his skin like steel wool. It was fluffy.

Gwyn watched Ash from where he was curled up on his side on the floor. He could feel blood leaking out of his back. Then, Ash’s eyes widened and he inhaled sharply. Gwyn made a raw sound and flinched even as Ash lurched forwards.

‘Fuck me, you are Unseelie. Oh Jesus, is that what they did? Did they remove the thing that enchants you to seem Seelie? Is that what they did?’

Gwyn stared at him, perplexed. Was that what happened? He didn’t remember. The last thing he remembered was fleeing through a stone labyrinth and finding his way into a garden, and then the bird-King crooning to him like he understood. But the bird-King had reached out and then there had been nothing but the black.

Maybe that was why his back hurt so much. Had they taken it out?

It meant he couldn’t hide what he was anymore. Everyone would know. Gwyn made a long thin sound before he could stop himself, then curled up so tightly that the waterweed was hurting him. He didn’t care. If he couldn’t hide it, he didn’t know what others would do. The two waterhorses didn’t seem to care. But others would care. His family…

‘Come on now,’ Ash said, coming closer, making the movements so easy that it was like an animal approaching him in the woods. He didn’t need to be afraid of the animals in the woods – not most of them, anyway. Even the dangerous ones were careful yet relaxed around him. Ash reminded him of that. ‘Let’s just…’

Ash reached out and moved his fingers through the waterweed like it was easy. It must have been a skill that waterhorses had with their own waterweed, because Gwyn could hardly move the stuff at all once it was cinched around him.

‘Let’s just get your arm free, hey? That’s it.’

Gwyn’s arm came free and he tucked it into his torso, looking up at Ash from beneath his lashes and wishing that the world wasn’t filled with so much. He didn’t understand how it could be so much harder to deal with everything in a closed space. Out in nature there was also a lot to contend with – the scents, the tastes in the back of his mouth, breezes carrying different strands of information, the way the trees whispered to one another, animal sounds, fae, watching out for traps, thinking about food and where to sleep and how to get warm in winter…

But even that was easier than this. The floor smelled of rugs and wood and polish and the leather and soles of boots that had trodden over them. He could smell the faint hints of strangers that he’d never met, strange fae who had shed fear chemicals in this place even though Augus had said he wasn’t a torturer. Even the way Ash leaned over him, even the way he made the room warmer, it was all too much. Gwyn closed his eyes and shut everything out, shivered.

‘Hey puppy,’ Ash said, after several seconds.

Gwyn’s eyes flew open and Ash was smiling at him, sitting cross legged in front of him like this was normal.

‘You don’t mind if I call you that? I mean I know you’re not a puppy, but sometimes when you’re like this…well, I figure you can find a way to let me know you don’t like it. Or you can tell Augus. But anyway, can I get the rest of the waterweed off you now? Or do you want to get it yourself? It’ll be easier if I get it. I’ll tell you what, if you want to do it yourself, just…ah, raise your index finger. The one you’ve got free.’

Gwyn didn’t. Even as he could see Ash watching for it. Taking the waterweed off himself would hurt. He’d have to twist and move his torso, it would aggravate the pain. Even with Court healing, he could tell there was something wrong with the wound. It wasn’t normal.

He vaguely recalled that from when he’d been very small. It hadn’t healed normally then either.

He still couldn’t stop the pulse of fear, the whimper that came when Ash leaned over him. But Ash only made a hushing sound and tore the waterweed apart everywhere, so that it fell in loops and tangles around him.

He jerked hard at the hand that touched his scalp, and then there were more hushing noises and Gwyn had his eyes shut again which was stupid, because he was fairly certain that Ash wasn’t going to hit him, but it had been such a long time and-

Ash’s dra’ocht saturated the room even more than before, and unbidden, Gwyn caught himself taking a deep breath in, exhaling heavily. It wasn’t relaxation, not quite, but something unravelled.

‘That’s it,’ Ash said, his voice going deeper, slower. ‘Easy does it. You just need some time to settle down, don’t you? And you’ll be fine, yeah?’

Everything about Ash’s voice was warm and convincing. Gwyn wanted to fall into it, because it promised some kind of dark, soothing place where he wouldn’t have to think as much anymore. Awkwardly, careful of the wound in his back, he shifted and rolled towards Ash, eventually draping one wet arm over a crossed leg, resting his head on Ash’s knee. He smelled denim and chemicals and plastic and what could be humans, but he hadn’t been in the human world for far too long. It hadn’t gone so well, last time.

Ash hesitated as Gwyn moved, but as soon as Gwyn settled again, both hands rested in his hair, stroking over the back of his head, one after the other. Ash’s fingers sending shivers down his back, but also focusing him, giving him something to swim towards in the overwhelming scents and sounds and sensations of everything around him.

‘There, see?’ Ash said, a smile in his voice. ‘That’s awesome. Bet you didn’t think you’d be able to do that a few weeks ago. I bet…’ Ash swore softly, then rubbed carefully at Gwyn’s shoulder. ‘Hey puppy, you’re bleeding a lot. Do you think I could call Augus back in here? Just to look over your wound? You remember how he does that right? He’ll just look, maybe put some herbs on it, maybe some kind of bandage, and then that’s it. Remember?’

I want to leave, too.

That’s what Augus had said to him. When they’d both been waiting side by side in the room. He could smell Augus’ discomfort. It was like the scent of him gained a bitterness weaving through the sweet freshness of him. At first he’d thought Augus had been angry with him – Gwyn thought the two smelled the same – but now…

But Gwyn didn’t want to nod, or say anything, or raise an index finger, or his fist, or do anything that signalled anything. He was tired of all of it. He closed his eyes and felt Ash’s hands smoothing over his skin. It was firm but not rough, every motion had some measure of care in it. The slight way Ash’s fingers would curl to make sure he was cupping Gwyn’s scalp properly, or the way he would tilt the palm of his hand and cause heat to shiver through Gwyn’s blood.

‘Okay,’ Ash said some time later. ‘Just be easy, okay? This is going to go fine.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Hey Augus?’ he called, his voice louder. ‘Do you think you could come back with that first aid kit of yours?’

‘How do you know I haven’t used everything on my own ankle?’ Augus called from down the hall, his voice waspish.

‘Because you overstock,’ Ash called back, sounding as cheerful as ever. Ash leaned down towards Gwyn. ‘He really does,’ Ash said quietly. ‘If you’re ever running out of any kind of healing potion or painkiller, this is a good place to come.’

Gwyn heard the distant shifting that meant Augus was getting his first aid kit. Heard the limp in his step and winced. Gwyn hadn’t been thinking. Why couldn’t Augus just…wrap his hands around Gwyn’s wrists like before? Or…talk to him in that way that made him feel like he was more than what he was?

A hesitation in the doorway and Gwyn didn’t look up to see him there, afraid of what might be on Augus’ face.

‘It seems you have something of a gift, brother,’ Augus said, his voice muted.

‘I guess,’ Ash said easily. ‘So Gwyn’s Unseelie after all, huh?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, walking closer to the both of them but pausing before he was near enough to look at Gwyn’s wound properly. He felt Augus’ gaze, couldn’t not, and was glad that he was facing away, and that his eyes were closed, and that Ash’s touch was lulling. ‘Honestly, could you get that glamour up any higher?’

‘Probably not,’ Ash said, laughing. ‘It’s working though, right?’

Maybe it was, but Gwyn didn’t care either way. It was so tiring to feel so afraid all the time. He just wanted to rest.

‘Mm,’ Augus said, his own voice easing. ‘It’s good. All right, Gwyn, I’m going to kneel by your side and lift your shirt up. Do try and hold back any tantrums until after I’ve looked after you. I can measure your lack of gratitude later.’

‘I take it things went super well then?’ Ash said, as Augus knelt exactly where he said he would.

Gwyn couldn’t stop himself from twitching when he felt fingers at the hem of his shirt. And then Ash was hushing him and stroking his hair, and Augus placed the flat of his palm in the middle of Gwyn’s back. Not petting, not stroking, just…a stable touch. Gwyn swallowed. This was the closest he’d let two people get to him – voluntarily. It stirred a shakiness in his chest, made his lungs feel weaker.

‘The Raven Prince removed the aithwick,’ Augus said quietly, peeling Gwyn’s shirt back where it had stuck to him because of skin and blood. ‘Damn it. Fluri…she did the best she could with this, but it’s a wound made by old magic. It will be resistant to healing. I’m not sure what else I can do. Let’s see.’

A snap and a click of the first aid kit being opened, and then fingers carefully pressing around the edges of the wound. Gwyn didn’t whimper, not at pain so mild, but he couldn’t stop his breath from catching at the threat of it. His arm tightened around Ash’s thigh, he pushed his forehead into Ash’s knee.

‘It’s okay,’ Ash said, leaning his head closer to him. ‘It’s going to be fine.’

‘He’s selectively mute, Ash. He’s not an idiot.’

‘I’m not treating him like a fucking idiot,’ Ash said, a bite entering his voice. ‘I’m treating him like someone who’s maybe been tortured and treated like shit all his life, okay? You have your way of dealing with him, and I have mine. If my way didn’t work, you’d be fucked right now, you know that?’

A tense stillness, the warmth faded, and Gwyn held his breath. He couldn’t help it. He could feel the strain between them both and was afraid of what-

‘Apologies,’ Augus said, and then another long pause. ‘Ash, I’m just-’

‘I know. Fuck, I’m sorry. I’m just…worried.’

One of Ash’s hands moved from where it had been resting on Gwyn’s head, and Gwyn could tell that Augus had shifted, had reached out. He wondered if they were holding hands. He knew it was something to do with touch. The warmth returned to the room again and Augus sighed.

‘We have two weeks,’ Augus said quietly. ‘The Raven Prince is giving Gwyn two weeks to heal, two weeks here to recover, and then he wants him as an apprentice. For magic. Apparently Gwyn has enough potential that the King wants him. As for helping out in the manner of protections and intervention, I think he’s slighted enough that the An Fnwy estate didn’t release a potential Mage to him, that we have nothing to worry about there.’

‘An apprentice?’ Ash said, returning his second hand to Gwyn’s head and curving it protectively around his ear. ‘Did Gwyn get any say?’

‘It’s the Unseelie King,’ Augus said, sounding so tired that Gwyn wanted to see his face, but not enough that he wanted to give up the oddly comfortable position he’d found. ‘How much say do you think we really have?’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, and Gwyn could hear the frown in his voice. ‘That’s not good enough. Look, I get that you don’t want to upset him, but I don’t really have much to lose, and-’

‘Except your voice, or your life,’ Augus said. ‘I’m still thinking about what to do about all of this, but I’ll not let you put yourself further in danger. And this is something I’ll put my foot down over. Our first priority is to make sure he’s safe from his family, and that no further harm will come to the both of us. Then we can address the Raven Prince. Yes? We have two weeks. Do I look happy about this? I can assure you I’m not, but I do know what our priorities are.’

At that, Ash went quiet, and Augus started rummaging around in his kit. Gwyn could catch the faint scent of herbs, some noxious, some pleasant, others astringent or fulsome. He pressed his nose into Ash’s denim to focus himself. Silt and water and musk and salt and the human world. It was familiar.

He gritted his teeth when Augus started wiping away the blood with a rough cloth. Augus wasn’t gentle – the blood was stubborn and had already started coagulating and sticking to his skin – but nor was he unduly rough. Where possible, he braced Gwyn’s skin with his other hand so that it wouldn’t pull as badly on his wound. But it hurt. And it reminded him of bad things. Of screaming on a table while his father and mother stood over him. Of threats and the shards of anger and hatred in their eyes when he’d been too young to really believe that they could loathe him that much.

‘Why’s it so bad?’ Ash said.

‘They cut away some of the rib with ingrit and it won’t grow back. It’s a permanent loss. Bone trauma hurts. You have his remarkable pain threshold to thank for him not being particularly bothered by the pain.’

‘Fucking hell,’ Ash said quietly, his hands momentarily tightening where they rested on Gwyn’s head. Then they started stroking again, the movements slow.

Gwyn hissed when herbs were sprinkled directly into the wound. They felt caustic, sharp, and it made everything worse for enough seconds that when he became aware of his surroundings again, Ash was hushing him and Augus had both of his hands resting on Gwyn’s bare skin. One just above the wound, and one on his side. It was steadying. Gwyn shuddered, went as limp as he could manage.

‘Good,’ Ash whispered. ‘That’s good.’

‘It is, actually,’ Augus said, sounding as tired as Gwyn felt. ‘Everything’s healing a bit faster now, and the wound will hopefully be closed in an hour or so. But the bleeding’s definitely slowing. If you can keep him in this position for a little longer?’

‘Yeah, I don’t think we’ll have any problems with that,’ Ash said. ‘Poor thing is pretty touch-starved if you ask me.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said speculatively. ‘You’d think he’d hate it after everything he’s been through.’

‘Nah,’ Ash said, and Gwyn’s ears pricked, curious, because like Augus, he also assumed he’d hate touch after everything he’d been through. ‘Like you said, he’s not an idiot. But it’s more than that. He’s lived through his instincts for a really long time. Almost any wild animal will gentle once they realise you mean them no harm. Birds preen each other not just to remove parasites but also because they enjoy it. Deer stand flank to flank for body heat as well as protection. Dogs will tangle in a puppy pile for pleasure as much as anything else. I think he can just tell the difference, y’know? Even if his mind is scared, I think his body knows.’

Gwyn stared ahead, his brow furrowing. Could it be that simple?

‘Besides,’ Ash said, tangling his fingers in Gwyn’s hair in a way that sent warmth racing through his skin, ‘if you want him to heal or start getting better, or whatever, this will help. Trust me. On his terms? This will help.’

‘And you know it’s on his terms, do you?’

‘Yeah, well, he didn’t destroy my ankle, did he?’ Ash said, laughing.

Gwyn’s lips quirked up, his eyes closed. He almost wanted to laugh with Ash, which was a strange thing to feel, because he didn’t laugh around other fae anymore. Not really.

Gwyn wished he could have both at the same time – Augus squeezing his wrists in that terrible grip, Ash stroking his hair like he was a wild creature. The anchor and solace both. But it was a miracle they weren’t injuring him or harming him, and he would accept whatever he could get for as long as it lasted. He was too hungry for it. He’d take what he could before Efnisien came and killed them both.

Chapter Text

Watching Ash with Gwyn had been strange. It was appealing, seeing the sensuous touches that Augus had received himself in the past, being doled out to Gwyn. Augus had even enjoyed the way Gwyn was sprawled out over Ash’s lap. Ash had an easiness with him, though it was doubtless helped by that appallingly strong glamour he used. Augus used his glamour to incite fear or calm in the humans he was hunting, it seemed Ash only really used his as some kind of kindness generator.

The bridge of Augus’ nose creased with disgust.

Honestly. We get such strong glamour to help with hunting, and what does he use it for?

It had been surprisingly easy to get Gwyn to lie still for an hour. Augus had brought over some food – had even found some decent bread and roasted meat for Gwyn so that Ash didn’t have to keep bringing dreck from the human world – and they’d munched on an eclectic dinner. Gwyn didn’t even sit up to eat. He just brought bits and pieces to his mouth and refused to lift his head from Ash’s knee.

Augus’ ankle ached, but he was astounded at how fast it was healing. What had been an open wound – Gwyn’s fingers digging into muscle fibres – was now closed over and felt only like a bad bruise. He’d bandaged it and treated it, but what he’d thought would be two weeks of limping was probably not going to be more than twenty four hours.

He conceded that Court status might indeed be useful.

Now, it was evening, and he leaned against his headboard, the blankets over his legs. He was searching for something that felt like equilibrium. The watery places in his mind were unbalanced and he didn’t like it. Ash in his home put things a little off in the first place, not being able to see clients didn’t help, and then there was the matter of the Raven Prince, and Gwyn, and the mess that his life had become.

He heard the knock at his door, rolled his eyes. Of course he wouldn’t be able to get a moment to himself.

The door cracked open and Gwyn peered in, eyes combing the room before alighting on Augus.

‘Can’t sleep either?’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘You might as well come in then. Close the door behind you.’

Gwyn stepped into the room and closed the door gently, so that the click was quiet. He then stood, tall and imposing even though it was obvious he was trying not to be. Not with the way his shoulders were hunched, that lost expression on his face.

Augus ignored him, went back to staring ahead and turning his thoughts inward. Whatever Gwyn wanted, he could find a way to articulate it without Augus having to do all the guesswork for him. He forced his breathing to slow even further than usual, his eyes became half-lidded. At least twenty minutes passed before Gwyn was clambering onto the bed by Augus’ feet, his long limbs going everywhere until finally he was kneeling in front of Augus and staring at him intently.

When Augus didn’t look at him, Gwyn cleared his throat.

‘These nocturnal excursions of yours – what do you hope to gain from them?’ Augus said blandly, staring at him.

Gwyn looked down at Augus’ hands where they rested in his lap, then looked meaningfully up at Augus again.

When Augus did nothing at all except return the gaze, Gwyn made a face of frustration at him. He reached out hesitantly and wrapped his fingers around Augus’ wrist and squeezed once, lightly. Then, when Augus still did nothing, Gwyn actually huffed a sound of frustration and tried pulling Augus’ hand to his own wrist.

Augus resisted the motion. It was far, far easier now that he was Court status, and Gwyn was actually putting some force into it when he gave up and growled at him.

Augus smiled, knowing that Gwyn could see it even in the dimness of the room, its night shadows, dull lights outside his home giving everything a blueish tinge.

Ask me,’ Augus said, his eyes bright in the darkness. ‘With words.’

Augus watched as Gwyn swallowed, heard the click of a dry mouth, a dry throat. But Augus was feeling in the mood to push after the day he’d had. After the week he’d had. A part of him wanted to know how much Gwyn understood of what was happening, how much he’d accept of the game.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, his voice stern.

‘Please,’ Gwyn whispered, his voice rough.

‘Don’t plead with me like I’m your torturer and you’re asking me to stop,’ Augus said, his voice going very quiet, very precise. ‘Ask me what you’d like me to do.’

‘You’ll say no,’ Gwyn said.

Augus had expected something like this. Truthfully, what he wanted to do was nudge Gwyn into submission and give both of their minds something to occupy them. In the meantime, he needed more clarity about what was happening between them. He suspected it wouldn’t hurt Gwyn either.

‘I need that thing you do,’ Gwyn said. ‘Please.’

‘What thing?’ Augus said. ‘The thing where I wrap you up in waterweed and leave you alone for a while until you come back to your senses?’

‘You know,’ Gwyn said, turning and shoving Augus’ leg where it was visible under the blankets. ‘Stop it.’

‘No,’ Augus said, smirking at him, deliberately leaning back into the headboard. ‘Maybe I’m not feeling as well-disposed to you after you ripped holes in my ankle. Though I can’t say I’m terribly surprised, either. It all went about as well as I expected it to. Better, if you consider we actually have the Raven Prince’s support.’

‘I don’t want to talk about the bird-King,’ Gwyn said, something troubled crossing his face.

Good, neither do I.

‘Then talk to me about what you want,’ Augus said.

‘You’ll…you’ll say no. Because I hurt you.’

‘Ah, it’s all very eye for an eye with you, isn’t it? How many times did your family teach you that, I wonder? Hurting you for slights real and imagined, showing you that the way of the world is pain for pain.’

Gwyn made a sound that was some kind of frustrated, impatient whine. Augus’ eyes widened, his eyebrows shot up.

‘Whining is not you telling me what you want either,’ Augus said.

Gwyn bared his teeth at Augus and then slid off the bed, his hands clenching by his sides. He paced at the foot of Augus’ bed, and Augus watched him for a minute or two, and then closed his eyes and tried to calm his mind again. If Gwyn wanted everything to be easy, he could go to Ash. He was sure his idiot brother would be more than happy to welcome Gwyn with that glamour and open arms and easy words. Augus could do with some of that himself. He sighed. He was the older brother, he wasn’t supposed to be the one asking for that.

Time had stretched on again when Gwyn got back onto the bed, the movements rushed. He placed both of his palms clumsily on Augus’ forearm, then hesitated. A moment of tortured indecision, and Augus thought about making it easier for him, but…he wasn’t the type to coddle, and he genuinely believed Gwyn capable. The creature was resilient and stubborn, he’d survived years and years of torture; whatever he was, he wasn’t incapable.

‘Do the thing that you do,’ Gwyn said, the words breathlessly tumbling forth. ‘The thing where you take my wrists. I can’t…’

Augus’ arms moved, he leaned forwards and placed his hands around Gwyn’s wrists, applied pressure fast. No slow build up this time, but pain instead. Gwyn’s eyes flashed at him, and in amongst something like indignity, Augus swore he saw a longing that almost stole his breath away.

A long, broken exhale, and Gwyn tried tugging his hands away – not true protest, just testing. Augus kept his grip firm, watched Gwyn settle into it.

So, here they were again.

Five minutes passed, Gwyn’s breathing already deeper, and Augus transferred Gwyn’s wrists to a single grip, his own fingers aching at the pressure he was keeping up. He carefully, steadily placed his other hand on Gwyn’s chest, feeling the heartbeat. It was slower than usual.

Gwyn frowned down at the hand on his chest.

‘What are you doing?’ Gwyn said, looking at Augus suspiciously.

‘Measuring your heart rate,’ Augus said. ‘Why? Are you coming any closer to realising that this isn’t at all what your family did to you? Do you still think I’m a torturer?’

‘Your house smells of fear,’ Gwyn said, though the words weren’t sharp or poisonous, only matter-of-fact. ‘The…place out there most of all. With the chairs and couch and kitchen.’

‘Many of my clients are afraid when they come here. Of themselves. Of what they’ve done. Of not finding what they’re looking for. Weren’t you afraid that I would say no to you, when you asked me to confine your wrists like that? Well, they are looking for far more than this, and it’s not uncommon to be afraid of not getting something you require. What about the other rooms you’ve been in? The one where I tied you up the first time?’

‘You chained me,’ Gwyn snarled.

‘I did,’ Augus said. ‘I was underfae, and you tried to kill me.’

‘You-’ Gwyn’s mouth hung open for a few more seconds and then his rebellious expression passed and he looked away. Augus squeezed his wrists together more tightly, and Gwyn exhaled, his head bowed. ‘The fear there is different. It’s still in the room, but it’s…there are other smells.’

‘Indeed,’ Augus said.

Gwyn looked down at the hand on his chest again. Augus hadn’t moved it away. Couldn’t bring himself to. He liked feeling the shape of Gwyn’s chest beneath his shirt. He wasn’t eating enough, needed to put on more weight and fat, but Augus still liked the dip of his sternum, the concave between pectorals.

‘You come across like a naïve, innocent thing sometimes,’ Augus said, licking his lips. ‘But you’re not, are you? You’ve had sex before, as you’ve said. You’ve defended yourself from those who would have raped you. You’re capable of asking for what you want if pushed to. I understand that making decisions is a hard thing for you, Gwyn. It must be very hard, when you’ve spent a lot of your life not knowing what sort of pain a decision might lead to. But I like it when you decide something for yourself. This? Now? This is good.’

Gwyn nodded, his hands going limp in Augus’ grip. ‘No one else talks to me like you do.’

‘Do you know how much more I could push this?’ Augus said, squeezing his hand around Gwyn’s wrists. ‘How much more I could do?’

‘I saw…some of the things you have in those rooms,’ Gwyn said, his voice muted. ‘I can…guess.’

‘No, you can’t,’ Augus said flatly. ‘You think it’s all torture equipment.’

‘No- I…’ Gwyn screwed his eyes shut and then shook his head abruptly. ‘There were ropes. There were things I didn’t…that I could see…’ He made a sound of frustration and stopped talking. ‘You say I’m not stupid. You say I don’t have the resilience for this. I remember, Augus. You said that. But…I like it, you keep doing it. You like it. How can you say that I am…that I am resilient in one breath and then…and then not?’

Augus rubbed Gwyn’s chest absently, turning the words over in his head. Finally, he sighed, closed his eyes.

‘Because it’s one thing to be a survivor, Gwyn. It’s quite another to know how to deal with-’

‘This?’ Gwyn said, his hands twitching. ‘This? Efnisien never did this. Not for me. Not to help me.’

Augus stared at him. Was it possible that he did understand? Even after he’d looked at Augus with such betrayal when he’d come to after passing out? Augus had assumed that all their progress, all the things they’d talked about at night in this room…that none of it would matter anymore.

‘There’s something in all of this that you don’t understand,’ Augus said, swallowing. ‘I am a sadist. I like inflicting pain upon others. I like knowing that your wrists hurt right now. Like a bruise, yes? I like watching you bear it. I even like that it calms you. But I am not your saviour, Gwyn. I am not some selfless martyr to give you everything that you think you need, and not expect something in return.’

‘You said yourself…’ Gwyn said awkwardly, ‘that I have a high pain…threshold. That I am not…‘particularly bothered by pain.’ You said that. So if you want- If you want-’

Augus felt a wave of revulsion move over him, he let go of Gwyn’s wrists so quickly that Gwyn looked like he’d been shoved.

‘Get out,’ Augus said, his voice quiet. ‘I’m trying to help you, but it’s not wise to push me, Gwyn. Especially on this. I am not a torturer, but I’m not whatever soft and gentle rescuer you’ve made me out to be in your head, either. Nor do I particularly want to follow in the footsteps of your cousin just because you don’t know what you’re asking me.’

Gwyn stared at him, eyes wide, shocked. He lunged forwards and shoved Augus back into the headboard with a thump. Augus stared at him, his own teeth gritting together, even as Gwyn looked like he was going to shake Augus until he got what he wanted.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn hissed at him. ‘I don’t. I don’t know any of this. You won’t even let me learn. You think I’m too stupid. You tell Ash that I’m not stupid, but you think I am. Efnisien is going to murder you both anyway, so why would it matter what you do?’

‘Thank you ever so much for the vote of confidence,’ Augus said, staring at him. At the rage coursing beneath Gwyn’s skin. So much anger in this one. What it would be like to draw it forth from him, watch him scream it out in the safety of ropes and-

Fantastic. So much for your vaunted self-control.

‘No one survives Efnisien,’ Gwyn rasped out. ‘Not even the ones that…sold me back. Not even them. You won’t survive him.’

‘Why not?’ Augus said. ‘You have.’

‘Only because he wants me to,’ Gwyn said, staring at him.

‘You’re talkative tonight,’ Augus said.

‘You won’t give me what I want!’ Gwyn said, his voice rising in volume. ‘You tell me to ask you, with words, and then I tell you what I want, and you treat me like I’m a child.’

Augus decided – just once – he’d let his own surge of frustration through. He moved against Gwyn, got his own legs underneath him, one hand around Gwyn’s throat – Gwyn making a choked sound that was more to do with fear than having his airways cut off, shoved Gwyn back against the bed. Gwyn cried out when his still injured side hit the mattress. Augus grabbed his wrists quickly and pinned them against Gwyn’s own chest. He saw the way Gwyn’s pupils dilated, scented a chemical fear in the room, smiled toothily in self-satisfaction.

‘No, not a child,’ Augus said, shoving him into the bed again for good measure. ‘Like a torture victim. And now I think you’re being an idiot. Because you don’t want this.’

But Gwyn wasn’t fighting him. Aside from the initial shock where Gwyn had flailed against him, he was holding still now. His knees bent. Even though Augus had a hand around his throat, a thing that most fae loathed.

‘Why won’t you just…help me, the way that you know how to help people?’ Gwyn said, his voice breaking.

Augus closed his eyes, uncertainty moving through him. He tried to find the right answer when Gwyn spoke again.

‘Is it because you don’t want to? Are you afraid?’

Augus carefully let go of Gwyn’s neck, his wrists, rocked back onto his ankles and shook his head because he wasn’t sure what to say anymore. Ash was safe. What Ash offered Gwyn was safe. All casual friendliness and helpful touches and warmth. But Augus had sharp edges inside of him, and he worried that his inner predator, the waterhorse that sang for violence and blood; he worried that Gwyn was too tempting a morsel even if he was fae.

Gwyn got up on his knees and crawled closer, close enough that his head was above Augus’ and he was looking down at him. Augus’ hands tensed, he felt crowded.

This is absolutely nothing like equilibrium.

‘Are you afraid?’ Gwyn said again, sounding wondering. ‘What do you want? Could you tell me? With…words?’

Augus laughed weakly.

What did he want?

He wanted his life to go back to normal, but he couldn’t have that. He didn’t want to be Court status – yet he saw the benefits – and he couldn’t go back to underfae. He wanted to crawl beneath Ash’s blankets and share in body warmth and remember old childhood comforts but…he was meant to be the mature one that held everything together. He certainly didn’t want to have to visit the Unseelie Court more often, but he couldn’t have that either.

He looked up at Gwyn, met an earnest gaze, and thought of Ash talking of Gwyn as though he was a wild animal.

Almost any wild animal will gentle once they realise you mean them no harm.

The things he wanted from Gwyn he could barely let himself think. Gwyn wasn’t a client, which automatically meant that Augus shouldn’t get any more involved. He didn’t do relationships, he didn’t even do casual lovers, and he certainly didn’t do ‘torture victims who had predilections for bondage’ on the side.

‘I understand, Augus,’ Gwyn said, settling down in front of him, watching him with that horribly direct stare. ‘It’s hard to find words sometimes.’

Gwyn reached out and almost touched Augus’ knee, but at the last moment he pulled back, and then he was sliding off the bed and walking towards the door. Augus watched him, thought he should call Gwyn back.

Gwyn looked at Augus over his shoulder, expression contemplative, before turning and exiting, closing the door quietly behind him.

*

The next day Augus went to the surface of the lake and foraged for fungi, seeds, roots, leaves. He had a wide basket that was watertight and could be taken back into the lake and down to his underwater home. He never strayed past the shimmering energy of the ward the Mage had set on his land.

A thundering of hooves and Augus looked up, his ears pricked. If he’d been in waterhorse form, he knew his tail would have swished, his teeth sharpening in readiness in case it was an incursion on his territory.

Once more, a creamy-white horse appeared. It was immaculately groomed but uncomfortable beneath its rider, its ears constantly twitching back, its eyes rolling. Efnisien – Gwyn’s cousin – held the reins in one hand, a weighted riding crop in the other.

The horse was encouraged to trot towards Augus, when Efnisien was brought up short by the magical barrier the Mage had placed around Augus’ territory. The horse shied away from it, and Augus found himself putting down the basket and walking slowly to the edge of the boundary. Efnisien turned the horse so that it paced sideways along the length of barrier, then laughed. The sound was melodious. He turned the horse back until he was alongside Augus, above him on the horse, his deep blue eyes glittering happily.

‘Greetings, Each Uisge. A fine day it is! I cannot wait to tell my dear aunt and uncle that you are keeping their son safe for them.’ Efnisien said, grinning. ‘Shall I take the loathsome creature off your hands now? Or should I come back with the weight of the Seelie Court behind me?’

Efnisien stirred an old dread in his chest. As a man, he didn’t seem truly frightening. He wore the frippery of the Seelie Court in the colours of gold and blue and cream – the An Fnwy estate colours. He looked like a dandy, with coiffed curled hair and a very pretty, unmarked face. Even the horse’s coat was gleaming, rubbed down with chamois, braids in its mane.

But Efnisien had hunted through the Ethallas forest with Gwyn’s father. They were as happy to take down fae as they were animal quarry. Every time he’d heard hooves pounding from the direction of the An Fnwy estate as a child, he’d been quick to shepherd Ash back into the lake where they would hide until it was all over.

Augus could see it – Efnisien setting the bear traps in the forest for Gwyn. Torturing him with knives. Covered in blood. Could see how those joyful eyes would drink it all in. He knew another sadist when he saw one. Could tell that Efnisien would yield genuine happiness from all of it.

It was tempting to tell him that Augus had the protection of the Unseelie King on his side, but it would reveal too much, and he had little idea of what the Raven Prince had planned.

‘Have you fucked him yet?’ Efnisien said, leaning towards Augus on the horse. A brief moment where he flinched away from the barrier, then laughed. ‘You should, he is tight.’

‘Is he?’ Augus said, staring up at him. ‘Gwyn has said that you’re impotent. Utterly.’

An ugliness passed over Efnisien’s face, a muscle clenching in his jaw that reminded Augus of Gwyn when he was frustrated. But the expression smoothed into a generous smile.

‘He’s talking to you then?’ Efnisien said. ‘You can’t believe a word he says, you know. He weaves such stories, that one. You know how it is, how fae can get lost within fairy tales. He’s never been very anchored to reality, the poor thing.’

‘And you just want to help him stay anchored?’

‘Only that,’ Efnisien said sweetly. ‘Nothing more.’

Efnisien watched him speculatively, trying to parse something. A minute passed and Efnisien’s lips quirked up and he leaned forward once more, his eyes narrowing.

‘My darling, it is very much in your best interests if you give him to me now. My cousin, what a burden he’s placed upon others. I know he isn’t easy to live with. I would compensate you generously for keeping him safe all this time. The An Fnwy estate is rich beyond bearing. We have all that you might desire.’

I doubt that.

Augus kept his face passive. Efnisien’s glamour was very strong, and he’d have to thank the Mage later – whatever magic was placed in the territorial boundary had muted it. But Augus was finding himself feeling more and more well-disposed towards Efnisien, even caught himself not wanting to leave Efnisien’s presence. Even amongst his suspicion, his dislike…he wanted to stay.

‘Maybe I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,’ Efnisien said, laughing to himself. ‘You do know that the kidnapping of a Seelie fae, by Unseelie, is very frowned upon when that Seelie fae is Court status and the An Fnwy estate are so closely allied to the King? Don’t be foolish, dear Each Uisge. I’m a patient man. I can wait. Take your little gathering basket to your underwater hovel and go fetch him for me. I can give you a means of keeping him secure, if transporting him through water is a problem.’

‘Good day,’ Augus said calmly, turning and hating putting his back to Efnisien, gritting his teeth at how wrong it felt to behave so casually around him. He picked up his gathering basket and turned to Efnisien at the last moment, catching an avaricious hunger on his face. ‘Please do not return to my territory in the future. I’m sure you understand.’

‘I’m not bluffing,’ Efnisien said, hunger turning to warmth once more. ‘This isn’t a bluff that you’re calling. You want to pit yourself against the Oak King?’

No, but the Raven Prince might not mind it.

‘You…’ Augus said quietly, poisonously, ‘you are nothing more than a dog that misses its chew-toy.’

‘Am I?’ Efnisien said, not looking affronted as Augus had hoped, but looking pleased. ‘There’s only one fae dog in the An Fnwy estate and it’s not me, my darling. But it’s clear what you think of me. It’s clear Gwyn has been talking. To that end, my dear, when the Oak King comes to retrieve my charge, I’ll make sure that I take care of you personally. It’s not just dogs I can bring to heel. It’s all manner of animals.’ Efnisien forcibly pulled his horse’s head back, leaning his head forward. The horse’s eyes rolled in distress, its hind quarters bunched like she wanted to do nothing more than throw him; but she didn’t. ‘Isn’t that right, Alice? What a good little thing you are.’

Efnisien’s eyes slid sidelong to Augus’. He traced his fingers lovingly down the side of the mare’s face, and Augus felt a dull horror at the muscle twitches that shuddered all through her body at the touch.

‘You and I will have such fun together,’ Efnisien said, leaning back in the saddle. ‘Farewell, Each Uisge. Until next time!’

He spun his horse and cantered off back towards the estate. Without Efnisien’s glamour nearby, the sun on his back felt cold, the breezes of the woods frigid. It was a temperate day, but Augus felt chilled down to his bones.

This…this would not help him find anything that looked like equilibrium either.

*

The first thing he did was leave a message with the Unseelie Court. The Raven Prince wasn’t there to receive him, but since becoming Court status, he’d noticed that the level of respect he was offered simply for being Court status – while somewhat disgusting – was enough to have him feel reassured that the Raven Prince would get his message in a timely manner.

Then, he quietly sorted all of the items he’d gathered. Some went into drawers, some went into a larder, others were bunched and hung from hooks on the ceiling to dry down so they could be used for medicinal preparations.

He wasn’t shaking. But he could feel the way he wanted to. It was as though all his skin had been unsettled. First Gwyn’s assurance that Efnisien had killed every single person that had come into contact with Gwyn in some meaningful way. Efnisien’s threat which wasn’t shallow or forced or at all false. That was someone who would work to make sure he got what he wanted. Augus wondered how many times Efnisien had ridden past Augus’ lake looking to bait someone. That was someone who didn’t make empty threats of torture.

Augus didn’t fancy being hurt by someone like that.

After his conversation with Gwyn, the encounter with Efnisien, he was disturbed. For days he’d held back from demanding contact with Ash, but he was only hurting himself now, and his pride was caving to his need to feel soothed.

Except, when he went to Ash’s room in the afternoon, Gwyn was already there. Ash was sitting cross-legged and leaning over a book of some kind from the human world, and Gwyn was curled up at the foot of the bed, dozing.

Augus kept his sigh silent, went to walk away, when Ash looked up, his eyes brightening, a smile finding his face.

‘Hey man, I was just thinking about- Are you okay?’

‘We can talk about it later,’ Augus said, and he was turning when he saw Ash’s hand lift, fingers beckon.

‘Come here,’ Ash said. ‘Come here, Augus.’

Augus looked at Gwyn, something twisting in his chest. Augus was supposed to be the mature one, the one who held it together when everything fell apart. But in rare moments, he’d turned to Ash in a crisis. Only now…

‘Augus,’ Ash said, his voice gentling. Augus picked the moment Ash started ratcheting up his own glamour, and instead of feeling annoyed or insulted, he was only glad that it wasn’t Efnisien’s glamour falling like a cloak over him. ‘Just come here. Look how much room there is. This bed is gigantic. Come on.’

Gwyn made a faint sound and stretched an arm out and went right on dozing.

Augus stepped into the room and then walked carefully over to the other side of the bed, slipping onto it, hardly disturbing the mattress.

‘Efnisien came back today,’ Augus said. ‘I’ve left a message for the King.’

‘Are you…are you okay?’ Ash said, taking Augus’ arm with his hand and pulling him down until Augus was on his back lying on a diagonal, his head on Ash’s thigh, looking up at Ash’s concerned face. ‘You’re not okay. Jesus, Augus. What happened?’

‘I suppose it was all very predictable,’ Augus said, closing his eyes when fingertips rested on his forehead. Then, he lifted his own head and shifted his mane until he was comfortable, his hair already getting Ash’s jeans wet – why Ash never wore water-wicking fabrics he’d never understand…did he just like feeling perpetually damp? When he settled back down, Ash traced the backs of his fingers over Augus’ forehead, before his palm pressed against the side of his head and his thumb rubbed reassuringly behind his ear.

Augus took a deep breath, sighed it out.

‘He knows we have Gwyn,’ Augus said. ‘He threatened to come down with the might of the Seelie Court etcetera and that I should just give Gwyn back to him. When I said no, he personally assured me that he’d take care of my torture and elimination personally.’

Ash’s hand stilled, then he swore quietly, fervently under his breath.

‘I’ve left a message with the Unseelie King,’ Augus said. ‘Do you think me a coward, that it bothers me?’

‘No,’ Ash said, squeezing his shoulder. ‘No, how could I? It fucking bothers me.’

‘It is only that I know it isn’t an empty threat. It’s all well and good to feel safe that we have the King’s protection, but what if the Oak King is involved? What if this becomes an inter-alignment issue and the Raven Prince decides that he doesn’t want the trouble after all? He might seem fascinated with Gwyn now, but he’s mercurial and capricious. The Oak King loves war. He might want any excuse, this being as good a reason as any. I can see a future, Ash, where Gwyn is seized again by his family and we suffer retribution for what was – honestly – a stupid mistake I made in a fit of boredom. I cannot bear the thought of you suffering for what I’ve done. Selfishly, I find I don’t much want to go through it either.’

Ash kept stroking him, and Augus kept his eyes closed and frowned and for a moment, wished he could undo all of it. Gwyn had asked him what he wanted. But Augus couldn’t erase what he’d done, what he might have brought on top of all of them.

‘I’m scared too,’ Ash said. ‘A lot.’

Augus nodded, the movement tight and contained. They were both afraid.

It was about twenty minutes later, Augus’ thoughts drifting to uncomfortable places, when Gwyn shifted at first absently, and then with the deliberate motions of someone who was waking.

‘Should I go?’ Augus said, not wanting to.

‘Why would you go?’ Ash said, sounding confused. ‘It’s fine, Augus. This is fine. It’s good. Sleeping beauty over there’s probably just changing position. He can’t seem to doze for more than about an hour before he freaks out and has to check out his surroundings. Isn’t that right, puppy?’

A hesitation in the movements down at the bottom of the bed, and Augus looked up at the underside of Ash’s face.

‘Should you be calling him that?’

‘Puppy?’ Ash said. ‘Yeah. He doesn’t mind it. He’s got ways of letting me know when he doesn’t like something.’

Augus turned his head and was surprised to see Gwyn watching him, eyes moving from Ash’s face, to the hand that was petting and stroking Augus’ mane, to Augus himself. His brow furrowed.

‘It’s all fine,’ Ash said to Gwyn. Or maybe he was saying it to the both of them. ‘It’s fine. He’s just a little stressed. Us waterhorses, we crave touch sometimes. It’s a thing that comes with the territory of being what we are. Augus likes to pretend he doesn’t need it as much as the rest of us, but he does.’

Augus had a dozen things he wanted to say in response to that, but after the way everything in his life was going lately, he decided it wasn’t worth the breath it would take to speak a denial. After a few more seconds he closed his eyes, blocking the world out, chest aching. Ash’s touches were warm and firm and familiar. They were what he’d grown up with, those moments when their roles reversed and Augus wasn’t the one petting and soothing his brother.

Gwyn shifted further up the bed, closer to them both.

‘Go on,’ Ash said, and Augus knew that Ash was speaking to Gwyn. ‘Go on, puppy. It’s fine. Trust me.’

He knew that Gwyn was going to touch him a couple of seconds before he did. Knew because his skin was sensitive to the energy of him coming closer. Knew from the way Gwyn’s weight shifted so that he was crouching and resting on one arm instead of two.

A broad, warm hand rested on his shoulder. The touch was light, ready to be jerked away at a moment’s notice.

But when Augus didn’t reprimand him, when Ash murmured more encouragement, Gwyn’s fingers curled into something that approximated a caress. Then he did it again, gaining confidence when Augus didn’t shoo him away.

Augus didn’t have the heart to. He felt like a stone soaking up the sun’s warmth. He didn’t plan on moving at all. Not with Ash’s familiar touches and these new ones. He could deal with it all later. It was going to get harder for all of them at some point, and – as Gwyn had assured him – he was going to die soon anyway, he would take what he could get.

‘That’s it,’ Ash said quietly.

Gwyn petted Augus for another few minutes, before simply resting his hand on Augus’ shoulder. Then, he shifted so that his head was resting on Ash’s leg – which was now stretched out in front of him. His head was close to Augus’, and he left his hand on Augus’ shoulder. Augus could tell that Gwyn was watching him, that curious gaze seeing more than Augus probably knew.

‘My leg’s going to go to sleep,’ Ash grumped.

‘Should I move?’ Augus said. ‘I don’t particularly want to.’

‘Stay,’ Ash said, a smile in his voice. ‘The both of you. This is nice.’

Ash picked up his book again with one hand, keeping the other in Augus’ mane, occasionally dragging his fingers over Augus’ ear, his neck, his jaw. All the touches tingling and warm and comforting.

On Augus’ other side, Gwyn’s breathing was settling into something slower and peaceful again. He kept his hand on Augus’ shoulder, the fingers curled into something that was less of a caress, more possessive.

Augus found that he didn’t mind.

Chapter Text

It felt better than he thought it would, head resting on Ash’s leg and Gwyn beside him. There was a certain ambience every time Ash came to stay for a week or weekend, a sense that everything was going to be all right. At first, Gwyn’s presence had impinged on that. But like this, it was as though Gwyn was a part of it. Ash had an ability to turn everyone into a friend – Augus knew that from enough of Ash’s stories – but what he didn’t know was how easily Ash could make it seem that Gwyn was a part of whatever connection they had.

It was also temporary. Augus kept reminding himself of that. At some point, this wasn’t going to be the way of things in the future. Gwyn would become apprentice to the Raven Prince, Augus didn’t want anyone to cohabitate with him on a regular basis. Ash needed to go back to the human world. Whatever strange peace they found for those two hours, it was not to be maintained.

The rest of the world intruded and reminded Augus of that fact.

That evening, Ash slept curled up in his bed under the blankets, and Gwyn went back to his own room. Augus was reluctant to sleep, his blood stirring, unease still moving through him like a swirl of disturbed silt at the bottom of his lake. Efnisien’s visit was truly disturbing, and that had only been a visit.

Gwyn had spent years living with that. The true depths of Efnisien’s depravity. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Augus to fathom everything that Gwyn had experienced, especially with Gwyn managing so much coherence, so much of his own thought. But Augus wasn’t stupid, he knew that if Efnisien turned up while Gwyn was there, Gwyn would return to him. Terrified, he’d still return.

He stayed awake, looking at the shadows of his own room, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t hoping that Gwyn would visit and ask for his wrists to be encircled.

But he was disappointed when Gwyn didn’t come, and he didn’t settle into anything restful for the rest of the evening.

*

‘Please change into something suitable for a visit to the Seelie Court on important inter-alignment matters. The King of the Unseelie is waiting for you, and he does not like to be kept waiting.’

Augus stared at the bodyguard that stood in his foyer, dressed head to toe in plate armour, dull eyes showing through the visor of his helm. He dripped water. Augus wondered if he’d swum down instead of teleporting. He frowned.

‘Just me?’ Augus said, eventually.

‘Only you, Augus Each Uisge. It is my understanding that your charge is safe within the boundaries of the Mage’s ward. The Raven Prince has ensured it is so. Please, dress into something finer, and we will be on our way. I have a token from the Raven Prince, so that you may trust that you have not been tricked.’

A wet raven’s feather was proffered. One of the many from the Raven Prince’s oily, feathery coat. It was bedraggled, smelled savoury and musky all at once. Augus would know the scent anywhere, even wet and dripping.

‘Do not lose this,’ the bodyguard-soldier said as Augus took the feather in his fingers, a gauntlet brushing against his hand. ‘The Raven Prince will want it returned.’

Augus shivered to imagine the Raven Prince somewhere – on the land above them? Somewhere else?

They were going to visit the Seelie Court now?

Why did Augus have to go?

He inclined his head and then bowed towards the fae, walking back into his home and closing the door behind him.

He had clothing for this occasion, didn’t speak to Ash or Gwyn – both of them still in their rooms – changed quickly. He had a shirt of water-wicked spider’s silk that had been dyed a deep, murky green and glimmered different shades under shifting qualities of light. In his underwater home, it looked like the roiling deep. His pants were leather and fitted close to the skin, and over that went boots whose thick buckles went to the underside of his knee. Other than that, he checked his hair, the waterweed, nothing out of order. He wasn’t inclined towards jewellery, and as he buttoned the cuffs of his clothing, he wondered if the Raven Prince would give him a once over and deem him inappropriate for the Court environment.

But if that were the case, he would have done it already, and Augus wouldn’t be in this mess. He wouldn’t be Court status. He wouldn’t have to worry about these sorts of things.

Ash’s room was still dark. Some mornings he’d be up even earlier than Augus, out swimming in the lake, walking happily around the landscape pre-dawn, listening to the chattering and twittering of morning birds. But other mornings he slept in, a lump under a wealth of blankets – not that Augus’ home was particularly cold – and pillows piled around him.

Augus grasped what he thought might be a shoulder from its fabric-shrouded shape, and gently shook Ash awake.

‘Mm,’ Ash said sleepily. ‘I forget I can’t just go and get pancakes when I’m here. I’ve got a craving.’

‘Ash,’ Augus said, voice hushed. ‘I’m going to the Seelie Court. With the Raven Prince.’

Ash sighed, then his eyes flew open and he stared at Augus. ‘What? Now?’

‘Can you stay here and make sure Gwyn’s all right? I’m not telling him. I don’t…know what will happen. I have to go. There’s a soldier bedecked in so much metal out there that I actually can’t tell what kind of fae he is.’

‘Shit,’ Ash said, rubbing at his face. ‘Yeah, sure. Are you- Are you going to be all right? Why does the Raven Prince need you there?’

‘Why does he do anything at all?’ Augus said, smiling wryly. ‘If I could decipher the way a raven’s mind worked, perhaps I wouldn’t be obligated to visit the Court so often.’

‘Good point,’ Ash said, yawning. ‘Okay. Be safe. We’ll wait for you. Even if we’re not there, you’re not doing this alone. Okay?’

Augus smiled stiffly and closed Ash’s door behind him. But even though the expression itself was forced, he was glad of the reassurance.

The soldier looked him over and then reached out a polite hand. ‘I shall take you to His Majesty now.’

‘So I’m suitable, am I?’ Augus drawled.

‘That’s not up to me, Sir.’

Then, the hideous sensation of being turned into steam and vapour when he took the soldier’s hand. Whoever the fae was, they were connected to hot humid mists, their magic making Augus feel as though he were dragged through several jungles in a matter of seconds.

*

The Raven Prince wore his silvery crown of metal leaves and twigs. His hair was tufted and wild as always, feathers jutting every which way. It was strange, Augus mused, to see wing and tail feathers growing from the Raven Prince’s head. But they gleamed bright, iridescent, blue and jade and violet shimmering all the way through.

The Raven Prince had no retinue with him, and as soon as the soldier had delivered Augus, he teleported away, sounding like the hissing of a hot spring. The Raven Prince had both of his arms behind his back, hands clasped, and a black and silver rapier sat neatly over his right hip. His pants were black, his boots pointed and black, his shirt a pale silver and covered in multiple necklaces and pendants of crystal and bone – all charms – hanging from silver chains. Over that, his feathery cloak, looking freshly groomed, even as Augus knew it had at least one feather missing – wet and drying in his pocket.

Sharp dark eyes looked him over, and then the Raven Prince tilted his chin up and smiled.

‘You are very pretty, Augus,’ he said, and he looked at Augus with the savouring gleam a raven might behold any bauble.

I don’t belong to you, Augus thought, annoyed, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t true. If the Raven Prince wanted something, he tended to get it.

‘Well met, Your Majesty,’ Augus said politely. ‘You look well, as always.’

‘Hm, yes,’ the Raven Prince said absently, looking at the landscape around Augus’ lake. ‘So. Ethallas. I haven’t been here in some time.’

‘But you’ve been here?’ Augus said, curious.

‘It does fringe the Seelie Courtlands. I make it my business to know what my cousins across the river are up to. In the way of business, I suppose you are contemplating what use I might have of you. Truthfully, I don’t have the patience to relay everything that occurs to you or Gwyn or that simple brother of yours. In lieu of playing pageboy, I have decided that you shall simply attend me. They already know you have him, do they not? There’s no point keeping it a secret.’

‘We are to visit the Seelie King, Your Majesty?’

‘Let that be the beginning of it,’ the Raven Prince said, his smile dangerous. ‘Now, you must rest your hand in mine so that I may take you to the Oak King’s palace. Prepare yourself for a lot of gaudiness, Augus, they do so buy into their own mythic legacy.’

The Raven Prince rolled his eyes and extended a graceful hand, fingers stretched just so. Augus stepped closer, then reached out and very carefully placed his hand. The Raven Prince’s fingers curled, his grip far stronger than Augus expected, and then another teleportation, this time Augus transforming to wind and gales and the scent of something chemical and warm in his nose, and by the time he realised he didn’t quite like this type of teleportation, they’d already arrived at the beginning of a wide, golden road leading towards a creamy confection of a palace.

‘Oh,’ Augus said, staring at it. It was revolting.

‘Indeed,’ the Raven Prince said, smiling. ‘Shall we?’

The Raven Prince neatened a cloak that resisted neatening, then struck off down the golden paving, both of their boots clicking heavily on the bricks. Around them, tall and stately oak trees, ancient in power and wisdom, radiating an essential sense of goodness and something that was generously natured. The whole effect was of warmth and welcoming, which was somewhat ironic, given that the Oak King’s Court was one of the most intolerant towards Unseelie fae, of any of the Seelie Courts.

As they walked down, fae watched them from either side of the road. Fae that needed to live closely to the King, who were attached to the oaks themselves, who enjoyed the landscape, who were also visiting. Diminutive fairies with their tiny moth and butterfly and dragonfly wings flitted from tree to tree, keeping pace with them. Deeper in the warm and friendly shadows, a heavy, lumbering bear-type creature with spiralling horns upon its head groaned a sound that could have been a warning or a greeting.

They made their way down the road, which widened until it could fit at least twenty horse-drawn carriages side by side. In front of them a golden wrought-iron gate, and set into the middle of it, a wooden round that was polished and gleaming, the knotwork representing the Oak King – an oak tree with a crown in the canopy – carved in a delicate hand. Augus wondered just how many spells and charms rested upon it, adding further protection to those who lived within.

The Raven Prince said nothing, didn’t stop until he was three paces away from those who guarded the gates. They were great soldiers, one wearing the golden-brown wings of a gryphon in human form, eyes gleaming raptor yellow at them, his hair a crest of feathers. He held a huge spear that towered another five feet above him, and by his side hung a shield in the shape of a diamond. Beside him, another fae who had a sword hanging at his side, covered all over in white fur with lamb-like eyes watching them. For all that he looked soft and approachable, he was a trusted warrior to be guarding the gates like this.

Not that any Unseelie could enter the Seelie Court without the Seelie King’s permission. But still, appearances counted for something.

‘Your Majesty,’ the gryphon said with a deep, ringing voice. ‘I shall alert the Oak King, our magnificent Seelie monarch, to your presence. If you would but abide here, and I will see you and your guest escorted within as soon as I am able.’

The Raven Prince inclined his head, his expression impassive. In that moment, despite his slender form, despite the fact that the gryphon-soldier was taller than he was, he seemed every inch a powerful King. Augus couldn’t explain it, wondered how much of it was the Raven Prince’s glamour.

But as he watched the gryphon-soldier move within the bounds of the Seelie Court, he took a deep breath and felt something very like pride, that he was Unseelie, and represented by this King.

Augus didn’t say anything at all. He knew enough to know that he would follow the Raven Prince’s lead in everything. So he stayed quiet, and two paces behind his King, as they were escorted within the palace grounds.

As soon as he went beyond the giant gate, he felt a strange, unpleasant sensation fall over him, the kind of itch that would be painful as soon as fingers were laid upon it. He looked around, vexed, and then remembered belatedly that the Seelie Court was innately unwelcoming towards Unseelie fae, just as the Unseelie Court was the same towards Seelie fae. It wouldn’t do any harm, especially with short-term exposure, it was just a constant reminder that Augus didn’t belong here, that it wasn’t his world. He wondered if the Raven Prince felt it too, how he managed not to squirm beneath the weight of knowing he was in the very heart of what the Seelie considered their beacon of hope.

They were led down another golden road into a giant throne room columned with oaks and marble alike, trees reaching up to create a broken canopy that allowed the sun to pour itself in through shafts of light where it was able. Where it fell, the white marble of the throne room itself blazed brightly. All around, fae in finery mingled. Here were the Courtiers of the Seelie Court then, the Court families, the ones who vied for attention, wished for the positive favour of the King, made business deals here and were merchants or Mages or makers of war. They all knew the Raven Prince, and they turned to watch him with curious or awed or knowing or even disdainful eyes. They each wore what was considered fashion for their people, which was everything from sheer transparent dresses, to the jingling nonsense of the ellyllon, the elven folk who wore their economy on every part of their body and decorated themselves with bells to boot.

The Oak King wasn’t on his throne, and the gryphon-soldier led them straight past the white marble throne, imposing on its dais, past it into a corridor made entirely of oak trees growing so closely together that they could only be staying alive because the Oak King willed it. Here it was darker, shady, even cool. It felt like Spring in a temperate region, cool in the shade, warm in the light. Augus looked around as much as he could without betraying a façade of nonchalance. He couldn’t help but imagine what the Seelie thought of the Unseelie Court, their home containing the wonders of shadow and night.

They were led into a side room, broad and wide and designed to not feel closed in. On a long, wooden table were many platters of food – fruit, meats, vegetables of many different kinds, cheeses and breads, desserts and terrines and more, and then surprisingly, a stack of ancient books in the corner. The Raven Prince’s true appetite was words and language, and the Seelie Court was offering it to him, making sure that all his appetites could be nourished.

There, standing and waiting for them, the Oak King, wearing a crown that was identical to the Raven Prince’s except that it was gold.

The Oak King was a robust man, wearing a combination of muscle and fat well, ruddy-faced and eyes gleaming the pale blue-green of the dryad that he was. His hair, beard and moustache were wild and red-brown, and beneath the tangling hair on his forearms, Augus could see bark growing. From his head, several twigs sprouted, growing leaves.

The Oak King beamed at them like a pleasant father, but beneath that, Augus could see a canny, judgemental gaze. He could see that this was not a King who had kept his power by simply being genial and paternal to others.

The gryphon-soldier stood off to the side and then bowed deeply. As he straightened, he looked to the Oak King.

‘Your Majesty, may I present the King of the Unseelie Court, the Raven Prince, and his guest, the Each Uisge.’

The Oak King glanced over and made a single gesture with his left hand, and the gryphon-soldier excused himself with another deep bow, exiting the room and closing the door behind him.

‘Avail yourself to the refreshments, if you wish,’ the Oak King said, his voice deep and rumbly and the kind that would sound overwhelmingly good if he started laughing. The sort of man capable of a deep, genuine belly laugh. ‘It’s been too long since you were last here.’

‘Alas, Quercus, would that I could be here for your delightful Summer Court events, how I have missed them.’

‘I did get the impression you’re not just here for some friendly banter, Raven Prince.’

‘No,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘I have come by some rather disturbing happenings, of late. I seek permission to reprimand a Court family under your purview, and I think you will see why, once I explain this tale to you.’

The Oak King didn’t grimace, exactly, but in a matter of seconds, Augus knew that the Oak King knew something. Either Efnisien had come to him after all, or the An Fnwy family, or he’d always known.

‘Imagine, if you will,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice light and airy as he wandered over to the table and plucked up a grape, biting down on the skin until it split audibly and chewing it up, savouring it. ‘Imagine that there are very few fundamental laws between us, and that one of them has been broken by a beloved Seelie Court family. That, once upon a time, Crielle and Lludd of the An Fnwy estate gave birth to a single child – their only child – one Gwyn ap Nudd; an Unseelie babe.’

The Raven Prince didn’t look back to the Oak King as Augus assumed he would. He didn’t even appear to be interested in the Oak King at all, inspecting all the food upon the table, gazing at it as though it was more important that he approve of what the Seelie kitchens had to offer. But Augus watched the Oak King’s face, noticed that it wasn’t only the Raven Prince who had a good game face when he needed one.

‘Then,’ the Raven Prince said, ‘imagine that this Unseelie babe is not fostered into the Unseelie Court as is fundamental to both of our alignments, but instead he is corrupted with old lore and an aithwick forced upon his person, so that the entire world may believe he is Seelie instead. That a family might protect its reputation, and in doing so betray what keeps our two Kingdoms at relative peace. Imagine that this could happen without the Seelie King knowing about it. Treason, Quercus, even the Seelie like to punish that with death.’

The Raven Prince turned back to the Oak King and smiled winsomely. ‘Let’s gloss over how the family turned this Unseelie creature out into the Ethallas forest to become wild, to be tortured by his cousin. Let’s look at the larger picture, Quercus. Your Crielle and Lludd stopped me from having access to a potential Mage. To my own apprentice. This Gwyn ap Nudd is no mere Unseelie get, but a child of esteemed parentage, with power that reflects it. I almost dread to think what punishment you might recommend, knowing how foul all of these crimes are. Come, tell me what you recommend, so that I may offer some form of clemency to this family you adore.’

Quercus’ mouth pulled tight, his eyes glittered. The Raven Prince beamed at him, looking like it was all a game, and perhaps – to him – it was.

‘The An Fnwy estate has been invaluable to the Seelie Court. For tens of thousands of years.’

‘It only makes the crime more serious, when you think about it,’ the Raven Prince said, his lips shifting into a smaller, more mischievous smile. ‘When you think that they’ve had tens of thousands of years to cultivate their reputation as being one of the most charming representations of the Seelie military, and generate so much wealth. You would think they, more than almost anyone, would know how to obey such a serious law in a way that would both protect their reputation and allow for the law to be obeyed. They are, after all, Seelie, are they not?’

Quercus’ cheeks were already red, as though made that way by crisp winter winds. Now the colour deepened, not from embarrassment, but from anger. Augus wondered at it. The Oak King was one of the better rulers, for all that he tried to turn Seelie sentiment against the Unseelie in a way that no other ruler had before. Surely he knew he was being played, and knew how to move against the Raven Prince in this?

Or was the crime so profound that there was no way to gracefully handle this?

‘Why are you here?’ the Oak King said.

‘Why, I’m following protocol. I cannot simply discipline one of the Court families without your permission, now, can I? One of the Kingdoms has to remember the very basics of etiquette, do they not?’

‘Watch it,’ the Oak King said, pointing at him. ‘I’m not hearing ‘following protocol’ from you, a human could see the glee you’re experiencing at this moment. I’m no fool, Raven, and I’ll not have you make me one in my own Court. Do you truly believe that your Court families have never broken protocol before?’

‘Quercus, my dear darling King, if they have, why did you not enlighten me of such crimes, so that I might do something about them? Perhaps you wish to enumerate them to me now, so that we might lay this strange tension of yours to rest?’

Augus was beginning to enjoy himself. It wasn’t often that an Unseelie monarch got to hold so many of the cards in a tete a tete like this one.

‘Your Majesty,’ the Raven Prince continued, ‘even if you enumerated a thousand crimes as serious as the ones committed by your An Fnwy family, it still wouldn’t ameliorate, nor abrogate the need to punish them. Your Majesty, let me be plain, in a few hours my Court will learn Gwyn ap Nudd’s true alignment. They will learn his name and whispers will wander forth and they will know his heritage. They will talk about and against you, but I know you care not for that. What you care for, my King, is reputation and the good standing of your own people. It must be a concern of yours, how they might turn against you for this lie? Harbouring an Unseelie to protect a single family?’

‘Do you think that I knew?’ the Oak King said, his eyes widening, and the Raven Prince waved a hand dismissively.

‘Does it matter? Let’s pretend that you didn’t. Do you think that your people will imagine you so clueless to one of your most beloved families that you didn’t know? How gormless you would appear then, especially to the ones who have always disliked how you’ve doted upon Crielle and her personal retinue of Courtiers.’

‘You go too far, in my Court. If you want to make this a military matter, then by all means-’

‘By all means?’ the Raven Prince said, laughing, smiling teeth at the Seelie King. ‘Then, yes, let’s make this a military matter. Better yet, let us bring magic into it too, the greatest might we may have to strengthen us. Tell me how many Seelie are currently serving the Thirteen and I will make my appeals to the Unseelie, and we will see what sort of game we might have on our hands then. You want to fight me with metal and blood, but metal rusts, and blood has already rusted through. Do you think I stand here so defenceless, cowed by your threats? Do you think I do not know ways to make your oak’s blood boil beneath your skin? Do you think I am only the Word Smith? Do you forget that I am also the Lord of the Night and of Mysteries for a reason? Do you think they call me the Peacekeeper because I achieved peace in my Kingdom through weakness?’

The Raven Prince laughed again, the sound rough and boisterous. ‘Listen to me, all words, no action! By all means, Your Majesty, try to justify to me how this crime was fairly committed. Try, as a Seelie fae, to sell an Unseelie such a lie. Look me in the eyes and sense how well that might go. You cannot protect them, Quercus. You must think fast about what you will do. You cannot even go to one of your primary advisors in this, for she is the poor creature’s mother.’

Quercus ran a hand over his face and then shook his head, looking weary. Augus wondered how old he was then, for he’d gone from seeming youthful and vibrant, to seeming more ancient than most of the fae he’d met.

‘Then you do it, friend,’ Quercus said. ‘Advise me like you once did, in times of old. But I’ll not have it done while that creature is there next to you.’

‘Show me to a private room, Quercus, and I shall see us both through this so that our Kingdoms can remain whole and intact. Friendship lasts longer than Kingship, does it not?’

‘One would hope,’ Quercus said, and with that he held out his hand and the Raven Prince slid his delicate fingers on top of it, letting himself be led away to another room. He didn’t even look at Augus over his shoulder, before Augus was left on his own in a room so full of food that the smells were turning to muck in his nose.

*

When the Raven Prince returned, he was alone, and Augus was sitting cross-legged on a chair, deep in a still lake in his own mind. He looked up slowly, quietly, saw the look of sparked triumph in his King’s eyes.

‘Let us return then, to Ethallas,’ the Raven Prince said, and he gestured for Augus to get up, then touched his arm lightly with his fingers, both of them whisking away on the winds.

Augus landed badly on the grass, stumbling a few steps. The Raven Prince stood still and composed, the feathers of his cloak and his hair the only parts of him moving in the breeze that had sprung up around them.

‘Quercus will repudiate the family,’ the Raven Prince said softly. ‘Ultimately, he wishes to save the Kingdom over one family, and he will let them go, though it pains him. I think he sees something he was unwilling to see before – Crielle has made herself seem indispensable, has possibly been playing him with her glamour for a very long time now. It might do him some good to be away from her influence and have an independent thought for once. That’s the thing about oak trees, they stand strong, but they are so easily parasitised by mistletoe.’

The Raven Prince looked off into the distance. ‘I cannot execute them. But the Word Stealer is not without his tricks.’

The Raven Prince walked over to Augus, grasped him and teleported them both once more before Augus knew to brace himself for it.

Indeed, the Word Stealer always had tricks up his sleeve. At the entrance to the An Fnwy estate – a charming villa that looked welcoming – they stood and waited as the Lord and Lady of the house were summoned. Golden wisteria wept yellow flowers everywhere, bees humming musically. Augus caught at least one hundred separate species of poisonous flowering shrub and herb in carefully tended garden beds that harmonically framed the massive entry road that led to the columns before the estate itself. It was all made of a creamy sandstone, and on a wide reaching verandah, so many tables and chairs and flower arrangements – this was a house of entertaining on a grand scale.

A house that had its own secret in the dark woods behind.

If that doesn’t sound exactly like the beginning to a fairy tale… Augus thought with some scorn.

Augus could see Gwyn’s face in both Lludd’s and Crielle’s. Crielle was stunning, an exceptional specimen of fae, and Gwyn was a coarse version of her. But in the largeness of her eyes and her thickly curled hair, a certain scrutiny in her direct gaze, he saw echoes of Gwyn. It was obvious though that Gwyn took most after Lludd – his height, the heavier features, the jawline that was heavy and square, the broad shoulders.

But these were two fae who wore their appearances well. Lludd still wore his navy uniform, and Crielle wore a sundress that was pale gold, blue flowers embroidered at the base.

‘Crielle ferch Fnwy, Lludd Llaw Eraint, where is your nephew, Efnisien ap Wledig?’

‘Your esteemed Majesty,’ Crielle said, her voice rich and unctuous, ‘the stories don’t do you justice, truly. If you leave a message with me, I’ll be sure to pass it onto him.’

‘I doubt that,’ the Raven Prince said.

It didn’t take anything more than him extending his hand like he wanted to give them something. Then his fingers curled in quickly, his wrist jerked inwards, and Crielle’s hands flew to her mouth. Lludd stood there, looking as though he’d been struck.

‘It’s temporary,’ the Raven Prince said, ‘and I’ve been told the shock wears off. I’ve left you with your thoughts, for which you owe me gratitude. Do not ever try and keep one of my own from me again. Gwyn ap Nudd is a member of my Court, and he is one of mine. That you would try this crime against the Unseelie Court is reprehensible, that you would try it against me, during my reign, is foolish on your behalf. Take a few centuries to think on what you’ve done, won’t you? Eventually your words will find their way back to you.’

The Raven Prince tilted his head to the side and his eyes became lidded, his mouth turned into a smirk.

‘Ah, so that’s what it was. You can’t keep that a secret forever, my darling. That he so hurt you, when you were giving birth? You can’t even look at it in a mirror, can you?’

Crielle stared at him, and then her face contorted and Augus felt a massive shockwave of something wash over him and he staggered backwards and then fell onto one knee. He opened his mouth to take a deeper breath, and the shockwave hit again. Emotion welled in him, anger and fear and rage and terror and regret for things he wasn’t aware of having done wrong but he must have, he must have, to feel so awful.

‘You are strong,’ the Raven Prince said, unmoved. ‘Very. But you can’t hurt me. And if you keep hurting my charge, I’ll take your mind away too, and then you’ll be less than the animal that you believed your son to be.’

The rolling waves of glamour stopped, and Augus was gasping, both hands on the stone steps, unable to believe that one could do that with something like glamour. He’d never known of anyone who could attack someone else with it.

‘I can keep a secret,’ the Raven Prince said, turning back to Augus and walking over, grasping him by the shoulder and hauling him upright. ‘I can keep your secret too, Lady Crielle. Do behave in a way that gives me a reason to.’

They teleported again, Augus exhausted at the end of it. Weakened by whatever attack Crielle had sent their way, and by the repeated teleportation. Even at Court status, he couldn’t manage it all as easily as the Raven Prince.

The Raven Prince stepped back from him. ‘They don’t know where Efnisien is.’

‘You can tell that?’ Augus said.

‘I took their language from them, I know a great deal more than that,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘And a great deal about the sway Crielle held over the Oak King. I think Efnisien has even more of a survival instinct than they do. He’s not told them where he’s gone, and he’s made himself scarce since your last encounter with him. I do believe he expects some form of retribution. And you might wish to expect that he will come after you as promised. Even without the might of the Seelie Kingdom behind him. You have my feather, use it to summon me if you find that you or Gwyn are in mortal danger. Summon me for less, and I’m sure you can imagine how merciful I’ll be.’

The Raven Prince looked over Augus’ lake, and then walked to the place where the Mage must have laid the wards down and placed his hands out, his mouth twisting down into a frown. It seemed like it might be disapproval, but then Augus realised it was only concentration.

Then, a faint shimmering in the air around them, something like heat haze, only blacker and brighter. The Raven Prince dropped his hands and nodded as though to himself in satisfaction.

‘I’ve strengthened it,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘You have a good quality ward here, but given that I cannot execute Crielle nor Lludd, and that Efnisien is missing…’

‘You can’t track him?’ Augus said automatically.

‘As omniscient as I may seem at times, Augus, no – I cannot.’

Augus nodded, frowning. Efnisien still out there, and he was the one that Augus most feared. But Augus was Court status now, wasn’t he? That gave him a measure of protection, didn’t it?

Oh, are you convinced now? Gwyn has been Court status all his life, and is of course unscathed by Efnisien’s influence.

Here under the hugeness of the sky and the discerning gaze of the Raven Prince, Augus felt bared. Not only that, but he disliked the way the Raven Prince referred to Gwyn, and as more time passed, the more he felt as though he needed to say something. He tried to look covertly over at the Raven Prince and failed. Instead, he lifted his chin like he meant to be caught out the entire time, and then after a few seconds he looked away again. The Raven Prince had just stolen language from two people with a twist of his wrist. It really wouldn’t do to make him angry.

‘I can see words quivering upon the flat of your tongue, Augus. Spill them, if you please.’

Augus’ nostrils flared and he looked away, his lips thinning, trying to think about how to best put the idea forth. There was possibly no good or safe way to say what he was thinking without offending the King and earning punishment.

‘For better or worse, I rescued Gwyn ap Nudd from his predicament of torture and slavery to his parents. I don’t feel you are doing that honour, if he is only to become your slave, because you are used to getting all that you want.’

The Raven Prince hummed richly in the back of his throat, and then laughed a caw of a laugh.

‘He will want what I have to give him, Augus. I am selfish, yes, I am powerful enough to be the narcissist that you fear I am. But his power will not go unrewarded. Do you think it is some small thing, that I – King of the Unseelie and Master Mage both – wants him as an apprentice? Do you think this is something that someone would reject, if they knew the gift of it?’

‘I have no safe way of answering that, Your Majesty, save that you care little for the free will of others, and he is my charge, and I care.’

‘You are all my charges, because you’re all Unseelie. My wants should be yours, should they not?’

Augus opened his mouth and closed it abruptly. He had just seen how the Raven Prince could choose to punish people, dull horror still pulsed inside of him. He was a fool.

‘Out with it, darling,’ the Raven Prince said, his eyes gleaming bright. ‘Say it to me while you still have the free will to do so, for you know that I can rip whatever words I like from your craven mouth if I choose.’

Augus cleared his throat, aware of the heavy way his pulses thumped and thudded inside of his skin.

‘Perhaps, Your Majesty, you might remember that a King becomes so, because he is aware of the wants of his charges, not because he projects what he desires upon all else. But what do I know? I am not a King, nor anything more than recently Court status, and must show nothing but my underfae roots when I speak so.’

‘You do know how to cushion a blow, don’t you?’ the Raven Prince said, smiling at him in a way that made Augus’ heart ache to simply agree with him and do whatever he said. Augus couldn’t even be sure if that was the Raven Prince’s glamour, or if it was his beauty and mystery laying its guile over him. ‘Speak any more prettily and I’d forget you are baseborn, belonging to the lowest reaches of lakes.’

The Raven Prince walked closer to him, looked down on him, his nose thin and straight, his eyes sharp and slightly upturned at the corners, the birdness of them ever-present.

‘I know what you want, Augus. I’ll no sooner let him go than I will you. The smarter ones know that it’s not always such a pleasant thing to be caught in my claws, do they? Or perhaps, I should say, the ones that still remember their instincts, as you do. A deal then… if, after three lessons with me, he wishes to continue, he may do so on terms that we all agree upon. But he will need somewhere safe to live, and I insist that it be with you. If, after three lessons, he does not wish to continue as my apprentice, I will set him up in another household away from you, so that your life may go back to your life as it was. The only difference being that you must visit my Court on occasion. You will – in all other ways – be free of it.’

Augus swallowed, turned the words over. If he was the same fae he’d been only a month before, he would have been desperate for Gwyn to refuse apprenticeship, for his life to return to normal.

Either way, Gwyn would likely be looked after…

But Augus would be more likely to assure a better future for him if Gwyn decided to stay on as the Raven Prince’s apprentice.

A better future for him, but what about for you?

‘You’re generous, Your Majesty,’ Augus said stiffly.

‘Perhaps I pay more attention to what you want, than you do yourself, young Each Uisge. So go back to him then, your charge. I have not completed this revenge of mine, nor has the Oak King taken his steps to sever this family from his Court. You must endeavour to stay safe.’

‘Of course, Your Majesty.’

The Raven Prince smiled thinly at him, then in a whirl of feathers, turned into a heavy, glamourously iridescent raven. The great bird cawed several times as he flew away, and Augus only heard mocking laughter.

It could have been worse, Augus knew. He still had his voice. His hands came up and touched the base of his throat as he watched the black creature winging away. He thought of the deal that the Raven Prince offered him, and felt as though he’d been silenced anyway.

Chapter Text

Ash was waiting for him with a glass of water and a hand pressing reassuringly to his arm, when Augus came back into his home, still shaken by everything that had occurred. For a few minutes he couldn’t speak, and he sat down on his three-seater couch in the corner as he often did, and sipped at the water, wondering if he looked as haunted as he felt.

‘You don’t look so great, bro,’ Ash said, frowning at him.

‘It all went as well as I think it could have gone, actually.’ Augus set the glass down on the small table next to the couch and arranged cushions carefully, some of them his own, some of them surprisingly tasteful gifts from Ash.

Over the next half hour, Augus described everything that had happened, while Ash listened and only rarely interjected with a question or exclamation. At the end of it, Ash’s eyes looked shadowed, the corners of his mouth pinched together. Absently, Augus reached out and squeezed Ash’s hand.

‘So Efnisien is still out there. Crielle and Lludd could try and get revenge. I guess. Maybe they won’t. I kind of just want them dead, brother. Could we do it? Could I? If they’re dropped down to a lower status, I’m sure that-’

Augus shook his head, even as he squeezed Ash’s hand again, this time in warning.

‘They’re too valuable, and they’re not ours to kill,’ Augus said. ‘If the Raven Prince wants to engineer their deaths, he will.’

‘Fucking hell,’ Ash muttered. ‘So Gwyn’s never going to be rid of them basically. I’d fucking tear them apart, man, I can’t even…’

Ash swallowed around what was either horror at himself, or the hugeness of his own bloodlust. It was always a little surprising to remember that Ash was a waterhorse too, and just as capable of viciousness as Augus was.

‘Okay,’ Ash said, and he took several breaths. ‘Okay. So I was maybe taking my revenge fantasies a little too far there. Yep. Okay then can I just…change the subject? Uh, there’s something I’ve been wanting to bring up and there’s no real easy way to do it? So I guess I should just…yep. Okay. What’s going on between you and Gwyn?’

‘What?’ Augus said, staring at him.

‘Wait, this doesn’t come out of nowhere, trust me,’ Ash said, laughing quietly. ‘It’s just, he came to me earlier, while you were gone. And he was stressed out, you know? Like…a bit more than normal. And he got onto the bed where I was reading and he like, he asked me to hold his wrists for him. And I had no idea what he meant, like, at all, and so he showed me on one of mine and then said that you did it for him.’

Augus went still. But Ash wasn’t done talking. In fact, he turned his hand palm up and squeezed Augus’ fingers.

‘So I did it for him, like, sure, no problem. But then he told me to do it harder. And I realised he wanted me to hurt him. And I had to- Well, I couldn’t do that, and I think I made him uncomfortable or embarrassed and he went away and wouldn’t come back. But the more I thought about it – you showed him that, Augus. You showed him something painful, and he looked for it as a form of reassurance. So what’s…happening between the two of you?’

‘He says it anchors him,’ Augus said, even as Ash rubbed his thumb over Augus’ palm. ‘It’s not entirely surprising.’

‘I know you’ve made some impulsive decisions, but I also know you’re not really one to like…put your clients at risk or anything if you can avoid it. So I figure you’ve already thought about the fact that he’s been tortured all his life and…and…how that complicates things?’

Augus yanked his hand away from Ash’s. But when Ash grabbed for his hand again, Augus returned it, sighing. He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose.

‘I’ve been exceedingly careful,’ Augus said. ‘But it calms him. It makes him more articulate, easier to talk to. It’s during those moments that I’ve learned the most about him.’

‘You must’ve done something, Augus, because I don’t think you’ve realised what- Gwyn and I have this like unspoken – ha – agreement where he doesn’t talk around me and I’m fine with it. I think he likes having someone he doesn’t have to talk to, who still gives him space to do what he likes, you know? But, Augus, he was anxious and he asked me to do that thing you do. He asked me, he was pretty clear actually. So it’s a big deal. This thing you’re doing. It’s helping, and that’s amazing.’

Augus made a faint, scornful sound in his throat. But Ash ignored it and soldiered on.

‘Here’s the thing, Augus,’ Ash said in a rush. ‘I like him. I don’t know exactly how yet, but I know I do. And you like him. So what does this mean?’

‘I don’t…I’m not attracted to him,’ Augus said, staring at the side of Ash’s head. Ash looked at him and laughed, the sound dark.

‘Sure, okay, look you’ve always liked to live in denial a bit longer than everyone else, but I’m not going to be an idiot and pretend I can’t see it. Because this is complicated, and this is something we have to talk about. Like, I think there’s something there between Gwyn and I. I’m not pushing it at all, but I kind of…I’m not a fool, Augus, I’ve been reading the sort of signals that people give off when they’re curious to try more almost all my fucking life.’

‘And?’ Augus said sharply. ‘Have you considered that perhaps he’s just blindly grateful for someone to finally show him a shred of kindness that has lasted longer than a day?’

‘Hence why I’m fucking talking to you about it,’ Ash said, and then he leaned back in the chair and stretched his arms above his head. ‘And what do we do? Like, do I back off because you like him? I can share, but I don’t know about you.’

‘How far ahead have you gone in this little fantasy of yours?’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘He may not even be staying with us more than a few weeks. Whatever is between Gwyn and me, it’s not what you think. And don’t interrupt me. He’s a torture victim who has no idea what he wants, who is likely absurdly grateful and trying to pay us back with what he thinks we want. Which – by the way – torture victims are almost uncannily good at determining what we want. He asked me for more of…whatever it is he thinks he wants from me, and I told him no.’

‘You can’t have it both ways, Augus,’ Ash said, his voice lacking the hardness of Augus’ and going even softer, even more infuriating because of it. ‘You can’t treat him like a mature adult and then assume that he can’t make any choices for himself.’

‘You…could always ask him,’ Gwyn said from the hall, finally peeking his head around the doorway. Ash made a sound of shock, but Augus looked up at him, raising his eyebrows. Gwyn looked tired, dishevelled, and his eyes squinted at the both of them. He didn’t look pleased.

‘Jesus fucking Mary and Joseph you scared the fucking daylights out of me,’ Ash exclaimed, both of his hands fisted to his chest as he caught his breath. ‘How the fuck can you move so quietly?’

Gwyn walked into the room a few more tentative steps, and then dropped to a crouch by the unoccupied chair, nostrils flaring by the armrest. He looked between the two of them.

‘How long have you been listening in?’ Augus said, his voice even and calm.

‘My…cousin is still out there,’ Gwyn said, by way of answer. Gwyn looked down, his fingers curled into the armrest where he’d braced himself. ‘The two Kings are involved.’

‘Make a habit of eavesdropping, do you?’ Augus said.

Gwyn looked up, his cheeks flushed, but his eyes were still narrowed in rebellion, stubbornness.

‘Since you heard everything, what is it that you want?’

‘I…’ Gwyn trailed off and looked uncertainly at Ash, then back to Augus. He squatted on his haunches and looked at the armrest. Then rested his chin upon it and looked out into the room. ‘I don’t…’

He shook his head as though frustrated, and Augus leaned forwards, forehead furrowing. They’d hardly asked Gwyn to talk in front of the both of them, and it had to be a challenge.

He took a breath and sat up straight, resting both of his hands, palm up, on his knees.

‘Come here,’ Augus said. ‘Kneel in front of me.’

Ash tensed almost imperceptibly next to him, but Augus kept his focus on Gwyn, who was looking at Augus warily. After a few seconds, he stood up and walked the few steps remaining and then went down to his knees in front of him, looking once at Ash, before looking at Augus’ hands with something hungry in his expression.

He tentatively slid his wrists into Augus’ hands, and Augus tightened his fingers until Gwyn’s breath hitched and his eyelids drooped, his mouth lost some of its tension.

‘What do you want?’ Augus said. ‘How would you even know that you’re not just offering us something for more approval? Hm? Giving us what we want?’

‘You…don’t want this,’ Gwyn said, his voice a little deeper. ‘This is…selfish.’ Gwyn’s hands twitched. ‘I wanted more. You didn’t.’

‘And Ash? What’s happening there?’

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, looking at Ash underneath thick lashes, and then wincing when Augus upped the pressure around Gwyn’s wrists. It was definitely painful now, and not the kind that would be easy to ride out. Ash had leaned closer to the both of them, watching the point where Augus’ hands were around Gwyn’s skin.

Ash’s glamour had thickened, and Augus could feel it strengthening around them. Not the cheerful warmth he usually maintained, but something darker, perhaps what he’d drag into bars with him. Augus blinked at it, since it wasn’t something he was used to feeling, and it unravelled something inside his chest. He looked over at Ash, confused, wary.

‘This can’t happen,’ Augus said, his voice rough. ‘Whatever this is. Gwyn, you might not be here in a few weeks, and we’re all of us in danger. I don’t want to complicate anything. What if we go ahead with this, hm? Ash? What then? What do we do when Gwyn’s damaged beyond all recoverability, and we’re left to pick up the pieces of our lives?’

‘Whoa,’ Ash said, placing a hand on Augus’ back. ‘How far ahead did you just jump, Augus? Jesus. Whatever’s happening now is helping him. He’s talking more. He’s…more forward. Like, I’m not fucking naïve. I know that none of this is easy. But it also doesn’t feel wrong. But where did you just go, that you’re suddenly off in some future where we’ve ruined everything and then he disappears and what, game over?’

Augus hadn’t told Ash or Gwyn about the deal that the Raven Prince had made him. He’d have to tell Gwyn eventually, but right now the words locked up in his throat. He didn’t know what future he preferred. The one where Gwyn went away and Augus’ life went back to normal? Or the one where Gwyn stayed and nothing was the same again?

Augus’ life had been stable before he’d met Gwyn. He’d liked it that way.

‘Geez,’ Ash said to Gwyn, ‘you really like this, don’t you?’

Gwyn nodded twice.

‘Do it harder,’ Ash said to Augus, with the kind of tone he’d been using all his life – the one where he expected to be listened to, didn’t even occur to him to make it a question.

And Augus responded the way he so often did with Ash, he tightened his grip on Gwyn’s wrists, until Gwyn groaned softly and his head bowed and neither one of them could see his expression anymore.

Ash reached out with his other hand and placed it on the back of Gwyn’s head. Augus was just about to say that it didn’t have the same effect on common fae as it did on waterhorses, when Gwyn made a faint, wanting sound and his head moved into Ash’s touch. From what Augus could see, his eyes were closed, he was more relaxed than Augus had seen in a long time.

It was confusing. Whatever this was, Augus couldn’t wrap his mind around it. It wasn’t helped when Ash leaned his face towards Augus’, rested his nose against Augus’ cheek. It wasn’t…much further than their usual affection, except that Augus was dangerously aware of that glamour of Ash’s, wrapping tendrils around them.

‘You’re my brother,’ Augus said, even as Ash’s breath was warm against the side of his face.

‘I’m a lot of things,’ Ash said. ‘Your brother. Your best friend. More. You think any of those things have to change? You really think we’ll ruin everything?’

‘It’s dangerous.’

‘What changes?’ Ash said quietly, his lips brushing against Augus’ ear, and Augus tried to switch off his awareness, tried to ignore the shiver of sensation that moved down his neck. He was the one who enjoyed control, and this situation was swimming away from all his self-mastery. ‘Here, let’s make it easier, Augus. Look at it this way. I keep doing my thing with Gwyn. You keep doing your thing with Gwyn. We make sure he’s okay with it. And we just…wait and see what happens?’

Augus’ heartsong was dominance, not…waiting and seeing what happened. He needed some basis of control in this, and unfortunately, he could have it, if he let himself assert his will over Gwyn, in concert with Gwyn’s. He could feel Gwyn’s wrists twitching beneath his touch, feel the way his skin was cooling where the circulation was being stopped. Augus tightened and relaxed his grip several times to encourage more circulation, and then suffocated Gwyn’s wrists once more.

Gwyn grunted and bowed into him with something that could have almost been yearning.

‘Gwyn? What do you think?’ Augus said.

‘I’m okay,’ Gwyn said. He made himself look up, moving as though his head was heavy. ‘I asked, didn’t I? You said no.’

Ash’s hand massaged the back of Gwyn’s head gently. Rhythmic, firm motions that Augus knew very well himself from a lifetime of Ash soothing him, in the rare moments that he let it happen. Gwyn was so touch-starved, that he simply turned malleable beneath them both; the grip Augus had on him, Ash’s drugging touch. It all worked well, the three of them. Augus’ lips thinned and he looked away, trying to gather his thoughts.

Gwyn didn’t react to things entirely predictably. Whatever resilience he’d had all this time, he wasn’t as passive as Augus sometimes assumed. He’d said himself that some of his rescuers had attempted to assault him, rape him, and that Gwyn had always stopped them. That he was even able to do that after Efnisien hurt him so often…

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, thinking it through, ‘how often did Efnisien capture you?’

Gwyn’s hands tightened predictably, he huffed a breath through his nose. Ash leaned closer, splayed his fingers more, gathering more of Gwyn’s hair and massaging deeper.

‘Two…three times a year, I think,’ Gwyn said. ‘Sometimes a day and I’d escape. Two days. A week. It was bad if he…had me for a month or more. But rare. I fought. He’s…not weak, but he’s not canny either. He doesn’t think like I do. I know where to escape to. He looks behind shrubs and rocks, I can hide in the canopy or at the bottom of lakes too.’

‘And the rest of the time? What did you do? Where did you go?’

Gwyn’s breathing evened out again, so this wasn’t a question that stressed him as much as the others. Augus risked transferring his grip on Gwyn’s wrists to one hand, so that he could stroke languidly along Gwyn’s forearm. He had absolutely no body hair aside from his eyebrows and eyelashes, and his skin was smooth and unmarked, and goose pimpled nicely, wherever Augus’ fingers went.

‘I slept…in the woods,’ Gwyn said. ‘I made a few hides, and for a few years I lived in a badger’s sett and the badgers left me alone. I had to make it larger but they were good about it. But cousin he…left traps. Trapped the badgers. Trapped me. Filled in the sett with rocks and mortar and poison. It was…there was always something. Winters were hard.’

Winter was hard in the Ethallas forest. What was so charming and woodsy in spring and summer would become a barren, snowy, unforgiving wilderness as soon as the Autumn Equinox passed and the Winter Solstice neared. There were times when Augus and Ash nearly hadn’t survived Ethallas, its snows and frosts.

‘But you were Court status,’ Augus said, eyebrows pulling together.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said. ‘So hard, but not fatal. I can…eat wood and tough leaves and my body will make something of them.’

‘And what did you used to think about, in the times between Efnisien’s torture?’

Gwyn lifted his head and looked at Augus. He looked dazed, confused, yet also soothed and half-insensate from what they were doing. Both of them hardly touching him at all. Augus forced himself to take a slow, deep breath and concentrate on what he was trying to gather for himself.

‘What to do,’ Gwyn said, ‘so he couldn’t catch me again. Sometimes…I don’t know.’ Gwyn shook his head, frustrated. ‘I didn’t want to think. I didn’t want to think in words and…so I didn’t. Animals don’t get hurt like we do. A spider loses a leg, but it doesn’t…it doesn’t sit and reflect on how it lost a leg. A bird gets a broken wing and even floor-bound and struggling and only with hours or days left to it, it doesn’t regret the broken wing. It is a bird, it is still a bird. So…after cousin, I would remember that I am…’

Gwyn flushed hot, looked askance and shook his head again. His wrists twitched like he wanted to pull them from Augus’ grip, then he pulled them again, but he didn’t ask for Augus to let go, so Augus didn’t let go.

‘Oh,’ Ash said abruptly, and then actually rubbed the side of Gwyn’s head like he was a dog. ‘I get it. Don’t be embarrassed, man, it makes total sense. You just wanted to be an animal, being whatever you were. Cuz if you were more like a deer or whatever, then however he hurt you, it couldn’t hurt you as much than if you sat down and thought about it all the time. Life is too important. There’s food and water and shelter, and-’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn interrupted, brightening, ‘and the sun and fall leaves and bulbs under the ground sending up flowers.’

‘But it did affect you,’ Augus said, keeping his voice detached and noticing the way Gwyn wouldn’t quite look at him. ‘Because you’re not a bird. And you’re not a spider. Or a deer. Or a hound.’

‘I’m not like you,’ Gwyn said, scowling at some point past Augus’ shoulder. ‘And I’m not like them.’

‘But it did affect you,’ Augus insisted. ‘You’re still fae, and you aren’t only some wild creature. You still remember that you were educated with them, and there are still words inside of you, and you were still damaged by what he did.’

‘Augus,’ Ash said, as Gwyn’s face twisted in indignant outrage and he started tugging quite hard on his wrists – Augus still not letting him go. ‘What are you getting at? Come on, bro, seriously, if you have a point, fucking make it.’

‘He’s coped better than most because nature role-modelled resilience back to him, but it’s irresponsible to assume this makes him sound for what you’re thinking!’

‘How are you saying this?’ Ash said, incredulous. ‘You’re the one who takes in people who aren’t sound and then takes risks with them that’s way beyond what we’re suggesting here! And even you know that can be done in service of health!’

‘That’s different,’ Augus hissed. ‘It’s once, and it’s in an extremely controlled environment, and-’

‘Oh, huh,’ Ash said, peering at Augus like he’d seen something quite different to the point Augus was trying to make. ‘So what you’re trying to say is that because you can’t control every aspect of this, and because this isn’t a one time thing, but something that could possibly be a long time thing…Gwyn’s the one with the problem, because people who’ve been through shit suddenly don’t deserve love and affection and care until they’re sound.’

Augus stared at him, felt Gwyn’s wrists slide out from underneath his hands and wasn’t even aware of his grip loosening.

‘Hey,’ Ash said, that sharp, insightful expression passing into something far softer, ‘if this is a problem for your heartsong, you know, or it’s too threatening, you can just say. I mean, I’m guessing that Gwyn’s journey back towards…well, whatever, I think that’s a bumpy road. Some things will help him, some will harm him, and we probably won’t know what all of those things will be until we come across them. But if this is like…I just hate seeing you trying to rationalise all of this when I think you could get something out of this too, okay? That’s all. Like, we’re all worried about Gwyn. You are. I am.’

‘Me too,’ Gwyn said, from where he’d rocked back on his heels, away from Ash’s touch and was rubbing carefully at his bruised wrists.

‘But I’m worried about you too, Augus,’ Ash said.

‘Me too,’ Gwyn interjected.

‘Excellent,’ Augus said, rubbing his forehead with his index finger and thumb, and trying to think of a way to tell them that they were both being ridiculous.

‘So what would help?’ Ash said, the words open, expansive, willing to consider any option.

Augus dropped his hand and stared hard at Gwyn. Images crashed together in his mind, a dam had broken and he saw Gwyn, bound and struggling against pain before sinking into a bone deep pleasure. Saw him restrained and comfortable in those restraints. Saw his own hand in Gwyn’s hair, twisting until Gwyn promised to do whatever Augus said. Saw his own sadism stretching out in front of him and some instinct that told him he could turn that into something good for Gwyn, good for the both of them.

He stood up and walked past them towards the kitchen, even as Gwyn’s eyes widened as though he’d realised something, even as Ash tried to call him back.

‘You’re overwhelmed, okay,’ Ash called, ‘but don’t shut down, Augus. Please?’

Augus’ thoughts were jumbling together. Outside of that, how could he find control again? He didn’t trust the safety of his clients while Gwyn was here, and certainly not their confidentiality. Perhaps he could move locations? But that presented a range of difficulties on their own, not least that they weren’t safe anywhere else. He didn’t have any space to himself. Or…not without being aware of the other people living with him, in his own home.

And yet…

Augus’ fingers splayed on the chopping board resting upon his bench. Too much had spun out of his control too quickly.

But he’d started it, hadn’t he? He’d set it all in motion. He’d been the one to choose to follow the pained cries, he’d been the one to set Gwyn free, and then the one to bind him and drag him home when Gwyn clearly didn’t want to come with him.

For all that the changes towering on top of each other threatened him, made him feel constantly as though he were on a tightrope, he’d started the chain of events. He’d even been the one to first slide his fingers around Gwyn’s wrists.

Do I want this? Or do I not want this?

‘Hey,’ Ash said, as Gwyn got up onto his feet and walked over to Augus. ‘Just…give him some space.’

Augus’ teeth ground together. He watched as Gwyn didn’t walk around Augus’ side of the bench, but instead stopped on the opposite side and faced Augus, looked down at his hands on the chopping board.

‘Tell me what you want,’ Gwyn said. ‘Ask me. With words.’

Every word hesitant, but still clear.

Augus looked up at him, met a wary, stubborn gaze, felt something angry snarl into life inside of himself. ‘I would destroy you.’

Gwyn flinched but bore it, didn’t even look away. ‘To help me.’

‘Because I enjoy it.’

‘But to help me,’ Gwyn said, each word implacable. ‘I asked you. I…looked through your rooms and asked you. You told me no. I asked you to help me, how you help people, and you said no. Because you are afraid.’

‘Enjoying being particularly loquacious, are you?’ Augus said, raising his eyebrows. ‘How much longer before you decide you don’t want to talk anymore?’

‘Not much longer,’ Gwyn said, like he was tired of the whole conversation, but angry too. ‘You told me I don’t want it.’

‘I don’t know if you’re a masochist because of what Efnisien did, or because-’

‘Is that important?’ Gwyn said, sounding far less certain now. ‘Is there…a rule? Is that a rule? I can only like it, if my cousin never hurt me?’

Augus blinked at him, and then something clicked together inside of himself and he felt far more stable than he’d felt for days. Even with the threat of Efnisien hanging over them all, even with the Raven Prince playing with them all and enjoying himself in the process.

‘No,’ Augus said quietly. ‘There’s no rule.’

‘Okay,’ Gwyn said. ‘Would you…go slow? Like you have? Explaining?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said. He was quite certain his heart was beating faster now, but for an entirely different reason.

‘Okay,’ Gwyn said. His lips twitched like he wanted to smile, but the gesture never resolved into anything more. Finally, Gwyn raised his left hand, his fingers clenching into a loose fist. He held the fist parallel to his shoulder and Augus nodded, but Gwyn wasn’t even looking at him.

He turned like he was going to walk down the hallway, but hesitated when Ash beckoned him over.

‘Come on, puppy. You don’t need to talk anymore. Not even a little. Come lie down. Come on. It’s all warm. Yeah?’

Gwyn hesitated for a long moment, and then veered towards Ash, reluctantly getting onto the couch and curling his legs up underneath him. He faced away from Ash, which left his head and hands clutching the cushions Augus had just been sitting upon. After looking at nothing in particular, he buried his head into one of the cushions and breathed deeply.

He held cautiously still when Ash gently patted his leg, but then seemed to settle again, his feet stretching and relaxing, then digging beneath Ash’s thigh.

‘There,’ Ash said warmly. ‘You did so well. You did so, so well.’

But he looked at Augus as he said it, and Augus couldn’t stop the flush of warmth that trickled through him, even as he resented the reassurance that he clearly needed.

Chapter Text

Augus woke in the early hours of the morning by something of a premonition, horror trickling down the back of his spine, his eyes weren’t even tired when they bolted open.

He yanked back the covers to his bed and was already out of his room and moving towards Ash’s, horror transforming into sympathy. He knew how to deal with this. He knew what to expect. This was something of a staple of their brotherhood, though a less pleasant one.

He was surprised to see Gwyn standing in Ash’s room, helplessly, by the ramrod straight form of Ash who was covered in blankets so that only his terrified, open eyes and his rictus mouth were exposed.

‘I didn’t do anything,’ Gwyn said quickly, and Augus shook his head and then waved a hand because he knew that.

He climbed onto the bed and straddled Ash’s waist, then lay himself down flat, calling his waterhorse weight to make himself even heavier, framing Ash’s cold face in his palms. There was nothing else for it now, except to wait.

‘Night terrors,’ Augus said by way of explanation to Gwyn, who seemed rattled and out of sorts and would have no idea what was happening, except that – for once – he wasn’t the one having a bad time. ‘He’s had them all his life.’

Their content, peaceful childhood had been marked by these formless horrors. They only pounced Ash rarely, but when they did, they were encompassing. Even now, Ash’s body temperature had dropped too low, and Augus was already thumbing at his cheekbones, encouraging blood to flow. He felt his own glamour swell around him, not to incite fear now, but gentleness instead, to lull. He looked down at Ash’s open eyes, sheened with tears, heard the choking of his breaths and frowned.

‘Come back, Ash,’ Augus said. ‘I’m right here.’

‘Can I do…anything?’ Gwyn said, and Augus didn’t look away from Ash as he thought about it.

‘A glass of water,’ Augus said over the sound of Ash’s hoarse breaths. ‘But otherwise…this needs to run its course.’

Gwyn was already out of the door, and Augus found it strange to hear someone else in his kitchen, touching his glasses, pouring water from his carafe.

His hands moved up to Ash’s forehead and then into Ash’s damp hair.

‘Brother,’ Augus said, ‘it’s all right. Come back now.’

All his life, Ash had these night terrors. Augus didn’t know what caused them, and Ash always swore he could remember nothing but falling in the dark. Augus could feel quivers running down Ash’s frame. Feel the tension in his arms under the blankets. He never tossed or thrashed, he went straight, his eyes snapped open, his pupils blown out and the air around him reeking of a fear that Augus never felt to this degree otherwise.

‘Come on now,’ Augus whispered. ‘We’re all here, not going anywhere.’

Gwyn was back in the room, carefully set the glass down on the chest of drawers by Ash’s bed, right next to a book on…Augus squinted at the title. What on earth was psychotherapy, anyway?

Another five minutes passed, though they felt much, much longer. Ash took a full, deep breath, and Augus’ forehead rested on Ash’s chest, feeling that pulsing beat of his heart even through the blankets. Another full breath, another, and then Ash’s arms struggled with the blankets and wrapped heavily and clumsily around Augus’ shoulders. Augus knew he was blinking awake now, coming back to himself, and Augus scratched gently at Ash’s scalp.

The word ‘fuck’ repeated a few times, and then Ash laughed shakily as Augus straightened, Ash’s arms trying to stay heavy upon his shoulders until they had to withdraw.

‘It’s been a while,’ Ash said, his voice sleep-deep and scratchy. Tears came to his eyes in the aftermath, and he didn’t dash them away, wasn’t ashamed of them. He looked up at Gwyn and offered a tremulous smile. He turned back to Augus and pushed himself unsteadily up on his elbows, pushing his forehead to Augus’, their breath touching each other’s faces. ‘I’m glad you were here. They always last so much longer when you’re not.’

‘How can you tell?’

These were questions they’d gone through before. They grounded Ash back in reality, and Augus never minded hearing the same answers over and over.

‘I feel sore on my own,’ Ash said quietly. ‘My muscles tense for longer.’

Gwyn cleared his throat, shifted from foot to foot. ‘Who…did that to you?’

‘Aw, no, puppy,’ Ash said, smiling and then turning his head to the side, Augus lifting just enough to make the motion easier but still staying close. ‘It’s not like that. I’ve had these since I was a wee thing. They’re nothing really. Some kind of glitch. I only have like…two or three a year now. They’re not proper nightmares. No one did anything to me.’

Augus moved his hand between them and rubbed at Ash’s chest, nodding at Ash’s explanation. He turned to Gwyn, who was still moving from foot to foot, his weight going back and forth, his mouth tense, his forehead creased.

‘I know it looks frightening,’ Ash said.

Gwyn frowned between them both, and then his fingers clenched together. After that, his palm slid up to his wrist and he huffed out a breath and walked out of the room, without another word. Ash looked bewildered.

‘Do you think he doesn’t believe me?’ Ash said.

‘I think he’s not used to seeing other people experience the sorts of anguish that he experiences. Not like this, anyway. It’s fine, Ash. It’s been a heavy few weeks for all of us. Like you said before, we don’t know what will harm him or help him, sometimes he just needs…time to himself.’

‘I suppose,’ Ash said.

He took a deep breath and sighed it out, groaned. Then he pulled the pillows behind them against the headboard and leaned back, half-sitting, Augus giving him the space to move. Eventually, Augus slid off Ash onto the bed and rubbed his knee, while Ash looked off into the middle distance.

‘You all right, brother?’ Augus said.

‘Mm, yeah, just aware that I gotta hunt soon. And if I have to, you definitely have to. What are we gonna do? Stagger the hunting? But I just don’t like…leaving him alone with me for a week without you to help. Or vice versa.’

‘It has to happen, we might as well know sooner rather than later if it’s going to be a problem.’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, closing his eyes. His voice already turning sleep slow. ‘Yeah, sounds good. I’ll go with that, then.’

Augus watched as Ash drifted back to sleep. He rose from the bed and walked over to the closet, opening it and drawing out a blanket. Once back on Ash’s bed, he pressed his back to Ash’s back for the warmth and drew the doubled blanket over himself, shifting his mane until it wasn’t trickling water down the front of his neck. He slipped off slowly, wondering what Gwyn had made of it all, and too tired to devote much thought to it.

*

There was a marked regression in Gwyn’s recovery the next morning. He didn’t come out from his room and he was no longer using the bed, but back on the floor, between the bed-stand and the wall. He wouldn’t talk, he wouldn’t signal, and he watched everything warily.

Augus found himself wanting to talk to Gwyn to solve everything, to fix the situation, but he squashed the impulse.

When he warned Ash, the reaction he got was what he’d been expecting:

‘Well, can’t you just talk to him?’

‘This…this will happen sometimes,’ Augus said, looking up from where he was finely slicing a turnip. Ash poked at the peel with slow jabs of his finger. ‘Ash, this is hard for him. It’s overwhelming. He’s going to have times where he reverts back not because he wants to, but because it’s all he’s known, and it’s easier. He just needs a break. We’re making him think about an awful lot of things. And he’s making himself think about an awful lot of things. Just…give him space, it’ll be fine. If he wants company, he’ll seek you out. We can’t go and force ourselves on him if there’s no need for it. It’s not as though he needs physical care right now, so, we leave him to his own devices.’

‘So…’ Ash looked around Augus’ home. ‘Can I go home today and grab some stuff from my place? Just some more books and stuff. And I have some things I want to check up on.’

‘Certainly,’ Augus said. ‘I’d be glad for the break.’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, winking at him. ‘I know that too, bro.’

Ash wandered off back down the corridor to his bedroom, and Augus kept chopping, hoping that he’d come to the right conclusion. This wasn’t exactly his area of expertise, and he wasn’t exactly feeling that settled himself.

With Gwyn hiding in his room, Augus got the sense that he had most of the place to himself once Ash had left. He cleaned and tidied. He swam in his lake, pulling up new and old waterweed alike for recipes and curing, or for medicinal preparations. He laundered and ended up wearing a dove grey turtleneck, and dark grey pants. The afternoon found him sitting on the three-seater couch, ensconced by cushions, reading through an account of plants that grew on the fie ellyllon’s native grounds.

It was absorbing, but even so, he was aware of the shuffling noises from Gwyn’s room. Then the soft footsteps of Gwyn padding down the hall towards him.

Gwyn paused in the threshold, not looking at Augus, but clearly aware that Augus was there. His shoulders were hunched and his head was bowed. He didn’t move, and Augus sighed as he turned the next page, reading a paragraph before looking up and pointing to the kitchen.

‘You can fetch whatever you wish,’ Augus said. ‘No one’s going to make you talk if you don’t feel ready for it.’

Gwyn shuffled over to the kitchen, still no eye contact.

There was another long silence. Gwyn just standing there. No doubt it had been a long time since Gwyn had been in a kitchen, able to choose his own food.

Augus frowned at his book. Perhaps he’d never been able to choose food for himself. Augus rolled his eyes and tried to ignore the ache in his chest and went back to reading. He didn’t think Gwyn would respond well to someone dumbing it all down for him. He decided to trust that Gwyn would eventually work it out for himself, or decide he wasn’t ready.

It was another five minutes before there were several reluctant steps. And then the pantry door was opened and Gwyn went inside it, and Augus could hear him looking around. Could hear containers being lifted and opened, heard several loud sniffs and then smirked when he heard a sneeze. Augus had fetched some food that was more appropriate for Gwyn, so he was confident that Gwyn would eventually find something suitable.

Gwyn spent a long time in the kitchen, and Augus concluded that he was getting a sense of where everything was. Augus already knew that Gwyn had likely been through the entire house while he wasn’t there, so perhaps Gwyn was re-learning everything, testing his limits? Checking to see if Augus would get annoyed at him for taking so long?

Augus didn’t care how long he took.

Gwyn came out with a bread roll and several apples that were small enough that three just fit into the palm of his hand. He stood by the six seater table, looking down at it. Took two steps towards the chair, then stopped. His whole body swung towards Augus, but he didn’t make eye contact.

‘Eat wherever you want,’ Augus said, reading his book. ‘But if you get crumbs on your sheets, you’re stripping the bed.’

Another long pause, and then the slow shuffling steps of Gwyn walking back down the corridor towards his room. The door clicked shut, and Augus closed his eyes and sighed in relief.

As far as things went, it wasn’t terrible. He was feeding himself. He was trying to choose things that made him comfortable. Even those things on their own were a sign of forward progress. He doubted Gwyn had ever been truly accustomed to making decisions regarding his own comfort, and that alone was challenge enough.

Augus went back to his book, pursing his lips when he got to the section on orchids and losing track of time.

*

Ash wasn’t back when Augus made himself dinner. Gwyn’s door opened and Gwyn walked back down the corridor again and watched Augus sorting through the ingredients he needed for a salad. Ash was right, he’d need to hunt soon. Augus had been shoving that primitive hunger aside, but it was an itch in his gut that he couldn’t ignore forever, and he’d be more likely to make irrational decisions the hungrier he became.

He was aware of Gwyn’s scrutiny. Everything he did was carefully watched. How he handled the vegetables in his kitchen. How he used the knife or a peeler. Augus, in turn, became aware of surveying himself and his own movements.

But then he forgot about that too, and didn’t ignore Gwyn, exactly, just found himself becoming more comfortable with being watched. He looked up at Gwyn from time to time, then looked over at the table. Eventually, he hopped onto the bench and ate the salad there, swinging his legs a little and spearing up bits of green and root vegetables with a wooden fork.

Gwyn shuffled closer, enough that he was just inside the kitchen.

‘You can get whatever you like,’ Augus said to the bowl of salad. ‘The food is there to be eaten.’

Gwyn stepped closer to Augus, away from the larder, the pantry. Finally, Gwyn was standing so close to Augus that he was crowding into his personal space, and Augus thinned his lips and finally stopped eating, and lowered his bowl.

‘All right,’ Augus said. ‘Now you’re just being rude.’

Augus watched as fingers came out and pinched up a bit of his salad and then Gwyn was eating it and pulled a face. The first eye contact he’d made with anyone all day, was to look at Augus in something like offense. Augus raised his eyebrows and couldn’t stop his lips from turning up.

‘There’s a reason I didn’t offer you any,’ Augus said, and then he laughed and shook his head, went back to eating. ‘When I’m not hunting, this is the kind of thing I eat. Most fae aren’t a fan. It would probably go down with dryads.’

Gwyn’s eyebrows pulled together sceptically, as though he was saying: I doubt it would go down well with anyone.

‘You’re cheeky,’ Augus said, tilting his head. ‘And you know it, don’t you? You knew it was rude to come into my space like that. Were you angry that I didn’t offer you any? Or upset that you have to get your own food and you’re not used to it?’

Gwyn’s face turned troubled, and he looked away.

‘You don’t have to answer,’ Augus said. ‘Just because you’ve had a few days of communicating doesn’t mean I’m going to expect you to keep it up every day. It must be tiring.’

A pause, and Gwyn’s shoulders lost some of their tension, then slumped. Could it be that Gwyn had been fearing some kind of punishment for regressing? Had that been something he’d experienced in the past?

Gwyn seemed far more reluctant to move around the kitchen looking for food while Augus was in there, so Augus cleaned his bowl and fork, left them in the stone basin of his sink and walked into the lounge, sitting and picking up his book and removing the delicate metal bookmark, going back to reading. Only then, did Gwyn get himself something to eat, and once more he left the kitchen and the lounge and walked back towards his room.

He paused at the threshold of the corridor and cleared his throat. An intake of breath, Augus waited expectantly, but then Gwyn only walked away and closed his bedroom door behind him once more.

Augus yawned, settled down lower into the couch and read, deciding that as far as days went, it actually hadn’t been that bad.

*

Ash returned later in the evening, a backpack over his shoulders that was dripping wet – but waterproof at least – and some kind of waterproof leather book satchel. He dropped everything down on the table and then opened the bags, taking out more clothing, a whole lot of books that all came from the human world, as well as some colourful cardboard boxes that sounded like they had trinkets in them, with garish, colourful images all over them.

He came over to the couch and lifted Augus’ legs easily, sitting down and resting Augus’ legs on his own thighs, rubbing them in the same easy way that Augus had soothed at Ash after his night terror.

‘How’s your day been?’ Ash said, scratching at the bridge of Augus’ right foot.

‘Good,’ Augus said, turning a page. ‘Surprisingly good.’

‘Awesome,’ Ash said. ‘And Gwyn? How’s the puppy going?’

‘Not a puppy,’ Augus said drily. ‘And good. About as well as can be expected.’

‘He talking or anything?’

‘No, but he’s eaten. He’s doing okay. It’s fine, Ash.’

‘I dunno if any of this is fine, but yeah, I get you. You feel like doing anything tonight? Do you want me to teach you how to play Monopoly again?’

‘I would rather die by slow digestion, then learn how to play that awful thing about human real estate. It doesn’t even make any sense.

‘You say that, but I’ve seen you play cards with gnomes? And that doesn’t make any sense?’

‘I was drunk,’ Augus said, indignant, putting the book down. ‘And who got me that way in the first place? If I had known that you were going to take me to some gnome pub and get me inebriated, I wouldn’t have gone. That I ended up being exceptionally good at that game they played doesn’t mean anything at all. It certainly doesn’t mean I want to play something that reeks of human make.’

‘I’ll teach Gwyn.’

‘You will do no such thing,’ Augus said, feeling a mix of amused and scandalised. ‘That’s just what we need.’

‘I brought my DS,’ Ash said, grinning. ‘I have arcade games on there. You don’t even have to be drunk for those.’

‘You’re disgusting and I’m not related to you,’ Augus said, glaring at him.

‘Yeah, that makes it worse though, really, when you chose me to be your family. So you know, no argument.’

Augus shoved his heel down into Ash’s knee, and Ash pinched his little toe hard enough that Augus swallowed down a sharp sound. He put the bookmark back in the book while Ash pinched another of his toes. As soon as Augus had the book out of the line of fire, he pushed himself up and thumped Ash on the shoulder.

‘Cut it out.’

‘Nah,’ Ash said, tickling at the underside of Augus’ ankle.

Augus pulled on Ash’s hair, and Ash laughed, pained and then licked the palm of his hand and dragged it across Augus’ cheek.

Damn it,’ Augus snarled, as Ash dissolved into more laughter. Augus rubbed the wetness off his skin and then launched up and flicked the tip of Ash’s nose, before rolling off the couch and getting out of reach of Ash’s arms.

‘You little shit,’ Ash said, rubbing at his nose, which had reddened from the force of it.

‘Don’t lick my face.’

‘I didn’t!’ Ash said, mock innocent, eyes twinkling. ‘Did you see my tongue anywhere near your face?’

‘You’re revolting.’

‘My nose hurts.’

Good.’

Augus walked over to the table, looked over the books that Ash had brought with him. Some looked like non-fiction titles, but yet more looked like fiction. Not fairytales, exactly, but they still had fantastic creatures and figures on the cover.

‘They don’t really tell stories about us anymore, do they?’ Augus said, opening one of them and sniffing the pages tentatively.

‘Nah,’ Ash said, flumping down on the couch and staring up at the ceiling. ‘They don’t really believe in us anymore since that Court mandate that fae no longer socialise with humans in the way that they used to. I mean, there’s still stories but…it’s all, it’s all treated as pretty mythological. But they’re good storyweavers. A lot of them don’t care about the telling of stories anymore, so they weave them on paper, or even screens. That oral tradition, it’s kind of gone. I can’t remember the last time I sat down in a pub and some respected geezer or lass launched into a spine-tingling tale of the Each Uisge or the Dullahan or the Black Shuck. Y’know? I know it happens, but it’s not…I dunno, not really a thing anymore.’

‘Used to be that it was harder to hunt,’ Augus said, ‘in some ways. Now it’s hard because of my own standards for prey. But back then, the young women and men knew to watch out for strange people who came from lakes and looked comely. Or walked naked out of the sea. Was a time when some of them actually knew who I was, even with my dra’ocht helping me.’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, sighing. ‘I never had that problem. There aint no story about a waterhorse with short curly hair and a semi-ginger to boot.’

Augus’ eyes roved over the words. Some of the phrasing appealed, and he closed the book shortly after.

They spent the rest of the night chatting about all manner of things: their favourite fairy tales (which they already knew, but liked to go over anyway), some of Ash’s favourite places in the human world; not all of which sounded terrible. They talked a little about the necessity of getting Ash raised up to Court status, and for all of Augus’ issues with it, Ash seemed to be tentatively looking forward to it. He’d never been as attached to being underfae as Augus.

Augus fell asleep on his own bed a few hours later, watching the deep blue light from the lake reflected into his room, the shadows from fish swimming past beyond the protective barrier of the dome.

*

He woke with a start, to the blankets being shifted. It took a couple more minutes before he realised it was Gwyn. And then another minute to realise that Gwyn was getting into the bed. Was drawing back the covers to move underneath them.

Augus pushed himself upright into a sitting position and turned on the lamp, and Gwyn froze with one knee on the mattress and a handful of blanket and sheet in his fingers.

But when Augus didn’t say anything, Gwyn crawled onto the bed and – staying as close to the opposite edge – drew up both of his legs and pulled the blankets over himself, dragging them all the way up to his chin and watching Augus warily.

Augus turned onto the side facing Gwyn, lay back down and pulled his side of the blankets up and returned the gaze.

‘Efnisien is still out there,’ Gwyn said.

‘Yes, he is,’ Augus said.

‘He scares me.’

‘That seems intelligent,’ Augus said, closing his eyes and shifting his hair so that it wasn’t in the way. He bent his legs, pushed his cheek harder into the pillow. ‘He’s a frightening creature.’

‘I don’t want to see him again.’

‘We’re trying to prevent that from happening,’ Augus said.

Gwyn said nothing for a few breaths. Then shifted in slow, stilted movements. Nothing comfortable, as though he still wasn’t sure if he was going to get into trouble. Augus hadn’t yet decided if Gwyn was in trouble. He didn’t particularly want to share a bed. Especially not with someone prone to flailing, violet, screaming nightmares.

‘If he comes and he asks me,’ Gwyn said, his voice halting, ‘I’ll…I’ll go back.’

‘I know,’ Augus said, scratching at his other hand. ‘I know you will.’

‘You’re not mad?’

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘It’s…not ideal, but I understand.’

‘I don’t,’ Gwyn said. ‘Why would I go back with him? Why?’

‘Because…mm, well, I imagine it’s complicated. Because you’ve been trained to accept that torture and pain is what you deserve even if you hate it. Because you don’t want him to hurt the people who’ve helped you, so you try and appease him, even as you know it won’t work. Because he’s family. Because he’s the only consistent fae contact you’ve had with anyone for decades so he’s familiar, maybe a part of you even likes him, he can be rather charming. Take your pick, Gwyn, it’s probably all of those and some others as well. It’s complicated.’

‘Complicated,’ Gwyn echoed, as though trying the word out, even though he had to know what it meant.

‘So it’s best if we just keep you away from him,’ Augus said. ‘What will be difficult, Gwyn, is if you want to go back to him.’

A very long silence then, and Augus’ eyes squeezed closer together, because he’d been afraid of this too.

‘Have you been thinking about it?’ Augus said, his voice careful.

‘I don’t want to,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t want to think about it.’

‘But have you?’

‘I don’t want to.’

Augus opened his eyes, and Gwyn was staring at him. He looked terrified.

‘You don’t want to think about it and thus I should stop talking about it? Or you are thinking about it, and you don’t want to be?’

Gwyn squeezed his eyes shut and he disappeared completely beneath the covers. Then, arms moving clumsily beneath the blankets and Augus blinked when he felt a hand move over his. Fingers clutching and then letting go quickly.

Ash would be far better at this kind of thing than I.

Augus turned his hand up and reached for Gwyn’s hand, sliding his fingers beneath Gwyn’s. Even his fingers were damp. Augus stared into his room and though about it, what Gwyn had said, and then, taking a breath and feeling only marginally ridiculous, he pushed himself so that he was beneath the covers as well.

‘Is it better to hide?’ Augus said into the darkness. He could still see quite well with his night vision, but everything was darker here, felt comforting.

‘The longer I go…without seeing him, the angrier he is.’

‘He’ll torture you anyway.’

‘Some times are worse than others,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking. ‘Maybe…I could see him and then, when I get away, I can come here.’

‘Ah,’ Augus said, ‘so we can just be your halfway house between incidents of torture? Is that it?’

‘Yes?’ Gwyn said, sounding like he was aware that it wasn’t a logical idea, but also sounding like he had no idea why that might be.

‘Gwyn, could it just be that you’re missing what is familiar to you? Perhaps it’s just all a little too frightening right now. Could you give it a few more days before doing anything drastic?’

‘He’ll be angrier,’ Gwyn said.

‘There are very strong wards around this territory. Wards reinforced by the King. He cannot come here. He can only access you if you leave. And even then, if he shows his face, the Raven Prince is looking for him, the Oak King too. He will be held accountable for what he’s done. The Raven Prince gave the Oak King no choice.’

Gwyn began shaking. He slid his fingers away from Augus’ and then his breathing was muffled, clearly he was covering his own face.

‘Gwyn?’ Augus said.

‘What about…what I’ve done?’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking so hard that the words flowed together.

‘Well,’ Augus said carefully, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done. But you’re Unseelie, and you’re under the protection of the Unseelie King, and so your situation is different to that of the rest of your family. No matter what your crimes.’

Augus had a vision of Gwyn desperately, mindlessly killing some innocent fae to access food or clothing. It didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. He didn’t think now was the time to talk about how there were different types of crimes. Especially when he didn’t yet know what Gwyn was capable of. What if Gwyn had done something terrible? What if Efnisien held it as leverage over him?

‘But I’ve done things,’ Gwyn said.

‘The Raven Prince won’t care,’ Augus said. ‘He’s capricious that way. He cares far more that your parents kept you away from him. He has killers and murderers in his Court. He has hired rapists as interrogators for his prison. There aren’t too many crimes that the Raven Prince truly feels passionate about. Except keeping his possessions away from him. And, perhaps, bad taste or excessive rudeness.’

Gwyn went silent. Augus watched him, and found his thoughts trailing to unhelpful places. He imagined leather cuffs adorning Gwyn’s wrists and ankles. He thought about gags with leather bits, leather reins, a leash, more. Gwyn saw himself as one of the woodland animals, and Augus wanted to incorporate that somehow into what he could show Gwyn. Wanted to take this anguish and turn it into something far sweeter, but sharp all the same.

‘Why are you here?’ Augus said to him. ‘What do I give you? Ash is far more comforting.’

Gwyn lowered his hands from his face and swallowed.

‘You make…everything…make sense,’ Gwyn said. ‘Even when it feels bad. Other people would maybe say…I am stupid to want to go back to him. Or that…it will be better from now on. You tell me you are not surprised. You don’t…’

Gwyn inched closer and stared at him, his gaze sharp.

‘You don’t make my words feel wrong.’

Augus’ eyebrows lifted when Gwyn reached out for him again, curling shy fingers around Augus’ fingertips, like he didn’t dare take more. It was sweet, and disturbing, and odd. Augus wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t like Gwyn was wooing him. And yet the touches felt like more than just someone seeking comfort.

‘What do I give you?’ Gwyn said, his voice so soft it was almost air.

‘A headache,’ Augus said, smirking.

Gwyn’s eyes widened, then his head ducked towards the mattress, a silent huff of laughter escaping him. But when he looked at Augus again, there was uncertainty, and Augus knew how easy it would be for him to replay those words and worry that it was all Augus thought about him.

‘I don’t know,’ Augus said. ‘But I know I thought it worthwhile enough to uproot my life for, and I still think that.’

‘And when you stop?’

‘You forget,’ Augus said, closing his eyes and yawning, ‘Ash is here. Even if I do stop, he adores you. Whatever this is, you’re a part of it. You belong.’

Augus moved so that his head was above the blankets again, more than ready for sleep.

Gwyn moved closer again, and then – beneath the blankets – rested his cheek on Augus’ hand where it was pressed flat to the bed. Augus turned his wrist slowly, Gwyn lifting his head just enough that Augus could resettle his palm against Gwyn’s face, thumbing the skin softly. It was a far cry from anything he’d ever had with anyone other than Ash. Tenderness for the sake of tenderness.

It calmed the wild waterhorse inside of him, soothed the growling beast. Even so, he stayed awake for another couple of hours, feeling Gwyn’s slowing breath against his skin, wondering what the future might bring.

 

Chapter Text

The first day that the cold one went off to hunt, Gwyn didn’t know what to do. The warm one was there, but he gave Gwyn space, and he seemed happy playing with a plastic wallet thing that made tinny sounds and required the pressing of lots of buttons and yet never seemed to do anything except make more tinny sounds. It was the worst musical-instrument-game that Gwyn had ever seen, and it smelled bad.

The cold one – Augus – didn’t wake him from his nightmares, and was already dressed when Gwyn woke up tangled in blankets and screaming so loudly that Ash was there too.

It was strange that they didn’t wake him from nightmares, because most people did. But Gwyn knew that he could do terrible things in that wake-sleep space between dream and reality, where he didn’t quite know where he was and could easily be in his cousin’s clutches again.

After he’d settled and had breakfast, Augus had told him he needed to go hunting.

‘There will be three days remaining to us when I return, before I have to deliver you to the Raven Prince for whatever your apprenticeship might entail. I’d rather not put off my need to feed any longer. Do you understand?’

Gwyn understood, and then Augus had gone, and Gwyn kept going back and standing in the doorway of Augus’ bedroom wondering why it took a week to digest humans. It was just meat. Why did it take so long?

There was a sense of relief in not having to talk. He felt stranger and stranger in this place that wasn’t his. The smells were becoming familiar, he knew the layout of the house, he even knew the best places to hide if he was in danger, but it didn’t feel like his. There were paths in the forest that he knew almost as well and they, at least, felt something like home. But in Augus’ home, he felt like a silent shadow. He was a temporary ghost.

His cousin was still out there.

His cousin had escaped the Bird King.

No one believed him when he said that his cousin always got what he wanted and that he would come back and destroy all of them. But the Bird King couldn’t find him. Even Gwyn understood that the creature that stunk of bird musk was so powerful even he should be able to find Gwyn’s cousin.

More and more he just thought that if he went back, he could somehow prevent something terrible from happening. Maybe he could save the brothers.

Augus asked him to wait. Gwyn would wait. But he didn’t want to. The longer he waited, the worse the feeling got. He wasn’t a prophet or clairvoyant by any means, but he couldn’t help but wonder if some eldritch foreboding hung over him. A promise of revenge and punishment. The longer he waited, the more it would hurt.

On the first night Augus was gone, he slept on the foot of Ash’s bed like a dog, and he didn’t care that it was like a dog because sometimes he even pretended that he was a great staghound or wolfhound and that his clumsy hands were paws and that his lack of talking had nothing to do with his cousin and everything to do with being a dog. Ash understood it. Gwyn didn’t know how, but he understood. He made room for Gwyn to do that, without actually treating him like he was lesser. Not the way his cousin would.

The next day that Augus was gone, Ash brought a whole box of food wrapped in plastic from the human world. There was even a bucket of chicken which tasted both delicious and disgusting at the same time.

‘That’s KFC for you,’ Ash said, laughing at the expression that Gwyn made – a mix of uncertainty and happiness both. ‘It’s like…I dunno man, a lot of shit over there is processed. That’s- We’re more sensitive to that. But it also- they do this shit with flavours, man. Preservatives and glutamates and it’s the fucking best. I’m not even really supposed to eat meat outside of like…my proper prey. But I’ll make an exception, y’know?’

Ash showed him shoelaces that tasted of liquorice, gave him tiny little crystals of sugar that crackled so fiercely in his mouth that Gwyn opened it and let all the bits fall off his tongue onto the floor while Ash laughed at him. Gwyn could tell it wasn’t meant to be harmful, but it did bother him that he could still hear the stuff – pop rocks, Ash called it – fizzling and crackling in Ash’s stomach five minutes later. There were fresh strawberries that tasted perfect, and something called maple candied bacon that Gwyn finished right as Ash said: ‘save me some.’ There was something called a funnel cake that wasn’t shaped like a funnel, and Ash caught the way he looked at it and turned it in his fingers – icing sugar going everywhere – and said:

‘It’s made with a funnel.’

Whatever it was, it tasted delicious.

Ash was happy to fill the lounge with conversation as they motored through what Ash called a ‘box picnic.’

‘Next time I’ll go to Delhi – there’s this great place, Mehboob e Ilahi Mithai, and they do the greatest imarti, oh fuck just thinking about it is making my mouth water. And I could always duck to Bangladesh and pick up some khira sagara because with the right spices that stuff is to fucking die for. I have a bit of a sweet tooth. Augus hates sugar? So I can’t really share this kind of stuff with anyone. I mean, aside from humans? Oh, but speaking of awesome desserts, there’s a hearth-wight market on the fae side of Galicia and fuck me, you’re literally eating magic. It’s the best.’

Gwyn didn’t know half the things that Ash was talking about, but it all sounded good. He wondered why Ash could eat all these foods, and yet Augus ate so fussily. For Augus mostly ate green things and pale white things that came out of the ground and Gwyn only ate that kind of food when he was desperate and there was nothing else left.

That night, Ash played on his tinny plastic music-box, sometimes connecting the wallet shape to a cord connected to what Ash called ‘the outlet.’

‘It’s run on magic, over here. We don’t really do generators and shit. Unless they’re magical. We never really caught onto electricity. We kind of took a great big fucking shortcut and just went straight to magically powered things. I dunno. It’s weird. You wanna have a try playing?’

Gwyn shook his head and curled up again at the foot of the bed.

He missed Augus, and all day he’d tried not to spend too long standing in Augus’ doorway – because Ash noticed, and because Gwyn felt like he was being stupid.

*

On the third day, Gwyn woke up keening into the mattress and Ash was right there crooning to him as Gwyn’s chest tried to tear itself free of his body.

His cousin had come back and he’d started with Augus and Ash and they’d screamed and screamed and screamed and-

‘Puppy,’ Ash said gently, ‘oh, Gwyn, oh puppy, it’s okay, it’s okay now. Come on, I’m here, okay?’

Ash’s voice caught, but when Gwyn looked up, he wasn’t crying, he just looked so sad. Like Gwyn had taken something away from him. Ash got onto the bed when he saw Gwyn looking at him, was holding a plush, furry blanket in his hands and draped it over his shoulders, even as his breaths rasped and he wheezed.

Ash’s glamour was gentle and soothing, it was like warm water and spring sunlight. Gwyn was glad it wasn’t as heavy as usual.

‘That was a bad one,’ Ash said, watching Gwyn closely as he slowly extended his hand towards Gwyn’s shoulders. When Gwyn didn’t do anything more than cringe slightly, and shake his head when Ash hesitated, Ash placed his hand down and started rubbing circles into his back. That was how Gwyn knew he was shaking.

‘I’m scared,’ Gwyn said, his voice broken.

‘I know,’ Ash said. ‘Seems like anyone would be, in your situation.’

‘He’s going to take you away from me,’ Gwyn said, staring at Ash, willing him to understand.

I have to go back to him.

Ash’s face did a thing which Gwyn hadn’t seen before. His eyes went from soft and open, to hard and glittery. His lips – normally generous with smiles and frowns – went tight into a kind of smile that wasn’t friendly.

‘I’m going to fucking kill him,’ Ash said, staring at Gwyn, his eyes unblinking. The hand on Gwyn’s back went still. ‘He can try to take you away, but there’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me, which is that…’

Ash trailed off, and then seemed to blink himself out of wherever he’d gone. Even his scent had changed. Gwyn’s breath trembled in his chest. He wasn’t afraid of Ash, exactly, but he didn’t know what to make of the change.

‘I’m good in a fight,’ Ash said, his voice muted now, as though he had caught some creature inside of himself and made it listen to him. ‘Very good. Better than Augus, actually. Look, I know you don’t want to believe in any of this. In this place. In us. In…whatever this life is. I don’t know firsthand, but I’ve met people like you before. Okay? You’re not the only one who feels these kinds of fears. Not the only one afraid that you’re going to be killed, and that everything good is going to be taken away from you.’

‘The Bird King couldn’t find him,’ Gwyn said. ‘The Bird King.’

‘The Bird King isn’t trying very fucking hard,’ Ash said, smiling weakly. ‘That’s not really his deal. But okay, here’s the thing, I think you’re gonna have a tough day today if you spend it all locked inside your own head. I’m going to teach you a board game, okay? We’re going to stay here for a little bit longer, and then when you feel like you can move, we’re gonna go out there and we’re gonna learn how to play Alhambra. Well, I already know how to play it, but I think you need to be doing some more stuff. No wonder you feel a bit lost? Like, you don’t have anything to do.’

Gwyn nodded, he didn’t want to speak again. It always felt strange, speaking with Ash. Like…everything he really needed to say, he could say without words, because Ash was always so good at reading Gwyn’s body language and his expressions. Maybe even better than Augus was. Ash watched everything far more closely than he let on. His eyes caught the twitch of a little finger, a shuddered breath, and Gwyn was starting to become certain that Ash even saw things that Gwyn didn’t know he was doing.

Ash looked at Gwyn seriously, his fingers curling and scratching Gwyn’s back over his shirt, under the blanket, making Gwyn feel shivery and warm and nice. For all that the cold and the warm one had talked to him about taking whatever they had between them further, there hadn’t been much ‘further’ at all. Maybe they were waiting for Gwyn. It was entirely unlike anything he’d experienced before.

‘You want to do this a bit longer?’ Ash said, tilting his head at him.

Gwyn nodded, relaxing a bit more into the bed. Ash smiled at him, and Gwyn blinked at him sleepily until his eyes closed, feeling the scratchy, pleasant touch over his shoulders and wishing he could eat it like a food. He knew it would be better than anything anyone had ever given him to eat.

*

Alhambra made him forget about his cousin for a little while. So did Ticket to Ride. He didn’t like Settlers of Catan, but he liked The Game of Life because it was absurd. Monopoly annoyed him, and Ash said it was more fun if everyone started with three thousand dollars, and Gwyn was quite sure that Ash was lying.

Gwyn liked the little colourful pieces, and he liked moving things around on a board. It reminded him of when he was a young child standing in his father’s strategy room, looking at the little models of battlefields and the tiny little squares and carved figures representing the fae who would fight. He’d liked the craftsmanship that went into all of it. The maps were hand-painted and inked. The figurines were whittled and carved from wood. Even the model battlefields were created by artisans. Gwyn’s fingers had always hungered to touch everything, to move the things around.

So now that he was moving around plastic and metal and cardboard, he felt like he’d been given permission to explore his father’s strategy room. It was a strange thing, but it made him feel a bit more confident in himself.

It also turned out that he had quite a mind for strategy. Ash let him win the first game, and then the second game, and then Ash never got the chance to win anything else – except Monopoly.

At first, Gwyn thought that Ash was humouring him and letting him win every game, but he realised at the end of an afternoon, that Ash wasn’t exactly frustrated so much as bemused. He shook his head at Gwyn and laughed at himself, and said:

‘Tomorrow, I’m teaching you chess.’

*

Gwyn loved chess.

He loved it so much that Ash went into the human realm two hours later and came back with books and books on the subject and Gwyn – who hadn’t been in the practice of reading for a long time – sat there and studied all the books and waved Ash away whenever Ash went to interrupt him.

Ash was actually good at chess and he played fiercely. For someone who seemed to take life so casually, he watched the chess board and Gwyn’s fingers and Gwyn’s pieces like a hawk, and he did a thing where he bit his bottom lip whenever he was thinking about making a move, that made Gwyn think about things that…were not chess.

‘I like the philosophy of it,’ Ash said, as they ate afternoon tea together. Ash had commandeered Augus’ kitchen and made scones, and they’d gotten doughy crumbs all over themselves and sat with sticky fingers looking at the chess board but not touching it, because they were a mess. ‘You have to be able to think a lot of moves in advance. A guy in the human world taught me. Actually, you’ve got two of his books. That Dane, ah, Aagaard. He’s brilliant. Way better than me. But I just…like, spending a morning over a chessboard, outside under the sun, enjoying drinks and conversation? I love it. Especially when I’m hungover. It’s a good way to wake my brain up.’

Gwyn wasn’t really listening to Ash. He was watching a tiny glob of jam at the corner of his mouth. Ash didn’t move it away, and it was just…there.

And they were both leaning back against the couch, sitting on the floor, sofa cushions poking into their back. Side by side, turned in towards each other, and Gwyn was aware of the texture of the sofa and the floor hard beneath his hip and the smells of jam and cooked dough and uncooked dough and powdery flour. His mind was rattling with words relating to chess: the Grunfeld, the opening, middlegame and endgame, the en passant and promotions and the 50-move rule.

Ash was still talking when Gwyn reached out with a finger and swiped away the jam at the corner of his mouth.

The jam tasted of apricots and oranges, and Ash stopped talking and his pupils dilated and he stared at Gwyn like he wasn’t thinking about chess anymore. Gwyn swallowed and watched Ash back, and he wondered what Ash would do. His own heart was beating like a galloping horse in his chest. He wasn’t used to doing that kind of thing with anyone, and he tended to wait for Ash to touch him.

‘Can I kiss you?’ Ash said, his eyes dropping to Gwyn’s mouth.

Gwyn resisted the urge to lick his lips, knowing they were still sticky, and instead he took two shallow breaths and then nodded.

Ash leaned in towards him and Gwyn tried not to lean back. It wasn’t that he was afraid, it was just that Ash was staring at him hungrily and Gwyn didn’t really know how to tell the difference between anticipation and excitement and dread and fear anymore. Everything ran together, coalesced into a mess he couldn’t untangle.

‘You want me to stop,’ Ash said, his voice deeper than it was a second ago, ‘you just pull back, okay? You don’t even have to say.’

And then sticky fingers were resting at the corner of Gwyn’s mouth, and Gwyn hadn’t even seen Ash reach his hand down and scoop up some more of the jam.

‘Open for me, baby,’ Ash said, lips quirking upwards.

Ash closed the distance between them as Gwyn opened his mouth the smallest amount. Sweet, sugary fingertips dipped in, touching his teeth, making his chest feel too warm, just as Ash’s mouth met his. Gwyn made a faint sound as lips pressed against his lips, fingers there between them pushing just a little deeper, enough that Gwyn could taste jam on his tongue and opened his mouth wider.

‘That’s it,’ Ash rumbled, and Gwyn’s eyes were closed and his focus was narrowing onto ‘just Ash’ and what they were doing. But even those things were a textural smorgasbord. Ash’s skin pressing against his skin, lukewarm and rougher and his nose was smaller than Gwyn’s and his lips were very soft and tasted a little like wax and Gwyn knew that because he’d moved his tongue to taste Ash’s fingers and he couldn’t resist touching his lips as well. Ash’s encouraging sound was deep in his throat, a kind of pleased-groan that seemed designed to make Gwyn respond with the same noise. Ash smelled of sugar and fruit and spices and the buttery warmth of scones and the milky fullness of cream and Gwyn was leaning closer, closer, because Ash was hardly doing anything at all and Gwyn wanted so much more.

Gwyn pushed forwards, until his lips flattened against Ash’s mouth. Ash only chuckled and pulled back a little, making Gwyn lean more, and then more, and then there was a hand sliding around the back of Gwyn’s neck and fingers curling over his nape. Breath gusted across his mouth and then Ash’s tongue was there, licking at his own fingers, licking at Gwyn’s lips, and then licking inside.

Ash’s tongue was warmer than Gwyn’s, it was slick and moved gently and Gwyn’s eyes squeezed shut as though it would help him concentrate. There was a knotted tangle of sensation unravelling inside of him that he couldn’t properly keep track of. A low warmth in his gut that felt like tension and relaxation all at once. A prickling all along his forearms and shoulders and upper chest that were goosebumps. A rubbing at the back of his neck – that was Ash’s hand, now moving up into Gwyn’s hair and making long, slow scratching sensations that caused the top of Gwyn’s head to feel a heat that dripped like honey into the back of his spine.

Gwyn gasped and moved back, and Ash withdrew his fingers from Gwyn’s mouth and also leaned back and Gwyn felt cold. His face was cold. His cheeks. His ears. His mouth was empty.

Ash had taken his warmth with him.

Gwyn blinked at him several times.

‘You liked that?’ Ash said, licking his own bottom lip and watching Gwyn with a serious, dark expression on his face.

Gwyn nodded.

‘Should we stop now?’

Gwyn swallowed, nodded, reached up and touched the back of his neck where Ash’s hand had been. How come Ash could make sensations where Gwyn couldn’t? And worse, Gwyn’s own hand there, cold fingertips at the back of his own neck, it felt like he was scaring Ash’s touch away. He dropped his hand.

‘Okay,’ Ash said, smiling at him. ‘You want to take some deeper breaths for me?’

That was when Gwyn realised how shallow his breathing had gone. He forced his lungs to calm, and Ash nodded at him when he saw that Gwyn was making an effort. Then, Gwyn cleared his throat and moved his tongue cautiously in his mouth, tasting jam and Ash and feeling the shape of fingers where they’d rested. There was a pleasant shiver in his body, and he realised that he was half-hard, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt anything like that at all.

He looked down between his legs and frowned.

‘That was nice,’ Ash said, already turning to sit back against the chair properly, reaching down for some crumbs and swiping them up on his thumb. ‘Augus is going to have a fit, I think, but what can you do? He needs some sweeter things in his life. If it can’t be food, maybe it’ll just have to be us.’

Gwyn was grateful that Ash didn’t draw attention to Gwyn’s awkwardness, and just kept the conversation going again. Gwyn’s lips felt strange and his body felt new, like he’d shed a very old and dry skin that had been two sizes too small.

Ash’s glamour was warm, even charming, and soon Gwyn was mesmerised in Ash’s stories and quietly put the kiss away into a dark, safe corner of his mind where he could think about it later.

*

That night, Gwyn kept looking at Ash. It was furtive looks at first, and then it was longer looks, and then he was just staring and Ash eventually laughed and looked up from the chess board and shook his head.

‘Not tonight, puppy,’ Ash said. ‘Let’s give it a while to settle, okay? Augus isn’t here, and normally I’m a bull in a fucking china shop, but I’m not going to do that with you. So let’s just…come on, man. Is this why your game is off?’

Gwyn made a face at him and went back to concentrating on the game, but he didn’t win, and he was frustrated that Ash wasn’t giving him anything more.

‘Aw,’ Ash said, laughing as he put the pieces back into their official positions. ‘Don’t be mad at me. I’m trying to do what’s best, yeah?’

Gwyn walked over to the couch and lay down on it and pointedly stretched his legs out and made sure there was no room for Ash to sit next to him.

It was petty, and belligerent, and it was strange, because these small actions brought with them the metallic taste of fear in the back of his throat.

Would Ash lose his temper all of a sudden and hit him?

Would Ash think that he’d gone too far, wanted too much, and tell him to go into a dark place and stay there until he was so hungry he’d set his front teeth to the wood and work his jaws until he could taste the treated lacquer on slivers of pulped cellulose?

So Gwyn stretched his legs out on the couch and glared at Ash and adrenaline turned his body to a livewire, so that he was ready to leap up and run to his room and close the door and hide if he needed to.

But Ash only laughed and walked into Augus’ kitchen to wash up plates and bowls and cutlery and said:

‘I was a way better sulker than you when I was growing up. I’ll tell you about it later, and you can use all my secrets to success against Augus. He’s a total softie once you know how to play him.’

Gwyn huffed and stared up at the ceiling and wondered when the jittery feeling in his body would disappear.

*

The next morning was rough. Nightmares that turned him silent and shaking and stiff with terror, so that when he woke, even Ash’s harmless form in the bed terrified him. For the first time since Augus had left, Gwyn crept back to his own bedroom and quietly closed his own door and then slid down in the space between the bed and the wall and curled up and hummed to himself, over and over again. The noise vibrated through his lips and his jaw and his ears, and if he kept to the same pitch, it seemed to tune out all the bad stuff.

He couldn’t tell what the ‘bad stuff’ even was. It wasn’t attached to images or words or anything more than phantom sensations that chased through him. He didn’t even think he was in pain. All he knew was that something abrasive was rubbing at him from the inside, sandpaper beneath his skin, pumice scratching at his throat and in his head. The hum made the scratching go away, and so he made the noise, and knew he’d done this before, but not for a long time.

He didn’t know how long had passed before the door opened. Gwyn flinched and stopped making the noise and wished he didn’t have to stop. But the consequences for making the noise around someone else might be worse than the consequences of stopping and dealing with the internal scratching.

His arms were around his head and he leaned into the cold wall and he waited.

‘Okay puppy,’ Ash said quietly from the doorway. ‘Just give me a few seconds.’

Ash came back a few minutes later, and carefully placed a mug on the small set of drawers all the way on the other side of the bed.

‘I’ve made you some sweet tea. Drink it whenever you like. I’m gonna be out there reading some of those chess books. You just…do whatever you need to.’

Ash closed the door as he left, and Gwyn pushed himself up just to make sure it was tea and not a trick, and then he hunched back into his space and hummed again.

The drone of it unlocked something in him about ten minutes later and he slumped and then pushed himself upright, crawled onto the bed and reached out for the tea and held it in his hands. He didn’t even want to drink it. He just wanted to hold something small and warm.

*

Gwyn spent too long in the shower, looking at all the fixtures and tracing the tiles with his index finger. He pressed his face to leaf fronds draping down from hanging baskets. He tried not to think about his cousin and he failed. Not once or twice, but over and over again. His cousin right there with his dark blue eyes and his golden hair and his brilliant smile and blood on his fingers and splattered across his clothing and his knives and he blunted some on purpose and he would be right there and he would laugh in that airy, sweet way of his that meant that Gwyn had pleased him somehow, pleased him because he’d screamed when he’d tried to be quiet, he just had to be quiet, he just had to be-

The tiled floor was warm underneath his knees and palms and water dripped in rivulets down his face and into his eyes and he gasped over and over again, because he had to go back.

He had to go back or it would be so much worse than it ever had been before and they just didn’t understand. Even Gwyn couldn’t comprehend how it would be worse. Only that he knew it would be. His cousin would find a way.

Gwyn clamped his hand around his wrist and squeezed as hard as he could until the bones moved and it wasn’t enough and he pressed his forehead to the tiles and made a noise that wasn’t sobbing and wasn’t gasping.

When he dragged himself from the shower, his wrist had bruised black, the hot water of the shower flushing blood through damaged flesh. But he knew it wasn’t broken, and it wasn’t as sore as when Augus had put the metal manacles on him, so it would heal, and it was fine.

He looked up at the ceiling and imagined that he could see the forest beyond and that he was in it and not exactly safe but not…but not here. Not here and waiting for what his cousin would do.

*

Gwyn wanted to talk to Augus, but Augus wasn’t there.

He didn’t feel like being petted or stroked or caressed. He didn’t feel like a warm glamour washing over him and convincing him everything was going to be okay.

After he’d dressed in a sweater that covered the bruise on his wrist – he knew Ash wouldn’t like it if he saw it – Gwyn went into one of the rooms where Augus tortured people with torture that wasn’t…like his cousin’s torture. He stood in there, smelling leather and metal and oils and wax and polish and the sharp scent of fear and the green scent of Augus and the heavy scent of sex and even the sweet scent of blood.

The room was lit dimly with werelight, a yellow-white glow that didn’t feel suffocating, despite the darkness of so many of the items in the room. Dark cabinets. Dark flooring. The dark cross. The dark wall where Augus had manacled him when he’d first dragged Gwyn all the way back into his underwater home.

Gwyn walked around the room, staring at everything. He pulled open a drawer and looked at items designed to hit creatures that were alive. He pulled out a weighted riding crop and stared at it, because his cousin had one too.

Then he moved to a drawer of cuffs and leashes. The drawer was wide, slid out easily, and Gwyn touched everything there. He even bit down on the leather, wanting to know what it tasted like. He pulled the leash between his fists, testing the leather, and then when he went to pull it out sharply to test its strength, it snapped.

Gwyn stared at the broken bits of leather and tucked them to the bottom of the drawer, his cheeks burning.

He then slid the drawer back into place and stared at it, feeling frightened. He hummed once. Hummed again. And then forced himself up and moved to the opposite side of the room. But he didn’t feel any less guilty on the other side of the room, so he made himself leave the room and close the door behind him.

Ash was in the lounge, playing his wallet-shaped music box. He smiled when Gwyn entered, he even waved his hand. But when he saw Gwyn’s face, he folded down the wallet and the music went away, and he sat up straighter.

‘You want to play Alhambra?’ Ash said.

Gwyn shook his head.

‘What about chess?’ Ash said. ‘With that expression, I might have a chance of winning.’

Gwyn shook his head again, staring at Ash’s feet and still feeling the snap of leather in his hands and wishing he hadn’t- Why had he done that?

‘Come here,’ Ash said, his voice softening. ‘Come here, puppy. Come on.’

He beckoned, and Gwyn went, pulled on an invisible string. He went until he stood by Ash’s side, and Ash only moved so that he was still lying down, but there was space for Gwyn to lie down too.

Gwyn took a breath and thought of his cousin out there, maybe above them even now. He looked up at the ceiling again and his nostrils flared.

‘Hey now,’ Ash said, ‘just come here. You can panic as much as you like in a few minutes, I promise. Just…please?’

Ash’s eyebrows twisted up and his eyes did that thing where they shone with earnestness and Gwyn almost wanted to ask who he thought the puppy was, because Ash did a remarkably good expression of mimicking the most doleful, expressive of hound faces.

Gwyn laid down. They were face to face, and the couch wasn’t exactly large enough for both of them to rest comfortably. Gwyn was tall and his legs long, so he had to bend them up against Ash’s, but he managed it, pressing his face against Ash’s chest and listening to his heartbeat, while two strong arms slung around his shoulders and held him in place.

Ash didn’t agitate him with petting or stroking. Every now and then he seemed to sense that Gwyn needed something different. Instead of moving his arms and hands, he kept his arms in place and offered a soothing, constant pressure. The weight of contact without the distraction of movement. So that, instead, Gwyn could focus on the rise and fall of Ash’s chest, and the slow thump of his heart, and the warmth their bodies generated. He could let his mind be contained by the pressure and let his thoughts drift.

He wasn’t sure what time it was when Ash coaxed him upright and led him back to bed. Ash took Gwyn into his own room, lit by a single lamp, and instead of assuming Gwyn would take his usual place, Ash pulled back the covers where he usually slept.

‘Take my side,’ Ash said, his voice quiet and confident. ‘It’ll smell like me, and the pillows are comfy. I’ll take the other side, okay?’

Gwyn looked at him, frowning. He couldn’t take…Ash’s bed.

‘Seriously,’ Ash said, smiling tiredly at him. ‘Go on. I’ll be right here. And if you don’t like it, we can do it the way you normally do, yeah?’

So Gwyn got under layers of blankets and felt soft cushions behind his head and smelled Ash through the bed. Not just the scent of Ash recently, but years and years of scent faded behind multiple washes that the bedding had gone through. A lifetime of Ash in this room, soft and warm in the back of his nose. Gwyn swallowed and curled up into a ball and disappeared under the covers.

Ash sleepily murmured a ‘’night’ from the other side of the bed, and Gwyn reached out and sleepily petted whatever part of Ash his fingers brushed against – in this case, a bare leg – and willed sleep to take him.

*

On the seventh day, Gwyn didn’t want to leave the bed.

Because then he’d have to face reality.

The Bird King wanted him to go the castle. His cousin would be looking for him. Augus and Ash weren’t safe. The cold one and the warm one together were in terrible danger. And it was because of him.

So he curled up and didn’t respond to Ash or his gentle enquiries or his warm glamour. He wrapped his arms around his face and he didn’t even hum.

He just waited.

*

That was how Augus found him in the late afternoon.

‘All right,’ Augus said, ripping back the blankets that Gwyn was hiding under, a rush of cool air finding him and making Gwyn hunch up even more. ‘Time for a different approach.’

Chapter Text

‘I kissed him,’ Ash said. ‘We kissed.’

Augus blinked at him, feeling far more alert than he usually did after hunting. Court status meant that he didn’t technically need the seven days to fully digest his prey, and he spent the remaining two simply resting in waterhorse form in the deep, dark depths of his lake, his mind healing and finding its equilibrium once more.

‘He’s been a bit weird since then,’ Ash said. Then he sighed. ‘Scratch that. He’s been a bit of a mess.’

‘There’s a lot of things that could be causing that,’ Augus said, looking down the corridor to where Ash had said Gwyn was hiding in blankets. ‘The kiss may seem the most obvious trigger to us, but that doesn’t mean that it is.’

‘I…suppose,’ Ash said. ‘Actually he kind of threw a tantrum when I wouldn’t do more.’

‘A tantrum?’ Augus said sharply.

‘A weak one,’ Ash said, smiling, running his hands through his hair. ‘Glaring. Not letting me sit on the couch with him. But I could…I could smell his fear, Augus. The entire time that he tried to make a point, he was so afraid of me. He wasn’t like that with the kiss. He was like that after. I’ve been trying to give him space, but I think he’s just going deeper and deeper into himself. But because I was the one who…who crossed a line with him, I just don’t want to be the one who like…leans on him to come back to us. If you know what I mean?’

‘I know,’ Augus said. ‘Let me deal with it.’

‘God, thank you,’ Ash said.

He stepped forwards and hugged Augus tightly, and Augus – still lost in his hungrier waterhorse mind – thought of Ash’s body. He couldn’t not, the way Ash hugged so generously, pushing his body fully against whoever he hugged. He thought of Ash’s lips meeting Gwyn’s lips and a flicker of heat bubbled inside of him. The bubbles were tiny little things. Easy enough to dismiss.

But they were there.

When Ash pulled back, he looked down for several seconds, keeping his hands on Augus’ arms. He cleared his throat, looked up at Augus, his eyes brighter.

‘We gonna dance around this forever, brother?’ Ash said, his voice rougher than before.

‘Perhaps not forever,’ Augus said, stepping back, severing the contact between them. ‘But certainly for a time longer.’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, closing his eyes in what looked like relief. ‘Okay. Good.’

Augus reached up and cupped the side of Ash’s head, his thumb resting behind his ear. The eye contact between them was fierce, sparked. It was no different to how they’d looked at each other for years, and yet there was a layer of awareness that wasn’t there before.

‘This doesn’t happen without Gwyn,’ Augus said, his voice low.

‘And if he leaves, we’ll stop,’ Ash said. ‘Because you have really cool self-control. And…so do I. I really wanted to kiss him more. But I just- I couldn’t, you know?’

Augus rubbed the space behind Ash’s ear, catching a knobby strand of waterweed and stroking that deliberately. Ash’s waterweed wasn’t as sensitive as Augus’, but his thick, red-brown-gold eyelashes fluttered briefly anyway.

It was Ash who stepped back, smiling in apology.

‘Go sort him out,’ Ash said. ‘I trust you. Do whatever you need to.’

*

Now, he stood over the hunched form of Gwyn, blankets gripped in his fist. He sighed silently. Gwyn looked miserable. His head was tucked beneath his arms, it had to be hurting his neck, but whatever he could do to make himself seem as small and defenceless as possible, he was doing it. Augus wondered if Gwyn had tried to find Augus in the early hours of the morning. If he’d spent the week gripping his own wrists.

‘Get up,’ Augus said, allowing his voice to sound harder than he felt.

Gwyn likely thought he was angry, and Augus would use that. Ash had spent a week using soft, fluffy tones with him, no doubt. Augus could do that when needed, but he could also turn it off when it wasn’t necessary. Even if a part of him wanted to sit on the bed beside Gwyn and drape an arm over him.

‘Get up,’ Augus snapped.

Gwyn’s body jerked, shifted restlessly. His arms moved stiffly, and then his back, and his head stayed bowed so that Augus couldn’t see his expression. But he was kneeling instead of hunching in a ball. It was progress. Augus dropped the blankets and stepped towards the doorway.

‘Come with me,’ Augus said, and faced away, listening as Gwyn slid off the bed, his feet landing with a soft thump. Augus’ nostrils flared as he looked both ways down the long corridor. He could scent Gwyn all through here. Up and down. The scent was fresh enough that Augus knew that Gwyn hadn’t known quite what to do with himself, had meandered.

When Gwyn was walking, approaching Augus hesitantly, Augus walked through the doorway towards his own room.

Gwyn hesitated.

Augus turned around and saw Gwyn looking into the room where Augus had shackled him the first time.

Interesting.

Gwyn seemed to realise with a start what he was doing, and he walked towards Augus, even as Augus walked towards him. Gwyn got out of the way when Augus walked past him into the room where he kept most of his equipment. The saltire cross. The workings of his trade. And here, he could scent Gwyn throughout the place. He’d been in here while Augus had been digesting his food. He’d come in here willingly and stayed for some time.

When Gwyn entered the room, he shuffled into the centre of it. Augus watched him sharply as he closed the door behind him.

Gwyn flinched at the sound of it.

‘I broke something,’ Gwyn said, cringing and looking away from Augus. ‘You know, don’t you?’

‘Did you break something in here?’ Augus said, letting his voice soften. Gwyn had broken something. Was it on purpose, or an accident? Had he reacted badly to something he’d seen? There would be triggers in this room, Augus had no doubt of that. Now, Gwyn would be expecting punishment. This reminded Augus acutely of the episode with the shower, when Gwyn had cracked the glass during what must have been a poor memory. Gwyn was hung up on rules.

Gwyn nodded quickly.

‘Did you do it on purpose?’ Augus said, making himself sound interested, instead of accusing or menacing.

‘No,’ Gwyn said, a rush of air. ‘No. I didn’t. I’m sorry.’

‘You’re sorry you didn’t do it on purpose?’ Augus said.

No,’ Gwyn said, a bit of fire finding its way into his voice for the first time since he’d started talking. Augus wasn’t looking at him, but he imagined that Gwyn stood a little straighter then, was maybe even trying to make eye contact. Augus didn’t let him.

While in waterhorse form at the bottom of his lake, he’d quietly – distantly – contemplated why he’d done all that he’d done. Why he’d taken Gwyn back into his home. Why he took constant, repeated steps to protect him. Even the waterhorse inside of him didn’t know. Only that there was some connection there, a resonance that woke something green and ravenous inside of Augus’ mind. Something that he rarely felt with anyone else, possibly had never felt before.

The waterhorse was wary of it, but curious all the same.

‘Show me what you broke,’ Augus said, turning back to Gwyn and meeting a frightened, blue gaze. ‘Now.’

Gwyn looked around the room, at all the different drawers. His eyebrows pinched together, and then he looked back at Augus. After that, he walked stiltedly towards the chest of drawers where Augus kept most of his leather fixings. Gwyn got on the floor and slid the bottom drawer open, and then burrowed down underneath layers of manacles and cuffs and leashes and collars. Augus’ body was beginning to feel warmer. The bubbles he’d felt with Ash had returned, larger now.

At the very bottom of the drawer – Gwyn had obviously tried to hide the evidence of his crime – he pulled out what he’d broken.

A leash, in two pieces. The leather frayed where it had been forced apart.

Augus stepped over, close enough that he stood and looked down at Gwyn and could nudge his knees with his boots if he wanted to. Gwyn didn’t move. Stayed kneeling. Presented such a picture of guilty subservience that Augus had to swallow saliva down, was very glad that he’d just hunted, because he was as sated as he was ever going to get. It gave him a greater measure of self-control.

‘Did you break the leash on purpose?’ Augus said, repeating the question of earlier.

Gwyn shook his head.

‘How did you break it?’ Augus said.

‘I was…testing…how strong it was.’

‘Why?’ Augus said, his heart beating faster.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Well,’ Augus said, his voice turning dangerously soft. ‘I think you do. I think I’m going to stand right here until you tell me why.’

It felt riskier than it was. Gwyn didn’t seem too afraid. Uncertain and nervous, yes. Uncomfortable, certainly. But Augus had seen people experiencing this cocktail of emotions all his life, and he knew how to draw out the best symphonies from the instruments offered to him.

Gwyn looked down at the leash and Augus waited, letting Gwyn come to whatever decision he would. It would likely be better than him hiding inside of himself, within Ash’s bed.

‘I was…’ Gwyn started, his voice faltering. His hands clenched around the two pieces of leather he held. Augus thought he saw a shudder in Gwyn’s shoulders. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Come now,’ Augus said, letting his voice gentle. ‘You started a sentence, I’d like to hear it finished. ‘I was…’ What?’

‘I was checking,’ Gwyn said, his voice muted. Withdrawn.

Augus would give it two more minutes and then change tack.

‘I was checking,’ Gwyn said, his hands flexing around the leash. ‘Checking to see how strong it was. It was…an accident. But- But maybe I wanted to know if I could break it.’

Augus took a slow, long breath.

‘Why?’ Augus said. He used the compulsion automatically, always more prone to them after he’d been hunting. Gwyn was as resistant as ever. He only answered what he felt like answering.

‘Because,’ Gwyn said, his shoulders hunching even more. ‘Because I wanted to know what it would be like…’

Of all the things Augus could be doing – checking to see how Gwyn was doing after kissing Ash, making sure that he’d been eating enough, seeing that he felt stable – he was somewhat surprised to find himself doing this. To find himself pushing so hard.

Gracefully, Augus knelt down before Gwyn. He placed his fingertips flat on the pieces of broken leather and Gwyn didn’t jerk his hands back, but Augus felt the twitch that meant he’d stopped himself from doing it. Augus slid his hands forward and found Gwyn’s wrists, rubbing his thumbs down the upward facing arteries. Gwyn shivered.

‘All right,’ Augus said, thinking fast. ‘I don’t normally do this, but I think…an exception needs to be made. Do you know how we have a signal you can make when you don’t feel like talking anymore?’

Gwyn nodded. Augus nodded too, looking down at the broken pieces of leash in Gwyn’s hands.

‘I’m going to give you one specifically for this,’ Augus said. ‘For these moments. Because there’s a difference between not wanting to talk anymore, and not wanting to do this anymore, isn’t there?’

Gwyn nodded again.

Augus told himself it was nothing like a human safeword and knew he was lying and knew it didn’t even matter. Plenty of fae used them and just called them something different anyway. Besides, Gwyn was the kind of client he’d never take on normally, perhaps the regular methodology didn’t apply. Gwyn represented something his other clients didn’t.

Because he’s not a client.

‘Hawthorn,’ Augus said, his voice firm. ‘If you need this to stop so that we can talk about something else, or so that I can check in and make sure you’re well, I want you to say ‘hawthorn,’ all right? Say it for me.’

‘Hawthorn,’ Gwyn said, finally looking up and making eye contact. His cheeks were flushed. His bottom lip swollen. He’d been biting it – more than once, it looked like.

‘And why do you say that?’ Augus said.

‘A signal,’ Gwyn said. ‘To…stop the torture.’

Augus closed his eyes for a few seconds. That was clearly going to take a long time to unpack. But hearing the word made Augus want to leave the room. Because he enjoyed pain, he enjoyed punishment and discipline, but he didn’t enjoy having it paralleled to what Efnisien had done to Gwyn.

‘Is this torture?’ Augus said, opening his eyes.

‘I don’t think so,’ Gwyn said, his voice rough. ‘I don’t know what it is. I don’t have a word for that. For this.’

Augus didn’t even know if Gwyn was capable of saying the word ‘hawthorn’ when pushed. Some people couldn’t. He’d need to – at some point – find out if Gwyn could say it when he needed to. But it was too soon for that kind of testing.

This – right now – was about something different.

‘How lost have you felt this week?’ Augus said.

Gwyn blinked at him in shock, his eyes widened. His fingers curled around the pieces of leash, and Augus’ fingers curled around Gwyn’s wrists. Gwyn took a deep, huge breath and shook his head, looking overwhelmed and anchored all at once.

‘I don’t know why,’ Gwyn said. ‘I like the warm- I like…Ash. A lot. But- I don’t understand why I want this too. Cousin would say…I was born for it.’

‘Maybe you were,’ Augus said casually.

Gwyn flinched like he’d been struck, and then he was pulling backwards and Augus’ hands snapped closed around his wrists and didn’t let him go.

‘Remember the word you need to say,’ Augus said firmly, ‘if you need this to stop. Otherwise, maybe you were born for it.’

Gwyn shook his head violently, trying to tug his left wrist away but not his right. He was confused and distressed. Augus didn’t feel like consoling him anymore. Didn’t feel like placing a soothing hand around his back. He wanted to sink his teeth into this, wanted to tear until he found what he was seeking.

‘What did I just say to you?’ Augus said.

‘I’m not made for torture!’ Gwyn said, his voice rising.

Thought so.

‘I didn’t ask what you think I said. I asked you what I just said to you. Listen.’

Gwyn’s relentless tugging faltered, and Augus rewarded him by squeezing Gwyn’s wrists and wishing his hands were cuffs. With Gwyn, he could use the ones that tightened in response to struggling. At Court status, he could take so much more than the average fae. With cuffs, Augus would have his hands free. But right now, this was enough. More than enough – going by Gwyn’s reaction.

‘You…said I was born for it,’ Gwyn said. ‘Torture.’

‘When did I say torture?’ Augus said. ‘In fact, did you not just say yourself that you don’t think this is torture? Did you not say that you don’t have a word for it?’

Shaking now, but not struggling nearly as hard. And then Gwyn stopped entirely and looked at Augus with something bare and raw on his face. Augus watched, hungrily, and then let go of one of Gwyn’s wrists and stroked his clenched fist instead. Over and over again, until Gwyn revealed the broken piece of leash. Augus didn’t touch it, instead focusing on stroking Gwyn’s hand. Offering something soothing in reward.

‘I don’t understand,’ Gwyn said, his voice rough. ‘What am I born for?’

Thank you.

‘There are some fae – a lot of fae – who prefer to take a controlled amount of pain, who like to follow orders and obey and feel as though they’ve done the right thing, who gain consolation from being shown how much they can take only to be returned to themselves whole at the end of it. Just as there are fae – not like Efnisien – who enjoy inflicting certain things – not torture – on those fae, in controlled environments. Some fae are born that way. There’s no shame in it.’

‘I don’t like torture,’ Gwyn said, looking mutinous. ‘You…think I do?’

‘Is this torture?’ Augus said, his voice harder than before.

‘You said you’d go slow,’ Gwyn said, accusing now. Well, Ash hadn’t been wrong, he was certainly mouthier than he’d been a couple of weeks ago. He definitely had a capacity for tantrums. Augus didn’t mind. He didn’t feel a need to discipline. He wanted to see this. Wanted Gwyn to talk back and argue with him, wanted to know where the cracks and walls were in his psyche.

‘Say the word I told you to say,’ Augus said.

‘Hawthorn,’ Gwyn said.

Augus let go of his wrist, stopped caressing his hand. He stood and walked several steps backwards, noting Gwyn’s shock and the way his hands spasmed like he wanted to clutch onto something.

Oh…Gwyn. Trust me, and I’ll give you something to hold onto.

Augus blinked at his own thoughts, then shoved them aside because he didn’t need that either. Not right now. This wasn’t entirely about his own indulgence. He was trying to snap Gwyn out of whatever miserable place he’d been in. Trying to teach him something about himself. Probably trying to do too much.

But at some point, he had to start trusting that Gwyn could handle it.

‘Is there a word that brings you back?’ Gwyn said, a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before.

Augus laughed, couldn’t help himself, and Gwyn’s lips tightened and then curved upwards. Just a little. He looked down at the broken pieces of leash in his hands and Augus walked back to him, knelt down again. Gwyn tensed, but Augus didn’t mind.

‘All right,’ Augus said, reaching into the still open drawer and taking out two pairs of leather cuffs. They were simple, no magic spelling them to do anything. They all had D-rings on them, but Augus didn’t think he’d need those now.

He took the pieces of leash from Gwyn’s hands and dropped them on the floor beside them both. Then he placed the cuffs in Gwyn’s palms.

‘Put them on me,’ Augus said, holding his own wrists out.

Gwyn’s fingers curled on the cuffs, he looked at Augus in surprise.

‘Go on,’ Augus said.

Gwyn scooted forwards another inch, then another, and then he touched Augus’ wrist carefully, like he was checking that Augus really meant what he said. Augus didn’t move, watched closely. Some people needed a firm hand from the outset. But Gwyn needed to understand that this wasn’t a mysterious game where Gwyn could only ever lose. He needed to see that it was an exchange of energy, that the actions that created the emotions were – on their own – simple.

Augus looked down at the cuff as Gwyn put it on his right wrist. He slid the end through the buckle, and then drew it through. It was a loose fit. Gwyn even slipped two fingers between Augus’ wrist and the cuff – checking the tightness – a movement so easy that Augus almost asked where Gwyn had learned to do this. Then he thought of the An Fnwy estate, of horses and hounds, of cinching girths and putting collars on dogs. The mechanics of this were familiar to Gwyn, even if he didn’t realise it yet.

The cuff was perhaps a tad too loose, but it didn’t matter. Gwyn placed the second without hesitation.

‘My turn,’ Augus said, picking up one of the cuffs from the remaining set. Gwyn held his wrist out, but his hand was trembling slightly. That could have been for a lot of reasons. ‘Have you been eating enough, while I’ve been away?’

Gwyn nodded as Augus stroked the underside of his wrist gently, and then attached the cuff. He made it tighter. Not tight enough to hurt constantly, but tight enough that it would leave faint marks in his skin after a few hours, even if he didn’t struggle. Gwyn’s breathing was uneven, he stared down and twitched his fingers every now and then. Augus stroked over the leather once it was attached and looked at Gwyn, who stared down with wide eyes.

‘Last one,’ Augus said, and Gwyn pushed his other wrist out and pulled the cuffed wrist back to his body, moving it against his shirt, checking how much it moved – which was not at all.

As he attached the cuff, taking his time, stroking Gwyn’s strong, wiry wrist as he went, he asked:

‘What do you feel when I do this? Knowing that I’m wearing them too?’

Gwyn was silent for so long that Augus had nearly finished buckling the cuff on when Gwyn said:

‘Still afraid. But…I don’t know. I like it. I feel weighed down but in a good way. Like I can’t disappear easily.’

Augus was rummaging through the drawer. Gwyn had messed up the order of everything. For all that he liked to explore, he wasn’t much in the habit of putting things back where they came from. Eventually, he found a short length of leather with two metal clips at either end.

He clipped one into one of the D-rings on Gwyn’s cuff, then watched Gwyn carefully as he pulled Gwyn’s other wrist into place and clipped that in too.

Gwyn couldn’t move his wrists apart anymore. Not more than a few centimetres.

‘How do you feel now?’ Augus said, rubbing Gwyn’s forearm. ‘If you feel like you can’t stand it, or need to break it, say the word I gave you. Leather is fragile with fae. I don’t have many of these, because I can only use them with certain underfae. Or those few occasions where I just enjoy the aesthetic.’

Gwyn’s breathing was hitching. He was moving his wrists apart in small, aborted shifts. Not enough to break the leather, but enough that he was fighting with some other instinct in himself. Augus was pushing, he knew he was, and so he stayed close enough to stroke Gwyn’s forearm and hands and waited to see what Gwyn would decide to do.

He wasn’t entirely surprised when Gwyn took a deeper breath and sighed it out, and then took another. And another. And then his wrists went still in his lap and his shoulders slumped.

‘I don’t understand,’ Gwyn said.

‘You don’t have to,’ Augus said. He reached down to unclip the bondage, and hid his smile by looking down when Gwyn jerked his wrists away. ‘Not ready yet?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said. ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ Augus said. ‘There’s no rules right now for you to break. Whatever feels right or good – I’d like for you to stay with that.’

‘Rules?’ Gwyn said. ‘You said no rules right now. There will be rules?’

There was a breathlessness which sounded like dread and interest both. Augus nodded, pressing his thumb into Gwyn’s palm, only for Gwyn to carefully curl his fingers over it, encouraging Augus to stay.

‘Sometimes,’ Augus said, and then cleared his throat. ‘Usually.’

‘Like what?’

‘Sometimes I’ll ask you not to speak until you’re spoken to. Or ask you not to move or make a sound. Sometimes I will be permitted to touch you, but you won’t be permitted to touch me. In the future, if this turns into anything at all, there may be harder rules for you to follow. I may ask you not to disagree with me, except to say your signal word. Which means no…rebellion or talking back or jerking the bondage away when I decide to remove it.’

Gwyn was silent for a long time. His fingers had curled loosely into fists. Augus had promised himself that he’d talk about all of this with Gwyn. It wasn’t his usual practice, but it didn’t damage his heartsong either. He knew that he still held a balance of domination in this moment, especially given how delicate he had to be.

‘What happens if I break them?’ Gwyn said, his voice rough. He refused to look up.

‘Discipline,’ Augus said. ‘Again, sometimes. It depends on the nature of the infraction, why it happened, and whether I think discipline is necessary.’

‘What about if I don’t think it is?’ Gwyn said.

‘That won’t matter,’ Augus said. ‘You have a word to stop everything. Otherwise, one of the greatest gifts you give to me is your trust. Which includes trusting that I will know best, beyond your most atavistic instincts. In exchange for your trust, I offer the gift of treating it with the respect it deserves. I’m not like Ash, Gwyn. This- What I do- It gives me boundaries to enjoy what I am, what others may or may not be. It allows me to remember to treat you with care. But more than that. It’s- I don’t enjoy physical intimacy without these elements. Even the smallest of elements – like me taking your wrists and constraining them.’

‘What…happens after the discipline?’ Gwyn said.

Augus slid his thumb out of Gwyn’s hand and traced the cuffs, then gripped Gwyn’s forearms.

‘I’ll check that you’re all right and we either keep going, or – depending on what’s happening in the dynamic – I may choose a different course or call off the scene. The latter is rare.’

‘I don’t want to be hurt,’ Gwyn said, hoarse, so vulnerable that Augus’ chest ached, even as a slow heat burned inside of him.

‘I think you do,’ Augus said, smirking. ‘I think that’s why you grab your own wrist too hard when you’re distressed. I think it’s why you respond best to me grasping your wrists when I make it hurt.’

‘I don’t want to be hurt,’ Gwyn said again, more insistent. Augus knew he was trying to convey something that he couldn’t quite put into words. But Augus wasn’t gentle like Ash could be, and he didn’t back down where many others would.

‘Be clearer,’ Augus said. ‘What don’t you want?’

‘To be hurt,’ Gwyn said, his fists clenching hard, the knuckles going white. The leather of the cuffs creaked, the clips clattered around the D-rings as Gwyn shifted with restless energy.

But he still didn’t break the leather strap connecting his wrists together.

‘What does that mean?’ Augus said.

‘You can’t just hurt me for no reason,’ Gwyn said, staring at him, catching his eye for the first time in a while. ‘You can’t just…hurt me, even if you think you have a reason.’

‘Be clearer,’ Augus said, his voice getting harder, firmer.

‘I don’t want to be tortured,’ Gwyn said, his voice plaintive now. ‘I don’t want that- Cousin thinks I do, but I don’t. You think I- I don’t know, I don’t know what you think.’

Augus reached down and unclipped one of the hooks from the cuff before Gwyn could jerk his hands away. He unclipped the other and drew the strap back, leaving only the cuffs in place. Gwyn was breathing audibly, heavily. Augus took both of his hands and slid his fingers into them, feeling the cold, clammy sweat on his palms.

‘Thank you,’ Augus said quietly. ‘Thank you for being clearer. I know it’s hard for you to find the right words sometimes. I know there are things you don’t want to say to me.’

Gwyn’s hands clenched at Augus’ hands. The movement was rough. Augus heard him swallow, saw the confusion on his face.

‘We can do this without pain,’ Augus said, every word precise.

He wasn’t shocked when Gwyn’s face creased with dismay.

Poor thing doesn’t know what he wants.

‘Oh,’ Gwyn said, his voice dropping, his eyes roaming the room they were in. ‘I don’t- I don’t think- I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.’

There it is.

‘Will you trust me to help you find it?’ Augus said, his voice gentler. Not warm exactly, but reassuring. Gwyn leaned towards him. Not much – not more than a centimetre – but Augus caught the movement and shifted his hands in Gwyn’s tight grip and rubbed circles into his palms.

‘I don’t know if I can,’ Gwyn said, sounding forlorn. ‘But…I can try. Maybe.’

‘That’s all you have to do,’ Augus said, reaching for the buckle on one of the cuffs. Augus had pushed hard – enough that he knew that Ash would have called a halt to everything several times if he’d been watching. But he’d yielded results, and Gwyn needed some time to think, to rest.

Gwyn’s hand came and rested tentatively on Augus’ fingers.

‘Can I keep them on?’ Gwyn said.

Augus hesitated, thought about it. For someone who hardly knew what he wanted, there were things that Gwyn was very clear about.

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘But let me loosen the buckles. And make sure you take them off – or get me to take them off – before you shower. They’re not waterproof.’

As Augus was loosening the buckles on both, Gwyn’s breathing slowed, became less distressed.

‘Ash will see,’ Augus said.

‘Is that bad?’ Gwyn replied.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘But he might not know what to make of it. If he asks, and you don’t know how to answer, you can send him to me.’

Gwyn was silent as Augus resettled the cuffs, making sure there was enough looseness in the fit that they slid about an inch up and down his wrists, but couldn’t slide over his hands without being unbuckled. He indulged himself with other touches throughout. Brushing the pad of his thumb over Gwyn’s wrinkly knuckles. Finding callouses at the heel of his palm and not knowing how Gwyn had gotten them, or why they hadn’t gone away yet. Finding the very smooth skin of the back of his hand with his fingertips, tracing the veins and bones both.

He began to put the strap back when he felt two hands around his wrists.

A flash of primordial instinct and he turned back quickly, baring his teeth and growling deep, even as Gwyn yanked his hands away and stared at Augus in shock.

A moment of several breaths between them, and then Augus looked down at the cuffs he was still wearing.

‘They don’t…give me what they give you,’ Augus said finally. ‘They aren’t an anchor for me.’

‘Then why did you tell me to put them on you?’ Gwyn said, his forehead creased.

‘Because they are harmless. Ultimately.’

‘You were scared,’ Gwyn said, sounding awed.

Augus resisted the urge to grind his teeth together, instead taking a deep breath.

‘Not exactly,’ Augus said. ‘I have…the waterhorse in me has old instincts about bondage. I don’t know if you know this – what fairy tales you’ve been exposed to in your life – but…the waterhorse doesn’t enjoy leather restraints. Any restraints really. But especially not anything that you might use on a simple horse. It’s an instinct that comes to me from past lifetimes. There’s an old story. It tells of humans who could capture the Each Uisge by forcing a bridle over its head and a bit into its mouth, and then like some perverse, horrendous magic, renders it unable to free itself, until it is freed.’

Gwyn stared at him, and Augus shrugged.

‘It’s never happened to me,’ Augus said, ‘so I can’t say if those tales are true. Only that I don’t wish to find out. I wasn’t expecting you to touch the cuffs, Gwyn. That’s all.’

‘I just…I just wanted to…to take them off,’ Gwyn said.

Augus thought it over, frustrated that he’d even had the reaction in the first place. He hadn’t even thought about old issues with restraints until Gwyn had touched him unexpectedly. Now, he was discomfited, annoyed with himself.

He offered one wrist to Gwyn, and Gwyn looked at Augus for a long time before placing both of his hands on the cuff. Then he looked at Augus again, but the threat had diminished, and Augus liked the feel of Gwyn’s hands resting half on the leather, half on his skin.

Gwyn removed the cuff deftly, putting it on the ground where the two pieces of leash rested. Then, Augus offered his other wrist and Gwyn bit his top lip as he unbuckled it. He kept Augus’ hand caught in a loose grip, as he put the cuff down. Then he was just holding Augus’ fingers, cupped between his hands. Augus resisted the urge to smile. There was something peaceful about it. Not only in the touch itself, but also in the way that Gwyn was holding himself. His shoulders were no longer up around his ears. He was staring at the place where he was touching Augus like it held answers only he could comprehend.

‘So,’ Augus said quietly, ‘shall I return you back to Ash’s room, so that you may hunch in misery once more?’

A faint smile, and Gwyn shook his head.

‘Are you sure?’ Augus said, smirking. ‘I’d hate to take away from productive downward spirals.’

The smile widened, just a little.

‘Perhaps we should go see Ash, instead,’ Augus said. ‘He’s been worried about you.’

Gwyn nodded, then pointed to the cuffs resting on the floor. Augus realised that Gwyn was done talking, and given how generous Gwyn had been with conversation, Augus didn’t mind at all.

‘Leave them,’ Augus said. ‘I’ll sort out the drawer again later. I’ll kindly ask you not to break my equipment again, if you can help it.’

Gwyn nodded vigorously, and then pushed himself up, wincing a little as his knees straightened. He looked around the room with not nearly so much fear as before.

*

‘No,’ Augus said from his vantage point on the couch. ‘Monopoly is a revolting thing. I don’t want anything to do with it.’

Gwyn nodded quietly, he was sitting on the floor with his back against the couch where Augus lay. Augus pointed to him.

‘See? Gwyn even agrees with me. It’s not just me, brother. It is – apparently – everyone.’

‘You guys suck,’ Ash said petulantly, putting the garishly colourful box away and pulling a few more forward. Even so, Ash seemed pleased that Gwyn was as back to his ‘old self’ as he was ever going to get. He’d seen the black leather cuffs on his wrists and raised his eyebrows at Augus, but then let it go and didn’t bring it up.

Augus caught Gwyn playing with them a few times, spinning them around his wrists, shifting them up and down. Augus felt the urge to overanalyse. What was he doing with Gwyn? Why was he doing this outside of his work? When would it be safe enough for him to see clients again? Did he actually like the both of them living here, or had he just convinced himself that he did because it was his only option right now?

But he shut that part of his mind down by thinking about the way Gwyn had held his hand carefully. Or by thinking of Ash’s body pressed alongside his.

Small bubbles rising and popping inside of him. It was pleasant. A little uncomfortable. But perhaps that was only because he wasn’t used to it.

Augus turned back to his book and turned the page, listening to Ash talk cheerfully about some new board game as Gwyn leaned against the couch. It was like they’d always done this. Ash made it all seem effortless, and Augus felt like seeing all those clients had prepared him for someone like Gwyn. Which was absurd.

Especially given that depending on what Gwyn decided regarding his apprenticeship with the Raven Prince, could have lifelong consequences for all of them.

The bubbles in Augus’ chest all popped at once, and he closed his eyes, frowning. In two days, he would deliver Gwyn to the Raven Prince for his first lesson with the King of the Unseelie. Given how well the first meeting between Gwyn and the Raven Prince had gone, Augus wasn’t holding out much hope for the next.

Chapter Text

Gwyn stood nervously in a long, dark corridor with vaulted ceilings. Near the wall were regularly spaced plinths with a heavy book resting upon each one. Some of the books were closed. Some open. Most had very dark covers, though one or two shone in white or cream leather. They all were saturated in a kind of energy that Gwyn didn’t like, and didn’t want to have anything to do with.

The cold one was waiting in another room. The Bird King had said that it wouldn’t take long. Only a few hours. Gwyn knew what his cousin could do in ‘only a few hours’ and he stood awkwardly, touching his naked wrist over and over again.

Augus had made him take the cuffs off that morning. Made him.

‘I don’t want to!’ Gwyn had said.

‘I don’t care,’ Augus responded, with the very coldness that made Gwyn think of him as ‘the cold one.’ ‘They’re coming off.’

And then, embarrassingly, they’d fought. Augus was stronger than he’d been at the beginning when he was underfae, and Gwyn didn’t want to hurt him by accident, and he knew that Augus had reasons for needing to take them off. But Gwyn didn’t want to see the Bird King at all, let alone see him without the cuffs on. Over three days, he’d decided that he liked them. He even thought that when Augus and Ash got rid of him, he would find his own. The leather warmed to his skin and became pliant and he liked them and Augus was taking them away just when Gwyn needed them most.

‘Gwyn!’ Augus shouted, exasperated, when Gwyn wouldn’t stop struggling.

‘I don’t want to!’ Gwyn shouted back.

Augus had muttered something under his breath and then dug his fingers – blunt claw-tips – into the soft, vulnerable flesh of the underside of his wrists and Gwyn had yelped and then gone still, baring his teeth in some kind of snarl-grimace as Augus took them off. Then, Augus stopped him when Gwyn launched forward to grab them.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘I don’t like this either. And you know that.’

‘I don’t want to see the Bird King,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking.

Ash hadn’t stayed in the room for that. He’d left some time ago and Augus had remained behind, drawing an iciness over himself that made Gwyn even more nervous to see the King of all the Unseelie. He didn’t want to be an apprentice. He didn’t know anything at all about magic. He didn’t like any of it.

Sometimes he got the sense that Augus didn’t want him to see the Bird King either, but that didn’t help much. Because if Augus had bad instincts about it, then didn’t it mean that Gwyn just shouldn’t go see him?

‘I don’t want to go,’ Gwyn whispered.

Augus opened his mouth and for several seconds Gwyn thought he was going to say:

I don’t want you to go, either.

Instead, Augus said:

‘Tough.’

Now, Gwyn stood, nervously touching one of his wrists and thinking about the cuffs that Augus had left on his bed with the promise of, ‘I’ll put them back on once we return.’ He turned a nervous circle, his shoulders tense, his breath fluttering high up in his lungs.

The Bird King wasn’t wearing his great feathery cloak today. He wore tightly fitting black pants, a tightly fitting black shirt, and so much silver around his neck that it clinked. There were pendants too: bone and cut crystal and clay beads and they all throbbed with that same energy that Gwyn felt coming from the books. The Bird King’s hair tufted out in all directions, feathers lending it stiffness. He reeked of bird. Too much for someone who looked so clean. Gwyn knew he had a nest somewhere. Only birds with big, stinking nests smelled of that much bird.

The Bird King watched him the same way that his cousin used to. And then he’d led him down a warren of halls and corridors into this particular corridor, and Gwyn wanted to go.

‘Can you teleport?’ the Bird King said.

Gwyn hesitated for a long moment and then shook his head. He’d never learned how. He was cast out and then he’d never learned it, because he wasn’t supposed to use his light. Sometimes though, he thought he might be able to, when he was so afraid with his cousin that his body seemed to know how to get him free even if his mind didn’t. But it never happened, he couldn’t do it.

‘I’ll teach you that,’ the Bird King said. He sighed and Gwyn flinched back when he felt fingers on his chin. The Bird King tutted impatiently, sharp clicks of his tongue, and Gwyn held himself still and shaking when the Bird King did it again. Fingertips on his chin. Lifting his head so that Gwyn had to look to one side of the Bird King’s face to avoid his eyes.

‘When was the last time you used that raw power of yours?’ the Bird King said.

Gwyn shook his head.

‘Answer me,’ the Bird King said, his voice so soft and so dangerous and not even cold like Augus’ manufactured cold but something lazy. As though no matter what Gwyn decided to do, the Bird King was going to get what he wanted, and Gwyn wouldn’t.

The Bird King had once said no harm would come to Gwyn while he was in the Bird King’s presence, but Gwyn knew that was a lie.

‘S-six,’ Gwyn said. ‘I-I…’

‘How intriguing that the first apprentice I decide I want, is one that can barely use words at all.’

The Bird King’s fingertips stayed on Gwyn’s chin.

‘Yes,’ the Bird King said, his voice contemplative. He drew his fingers back and turned around, walking a few steps away. Gwyn lowered his head and took huge breaths, having forgotten to breathe while the Bird King was close to him. ‘That explains why that great power of yours is so malcontent. I suspect you’ve never fed with it before, either. You don’t teleport. You don’t feed properly. You don’t use your power. What use are you, again? I forget.’

The Bird King laughed softly to himself, and Gwyn thought of Augus and wished that he was back in Augus’ home and fighting with him over the cuffs because even that was easier. That was so much easier.

Gwyn scratched furrows into his wrist, and the Bird King turned quickly, eyes narrowing.

‘You do not damage my property in my presence,’ the Bird King said.

Gwyn let go of his wrist with a start, and then felt some horrible humming noise building in the back of his throat. He swallowed it down. The Bird King thought he was property. Gwyn didn’t feel angry, because he knew it was true. He belonged to whoever owned him at the time. His cousin, usually. Augus and Ash – that seemed like it might even be okay. The Bird King did not seem like a good owner. Not that Gwyn really knew what made a good owner. He did not like to be made to feel this frightened.

‘You reek,’ the Bird King said, looking disappointed now.

You reek too, Gwyn thought.

‘Am I truly so frightening?’ the Bird King said, smiling. Like he was indulged. Gwyn shook his head and looked down, and then he nodded, and then he wished that Ash were here. Ash with his glamour and his reassurances and his gentleness and his warmth and Gwyn just wanted some warmth.

He was working himself up into a state. If his cousin was here, he’d be disappointed too.

‘Come along,’ the Bird King said.

He turned and kept walking down the corridor of endless books on endless plinths. Gwyn followed, his steps short and shuffling. He wished he were smaller. He wished he was a tiny little gnome, or a fairy, or a beetle that could crawl into a crevice between bricks and never, ever come out again. He listened to his breath shaking and knew he was beyond controlling it. So he just followed. Obeying was, at least, easier. And it meant he wasn’t being expected to answer questions. He didn’t even want to think about his light. It was all terrifying.

He didn’t realise the Bird King would want anything to do with his light. Didn’t he realise how dangerous it was? At least his cousin had taught him how to keep it away. His cousin and…and that boy he’d once known. That boy…

The whole reason he’d been kicked out of the estate in the first place. They hadn’t wanted him anymore after that.

Well, they’d never wanted him. They’d just stepped up their feelings towards him and turned him out. And days had become weeks had become months had become his cousin hunting him through the woods and then that became his new life.

Gwyn and the Bird King descended several flights of stairs. The plinths were gone. The stairs were sometimes stone, sometimes wood which creaked underneath his feet. Finally, they ended up in a huge, circular room. Bigger even than the throne room. Gwyn looked around, his night vision adjusting to the very dim space. And then he blinked over and over again when the Bird King lit all the torches in the room with a single snap of his fingers. Gwyn covered his eyes with his hands and bent over slightly, trying to get control of himself.

‘You have a lot of latent power,’ the Bird King said, his voice echoing in the domed stone room. ‘Not only magical power, but raw power, the kind that we’re all born with. I, myself, wasn’t born with a great deal of raw power. But my magical coffers were filled to overflowing and then some. Perhaps it sounds like gloating to you, and I have been known to gloat. But in all truth, that is just what I am. A frail creature made of feathers and hollow, pockmarked bones, with so much magic I can spin the threads of the world together or apart.’

Gwyn listened. The Bird King seemed like he’d have a soft voice, but he didn’t really. He had a very fine way of talking, but his voice could be even harder than Gwyn’s father’s. There was something of the raven caw in it even when his words were sophisticated. Gwyn liked listening to him speak, he realised. Even when he was afraid, he liked the Bird King’s voice.

It also meant he didn’t have to talk.

‘They’ve stunted you,’ the Bird King said, walking closer to Gwyn once more. ‘Your parents, your family. Another thousand years and it would be irreversible, even for someone like me. One has to learn to exercise their raw power, even if it’s destructive, even if you risk yourself in the process. You’re not allied with yourself. I can show you how to change that.’

Gwyn didn’t want anything to do with his light. He shook his head. He would learn the magic-thing, whatever the Bird King wanted to show him. But he would not use his light. And the Bird King couldn’t make him. It was Gwyn’s light, and he wasn’t going to-

Gwyn jerked when he felt phantom fingers in his chest. His eyes flew open and he looked down and the Bird King wasn’t even there. He was ten steps away, looking at Gwyn intently, his eyes fierce. Gwyn tried to brush the sensations away and they wouldn’t go, so he took several steps backwards and they still wouldn’t go away.

‘I’m not hurting you,’ the Bird King said.

Gwyn was sure he was lying but he didn’t know how to articulate it. He grit his teeth together and shook his head and then a whine burst out of him and he couldn’t stop the sound.

He’d told Augus that he didn’t want to do this.

This wasn’t helping him change his mind.

Then, he felt something flip over inside of him. In his body. One moment it was just intrusive sensations and the next, something shifted and he felt his light far closer to the surface than it had been a second ago.

He stared at the Bird King in outrage. That was his light. And it was supposed to stay away.

A roar of fury. Gwyn flew at the Bird King, his hands out and his fingers curled and ready to tear the creature apart if he had to. Everything was turning white, white, white, and there were spots of fog grey at the corners of his vision, and he was making the roaring sound again, and the phantom fingers disappeared from his chest and he shrieked at the feeling of his light so close to the surface of his skin and he would smash apart the threat because he was strong, he was stronger than they knew, he was always stronger than they-

An invisible force threw him metres across the room and Gwyn landed badly. The fabric of his pants shredding and tearing, his palms getting scraped up on the stone, skin blistering open as he skidded back.

‘You seem so determined to act like a beast,’ the Bird King said. ‘If you wish to be treated like one, you need only ask me. Do you know that I can have you executed for what you just did?’

Gwyn crouched, stunned, on the stone floor. His palms were bleeding. He was breathing heavily. The Bird King stalked towards him and Gwyn pushed himself backwards and tried to shove his light down, and then tried harder, and only then did it listen to him.

‘You think that you’re an animal,’ the Bird King said, standing over Gwyn and looking down at him with something impassive on his face. ‘I think you need to learn the difference between a fae and a beast so that you’ll treat me with more respect in the future. Now hold still, Gwyn. This is only temporary.’

The Bird King twisted his fingers and Gwyn felt something flicker and flutter inside of himself, and then the words were gone.

Gwyn stared, truly mute, for several seconds. Without the buffer of clear thoughts in his own mind, there were only nameless, huge emotions that he couldn’t hold back, that rose and splintered and fractured into each other, coalescing into a giant, formless terror that made him dry retch and then scream and scream and-

*

‘What did you do to him?’

That was the cold one. Spitting and furious.

Gwyn moaned weakly on the stone floor, uncurled, then curled up again. He was making a humming noise. But it was faint. Over and over. His throat felt like it was bleeding. It wouldn’t be the first time.

‘I underestimated certain reactions of his,’ the Bird King said. He sounded even and in control, and Gwyn was scared of his voice and scared of him.

He could think in proper words again. He didn’t want to be a beast. Not the Bird King’s version of a beast. That wasn’t what an animal was! Even animals could think more than he’d been able to. Even animals! Deer in the forest and badgers and foxes could all think more than that! They weren’t mindless.

Gwyn moaned and realised his cheeks and eyes and mouth were wet and slung a weak arm over his face. He wanted to go away.

‘You underestimated…’ Augus cleared his throat. His breath was shaking on the inhale. ‘With all due respect, Your Majesty, if you think that you can do this to him, while he’s under my care, and expect that I’ll stand for it-’

‘Are you threatening me?’ the Bird King sounded amused.

Gwyn felt a bolt of liquid terror move through him. He didn’t want the cold one to anger the Bird King too. He didn’t want that. He shook his head and made the humming noise and his eyes were still leaking.

‘Yes!’ Augus exclaimed, his voice tight and furious. ‘Your Majesty, I know that you have done so much for us in such a very short time, more than we have earned I’m sure. But this is not teaching. If you truly want a student who will respect you and admire you, you cannot only cultivate that student with terror. Especially Gwyn. He responds far better to overtures of kindness.’

‘That is why he goes home with you,’ the Bird King said.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘I know you like riddles and games, but he is not either. If you plan on treating him as his cousin did, I will kill him myself before I let you get your hands on him again. And then you won’t have whatever precious image of an apprentice you’ve conjured in your own head, falling prey to your own illusions. You can take my words. You can kill me. But-’

‘It seems you have decided how you feel about him after all, Augus,’ the Bird King said, sounding pleased and not nearly as insulting or cold as Gwyn expected.

It was too confusing. Gwyn balled in tighter on himself and was shaking so hard that his teeth chattered.

‘You’ll put your life on the line, your brother’s…for that?’

Gwyn realised that the Bird King was talking about him.

‘Besides,’ the Bird King continued, ‘he assaulted me.’

‘He likely had a damned good reason,’ Augus said, his voice low and soft. ‘Tell me he didn’t.’

‘Where did all this fire come from, Each Uisge?’ the Bird King drawled. ‘It’s almost captivating.’

‘I’m taking him home,’ Augus said. ‘This lesson is over. And I’m not bringing him back to you until-’

Augus,’ the Bird King said, sounding dangerous now. Sounding as dangerous as he had when he’d taken Gwyn’s voice away. Gwyn moaned brokenly and hid his face and just wished he could be smaller. ‘That’s enough now. You’ve said what you need to say, but you do not dictate to me how this goes.’

‘Someone has to,’ Augus said, his voice more respectful than before. ‘I appreciate that you think he should be your apprentice. But perhaps you may wish to consider that he may be too damaged for your lofty vision of him.’

A long pause then. Gwyn heard footsteps coming towards him and thought it was Augus and then realised it was the Bird King and jerked and cringed and tried to disappear into the floor. He shrieked when he felt fingers resting on his hair. But the fingers only touched for a second, and then lifted, disappearing.

‘Damaged, yes,’ the Bird King said. ‘As I said, I underestimated the situation. Even I can recognise when I’ve made several errors in judgement, Each Uisge. I do not need a lecture from a baseborn waterhorse. I need some time to think. If you must know – I was trying to teach him as I was taught. Mages are rarely gentle teachers.’

Another long silence. Then more footsteps. The Bird King walking away from him. Gwyn squeezed his eyes shut in relief, though the terrible tension in his body wasn’t leaving him. It stayed in place, and he still shook. He hadn’t been able to think in words. He hadn’t been able to talk or even think in words. It had been awful. He’d wanted to die.

‘Will getting him through the water be a difficulty?’ the Bird King said.

‘Getting him upright will be a difficulty,’ Augus snarled. Gwyn had never heard him so angry before. Then footsteps coming towards him again, and Gwyn realised they were Augus’, but he still couldn’t stop himself from cringing. But Augus didn’t kneel beside him, didn’t touch him. Just stood there, closer to him.

‘I’ll have one of my guard teleport you both into your foyer,’ the Bird King said. ‘I will be seeing him again, Each Uisge. But I’ll take your words under advisement.’

A door opened and closed, and Gwyn knew the terrible presence of the Bird King was gone. But he didn’t uncurl. He was caught in a tension that wouldn’t let him go. Dug fingers into him. He could still feel a presence in his chest – even though he knew it was truly gone. He could still, somehow, feel it. His face burned, his eyes were wet. His cheeks. Even his arm where it rested over his face.

‘Careful,’ Augus whispered. ‘We’re leaving.’

Gwyn said nothing. Didn’t want to say anything ever again.

*

Gwyn didn’t like that he was standing when the guard came. But Augus had bent down and dragged him up and literally held him upright until Gwyn got his feet under himself. He knew that Augus could see what a mess he was. Because Augus had seen his face before Gwyn was wiping away all the wetness clinging to him with the backs of his hands. But Augus hadn’t said anything. Nothing comforting, nothing derisive. Gwyn was grateful that Augus was either pretending he hadn’t seen it, or was waiting until later to comment on Gwyn’s humiliation.

The teleportation was swift, and Augus thanked the guard even as he kept Gwyn upright with an arm around him.

Then, they were back in Augus’ home, and Gwyn started making the humming noise. Finally he could make it. He knew he shouldn’t. Not while Augus was there, but he had to do something. He wanted to erase all of what the Bird King had done. Wanted every inch of himself to be his own.

Augus led him down the corridor, then pushed open Ash’s door and then there was rapid fire conversation and Gwyn was too tired to follow most of it, except that Ash was shocked and then angry and then outraged, and Augus just sounded tired.

Augus left the room, saying: ‘You’ll deal with this better than I can.’

‘Yeah, I’m not so sure about that,’ Ash called, and then went silent. Ash’s door was already closed. It was just the two of them.

Gwyn wanted to collapse when he felt the glamour start. He knew Ash’s glamour well now, could feel it gentle and golden and warm like a blanket being drawn over him. He half-fell onto the bed and then crawled properly onto it, humming incessantly, digging his fingers into the blankets and just trying to find something that looked like equilibrium again. The Bird King had done something to his light. It was beyond wrong, even his cousin didn’t do that to him. He hadn’t known- He hadn’t known.

‘Okay,’ Ash said. He’d gotten onto the bed again. Leaning against pillows and cushions and the headboard. ‘What do you need, puppy? You wanna show me?’

Gwyn didn’t know he was moving until he was already half crawling into Ash’s lap. He didn’t realise he’d clutched Ash’s shirt until his fists and palms hurt. And those horrible, ugly noises coming out of his mouth and throat, he’d just pretend that someone else was making them.

‘Aw, Gwyn,’ Ash said sadly. ‘Fuck the King, yeah? What a dick. Come on, you can let all that out here, it’s safe. No one’s going to hurt you here.’

There was a hand on his back, Ash’s thumb was stroking Gwyn’s neck underneath his curls. And then Ash was leaning forwards and doing something with the blankets, and Gwyn realised what it was when the blankets were piled over him. Then, Ash’s other hand came and carded through Gwyn’s hair, his knees bending slightly to pull Gwyn closer to his chest.

A few minutes later, Ash shifted to move away, and Gwyn clutched harder, fearful.

‘Hey,’ Ash said soothingly. ‘Just give me a second, okay? I think Augus should be here too. What do you think? You think he should be here as well?’

It sounded almost too good to be true, but what if Augus was mad at him? What if Augus had left because he was mad?

But Gwyn nodded anyway, and let Ash move his hands away from his shirt, and curled up in the warm spot where Ash had been sitting.

Ash came back without Augus, and Gwyn felt a moment of disappointment and shame that burned when he heard Augus’ footsteps approaching. Ash had already shifted Gwyn – just moved him like he would blankets or cushions – so that he could sit back in his spot again. Then he shifted Gwyn back over his chest and sighed.

‘You sure?’ Ash said.

‘Yes,’ Augus said.

Augus got onto the bed with grace. He flowed onto it, taking up the opposite side of the bed and reaching down for Gwyn’s wrists. They were both tucked up against Gwyn’s chest, and Augus tugged gently.

‘You have your word,’ Augus said. ‘But if you can’t speak, you can also make the hand signal and I’ll stop. We’ll substitute. All right?’

Gwyn didn’t know what Augus wanted until he felt the leather resting against his skin. Augus brushed the cuff over his wrist, asking permission. Gwyn made a sound of relief and pushed both of his wrists towards Augus, his body going lax and heavy on Ash’s chest. He kept his face buried into Ash’s shirt. Smelled sugar and warmth and savoury skin.

‘Good,’ Augus said, as he slipped on the first cuff. Then, talking to Ash, he said: ‘I didn’t endear myself to the Raven Prince.’

‘What the fuck did he do to him, anyway?’

‘I don’t know,’ Augus murmured. ‘The Raven Prince didn’t say – except to admit that he’d made some mistakes – and Gwyn is not feeling well enough to be asked.’

Ash’s hand rubbed Gwyn’s forehead, then dragged back through his hair. Gwyn moved closer and made a snuffling noise into Ash’s shirt, and then made himself stop.

‘He was unconscious when the Raven Prince fetched me,’ Augus said, tightening the second cuff and petting Gwyn’s arm several times. ‘I regret to say that I…may have taken the Raven Prince to task.’

‘Good!’ Ash exclaimed.

‘Ash,’ Augus said patiently, ‘that is not someone we want to get on the wrong side of. Any of us.’

‘But he listened to you, didn’t he? And Gwyn’s back now. Sooner than we thought. So he…I mean you said he knew he’d done the wrong thing?’

‘The Raven Prince would shoot the messenger,’ Augus said.

Gwyn startled when he felt something metal clip into the D-ring on one of the cuffs. He went tense, and Augus hushed him, stroking his flank quickly.

‘You can stop me if you need to,’ Augus said. ‘But I think this could help.’

It was the leather strap from before. Gwyn knew, because Augus had to pull Gwyn’s wrists closer together in order to clip the strap into the other D-ring. And then Gwyn’s wrists were bound up by his chest, and he couldn’t move his arms apart. He could practically feel the sharpness of Augus’ attention as Gwyn tested and shifted the leather. It would be so easy to snap, but at the same time…he liked it. He shouldn’t like it. And yet…

A slower, deeper breath, and he turned more fully into Ash’s chest, his wrists and hands tucked up between them. His shoulders still heaved. He was crying without making the sounds of crying. He’d been taught how to do that from a very young age.

‘It was terrible,’ Augus said.

Augus shifted until he was lying almost lengthwise along the headboard, hand resting on Gwyn’s upper arm, and his head up by Ash’s shoulder. Gwyn had staked out Ash’s lower chest and belly, feeling the rise and fall of his breathing, which was rhythmic and slower than the pounding of Gwyn’s own heart. He shifted his hands in the cuffs. Heard the creaking and clinking of the leather strap. It was new leather. It hadn’t been worn to quietness yet.

Ash shifted, brought an arm up and must have put it around Augus’ side. Gwyn didn’t bother looking up.

He didn’t want to see the Bird King again. And the cold one would make him go. He would take the cuffs off and make him go into the cold palace. And then what would the Bird King do? He was disappointed with Gwyn from the outset, like his family. It didn’t matter what Gwyn did, the Bird King would never be happy.

Gwyn moaned in despair.

‘His palms are scratched,’ Ash said.

‘I know. His pants torn at the knees. Dragged on his hands and knees maybe?’

‘Or thrown,’ Ash said, his voice darkening. ‘You know…I know you hate the human world, bro, and all its trappings. But in most places over there, ‘teaching’ like that is illegal, no matter how fucking well-known or famous you are.’

Augus said nothing, though he sighed and settled his body closer to Gwyn’s.

Something had been shoved over on its side in Gwyn’s body. He didn’t know what it was, only that when he thought about that mindless thing the Bird King had made him, he became scared again. His breath shook, his nostrils flared, and he tried to disappear into a place where none of it could touch him. But that was the problem, he knew the Bird King could. Just like his family. They all had so much power.

What he knew now was that the Bird King could annihilate him from the inside out.

Even his cousin, who had held the balance on Gwyn’s life in his hands more than once, even he couldn’t do that.

Those thoughts looped in his mind until he was sobbing. At first silently, and then in raw, abrasive sounds that hurt his already sore throat. He curled up as tightly as he could, his legs pressing into Augus’ body, his upper half crushing his own wrists between his chest and Ash’s. His fingers curled into thin fabric and he couldn’t stop himself.

Because it meant that his cousin wasn’t the most evil threat he had in his life anymore. Because it meant that there was something worse out there. And it scared him. Because Augus had angered the Bird King, he’d even yelled at him, and Gwyn didn’t want the others to know what it felt like. He didn’t want his cousin to hurt them, but he didn’t want the Bird King to hurt them either.

He had long ago resigned himself to death at an owner’s hands. He knew it would be his cousin or the Bird King. He understood that.

But he had grown tired of taking others on that road with him. It was an ugly road, and it was meant to be a lonely one.

As soon as he realised what he had to do, he quietened. He felt hands gently soothing him, reassuring him, and he became even more certain.

He only had to wait for the right opportunity, and then he could save them, even as he damned himself. Not that it mattered. He was already damned.

Chapter Text

Augus wasn’t surprised when Gwyn stopped talking. He was surprised that Gwyn didn’t seem to go as deep into himself as he’d feared. He’d watched closely over the following days – expected regression. Certainly the nightmares were worse, and Gwyn seemed warier overall, but otherwise he’d mostly returned to whatever equilibrium he’d had before seeing the Raven Prince. He still nodded and shook his head and shrugged to direct questions. He didn’t fight them, but he wasn’t entirely without will either. He ate. He showered.

Ash was reassured by that, but Augus wasn’t.

When Ash went into the human world to hunt, Augus found excuses to be near wherever Gwyn was at any given point. If Gwyn was in his room, then Augus was in the room opposite, refolding blankets. If Gwyn went into the kitchen, then Augus was in the lounge. If Gwyn wandered through the house aimlessly, Augus found an excuse to walk with purpose to different rooms, and it was then that he noticed it.

Gwyn was annoyed at Augus’ constant presence.

A sinking feeling in Augus’ chest then, as he kept up his own not-so-subtle surveillance of Gwyn. Because that was when he started noticing the way that Gwyn looked at doorways and windows – points of exit. Of escape. Gwyn was also being very careful about it. He didn’t want to be caught out. He would look around the room with the normal vigilance that was upon him, and if it wasn’t for the single second he spent lingering on doors and windows, Augus wouldn’t have noticed. If he hadn’t followed his instincts, it would seem like Gwyn was doing everything as usual. He even made the pretence of pulling out one of Ash’s board games and reading the instructions.

He wasn’t someone who was staging a cry for help and wanted to be rescued – not knowing how to rescue himself. He was someone who was determined, who had decided a new course of action for himself.

Augus suspected that this was the whole reason behind Gwyn’s lack of regression. He had pulled his resolution around himself like a shroud and it gave him the strength to push on. It would have been admirable, were it not likely to get Gwyn into the clutches of Efnisien. Unless that was his aim.

Augus couldn’t yet tell if Gwyn was trying to escape the Raven Prince, or if he was trying to get back to his cousin.

Ash wasn’t around to gentle the atmosphere with his glamour, and Augus was grateful for that. He needed his wits about him.

*

An uncomfortable evening spent awake, listening for sounds in the house. He sat upright in his bed and cast his awareness out around him, letting it pool and ripple, catching on abnormalities and unusual occurrences. He could hear Gwyn shifting around his bedroom quietly. He wasn’t in bed, but moving from place to place. He heard the tinking of a fingernail on glass and almost sprang upright then and ran down the corridor. But he made himself stay still. Gwyn could not swim through water as fast as Augus could. Gwyn could not manipulate water like Augus could. If Gwyn tried to swim away while Augus was awake and aware, Augus would catch him.

But Gwyn stopped tapping the glass of the window with his finger and went back to moving around the room. First pacing, and then uneven steps followed by long pauses. Augus even heard the sound of a loud, explosive sigh. More footsteps. And so it went until morning, when Augus felt frayed at the edges, and he was certain Gwyn didn’t feel much better.

That was when he decided to take a risk.

*

Gwyn followed him quietly into the main room where Augus saw his clients. He tugged absently on the D-ring around the cuffs that he still wore. Gwyn could have taken them off at any point, but even after showering, he always put them straight back on again. Sometimes not even waiting for Augus to do it for him.

‘Kneel here,’ Augus said, pointing to the place in front of the drawers where Gwyn had knelt last time. He waited to see what Gwyn would do.

Gwyn looked at the place where he was supposed to kneel, and then he looked around the windowless room. His eyes lingered for a few seconds on the door, then he looked over at the spot beside the drawers again, his eyebrows lifting, as though he was actually considering it.

He didn’t look at Augus when he walked over and got down onto his knees. His shoulders were tense. His expression opaque. He didn’t even look up at Augus to seek his approval, or see what was going to happen next.

If there was one thing that Augus knew how to do, it was how to crack through a façade.

The drawer he opened was filled with all the equipment he needed. He drew out a lot of leather fixings, too many to use, so that Gwyn wouldn’t know what he was going to do. He looked down at everything in front of him, his heart still beating its slow and steady rhythm in his chest. He placed his fingers on the leather and looked over at Gwyn, tilting his head.

‘I want you to close your eyes,’ Augus said.

Gwyn frowned, and he blinked quickly, an instinctive response of someone who was considering it but didn’t know if they should do it. Trying out the darkness in microseconds.

Gwyn shook his head, and Augus smirked.

‘Do you remember your word?’

Gwyn nodded, his forehead creasing.

‘If you’re beyond talking, you can also make the signal you use to stop talking – and that can substitute. Do you understand?’

Another nod, and Augus’ smile strengthened.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Close your eyes. I won’t ask again.’

Gwyn’s jaw tightened, he rocked back a little on his heels. He looked down, took several breaths, and when he looked up again, he closed his eyes for several seconds. Squeezing them shut like he was waiting for a blow. Then, his eyes opened again and he stared at Augus, searching for something. Augus waited, maintained steady eye contact, and Gwyn swallowed visibly, then his hands clenched into fists and he forced his eyes shut again and waited.

‘Very good,’ Augus said quietly.

Gwyn shivered, and Augus reached for a long strip of fabric and tucked it into his pocket. He shifted the leather fixings around to make needless noise and Gwyn flinched, his eyelashes fluttered, but he didn’t open his eyes. He waited several more seconds and then approached Gwyn quietly, knowing that Gwyn was too good at sensing people to not be aware of him. When he moved behind Gwyn, he saw his back go stiff, his shoulders hunch even higher.

Augus slid out the strip of black fabric and shifted it in both of his hands. Then, silently, he placed the blindfold over Gwyn’s eyes.

Gwyn gasped, Augus could imagine his eyes flying open. He kept the blindfold in place even as Gwyn tried to move away from it, his back bumping against Augus’ legs. His hands came up and touched it, and Augus said:

‘No.’

Gwyn’s hands froze, fingers shaking against the black fabric. He took sharp, quick breaths. He hadn’t moved away from Augus’ legs, almost leaning back against him. Augus carefully looped the fabric and then secured it at the back of Gwyn’s head. He stroked the taut muscles of his neck, petted the top of his shoulder.

‘Leave it on,’ Augus murmured. ‘You know you have things you can do if you need this to stop.’

He watched Gwyn’s hands closely, watched for the signal, but aside from Gwyn’s hands clenching into fists again, he did nothing more except slowly lower his arms by his sides. He was trembling now, knocked out of whatever space he’d been comfortable in. Augus rubbed Gwyn’s back with his knuckles, a firm touch, and then moved back over to all the pieces he’d withdrawn from the drawer.

He made two new selections and then walked back to Gwyn, saw the way his head moved, tracking all of Augus’ movements openly now that he could no longer see him.

Augus knelt down behind him, gave Gwyn a few moments to get used to his presence, and then reached for his left arm, drawing it back and then twisting carefully so that he could move Gwyn’s wrist to his back. He felt the minute that Gwyn realised what he was doing, began resisting. Augus only used more careful strength and Gwyn never struggled properly. But his breathing was faster, and now audible.

Augus pinned Gwyn’s wrist in place and then reached for his other arm, moving that too, until both of Gwyn’s wrists were overlapping each other behind his back.

Then, holding both of them in a secure grip, he reached for the length of leather and began binding Gwyn’s wrists together.

When the first loop went through the D-rings, Gwyn flinched forwards enough that Augus held tight and exerted enough force to pull him back.

‘Careful,’ Augus said.

Gwyn made a faint humming noise, a worried, thin sound that tapered off into nothing. Augus looked down at what he was doing, at Gwyn’s flexing fingers, and closed his eyes briefly, thinking.

‘I know you are disinclined to talk,’ Augus said, ‘but if you need to, do you think you can say the signal word?’

A long pause, Gwyn’s hands moving fractiously. Then, he took a breath and nodded. Augus kept binding his wrists together until they were secured. He knotted the leather securely. Then, he picked up the next item – a buttery soft strip of leather, not buffed to a shine but left with a matt finish.

He slid one hand into Gwyn’s hair, and then pressed the collar to the front of his neck. Gwyn’s arms worked against the bonds. He shook his head, and then leaned sideways, trying to escape it. But he didn’t say the word, he didn’t break the leather, and so Augus pulled Gwyn back into position and attached the thin collar loosely, leaving the cold metal of the fixings against the back of his neck.

He massaged Gwyn’s scalp and watched him ride it out, feeling hungry at his reactions. The sharpness of his breath, the way his exhales were so heavy.

‘I know what you’ve been doing,’ Augus said, his voice low. ‘You think you can hide your intentions from me, but you cannot.’

Augus shifted so that his knees were either side of Gwyn’s hips, pressed his chest to Gwyn’s back, moved so that he could speak into his ear.

‘I know you’re waiting for the right moment to escape.’

Gwyn stilled, went tense, and then shook his head sharply, nearly knocking Augus’ cheek.

‘I think you know that I don’t think you should leave,’ Augus said. ‘I think that’s why you’ve been skulking around at night instead of sleeping.’

Gwyn’s breath was shakier. He shifted his arms at the shoulder over and over again, enough that Augus thought he wanted to at least pull off the blindfold. Of everything Augus had done, the blindfold was the most difficult part for Gwyn. He liked to visually assess his surroundings at all times. Augus rather liked the picture he presented, but forced himself to stay focused on what he was trying to do.

‘You can escape leather,’ Augus said. ‘But I don’t want you to escape, and you can’t escape the spelled manacles I have, even at Court status. Remember? Two days of screaming and you still couldn’t get yourself free. You know this.’

‘You can’t,’ Gwyn whispered.

‘I wouldn’t like to,’ Augus said. ‘But you screaming my house down is a better option than you going out there and getting yourself killed.’

‘Why?’ Gwyn said.

‘How do you think the Raven Prince will react, if we lose track of you?’

Gwyn tried to move away from Augus, and Augus slid his arm around Gwyn’s torso, over his clothing. He rested his forearm against the muscular strength of him and made it clear that he didn’t want Gwyn to keep protesting the way that he was. He could feel the twitchy, uneven movements of his ribs and belly, the way he was trying to police his breathing and ultimately failing.

‘I can save you,’ Gwyn said, his voice low.

‘From what?’

‘From him.’

‘Elaborate,’ Augus said.

Gwyn shook his head, and Augus smiled.

‘I can leave you like this for hours,’ Augus said, ‘until you answer me. I’m very patient.’

Gwyn tried to twist out of his grip. He moved sideways and Augus followed him down to the ground, pushing his head into the floor and keeping his other hand on his hips, pinning him. If Gwyn pit all his strength against Augus, he could probably get away, but they were matched in status, and Augus was willing to use a lot more force if he had to.

But Gwyn didn’t keep fighting him, he subsided, though he remained tense.

‘Elaborate,’ Augus said again.

‘He’ll hurt you,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking.

‘Who?’ Augus said. Because that was the question, wasn’t it? What had the Raven Prince triggered off in Gwyn’s mind? What had he done?

‘I can’t tell you,’ Gwyn said.

‘I think you can.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Tell me,’ Augus said, his voice going soft and pliant where Gwyn’s was hardening. He offered no force now, though he still kept Gwyn against the ground, he wasn’t truly having to hold him in place.

‘I don’t want him to hurt you,’ Gwyn said, turning his face more into the floor, trying to escape even now. ‘You were so angry with him. You can’t be angry with him! There’s consequences.’

So, this had nothing to do with Efnisien. Not directly, anyway. And what? Did Gwyn really think that surrendering himself to his cousin was the answer? Augus sighed. Of course he would. He tried to follow it through the way Gwyn might. Believing he was so suited to self-sacrifice that he would put himself in mortal danger and hide all signs of it from Augus and Ash.

‘What consequences?’ Augus said, letting his voice go light; choosing to sound interested instead of concerned.

‘You’re a torturer,’ Gwyn said under his breath.

‘Am I?’ Augus said. ‘Is that what this is?’

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, sounding plaintive. Augus shifted the hand at his head and rubbed at the space behind his ear, offering reassurance.

‘What consequences?’ Augus said, and Gwyn flinched at the question. Then his knees moved up towards his belly. Augus hushed him absently, remembering the sparking, twisting fury he’d felt when he’d seen Gwyn unconscious and injured, when he’d seen the look in the Raven Prince’s eyes that meant that even he knew he’d made errors. He was still shocked at his own response. He couldn’t feel the full depth of horror at what he’d done. He had seen firsthand what the Raven Prince could do to people who disobeyed him. Had witnessed Crielle’s convulsive attack when the Raven Prince had taken her words away.

‘He’ll hurt you,’ Gwyn said, ‘and it will be my fault.’

‘You didn’t make me yell at him,’ Augus said. ‘I did that. He’s not going to hurt me, Gwyn. He’s fickle, yes. A bad teacher, certainly. But…’

He didn’t entirely believe himself. The Raven Prince would do whatever he wanted. He was fine as a King, but not exactly someone you wanted to have as a friend or even a personal acquaintance. He was dangerous.

‘He will do what he wishes,’ Augus said. ‘This isn’t about him, Gwyn. I’m asking about you. What consequences do you fear will happen to me? What did he do to you?’

He kept petting Gwyn carefully, each movement firm instead of soft, knowing that Gwyn did better with pressure. Anything too light was too overwhelming for him. He was a creature easily overstimulated.

‘He doesn’t like me,’ Gwyn said. ‘He thinks I’m useless. He doesn’t like me. He tried to make me use my light. I’m not supposed to. And then he tried to make me use it anyway! He can just make you do that! He put his magic in me and tried to make me use my light and I’m not supposed to! Ever! And I couldn’t think properly and I was scared and I attacked him because he doesn’t understand, and then…and then…’

Gwyn shuddered into silence, and Augus refused to look away, monitoring Gwyn’s breathing, the twitches in his body. He knew almost nothing about Gwyn’s raw power. He wasn’t supposed to use his light? What kind of light did he have? How many light fae were there, that were Unseelie? He’d never seen Gwyn use his powers before. He knew he didn’t feed properly. Because he wasn’t allowed to use his powers?

The Raven Prince had said that Gwyn had assaulted him. But he’d not disclosed what he’d done in response to that assault.

‘And then he took your words away,’ Augus said.

Because what else did the Raven Prince do, when he was offended or personally slighted? He reminded people just how much power and control he exerted over them. In an instant, he was able to let anyone know that he was far stronger than anyone truly knew.

Gwyn moaned low and curled in on himself. It was confirmation enough.

‘I couldn’t think anymore,’ Gwyn whispered. ‘He told me that if I really wanted to be a beast he could make me one, but beasts aren’t like that.’

Augus stared down at him, surprised. There were varying levels at which the Raven Prince might exercise his power. For some, he might only remove a handful of necessary words. Or he might remove one language, but not another. For others, he might do as he did to Crielle and Lludd, remove their ability to talk and write, but not their ability to think in language. In extreme fits of pique, the Raven Prince could wipe out a creature’s ability to think in tangible, grammatical language. Leaving them in the whims of their instincts and their darkest fears. It was considered a cruel punishment indeed, one the Raven Prince himself only used – as the rumours went – sparingly.

He’d done that to Gwyn?

What had he been trying to do? What on earth could that possibly have achieved? Augus swallowed down a sharp acidity in his throat. Anger was building inside of him again. Gods, if he’d known, he would have been even less able to check his temper around the King.

‘He didn’t just take away your words,’ Augus said.

‘I couldn’t think,’ Gwyn said. ‘He can’t do that to you. He can’t! You can’t get angry at him again. Cousin is better. A better…the better choice. For me. A better choice. Hawthorn, Augus. Hawthorn.’

The word spilled out of him, no less frantic than anything else he’d said. Augus immediately lifted the blindfold off Gwyn’s eyes, and then moved his hands to the bindings at his wrists, working quickly. When Gwyn’s arms were freed, he went to remove the collar himself, but Augus stopped him with a touch to his fingers.

‘Let me,’ Augus said. He removed the collar, placing it down on the ground.

Gwyn pushed himself upright into a sitting position, keeping his palm against the floor, bracing himself. He wouldn’t look at Augus. And when Augus reached out to also remove the wrist cuffs, Gwyn moved his wrist away and shook his head.

‘Thank you,’ Augus said.

Because it was relief that had found him. He wasn’t frustrated that Gwyn had used the signal, he was relieved. Because it meant that Gwyn could use it. He didn’t need to test him to make sure he could, he had the evidence right in front of him. And Gwyn had weathered an awful lot before using the word, which also meant that he wasn’t the kind of person to signal often or frequently without due cause.

‘You did the right thing,’ Augus said, catching the uncertain expression on Gwyn’s face.

‘I don’t want anything to happen to you both because of me,’ Gwyn said, refusing to look up. ‘I can make sure it doesn’t. I can disappear. I have…my cousin will know what to do with me.’

‘I know what to do with you,’ Augus said, smirking. ‘You can’t disappear, Gwyn. You can’t remove your impact from us. Not by running away. I know you feel the instinct to go back to your cousin, Gwyn. I know the Raven Prince has made you feel like you have another reason to do it. But if you go back to your cousin, it won’t be because of Ash, or me, or the Raven Prince. It will be because you don’t know anything different, or don’t believe in anything different. It will be because you think self-sacrifice is a valid reason to turn yourself over for torture.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said. He shook his head, but he didn’t look sure.

‘You want a reason to go back to him,’ Augus said. ‘Because you want to go back to him.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, looking up, pale gaze stubborn.

‘The Raven Prince will do whatever he likes. He may decide to punish me worse for not being able to keep you in my sights, than for getting angry at him. And, Gwyn, I wasn’t wrong to be angry at him. If he keeps teaching you with the methods he’s chosen, he’ll ruin you. I genuinely believe he wants you as an apprentice. You’re not the only one who needs to learn something here.’

‘I don’t like this,’ Gwyn said, gazing off into the room.

‘You haven’t been given much cause to like much of anything in your life,’ Augus said. ‘I think the problem now is that you do have things you like, and you don’t understand that you have a right to them. It must be hard, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. To see how badly you’ll be punished for getting things you don’t feel you deserve. After all, if it was bad before, how bad will it be now? Unimaginable, yes?’

Gwyn was silent for a long time, and then he nodded and his shoulders slumped. He slowly tipped back towards the floor until he fell on his side and looked tiredly at Augus. He hooked the fingers of his left hand into the D-ring of the right and tugged slowly, rhythmically.

‘How did you feel about the blindfold?’ Augus said.

Gwyn made a face, then rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. He looked relaxed. Unhappy, but relaxed.

‘It’s not like these,’ Gwyn said, lifting the cuffs. ‘It’s not…it’s not the same.’

‘It’s scary, isn’t it?’ Augus said.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, blinking at the ceiling. ‘You tied my hands behind my back.’

‘I know,’ Augus said.

‘I hated it,’ Gwyn admitted. ‘But…’

Augus told himself that he didn’t lean forward. That he wasn’t excited to hear what Gwyn would say next.

‘But I don’t feel as bad now,’ Gwyn said, sounding faintly wondering. ‘It was never like that with cousin.’

Augus reached out and curved his hand around Gwyn’s knee. This was fascinating. It was so different to having to deconstruct and reconstruct in a matter of days. Everything progressed at a far milder pace. It both sated his heartsong, but also made him feel restful. He had no doubt it was harder for Gwyn, but then, Gwyn was dealing with internal issues that Augus didn’t have to worry about.

‘You listened to me,’ Gwyn said. ‘When I said the word.’

‘I don’t usually use that system,’ Augus admitted. ‘With my clients. The ones who come to see me. They understand from the outset that there is no failsafe. I decided that this situation called for something different.’

‘Why?’ Gwyn said, lifting up and meeting his eyes.

‘Because…’ Augus shrugged. ‘You’re not a client I would usually take on. There are some people who are too damaged for what I offer. Or who I sense, quickly, won’t get anything out of my methods. You heard my arguments against doing what you wanted more of. I didn’t know if you were capable, and I wondered if I would be doing the right thing. It was a different situation.’

‘Do you still wonder?’

‘Not as much,’ Augus said. ‘I know you get something out of this. I know you don’t yet fully comprehend it, and I know it scares you, and I know you can’t stop yourself thinking of this as just a different version of what your cousin does. And I know you need it. I think that scares you too.’

Gwyn dropped his head and stared up at the ceiling for several seconds longer, and then closed his eyes.

‘I don’t belong here,’ Gwyn said. ‘You both…you both belong here. I am just…I don’t have anything to do.’

‘You belong here,’ Augus said, though the words were heavy and he wished he could undo them. Because what did they mean? What did that mean for Augus’ future? His home? ‘And you clearly need something to do that gives you something to concentrate on. It helps you, doesn’t it? To have something to do. Whether that’s focusing on gathering and hunting your food in the forest, or steeling yourself against whatever torture Efnisien has planned for you.’

‘I can make a good animal trap, and hunt,’ Gwyn said quietly. ‘But I can’t do much more.’

‘You were young when you were abandoned, weren’t you? But in a Court household, you must have been trained in many subjects. Were there any you enjoyed more than others?’

Gwyn placed both of his hands over his face, but his breathing remained slow and steady. For Gwyn to have this reaction to only a minimal amount of bondage, Augus’ mind was already leaping ahead to what it really could be like. If it moved to a sexual place, what then? He was quite sure he could get Gwyn floating on endorphins with almost no effort at all given how sensitive he was, how easily overwhelmed. What would it be like, to be able to have Gwyn resting in his lap and staring up at the ceiling like he was, relaxed and quiet, while Augus stroked his hair and let his own mind drift?

‘I can’t do this,’ Gwyn said, his voice muffled. ‘I can’t tell you.’

‘You can’t tell me what you enjoyed?’

Gwyn nodded. Augus moved closer to him, until he was sitting cross-legged by Gwyn’s shoulder. He placed one of his own hands over Gwyn’s, stroked his fingers.

‘Because you aren’t meant to enjoy anything? Or because you didn’t enjoy any of it?’

Gwyn nodded again. Augus’ lips quirked up in a smile, and then Gwyn said:

‘Because I enjoyed things I wasn’t supposed to.’

‘Like what?’

Gwyn made a sound of frustration. His fingers tightened on his forehead, and Augus kept stroking them carefully until they relaxed again. Augus’ fingers trailed back across Gwyn’s hairline, and then he was cupping the side of Gwyn’s head.

‘Like what, Gwyn?’ Augus said.

Gwyn dropped his hands and looked at Augus in something close to outrage. Augus nearly laughed, but he managed to keep the reaction away in case Gwyn reacted poorly to it. Wouldn’t do to have the creature think that Augus was mocking him. He knew very well that he was pushing, and Gwyn’s reaction was endearing.

‘I’ll say the word,’ Gwyn said, his eyes narrowing.

‘Then say it,’ Augus said. ‘But I’d very much prefer if you just told me some of the things you used to enjoy doing with your tutors. I’m not saying we can make any of them happen. But I’d like to know. I’m curious.’

‘Why?’ Gwyn said, his eyebrows twisting together. Augus reached over and rubbed the creases with his thumb, until Gwyn’s forehead relaxed a little.

‘Tell me one thing you enjoyed doing. Just one.’

Gwyn growled and turned his face away. Augus decided that if Gwyn was ever stable enough, he was going to enjoy punishing him for his attitude. As long as it meant that the attitude wouldn’t actually disappear. This was rather more fun than he expected. He knew it probably didn’t feel the same way for Gwyn, but this was far easier to negotiate than his terror.

‘Tell me,’ Augus said, his voice turning hard.

‘Calligraphy,’ Gwyn said, and then he flinched, and then he turned back and shoved Augus hard in the leg. ‘I don’t like you.’

‘Yes, you do,’ Augus said, laughing softly. ‘And you could get up and walk away. Or say the word. It’s all right, Gwyn. It’s all right if you need someone to push you sometimes. We have things in place to make sure that you don’t get pushed too far. There’s always Ash, when you don’t want to be pushed at all.’

Gwyn smiled faintly, and then he shook his head and tried to summon some of the outrage back to his gaze, and then he gave up and he closed his eyes. The poor thing looked as exhausted as Augus felt. More exhausted. Augus traced the hollows under his eyes carefully, tenderly.

‘I liked calligraphy,’ Gwyn said. ‘I liked…I wanted to apprentice to a Master. Do it properly. Learn how to make my own inks and even paper or parchment. But it’s not very fitting of a soldier.’

‘Do you think you need to be a soldier here?’ Augus said.

‘I’m losing condition here,’ Gwyn said, looking over at Augus and frowning. ‘Every day in the forest I roamed the territory as much as I could. I stayed fit. When I was younger, I trained. Here…I do nothing. I need…I need to do something. I have- I have bees inside of me and they have to fly if they want to stay in their hive peacefully.’

‘Bees,’ Augus said, shaking his head at the image of it. ‘All right. That’s…going to be harder, isn’t it? With your cousin out there? Besides, you’re Court status, your fitness will remain regardless of what you do, won’t it?’

‘It’s not the same,’ Gwyn said, pushing himself into a sitting position, his knee resting against Augus’. ‘It’s not.’

‘How about we wait until Ash comes back, and we can all talk about that,’ Augus said hesitantly. ‘Ash does a lot of exercises himself to stay fit, and he might have some things you can do here in the meantime, until it’s safe enough for you to roam as you want to. Your cousin was still able to catch you with bear-traps, Gwyn, even when you were in better condition.’

Gwyn frowned, sighed in exasperation, and Augus couldn’t resist saying:

‘I can think of other things that might tire you out.’

Gwyn looked at him, his eyes widening slowly. He looked around the room again, as though newly appreciating exactly where they were, and then he cleared his throat and his hands twitched.

A pause then. Augus opened his mouth to say something else, and Gwyn pushed himself up on his hands and then over, and Augus blinked hard when he felt lips pressing against his.

The kiss was clumsy, Gwyn hadn’t thought through the movement and Augus hadn’t expected it. Gwyn’s lips hardly moved against his, just pressing there, and his breathing was coming faster now. Faster still when Augus didn’t pull away, and Gwyn shifted and pushed closer, until Augus was leaning backwards and Gwyn had braced himself with one hand by Augus’ side and his other hand resting flat on Augus’ lower back, as though it would be easy to just lower Augus to the floor.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d kissed a client.

Couldn’t actually remember ever being in a position like this before.

Gwyn moved back a few centimetres, staring at Augus. His fingers curled into Augus’ shirt at his lower back, his eyes roamed over Augus’ face.

‘Are you scared?’ Gwyn said. ‘Tell me.’

Augus wasn’t a fan of Gwyn using Augus’ techniques against him.

But aside from a faint quivering from his heartsong – Augus wasn’t scared. He reached up and slid a hand over the back of Gwyn’s neck and drew him closer, and then pressed his lips to Gwyn’s as carefully as he could. He moved slowly, capturing Gwyn’s top lip between his own, and then his bottom lip, holding the soft flesh between his mouth and pulling back until Gwyn gasped and his mouth opened.

Then, Augus was lowered to the floor. As soon as his head touched the rug, he stiffened slightly. His heartsong had a problem with this.

Gwyn drew back, sensing it, and Augus shook his head and licked at his own lips.

‘It’s my heartsong,’ Augus said, ‘it’s threatened.’

How annoying, that it would feel shaken so quickly. He was enjoying himself. He was enjoying Gwyn’s initiative. He forced himself to take several deep breaths, looked up into eyes that were still so close to his. Gwyn was still over him, one arm keeping his weight off Augus, and the other still at his lower back, fingers curling over and over again, petting him despite the weight of Augus’ body.

‘I can’t do this?’ Gwyn said.

‘You can,’ Augus said quickly. ‘Just…let me think.’

‘Do you need a word?’

Augus laughed at the absurdity of it, and then he realised that if they were going to do this… If this was…beyond what he did with his clients, if he was going to put his heartsong at risk to see what lay beyond it…

But he still held the balance of power here, didn’t he?

Did he need a word?

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Augus said, and then realised he didn’t quite believe himself. ‘No. Not…now. This isn’t helping. Talking about this isn’t helping. Let me think.’

The shakiness in his chest subsided only slowly, as Gwyn did what Augus said and stayed quiet. He stayed close, too. He looked into Augus’ eyes, and then he looked at Augus’ lips, and then he looked at other details and Augus wondered what Gwyn was seeing. The freckles on his cheeks? The waterweed in his hair? Augus didn’t know.

A few more minutes, and it was Gwyn’s patience – of all things – that settled his heartsong down again. Gwyn had listened to him. He’d listened, and Augus quietly reminded himself that these moments where he didn’t display his dominance at all times, they were only moments. They weren’t permanent. But it was frustrating. He was hypersensitive to these shifts in body language, and he hadn’t really needed to think about that before. He rubbed at the back of Gwyn’s neck and watched his eyelashes flutter, and then he caught Gwyn’s gaze and nodded.

‘Please,’ Augus said. ‘You can kiss me.’

Gwyn lowered himself so slowly his arm shook a little. He nudged his lips against Augus’ like he was asking a question, and then nudged again when Augus didn’t respond. The hand at Augus’ back slid out from between them, then came up and carefully touched Augus’ hair. It was all so delicate. Gwyn’s lips were soft, his hand was large but gentle. He treated Augus with a fragility, as though he was afraid he’d burst a bubble at any moment.

Augus opened his mouth and Gwyn did the same, and then they rested open-mouthed against each other, breath intermingling, and Augus only waited to see what Gwyn would do. It was nice when Gwyn started moving his lips against Augus’, nice when he licked the corner of Augus’ mouth with the pointed tip of his tongue. The hand at his mane was petting more boldly now, and when his fingers brushed over a strand of waterweed that grew from his scalp, Augus felt a tingle of warmth move down the back of his head and his neck and he shivered.

It was a slow dance when Augus started participating. Augus licking into Gwyn’s mouth and tasting him, and Gwyn letting him, before he would do the same in return, every movement hesitant. And they spent minutes like that, time stretching until it became taut between them. Augus wasn’t hard, but he was enjoying himself, he could see how this could be more than he was used to having with clients – and it wasn’t as though he was starved with them, those interactions with his clients were sacred, profound.

This was…different. More.

Gwyn drew back and licked at his lips shamelessly. He blinked at Augus and then lifted his hand from Augus’ mane and looked at the cuff around his wrist.

‘Don’t make me leave,’ Gwyn said, his cheeks already pinker than before. ‘Don’t let me escape you. I don’t want to. I don’t know how to fight myself.’

‘It’s all right,’ Augus said, rubbing Gwyn’s shoulder. ‘We’ll figure it out.’

He could tell that Gwyn was done with his explorations when he rocked back on his heels and knelt, his hands in his lap, his pants slightly tented. Augus filed the knowledge away – Gwyn aroused very quickly. That could be fun, couldn’t it?

‘Your heartsong?’ Gwyn said, as Augus pushed himself into a standing position. Augus reached out a hand to help Gwyn up, and Gwyn took it, his fingers cold, palms blazing hot.

‘It’s fine,’ Augus said. ‘It took me by surprise. You want to leave this for today?’

Gwyn nodded, rubbing at his cheek with his other hand.

‘I have some quills and fountain pens,’ Augus said, lifting his eyebrows. ‘Some spare parchment.’

‘I…know,’ Gwyn said, ducking his head. ‘I’ve…gone through- I know where most things are here.’

‘Then go get it all, so we can work out what sort of skill level you’re at, after so long without handling a quill.’

The expression on Gwyn’s face was one that Augus was going to remember for a long time. Something of hope tied with apprehension. Gwyn left the room without waiting for another signal from Augus, and Augus looked down at the blindfold and the leather where he’d left it, and licked the taste of Gwyn from his lips.

Chapter Text

‘It’s been how long, and you still remember to make your letters look like that?’ Ash said, eyebrows rising, whistling low under his breath. ‘Damn, I’d take up the business of hand-crafted engagement cards and thank you notes and shit if I could write like this.’

Gwyn’s ears burned. He looked down again at the parchment and felt awkward, eventually cleaning off the quill and looking over at the cold one – Augus – who was watching them both quietly. Augus hadn’t really stopped watching Gwyn, even after their talk, even after Gwyn felt the urge to escape as a less urgent burden.

Don’t let me escape you.

He shuddered to think about the things he’d said. Augus had a way of making him feel stripped bare, and he didn’t even use knives like Efnisien did. But instead of begging Augus to stop, he’d said things he never thought to hear in his own voice. The cold one took them all in his stride, like he expected every word. Which was why it shocked him every time to remember that Augus didn’t really know what he was doing either. Augus could get nervous, and Gwyn sometimes felt he was around a wild, skittish stallion, and he would never tell Augus that, because everyone knew waterhorses took grave offence at being compared to livestock.

Fingers touched the back of his neck and Gwyn twitched, looking up at Ash.

‘Easy,’ Ash said. ‘Just getting a closer look.’

Gwyn nodded. Ash’s fingers curled gently on his nape.

Ash’s fingernails were always blunt. It was only skin on skin, and Gwyn flicked a glance over to Augus to see what he thought.

Augus settled more comfortably on the couch, and his lips turned into a smirk. He had a laziness in his gaze that meant he’d noticed what Ash had done.

Gwyn shifted again, touching the parchment nervously. Ash was leaning over him, standing behind his chair at the table, every part of him confidently in Gwyn’s space like he had a right to be there. And Gwyn didn’t have the heart to tell him that he didn’t, even if it made Gwyn’s breathing come faster. Ash wasn’t even doing anything. Just a combination of that glamour and his touch, and Gwyn felt like he was unravelling.

Augus was watching.

‘He’s fine, Ash,’ Augus said, his voice low.

‘Yeah?’ Ash murmured, fingers trailing up and rubbing at the base of Gwyn’s skull. ‘This fine, puppy?’

When Ash had returned a few hours ago from hunting and digesting his true prey, Gwyn had expected…to be lying down on his bed again sometimes, curled up like a puppy. He hadn’t expected this.

He stared down, focused on the little fibrous soft edges of parchment against his fingers. The hardness of the chair itself, and how strange it felt to be sitting at a table again for any length of time. He had the cuff around his right wrist, but not his left, because he didn’t like the way the leather caught at the table while he tried to shape the loops and lines that he’d learned so long ago it seemed like a dream to recall them.

Other details filtered through without his permission. The scent of Ash, muddier and siltier than Augus’, had the faintest touch of alcohol to it. Spirits, not hops. Ash’s fingers were a little rough at the tips, and now Gwyn wondered if he ever played guitar or some stringed instrument, and now that he imagined it, he felt like it must be true. That was the kind of thing Ash would do. He could hear the steady drip of water from Ash’s hair muffling into his shirt, or onto the floor. Could even hear the slow rise and fall of Ash’s breathing, feel his t-shirt brushing the back of the chair.

At the base of his skull, almost-firm touches pushed into muscle fibres and dragged down, lengthening them out, making Gwyn feel like he was stretching when he wasn’t stretching. He breathed in through his nose, pushed his head back just the tiniest amount into what Ash was doing. He didn’t think Ash would notice, but Ash made a pleased sound in his throat – sounding so like Augus when he did that – and leaned closer.

‘You’re really good at this,’ Ash said, reaching around with his other arm and resting it on Gwyn’s shoulder, tapping the parchment, finger by Gwyn’s hand. ‘Transcribing is still a thing in the fae world right, bro? You guys never did get the hang of photocopiers, did you?’

‘I don’t believe we did,’ Augus said.

Gwyn looked to Augus, wondering what they were talking about. The curls on his head brushed against Ash’s shirt, and he realised just how close Ash was now. Everything about him so soothing and warm. How he’d craved this when he’d been with the Bird King. He turned his face towards Ash’s body without thinking about it and then went still, in case Ash thought he’d done something wrong.

But no, Ash kept stroking his neck, brushed a thumb over Gwyn’s hand where it rested on the parchment.

‘We can get our books copied by magic,’ Augus said. ‘Or we can pay to have a fae take them into the human world and duplicate them there, or we can pay a transcriber to make a copy. They’re all expensive options, though transcribing is the least expensive.’

Gwyn nodded, said nothing at all, because Ash was there and he never had to say a single thing when Ash was there.

‘Libraries are a big deal here,’ Ash murmured above Gwyn’s head. He sounded only inches away. ‘In the human world they’re important too, but they’re also way more common. Mass media, the electronic printing press, all of that. Fae have tried to absorb the technology, and some areas picked it up but…Mages took control of it all and that’s why it’s so expensive. Even electric printing presses in the fae world are usually owned and run by Mages. The books they publish are the books they want to publish. It’s an interesting world on this side of the veil.’

Fingers crept up the back of Gwyn’s scalp, sliding between curls, rubbed at the back of his head. Gwyn didn’t meant to close his eyes, but one second he was thinking about printing presses – he didn’t even really understand what they were – and the next, his head felt so warm and tingly. He pressed his lips together. Thought perhaps he should feel strange that Augus was watching them. But the last time he’d checked, Augus hadn’t looked uncomfortable at all, he’d looked pleased. These clearly weren’t the type of fae who tended to feel jealous of each other.

Besides, the things they did were so different.

‘He likes that,’ Augus said from the couch.

‘I know,’ Ash said, and Gwyn could hear the smile in his voice.

I’m still here, he thought.

But he liked it when they talked about him when he was there. Because the things they said were never cruel things.

‘Does he look nervous?’ Ash said.

‘Not particularly,’ Augus said. ‘A bit less than usual, I think.’

‘And you?’ Ash said. ‘You fine with this?’

Gwyn felt the moment that Ash went from looking down at…whatever he was watching, to looking at Augus. Gwyn tensed too.

‘You’re both very pretty,’ Augus said.

Ash’s breath hitched, his fingers paused where they rested in Gwyn’s hair.

‘Pretty?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said. ‘Very.’

‘Huh,’ Ash said, amusement in his voice. ‘Sure. Well, you too, bro.’

‘I know,’ Augus said, sounding just as amused now, like they were sharing a joke. Gwyn wasn’t sure what the joke was, but the amusement made him want to share in it. Because this wasn’t humour at his expense. It was something that was happening between them. Gwyn knew he was missing a lot of the signals, but he was certain that if he understood the entirety of it for once, it wouldn’t be about hurting him.

Gwyn tipped his head back, realised that Ash’s face really was very close. He didn’t have any freckles like Augus did, and his skin was always two shades darker, like he spent much more time in the sunlight. His eyebrows and eyelashes were a mix of colours, hair that was auburn and dark red and brown and blonde, that looked reddish-brown from a distance, and was fascinating to see so close.

‘Hey there,’ Ash said, caressing the back of Gwyn’s head. ‘Want something?’

Gwyn nodded, one of his hands still fixed on the parchment as his other arm shifted on the table, a magnet shifting towards its lodestone. His breathing was shallow and silent. Ash had been gone a week. And while things had passed well with Augus, Gwyn liked it best when they were both around. They balanced each other out, and he wondered if they knew that too.

Ash was smiling at him. Not the huge, friendly grins that he frequently offered, but something small and private and that seemed to belong only to Gwyn.

He didn’t lower himself slowly. One moment Ash was smiling at him, and then his lips were pressing against Gwyn’s. He didn’t wait to see what Gwyn’s pace would be, like Augus had when they’d kissed. Instead, he used his own lips to draw Gwyn’s mouth apart and licked his way inside. The fingers in his hair tightened just enough to hold him still, but it didn’t hurt. Ash’s mouth tasted of clear spirits and something that could have been popcorn, and beneath that, something earthy and rich.

Gwyn tentatively touched his tongue to Ash’s, rubbing against it, and Ash smiled against his mouth and shifted his feet and then was drawing Gwyn’s head back. It was an uncomfortable position, but Ash didn’t seem to care, and Gwyn’s hand came up and fisted into his shirt.

‘You’re pushier than I thought,’ Augus commented from the couch, like he was watching a play.

Ash hummed in agreement, stretching his tongue deeper into Gwyn’s mouth until he could lightly lick his soft palate. Gwyn’s breath hitched. That was…good. That was different, but good. He was tugging at Ash’s shirt, his belly ached, his cock was pushing against his pants and he couldn’t ignore it like he often tried to.

‘Mm, puppy,’ Ash said, sounding so pleased when he drew back and Gwyn leaned towards him without thinking. ‘So good, aren’t you?’

Ash’s index finger traced Gwyn’s lips, smearing the small amount of saliva that had gathered there. Gwyn blinked up at him, stared at Ash’s thick lashes, the brightness of his hazel eyes, the way he looked indulgent and pleased all at once.

Ash switched fingers, pushing the meatier pad of his thumb into Gwyn’s mouth, pulling down gently on his bottom teeth until Gwyn let his mouth fall open and felt exposed, his breathing coming faster. A fire was skating along his spine, behind his eyes, and he felt caught in something that he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay caught in. But when he drew back, Ash didn’t hold him in place, didn’t do anything other than blink at him lazily, a predator that was content to wait. Instead, Ash’s thumb went to Gwyn’s cheek and stroked wetly, and then Ash leaned down and placed a kiss on Gwyn’s forehead.

After that, he straightened, though he still stayed pressed up close to Gwyn’s chair.

‘Too much?’ Ash said.

Gwyn’s forehead furrowed, he almost shook his head, but it was Augus who replied.

‘I think…’ Augus said, and then cleared his throat.

‘How’s your heartsong?’

Gwyn looked up at Augus. It hadn’t occurred to him that Augus might have a problem with this, but then…he was starting to realise that what lay at Augus’ core was sensitive to change. He already knew that Augus liked a neat, tidy, organised environment. Had heard his reprimands when Gwyn didn’t put things back correctly in his kitchen. Augus was never nasty or cruel about it, but Gwyn was horrified to cause him any displeasure at all.

He knew that his very presence in Augus’ home threatened a constant disorder. In the same way that it did to Gwyn, too. All his routines were upset as well. The longer he stayed underwater, the more he chafed for forests and hunting and his own ways of life; even if they were dangerous.

Augus gazed at Gwyn steadily, then glanced at his brother.

‘All right,’ Augus said. ‘That helped, actually. Involving me like that. You didn’t have to, but-’

‘Nah,’ Ash said, ruffling Gwyn’s hair. ‘It was hot. And weird. Mostly hot though. I know this guy agrees, don’t you, puppy?’

Gwyn nodded automatically and then bowed his head down towards the table because he knew his cheeks were burning. At this rate he’d never be able to stand up again. It seemed so easy for them. They’d do something and then walked away and never seemed as affected. Was something wrong with him that he found it so overwhelming? He stared at the parchment without seeing the words he’d written.

He was surprised when Ash pulled up a chair next to him.

‘Gwyn, you doing okay?’ Ash said.

Not ‘puppy’ or ‘hey there’ or anything else, but his actual name. Gwyn nodded automatically. But his left hand drifted to his right, and he started tugging on the D-ring on the cuff.

Gwyn didn’t look over when Augus got up and walked towards them. His pace was elegant and slow, it didn’t sound like someone warily approaching him, but someone who didn’t really care what was going on. Gwyn knew Augus was good at doing something with his body when he was thinking something else. For the most part he trusted it, but now he just felt tense. No one was touching him, he was still hard, he could still feel the imprint of Ash’s thumb resting in his mouth, pulling on his bottom jaw.

Augus placed a hand on his shoulder and Gwyn jerked.

‘Careful,’ Augus murmured. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’

Gwyn shook his head, because he didn’t want to talk while Ash was there. But he didn’t agree, either. He didn’t know what he’d done wrong. But they were walking around and talking like everything was so easy, and Gwyn felt as though a few simple touches were pulling him apart.

‘Did I push too hard?’ That was Ash. He sounded surprised, and Gwyn subtly looked over at him. Even Ash didn’t think that what had happened was much of anything, and Gwyn gripped the D-ring a little harder. He refused to answer, even as Augus slowly increased pressure on his shoulder. It had gone from warm, to consoling, to a harder grip that was almost pain. But that made it easier to breathe, and he focused on it.

‘You’re very used to pain, aren’t you?’ Augus said to him, talking to him, instead of over his head. But Gwyn still got the sense that Augus was looking at Ash. Or directing the words to him as well. ‘These other touches are different for you. You’ve not had nearly as much time to understand them. It’s all right, Gwyn.’

Gwyn shook his head again, and then went still when Augus’ nails dug into his shoulder and a dull ache spread. It didn’t feel like a reprimand, it felt like Augus was balancing out what Ash had done. Ash had feathered and layered sensations into him, those honey-sweet smiles and that heated gaze and the way his touch seemed to know how to set fire to Gwyn’s skin. By contrast, Augus grounded him with a coldness that didn’t feel callous. Gwyn was still hard in his pants, but his breathing was settling.

Ash pulled his chair closer, placed a hand on Gwyn’s flank over his clothing, fingers touching his ribs. Gwyn blinked at him in shock.

‘Ash,’ Augus said, warning through his voice.

But Ash didn’t watch Augus now, he watched Gwyn with an intentness that made it hard for Gwyn to look away.

‘I wanted you to feel overwhelmed,’ Ash said, not sounding apologetic at all. ‘You know that, right?’

The hand on his ribs curved down over Gwyn’s belly towards the place where his cock was beginning to hurt as much as Augus’ nails in his shoulder. Gwyn’s breath turned shaky, he knew they all heard it, but Ash only leaned in and watched Gwyn’s face and wasn’t even blinking.

‘But I didn’t want you to feel embarrassed,’ Ash continued, his thumb finding the ridge of Gwyn’s cock through his pants and stroking once. Gwyn jolted, and the corners of Ash’s lips turned up. ‘So this? This is what I wanted.’

‘Here I thought I’d be the one who challenged him and you’d be the one who didn’t challenge him at all,’ Augus said, stroking Gwyn’s hair with his other hand.

‘Really?’ Ash said, staring at Gwyn the entire time, his thumb just touching Gwyn’s cock through his pants. So close. And Gwyn didn’t feel like he was spiralling down a vortex of shame anymore, but he was spiralling down something. ‘Because I like challenges. Did you want to stop me before, Gwyn?’

Gwyn shook his head slowly, and Ash smiled at him.

‘Do you want me to stop now?’

Gwyn finally tore his eyes away and looked down through the gap of the table to where Ash’s hand was resting. His fingers were shorter and broader than Augus’, his hand looked comfortable. It felt…promising. Gwyn looked at Ash again and tentatively shook his head.

Ash’s palm moulded against him, massaged the stiff length so that Gwyn’s hips bucked forward even as his shoulders pressed back, forgetting all about trying to keep his breathing calm.

‘What about now?’ Ash said, a smile in his voice.

Gwyn made a sound, Augus was stroking the back of his head calmly and firmly, and Gwyn thought Augus would tell Ash to slow down, or stop, but Augus didn’t do either of those things. His grip was still strong on Gwyn’s shoulder.

Gwyn managed to open his eyes again and stared at Ash, feeling disoriented, buzzing with heat.

‘I’m hard too, you know,’ Ash said. ‘Just from this. But you don’t have to worry about that. I just want to make you feel good, puppy. And…maybe a little overwhelmed.’

Augus made a sound of amusement above Gwyn’s head. Ash’s eyes danced with good humour, and he kept his hand flat over Gwyn’s cock.

‘But I don’t want to hurt you,’ Ash said, expression turning serious. ‘I want to make you feel good. And Augus is right here, and we’re both on your side, okay? So if you say no, we’re not going to be upset. And if you say yes, and then change your mind, we’re definitely not going to be upset.’

‘We’ll be proud of you,’ Augus said, and Gwyn shivered to hear the word ‘proud of you’ from anyone at all. Who was proud of him? Who at all could be?

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, looking up at Augus and smiling at him, before looking back down at Gwyn again. ‘So every option here is okay. So knowing that, I’m gonna ask you again: You want me to stop?’

Gwyn reached out for the open ink pot and closed it. He pushed the piece of parchment and the feather quill out of the way, because they were Augus’ and they were too valuable to do any harm to. Once he’d done all of that – constantly aware of the hand between his legs – he looked at Ash once furtively, and shook his head.

Ash looked so pleased with him, like Gwyn had given him some impossible gift. It was hard not to fall into the smile in his eyes, and it was impossible not to fall into the sensation of the heel of Ash’s hand finding the shape of him fully and grinding at the base of his cock where it was thick and trapped and uncomfortable. Gwyn groaned sharply, his lips thinned, his hips pushed forward and his eyes closed. Behind him, Augus shifted as though widening his stance, and then a hand slid into the top of his shirt and stroked along his collarbone sweetly.

‘So,’ Ash said to himself, ‘let’s get you out of here.’

Fingers adeptly opened the fastening of his pants, even though his cock made it difficult, it was obvious that Ash knew what he was doing. He drew the leather ties apart and Gwyn’s ears burned when his cock was exposed to the air. It had been so long since this had happened. Anything like this. He turned his head sideways and his ear pressed against Augus’ shirt. Augus was standing very close now. Gwyn wished he had both cuffs around his wrists, but one was enough.

Ash spat into his palm like it was something he did all the time, and Gwyn blinked at the vulgarity of it. Until that palm wrapped around him, making his skin unevenly slick. Ash twisted his wrist and dragged his hand up Gwyn’s length, the touch was firm, confident. He rubbed the fleshy part of his thumb over the head of Gwyn’s cock, and made another one of those rumbling pleased noises when Gwyn’s exhale shook.

‘You feel good,’ Ash said, his voice low enough that it was hard to catch.

‘Use both hands,’ Augus said, his voice detached, despite the soothing way he petted Gwyn’s hair. ‘I doubt he’ll last long, make the most of it.’

‘So bossy,’ Ash said, smiling at Gwyn like they were all in on the joke. Gwyn could barely keep his eyes open, and he gasped when Ash’s other hand slipped down. Index finger and thumb slipping around the base of his cock, his other three fingers moving down to the sensitive skin of his scrotum and stroking over what wasn’t trapped by his pants.

Gwyn’s mouth opened more, breaths sharp. His back kept pressing into the chair until there was a ridge of wood burning his skin, a counterpoint to the pleasure Ash evoked. Augus let go of his shoulder, slid his hand down and prodded the place where Gwyn’s back met the chair, and then he laughed under his breath and Gwyn knew he was caught out. Knew that Augus would realise that he was causing himself pain, and he felt their last conversation in that room drift into his mind, Augus so sure that Gwyn wanted to be hurt, and Gwyn so sure that he didn’t.

This was different, wasn’t it?

But Augus only rubbed his collarbones soothingly and bent lower, watching what Ash was doing.

‘Faster,’ Augus said, his voice brushing across Gwyn’s ear. Gwyn thought he might start drowning from what they were doing.

I can’t…

His eyes were shut, he couldn’t stand to see anything else now. There was too much in his mind at once. Augus standing right there and smelling of fresh water and the sharp scent of his shirt which was spun from some kind of silk and the herbs he used to wash his clothing and then right by his side, Ash, his scents overlaying with arousal that was thick and crept down the back of Gwyn’s throat. He swallowed, thinking of what it felt like to have someone’s cock in the back of his throat and he’d liked that so much and he wondered if they’d ever let him…

Ash’s hands moving on his cock, gently massaging his balls, it was a pleasure so sharp he couldn’t feel it properly. It was in his spine, it was winding knots up into the back of his neck, it was tiny bright lights pulsing behind his eyelids, it was the feel of his nostrils flaring and the breath that was harsh in his throat and the occasional rough noise that was nothing like either of their voices, so much more grating, and a distant worry that he was making too much noise, but too distant for him to be able to stop himself from groaning and pushing his hips forward. His body had a mind of his own.

He felt it in his balls and Ash wasn’t helping, the way he pushed and nudged and shifted them, making everything sharper. His cock felt like it was going to burst, and Gwyn turned his body towards Ash so that he could breathe wetly into Augus’ shirt.

‘Not long at all,’ Augus said, somehow including the both of them in those words.

Augus’ hand slid beneath the loose material of the shirt and fingers dug into the muscles of his chest, then brushed over a nipple. Gwyn choked, his hips thrust, he’d forgotten all about his arms. One was digging into Ash’s wrist where it moved over him, the other hanging by his side, tensing and relaxing.

‘Easy, puppy,’ Ash whispered. ‘This’ll be so easy. We’re just going to tip you over, and you’re not going to fall anywhere we can’t catch you.’

The words shouldn’t have made sense, except that they stirred a pang in Gwyn’s chest, made his eyes squeeze tightly together.

You’re not going to fall anywhere we can’t catch you.

Gwyn’s light – the power that swam inside him that he could never use – leapt to the surface of his skin like a wild animal loosed from a cage, and he mentally imagined himself lassoing it and then shoving it back down. He felt the snarling of his own power inside of him, the fury, and kept it down. His light was too dangerous. He couldn’t hurt these brothers.

Ash’s hand was working faster on his length now, up and down, tightening at the tip, moving his foreskin up over his cock and then dragging it back down again. Gwyn thought he might be turning into fire. The band of wood from the chair dug into his back, and Ash was lighting so many sparks in Gwyn’s lower body that he was sure he should have come by now. That’s what he remembered, that there would be sparks and heat, and then it would be over. But the heat of it had lasted at least a minute now, and he was panicking, but the panic wasn’t enough to convince him to move away.

All at once, Ash leaned up and towards him and licked wetly along Gwyn’s jaw. Augus’ fingers pinched Gwyn’s nipple, then tightened sharply. A flash of sharp pain that made him cry out, and on the back of that a charge of pleasure so bright that it connected with his cock and balls and his vision went white. Vibrations thundered through him as he came so hard he was unable to hear the soothing-filthy things that Ash was saying to him even though his lips were shaping words over Gwyn’s skin.

Augus didn’t let go of Gwyn’s nipple, didn’t even let up his grip until Gwyn tried to pull away, and only then did he move his hand and rub over the sensitive flesh instead. A quick, brisk movement that ached, but diffused the point of pain quickly.

‘Easy,’ Ash said, as Gwyn became aware of rolling his hips into Ash’s now careful, unmoving grip. As he felt Augus raking fingers through his hair.

Gwyn’s mouth was open, his throat was dry, his breath was shaking. He was sticky, and he shifted his legs uncomfortably and then looked down and realised Ash was looking down too. Ash turned his hand – covered in Gwyn’s creamy spill – and then looked at Gwyn, seeming relaxed and happy even though he smelled of arousal. Ash raised his hand to his mouth and licked a stripe of the stuff away, and Gwyn stared at him, stared at the smile on Ash’s face.

Augus made a faint sound behind him, a hitched thing, caught in his throat. When Ash looked up at Augus, his grin widened, and he licked more of Gwyn’s come off his hands.

‘Does it taste good?’ Augus said.

‘You can try some,’ Ash said, chuckling.

‘I’d prefer he did.’

Ash’s gaze darkened and he lifted his hand slowly to Gwyn’s mouth, holding it there. And Gwyn, knowing that there was some weight in what they wanted him to do, couldn’t find it in himself to pull away. He…wanted to taste what Ash had tasted, his embarrassment had vanished into something loose and almost unconcerned. He opened his mouth and pressed the flat of his tongue to the ball of Ash’s thumb, tasted sharp, metallic flavours with a texture of thin cream. He rasped his tongue over Ash’s skin until he couldn’t taste his own spill any longer, or even the salts of Ash’s sweat.

Ash watched him without blinking, and Gwyn didn’t stop as Ash shifted his hand. This part was easy. It gave him something to focus on, something to do, and he absently petted Ash’s arm as he did it.

Gwyn grunted when Augus shoved both hands into his hair and dragged his head back. He hissed at the angle, and then moaned when lips met his, a tongue pushing deep into his mouth, licking at him, tasting what he’d tasted. Even though he’d just come, Gwyn thought he’d turn into fire again at Ash sitting so close to him, and Augus letting go of that coldness and giving him this molten touch instead. He didn’t want it to stop.

But Augus eventually pulled back, looked at him with those bright green eyes, lashes thick and lowered. Gwyn couldn’t tell what Augus was seeing and his expression was hard to read. Serious without being cold.

‘I think that’s enough for now,’ Augus said, looking over at Ash. ‘Are you all right with that?’

‘I’m going to go beat off in the shower, but sure,’ Ash said, laughing. ‘Fucking hell.’

‘And you?’ Augus said, smiling gently at Gwyn. ‘Are you all right if we stop this now?’

Gwyn looked down between Ash’s legs – Augus’ hands relenting in his hair and letting him move his head – knew that he was aroused. Could smell it, even. Didn’t he…wasn’t he supposed to…? Except that he was tired, and there were two of them, and he didn’t even know what he could do. He was becoming aware of things like how hard the chair was when he wanted to just melt into it, and how he felt unsettled. It wasn’t bad, exactly, but he knew it could turn sour if he pushed at himself.

So reluctantly he nodded, frowning at Ash as he did so. Ash reflected the expression, and then reached up and stroked Gwyn’s cheek, cupped it in his warm and wet palm.

‘Hey, puppy,’ Ash said, ‘there’s plenty of things we can all do in the future, but you’re not used to this, and neither are we. You don’t owe us anything at all, and sure, I’m hard as hell right now, but I know how to make love to myself better than the next person, so you’ve got nothing to worry about there. And I know that Augus is the same. So how about we just kind of take it easy and relax for the rest of the day, and see how everything settles, yeah?’

Gwyn’s nod was more confident, and Ash beamed at him.

Gwyn was finding those smiles addictive. Every one was like a shaft of sunlight through heavy clouds. He wanted to gather them in his hands and hold them up to his face and breathe them in until every bad thing in his past disappeared.

*

Two hours later, they were all piled on the couch, Augus and Ash freshly showered. Gwyn was under no illusions as to what they’d done in their separate bathrooms, and in retrospect he wished he could have watched. And he was filled with impulses that he couldn’t keep quiet. He wanted to see them kiss. He wanted to see Ash beam at Augus the way he did at Gwyn. He wanted to see Augus shove his hands into Ash’s hair, tug his head back and kiss him. It made his chest tight, but it wasn’t terrible, so he let the thoughts run unchecked.

Now, Augus leaned against the armrest on his customary spot on the couch, surrounded by cushions. Gwyn was half in his lap, curled on his side and resting his head on Augus’ ribs. Next to them, Ash sat with his legs up, his back leaning into Gwyn’s side, one of his arms around Gwyn’s calf. They were both reading, and Gwyn stared sleepily into the lounge as fingers carded through his hair.

He’d spent an entire day hardly thinking about the Bird King and his cousin. Hardly thinking about anything other than Augus and Ash and his own body and the forest. He knew enough about his own mind to know he might turn this into poison later, but for now he was settled and felt as full as he did after any huge meal.

‘I think I like having you both here,’ Augus said a few minutes later. ‘Not to say I won’t kick you out sometimes. Especially when it’s safe again. But…this is nice.’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, sounding distracted. ‘Do you mind? Harry’s about to throw a tantrum at Dumbledore and it’s like my favourite bit.’

‘Here I am, paying compliments – difficult compliments – and you’re dismissing me. Gwyn, kick him for me, will you?’

Gwyn lazily nudged Ash in the hip and then made a sleepy sound and pushed his head back into Augus’ hand.

‘Gwyn,’ Ash said, a smile in his voice, ‘will you bite my brother?’

Gwyn lifted his head and Augus’ hand helpfully went from his hair to his forehead and then fell gently over his nose to his lips. Gwyn just barely grazed his teeth against Augus’ fingers. They both seemed so pleased. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent so much time around people so content. He didn’t know how they managed it. They hardly did anything at all. They weren’t filled with purpose like his parents, they weren’t trying to please the monarch or become the best at what they did.

They were just…themselves.

He pressed his closed lips to Augus’ palm, kissing him, blinking up at him sleepily. Augus returned the small, private smile, and Gwyn settled down, happily surrounded by them both. He could save the panicking and fear for later. He knew it would come. But right now, sated and warm, he felt more like a rested wild beast than he had in a long time. He rumbled a contented sound at them both, yawned hugely, and willed darkness to fold him in sleep.

Chapter Text

Ash’s glamour was an easy warmth in Augus’ home and it settled all of their spirits.

Augus was surprised at the slow pulses of heat that had found him, watching Gwyn and Ash together. He’d always known his brother was attractive, and there was something appealing about Gwyn, but actually seeing the chemistry they’d evoked had stirred a lust that was like a liquid he wanted to consume. He hadn’t planned on involving himself in what Ash was doing, beyond issuing the odd order, but he hadn’t been able to resist.

He kept thinking that he should feel more affronted, more upset. He expected a token internal protest at the very least, some kind of kickback that would remind him that his entire life had been tipped upside down.

It turned out that if he respected his heartsong, if other people did, the protests didn’t come. There was a wariness, certainly, but it didn’t feel overinflated or difficult to manage.

The next morning was one spent processing herbs in the extended room that branched off from his open pantry. He listened to Ash and Gwyn in the lounge. They’d shifted the furniture, and Ash was showing him some of the stretches and exercises he did to stay fit in a smaller space, while Gwyn couldn’t roam in the forests like he wanted to. Ash was showering Gwyn with praise, and even though Ash was only underfae, he seemed to be holding his own against Gwyn’s fitness level.

Though he did hear: ‘If you think that’s easy, do a hundred of them.’

Augus put on his goggles and mask while brewing down a spitting, boiling concoction that would turn caustic, noxious herbs into a healing salve. He tuned Ash and Gwyn out, mentally counting the minutes he needed to make sure that every step was sound.

He wasn’t sure what the Raven Prince was going to do about Efnisien, if anything. But something had to be done. Not least because at some point their fragile peace would shatter, and Gwyn would make an attempt at escape.

When it was safe and he was pouring the liquid into a container where it would congeal overnight, he sighed into his mask, frowning.

There was an odd quality to being afraid of someone who was Seelie. But even though many Unseelie fae didn’t understand it – liked to pretend that they held the monopoly on evil or malice – it could never be that easy. That a wild waterhorse could take on another waterhorse and raise him as an adopted brother was not what the Unseelie liked to think they stood for. That favoured confidantes of the Oak King could reject one of their own flesh and blood, brutalising him with cruelty, was not what they wrote fairytales about.

A few hours later he was done with the rest of his work. He showered, cleaned himself of chemicals. If he couldn’t see clients, he could at least sell potions and unguents and ointments, and he was good enough with herbal work to fetch a decent profit with that alone. Though what he truly wanted more than anything was spend a few days aboveground in the sunlight, floating in his lake, his hair spread out around him and fish nibbling at his fingers and the heels of his feet.

Augus had a dark green towel around his waist, was combing his fingers through his hair, when he heard a knock on the bathroom door. He turned towards it, forehead creasing.

‘There had better be a good reason for one of you interrupting my shower.’

‘Don’t I always make it worth your while?’ Ash called back.

Augus smirked and opened the door and Ash slipped into the room, closing the door behind him.

The energy that Ash was giving off was different, heavier. Augus hesitated. Normally he’d turn back to the large mirror framed with vines and wait for Ash to prattle on about whatever he felt like talking about. Now, he found his gaze drawn to Ash’s face. Ash took in Augus’ semi-naked body with the kind of free, bold gaze that reminded Augus of how much of a predator he was.

‘So,’ Augus said, drawing that hazel gaze back to his own. ‘Want something?’

An impish smile at the corner of Ash’s lips, his eyes brightened.

‘I want to try something,’ Ash said. ‘I want to try it now, without any complications.’

‘Without Gwyn, you mean,’ Augus said.

Ash nodded, leaning back against the door, his arms behind his back. It was a deliberately non-threatening pose. It was the kind of stance Augus had taken with some of his more skittish clients. Non-threatening, but still blocking an exit. Augus rolled his eyes and Ash kept smiling at him like they were playing a new game.

‘The thing is,’ Ash said, looking away briefly, ‘I don’t know…how this is going to go, between us. I don’t want to do something that you’ll respond badly to. And I’m not saying I want to start…that I want us to start doing things together either, because I’m not sure I do. I kind of wanted to kiss you though. To see how that would go. Just the two of us. So that if I wanted to do that while Gwyn was around, or you wanted to…’

Augus nodded pensively, pursing his lips together.

‘You said I was pushier, before,’ Ash said, looking at Augus again. ‘Like it didn’t occur to you that I would be? But just because I don’t do what you do, Augus, doesn’t mean I’m not used to things being a certain way. I like to take the lead. I’m happy to take instructions from you, or whatever, but- Fuck. This is harder to talk about than I thought it would be. I was just going to come in here and I dunno…I didn’t really think it through.’

‘That’s so unlike you,’ Augus deadpanned.

‘I’m trying,’ Ash said, the impishness disappearing completely beneath an earnest gaze. ‘I am. I have this- I have this vision of all three of us making it work. Maybe in the future, when Efnisien is gone, maybe I can go back to my own home, maybe Gwyn gets his own place, so that you’re not swamped by us all the time. But I have this idea of things working. And that terrifies the shit out of me, Augus, because I don’t fucking do relationships, okay? I know we’ve been trying to be there for you, and I want to be, so much…but this isn’t my game. It’s not. I seduce people. I fuck them. I get out. The end. I wouldn’t ever want us to be- I wouldn’t ever want to feel like that about you. Or him. I’m scared I will. I’m scared that’s just the kind of person I am.’

Augus’ hesitations disappeared. He walked to Ash and placed his hand in the middle of his chest, reached up with his other hand and touched Ash’s cheek with the backs of his fingers as gently as he could. Ash stared at him, swallowed, looked lost. Augus had been taking his cheery stability for granted, a trap that everyone fell into around his brother.

‘Hush,’ Augus said, knowing he crossed a line as he brushed his thumb over Ash’s bottom lip. Ash knew it too, but he looked relieved that Augus was the one who’d done it first. Augus looked at where his thumb rested against the corner of Ash’s mouth, felt the warmth of his breath, felt that Ash was even more bared in this moment than he was.

‘Just…’ Ash said, his lips moving against Augus’ thumb. ‘Don’t hate me when this is all over?’

‘You think I could?’ Augus said. ‘Was that ever an option?’

It shouldn’t have been so easy to close the space between them. To lean down to his brother and press his lips against Ash’s, slide his hand to Ash’s ear and cup the back of his jaw. Ash tasted of the scent he’d carried with him for almost as long as Augus had known him. There was something nostalgic in the newness of it, a bittersweet murmuring of their shared past.

Ash’s mouth opened and when their tongues met, Ash groaned thickly. Augus’ eyes closed, shutting out the lights in his bathroom.

Ash grasped Augus’ flank and turned them both. Augus had enough time to consider resisting, but he didn’t, and frowned when his back met the door. Ash leaned into him, his breathing audible. He may have only been underfae, and he may have been younger and less strong than Augus, but in that moment Augus could see clearly how Ash managed to push his way through life. How easy it was for him to get what he wanted.

‘I like to control things,’ Ash said, pressing his head into Augus’ hand where it still rested at his jaw, rubbing his palms up and down Augus’ sides and inciting a shivery coldness that turned to bubbles of warmth inside of him. ‘It could be a problem. I don’t want to hurt you. I feel like it would be so easy. I didn’t realise how easy, until the past few weeks. My invincible brother, and I think I could really fucking hurt you.’

‘Then don’t,’ Augus said, inhaling slowly as Ash trailed his hand up his torso, above the barrier of the towel.

‘You’re not listening to me,’ Ash said, his hand anchoring underneath Augus’ arm. Fingers dug into Augus’ skin, and Augus realised he was being held in place. Ash’s lips really weren’t that far away from his, and Ash was pushing him back into the door, restraining him. When he looked up and met Augus’ gaze again, there was something harder there, determined.

Augus’ breath quickened.

Ah, this is what he meant.

‘You see?’ Ash said, licking his lips slowly. ‘You see what I mean? This is why I think Gwyn fits, because we both…we both like to control. In different ways. But there it is, yeah? But what does that mean with us? How’s your heartsong?’

‘It’s all right,’ Augus said, but his mouth was drier than before. ‘You couldn’t push things too much further, I think.’

Ash nodded, but his gaze didn’t get any less hungry. Augus felt old waterhorse instincts kicking up inside of him, and he so rarely felt them around Ash. The instinct to display dominance, to make sure his kin knew exactly how powerful he was. He felt it in the itching of his feet and the way the hand on Ash’s face dropped to his shoulder, clenching into a loose fist.

‘There,’ Ash said, never looking away. ‘I have it too. What do we do?’

Augus wanted to close his eyes, gather his thoughts, but he wouldn’t risk displaying even that much vulnerability to Ash. Not now. He maintained a steady eye contact, felt Ash’s fingers pressing bruises into his skin. When he shifted, testing the grip, Ash’s lips tightened on something that wasn’t a smile.

‘Just stay still,’ Ash said. ‘Just for a few more seconds.’

‘You like this?’ Augus said, keeping his voice light.

‘More than I should,’ Ash said, his eyebrows twisting up together. ‘How do you do it? How do you look at someone like Gwyn and stop yourself from doing terrible things to him?’

‘How do you do it with humans?’

Ash made a thick sound in the back of his throat. ‘They’re humans, and they are so fragile, y’know? They are…it’s different.’

‘They’re livestock,’ Augus said, arching a brow.

‘That’s about as accurate as when people call us horses,’ Ash said, smiling up at Augus. He wasn’t being antagonising. This was something they’d covered before and would cover again. Though this was the first time that Augus was pushed back against a damp bathroom door, and the first time that he was wearing only a towel.

‘Are you going to let me go?’ Augus said.

‘Tell me to kiss you,’ Ash said, nostrils flaring. ‘Tell me to, like you did when I was with Gwyn.’

‘Kiss me,’ Augus said, the words coming out more clinical, less passionate. An experiment, to see if his heartsong would tolerate what Ash was trying to do.

He thought that Ash would lean in quickly, kiss him the way he had Gwyn, like he was trying to own and plunder. But instead Ash moved in carefully, never looking away from Augus’ eyes. He slid one hand along Augus’ jaw but stayed away from his throat. The other hand stroked Augus’ shoulder, then his upper arm. At every point, Augus was able to think about whether he wanted this, and at every point, his curiosity won out over his trepidation.

By the time Ash’s lips met his, Augus’ eyes had fluttered shut. His body moved forwards. The kiss itself was gentle, deliberately seductive, and Augus made a faint noise because it was Ash and because it was nothing like what Ash had been leading him to expect. Lips brushing over his, a tongue gently licking his lower lip, his top lip, and a tenderness there as though Ash thought he was fragile and beautiful. A kind of worship that at first felt strange, and then felt like his due.

Augus opened his mouth, participated, but Ash would change the rhythm on him each time. If Augus leaned forwards, Ash leaned back. When Augus tried to capture Ash’s bottom lip between his own, Ash licked over Augus’ mouth instead and distracted him. And in that way, Augus knew that Ash was taking the lead. Not with heavy handed movements or pushiness, but with sweet touches and quiet murmurs between them.

It was a decision, Augus realised. He could choose to not allow this, or he could sink into it and see where it took him.

‘All right,’ Augus whispered. ‘All right. We can do this.’

‘Just let me know,’ Ash said, his voice low, the tip of his tongue sneaking out to lick Augus’ cheek. ‘Let me know if it’s too much, okay? Don’t let me hurt you.’

Augus wasn’t even done nodding when Ash slanted his mouth over Augus’ and used the hand on his jaw to tilt his head. His tongue was hot, didn’t move quickly, but mapped the inside of Augus’ mouth in moments. First sliding over his tongue before withdrawing. Then finding the sensitive space between Augus’ upper lip and his teeth, making Augus shiver.

Whenever Ash hesitated, Augus mentally checked in with himself to see if what was happening was okay. But his heartsong was quiescent, not stirred to threat or anxiety.

Minutes passed, and Augus tilted his head back to let Ash kiss a wet line down his jaw, underneath his chin, then down the side of his neck.

I love you, he thought. Words that came to him often, alongside honey thick feelings of adoration for this person he’d chosen to have as his family.

‘You’re so beautiful,’ Ash said against his collarbone.

‘You also,’ Augus said, his voice richer as it reflected off the tiles in the bathroom.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘Both of us together. Maybe we should film it.’

Augus rolled his eyes, and Ash leaned up on tiptoe to capture his lips. They smiled against each other’s mouths, and Ash withdrew then, pressing his forehead down against Augus’ shoulder.

‘I love you so fucking much,’ Ash said quietly. ‘I don’t want to do anything you don’t want, and yet…you know how it is, don’t you?’

Augus nodded, sliding his hands into Ash’s hair and holding him close. He did know what it was like. To be there with a client and sense the moment when the waterhorse in him wanted to push a little further, wanted terror instead of manageable fear, wanted to gallop over boundaries for the thrill of it, even wanted the tang of blood in the back of his throat. Life in human form was a constant series of choices to either allow the waterhorse free reign, or to push it back and make promises of ‘later, when we’re hunting.’

‘If you hadn’t dragged him home,’ Ash said, ‘this never would have happened. Do you ever think some things are just meant to be? Like in the actual fairytales? A series of events and then suddenly you can’t imagine your life without the people in it?’

‘You’re such a romantic,’ Augus said, scratching lightly at the back of Ash’s head, liking the way he shivered with pleasure.

‘Where did I get that from, I wonder?’ Ash laughed. ‘Hey, will you lie down with me? Not to do anything. Just to kind of…hang out? You can pet me like you used to.’

‘You make it sound like a privilege instead of the chore that it is.’ Augus tugged lightly on his hair.

Ash only laughed and wrapped his arms around Augus’ torso, pulling him in for an embrace. They stayed like that for a long time, and Augus pressed his lips together and thought of how kissing his brother wasn’t nearly as frightening as he would have assumed once upon a time.

*

Petting Ash turned into both of them curled up together, arms draped, legs entwined. Although Augus worried it would be awkwardly sexual, it was instead like it had always been. Simple sensual comfort, sating a deep-seated hunger in himself. Without Ash there his entire life, providing touch the way he did, Augus was certain he’d be a more vicious predator.

He let himself doze off, listening to Ash’s slow, rhythmic breaths. He felt peaceful, knew that some of it was Ash’s glamour and enjoyed that too. It might have developed as an asset to Ash’s hunting, but that velvety energy around him was what he needed. Something soothing and soft, as warm as his brother’s body against him.

Later that afternoon, Augus felt himself slip out of his doze. He untangled himself from Ash gently, and stroked his hair when he started to rouse. Ash settled down again with a small noise, and Augus slid off the bed and stretched, walking into his wardrobe and shedding the towel he’d been wearing all this time, replacing it with soft suede pants and a pale grey turtleneck sweater.

He knocked on Gwyn’s door as he walked down the corridor, before turning the doorknob and ducking his head inside.

‘Gwyn, do you want anything to-’

The bed was made, as it often was. And on the corner of it, a piece of parchment. Augus stared at it, his heart skipped a beat and he felt something turn cold in his gut. He pulled back and looked down the corridor towards the kitchen and lounge. Instinctively he knew that Gwyn wouldn’t be there.

He walked to the bed, picked up the parchment and turned it over. There, penned in artisanal handwriting:

I’ve gone to do the right thing. Tell the Bird King it is not your fault. Gramercie.

‘Ash!’ Augus shouted, crumpling the parchment in his grip.

He ran down the corridor towards his front door, then crossed the dry patch of earth under the protective green barrier around his home and burst through it into water, swallowing mouthfuls of lake into his lungs and sending out tendrils of watchful energy. He found the eels and the turtles, he found the fish and the waterweed and the tiny water skimming spiders. But the energy of Gwyn was no longer there. He’d been gone at least an hour.

Damn it. Damn it!

Augus forced the water out of his lungs and ran back into the house, water spilling everywhere.

‘Ash!’

Back down the corridor to where his brother was stirring in the bed, looking confused and young and vulnerable.

I knew his glamour would lower my guard. Damn it all.

‘He’s gone,’ Augus said. ‘He’s done it.’

‘Done what?’ Ash said, rubbing at his face.

‘He’s escaped back to Efnisien. We have to alert the Raven Prince.’

Augus saw the moment realisation hit. His brother went pale, and then greenish. They stared at each other, and then Ash got off the bed and took the ripped, wet parchment out of Augus’ hands. The ink had run. But the words were still legible.

‘Oh…shit,’ Ash said, staring at Augus. ‘Oh god, Augus, what are we going to do? What are we-’

‘Not panic,’ Augus said quietly. ‘I have the Raven Prince’s token. I’ll contact him now. Stay calm. We’ll get him back.’

Augus wasn’t so sure that was true. His desperate hope that Gwyn was just wandering in the forest somewhere was tempered by the knowledge that Efnisien would be looking for him, and that Efnisien was likely far smarter than anyone credited.

Chapter Text

It only took twenty minutes for Gwyn to find his cousin, because his cousin had set up camp nearby. Gwyn crept towards it, feeling sick with dread. He’d tried to hang onto Augus’ words, but in the end, he knew this was his only option.

Gwyn escaped because he needed to get back to his cousin. He couldn’t explain it to them. They didn’t understand. Or worse, Augus did understand and it still wasn’t enough.

He didn’t know how he could be so sick with fear, yet so certain he was doing the right thing. His cousin would call him a cowering dog, and he would be right. Once a dog knew its master it would return over and over again, no matter how badly it was beaten. Gwyn wanted so badly for Ash and Augus to be his masters, but they were too sweet to sully with his presence. They’d taken him in and hadn’t shown any sign of wanting to hurt him. They just didn’t know him well enough yet to understand how he was supposed to be treated.

Augus wouldn’t like it, but how could he understand?

His cousin was reading a book, leaning against an oak tree. Gwyn made himself think the word Efnisien and shuddered. He went down to his hands and knees and crawled before Efnisien even acknowledged him. Then as Gwyn came closer, Efnisien closed his book and looked indulgently down at Gwyn, smiling, eyes glittering with a level of malice that curdled in Gwyn’s chest and belly.

‘Greetings, cousin,’ Efnisien said, warm and cheerful and sounding as happy as he did when he had a knife in Gwyn’s gut. ‘I knew if I just waited long enough, you’d return to me.’

Gwyn nodded and crouched a little lower to the ground. There was a stick hurting the palm of his hand, but he didn’t move it. This was probably the most comfortable he was going to feel for a while. Then maybe Efnisien would kill him, as was his right.

Efnisien dropped the book carelessly and stood up, another few steps and Gwyn blinked at leaf litter when he felt Efnisien’s boot resting on the top of his head.

‘What trouble you’ve been causing for the family,’ Efnisien said pensively. ‘For all of us, really. It was so simple, wasn’t it? You got to run the wilds like the dog you are, and every now and then I’d bring you to heel and you’d remember your place. And then off you went again. It was a good life for you, Gwyn. Better than you deserved.’

Gwyn nodded again. Efnisien was always right.

The kick to his gut was violent, the point of Efnisien’s boot finding organs, bruising and hurting them. Gwyn was thrown a metre across the floor of the forest, curling around the pain of it.

Efnisien crouched over him, golden and smiling, looking so pleased with the situation. Gwyn responded to that. He wanted Efnisien to be pleased.

‘You talked for them, so you’ll talk for me, cur. None of this foolishness now. I know you can talk. So talk. Tell me how good you feel that you ruined your mother’s life. She’s miserable because of you.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Gwyn said, the words croaking out of him.

‘Not yet, you’re not,’ Efnisien purred, stroking his hair in a parody of affection, then slapping him across the face, nails scratching four lines into his cheek.

Gwyn didn’t let himself think about the cold and warm brothers. He didn’t let himself think about how good things had become. The whole point was that he was course correcting. He was making things right again. Right didn’t always feel good, but that was the way things were supposed to be.

*

Twenty minutes later, he was tied in rope that was rough and awful and didn’t remind him of Augus as much as he thought it would.

Maybe he wasn’t a torturer, after all.

Gwyn didn’t watch as Efnisien tied the rope around his forearms and shoulders to his horse. There was no point. He didn’t fight, and Efnisien didn’t care. Not yet. He wouldn’t need Gwyn to fight back until later, when Efnisien brought out the knives and expected protest. And by then, Gwyn would struggle even when he didn’t intend to.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been dragged across the forest floor. Even Augus had done it – though not like this. He knew to keep his head up so that it didn’t hit stones or branches. Beyond that, his shoulders jerked in their sockets, his hips and lower back caught and snagged until his shirt was torn and his skin was scratched.

Efnisien’s horse moved from a reluctant walk, to a trot, to a frightened canter, and Gwyn almost bit through his bottom lip at the pain and wondered if Efnisien was taking them back to the estate.

Did it matter?

Gwyn didn’t expect to live any longer than Efnisien wanted him to.

He could tell this time wasn’t going to be like the other times. Efnisien’s warmth was a shroud over a glittering ball of hardness. Efnisien was done with him. There was no torture that would allow Gwyn to come back from this. There would be no forgiveness through pain.

Eventually, Efnisien’s horse slowed to a stop and Gwyn risked opening his eyes. They were still surrounded by forest, though Efnisien had found a clearing that Gwyn recognised. He’d been here before. More than once. Sometimes on his own, but more often when Efnisien dragged him here. The place didn’t smell of fear like Gwyn always thought it should. It didn’t smell of blood. It smelled of grass and rich soil and healthy trees and animal spoor. It was musky and rich and carried with it the illusion of safety.

He tried relaxing, whimpered at the way his left shoulder protested the action. It wasn’t dislocated at least, but he was injured. Efnisien would say it was preparation. Tenderising.

Efnisien slid off his horse, patting her twitching rump with slaps that rung a little too loud. Then he stood over Gwyn and stared down at him, the sun lighting his hair, casting his face in shadow. His eyes were still a brilliant blue. His mother’s eyes. Gwyn wondered if he’d ever get to see her again.

‘You’re going to kill me,’ Gwyn said, swallowing at the words. Saying them out loud caused fear to bubble through him.

‘Mm, yes,’ Efnisien said, crouching and touching the scratches on Gwyn’s cheek, teasing them open. ‘I am. You can’t treat your darling mother like that and not expect retribution. You came to me, remember? You know what you deserve.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn whispered. ‘Maybe the Bird King will make it better again. For mother.’

‘You’re so naïve,’ Efnisien said, kneeling and digging his nails so deeply into Gwyn’s cheek that Gwyn worried his fingernails would push through into his mouth. Blood seeped from divots across his skin, and he stared at Efnisien and thought of the faces he’d rather be seeing. ‘There’s no coming back from what you’ve done. So you won’t be coming back from it either, this time. I’ll find someone else to entertain me in the future. You weren’t the only thing I had to pass the time with, you know. You’re not that special.’

‘I know,’ Gwyn said, his voice breaking.

A silvery flash, and then a short pocket-knife thocked deep into Gwyn’s upper arm. Gwyn’s nostrils flared on a hiss, but he tried not to struggle, not yet. Efnisien looked down at him for a minute, expression impassive, then reached up and untied Gwyn’s arms from the horse.

Gwyn’s arms fell limp to the ground.

‘I’ve been trying to decide if I’d miss you,’ Efnisien mused, removing the knife and watching as blood bloomed through Gwyn’s shirt. Idly, he traced the knife lightly over Gwyn’s chest and then just as easily slid the short blade into his gut and left it in place. Gwyn couldn’t inhale properly anymore, his breath trembling and shallow. The pain was bright, caused lights to flash behind Gwyn’s eyes. This wouldn’t kill him. Efnisien would need to target Gwyn’s spine, sever vertebrae, make it too violent for his Court healing to keep up with. Gwyn had no doubt that Efnisien knew exactly how violent he’d need to be.

‘Would you?’ Gwyn said, wishing he didn’t sound so hopeful.

Would you? Will Augus? And Ash? Will anyone?

‘I think it’s all relative, really,’ Efnisien said quietly, smiling at him. ‘I’ll miss aspects of this, but I’ll miss my Aunt more, a great deal more. She won’t let me see her. Not like she is now. I’m quite certain my days are numbered too. How do you do it? How do you manage to ruin everything? I don’t even think you mean to. You can’t help but destroy every good thing you come across, can you?’

Gwyn closed his eyes and decided that even though he knew it was all true, he still didn’t want to hear it. He was a coward, and he didn’t like the truths that hurt him so badly. Worse than the knife in his gut.

Thumbs on his eyelids, forcing his eyes open. Efnisien sneering at him.

‘Hard truths, my darling,’ Efnisien said, ‘but not ones you get to run from.’

‘Okay,’ Gwyn said, not even able to blink.

Efnisien kept his eyes open for far too long, until the cold air bit and made his eyes water. Until tears leaked down the sides of his face. Even then, Efnisien kept his eyelids apart.

‘Even crying, you still don’t look sorry enough for what you’ve done,’ Efnisien said.

The worst part – that Efnisien didn’t look as happy as he used to. As joyful. As though this wasn’t bringing him the pleasure it usually did. At least in the past, he was certain that Efnisien was gaining some hypnotic, transcendental high from the torture and torment. Now, Efnisien’s emotional edges had been dulled.

In his own way, Gwyn loved him. Always had. The cheerful, playful cousin who had made his life hell, but made time for him. Tried to explain the world to him. At least bothered to make him understand why things were the way they had to be. Took joy in his presence.

‘I hurt you,’ Gwyn said dumbly.

Efnisien’s smile was bitter. An acknowledgement. He finally let go of Gwyn’s eyelids and looked down at Gwyn’s torso like it was a blank piece of paper; a canvas he had yet to paint.

‘You know what they have to do to dogs that turn on their master,’ Efnisien said, and Gwyn was horrified to hear his voice break. ‘There’s really only one option left. We tried to give you the forest at least. Let you be the beast that you are. Even that wasn’t enough for you. Why did you – who is worth so little, have to try and take so much? Wasn’t it enough? Hm? Years in that forest with food and hunting and all those base things you like so much, and you couldn’t find a little gratitude?’

A hand resting on the hilt of the blade, and Gwyn swallowed and swallowed again. He realised he was shaking, but the rest of it – the pain – he tried to tune it out.

‘Yes, you hurt me, darling,’ Efnisien said, twisting the blade and leaning forwards until Gwyn coughed on a pain he couldn’t ignore. Each gut spasm making everything so much worse. ‘After I’m done with you, I’m going to find those waterhorses and I’m going to teach them a thing or two about consequences.’

‘You can’t,’ Gwyn grit out. ‘The Bird King-’

‘I don’t care,’ Efnisien said. ‘He’s not here now, is he?’

Gwyn slid into silence, because at least Augus and Ash had the Bird King’s protection. And hopefully the Bird King would realise that they were worth saving. But beyond that, Gwyn told himself not to think anymore. Efnisien was helping his thoughts stay simple, the pain kept him focused now. It was even brighter than his fears.

Efnisien withdrew the knife and pushed his finger into the wound he’d created, watched impassively as Gwyn tried to jerk away from the invasion of it. Gwyn knew it didn’t matter. This was just the beginning. Efnisien knew the inside of his body in a way that no one should. Efnisien had shown Gwyn one of his own kidneys once, before putting it back. So many things a Court fae could do to another Court fae, and they would heal completely.

They all talked of the advanced statuses as being incredible – advanced healing, what a miracle.

Gwyn sobbed once, tired, and wished Efnisien’s finger didn’t feel worse than the knife.

He couldn’t even speak to apologise. Not anymore.

Around them, birds were still chirping and singing. In the distance, the yip-cry of a fox. Nearby, a flock of ravens began cawing, their song sounding more like laughter.

Then the cawing came louder, louder still, and then a fluttering of wings in the clearing. Gwyn thought they’d come to see if the smell was carrion. Efnisien yanked his finger out of Gwyn’s body in a sickening swoop, and stumbled backwards.

Gwyn blinked in confusion, turned his head to see Efnisien standing, eyes wide and staring past him. So Gwyn turned his head in the other direction and saw the Bird King, standing calmly in his feathery cloak and his silvery chains and black clothing, a rapier belted to his side. The Bird King looked down at Gwyn and his lips thinned. Then he raised a hand and did something with his fingers. Gwyn felt nothing at all, even though he jerked like he expected his voice to be taken away.

The Bird King walked up to him and then crouched by his side just as Efnisien had. He looked over Gwyn impassively, then lifted Gwyn’s ruined shirt and looked at the wound in his torso.

‘Well,’ the Bird King said. ‘I think I’ll teach you how to feed, today.’

Gwyn stared at him, mind swimming in pain and confusion. Then the Bird King’s hand slid underneath his back – even as his nose wrinkled in distaste. The Bird King forced Gwyn into a sitting position that made Gwyn’s head swim. He placed one arm around his torso automatically – the one that hadn’t been stabbed in the shoulder.

Efnisien was frozen in place. Spelled to be still. Gwyn could tell from the way he was just standing there. Efnisien was no hero, he would run from what frightened him, and he smelled of the acrid sweat that came from fear.

‘Stand,’ the Bird King said.

So Gwyn made himself stand, staggering sideways a couple of steps before he caught himself. He was dizzy, had to let his head hang, several deep breaths rattling out of him.

‘You should…let him,’ Gwyn said roughly. ‘Just let him.’

Just let him kill me.

‘So you say,’ the Bird King said, his voice oddly gentle. ‘I disagree.’

‘I hurt my family,’ Gwyn said, staring at Efnisien.

‘No,’ the Bird King said, ‘I hurt your family. And I’m not yet finished. I owe you gratitude, that you helped me find him.’

Gwyn stared at those black eyes in shock, and the Bird King smiled the smallest smile.

‘It was easiest,’ the Bird King said, ‘to let you do this for me. Though I was supposed to come sooner. I apologise. There are some things a King cannot excuse himself from as rapidly as he wants.’

Gwyn nodded like any of it made sense. It didn’t matter either way. What was another new master with new wants? Gwyn’s job wasn’t to understand. He could barely do the things he was supposed to do, like obey. Even standing there was hard. His thigh was already warm with blood. It was still hard to take full breaths.

The Bird King came so close to him that Gwyn cringed. His shoulders hunched even as the pain worsened. He felt a hand between his shoulder blades, another hand over his forearm, and he looked sideways and saw a detached expression on the Bird King’s face. He knew the Bird King didn’t like touching people, and Gwyn didn’t want to be touched. But he stood there and let the Bird King do what he wanted.

Until he felt his light artificially stir, as though plucked from the depths by invisible claws.

Gwyn stumbled away, surprised when the Bird King let him. But the Bird King’s eyes narrowed, his lips thinned.

‘You have to learn to feed,’ the Bird King said. ‘It might as well be him. I won’t be letting him leave this clearing. Nourish yourself.’

The dizziness worsened.

You have to learn to feed. It might as well be him.

Gwyn felt his light shifting inside of himself – it responded to the Bird King’s words. Gwyn knew his light was Unseelie. He knew it was awful. He knew it had destroyed his mother’s torso, knew by the scars he’d left on her body that he’d never been allowed to see.

But the Bird King made it sound like he was supposed to…like he was supposed to- And to his own cousin? Gwyn couldn’t stop shaking his head. The Bird King sighed like Gwyn was wasting everyone’s time.

‘You’re a psychopomp,’ the Bird King said. ‘You know nothing, do you?’

Plaintive words waited in Gwyn’s chest: I want to go home.

He didn’t even know where that was anymore. He’d disobeyed Augus and broken his rules. He was a stain on their family. His mother and father never wanted him. The forest was empty. A place to sleep while he waited for his cousin to find him.

The Bird King’s thick eyebrows pulled together, he pursed his lips and studied Gwyn like he was a particularly complex puzzle. Then, he stretched out his arm towards Efnisien and splayed the fingers of the hand he’d used to take Gwyn’s voice away. It looked so innocuous, but Gwyn knew it wasn’t.

Gwyn leaped in front of the Bird King’s hand, took the blow of magic before it found Efnisien’s body. Whatever it was fizzled through his chest like tiny, vicious knives. He shrieked at the pain of it. As soon as the sensation roared through him he heard a sharp cry like a raven’s caw – a sound of horror – and the scratchy awfulness of it disappeared. He collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. But when he raised his fingers to his chest, he wasn’t bleeding like he thought he was.

He couldn’t say why he’d done it, only that the Bird King’s magic was terrifying, and he didn’t want Efnisien to feel terrified. Didn’t want him to be miserable like his mother and father.

The Bird King in front of him, drawing Gwyn upright with limbs far stronger than they appeared, looking troubled. Gwyn shook constantly. He was afraid of the Bird King’s wrath, afraid for his cousin. Afraid.

It was supposed to be easier than this. Efnisien would kill him and then all the distress and the anguish would go and it would be over.

The Bird King watched Gwyn closed, lips downturned.

‘So,’ the Bird King said softly, ‘I want you to look at me, Gwyn. Only at me now, do you understand? Just look at me.’

The Bird King’s voice was hypnotic. Each word held a spell in it that wrapped around Gwyn’s mind the way Augus’ compulsions were supposed to. The Bird King even pointed to his own eyes, pointed at Gwyn’s, pointed to his own again.

‘Just look at me, that’s good. Good,’ the Bird King said, as though he was unused to offering praise.

Then, as Gwyn stared at the Bird King’s black gaze, he saw that gaze transfer past Gwyn’s shoulder and knew that the Bird King was looking at his cousin.

Gwyn’s eyes began to burn when the Bird King raised his arm again, raised the hand that carried all that magic.

The Bird King looked at Gwyn quickly, reaffirming whatever spell he’d woven with his voice. Despite the fear, despite wanting to protect his cousin, he was too helpless to do anything more than stare at the King of the Unseelie. He didn’t want to look away.

‘Just me,’ the Bird King crooned. ‘Only look at me. Don’t turn around. No matter what. You understand me perfectly, don’t you?’

Gwyn nodded, wishing his trembling wasn’t visible. He couldn’t even look at the Bird King’s hand in anything but his peripheral vision.

The Bird King waited a few more seconds, then he twisted his fingers and made a white-knuckled fist that shook with exertion. There came a hollow sound behind him; a twisting, popping sound. Gwyn flinched, didn’t want to look over his shoulder, didn’t want to see what the Bird King had done.

Words like: I love him. Don’t hurt him. He couldn’t speak. But he thought the Bird King heard them anyway, and the Bird King wasn’t listening.

‘Stay right there,’ the Bird King said. ‘Don’t move. Don’t look.’

Gwyn could do neither as the Bird King walked calmly past him. He heard the sound of a mare whickering, heard the shifts of leather and fixings that mean that the Bird King was removing her bridle, her bit. Then heard the saddle falling to the ground. Efnisien’s horse trotted away quickly, no doubt seeking the An Fnwy estate, having no love for her master as Gwyn did.

The Bird King returned to his position before Gwyn, then began walking backwards, beckoning Gwyn to follow him. And Gwyn, not knowing what else to do, followed him on weak legs, wishing his eyes weren’t as wet as they were. Why did the Bird King always make him cry?

They left the clearing, minutes continued to pass until they were surrounded by dense trees and understorey and shadow when the Bird King stopped walking backwards. Gwyn knew he could turn and look over his shoulder now, but they were too far to see Efnisien, to see what the Bird King had done to him.

‘I understand that you would prefer events to have gone differently,’ the Bird King said, changing the cadence of his voice so that it was gentle without being hypnotic, no more spells inside his words. ‘But he would have killed you.’

‘I know,’ Gwyn said, his voice sounding like someone else’s.

The Bird King tilted his head, blinked once. Then he sighed and looked into the distance, and Gwyn had the oddest sense that the Bird King didn’t know what to say.

‘How interesting,’ the Bird King said, ‘the way they kept you. It stopped you from consuming yourself with your light, yet they’ve damaged you too. I had hoped it was only on the surface, something that could slide away simply. I’ve assessed you wrongly.’

‘Do you…still want me as your apprentice?’

‘This is the first thing you ask me? Aren’t you in pain?’ the Bird King said, smiling wryly. ‘You’re bleeding. Does it not bother you?’

It did bother Gwyn, but he knew that other people didn’t like to be bothered by Gwyn’s complaints. That his shoulder, belly and cheeks were pouring blood meant nothing except inconvenience to the noses and sights of others. That his arms and hips felt wrenched and wretched meant nothing except that perhaps he wouldn’t be able to labour as others wanted. He hurt, but that was to be expected, wasn’t it?

‘I don’t know what you want me to say,’ Gwyn said, swallowing. ‘What do you want me to say?’

‘What words do you truly want to shape with that mouth of yours?’ the Bird King said. ‘I suspect you want to say nothing at all to me. I know you’re in pain. I know you hope I’ll cast you aside and forget about you. But I won’t, Gwyn. I am going to return you to the Each Uisge and the Glashtyn, and I suspect they will make fuss.’

The Bird King shifted his feathery cloak, leaned his head back until his face was framed by more feathers than the ones that grew out of his head.

‘I’ve never loved anyone the way that you loved him,’ the Bird King said, bemused. ‘Perhaps it should have occurred to me that you would sacrifice yourself for him. However misguided the act. They would never want you – the Thirteen. But I think that’s why they need you.’

Gwyn blinked at him. He thought that maybe he didn’t understand anything because he was feeling so light-headed from blood loss. His shoulder and his gut weren’t healing yet. His body seemed to be slow to catch up to what was happening.

‘You need to learn how to feed,’ the Bird King said. ‘What did they teach you about that light of yours?’

‘It’s evil,’ Gwyn said. ‘You shouldn’t touch it.’

‘What if I told you that it was a choice between you or the Each Uisge? What if I told you that I would do to him what I have just done to your cousin? Will you use it then?’

Gwyn blinked at him and heard the way his own breathing rattled out of his chest and knew that he was going to embarrass himself. He sank to his knees, his arms hung limp.

‘Answer me,’ the Bird King said imperiously.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, feeling like that chest-crushing spell had hit him afresh. ‘I’d use it then.’

‘Then I know how to get you to feed,’ the Bird King said.

‘I hate you,’ Gwyn said, bowing his head. He hated to hear his own breathing get shakier. But he couldn’t stop thinking of his cousin’s face. The last time he’d seen it, it had been filled with terror. The only person in his family that was supposed to feel terror, was Gwyn.

It was so wrong to see it on his fine features.

His body hurt. It wasn’t as bad as it usually was with Efnisien, but that was somehow worse. When the pain got too bad, Gwyn would go away mentally, and somehow he’d save himself from the worst of it. But it had to push far past his limits for him to access that ability. Efnisien hadn’t done that, and so Gwyn couldn’t separate from it. His thighs were wet and sticky. His clothing was ruined.

The Bird King said nothing for so long that Gwyn eventually looked up, fearing punishment, but resigned to it as well. The Raven Prince watched him, his feather cloak drawn around himself.

‘Gwyn ap Nudd, you are a child,’ the Bird King said, tilting his head. ‘I trust you know better how to communicate with your elders and betters. You may hate me all you wish. But I am your King, and you will address me accordingly.’

Gwyn stared at him, a tumult of emotions inside of him, finally hardening into one pained, blackened mess.

‘I hate you, Your Majesty,’ Gwyn said, the words sounding weaker than he’d intended.

The Bird King smiled, nodded his head in acknowledgement. He didn’t lash out as Gwyn had expected, instead, his eyes gained a twinkle of light. The smile itself was mischievous, a trickster’s smile.

Had Gwyn…pleased him somehow?

He was caught up in that magnetic gaze and all thoughts of his family fell away. It wasn’t until the Bird King looked away that Gwyn felt released from a restraint. Unbidden, he turned to look over his shoulder in the direction they’d come from. The motion twisted at the knife wound, he swallowed and pressed his fingers over it.

If he walked back to the clearing, what would he find?

He shuddered, sagged heavily. His whole body was too much for him. The whims of this murdering King didn’t seem much better than anyone else’s, even if he was still alive.

‘That mad, golden lad was going to torture you to death,’ the Bird King said. ‘These things you knew, and so went to him anyway, perhaps went to him because of it. You might wish for the sweetness of it, but I will not let you have it. If you want death, you may only take it when you feed upon others. I am invested in you, despite your gawky, awkward clumsiness. If I can turn you into something worthwhile, I can parade you in my Court, and the Seelie might always be reminded of their crimes. They do so like to lord it over us, you see. The Oak King in particular, what a didactic, quibbling creature he is. Hung up on a morality that hardly exists. That one day I could have you as my Champion, my light in the dark, my death-bringer – you are not to throw yourself away like this again.’

Gwyn stared at the blades of grass around him. Nearby, a patch of three bright dandelions. He knew from experience that they did not taste quite as sweet as they looked.

His whole chest felt as though there were a stone upon it. He couldn’t breathe deeply.

Efnisien was dead. Just like that. That hollow pop. The Bird King hadn’t even let him speak in defence of himself before it was over. It was cruel. But then, the Bird King was Unseelie. He was supposed to be cruel.

Gwyn made himself look up.

‘What now?’ Gwyn said, his voice wooden.

‘I’ll return you to the waterhorses,’ the Bird King said, looking around the forest and raising eyebrows at it.

‘They don’t want me anymore,’ Gwyn said.

He’d broken Augus’ rule. It was a big rule. He’d left without telling them. He hadn’t even said goodbye to them like a strong person might. He’d just run away.

‘As with so many things – you are incorrect about this too. But in case your words are a guise that hide deeper meanings, do you still want them?’

Gwyn nodded without thinking. Perhaps it would have been better to say no. To let the Bird King take him into that horrible castle but…no, he’d die there. He couldn’t live in a castle, being some King’s plaything. It would be awful.

‘What…happens to my parents?’ Gwyn said, almost scared to ask. What if he reminded the Bird King that they existed, and the Bird King turned them all into hollow pops as well?

‘They live in the Seelie palace with the Oak King. The An Fnwy estate is technically yours, for I’d like to see them contest ownership now that I’m involved. They won’t want to, you see. Quercus knows I hold the trump card here and he is being ever so accommodating. But you are in no fit state to manage that land. It is currently being maintained by the servants who have always maintained it, except for the personal retinue that went with your mother and father to the palace.’

‘Are you going to kill them?’ Gwyn said.

‘I can’t, they’re not under my jurisdiction. But if they are returned to the An Fnwy estate, I will find a way. It’s not even that I particularly want to kill them, it is that I cannot trust you. I remember Taronis telling me that a true apprentice will challenge their master, but I did not imagine it would be like this. I expected some overpowered sapling, tritely rebellious, and instead I get…’ the Bird King waved his hand desultorily in Gwyn’s direction, ‘some mind-warped faux-Seelie starveling. I wasn’t expecting to need to develop a greater sense of pity or compassion, and yet here you are, and you’ll respond to nothing else.’

I hate you, Gwyn thought, as loudly as he could. The Bird King watched him with a smile playing around the corners of his lips, as though he knew exactly what Gwyn was thinking.

‘I grow bored,’ the Bird King said.

He walked up to Gwyn and grasped his uninjured shoulder firmly. An unexpected breeze, and Gwyn became air and wind. In seconds, he landed on his knees on the ground again. It wasn’t a rough landing, either. The Bird King had deposited him with care, there weren’t even any twigs sticking into his knees.

Gwyn looked around cautiously.

They were by the cold one’s lake. Augus, Gwyn reminded himself. He couldn’t see Augus or Ash anywhere, but the Bird King had a coterie of soldiers with him. Some wore armour, some were dressed in gear better suited for rangers. But they all displayed what must have been the Bird King’s insignia – violet raven pinion poking through a silver crown, upon a black background. Some wore it on capes, others held pennants, others had it embroidered in fabric on their clothing.

‘Malarkey over here,’ the Bird King pointed to a sharp-faced, vicious looking man with eyes of silver and a mouth of pointed teeth, ‘will return you beneath the water. I recommend you do not come aboveground for at least a week while my people clear Ethallas of any remaining dangers. I am no messenger and so you are responsible for telling the Each Uisge and the Glashtyn of what has occurred. I’ll see you for our next lesson, the day before the moon is full. Farewell.’

The Bird King vanished in a rush of air, a loud cawing. A tiny piece of grey-black feathery down danced slowly to the ground.

Malarkey came forward. Gwyn cringed away from that face that promised nothing but pain. But despite the cruel smile, he did nothing more than teleport Gwyn underwater, to the section of dry lake floor protected by Augus’ green barrier.

There Malarkey left him – still bleeding and on his knees – before Augus’ front door.

Chapter Text

A knock at the front door. Augus rushed to the foyer, expecting to hear the worst from the Raven Prince or one of his attendant soldiers.

He didn’t expect to see Gwyn standing there, looking drawn and exhausted, covered in blood and reeking of fear.

They both stood there for several seconds. Augus knew his mouth was open and couldn’t bring himself to close it.

‘What is it?’ Ash called from the lounge. Then footsteps as he shuffled over. ‘Is everything all right? I couldn’t hear anything, I- Oh Jesus.’

‘Did the Raven Prince find you?’ Augus asked the first words that came to mind.

Gwyn nodded, looked miserable. Augus could see at least one wound in his shoulder, another in his gut. He’d probably been to Efnisien then. Augus stepped forwards and Gwyn stepped back, his eyes flicking to Ash’s, before he stared at Augus again.

Was Gwyn afraid of him? Was this going to be a repeat of the early days, when Gwyn wanted to attack everything that moved? Honestly, now that he knew that Gwyn would run, he was tempted to go back to steel manacles and that incessant stubborn roaring. At least it would mean that Gwyn was safe.

‘Where is he?’ Augus snapped, annoyance moving through him.

‘He…’ Gwyn looked at Ash again, and then he shook his head and looked at the floor. ‘He sent me down here. I’m…to…tell you what’s happened.’

‘Damn it,’ Augus muttered, his fingers twitching by his sides. The Raven Prince could have at least sent someone else with Gwyn to explain everything. It wasn’t as though they’d get the best explanations from Gwyn. Especially given he didn’t look like someone who wanted to talk at all, he certainly wasn’t in any condition to report on anything rationally. Augus turned to look at Ash, who looked worried, but was also deliberately affecting a relaxed pose to lower tension.

‘All right,’ Augus said, turning back to Gwyn. ‘Here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to get you cleaned up and into a new pair of clothes, these are obviously ruined. Then you are going to tell us what happened.’

‘He doesn’t like talking to me,’ Ash interjected. ‘He can tell you what happened and I’ll wait somewhere else. Are you gonna get him inside or just leave him standing out there?’

Augus stepped back from the doorway and beckoned, not liking the long hesitation that Gwyn took, nor the way his steps wavered as though he wasn’t quite sure of his feet. Augus had no idea what Efnisien had done to him. The Raven Prince couldn’t even send someone down to deliver a proper accounting? He focused on his breath, resisted the urge to grind his teeth together. He could tell that Gwyn was hypersensitive to both of their body movements right now.

Gwyn looked around Augus’ house like he hadn’t quite seen it before. He followed them both down the hallway reluctantly, and when Ash went to veer off into his own bedroom, Augus shook his head and clicked his tongue.

‘No, I want you with me for this part,’ Augus said.

Ash’s eyes widened, and then he nodded, a weary smile coming over his face. After contacting the Raven Prince with the feather that he’d left them, it had been an anxious wait. Ash had self-castigated himself for his glamour, for distracting them both. Augus’ hopes for Gwyn being alive had plummeted the longer that it took the Raven Prince to return. Ash had paced all through the house, his agitation eventually turning to a brief blaze of vicious hunger that had forced Augus to send him away. Ash was worn now, likely as upset at his own emotional response as he was that Gwyn had been gone in the first place.

As Augus led them both into the bathroom and left them there, he tried to sort out the morass in his mind. There was anger that Gwyn had escaped – not so much at Gwyn, but at himself. He’d known that Ash’s glamour would lower his guard, and he’d not even reminded himself to keep vigilant despite that. He was frustrated with the way the Raven Prince chose to handle everything, as though keeping fae alive was a hobby that took him away from more important business. He’d been annoyed at how fractious he’d felt at the idea of Gwyn never returning to them.

How could someone make such an impact on his life in such a short amount of time? How?

He bit into his lower lip as he checked through his healer’s kit and then focused on slowing his body down – slowing his heartrate, slowing the urge to take faster breaths. He needed calm, and so he wrapped it around himself and hoped it would be enough.

In the bathroom, Gwyn stood awkwardly on the tiles. There was already a chair out, but he wasn’t sitting on it. Ash stood near him protectively. Gwyn’s body leaned unconsciously towards him, as though seeking out comfort. It was better than Gwyn hiding in the corner and launching himself at them whenever they came too close.

‘I don’t need this,’ Gwyn said, surprising Augus by talking before them both. ‘I’ll heal.’

‘You sure will,’ Ash said, after looking quickly at Augus. ‘But it’ll help us both to know where you’re at physically, you know? And Augus likes to fuss, it’ll help calm him down.’

Gwyn stared at Augus, pained, his eyebrows twisting together, forehead creasing. Then he closed his eyes and nodded, and pulled aimlessly at the hem of his shirt. It made a tacky sound, blood unsticking from skin.

Augus swallowed absently. In other circumstances…that would sound rather nice.

Right now it was a reminder that someone who set Augus’ very teeth on edge had hurt Gwyn, and neither he nor Ash knew what had happened. They didn’t know what the Raven Prince had done to resolve the situation or what their future would look like.

‘You haven’t stopped bleeding yet, have you?’ Augus said, his nostrils flaring.

Gwyn shook his head, looking down at himself. There was a smear of blood on the bathroom tiles already. He’d managed a stream of the stuff all the way from his abdomen down to the sole of his foot. Which either meant that the wounds were recent or, more likely, that they were deep. He was Court status – if the cuts had been shallow, they might even be healed over by now.

‘Shit,’ Ash said suddenly, going pale. ‘I have to go wait out there. I’m sorry, guys. I’m just-’

‘I understand,’ Augus said quietly.

Ash was still too close to bloodlust and the killing edge that he’d risen to before.

‘I’m gonna go cool off,’ Ash said. ‘If you need me, get me, but…’

‘We can do this without you.’

‘Cheers,’ Ash said, touching Augus gently on the arm as he left the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Gwyn watched him go in confusion, looking over Augus’ shoulder and frowning. Augus thought he’d say something, but he didn’t. Instead, Gwyn wrung his bloodied hands together and looked towards the shower, and then looked at some place on Augus’ torso.

‘You might as well tell me what happened,’ Augus said, sighing. ‘And I’d like you to strip down, please, since you don’t seem to be in the kind of mood to attack me. Which is something.’

Gwyn’s look of confusion didn’t leave his face. Augus thought it was telling that he only used one arm to start taking off his shirt. Then, when the shirt was halfway up his chest, Augus stared at the messy wound down in his gut and thought that alone accounted for the smell. There would be organ damage. It would have killed an underfae.

Gwyn just stood there taking off his shirt in stages, eventually holding it awkwardly in his hand until Augus indicated he should drop it to the floor.

‘You went to Efnisien,’ Augus said, unable to move his eyes away from the wound.

Of course he’d known it was like this for Gwyn. That he’d been through much worse than this. He’d put it together in his mind within a short time of knowing Gwyn, understood objectively what Court healing meant to a Court status torture victim.

He walked up to Gwyn and placed his fingertips very carefully to the outside of the wound. It didn’t even feel overheated from inflammation or infection. Even now it was healing.

Augus looked up at Gwyn – who was concertedly looking away – and tried to imagine the reality of it. Of Efnisien torturing Gwyn for hours or days, having the luxury to wait for wounds of this calibre to heal before inflicting more.

‘Does it hurt?’ Augus said.

Gwyn’s jaw tightened, he didn’t say anything at all.

‘If the Raven Prince wanted you to report, you’d best start. I’ll clean this up and see what the damage is.’

‘I’ll heal,’ Gwyn said, looking at him. Augus only raised his eyebrows at him until Gwyn looked away again.

As Augus got his materials together, kneeling and squirting some herbal disinfectant onto a piece of fabric, and coagulant onto another, Gwyn cleared his throat. Cleared it again.

‘The Bird King rescued me,’ Gwyn said, ‘and now I’m here.’

‘Comprehensive,’ Augus said drily as he started firmly wiping the excess of blood away. He wasn’t as concerned with getting Gwyn to shower – it wasn’t like he could get infected from blood borne bacteria. He was more concerned with getting the wounds to knit over. But he at least wanted to see what was going on. That much blood could hide bruising, abrasions. ‘I know you’ve been through a chore, and I want nothing more than for you to be lying down and resting, but you’ll need to do a bit better than that.’

‘I don’t want to,’ Gwyn said.

‘We didn’t want to spend the past few hours feeling sick to our stomachs, wondering what was happening to you. But we didn’t get much of a choice in the matter now, did we?’

‘You said you…understood why I’d go back to-’

‘I didn’t ever say I’d like it,’ Augus said, frowning at the bruising that was starting to come up on Gwyn’s skin as the blood was wiped away. This wasn’t normal. Had he been beaten? What Augus could see of his hip bones were nearly blackened with bruising. ‘This bruising. What happened to you?’

‘I was dragged,’ Gwyn said.

Augus looked up and Gwyn shrugged the shoulder that didn’t have a stab wound in it.

‘Behind a horse,’ Gwyn elaborated.

Augus looked at the bruising again and nodded to himself. A few seconds later his mouth flooded with saliva and his teeth started to sharpen with a strange, protective rage. He focused again on wrapping that calm around himself. Gwyn didn’t need it, and Augus didn’t want it.

‘It doesn’t matter now,’ Gwyn said. ‘I can’t go back to him.’

A tremble in Gwyn’s voice, and Augus looked up from where he was kneeling at Gwyn’s feet. There were so many things he wanted to ask - namely if Gwyn meant what Augus thought he did. So many things that he knew he couldn’t say, not when Gwyn looked that wrought.

‘Do you mean that the Raven Prince has forbidden you from returning to him? Or do you mean that your cousin is not alive?’

Gwyn rubbed at the back of his head, bits of white-blond sticking to his fingers as he dragged his hand away.

‘He killed him and he wouldn’t let me see,’ Gwyn said, looking somewhere far past the bathroom itself. ‘He moved his hand once and then cousin was- It happened fast.’

Augus was glad it had happened at all, and frustrated that it wasn’t a long, drawn out death.

‘He wouldn’t let you see?’ Augus said.

‘I tried to stop him,’ Gwyn said. ‘The Bird King was annoyed and wouldn’t let me watch anymore.’

‘But you’re sure he’s dead?’ Augus said.

Gwyn hesitated for a long time and then nodded, his eyes drifting shut.

Augus placed a hand against Gwyn’s calf, squeezing carefully.

Gwyn took a deep breath. ‘Then the Bird King said that his soldiers would make sure Ethallas was safe over the next week and that I shouldn’t go aboveground until then and then he would see me the day before the full moon and then he brought me here.’

The words fell out all at once, Augus felt the trembling in his legs get worse. He stood up, staying close to him, watching his face. Gwyn’s eyes were open again, but glassy. His mouth was taut at the corners. Augus tried to think what Ash would do in this moment, and raised his hand to Gwyn’s arm and stroked it gently, firmly.

‘And I broke your rule,’ Gwyn said. ‘I broke it. I broke it and-’

‘Which rule?’ Augus said, his fingers trailing down to Gwyn’s wrist and curling around it. Gwyn wasn’t even wearing the cuffs. Had he taken them with him? Had he left them behind? If he’d left them in Augus’ house – they hadn’t been near the farewell letter. What had happened to them?

He circled Gwyn’s wrists with his fingers, but left his grip loose.

‘You told me to come to you,’ Gwyn said. ‘If I was thinking of going to him. But I didn’t. I thought of it, and then I didn’t want to come to you, because you’d talk me out of it.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘That was the point of the rule. To keep you safe.’

‘And I broke it.’

‘I suppose you did,’ Augus said speculatively.

‘And now you have to punish me.’

Augus sighed and shook his head, his eyes drifting down Gwyn’s torso as a bitter smile crossed his face.

‘I think you were punished enough already, don’t you?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, something stubborn entering his voice. ‘No. You need to do it.’

Augus frowned, considering. Rules and consequences, Gwyn was hung up on them, perhaps now more than ever with his cousin gone, his world turned upside down. Whatever safe haven his family represented – even if he was terrified of them – it had been pulled out from under him. Augus grimaced. He did not want to be part of the narrative of Gwyn meeting another torturer and moving on, believing that was the way the world was supposed to be. Torturers and victims.

‘I don’t want to punish you,’ Augus said.

‘You need to,’ Gwyn said, his wrist shifting in Augus’ grip, his breathing audible.

‘I don’t need to do anything,’ Augus said, not liking the way that blood had started oozing from that torso wound again. What had Efnisien done? Augus’ nose wrinkled and he touched the skin, still amazed that there was no heat of inflammation at all. Was that what would happen to him if he was ever badly wounded? It was disturbing.

Gwyn’s cheeks were flushed when Augus met his eyes again and his lashes were wet, clumped together. His breathing hadn’t changed once, but there were gleaming tracks down both sides of his face. He opened his mouth, closed it again. Then rubbed the wetness away with his free hand, leaving a smear of red across his face.

‘You need it,’ Augus said, and Gwyn nodded.

Augus looked away, thinking it over. It wouldn’t be the first time he had felt compelled to perform a particular act with a client that he hadn’t actually wanted to do. Often the exchange had nothing to do with him.

But this was different. Augus’ instincts veered away from doing what Gwyn wanted, but perhaps that was because Gwyn’s idea of punishment was so skewed. Perhaps he could use this, do something meaningful with it.

‘All right,’ Augus said, tightening his hand around Gwyn’s wrist. Gwyn closed his eyes in what looked like relief. ‘But we do this my way.’

Gwyn nodded without thinking.

‘No, Gwyn, look at me.’ Pale blue eyes on his, bloodshot and possibly drifting towards shock and he wasn’t in the headspace for any of this. Augus wanted to rip something apart and he was certain that anger was meant for someone who wasn’t even alive anymore.

‘We do this my way,’ Augus said. ‘I choose when you get punished, not you. And it won’t be now. And it won’t be tonight. I choose the method of punishment, and you don’t get to question it, and you don’t get me to tell me how it should be done. You will have your signal word, but that is all. You will not get to determine whether I’ve done too much, or not enough, outside of that word. And I will not be pleased if you think you need further punishment once I’ve meted it out. Do you understand?’

Gwyn’s expression had transformed from mindless agreement, to suspicion. But Augus was glad that he seemed to have thought everything over when he finally nodded. The movement was hesitant, and Augus nodded as well. That would give him time to think of what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it, and what needs he was meeting for the both of them. Gwyn wanted structure in a world that was falling apart, if he could only see structure in punishment, then so be it.

‘Can you stand a little longer?’ Augus said. ‘I’d like to get this finished, if I may.’

Gwyn blinked at him sleepily, then nodded again.

He was quiet as Augus kept working. Wiping blood away and then pressing coagulants to the wounds themselves, back on his knees and not feeling remotely subservient with Gwyn shaking weakly in front of him. Eventually, he encouraged Gwyn to strip out of his pants to see the rest of the bruising, rubbing arnica cream into the worst affected areas. Gwyn would heal from the bruises fast, but doctoring him soothed Augus’ nerves.

Eventually, he had a pile of blood-soaked rags and strips of cloth, as well as Gwyn’s clothing. He’d dispose of it all. Gwyn’s wounds had closed with the assistance of the coagulants, and Augus wet a tiny bit of flannel with warm water and wiped the blood smear off his cheek. Gwyn met his eyes quickly, then his gaze darted away.

Augus took each of his hands and scrubbed at his palms, between his fingers, the places where his hands were a sticky, dark red-brown mess.

‘What did you do with the cuffs?’ Augus said, looking over his wrists and stroking them gently.

‘I put them back,’ Gwyn said, his voice croaking. ‘I wanted to keep them but…I was breaking your rule. I thought I didn’t…I thought that I shouldn’t- that you wouldn’t think-’

‘You didn’t think you deserved to wear them, did you?’ Augus said, not letting Gwyn escape his gaze this time.

Gwyn swallowed once, shrugged with his uninjured shoulder.

‘Then you’ll not be getting them back until after the punishment,’ Augus said, staring at him.

Gwyn’s eyes closed, resigned, but he nodded all the same. The next breath he took was huge, the sigh that followed heavy. But he was returned, and Efnisien was dead, and the Raven Prince had actually helped them. For a while there, Augus wasn’t sure. The Raven Prince’s personal Page – a goat-horned pan with wide, thickly lashed eyes had explained that the Raven Prince was caught up in heavy matters pertaining to diplomacy, and that there were more lives on the line than just Gwyn’s.

When Ash had heard that, the growl he’d let loose had been so fierce that the Page had taken a step back and stared at them both as though he’d just realised what kind of fae he was talking to.

‘Do you want to stay here while I get fresh clothing?’

Another nod.

‘Sit down then,’ Augus said, nodding over to the chair. ‘Unless your hips are too sore.’

He left Gwyn still standing in the bathroom, closed the door behind him, a pile of blood-soaked cloth in his arms. He walked further down the corridor, entering the room where he kept most of his cleaning equipment. He opened the wooden door that led to the outside of his home. There, he deposited the clothing in a trough and then rinsed his hands in a sink of black stone and shell.

He stared at his fingers, at the blood he scrubbed out from beneath his sharp fingernails.

No time to dwell. Once he was done, he sought Ash out, and found him in the lounge sitting in the armchair, leaning over his own body, elbows resting on his knees and hands out in front of him. When he looked up at Augus, his gaze was haunted.

‘Sorry, man.’

Augus waved the apology away.

‘How’s he shaping up? You get anything out of him?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said.

Augus sat on the armrest of the chair and placed a hand on Ash’s shoulder, rubbing at his back in the way he wished he could do for Gwyn as well. But he had the sense that Gwyn – while receptive to some touch – was not in the mindset for more.

‘I’m not stopping for long,’ Augus said, ‘I’m getting him some new clothing and then hopefully we’ll both be out here. He went to Efnisien like we feared. I don’t think Efnisien had him for too long, with what I have…gathered from Gwyn’s indications of how severe a torturer Efnisien can be.’

‘And?’ Ash said, looking up. ‘Is the fucker dead or what? Because if you want to give me something to do, I’d be really happy to-’

‘He’s dead,’ Augus said.

Ash looked disappointed, and Augus pressed his palm to the back of Ash’s head carefully, cupping the space there that would send soothing hormones into his body. Ash sagged a little, but not enough to truly lose his tension.

‘Do you need to hunt again?’ Augus said. ‘Would that help?’

‘Maybe,’ Ash said, the word torn from his chest.

‘He wants me to punish him for leaving us,’ Augus said.

Ash tensed, laughed under his breath. ‘Yeah, because that’s what he fucking needs.’

‘I said yes,’ Augus said.

Ash pulled away from Augus’ touch and pressed against the other armrest, staring at Augus, furrows appearing in his forehead.

‘You fucking what now?’

‘I don’t want to,’ Augus said. ‘And I won’t do it until he’s well. But he…needs some structure. And I know what I’m doing.’

‘Augus,’ Ash said slowly, ‘you don’t think that maybe after everything he’s been through, maybe-’

‘I do,’ Augus said, getting off the armrest and moving over to the couch and sitting on it, lacing his fingers together. ‘I agree with you. But I don’t think he needs the things that you or I might need after a trauma like this. And I think just petting him a few times and being comforting is not going to cut it this time. He doesn’t think he deserves gentleness and affection, and it may compound his anxieties if he doesn’t feel his transgression has been properly addressed.’

Ash’s face twisted, and then he pulled his hands in towards his stomach and kept them fisted there, like he didn’t know what to do with himself.

‘I couldn’t do what you do,’ Ash said. ‘I just couldn’t. I just want to wrap him up in fucking blankets until he feels so loved he doesn’t want to go through that shit anymore. Until he doesn’t want to leave! But…but I know the world doesn’t work like that. I’ve seen it. That’s the…that’s the blessing of only sleeping with those people for a weekend, Augus. I don’t have to think about their pain or their struggles beyond what I get in the moment. I don’t have to give them anything else but love. And I have so much of it to give to them, so it’s easy. And they don’t want more from me than that. I don’t know how to be anything else. Give anything else.’

‘Yes, you do,’ Augus said. ‘Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be such good brothers now, would we?’

Ash beamed at him, but his eyes were sad. ‘You sure you know what you’re doing?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘And he needs what you have to give, Ash. More than you know.’

‘Why did you tell me about this? You could’ve just…done it and not told me. Just taken him into one of those rooms and let me assume you were, I dunno, doing something else in there.’

‘I know,’ Augus said. ‘But I feel I should warn you that he might not be receptive to many overtures of comfort until after the punishment is over. He’s confused at the moment. He’s lost someone he had strong feelings for, and he still doesn’t have a proper place here yet. He has no idea what his future is going to look like. I suspect if I don’t deliver on this front, he will retreat to the old things that comforted him. And some of those things…’

Augus shook his head and sighed.

‘I need to get back to him, anyway. Do you want to come?’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘Is most of the blood gone?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said. ‘It should be fine now. Not healed but…not like before.’

‘Christ,’ Ash said, standing and absently straightening his shirt. ‘I nearly lost my fucking mind. I’m gonna hunt again. Maybe tonight or tomorrow if you think you can spare me. I’m nearly due again anyway, I guess. This has just set…everything off. You know how it is.’

‘I do,’ Augus said.

They both didn’t feed as much as their waterhorses were comfortable with. Which meant that they could rise to the killing edge a lot faster than was healthy. Ash, in particular, was in the habit of regularly starving himself of his true prey to sometimes dangerous degrees. His love for humankind was hard to reconcile with the hunter that he was.

Ash fetched Gwyn new clothing, going for a loose, grey oversized shirt, and a pair of tracksuit pants he’d purchased from the human world that looked soft at least. Together, they both entered the bathroom. Gwyn still wasn’t sitting, and he flinched when he saw them, swayed a little. Augus tried to imagine just what kind of state Gwyn would be in after Efnisien was finished with a full round of torture, and he couldn’t.

‘Hey buddy,’ Ash said, handing the clothing to him. ‘You need a hand?’

Gwyn shook his head, putting the shirt on before he put on the pants. He didn’t baby his shoulder as much as Augus thought someone in that much pain normally would – which didn’t help Augus’ overall assessment of the situation; that Gwyn would continue to punish himself until he thought he’d suffered enough for the rule he’d broken. He wondered if Gwyn even realised he was doing it.

The pants were harder, and Gwyn placed his hand on the back of the chair as he pulled them up.

Augus stared at the mop of hair on Gwyn’s head and rolled his eyes. It was a tangled mess again. But they could deal with that later.

‘Are you not sitting because it hurts? Or because of another reason?’

‘Hurts,’ Gwyn murmured, looking away.

‘Do you think you can lie down?’ Augus said.

Gwyn nodded, and then watched as Ash approached him. Ash’s hands were already up. Palms forward. Trying to present himself as non-threatening as possible. Given that Ash was the smallest of all of them, it wasn’t hard for him to do when his glamour felt that gentle.

‘Easy,’ Ash said. ‘I’m so glad you’re back. Please don’t do that to us again. Please?’

Gwyn stared at Ash in bald shock, and Augus closed up his healer’s kit and tried not to think about the fact that Gwyn had likely never heard any of those words before in that tone of voice. He watched sidelong as Ash got slowly closer to Gwyn. Ash was in Gwyn’s personal space, leaned his forehead down until it was resting against the shoulder that hadn’t been wounded.

Gwyn looked thunderstruck. He looked down at Ash’s head, his arms stiff and held a little away from his body. But when Ash’s hands came up to rest on his upper arms, Gwyn’s expression clouded and he stepped back, wary. Augus focused on his healing kit again, that was what he’d expected.

Ash sighed, the sound echoing in the bathroom.

‘Oh puppy,’ he said, his voice quiet. ‘I’m so proud of you.’

Augus frowned, he hadn’t expected that. Ash smiled at Gwyn, though the expression was crooked. Gwyn looked like the world made even less sense than it did before.

‘Because you can still let me know what you want, or don’t want,’ Ash explained. He sat down on the chair and leaned back into it, one arm over the back of it, looking for all the world like he hadn’t risen to the killing edge a little while ago, like he was relaxed and pleased. ‘It’s good, y’know? After everything, that you can still do that, means I can trust you to let me know what’s going on.’

Gwyn’s mouth was open. He plucked at his shirt absently a few times, then looked at Augus like he had the answers. Augus quirked a half smile – about all he could manage – and clipped his healer’s kit shut, running his hands over the polished, pockmarked wood. The bathroom still smelled of blood, and later he’d need to get Gwyn into a shower, need to get the tangles in his hair sorted. But that would come later.

‘All right, let’s get you into bed. We’ll have something for you to eat when you wake up. Yes?’

‘Sounds like a plan,’ Ash answered in place of Gwyn, bounding out of the bathroom with a burst of energy that showed just how agitated he was, beneath his façade of relaxation.

*

Thirty minutes later, Augus surveyed the picture they made. They were on Gwyn’s bed, which made him realise just how often Gwyn tended to sleep on Ash’s bed, or with Augus. Gwyn was under blankets, laying flat on his back because rolling to his side had caused a level of pain that made him hiss under his breath. For all that the stab wounds looked like the worst injuries, Gwyn seemed far more put out by the bruising. But Augus knew enough about the way bodies reacted to pain, to know that these things happened sometimes.

Gwyn sleepily stared at the ceiling, fingers fisted around the blankets that were drawn to his chin. Ash sat against the headboard and had a hand resting in Gwyn’s hair. It was about the only comforting touch that Gwyn allowed, and any time Ash tried to turn it to actual petting, Gwyn moved his head away and looked sad at the same time. Any doubts that Augus had about Gwyn seeking to punish himself were thoroughly dispelled.

Augus sat at the foot of the bed, his legs crossed, turning thoughts over in his head.

He knew a part of Gwyn wouldn’t attain equilibrium until he was punished. Some deep instinct – even deeper than Gwyn’s need to self-punish the way his family had taught him – had asked Augus for something in the hopes that he could find balance inside himself again. As absurd as it was to contemplate, it meant that Gwyn was still – even now – seeking healing. Even if it was a healing that was hard to understand.

A part of Gwyn knew that if Augus took charge of the punishment and it worked, then Gwyn could relax again. He could settle back into his life with them, as much as he ever had.

Augus and Ash looked at each other for a long time, not speaking, as Gwyn’s eyes finally drifted shut and his breathing began to slow. Augus’ chest hurt. Eventually he looked down at his own hands and pushed at his cuticles. Whatever calm he’d managed to find, was fraying away fast.

An hour later, they left Gwyn’s room together, satisfied he was sleeping. Augus pulled Gwyn’s door closed, though left it open just a crack so that they could hear anything that happened. He suspected he and Ash were going to be hypervigilant around Gwyn for a while to come.

His chest ached with something he couldn’t explain.

When they reached the threshold leading into the lounge, Augus stopped and reminded himself that this was Ash, and that he could be himself around Ash.

‘Please,’ Augus said, his voice rasping in his throat. ‘Ash, just-’

‘I’ve got you,’ Ash said immediately, his voice low and warm. Ash was there, chest pressing to his chest, arms wrapping around his arms and holding him close. ‘You did great. You’re doing great.’

‘I don’t understand why I-’

‘You don’t have to right now,’ Ash rumbled, his voice vibrating into Augus’ chest and soothing the sharp pain that had settled there. ‘You don’t have to. Come sit with me a bit, yeah? Come on. I didn’t get to fuss over him, let me fuss over you for a bit.’

Augus laughed weakly, but let himself be led to the couch. Let Ash settle before being drawn down so that he was sprawled across Ash’s torso, his head resting on the armrest. Let fingers scratch patterns into his back and shoulders.

All his life, Ash asked for this kind of touch more often than Augus did. But that didn’t mean that their roles didn’t reverse from time to time. Sometimes after the hardest winters, the moments when their lake had been threatened by a fae that would kill them for the land and Augus had to become the vicious brutal monster that he was and head them off – sometimes then, Augus couldn’t make himself be the big brother he thought he needed to be. Sometimes he needed thismore.

‘Shhh,’ Ash said, even though Augus was making no noise, ‘I’m proud of you too.’

‘Truly?’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, cupping the back of Augus’ head, Augus pressing his lips together and sighing at the warmth that flowed down his back. ‘Always, Augus. But especially now.’

‘And you?’ Augus said. ‘I can’t just…take from you like this, and-’

‘I want you to,’ Ash said, scratching at Augus’ back with his other hand. ‘I want you to, okay? Sometimes it’s okay to break these stupid rules you have in your head. It’s okay, bro.’

These stupid rules you have in your head.

Augus sighed, he knew what Ash thought of Augus’ concept of what a big brother was, of needing to be in control all the time. His thoughts fell to all the rules Gwyn imposed on himself and he thought of the responsibility of it all and the path that was unfolding before them. There was so much good in it, but it was exhausting. He made a weak sound and curled tightly around Ash’s torso, feeling like he was embarrassing himself and too touch-hungry to care.

‘That’s it,’ Ash murmured. ‘I’ve got you. It’s going to be just fine, Augus, you’ll see.’

He hoped no one would think less of him if he let himself believe it.

Chapter Text

Everything had almost returned to normal, except that Gwyn felt uncomfortable in his very skin. He ate on his own. He hardly spoke. He watched Augus to find out when the punishment would be and hated that Augus insisted that Gwyn needed to be well for it.

He tried not to think about his cousin and the Bird King and failed, remembering the tangy-pain in his chest when the Bird King’s spell hit him as he’d leaped in front of it. Remembering the fear on his cousin’s face. The hypnotic tones of the Bird King’s voice making it so that Gwyn couldn’t see his cousin in his final moments.

Ash left soon after Gwyn returned, claiming he needed to hunt. He stretched his arms open for a hug, and Gwyn shook his head and turned away and didn’t like the way Augus had quietly talked to Ash after that and Gwyn hadn’t been able to hear what they were saying.

He didn’t want them to touch him and comfort him. He’d done the wrong thing.

It was afternoon, the day after Ash had left. All of Gwyn’s wounds had healed; faster than usual, with Augus doctoring him. Gwyn stood awkwardly in the lounge, trying to think of what to do. He rubbed at the back of his head, fingers tangling in his hair. It was cleaned now, unknotted, but he pushed his fingers through and tugged and felt a pain at the bottom of his skull and tugged again.

A snap of something heavy made him jolt so hard that he rose to his tiptoes. He looked over and Augus’ book was now closed on his lap, his eyes were narrowed, his gaze direct. Gwyn’s heartbeat rose until he felt nauseated, thundering through his chest. He tried to swallow the coldness in his throat.

Now, he’s going to do it now.

‘Come on,’ Augus said, putting the book down. ‘Now’s as good a time as any.’

Gwyn followed Augus down the corridor, wondering why he’d ever insisted that he needed the punishment in the first place, dread a miasma that choked his ability to speak.

*

Twenty minutes later he was naked in the room that had the cross and all of Augus’ tools of torture in it. He stood quietly, his hands folded in front of him. The door was closed, the room was silent. Augus was breathing quietly, and Gwyn was trying not to breathe at all.

When Augus stalked towards him, Gwyn winced. Then, Augus began to walk around him, holding a power around himself that felt cold and intimidating.

‘Let’s be very clear,’ Augus said as he circled Gwyn. ‘Why am I punishing you?’

‘Because I left,’ Gwyn said, wanting to follow Augus’ movements. He winced when Augus paused behind his back. Would Augus whip him? Was that what was going to happen? He gasped when he felt a fingertip press between his shoulder blades, the sharp edge of a claw.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Try again.’

Gwyn blinked in confusion. Why was he being punished? The claw pressed harder and Gwyn swallowed. He knew that technically he could just step forward, move away from that touch that edged towards pain. Yet his feet felt as though they’d been anchored to the ground.

‘I…did something wrong?’ Gwyn said, feeling like he was flailing.

By now, his family would have happily supplied him with all of his shortcomings. Gwyn didn’t know where to start.

‘No,’ Augus said, keeping up that pressure, Gwyn’s attention fully captured now. ‘I’m punishing you because you asked me to. Because you told me that you need it. Because your behaviours since returning have changed enough that I trust that to be true. Do you still need it?’

Gwyn stared ahead, his breath shaking in his chest.

I’m punishing you because you asked me to.

‘Does that mean…you wouldn’t?’ Gwyn said, his mouth dry.

‘If that’s what you need,’ Augus said calmly. ‘But this is about what you need, not what you want, so think carefully.’

This wasn’t the way he expected things to go. He expected Augus to strip him and push him against the cross and whip him until his back was bloody and be done with it. Perhaps he should have expected something like this. It was far harder to steel himself against Augus’ soft words than it was against the snap-crack of a whip.

He had asked for this. Things hadn’t been right since he’d been returned. They were supposed to be angrier. They were supposed to not want him back! He’d done the wrong thing. He’d…he’d hurt them. He needed-

‘What will you do?’

‘No, Gwyn,’ Augus said, his voice sharper. ‘Unless you give me the signal that you want this to stop, you don’t get to negotiate your way out of this based on what I have in mind. You either decide that you don’t need this right now, or you use a signal later if it’s too much for you. That’s all.’

Gwyn thought Augus’ fingernail might be cutting into his skin now. It was just a single point of contact, but it spread lines of sensation through his back, a crawling that made his muscles tense.

Augus had given him two choices. Opt out now, or opt out later if he couldn’t handle it. Gwyn was very sure that he’d done the wrong thing. Very sure that he didn’t want to disappoint Augus more than he already had.

‘Do it,’ Gwyn said. ‘I asked for it. I didn’t lie.’

A long pause, Gwyn’s mind racing; had he done the wrong thing? Had he said it wrong? Was he supposed to say something else? And then Augus walked away from him towards one of the many chests of drawers and started opening them, bringing out different pieces of equipment. Gwyn’s eyes alit on every one, but he knew after last time that Augus liked to keep him guessing. He took out far more than anyone would reasonably use.

Gwyn watched as Augus pulled on a pair of tight-fitting black leather gloves, curling his fingers a few times and then nodding as though satisfied with the fit. Then, Augus walked away to a completely different chest of drawers and Gwyn shivered as he heard metal clink and rattle. His gut turned to ice as he thought of the steel manacles and chains that Augus had used on him in the beginning, his eyes widened when he saw what Augus was taking out of the drawer.

Manacles. Steel chains. His breath rattled in his throat. His hands clenched into fists.

Was it part of the punishment? Or was it a misdirection?

Then Augus walked to a rack of implements used for hitting people. At least fifty items hung there, and Gwyn knew he had even more in drawers. Augus pursed his lips at them, then traced his finger down a riding crop with a rectangular leather tip. He lifted it carefully and looked at it for another few seconds, before placing it on the pile of metal that he’d taken out.

He didn’t look at Gwyn the entire time. It made things worse, Gwyn realised. Normally Augus talked to him, or asked him questions, or touched him, or did something more than pick out item after item that each looked like it would hurt or…not be pleasant to experience.

Gwyn shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling more naked than he did before, despite the fact that he’d shed his clothing at the beginning. Had Augus wanted him to heal completely so that he had a blank canvas to work with? To mark? Was that what this was?

Augus returned to the riding crop after fetching several more objects. He picked it up and had a strip of black fabric draped over his forearm that made Gwyn think of being blindfolded again and he opened his mouth to protest and then made himself close it again because this was meant to be punishment and he wasn’t meant to like it.

It occurred to him all over again that Augus had all the tools a torturer would have. His skin was tickling with gooseflesh when Augus reached him.

Augus raised the riding crop. Gwyn flinched hard, expecting to be struck. Instead, Augus tucked the little flap of leather under Gwyn’s chin and pushed insistently. Pushed until Gwyn reluctantly met Augus’ cold gaze.

‘Kneel,’ Augus said.

Gwyn’s knees folded beneath him automatically. There wasn’t much grace in the movement, and he landed on slate harder than he’d intended. The riding crop never left the underside of his chin, keeping his head in place, now tilted back and looking at Augus’ face. His hands moved fractiously at his sides. Fingers twitching.

Augus moved the riding crop so that it was hanging from his wrist from a loop of leather at the other end. Then he took the black strip of fabric and walked towards him, moving it towards his face and not even hiding what it was meant for.

Gwyn couldn’t stop himself from cringing away. The last time he’d been blindfolded, it made things so much harder. He had no idea what Augus was going to do. Even if he could sense him physically, it wasn’t the same.

‘Augus, I-’

‘You do not talk,’ Augus said, his voice far too soft for the level of command it held. Gwyn shuddered into silence, staring at the blindfold with dread. He could tell that Augus was already annoyed with him for moving away from it. In fact, Augus waited, scowling at him, for Gwyn to move back into position. Gwyn shifted so that his back no longer slanted away from that black piece of fabric that was far more threatening than it should be.

‘You chose not to see the folly in what you were doing,’ Augus said as he looped the fabric around Gwyn’s eyes until there was nothing more than a meaningless sliver of light at the bottom of his vision. ‘So you don’t get to see now.’

Gwyn swallowed at the words, his eyebrows pulling together. Meanwhile, even though Augus was shifting the blindfold, all Gwyn felt – smelled – was the leather of the gloves, the oil that kept them supple. He frowned. He wanted Augus to touch him, but now that Augus was close, there was no proper touching, and he couldn’t even smell Augus’ skin properly. The gloves were in the way.

Gwyn didn’t like it.

A minute later, the riding crop prodded at his arm, the movement clinical. ‘Move your arms behind your back and cross them at the wrists.’

Gwyn hesitated.

This was nothing like when Augus had gently pulled his arms behind his back. When Augus had coaxed and encouraged and fought against mild resistance but had still been kind about it. It was also nothing like what his cousin used to do. His cousin did whatever he wanted, he rarely made Gwyn participate in his torture.

This is different, you asked for this. You asked.

Augus was just supposed to whip him. It was supposed to be…

Gwyn closed his eyes in shame when he realised that he thought it would be easier than this. And so far Augus had done hardly anything at all.

He could sense Augus waiting, and he moved his arms behind his back, crossed his wrists together. He tilted his head to the side, vaguely annoyed at how he couldn’t see. Then he heard Augus walking away from him and felt torn between wanting him to stay and wanting a reprieve.

The rattle of metal, Gwyn inhaled sharply. He didn’t like this. Not at all. He thought of the word Augus had given him to stop everything.

He thought of how humiliated he’d feel if he used it and all Augus had done was tie a strip of fabric over his eyes and made him kneel.

Augus was bringing the chains over. He was. It wasn’t a ruse like Gwyn thought. He wasn’t using leather that was easy to break and snap. And when Gwyn sensed Augus moving behind him, he held his breath. Held it until he felt the leather gloves and then the frigid cold of thick polished metal. His wrists jerked apart and he was breathing shakily and Augus only grabbed his wrists with an iron grip and forced them back.

It was the first time in a while that Augus had made him aware of his physical strength. Augus was Court status now and Gwyn was out of physical condition. He blinked to realise that Augus might be able to truly overpower him. Or that – at the least – Gwyn didn’t want to find out if Augus could.

Gwyn couldn’t stop himself from struggling again when he felt a manacle snap around his left wrist. But Augus held him firm, then eventually clucked his tongue in what sounded like profound disappointment.

Gwyn went still, his shoulders hunched, and hated it as Augus used metal to bind his wrists together. The manacles were wrought iron and connected, so that Gwyn couldn’t separate his wrists at all. The iron itself sent a dull ache into his flesh. All fae were sensitive to it, even higher status fae. There were long bits of chain trailing from the manacles, currently unattached. They made his arms feel heavy.

‘You chose to return to someone who you knew wanted to trap you,’ Augus said, ‘so I’m trapping you too.’

A thin sound, Gwyn realised it came from his throat. He blinked into darkness when he felt more manacles around his ankles. They were clasped into place. His posture was forcibly straightened and then arched back as Augus attached the short metal chains that hung at his wrists to the cuffs at his ankles. It forced his shoulders back, he couldn’t hunch or hide easily now.

Augus began tapping at Gwyn’s foot with the side of the crop.

‘Lift,’ Augus said. ‘Lift up so that you’re braced on your toes.’

Gwyn grunted, trying to make himself do it. Kneeling on his knees with the tips of his toes touching the ground, instead of the bridge of his feet. It was hard to do, especially bound as he was. Augus didn’t once help him, even when Gwyn nearly lost balance. Gwyn’s brow furrowed at the strain in the arches of his feet when he finally found the position that Augus wanted. The backs of his ankles and calves were feeling it already. He wanted nothing more than to slide his feet back to their original position, shins resting properly on the slate.

Augus got up and walked away, opened a drawer and took out something, then shook it so whatever was inside rattled like rice. Then, Augus returned, opened what must have been a box and scattered the rice-sounding objects in the small space on the floor between Gwyn’s knees and his toes.

‘You left us tense,’ Augus said, ‘not knowing what was happening to you. So I too will leave you tense. Though you, at least, will have the luxury of knowing what happens if you lower yourself onto these. A word of warning – you won’t like it.’

Gwyn’s breathing was hitching now. He was painfully aware of his entire body.

When Augus tapped one of his closed fists with the riding crop, Gwyn flinched and then felt bereft when Augus said nothing, didn’t even reassure him. This was nothing like the other times. Nothing. He heard the word he was meant to say echoing through his head. He could say it now and it would be over.

But he had left them with nothing more than words on a piece of parchment. He’d left them knowing – deep down – that they’d be worried and scared, even as he’d also felt that it was best. He’d broken the rule to tell Augus that he wanted to go back to his cousin. And now his cousin was dead.

Gwyn was jolted from his thoughts as one of the taps on his knuckles was hard enough to sting, and his hand opened automatically.

‘Hold this,’ Augus said. It felt like a rubber ball. ‘Squeeze it once.’

The ball depressed in Gwyn’s fingers, he heard the sound of hissing air – the ball must have had holes in it – and then the sound of a short, low whistle.

‘That’s your new signal,’ Augus said, detached.

Gwyn frowned, confused. Why would he need a new signal? Was it a different signal? Was there going to be-

Gwyn made a sound of shock in his throat when he felt leather-covered fingers at his mouth, forcing his teeth apart before he could react. The invasion of it made Gwyn’s gut swoop, and then a wad of material was forced into his mouth and he realised he was being gagged. He panicked, clenched his hands, and the ball made the short whistle sound and then he froze because he’d made the signal. He’d made the signal and he didn’t even know if he’d meant to.

His breathing was coming sharp and fast in his chest. Augus didn’t move the gag away, even though it wasn’t firmly in place yet.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, ‘did you mean to do that?’

Gwyn shook his head quickly, breathing hoarse. He hadn’t meant to do it. But he was scared too. He just wanted Augus to touch him with his bare fingers, just wanted Augus to rest a palm to his back, just…something.

He felt dizzy when he realised that was part of the punishment too.

Since everything had started, since that claw had left the middle of his back, Augus hadn’t touched him with his own skin once. It hurt something inside of him.

‘Then you’ll have to be careful,’ Augus said. ‘Pay attention to your hand.’

Gwyn knew he was right. His instinct to constantly clench his hands into fists wasn’t something he could indulge now. He would stop everything. And he wanted to be brave and good and prove that he could see this through. Could do it, even though it was challenging. How was this so much harder than just being whipped? Gwyn’s shoulders wanted to hunch, but he didn’t have enough leverage with the manacles and the chains.

He whimpered softly as Augus fixed the gag into place properly. The sound was muffled against fabric.

‘You chose not to tell me,’ Augus said, ‘so you don’t get to speak now.’

Then came a thin piece of leather around the ball in his hand.

‘So you won’t drop it accidentally,’ Augus said, tying a knot.

It was small comfort, knowing that Augus wanted him to have some kind of signal. He tried to lean into Augus’ hands, and Augus took his hands away. Gwyn made another sound, hated that it sounded so pitiful.

‘You didn’t let us soothe you then, as we wanted to, as you wanted it,’ Augus said, his voice quiet but steely. ‘So you don’t get it now.’

Gwyn’s eyes squeezed shut.

If he hadn’t run away like that, none of this would be happening now the way it was. He’d be a puppy on Ash’s bed. Or he’d be with Augus, experiencing the torture-that-wasn’t-torture that was far nicer than whatever this was. He shivered, his eyes felt scratchy.

When he heard Augus walking away, he forced his head to straighten, forced his eyes open. Then blinked in panic when the room was plunged into total darkness. He grit his teeth to stop himself from squeezing the ball in reflex.

‘You chose to leave Ash and me in the dark. You hurt us, Gwyn. So you will wait in the dark, and I’m going to leave you now.’

Gwyn heard the click of a door shut and whimpered. He could see nothing now, not even that sliver of light. He was bound and his feet hurt and burned and he tried to shake the blindfold away and it didn’t work. Of course it didn’t work.

He made another sound. A questioning one. A vague, stupid hope that Augus was on the right side of the door. Not the wrong side.

But his senses could tell that Augus had gone. His fae awareness let him know that Augus had walked into the lounge. Augus wasn’t even going to be there for his punishment.

What if Augus decided to just leave him there forever?

Gwyn forced his breathing to calm down.

No, Augus wouldn’t leave him there forever. Augus needed to use the room at some point. He probably wouldn’t leave Gwyn alone for that long at all. This was the waterhorse who foolishly insisted on healing wounds that would heal anyway. Who smeared salve onto bruises even when it wasn’t necessary.

He’d hurt Ash and Augus. He didn’t really understand it, but he knew that he had. He knew that he would – otherwise he wouldn’t have snuck away when Ash’s glamour was thick and warm and he knew that they were happy together. He knew.

That was the worst part. He wanted to believe wholeheartedly that he was bad for them. That he brought them nothing but misery. Yet he knew that the very act of leaving would hurt them worse. Even if he didn’t understand it, and thought they were foolish, and knew they’d one day realise he was awful.

They hadn’t realised it yet.

Gwyn shifted, his feet were really beginning to burn now. His tendons were overstretched, with the balls of his feet pressing at a sharp right angle against the slate and the metal manacles straining everything further. He tried to tune it out, but it was a different kind of pain than what he was used to. It wasn’t a blunt beating, or the great mass of pain that stab wounds could become. It was a specific sharp source of pain that his body kept convincing him he could just ease if he’d shift position and relax his feet and lower his shins to the ground.

He knew that tipping to his side and away from the objects on the slate wasn’t a viable option. He knew that would somehow break the rules even worse than before. There was something meaningful about what Augus had done, it was important that Gwyn see it through properly. No cheating.

But it was getting harder and harder as time passed in the darkness. He tried to push the gag out of his mouth with his tongue, but it didn’t work. Moaned in frustration.

There were a few minutes where he was able to calm his mind. Where he tried to focus on nothing at all. But then his foot cramped and he shouted in pain, the sound dampened by fabric. His foot spasmodically pushed backwards to try and ease the cramp.

His shin made hard contact with whatever was on the ground. Sharp things needled into him, piercing his skin. He yelped, tried to push himself back into position, huffing through the gag and his nose, torn between choosing a cramp that wasn’t going away, or choosing the objects.

He chose the cramp for as long as he could stand it, his fingers shaking with the force of trying to keep them relaxed, to not use the signal. He groaned with every exhale. The chains shifted and clinked, and he realised that if Augus had known that this was going to happen, if he’d known…

But he did it for a living, didn’t he? Of course he’d known. This wasn’t an accident, this was part of it. Gwyn whined, wishing that Augus was there. Just…just a hand on his shoulder, anything, he would take anything. Even if he didn’t deserve it. He didn’t know what the right decision was, his breath wheezed as he tried to convince the arches of his feet to stop. To just relax. To stop.

It didn’t work.

Gwyn was shaking uncontrollably when he finally relented, couldn’t bear the cramps anymore – spreading up through his calves now. He moved fractiously, until his shins and the bridges of his feet rested against the sharp objects. His body still tense, reluctant to rest his full weight against them. They felt like spiky little seeds. Or tiny horse chestnut fruits, except that the spikes were relentless, and didn’t break off underneath his weight.

His shoulders ached with a rusty kind of pain, his wrists throbbed from the iron and his fingers felt weak. The cramps in his feet and legs were only easing off slowly, and every time he shifted to try and make the position more comfortable, he only succeeded in sticking his shins with more of those little points beneath him.

He made a low sound, hanging his head as much as was comfortable. Could feel his chest heaving in the empty room.

All the reasons Augus had given him for everything he was doing: The reason he wouldn’t touch Gwyn, the reason for the gag and the blindfold and the manacles and even the objects beneath him. It was all so planned. Everything to a purpose. It wasn’t his cousin hurting him for fun. It wasn’t even Augus hurting Gwyn because Gwyn liked to experience pain sometimes and thought that was a shameful secret even if Augus didn’t.

It all drew his thoughts back to what he’d done, and how – if things had gone differently with his cousin, if the Bird King hadn’t found him – he’d be dead, and…dare he think it? Ash and Augus would be upset that he was dead.

It was hard to fathom, and yet here he was and Augus had done everything to remind Gwyn that he’d hurt them both. Guilt and shame chased through him. One after the other, turning him cold and then hot and then cold again. He just wanted it to be okay. He was tired of holding himself back from Ash’s touch like he had been. Tired of forcing himself not to go to Augus’ bed. Tired of eating alone in his room. He wanted the leather cuffs back. He wanted so many things he wasn’t supposed to have, but he couldn’t stop himself from wanting them.

Time passed, the aches and hurts wouldn’t disappear. A thread of panic moved through him. Would Augus leave him here until he used the signal? How long was Augus going to leave him here like this?

Gwyn keened softly against the gag, knowing the fabric would contain the sound. He wriggled his shoulders and his wrists, only succeeded in shifting his body so that the sharp points dug in deeper. He could feel hot points underneath his legs now where he’d bled. And then colder areas where the blood was congealing.

He managed to find one more moment of calm before everything began to spin out of his control. His fingers kept twitching against the ball. He wouldn’t be able to hold out much longer and it was humiliating, but he couldn’t help it. He shook hard, whimpered helplessly, tried to keep himself upright even though he felt weakened from the iron and the fear that spun through him.

He just wanted it to be okay. He was ready for it to be over. He just needed- Gwyn’s voice was loud against the gag, knew he was making sounds he’d never let himself make if the gag wasn’t there. If Augus had just whipped him, it would have been so much easier, it would have been-

Gwyn wheezed in shock when he heard the door click open. Turned his face towards Augus without thinking and was too stressed to be embarrassed by the way he was breathing. The half sobbing noises in his chest. The light came on and he saw the sliver of it beneath his eyes and he made a raw, relieved sound that made him realise how much he’d hated being left in the dark.

‘Careful now,’ Augus said, coming straight to him. ‘Careful, Gwyn. It’s over. Shhh. Settle.’

Naked skin on his face. Augus wasn’t wearing the gloves anymore. Gwyn pressed his head into Augus’ hand as hard as he could, hyperventilating, trying to slow his breathing down as he felt fingers stroking his cheeks and a thumb tracing his jaw and he was hungry for all of it. He just wanted it to be over.

‘I can’t do this as quickly as you want,’ Augus said, his voice far warmer than it had been before. ‘Be patient, and we’ll get you out of this situation as soon as possible, all right?’

Gwyn was nodding, and then Augus took his hands away from Gwyn’s face and he made a raw sound and tried to seek out his hands. He didn’t know where they were. Instead, Augus stood close enough so that Gwyn could push his face into Augus’ thigh. So that his nostrils could flare and he’d smell the suede of his pants and fresh water and the green of chlorophyll and the faint hint of fear sweat that wasn’t his own.

Fingers at the back of his head untied the knots from the gag, then pulled it away, mindful of how the cloth stuck to his dry lips.

Augus clasped his shoulder with one hand as he stepped behind him. Gwyn felt like a horse that was still being tamed. When their owners would leave a hand on them at all times, to make sure the horse knew where they were and wouldn’t kick out without thinking.

The knot around the ball he was holding was untied, and Augus plucked the ball from his hand. Then he rubbed his thumb firmly into the centre of Gwyn’s shaking palm for a few seconds, before undoing the manacles.

Gwyn wanted to drop his arms immediately, but hands at his forearms stopped him.

‘Slowly,’ Augus said. ‘Do that slowly, please.’

The hands moved up to his shoulders and pressed carefully in, awakening a flood of scratchy pain, reminding Gwyn that they were strained and sore, and that it would hurt to move too fast. Gwyn nodded. He closed his eyes in relief when Augus rubbed his shoulders in reassurance and moved his hands to the manacles at his ankles.

They fell away too, and Augus dragged the metal away. Then, he kneeled beside Gwyn and pressed his body to Gwyn’s side and encouraged him to move sideways onto his hip, lifting up from the objects on the ground slowly. The blindfold was still on and Gwyn couldn’t see what they were, and as he shifted he hissed, some of the little things staying stuck into his skin and not falling away.

‘You’re doing so well,’ Augus said warmly.

Gwyn shuddered and turned fully into Augus’ torso, hesitantly reaching for him with arms that were pulsing with soreness. When Augus didn’t stop him, Gwyn clutched, breathing heavily.

‘You were very strong,’ Augus said. ‘But then I always knew that you were.’

A hand in his hair, petting him, dragging through his curls. Augus did that a few more times and then shifted.

‘I have to remove these,’ Augus said. ‘Give your legs a chance to heal. It won’t take long. They sting, but it’s superficial.’

Gwyn forced himself to be patient as Augus shifted only a little, reaching around and plucking the objects out of his skin.

‘They’re miniature Cucumis,’ Augus said, ‘a kind of horned melon. It’s one of the few fruits that I can eat. But I dried these when I realised what uses they could have elsewhere.’

The information washed over Gwyn’s awareness. He nodded, glad that Augus was talking to him, glad to feel his skin and not the leather of those gloves.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gwyn said hoarsely. ‘For running away.’

‘I know,’ Augus said, cupping the base of Gwyn’s aching foot with care. ‘I know. I accept your apology. It’s over, Gwyn. No more punishing yourself for this, understand?’

‘I was so scared,’ Gwyn said, realising that he didn’t even know if he was referring to the punishment itself, or the need to run away to his cousin, or what his cousin had done, or what his life was now.

Augus made a hushing sound and then arms were around him, dragging him firmly back against Augus’ chest. And he was taller than Augus and broader than him, but like this, Augus made him feel small and close to a kind of safety he’d always thought was a myth. Augus’ body was warmer than his. Gwyn pressed his face to Augus’ chest, then pressed his ear against his sternum, listening for his heartbeat.

The blindfold was removed last. Gwyn wondered at that, but when it was gone, the light burned his eyes and he kept them mostly closed. Augus pulled them both back so that Gwyn’s legs were no longer in range of the sharp objects. His arms were firm bands around him. The strength that had frightened him before, comforted him now.

‘I thought you’d hit me,’ Gwyn said, his voice cracking. ‘With a whip.’

‘I wondered,’ Augus said, a smile in his voice. He sounded tired though, and Gwyn wanted to be on a bed with him. He wanted to sleep. He was clinging, and he didn’t want to stop.

‘It would have been easier,’ Gwyn said.

‘I suspected,’ Augus said, and now he was definitely smiling. Gwyn could hear it.

Gwyn didn’t know what else to say, and Augus wasn’t pushing him to speak. They subsided into silence, and Gwyn felt starved as he clung to Augus. His eyes closed, his breathing began to settle in heavier, longer exhales. His thoughts quietened and he sank into an emptiness that enfolded him as surely as Augus did. Augus’ fingers combed through his hair, he didn’t seem to mind that Gwyn’s hair was damp with sweat. Then again, Gwyn supposed Augus was more used to damp hair anyway.

It was easy to lose track of time. It occurred to him once that he should ask if Augus was okay sitting on the floor like this, but the words drifted away from his mouth and he left them for a darkness that was different to what the blindfold had offered. It was sweet and vast.

He was falling asleep when Augus’ movements shifted in stages, drawing Gwyn out of the emptiness. He turned his head and blinked up at Augus, surprised at the look on his face. Gentle and warm, something he was more used to seeing when Ash looked at him.

‘How are you feeling?’ Augus said.

‘Is it okay…if I don’t feel bad?’ Gwyn said.

‘More than.’

‘Then…not bad.’

Augus smiled at him, and Gwyn found himself smiling back. But then the expression faltered and he looked over at the dried spiky things on the tiles, and was surprised that he’d forgotten all about the pain in his shins. It was minor, anyway.

‘It wasn’t like- It was different to what I expected,’ Gwyn said. ‘I never felt like this after what they did. After their punishments.’

‘Good,’ Augus said. ‘Can you try and hold onto it for me? It may be hard, but I’d like you to try and remember that this wasn’t to make you keep feeling miserable, but to excise something from your system.’

‘I’m not sure…’ Gwyn said, and then cleared his throat when he realised that the direction his thoughts were taking might not be clear. ‘It worked. That means…it will work again, doesn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ Augus said. His tone was neutral.

Gwyn tried to contemplate a world where he let Augus do this sometimes, punish him for things he knew he’d done wrong. His throat seized at the idea that he had that much control at all – that Gwyn would let someone punish him, instead of just…knowing it was his due. When had he ever had that much power over what happened to him? His throat was so tight he started to cough, and then pushed himself up and away from Augus, staring at him. Something about what had happened had rocked a foundation in the very centre of him. And it had been punishment.

‘What did you do?’ Gwyn said, his voice hoarse. ‘How did you do that?’

‘I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,’ Augus said, though he didn’t look annoyed. ‘What say we get you into a shower, and dressed? You’ll feel better.’

‘Will I?’ Gwyn said, feeling like his world had been turned upside down.

‘We can talk about it more afterwards if you want to?’

Gwyn stared at him and realised that he didn’t really want to be talking about it anymore. Because he was going to talk himself out of whatever peace he’d found – that Augus had helped him find. Because he wanted to hold onto it for as long as he could. Augus had asked him to try, he could at least try, couldn’t he?

He nodded and rubbed at his face, and then fisted his hand and raised it up by his shoulder. Augus didn’t seem surprised by the development, and Gwyn wondered how Augus managed to be so nonplussed when Gwyn felt like something hard had shattered inside himself.

He did know one thing as a certainty now, even as he knew so little these days. While in the shower, he tipped his head back to the hot spray and drank down the water and was awed at the words that floated through his head.

Augus wasn’t a torturer. And that wasn’t torture.

It was amazing.

 

Chapter Text

The rest of the week passed so peacefully that Augus felt as though he’d entered into a dream world where nothing made sense. Gwyn stayed silent, but was content. He read. He worked on his lettering. He ate easily and frequently and even cleared a space on the table that had once served as a cluttered shelf. It turned out that when he had a knife and a fork in his hands, he had impeccable Court manners, and Augus had watched in fascination as Gwyn had used all the cutlery precisely and chewed like he wasn’t starving.

He expected Gwyn to be more stressed about the headspace he’d eventually found during their scene together, but Gwyn remained calm. He didn’t even ask for the cuffs.

It couldn’t be this simple, could it? He’d just lost his cousin. Augus had braced himself to deal with more. But Gwyn seemed satisfied to dwell in whatever place the event had left him in. Occasionally, Augus caught Gwyn gazing at him in wonder – and that wasn’t entirely comfortable either. Yes, Augus had felt a little smug at setting up a punishment scene that had achieved his aims, but it wasn’t supposed to go like this.

So well.

It wasn’t supposed to feel like peace and quiet even though he knew very well that someone else was sharing his space. It wasn’t supposed to feel comfortable. He was meant to be missing his clients, the emptiness of his home, not thinking back to how beautiful Gwyn had looked blindfolded and gagged and bound, chest shuddering with fear and Augus drinking it all up. Even though the waiting had been nearly impossible – uncertain when Gwyn would break under the pressure of it, knowing he couldn’t leave him restrained for too long, but couldn’t disappear for too short a time either.

When Ash returned at the end of his hunt, it was clear he felt the same way. He drew Augus aside, both of them walking around the outside of Augus’ home underneath the green barrier that kept his walls and roof dry.

‘So you haven’t done it yet?’ Ash said, frowning. ‘Cuz I kind of thought-’

‘It’s done,’ Augus said, hoping his voice didn’t sound as surprised as he felt. He knew what he was doing, the outcome wasn’t that shocking, was it? ‘It worked perfectly. He’s settled and calm, not holding himself back from eating or affection. You can see for yourself.’

‘Well fuck,’ Ash said, and then laughed. ‘I don’t really get the mindset you know. The…that would be- That’s bondage and discipline, right?’

‘What?’ Augus said, looking over at him.

‘In the human world, there’s like…dominance and submission, and then bondage and discipline, and then sadomasochism. They all make up the like- the BDSM term I’ve used around you before.’

‘I’m not sure it needs to be quite so complicated,’ Augus said, frowning. ‘That being said, I didn’t expect him to be so suited to the things I desire. I’m not sure what it means, Ash.’

‘It’s good, right?’ Ash said. They stopped by the barrier and Ash trailed his fingers through the glowing green bubble, getting his hand wet before pulling it back and shaking droplets onto dry ground. An eel swooped past them, casting its shadow on them both, no doubt having thought Ash’s fingers were fish.

‘You don’t understand,’ Augus said. ‘He likes pain, he…responds to things the way I’d hoped he would but hadn’t- Until I saw it happen, I thought- I thought I was manufacturing something that couldn’t be true.’

‘Why?’ Ash said. ‘Dude, when I got back in, he let me hug him. He leaned his head on my shoulder. He pointed at all the writing he’d done like a little kid that wanted someone to be proud of him. It was a relief, man, when I left- I didn’t know what I’d be coming back to. And you’re telling me this ‘punishment’ worked or whatever, then…and you’re telling me it was good for you too- Are you really so afraid of something going well in your life? I don’t understand why, Augus, you were happy before you met him. You know that things can be great for you.’

Augus wasn’t a fan of how quickly Ash saw to the heart of a situation. He wandered over to the sconces of werelight outside his bedroom window and pushed his fingers up towards the panes of glass that captured the blue-green glow.

‘How much does someone receive in their lives before it’s too much, do you think?’ Augus said pensively. ‘How much good? I have you, I have my home, I have so many things that together make me feel as though nothing is lacking. I never felt lonely before I met Gwyn, and now I wonder if my house would be lonely without him. I risk so much of my equilibrium with this. I hate that I want to.’

Augus stiffened when arms slid underneath his armpits and wrapped tightly around his chest. His damp hair pressed back and dampened Ash’s shirt – he never wore water-wicking clothing – and Ash tucked his own shaggy head against Augus’ neck, getting the skin wet.

‘Things can’t stay the same forever, bro.’

‘They can,’ Augus said, closing his eyes. ‘You know very well that they can in this realm. How many fae have lived tens of thousands of years without their lives changing one whit?’

‘Yeah,’ Ash said, sighing into his neck. The sensation of it was pleasant and Augus tilted his head back, his ear brushing against Ash’s. ‘But you’ve got a brother that loves the human realm, and an Unseelie King who’s interested in you. Things were gonna change at some point. And maybe, bro, you should give yourself permission to realise you wanted it. You found him, you brought him back here, you made a place for him. Augus, maybe a part of you didn’t want things to stay the same forever.’

‘It wasn’t supposed to be like this,’ Augus said, his head tilted so far back that he could see the bubbled dome that had held fast for so many years. That had protected their home.

‘Don’t do that thing you do,’ Ash murmured. ‘Don’t think about it so much that you can’t enjoy it anymore. Come back inside. Spend some time with us. I’ve missed you both, yeah?’

Lips trailed slowly over Augus’ neck and he shivered pleasantly, checked in with his heartsong and was glad it was receptive, not hostile.

‘I hate hunting,’ Ash said low, like it was a great secret.

‘Oh, Ash,’ Augus said, turning in his arms and embracing him.

‘I hate it.’

‘They’re just humans,’ Augus said, frowning.

But even as he said it, he knew it would never bring Ash any comfort. Sometimes it seemed that he said it more for his own peace of mind. Ash said nothing, but his arms tightened around Augus’ back, and they stayed like that for a long time.

*

That evening, after dinner – Augus eating a root salad while Ash had fried up something heavy and greasy and disgusting for himself and Gwyn – they all lay on Ash’s bed. Gwyn was curled up at the base of it, and Ash was back to calling him ‘puppy,’ and Augus wondered if Ash would be at all offended if he gave Ash a collar and a leash and told Ash to have some fun with it. But why not? Gwyn clearly liked it.

Augus rested cross-legged, his back against the headboard, cushions and pillows supporting him as he read through a thesis on the applications of Elodea.

Ash sat next to him, one leg bent and the other sprawled out, his foot absently stroking Gwyn’s side. He read a book called Northern Lights with a stylised polar bear on the front and seemed absorbed. Beside him, a stack of non-fiction philosophy titles, and then what Ash called ‘children’s books’ that really just seemed like a mix of contemporary and ancient fairytales.

Augus only paid idle attention when Gwyn shifted slowly and then draped himself over Ash’s leg. But he ended up covertly watching as Ash put his book down and Gwyn looked up at him, then looked over at Augus, and then turned back to Ash and pushed himself up until his legs rested between Ash’s and his lips bumped into Ash’s chin.

Ash laughed softly, the sound low and stirring something warm in Augus’ gut. Gwyn seemed to feel the same way, because he braced himself with a hand on the bed and pressed his lips to Ash’s. He didn’t seem to mind when Ash held him still with hands in his hair. Opened his mouth on a noise that Augus swore he could feel vibrate into his own skin. He closed his own book and placed it down quietly on the dresser, then turned towards them to watch.

Augus now knew what Ash’s lips felt like against his own. He knew the sorts of things that Gwyn would be tasting and scenting, knew how the muscles of his mouth would move, the way his tongue would stroke.

They kissed for some time and then drew back. Gwyn dropped his head and panted, his fingers skated underneath Ash’s shirt, stroking him.

Ash and Augus looked at each other, and Augus swallowed at the friendly heat that he saw there, the way Ash’s eyes were a tad brighter than usual.

Gwyn shuffled down Ash’s torso and pressed his lips to his belly, and Augus suddenly realised that Gwyn was learning things about Ash that Augus himself didn’t know. That after all this time, Augus didn’t know what Ash’s belly would feel like against his own lips. It was disconcerting, but not bad, and Augus shifted to get more comfortable. He had a devilish idea, smiled at the situation that was evolving right in front of him.

‘Ash,’ Augus said quietly, ‘maybe you should help him out; take your shirt off.’

Ash made an amused sound, but he lifted and tugged his shirt off with one hand, throwing it to the floor, rubbing at his chest hair with the palm of his hand before dropping it to Gwyn’s shoulder and massaging. Gwyn hesitated for a long moment, and then lowered his head again and pressed his open mouth to Ash’s ribs.

Unlike Augus, Ash had worked out all his life. He was covered with stocky, strong muscle. Watching Gwyn mouth it clumsily was rather more interesting than Augus had thought it would be. He cleared his throat, licked his own lips.

‘Hey, puppy?’ Ash said, lifting Gwyn’s head with a gentle hand beneath his chin. Gwyn looked up, already looking dazed. ‘You okay with Augus telling us what to do for a bit?’

Gwyn’s shoulders shifted, he stared at Augus and nodded. His fingers dug into the sheets. He nodded again.

‘Mm,’ Ash said, smiling at him. ‘Me too. You just stop whenever you need to, okay?’

Gwyn kept looking at Augus, then lowered his head back to Ash’s torso, this time licking the divot between his pectorals.

‘I think you’re heading in the wrong direction,’ Augus said lazily, as Ash’s breath hitched. ‘Don’t you?’

Gwyn paused again, then kissed his way down Ash’s body. Augus reached out and touched the fabric of Gwyn’s shirt.

‘Take this off first,’ Augus said.

Gwyn pulled his shirt off quickly and let it drop by the side of the bed, and then Augus smiled as he watched Gwyn’s shoulder and back muscles shift as he lowered himself again. Kissed further down until he reached the hem of Ash’s pants. He paused there, but Augus didn’t smell fear in the air. Ash was supporting himself on his elbows, watching hungrily, not pushing for anything at all. He looked vulnerable and hungry and delicious. Augus’ eyes flickered between the two of them for a moment, and then stayed on Gwyn when he saw his hands working at the fly of Ash’s pants.

Ash lifted his hips as Gwyn dug his fingers into the hem and tugged his pants and boxers down all the way until they tangled over one ankle and wouldn’t come free when Ash tried to kick them away. He laughed and left them.

Augus was too busy staring. Of course he’d seen Ash before, plenty of times. Knew that he had a lot more body hair than Augus. Curly multi-coloured pubic hair where Augus’ was flat and black. Thick thighs where Augus’ legs were long and wiry with muscle. His cock was a little shorter than Augus’, but thicker, and right now he was half hard and Augus felt a frisson of daring that they were doing this. That he was involved.

Gwyn moved back between Ash’s legs and then hesitated. He looked up at Ash, who leaned in and kissed him gently. Lips brushing over Gwyn’s until Gwyn’s mouth dropped open and his shallow breaths were audible. Then Ash leaned back and Gwyn looked over at Augus.

Augus nodded towards Ash’s legs, waited to see what would happen.

How much had Gwyn even done? When he said he’d had sex, Augus still wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. But Gwyn seemed familiar with a male body, and for all that he was frightened of some things – Ash’s cock didn’t seem to bother him.

Gwyn lowered himself and Augus shifted onto his side properly so that he could see what was happening. He reached out and thumbed Ash’s hip, and Ash’s breath caught.

Damn, but Augus wanted more of that too.

Gwyn nosed at Ash’s cock. First the tip, and then down towards the base. Ash groaned generously, his hips flexed, and his head tipped back towards the headboard. His eyes closed.

‘That’s great, puppy. Do whatever feels right.’

Gwyn started with licking and kissing, and he seemed comfortable doing it. He didn’t seem jarred at the scent, didn’t seem put off by genitalia. If anything, there was a sleepy focus to what he was doing, as though he didn’t even really care how Ash felt. Though Augus knew that wouldn’t be true – this was Gwyn, he’d want approval for what he was doing and seek it out.

Every time Gwyn did something that made Ash shift his hips restlessly or inhale sharply, Gwyn would do it again. Eventually he opened his mouth and wrapped his lips around the side of Ash’s cock and dragged his head up and down. Then he tilted his face and opened his eyes and stared straight at Augus and-

Augus swallowed hard.

‘You think you’re good at this, don’t you?’ Augus said, despite the fact that his cock had jumped at that eye contact.

Gwyn’s mouth moved away from Ash’s cock with a wet sound and he smiled slightly. Not a smug smirk, but something self-satisfied all the time.

Ash reached down and ruffled Gwyn’s hair, and Gwyn when looked up at him the smile became hesitant. But Ash beamed and scratched at the top of his head.

‘It’s all great,’ Ash said, his voice rougher than before. ‘Seriously.’

Gwyn lowered himself again, one hand carefully wrapping around the base of Ash’s cock, his lips finding the side of it again. He watched Augus quietly, and Augus trailed his hand down over his shirt and maintained eye contact with Gwyn as he let his fingers rest between his legs, massaging his own length through fabric, encouraging the hardness that was following. His breathing became deeper, heavier, and he shifted around the constraint of his pants.

Gwyn’s eyes had taken on that dazed look again, the one that Augus realised meant arousal.

Augus held his breath when Gwyn opened his mouth and finally lowered himself over the head of Ash’s cock. Ash was practically vibrating at this point. A fair amount of time had gone by, and Ash’s cock was dark and flushed from the teasing, his hands dragging through his own hair, brushing over his own nipples. Like Augus, neither of them were strangers to self-pleasure.

‘Fuck,’ Ash breathed. ‘God, okay, that’s good. Fuck.’

Augus undid the fly of his black pants in a single movement because the pressure was getting ridiculous. He moved closer, until one of his knees was bent over Ash’s thigh, brushing against Gwyn’s side. He pushed himself up on an elbow and kissed Ash’s shoulder, scraping his teeth over his skin and humming happily when Ash groaned.

‘Good?’ Augus said, looking at him and smirking.

‘You are such a little shit,’ Ash breathed in a rush. Then he gasped, mouth open on an exhale. ‘Fuck, Gwyn, do that again. Fuck.’

Whatever Gwyn had been doing, he must have repeated it, because Ash moaned and his hand came down and ghosted over Gwyn’s hair. Augus watched the movements, curiosity piqued when Gwyn pressed his head up towards Ash’s touch. Ash wasn’t actually watching what he was doing, and he’d missed it.

But Augus hadn’t. He shifted position slightly, resting his hand flat on Gwyn’s head.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said, his voice becoming sterner. ‘If you need to stop, you remember that you can use the hand signal, don’t you?’

A shift over Ash’s cock that was a nod of acknowledgement.

‘I want to try something,’ Augus said to the both of them. Then, he bit the inside of his lip hungrily and pushed Gwyn’s head down further. His motion was too firm to be a suggestion, and Gwyn stiffened and then his back arched beautifully and he whimpered. Mouth sinking further onto Ash’s cock.

‘Move your hand away, Gwyn,’ Augus said. ‘I want you as far down as you can go.’

‘Jesus fucking hell,’ Ash said, and then the next words he spoke were muffled as he pressed a hand over his mouth and cheek. Augus looked at him quickly, at his hazel eyes staring up at the ceiling, smiled wickedly and fisted his hand in Gwyn’s hair. This wasn’t bad for his heartsong at all, this was brilliant.

Augus turned back to see Gwyn move his shaking hand away. Augus pushed Gwyn down again, hearing the hisses of air coming out of Gwyn’s nose, the wet slick sound of it, and then felt the moment that Gwyn hit his limit. Felt it in the jerk of Gwyn’s shoulders and the wet choking noise and his own cock ached with the thought of holding Gwyn’s head down like that on his own cock. But no, instead he dragged Gwyn upright, because he had to know if Gwyn liked it as much as he did.

Gwyn’s mouth was reddened and swollen and wet. His pupils dilated. He breathed heavily, stared at Augus like he couldn’t think. He didn’t look scared, he looked debauched.

‘Yes?’ Augus said.

‘Yes,’ Ash said.

‘I’m not talking to you,’ Augus laughed.

‘Don’t care,’ Ash said, chuckling.

Gwyn was still staring at Augus, his hair caught up in Augus’ fingers. He stared at Augus like his life was being held in the balance.

‘Again?’ Augus said to him.

Gwyn nodded, scraping his top teeth over his bottom lip. And that- Well, Augus could only be expected to resist so much.

He dragged Gwyn towards him and thrust his tongue into Gwyn’s mouth, groaned deeply when he realised he could taste Ash. Taste the faint salty-silty precome and a savoury musk and then Gwyn’s carbon-coppery flavours beneath that. Gwyn kept his mouth open for the kiss, leaned as hard as he could – holding himself up with a hand on the bed.

When he encouraged Gwyn back between Ash’s legs, Gwyn groaned before he’d even lowered himself again.

‘Kiss the tip first,’ Augus said, and the sound Ash made had a touch of hysteria to it. ‘Oh come now,’ Augus said to him. ‘I thought you were an expert at sex. You make it seem like you’ve never done this before.’

‘I haven’t,’ Ash ground out. ‘Not with my fucking brother and roommate. It’s diff- Oh…kay that’s nice.’

Gwyn was kissing and licking the tip of Ash’s cock, then opening his mouth and trying to lower himself, even though Augus’ grip in his hair was too firm to allow it. Augus held him up and away for a few more seconds, and then pushed Gwyn’s head down, keeping up the pressure when Ash’s cock hit the back of Gwyn’s throat. Feeling it again in that tension. He could smell arousal thick in the air now; from all of them.

‘Can you take more?’ Augus asked Gwyn.

A short, choked off sound and Augus drew him back and let him take a breath, and then pushed his head down again.

‘Try,’ Augus said. ‘Swallow, Gwyn.’

Ash made a long, strangled noise and clutched at Augus’ other arm, fingers digging in. But Augus focused on Gwyn, felt the moment when he could take more, when his throat opened and his head sunk deeper. Felt something like victory at the sound Ash made, and pushed Gwyn’s head down until his nose was buried in Ash’s pubic hair and his hands were swimming for something to clutch on the bed, finally settling on Augus’ knee and Ash’s thigh.

‘Keep swallowing,’ Augus said. ‘That’s it. That’s good, Gwyn. How’s that for you, Ash?’

‘You’re…a controlling…son of a bitch,’ Ash gasped. ‘I love you. Don’t stop. Oh, Gwyn, that’s fucking perfect.’

Augus kept his hand on Gwyn’s head and leaned towards Ash’s mouth, kissing his open lips, exhaling into his gasps for air. Ash’s hand tangled in Augus’ mane, his hips rolled into Gwyn’s mouth.

Augus wanted to lose himself in it, but he couldn’t afford to. He had to monitor Gwyn’s breathing – or lack thereof – and after a few more seconds, he pulled Gwyn off Ash’s cock again. He stopped kissing Ash and looked down, restraining himself from crawling down the bed and tearing into that expression on Gwyn’s face until he was exhausted and had spilled so much come there was nothing left.

‘Are you hard?’ Augus purred to him.

Gwyn made a weak, despairing noise and nodded. He wiped at his lips and stroked his fingers over Ash’s cock with the easy sensuality of someone who didn’t want to stop.

‘Do you think we should finish him off?’ Augus said.

Gwyn nodded, and his eyes slipped past Augus’ to Ash’s, and then the grip on Ash’s cock tightened and Ash swore. His hips bucked.

‘You do what you like,’ Augus said. ‘And after, I’ll reward you, yes?’

Gwyn blinked at him and then lowered his mouth back to Ash’s cock without a word. Augus watched, noticed that Gwyn was attempting to deep throat on his own, and he bit the inside of his mouth because one day he was going to be the recipient of that and he was going to make Gwyn work for it. The knowledge that Gwyn would probably love it was heady. When he kissed Ash again, he was ruthless.

He stole where Ash wasn’t yet ready to give. He bit at Ash’s bottom lip and ate up the sound of his voice breaking. He thrust his tongue over Ash’s and wouldn’t let him get the upper hand, though he tried, wet muscles slicking back and forth. His teeth scraped. He tilted his head and bit wetly at Ash’s stubbled jaw, then the hollow where jawbone met ear.

One hand found Gwyn’s head and stroked over his curls, his other hand thrust into Ash’s wet hair and held his head in place. He placed his teeth over Ash’s throat, as gently as he could manage in the moment, flicked his tongue against the sensitive skin. Ash’s hand came up, holding Augus’ head to his neck as he started to shiver.

Ash and Augus both held each other in place, and Augus groaned when he felt Ash spasm. Ash’s body trembled as he came and Augus kept his teeth over his throat, feeling powerful, his mind swimming with lust. At the last moment he turned his head just enough that he could look at Gwyn sidelong. Saw those white-blonde curls between Ash’s legs, his mouth still around Ash’s cock, he hadn’t even withdrawn when Ash had come.

‘Come here,’ Ash said roughly. ‘Come here.’

Augus thought Ash meant him, but instead, Ash’s hand reached down and stroked over Augus’ hand on Gwyn’s hair. Ash’s body hunched enough that he could get his hand underneath Gwyn’s chin, and he drew him up and off. Gwyn immediately brought a hand to his mouth, wiped at his lips, and Augus wished he hadn’t. Wanted to see the wet, sticky mess of it.

‘Come here, puppy,’ Ash rumbled. ‘Quick, come on.’

Gwyn fumbled his hands underneath himself and pushed himself up on the bed, his breath trembling as Ash drew him up until he could lick over his mouth. Gwyn’s eyes fluttered shut and his nostrils flared, he looked like he was close to collapsing.

The licking turned into kissing, and Augus soothed his fingers through Ash’s hair and then found it easy to lean in and press his tongue into Gwyn’s ear.

It was too much for him, and Gwyn’s elbow buckled. He ended up slumped over Ash’s shoulder, breathing hard.

‘You should give him that reward,’ Ash said to Augus. ‘Because that was fucking amazing. That deserves a reward. Also you put your teeth on my fucking neck!’

‘It made you come, didn’t it?’ Augus said, sliding off the bed to take off his pants and grinning at the look that Ash gave him.

‘I’m gonna get you back for that,’ Ash breathed.

‘Are you?’ Augus said, arching an eyebrow.

Was he? The idea of it sent a fluttering sensation through his whole body. His cock was standing almost fully at attention now. He’d always taken some time to become aroused, and he dropped his fingers to his cock and gave himself a lazy stroke, pushing his worries into deeper waters. Ash was happy. Gwyn seemed fine.

It was good. He didn’t need to overthink this.

Augus got back onto the bed as Gwyn was still trying to fumble at the clasp of his pants with what looked like numb fingers. Augus leaned over Ash’s legs and gently pushed Gwyn’s hands away, holding his blue gaze as he undid the fastening and watched for any signs of fear or hesitation. But Gwyn didn’t offer up either of those things. Perhaps it was because Ash was there, or perhaps Gwyn was still floating on whatever high he’d found after the punishment.

Gwyn’s cock burned hot in his fingers, swollen and flushed with blood, the tip sticky with precome. He knelt on the bed, his pants around his knees, and he stared at Augus with the desperation of someone who wanted to come.

Augus quickly thought about the logistics, and pulled Gwyn forward by his cock so that Gwyn had no choice but to fall on his hands and arch over Ash’s body. From there, it was easy enough to get him to shift so that his hands were pressed on the mattress on either side of Ash’s torso, his knees between Ash’s legs.

Augus shifted so that he was lying down on his side facing away from them both, all the better to see his hand working in slow movements over Gwyn’s cock. Gwyn’s body lurched at the movements, and Augus smiled to himself, then hummed when Ash began trailing his fingers over Augus’ calf and ankle.

‘You have nice legs,’ Ash said, his voice lazy and warm. ‘I’ve always thought so.’

‘It’s from running around picking up after you all my life,’ Augus said.

Gwyn breathed out laughter that ended in a deep groan as Augus tested how hard he could squeeze the base of his cock.

‘Puppy, look at your arms shaking,’ Ash observed. ‘Does that feel good?’

A whimper, and Augus moved his hand faster. It wouldn’t take too long, truly, because Gwyn was already oversensitive. Augus liked the sight of his thin, elegant fingers on a cock that large, liked that every time he tightened his fingers over the tip, Gwyn moaned and his elbows started to buckle.

‘That’s good, puppy,’ Ash said, his voice still rough. ‘Hold yourself up now. You can do it. Jesus, you’re beautiful.’

A faint sound of protest from Gwyn, but then he went back to panting, his hips bucking in frustrated movements into Augus’ hands.

It was only a minute later when Gwyn went down to his chest, his elbows collapsing as Augus jacked him firmly into coming. Thick, creamy pulses jetted over Ash’s thigh, Augus’ hand, and there was a lot of it. Far more than Augus expected. He didn’t remember there being quite this much the first time and his eyebrows raised, a smile rested at the corners of his lips.

Gwyn went lax, crying out when Augus squeezed his cock after he’d finished spilling, as though encouraging more from him. He was sensitive, probably sore, but he didn’t move away, and he didn’t protest more than that lost sound.

Stunning.

Augus shifted so that he could rest his head on Ash’s shoulder, and lowered his come-slick hand to his cock, moving the stuff over himself, knowing that it wouldn’t last long as a lubricant before it became tacky.

That wasn’t going to be too much of a problem. Now that he didn’t have to hold it back as much, his arousal flooded wetly through him. He arched his head back and his hand – still hot from Gwyn’s cock – burned over himself.

He gasped when he felt another hand over his and opened his eyes, looked down to see Ash’s broad, blunt hand there, forcing him to squeeze a little harder, move faster.

It felt like his breath had fallen from his lungs, stolen from his body. He couldn’t breathe at all. That was Ash’s hand. Between his legs and wringing sensations from him that were far sharper because it was his brother. Augus squeezed his eyes shut and moaned thinly.

‘Good?’ Ash husked.

‘Mm,’ Augus managed, arching his back and hips into their hands and losing track of everything except the bursts of green behind his eyelids.

A clumsy hand dragged across the outside of his thigh, then pressed flat to Augus’ sternum. That was Gwyn, Augus could tell. His hand hardly moved, rested against him – he had to be exhausted.

Augus liked it more than he knew he would. Two sets of hands on him, and his own – sticky and tacky from drying come and friction, adding an element of roughness to his smooth movements. Ash right there, driving Augus forward harder than Augus would have chosen. But Augus’ heartsong was quiet, and instead it was lust that bubbled through him, slinking down his spine like a current of overheated water.

‘Come on, Augus,’ Ash said, and Augus groaned. Arched his neck and felt like his whole body was becoming one long line of tension. He scraped his toes across Ash’s legs, unable to help himself. ‘Come on, brother.’

Ash murmured other things, about how beautiful he thought Augus was, about how good Augus’ cock felt and how much he wanted to see him come until the words ran together and Augus swam in the praise of it, loving that soothing warmth alongside the heat of his own arousal. With no clients to monitor closely, he fell into the relaxed headspace he usually only found when he was self-pleasuring.

He took a great breath when he felt his muscles begin to spool tighter and tighter, moaned sharply when the first contractions of orgasm powered through him. His body taut and touched by Ash and Gwyn both. He rode out the waves of it, mouth open, arched too far from Ash’s mouth to kiss him even though he ached for it.

As the aftershocks moved through him, he blinked his eyes open and shared a sleepy, self-satisfied smile with Ash. Then he reached out with his hand to stroke Gwyn across the face. Gwyn had his head on Ash’s shoulder and was watching him in tired wonder. But when Augus’ fingers got close enough, Gwyn shifted and his tongue came out, pink and reaching, to lick Augus’ spill off his hand.

‘That’s kind of you,’ Augus said. ‘But you don’t have to.’

But Gwyn seemed to be enjoying himself, taking up Augus’ wrist in a gentle grip and cleaning it with the flat of his tongue. Every now and then he’d swirl the point of his tongue over Augus’ palm, or slide it into the vee of his fingers.

‘There’s so much sensuality in you,’ Augus observed, curling closer to Ash and thumbing Gwyn’s cheek gently. ‘Isn’t there? After all this time, you’re such a touch-hungry creature, aren’t you?’

‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Ash said, and then he stroked Augus’ back. ‘Was that good for you? Your heartsong?’

‘It’s fine,’ Augus said. ‘Truly. Being able to control things in the beginning meant that it was all fine at the end. This…works.’

He looked up at Ash, who nodded like he’d known it would work out all along.

‘Are you…good?’ Augus said.

‘I’m fucking awesome.’

Augus looked at Gwyn and was about to ask him, when he realised he didn’t have to.

Gwyn already had his eyes closed, eyebrows and forehead relaxed, mouth peaceful except for the hint of a smile at the corners. His breathing was slow. Augus stroked his saliva slick fingers over Gwyn’s cheek, and Gwyn’s smiled widened, then he took a deep breath and sighed it out, settling more comfortably against Ash's side.

Augus and Ash shared a look, and Augus reminded himself not to overthink it, to just let it be.

‘Proud of you,’ Ash said, leaning up and kissing the tip of Augus’ nose before settling back and closing his eyes. ‘Proud of all of us.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said quietly, letting his thoughts drift as he floated on the loose, pleasant sensations swimming through his body. He stroked Gwyn’s cheek for a long time, thinking about nothing except how good it felt to touch them both at the same time.

 

Chapter Text

Gwyn didn’t think of him as the Bird King anymore. He thought of him as the Raven Prince now. He wasn’t sure when it had happened, but he was sure that the Raven Prince still stunk of bird musk and he seemed to revel in the scent – did he ever clean that cloak?

Noises filled his ears. Today they stood above a flat plain of sand and stone, a round caldera fringed by the tall and fossilised dusky red remains of a volcano that was no longer active. Below them, hundreds fought, wearing old, blood-stained armour and wielding swords – every one of them tarnished. There were cries and moans of pain, shrieks of despair, and their tired bodies moved with the energy of those who had been at battle for far too long. The swords seemed too heavy for their joints, plate armour too heavy for their knees and elbows and ankles.

One side of the battle was comprised of fae covered in horny appendages, the other side made of a population of lizard scaled fae. No one seemed to be winning. The battle had a pointless, endless feel to it. The ground beneath their feet was tacky brown – not with soil as Gwyn had first thought – but with layer after layer of blood.

So much of it that they had to have been battling there for weeks? Months?

‘They’re cursed,’ the Raven Prince said, his arms folded on a platform of elevated rock as he looked idly down at them. ‘They once made a very powerful Mage angry, and he cursed them with dual fates. That they would be compelled to battle forever, and that battle wounds would never fell them. They cannot leave the battleground, and they cannot kill each other. They’ve been here for seventy five years.’

Gwyn stared.

‘How do they feed?’ Gwyn said, hearing more despair in their voices than anything like bloodlust. Gwyn could hear distant sobbing and pleading. Perhaps they weren’t pleading with each other, but begging for death. He didn’t know their language. They sounded desolate. It made his chest feel cold.

‘That’s what bothers you?’ the Raven Prince said, laughing quietly. ‘They’re permitted to stop for two hours past the stroke of midnight. There, in their respective areas, they’re allowed to sleep or eat. The sleep will never be refreshing. And the food – which replenishes blood and sweat – will never sate them. It was a well-made curse.’

‘Why don’t you break it?’

‘I can’t,’ the Raven Prince said. He looked over and smiled at Gwyn’s expression. ‘I may be quite powerful, but I’m not a god. It’s also considered exceedingly rude for a Mage to break another Mage’s enchantment. Especially a curse of this calibre. It doesn’t do for Mages to be rude to one another. That’s when duels happen. They almost always end in death.’

Gwyn stared down at them. One fae had fallen to his knees and his shoulders were moving as though he was sobbing. He was wailing by the time he forced himself to his feet to start fighting again.

Seventy five years…

‘You can break the curse,’ the Raven Prince said.

‘What?’ Gwyn gasped. ‘With magic?’

‘Oh no, with that light of yours. If you enter that battleground as a psychopomp, what you do to them wouldn’t count as a war wound. You’d free them, Gwyn. You’re not a Mage, so you wouldn’t draw the same level of ire as I might. You see, I’ve been thinking about it – your rubbish need to care for others, has led me to conclude that this might be the best way to get you to feed that light of yours. You’re not leaving here without doing it.’

‘I…’

‘You’d only have to set one of them free,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘And it’s a contained space. Even if you spill over, you can’t hurt anyone else except those who beg for death. You’d be a mercy to them, Gwyn.’

A choking horror spread through Gwyn’s body and he moved a foot away from the Raven Prince, his skin feeling icy despite the sun beating down on them.

‘You have two choices,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘I can make you do it. Which will involve me reaching into your body with the ether and taking all control away from you, and if you choose this, I will not stop until it’s done. If you think I have used you as a puppet before, you have no idea what I can truly do with what lurks within you. Or, you can do it yourself. And you can choose how many you kill. I will consider it a success if you just kill one of them with your light.’

I don’t want to.

But Gwyn knew not to say it. He could see the impatience in the Raven Prince’s gaze. Twice, the Raven Prince tampered with Gwyn’s light without his permission. Gwyn knew he wouldn’t be allowed to keep stalling like he was. At some point, he was going to have to do what his parents had always told him he could never do.

This was the King of the Unseelie. He couldn’t disobey the King.

Gwyn stared down into the crowd and knew that he was letting minutes drag pass. Kept waiting for the Raven Prince to snap at him as he looked at the fae beneath them both. They looked exhausted and unhappy, and Gwyn had killed fae before to defend himself, and this would be…

Well, he could just kill one, and then…

At least ten minutes passed before Gwyn found the strength to turn back and nod stiffly, feeling not quite like himself. ‘I can…I’ll do it. Once. One of them. Just once.’

‘Perfect,’ the Raven Prince said, clapping his hands together. Then, he reached towards Gwyn easily and grasped his arm, nails digging in through his shirt. ‘Brace yourself. We’ll be protected on the field.’

They teleported for only microseconds, landing in the middle of the battlefield, protected by a silvery ball of energy. Around them the fae flowed and parted, unable to stop fighting for even a few seconds to contemplate what had happened in their midst.

But those that had noticed began shouting at them in the common tongue even as they fought:

‘Help us! Help us!’

‘Please! Mercy!’

‘See, Gwyn?’ the Raven Prince said, smiling. ‘They want your assistance.’

‘They want the curse broken,’ Gwyn said. ‘Not to die.’

‘Don’t be a naïf,’ the Raven Prince said, laughing. ‘Do you wish to stand here for hours to hear them beg to be put out of their misery? Seventy five years is a long time to battle, Gwyn. They suffer cramps and strains and ligament tears. They must push on through injury and they are never whole. They eat only to replenish the blood they’ve lost. Did you know the sands here used to be white? Well…not for a long time now.’

Gwyn felt his light flickering down in the very depths of himself. He was feeling for it absently. Even though he wanted nothing to do with it and even though being closer to it made him recoil inside of himself. It was there within him, quietly cautious on the surface and insatiable. He well remembered.

But if it was just…one of them.

Gwyn’s heart ached. He’d never met these people. The whole place smelled of death and yet none of them could die. What kind of Mage would curse hundreds of fae with something like that? What had they done?

A sword glanced off the silver barrier, and then the fae that held the sword fell back against it, a hatchet in his upper arm. He whimpered several times and then got up and kept fighting.

‘Charming,’ the Raven Prince drawled. ‘Any time you’re ready, Gwyn. Do you want my help, perhaps?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking. He did not want that to happen to him again. He stepped as far away from the Raven Prince as the silvery ball allowed.

He closed his eyes and concentrated and reached for something he hadn’t reached for in so long that he thought it would be hard.

It wasn’t hard.

Just the act of mentally searching it out made a sharp brightness inside of him roar to life. He felt it as a dizzying rush, staggered and felt a hand curl into his shirt and pull him back, heard a cautioning voice.

He must have stepped past the barrier.

But his light was right there, growing and burning out the backs of his eyes and racing in his veins and making his mouth taste of metals and bright acidic chemicals that turned his saliva sour.

After so many years of shoving it deep, he felt it shouldn’t be so easy now to unleash it. He had a brief moment of worry, of concern for what he was doing. But then the light was leaping to his fingertips and his eyes were open and he was mentally chanting: ‘Just one, just one, just one.’

Some darker, predatory thing inside of himself laughed at those words. Then, it was no longer something he kept separate from himself, and he felt the laughter in his own lungs and felt his mouth curl into something that others would have mistaken as a smile.

The light split the skin and flesh of his arms apart, it crackled through his palms, tore at the spaces between his nails and fingertips. Then it was there, lashing out, arcing forth. It burst through the body of one of the battling fae before him. It gathered around the body, and then the light shifted and rushed back towards Gwyn in a painless rush. It was in him. Something that wasn’t his. Something that was seventy-five years of misery and wanting to be dead and flickering with fragility as it searched and searched for something that Gwyn suddenly wanted to desperately be able to give to it. Whatever it was.

Gwyn hissed a breath as he felt a resonant pulse in the atmosphere around him. It was the ring of a bell, the signal to a place far beyond anything he had known. And knowledge settled in him ancient and profound; he had to send the flickering thing to the place, and just by acknowledging it, the flickering thing went off into a world that didn’t belong to Gwyn. A different realm.

It would have filled him with wonder, but something red and bright and hungry was taking over anything that remained of his thoughts. His whole body glowed incandescent and he stepped out of the protective barrier and spread his arms wide.

That was when they began to fall before him.

Gwyn didn’t care that some were terrified, or that some begged him for it, or that some tried to run. He strode after the ones that tried to escape the light’s wrath. Sent flickering being after flickering being towards the places they were supposed to go. Two realms beyond the fae realm, both of them vast and welcoming – just not welcoming to him.

Mindless, voracious, he lost track of time as he burned through the battlefield. The clunkiness of his body annoyed him. He wanted to become only light, burst out so bright and inevitable that nothing would escape him. In his mind the ringing of bells. Realms beyond his reach beckoning for what he could deliver to them. Gwyn stubbornly hung onto his flesh, some deeper instinct clinging to blood and bone and skin.

Then, there was nothing left to feed upon. No one living that wasn’t the King in his ball of silver. Gwyn’s light pulsed a few more times. It shot in sparks from his hands and circled the caldera, seeking.

There was no one left.

Gwyn fell to his knees and then finally thought to call his light back. He expected to have to fight it, to wrestle it down into himself. But his light came willingly, like a tired dog returning only too happily to its master. He felt it go deep without having to shove it in place. Felt it soft and quiet inside of him.

He didn’t black out, but his mind emptied. He thought of nothing at all.

*

A crunching of footsteps and the Raven Prince stood over him. Gwyn met his black gaze with a neck that ached. His whole body felt like it had been put through a wringer. He could hardly understand what had happened.

It was only meant to be one of them.

Just one…

‘My darling, you were so hungry,’ the Raven Prince said, staring at him in marvel. ‘Your eyes are still glowing. Isn’t that something? Does it count as a broken curse if you kill all those who have ever fallen under it? I suspect so.’

Gwyn stared up at him, hardly able to understand what the Raven Prince was saying. He stared down at his arms which were cauterised by his own light. Wounds open and cracked, a ruddy brown colour in the furrows of his skin. It was a dull, scratching pain. His palms had crackled flesh upon them. Every time he went to clench his fists, it hurt.

‘Where did you send them?’ the Raven Prince said.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, his mouth feeling wrong. He felt like he was endless, too big for the flesh that contained him. If he let himself open up properly, he would disappear and become too big to be held by skin and bones. It should scare him. It didn’t.

Where did he send them?

‘There was a place,’ Gwyn said, clearing his throat. ‘There were places. I sent them there.’

‘Was it very hard?’

‘It was where they belonged,’ Gwyn said, wanting to rub at his face, at the sweat and dust that had gathered there. He was aware that he stunk of decay and blood and gore. He pushed himself into a standing position and the world swooped around him. Viscera clung pink and yellow and violet to his bare feet. He looked down at himself. He must have stepped in dead bodies and not realised.

‘Could you go there yourself?’ the Raven Prince said, a strange obsessive light in his eyes. ‘Could you visit the place where you sent them?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, his mouth still not working quite right. ‘I didn’t belong there.’

‘But could you?’ the Raven Prince said again.

Gwyn licked at the inside of his mouth. Then he looked all around himself at the husks of bodies that he’d left behind. There was nothing of their lives within them anymore. He’d sent them all away. The light had captured them and he’d fed off something and then sent them…

He’d never felt so satiated. It was almost dizzying. He was stuffed full, overflowing with it, even nauseated. He’d throw up, but his stomach was empty. There was a pulsing, vibrant power in the back of his head. It felt like the beginning of a headache.

‘How often…?’ Gwyn said, furrowing his brow. ‘How…often do I need to feed like that?’

‘After today, not for a good long while I expect,’ the Raven Prince said, smirking at the carnage around them. ‘And really, not like that. Too long you’ve spent not feeding the way you should. That was a glut.’

‘I can still eat…normal food?’

‘If you like,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘It will keep this at bay for longer. You do not have to concern yourself with using it or losing control whenever I’m not there. You have exemplary self-control – almost too exemplary. But there are always fae I need killed. You’ll come in handy.’

‘I’m not…your murderer,’ Gwyn said, feeling numb.

He’d killed all those people and it had felt easy and wonderful. Now, standing there, he felt like he should be bothered by it. Ash hated hunting a single human every month. Gwyn had just killed…

He had no idea how many people he’d killed.

‘I’m not anyone’s murderer,’ Gwyn managed.

‘Darling, you are a psychopomp. Deliverer of death, bringer of darkness. A light that devours. Oh the tales they’ll tell. When you’re a Mage, you’ll-’

‘I am not your murderer,’ Gwyn rasped, stepping towards him and glaring at him. ‘Unless you want me to be your murderer, and then I will find a way.’

The Raven Prince’s eyes glittered like onyx. His lips thinned and he raised his hand and Gwyn snarled at him.

‘Don’t,’ Gwyn said.

‘You cannot be permitted to threaten me like that,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘You do not call me King, you do not say ‘Your Majesty,’ you run your mouth and you-’

‘You threaten me,’ Gwyn said. ‘All the time. These things you think are wondrous are not wondrous. You cannot show me this power of mine and then expect me not to use it to defend myself around you.’

The Raven Prince stared at him. But he lowered his hand. One of his eyebrows raised and he tilted his head.

‘You’ll need to feed that light, Gwyn,’ the Raven Prince said finally. ‘Would you rather feed upon the fae you find for yourself? Or would you rather I procure your food for you? That is a privilege you do not deserve and it is not worthy of my time, yet I offer it. I know the very lowest of the low, and I know that you – with your soft, weak-willed ways and your sentiment – would not live with yourself otherwise.’

Gwyn stared down at his hands again. The Raven Prince was right, except that he forgot one thing, Gwyn didn’t need to feed his light. He’d ignored it for decades. He could continue to ignore it for decades. It would be hard – especially now that he knew how good it felt to let it loose – but the Raven Prince himself had just said that Gwyn had exemplary self-control.

The Raven Prince had also said that Gwyn was on his way to permanently damaging his ability to feed, which meant that maybe one day Gwyn wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone with his light, even if he wanted to.

He looked up at the Raven Prince and blinked at him slowly. Thought of how much power this bird in front of him held.

The field of carnage drew his gaze. He’d been terrified of it as a child, this potential he had to ruin everything. Yet here, it seemed like it was the only thing that had brought silence to the land. The only thing had stilled the frenzied violence. He looked down at his hands again, wondered what Ash and Augus would say if they knew what he’d done.

Would he even tell them? Perhaps he’d have to.

‘I’m thirsty,’ Gwyn said. He couldn’t even lick his lips properly. His tongue was tacky and snagged on chapped skin.

‘You could drink their blood, if you wished,’ the Raven Prince said, and there was something cutting in his voice that Gwyn couldn’t interpret.

But Gwyn didn’t want to do that. Perhaps, while in the middle of the rampage, he’d thought of it. Now, everything inside of him was still. He wanted cool, fresh water. Gwyn didn’t bother responding to the sharp needle in the Raven Prince’s voice.

There was a crunch upon the ground as the Raven Prince approached him. Gwyn tensed, kept his eyes down, craved water falling upon his body and washing all the death away. He never knew that the other side of his bloodlust could feel like this. He was scoured out and empty, but it felt right. Something inside of him had curled up and like a sated monster, was sleeping. All his thoughts were slow, but he felt sure, too.

Sure of everything; except the Raven Prince coming closer.

The Raven Prince stood close enough that the feathers of his cloak nearly brushed Gwyn’s body.

Gwyn flinched at the hand that cupped his cheek. At the slender, cool fingers that hardly touched the dust and sweat caking his skin. That hand stayed gentle, drawing Gwyn’s gaze up to meet the obsidian eyes of his King.

‘I am going to teach you the many wonders that you can perform with this light,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘You can use it as a weapon. You can use it to teleport. You can use it to make light in the darkness and cloak yourself in a glow that makes you a beacon for others. You can soothe the dying or destroy the well and healthy. There will be so much more than what you know now. But for now, your gluttony has made you stupid.’

‘My gluttony? Or yours?’ Gwyn said.

The Raven Prince’s laugh was harsh but delighted, the fingers on Gwyn’s cheek petted him a couple of times and then the Raven Prince spun away, the sounds falling from his mouth like short caws.

‘Ah, Gwyn, not that stupid,’ the Raven Prince said, surveying the blackened land and sighing with satisfaction. ‘Taronis has said that I am to permit some amount of dissent from you, which surprised me, since he did not like it at all from me.’

Gwyn didn’t respond. He had no idea who Taronis was. He could still feel the imprint of the Raven Prince’s fingers on his face.

He needed sleep, he realised. A lot of it. Seconds later, he yawned so hugely that his jaw cracked and ached. He yawned again and closed his eyes, trying to keep his mouth closed on a third yawn.

He was still yawning when the Raven Prince teleported him back to the Unseelie Court.

*

Gwyn was half-asleep when the guard teleported him to Augus’ foyer. He barely managed a nod of farewell before stumbling inside and scuffing his way towards his bedroom and his shower, hearing Augus’ voice behind him and no longer caring about what was being said. Augus’ voice was stern, then concerned, and it was only as Gwyn stripped off his shirt and let it fall to the tiles that he found a response to what he was being asked.

‘It’s okay,’ Gwyn said.

He staggered into the shower cubicle itself, stripping off his pants and throwing them some distance away. He leaned against the glass and turned the taps, shivering when the water came out too cold. It woke him up enough that he caught:

‘You’ve traipsed blood and muck all over the carpet.’

‘Sorry,’ Gwyn said, rubbing at his face, the water sluicing the sweat out of his hair. Then, as the spray of water heated, he sank to his knees and slumped, lifting his head and drinking mouthful after mouthful of whatever he could catch. He knew he couldn’t sleep in the shower, but he wasn’t sure he could get up, either.

Gwyn didn’t move when he sensed Augus leaning into the shower cubicle, watching him. After a minute of silence, he reached an arm around and started trying to rub the blood off his feet. The cracks in his hands still hurt, they were healing too slowly.

‘Is any of it your blood?’ Augus said.

Gwyn shook his head, sniffing loudly and then coughing. He swallowed down phlegm and dust. The numbness was receding into a dull sort of misery that made all his movements heavy.

‘What happened?’

‘I fed,’ Gwyn said. His voice sounded empty. ‘The Raven Prince made me feed my light.’

Augus muttered something under his breath, but the words he said after that were clear and…more gentle than Gwyn expected given he’d just gotten blood on the carpet. Augus was fussy at the best of times.

‘What do you need?’

‘Sleep,’ Gwyn said.

‘We’re going to have to talk more about this later,’ Augus said sternly.

‘Yes, Augus,’ Gwyn said.

‘Do you need help? Getting clean? Getting to bed?’

Gwyn’s head hung at an angle and after thinking it over, it didn’t occur to him to be anything other than honest. He nodded and Augus immediately stepped into the shower. He was fully dressed, but he didn’t seem to care – Gwyn supposed that he wore water-wicking clothing and that being covered in water while fully clothed wasn’t actually that unusual for him.

But Augus hissed at the hot temperature and made the water lukewarm.

Gwyn was too dazed to pay much attention to the hands cleaning him. The smell of the soap was comforting, Augus’ touch was clinical but not cold.

Getting out of the shower was harder. Gwyn felt like his body was beyond his control. He’d accidentally woken a hibernating bear once, watched it sluggishly try and work out how its limbs were supposed to move. He felt like that now. He ended up falling hard to one knee, cracking the skin open on the tiles. Augus’ hands had tried to catch him, but his grip slipped on Gwyn’s wet body.

Gwyn hardly registered the pain, and Augus only sighed and said:

‘What are we going to do with you? Every time you come back from seeing the King, it’s certainly an adventure.’

Ten minutes later his knee was bandaged to stop the blood going everywhere, and he was tucked underneath blankets. His last thoughts before he disappeared into the dark, was that it was still so strange sleeping in a bed, after spending so long sleeping on the forest floor.

*

A full day passed. He woke in the late afternoon of the following day and there was a bitter, musty taste in his mouth and a glass of water by his bed that he drank down without wondering where it had come from.

Disorientation made him forget where he was. At first he thought he was back in his rooms at the An Fnwy estate. Then he remembered that he lived with Ash and Augus now, and then the events of the previous day came back to him in bits and pieces. The sound of metal clashing against metal. The scent of blood sweet in his nose. The light that tore through him and crashed into fae until they were dead. All of them.

He shuddered. He got up and tugged the bandage off his knee, the skin whole and the bandage bloody. His hands and forearms only bore faint signs of the caustic, coarse light that had powered through him. Lines of red that were sensitive when touched, but not sore.

Uncharacteristically, he was hungry. But it was a strange hunger. Not the physical ache he had for fat and sugar and salt, but a craving for bitter and sour foods. A need for something refreshing and cleansing.

He dressed himself with a body that felt too small for the slumbering light inside of him.

Gwyn went through Augus’ pantry. He didn’t even know what he was looking at. He picked up a bunch of leaves that were bundled and dark green. He gathered some pieces of dried lotus root. He avoided all the foods that Ash normally encouraged him to eat, the kinds of foods he often craved. It was confusing. Deep in some well inside of himself came a distressed knocking sound, as though cave fae themselves had set up a home and were frantically trying to get him to look at something.

He looked in the magically powered fridge and took out more green things, and then bit into a stalk of celery as Augus – who had approached the other side of the counter – watched with wide eyes, mouth open.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said, as he ate things that normally tasted like nothing more than bitterness. ‘I don’t know why.’

Augus schooled his features into something relaxed, and Gwyn was amazed at how easily he seemed to do it. Augus was good at hiding things on his face. He frowned at him, eating the leaves of the celery where the taste was most bitter and peppery, surprised to find that he liked it.

‘What happened?’ Augus said.

Gwyn shook his head and looked down at the counter. He shrugged.

‘I fed. The Raven Prince took me to a place where cursed people were. They had to fight forever. But they were made to be immortal to war wounds.’

‘The Guochak-Mellcham curse?’ Augus said.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said. ‘I killed them all. The Raven Prince said I could do it on my own, or he would make me do it. He said I only had to kill one. But once I started…’

Gwyn gulped the bitter knot of vegetables down his throat and stared blankly at the counter. Had he really done that? Killed all those fae? Did it mean that at any point in his life, he could have stopped what happened to him? Could it have been that easy?

‘He says I’m a psychopomp,’ Gwyn said, feeling more and more like his old self – the one that used to talk more often – and not liking it. ‘I made a light. It hurt me.’

Gwyn held up his forearms and hands. Augus said nothing, but he walked closer and examined the red lines there. Augus would have already seen all the damage when he cleaned him, but perhaps it was different now that he knew what he was looking at.

‘I made it,’ Gwyn continued, ‘and I killed them, and I sent them beyond the realm. I didn’t know I was doing it to so many.’

But he did, and he shivered. He did know. He’d wanted to devour the whole world, hadn’t he? In the moment, when his light had rampaged, he’d wanted to coat the entire realm.

Gwyn’s shoulders rose and fell on a weak sob. His eyes were dry. He felt so empty. He was hardly aware when Augus came around to his side of the counter and pressed a hand to Gwyn’s back, encouraging him to lean into him.

‘I eat fae,’ Gwyn said, slanted stiffly into Augus’ shoulder. He stared at a point on the wall. ‘I shouldn’t be here.’

‘Nonsense,’ Augus said, ‘a lot of Unseelie eat fae. They are perfectly safe around those they care about. When they’re not, they learn how to be. Given you’ve spent so long not feeding correctly, I’d hazard you know how to be very safe indeed.’

‘But-’

The front door swung open and Augus’ head turned quickly. Gwyn was too tired to do much more than stare at the wall. He’d just slept, he’d just sated his light properly for the first time in so long. How was he so tired?

‘Hi honey, I’m home!’ Ash called, and then stopped in the lounge. ‘What’s wrong?’

Augus’ mouth was near Gwyn’s ear when he said: ‘Do you mind if I tell him?’

Gwyn shook his head and shifted so that he was leaning against the counter instead. Augus walked to Ash and they talked quietly. Gwyn could hear them, but couldn’t be bothered following the conversation. He stared down at the dark green leaves and began pushing them around idly with his index finger.

His parents were right. His light was evil. They were right to make it try and disappear. The Raven Prince could make words sound very pretty when he wanted to, but Gwyn didn’t like how excited he was by all the destruction. How he sung Gwyn’s praises with words that didn’t feel right: ‘Deliverer of death, bringer of darkness.’

That wasn’t what he wanted to be.

‘Hey, puppy,’ Ash said, a lot closer now. Gwyn looked up and Augus was standing where Ash had been – in the lounge, looking worried. ‘Can I have a chat with you? Want to go to my room?’

Augus nodded an encouragement, and Gwyn didn’t really care either way. Ash’s room probably meant curling up at the foot of his bed, and that seemed good enough. This was one of those things that Augus must have thought Ash would handle better. Gwyn had no idea why. Normally Augus only felt that when Gwyn was very distressed. But he was fine. He was doing all the things that a normal fae would do, wasn’t he?

Gwyn followed Ash down the corridor. He began to get on the bed without Ash’s invitation, and then hesitated, not sure if he’d be allowed. But Ash only waved his hand to indicate it was fine and got on the bed himself after dumping a dripping backpack on the floor.

‘So,’ Ash said, ‘I’m going to tell you a story.’

Gwyn had already curled up on his side, facing Ash. He nodded and said nothing at all, and Ash scooted closer and took Gwyn’s hand. He looked troubled.

‘When I was younger, I didn’t want to be a waterhorse,’ Ash said, a bitterness in his smile, in the way the lines at the corners of his eyes tightened. ‘Baby waterhorses – when we’re born – we only eat vegetables and roots and fruit and stuff. We don’t eat any meat. We’re herbivores. You know, I guess like regular horses? And then we sort of come of age, like physically, and we need to hunt human flesh to like…to be healthy, to live. Augus matured faster than I did, cuz he’s a little older than I am. So I suspected it was coming. But I wanted it not to, so badly. I thought it was wrong.’

Ash laughed but the sound was bleak. He took Gwyn’s hand and slid his fingers between Gwyn’s fingers, holding onto him.

‘You see I really like humans,’ Ash said. ‘A lot, actually. Augus did once upon a time too, though you’d never guess now. You should ask him about it one day. He doesn’t talk about it with me, but he might with you. I don’t know. But anyway, humans are great! So. I…held off from feeding when I came of age and I started to starve to death.’

Gwyn shifted and stared at him, and Ash nodded and laughed again.

‘Well, you see, I wasn’t like you- I was – am – underfae, and I was dying because I wasn’t eating properly. Augus got really stressed out. He yelled at me like he’d never yelled at me before. Even tried to compel me to do it. I wasted away. I got so weak. I was so hungry. Normal food wasn’t helping. So I had to- I mean, I didn’t want to, but I had to. I went to the human realm and I lost control of myself and, well, I don’t really talk to Augus about it- but I kind of…I guess I needed more than one human. Afterwards it was so fucking awful. You know, when your awareness comes back to yourself, and you realise what you’ve done…’

Ash rubbed at his throat with his other hand and then pulled awkwardly at the hem of his shirt. He looked off into the distance and then sighed, looking down at Gwyn once more.

‘The thing is, Gwyn. While it was happening, you know- While I was hunting and feeding. It feels so good. Like…like that’s all you want to be. And in that moment, it’s all you are. It felt- It feels right. I don’t know- I hate that it does. I hate that there’s some creature inside of me that only wants that bloodshed and harm and exults in it. While you’re in it, you just want your next victim, you know? You don’t think of if they have a family, or children, or if they were good people, or if they could have been a good person. You just want…whatever it is that feeding gives you.’

‘Death,’ Gwyn said, his voice croaking.

‘Yeah, for me it’s blood,’ Ash said, his voice sounding far shakier than usual. ‘And…the noises they make. When they’re scared or hurting. Christ.’

Ash went quiet for a long time. Gwyn squeezed his hand, staring at him. He was absorbed in what Ash was telling him. It hadn’t occurred to him that Ash enjoyed the hunting at any point – given he seemed to hate it the rest of the time.

‘Some Unseelie are fine with it,’ Ash said, his voice going gravelly. ‘But then some Unseelie fae only eat emotions, or the sap from trees, or they only need a bit of blood and not enough to make someone die. So it’s easier for them. And for the rest- well, I think it’s kind of a good margin of how much you can trust someone, if they think it’s their fucking right to take someone else’s life without questioning it for a second… Augus can say we’re the predators of the fae world, that we’re the sharks and the vultures, but- The thing Augus knows, and that I know, and that you know – is that we’ll think differently about it. Than a shark or a vulture.’

‘I didn’t even know them,’ Gwyn said. ‘The Raven Prince said it helped them.’

‘Did you do it because you wanted to help them?’ Ash said, his gaze shrewd. ‘Or because you were hungry, and you unleashed? In the moment, how giving and compassionate were you really?’

Gwyn looked away, past him, didn’t want to see that calculating gaze because it was so strange to see it on his face.

‘He wants me to do it more,’ Gwyn rasped. ‘He said I could be his murderer.’

‘Well fuck that,’ Ash bit out. ‘Do you want to be?’

‘I told him no,’ Gwyn said. ‘But I don’t think it will matter.’

‘You have more power than you think,’ Ash said quietly, looking up towards the door as though worried that Augus was listening in. ‘Augus is more scared of him than I am. With good reason, I guess. Look, the fact of the matter is, he wants you for some reason. Or multiple reasons. And he thinks you’re strong enough to be his apprentice? It means you’re strong. You have things in your possession that he doesn’t have. And you’re a smart cookie, give it time and you’ll figure out a way to leverage it. He was once just a squalling baby bird. He might want the whole world to forget that, but at the end of the day, he’s just a jumped up fucking shifter with too much power.’

Gwyn stared at him, and Ash’s smile was dark and bitter, and Gwyn could suddenly imagine him sating his hunger, tearing apart those humans.

‘Gwyn, what do you want? Augus would tell you to embrace your power and what you are. The Raven Prince wants you to use it. I think your parents told you it was the worst thing in the world, because only Unseelie fae feed off other fae – and it would have revealed you for what you were, even with that magic spell thingie stopping others from being able to tell. But what about you? Anyone asked you what you want?’

‘What do you want?’ Gwyn said, and Ash shook his head.

‘No, puppy, I’m not asking you to pick what you think will make me happy. Or any of us. And just this once, you can tell me what you want and if that upsets you, we can ignore it and just…I’ll stop talking and we can forget we ever had this conversation. But this thing? This thing is really important – at least right now. What do you want?’

Ash rubbed his thumb into the centre of Gwyn’s palm and kept holding onto his hand with the rest of his fingers. Gwyn tucked his knees closer to his body and tried to think it through. But he was so confused. He was frozen inside.

‘What if I don’t know?’ Gwyn said.

‘Then you don’t know,’ Ash said easily.

But what if I do?

Gwyn closed his eyes and bit the inside of his top lip. He didn’t like the thoughts going through his head, and he didn’t think Ash would like them, and he didn’t want to be honest.

‘I want…to learn how to do it properly,’ Gwyn said, voice husky. ‘I want more control over it. I sent them somewhere. It was an importance place. I want- I want it to be- I want to choose when. I don’t want to use it again. I don’t- but I want- I don’t want you both to be scared of me. Please don’t be scared of me. I don’t want you to-’

‘I’m not scared,’ Ash said, leaning closer and rubbing Gwyn’s shoulder with his other hand. ‘I’m definitely not scared of you. Neither is Augus.’

‘Shouldn’t you be?’

‘Nope,’ Ash said.

‘I am,’ Gwyn whispered.

‘Scared of yourself?’ Ash said. Gwyn nodded in a single jerk. ‘Yeah, well, I get that. Boy, do I ever get that. But how you feel about yourself is not how we feel about you.’

Gwyn leaned closer to him, and Ash shifted so that he could lower his whole upper body over Gwyn’s and hug him properly.

‘You gotta remember that, Gwyn,’ Ash said, his voice closer than normal and sounding warm. ‘What you feel about yourself – especially after feeding – it’s not how we feel about you.’

It was tempting to ask how they felt about him, but Gwyn was scared of what the answer would be. What if it was bad? Or worse, what if it was good?

But he was too soul weary to think of anything like that for too long. Instead, he curled himself around Ash’s body and tried to make the most of what was in front of him. All that mattered was that Ash wasn’t running away from him. That they wouldn’t run away.

 

Chapter Text

A quiet few days had ensued after Gwyn had returned from another of the Raven Prince’s ‘lessons.’ But though they were calm, Augus felt increasingly agitated.

Ash hadn’t stayed in his house for this long since he’d moved out. Gwyn always seemed to be wherever Augus wanted to be. If he wanted to quietly read in the lounge, then Gwyn was there and playing a boardgame with Ash, or reading, or writing out his calligraphy. If Augus was in the kitchen, they both seemed to gravitate towards him. Even though Gwyn was back to hardly talking at all, Augus couldn’t stop being aware of them.

It was relief that found him when one of the Raven Prince’s guards had appeared on his doorstep in the late evening to officially declare the Ethallas forest ‘clear of menace.’ Augus had no idea what that truly meant, but the idea that he could swim easily in his lake again, that he wouldn’t have to forage within the bounds of the protective barrier – that they didn’t even need the protective barrier – that lifted his unsettled spirits.

He was looking forward to roaming on his own, looking for some ingredients that he couldn’t gather near his lake, when Ash declared:

‘Oh! Let’s make a day of it! I’ll get a picnic together and we can all go up.’

Gwyn’s eyes lit up, and Augus smiled and made himself nod and told himself that it was fine. He could go up on his own later. Whenever he wanted really, because it was his house.

The next morning, Ash was in the kitchen putting together snacks for the picnic. He had a large cane wicker hamper – Augus’, and he hadn’t asked before using it – and he wouldn’t let Augus into the kitchen to make his own food.

‘I know what you like, bro. I’ve got you covered.’

Augus’ teeth ground together and he’d stalked back down the corridor to his own bedroom, then closed the door and stood there for several seconds, scowling at nothing.

He was unused to having to move around other people in his own home. Ash staying for a few days – even that could annoy him. But this…how long had it been now? The both of them staying there? Augus paced at the foot of his bed several times, trying to calm himself. He was being ridiculous. He could talk to them later. It would be fine. It needed to be this way.

But he was aware of them all the time now. Couldn’t not be. And their energy seemed to chafe at him like sandpaper. Even when they were all the way at the other end of the house. It frustrated him that he would sometimes hear the sound of something falling, or Ash laughing, or even the radio being turned on and playing music he had no interest in listening to.

His house was supposed to be silent. The only one who was supposed to make noise in it was him. And sometimes his clients. And they were placed into rooms that were usually soundproofed.

Deep within a waterhorse energy stirred and bared its teeth. His entire species was known for their need for solitude. He had no idea how Ash managed to bypass their genetics the way he did and gravitate towards people.

Augus blew out a long breath. It would get better. Today they could at least celebrate the fact that the forest was safe again. Augus nodded decisively to himself. That was what they’d do.

*

They were walking to the front door – Ash had the hamper hooked over one arm, and Gwyn was carrying a rolled up blanket – when the sharp knock came.

‘I’ll deal with it, wait here,’ Augus said.

He opened the front door and saw a fae he’d never seen before. He took in a lot of details at once. Twitching cow ears indicating distress. Large round eyes that looked mournfully and warily at him, fringed by thick lashes. Her lips were pulled down at the corners and fingers were being wrung and nails picked at until the cuticles bled. Her full cheeks were flushed.

‘Um,’ the fae said. ‘Someone said I could come here…if I- Things haven’t been- I need… I need to- Oh, you have company.’

The fae had a sorrowful voice – and Augus guessed it was like that even when she was well. And she certainly wasn’t well now. Instincts crept to life as he gazed at her, assessing. A client, no doubt. Someone who needed to be well grounded in herself again. He’d need to get to the bottom of whatever had caused her distress in the first place, but he didn’t think it would take too long, and-

Ash cleared his throat.

Augus’ thoughts clattered to a halt and he frowned, reaching out to take her hand as she went to turn away.

‘Please,’ Augus said with a calm he didn’t feel, ‘I can refer you onto another fae. You’ll be safe with her. I promise you.’

‘Really?’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Perfectly. Give me but a moment.’

Augus turned to Ash and Gwyn and jerked his head to indicate that they should leave the lounge at least. Instead of standing there and gawking like idiots. Ash usually had better instincts than that, but perhaps he was thrown off by the fact that they had already made plans and Gwyn was standing right there.

Augus wouldn’t take in a client while other people were living in the house with him. He’d always been firm about that. It wasn’t just for his comfort, but for his client’s. He promised them absolute confidentiality. It meant the assurance of an empty house where no one else could even risk learning their darkest fears.

Not such an empty house now, is it?

Gwyn and Ash disappeared down the corridor as Augus walked over to a shallow bowl on a cabinet and rummaged through it, looking for the right charm. Eventually he found Maelan’s calling card – a splinter of coal coloured apatite. He walked back to the fae, took in the way she stared at her feet, her shoulders hunched. His heart went out to her.

He suspected this was someone he could actually assist. And she was beautiful in her own doleful way. Some kind of cow shifter perhaps.

It doesn’t matter. You’re likely never going to see her again. Or any client, for that matter, if things continue as they are.

‘Here,’ Augus said, pressing the apatite into her hand. ‘If you will it and think the word ‘Maelan’, or say it aloud – this will teleport you to Maelan’s home. I assure you that Maelan will have the time to accommodate you. I apologise.’

‘N-no,’ the fae said, her ears drooping. ‘No, it’s not you, it’s…I don’t even know what I’m doing here, really, I-’

‘Listen to me,’ Augus said, injecting some command into his voice. ‘Go to Maelan. If you decide you don’t want to go through with anything there, no one will judge you for it. But the strength it took you to come here, it will see you through just a little further, won’t it?’

She stared at him, nodded mutely.

Then, seconds later she teleported away, disappearing in wisps of black smoke – Maelan’s magic wrapping around her. The foyer was empty, and Augus still felt the clasp of the fae’s warm, sweaty hand in his own.

He hadn’t even asked her for her name.

He stood there, feeling lost. His heartsong, the root of his very soul, felt like it was fizzing away at the edges. He placed his palm on the back of his own head and then dropped his arm, trying to make himself think. Trying to, at the very least, convince himself that the day would be fine. That it wasn’t so bad that he’d had to turn away yet another client. That he had plenty of other things he could do with his life that were important to him.

The breaths he took were slow and careful, they did nothing to ease the tightness in his chest.

Salvage the day. She’ll be fine with Maelan. Better than fine.

That much was true, at least. Over the years Augus had amassed many referral charms, just in case he had to send someone on before he was about to hunt, or on weekends when Ash was visiting. He hated doing it, but it was a necessary part of his job. Sending someone away without at least a referral onwards was irresponsible. The least he could do was conduct himself in a gracious manner on the subject.

He forced himself to walk to the entrance to the corridor.

‘It’s all clear,’ he called. ‘Are we going on this picnic or not?’

‘Yeah!’ Ash called, poking his head out of the doorway. ‘You good, bro?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ Augus said. But his tone was less smooth than he’d hoped, more snappish.

He forced himself to smile, and Ash returned it, and Augus forced himself to think of how much better he’d feel in the forest itself. It was his forest after all, and it was an extension of his home. It would be fine.

*

Nothing felt right. Not scouting out a place for the picnic itself, nor watching Ash lay out the rug or set down the hamper. As Ash sat down, Augus remained standing, his jaw tense and aching. Gwyn didn’t sit either, staring at him with a gaze that saw far too much, given how naïve Gwyn could be about the world the rest of the time.

How long ago had he said that he wouldn’t be able to live like this, in this arrangement? At least a month and a half. Perhaps longer.

Augus turned away and pressed his thumb and forefinger to his eyebrows and knew what was happening inside of him. His heartsong kicking back against him hard. Hooves stomping inside of him. The one thing he did that nourished his heartsong above all else was taking in those clients, and now he’d turned another one away. For a picnic.

‘I can’t do this,’ Augus said, his voice shaking not from fear, but from a darker rage that borrowed his waterhorse voice and turned it sinister. He forced himself away from that, but once he’d said it, he knew it was true. ‘I’m not doing this.’

‘What? Bro, come on, we just set everything out and-’

Augus turned to face them. Ash was already turning pale. Already standing and holding up his hands and Augus thought that he’d had to deal with this before. But not for a long time now.

‘I don’t want this,’ Augus said, staring at him. ‘I never wanted this. Two other people living in my home.’

‘Augus,’ Ash said carefully, ‘we can talk about this. We should’ve talked about it weeks ago but it just all got caught up in-’

‘I want you both gone,’ Augus snarled. Not caring at the way Gwyn’s eyes widened or the step backwards that he took. ‘I want you both out of my sight and I don’t want to see you. Either of you. I want my home to myself. And my lake. And my clients. I want-’

‘Okay,’ Ash said, taking Gwyn by the upper arm and ignoring the way Gwyn stared at him in shock. ‘I got it, okay? I got it. We’re going. Calm down, Augus.’

‘I have put up with this for how many weeks now? You of all people should know-’

‘What’s happening?’ Gwyn said, confused.

Augus growled at him. Not a normal growl, one only made of throat and air. But a waterhorse growl that shook his whole body and reverberated through the ground itself.

‘It’s fine,’ Ash said quickly, though he looked annoyed. ‘It’s fine. He gets like this sometimes. He needs some space. That’s all. Not like me, you know? Doesn’t thrive on company.’

Ash left the hamper and the blanket and left Augus standing there. Augus’ fingers clenched into fists, his toes curled in his boots. He stared at them, some hulking thing inside of him tired of it all.

‘We gotta talk about this, Augus,’ Ash called over his shoulder as he escorted Gwyn back to the lake. ‘You know we do.’

‘Just go,’ Augus said, his voice weaker now that they were actually leaving.

‘You come get me if you need me for anything, okay? I’ll be in my lake. We’ll be fine.’

Augus watched them go with a narrowed gaze. His own lake was out of sight, and he waited another good half an hour before he sensed that he was the only one in his territory. The only fae, anyway. The other animals were welcome.

He took a deep breath and sighed it out. Then another. Then he lowered himself to the rug on the ground and opened the hamper and stared at all the food inside and made a low, weak noise. He drew his knees up to his chest and rested his forehead on them, trying to calm himself down, trying to settle himself in stillness. There was an inner well inside of himself, he just needed to find it.

*

In the end he packed everything up and took it back to the lake himself. The rug was water-wicking, and he propped it up outside his front door and let it shed all the water it had gathered. He took the hamper to the kitchen table and left it there, before walking through his blessedly empty house and shedding his boots, his pants, his shirt, leaving them all in the corner of his room. The shirts and pants draped neatly over a chair just for that purpose, and the boots leaning alongside them. Naked, he crawled onto his own bed and lay flat upon it, stomach and chest against the sheets and face down. He placed both his hands over the back of his head and tried not to think about anything at all.

It was an effort not to worry about Ash and Gwyn. Especially Gwyn. All this time he’d been trying to present himself as calm and knowledgeable and stable and a certainty in a chaotic world. What he did for his clients.

But those clients, he never saw them for more than two or three days. What he gave to them wasn’t indefinite. It was finite. Given in the moment and then he could rest alone afterwards.

Every time Gwyn came back from the Raven Prince, it was a disaster each time. Even when it went well, Augus had to wait to find out what happened and always got the sense he was only hearing shreds of the story. Gwyn wasn’t the best storyteller, and the Raven Prince didn’t lower himself to send a better messenger.

There were nightmares to contend with every night, and they were often loud enough to wake both the brothers long before Gwyn himself would rouse. Perhaps Ash didn’t need as much sleep as Augus did, but Augus found it trying. He wasn’t made of endless patience. He’d neglected himself, the small routines of self-care that he focused on to find inner calm. From looking after his claws and keeping them safe and trim, to conditioning his mane or using masks on his face to keep his skin fresh.

He’d not been above ground properly to walk about on his own, since he’d discovered Gwyn. His whole life had become imbalanced, and he couldn’t solve it just by telling himself he’d deal with it.

Not anymore.

It couldn’t continue on the way that it was going. He wanted Gwyn in his life. He wanted Ash in his life. Those two things were certainties.

But the way it was happening? Augus made a low sound of frustration into the bed.

No. He needed to see clients. He needed space. He didn’t feel an ounce of guilt for having kicked them out of his territory. He didn’t feel remorse that he’d cut the picnic short. Ash – he knew – would deal with it. And Gwyn at the very least could learn that he wasn’t the only one who had problems.

Augus laughed weakly into the mattress and then pushed himself up onto his elbows and cleared his mind.

He had the whole place to himself. The lake, the house, his territory.

He could do whatever he wanted.

Augus’ lips pulled up at the corners and he slid off the bed and walked nude to the hamper, where he picked at the salads Ash had made for him and surveyed his house. Books and videogames and board games and rumpled bright blankets, the minutiae and detritus that Ash strewed everywhere he went.

The next two hours he devoted to cleaning every surface until his house looked like his house again. That alone gave him a sense of belonging in his own space, and he felt himself truly begin to settle, his spirit lighter than it had been for a while.

*

He spent the day in the watery safety of his lake. He swam naked in the depths and harvested varying species of waterweed and root plants, keeping it all in a loose hessian bag that he tied to a rock anchor, where it would float and stay mostly living until he needed to prepare it.

Small shoals of fish followed him wherever he went. Silvery-brown creatures that darted in and out of his mane and nibbled at the waterweed, making his scalp tense with the ticklish sensations. He waved them away, and they came back and scraped their tiny fleshy mouths over his fingers and palms instead.

Turtles watched him from beneath, and eels slunk sinuous out of their homes and wrapped themselves friendlily around his arms and feet, ducked between his thighs and ended up curled beneath his neck, sometimes fighting with each other for the best spaces. And he swam languid, gently up to the surface where he floated just beneath the water and looked up at the lily pads that blocked the harshness of the bright sun, but still let shafts of light touch his skin.

He wasn’t naturally buoyant once he’d pushed the air out of his lungs and breathed water instead. So it was a matter of using his waterhorse powers to stay floating the way he was. A trick he’d used while hunting once upon a time, when humans still visited the edges of perfect lakes and he could wait and yank maidens into the water at the right moment.

Now, most lakes were polluted in the human realm. The prettiest lakes were usually tourist traps, or alternatively, too far away for regular visitors. They didn’t really attract anything like the maidens of old anymore. Pure, buttermilk fed creatures that tended cows and were fattened by the land around them, kept soft and sweet by idiot farmers who wanted them to make good wives for winsome boys.

Augus took a few of the boys in his time as well.

Hunting prey was harder than it used to be. The world was savvier to suspicions, filled to the brim with pollutants and plastics.

Augus sighed and turned, swimming through the lake to the other side and then down, checking on the health of his plants and plucking tiny, hungry snails from leaves and scattering them towards the fishes and eels that hung close by, waiting for the little shell-covered treats. The snails bred abundantly – there was so much to feed upon, after all – but Augus needed the plants hale. Some were permitted, too many were bad for the plants and became food for the fish.

And if there were too many fish, he would lure them to him and feed them to the turtles and eels. If there were too many of those, well, Ash ate eel easily enough, and Augus had a neat little stack of turtle shell bowls in his pantry.

The ecosystem around him was out of balance. The chores he’d done once every two or three days, he hadn’t done in any consistent manner for weeks.

He absorbed himself in the responsibility of it and felt his heartsong resonate satisfaction through him. Peace stole into him, bloomed outwards, and he let his thoughts drift like the mane and waterweed above his head.

*

That evening, he rested inside his home.

His mane was twisted and bound with waterweed, the tail of it draped over one shoulder, so that only one rivulet of water tracked down his skin. He reclined on his couch and stretched out, shifting the cushions and pillows and staring up at the ceiling while he idly caressed the jut of his hipbone where the skin lay taut and sensitive.

Eventually, he brought both of his hands palm down to the tops of his shoulders, then stroked his fingertips over his chest, deliberately missing his nipples, skating over his ribs and his abdomen, trailing off to his thighs when he reached pubic hair. He avoided his cock, laying soft in the crease of thigh and torso. Then, he reached up and repeated the motion again and again, until his cock was starting to thicken, until his eyes drifted shut.

It felt like he was stirring currents into water, making love to himself like this. He didn’t think of Ash or Gwyn, or any of the events that had been stressing him. Instead, he gave himself over to sensation, one leg bending up, the other bending out. He brushed the heels of his palms over his nipples and his head arched back slowly, his breathing deepened.

He traced his lips with a finger, then his cheekbones with three fingers pressed together. He dug the newly blunted tips of his claws into his scalp and dragged down until he touched waterweed, sending shivers down his spine and across his neck and chest. He stroked his collarbones with the outer edges of his thumbs and sighed.

His cock was stiff and arched proudly, almost flush against his abdomen when he finally began to touch it. He shifted the slightly loose skin under the head of his cock, foreskin fully retracted. He pressed fingers into the frenulum, massaged the skin rich with nerve endings until his spine started to bow and he was bracing his whole body with one foot pressing down into couch cushions.

Then, he used knuckles to move down to the base of his cock, before letting his fingers unfurl and move over the crepe-like skin that protected his balls. Heat pooled in his gut, snaked down the backs of his thighs, made his hands feel like they were burning. He panted softly through an open mouth, eyes closed and blocking out his own home so that he could do everything possible to focus on his own pleasure.

Every movement was slow, measured. He teased himself with a single-mindedness that most fae he’d encountered wouldn’t have liked. But he loved it. He would deviate from his cock to caress the insides of his thighs, or to pluck gently at nipples, or to rub over his lips.

At least forty minutes passed before he wrapped his fingers sure around the length of his cock and began to jack himself off, moaning at the sweet sharpness of it. Orgasm had coiled tight inside of him, would come quickly if he willed it, the muscles of his pelvis a tight band, his thighs and ass tense.

In the last moments, speeding his motions, the head of his cock slick and sticky with precome, he found himself abruptly wishing for Ash’s or Gwyn’s lips on his, and hands touching him with that same slow focus he gave to himself. The image of both of them near him, around him, it was unexpected, a jolt to his gut.

He moaned sharply, arched, spilled liquid heat over his knuckles and the back of his hand as he dragged his release out for as long as he could. Come dripped onto his pelvis, creamy drops that began to cool. The pleasure of it was sharp and perfect, but when he opened his eyes and settled back onto the couch properly, he felt oddly alone.

He looked around his clean home, then closed his eyes and groaned, hand still resting over his softening cock, the scent of silt and musk and salt in the air.

Despite the bittersweet loneliness, he didn’t want them back. Not yet. He’d forgotten how much peace and comfort he could find in his own company. He didn’t have to be on guard around himself, he didn’t have to perform what he felt the situation needed.

So he let the sadder emotions roll through him as the aftershocks of pleasure did. His eyes opened into lazy slits and he hummed in the back of his throat. His heart thumped heavily underneath his hand, where it rested against his sternum.

Sometimes he just needed to be alone.

Chapter Text

‘Okay, here’s the deal,’ Ash said, as Gwyn stood beneath a new green bubble dome – not as large as Augus’, in front of a new home, beneath the weight of a new lake. Gwyn was dripping wet, lungs still burning from holding his breath during the teleportation. This house wasn’t like Augus’, plastered pale at the front and looking a little like it had sprung from the pale lake sand and stone. This was built of brick and mortar, wooden windowsills and frames and a red wooden door with whorls of woodgrain still visible and a golden doorknocker upon the door. ‘It’s not your fault. You did nothing wrong, okay?’

‘I don’t understand,’ Gwyn said.

He followed Ash into a home – door unlocked and unguarded – that was filled with bric-a-brac and piles of cushions and blankets and looked cozy but smelled dusty. It had an unlived-in feel, despite the fact that it had been designed for comfort.

‘What-’

‘I should’ve done something sooner,’ Ash said, growling at himself and then kicking the sofa that he was standing next to in frustration. ‘Fuck it all.’

‘What-’

‘He can’t handle people living in his space for too long,’ Ash said, but he wasn’t even looking at Gwyn, glowering instead at a framed illustration of a landscape on the wall. ‘It’s not good if he’s been pushed to this point. It’ll be fine, I just should’ve been keeping a better eye on it. He’s a fucking liar half the time, you know? He lies, Gwyn, about how fine he is about shit. He’s always done it. And normally I can catch it when he does it more often? But I just…’

‘You’re angry at yourself?’ Gwyn said in confusion. ‘But is it me? I don’t want-’

‘I know it’s hard for you to get this,’ Ash said, frowning at him, ‘but it’s not your fault. But it is something that’s going to need some problem solving. We can talk about it over drinks. I need a beer. You want to go to the human world for a bit?’

‘What?’ Gwyn said, feeling like he was saying that word an awful lot.

‘Yep,’ Ash said, flashing him a grin that seemed on the edge of dangerous. ‘You look like you could also do with a beer.’

*

Everything was happening too fast.

First, Ash had told Gwyn to wear different clothing, but nothing Ash had fit him properly. So then Ash teleported them into a lake in the human world and used his glamour to charm his way into not paying for jeans or a shirt at a store. Gwyn stood there feeling awkward and not saying a word, and he’d watched Ash spin his glamour like fairy floss all around the dazzled shop assistant who had gazed at Ash like she was in love with him.

Then, in a public toilet that stunk of refuse, Gwyn had gotten changed while Ash played lookout, reminding him to ‘take the tags off.’ It wasn’t something Gwyn had associated with clothing before, so for a few seconds he wasn’t even sure what he meant, until he saw the tags themselves and frowned at the fact that they seemed to be attached in odd ways to odd places. He didn’t tell Ash about the small hole he made in the shirt when he simply tore the tag out with a little too much force.

After that, a quick walk down several alleyways and up three flights of brightly lit wooden stairs and into an apartment that had Ash’s scent all the way through it – but faint, as though he hadn’t been there for months. There, Ash grabbed a wallet, stared at his hair in the mirror for a few seconds before leaving it alone, and taken Gwyn by the wrist and dragged him back out again.

Gwyn felt frazzled, and less than an hour before, he’d been near Augus and things had been – he’d thought they’d been fine.

But if Ash was right, and Gwyn wasn’t at fault…

Gwyn just wanted to be near Augus to see if he could make things okay. But he got the distinct impression that Ash was sure it didn’t work that way.

Ultimately, Gwyn didn’t know what he had to offer to even make Augus feel better, but he felt like they were running away from the situation. Shouldn’t they have stayed? Was there something else going on that he didn’t understand?

A cluttered space filled with noise. People talking, laughing, chattering, even shouting. Dim and dank and layers of detergent and bleach over the smell of alcohol and urine and a background reek of stale vomit and Gwyn’s nose wrinkled. His shoulders kept brushing against other people’s shoulders, he’d open his mouth to apologise and no words came out. Besides, he’d already been pulled past them, caught glares or strange looks. Ash’s hand was still around Gwyn’s wrist, and it was the only anchoring thing that had happened since Augus had told them to leave. But Ash wasn’t paying attention and Ash wasn’t trying to ground him, and Gwyn could feel his breathing start to run away from him.

A few seconds later, Ash pushed Gwyn into a private booth in an even murkier part of the establishment and slid up next to him. The sounds around them – the clinking of glasses and the pouring of drinks and the chatter refused to fade to background noise.

His vision tunnelled. Gwyn stared at the synthetic patterning of the table. Cardboard coasters with garish prints on them and the red was offensive and he tried to blink it away, but it was getting harder to choose how he reacted to the situation. In the back of his throat, a dull hum pestered, wanted to be let free so that he could calm himself. But he didn’t want to embarrass himself or Ash or draw attention to them both because they were fae in the human world and it wasn’t really allowed and he got the sense that even though Ash kept the majority of interest at bay – some of them looked at him like they knew or suspected.

A hand on his back made him flinch, and then there was a low hushing sound in his ear. He blinked, leaned towards it.

‘Easy,’ Ash said. ‘Breathe, Gwyn. Shit. Ah shit. It’s fine, you need to leave?’

Gwyn shook his head quickly. Maybe he would later, but he didn’t want to move. He wasn’t even sure he could stand and brush past all those people again. All their flickering candle energies. They wouldn’t even live a hundred years more. None of them. They were all so fragile.

Why would Ash take him here of all places? What was the point? Humans could be blown out like candles and it reminded him of his cousin whose true power was char and fire and burnt things and then he was thinking that his cousin was dead too. Blown out. Just another candle.

Gwyn made a choked sound and then his limbs unfolded and he pushed Ash out of the way – too violently, Court strength on an underfae – and Gwyn stepped over him and pushed blindly through the crowd of people and tried not to think about candles or fire or anything that reminded him of Efnisien.

‘Gwyn!’

The compulsion plucked at him in a way Augus’ didn’t, but Gwyn still didn’t have to obey. He pushed himself out of the entrance, stumbled down steps and looked around the street in jeans that didn’t fit him properly and a shirt that smelled of chemicals. There were too many people. Far too many.

His light sensed his distress, guttered and then reminded him that he could make sure he was surrounded by no one.

Gwyn slapped his palm over his mouth and ran down an alley and another alley and another and then there were no people and black roads that looked like the kind one would find in the underworlds. Black and hard with no give at all. Cruel roads.

He veered towards a park, ran over grass, headed towards an overgrown garden bed and crashed into a manicured shrub. Soft earth slowed him and his frantic thoughts. There, he sagged against the strength of a pine tree and pressed his face into the ivy that was climbing it. He breathed in green scents and felt a beetle shifting beneath his cheek. He hummed. He didn’t know how to get back. He didn’t know how to find Ash. He didn’t even know if he could track a scent properly in this place. He hummed until he filled his ears with it.

The stars wheeled slowly across the sky, and Gwyn was staring blankly at dark shadows for a long time when he heard Ash’s footsteps and hated the relief that flooded him. He shouldn’t be feeling anything like relief. Ash would be angry.

‘God, you can fucking run when you want to, hey?’ Ash wheezed. ‘Gwyn, puppy, hey…’

The sound of branches and leaves moving as Ash crawled into whatever place Gwyn had found.

‘Okay,’ Ash said, laughing weakly, and then laughing again in despair. ‘Is this the day where I’m gonna fuck everything up? Tavern full of people not a good idea with you, right? Not yet. I get it. Should’ve gotten it earlier.’

Gwyn opened his mouth to apologise, but no words spilled out. His throat was empty. He couldn’t even bring himself to meet Ash’s gaze.

He flinched when fingers tucked a curl behind his ear. Winced when a palm smoothed over his shoulder. He didn’t mean to. He wasn’t really scared of Ash. But every shift in his environment felt like a thunderclap that he couldn’t brace for. He didn’t want Ash to stop. Because it meant that Ash wasn’t mad. Because it didn’t feel…bad. But he couldn’t stop his physical twitches, and he was scared Ash would believe that meant he should stop.

‘Puppy,’ Ash said, voice strained. He knelt beside Gwyn and was leaning against the tree as well. It was wide enough for the two of them. ‘I’m sorry. Let me explain things a bit better, yeah?’

Gwyn nodded, because he didn’t want to think about his cousin and the Raven Prince and Augus telling them that he didn’t want to see them.

‘This is what we were going to talk about over drinks,’ Ash said, clearing his throat. ‘Problem solving. We can’t live with Augus constantly. I don’t know if it’s going to look like two weeks on, two weeks off, I don’t know. What I do know is that you can live in that forest. You like it up there, right? And I think Augus could handle that. You living close without being on top of him every second. Me – I can stay with you, I can stay with him, I can stay on my own. And sometimes I’ll stay with the both of you. Home is where my family is. And you guys are my family.’

Fingers stroked through his hair. Ash talked quickly for once, his voice not infused with the charm and warmth that usually wrapped around everything he said.

‘Augus is going to get over this,’ Ash said. ‘Because I’ve seen it before. And we are going to get all of us some fucking stability that actually improves things. But we’re not there yet. You’ve gotta hang in there a bit longer. He does too. Because you’re both too good at running away – him from change, and you from fucking anything that scares you. If you want us, and this – and I think you do – you have to be patient with him. And me. And…yourself as well, I guess. It’s going to be a clusterfuck for a while. Yeah?’

Gwyn shook his head, because Ash made it sound easy. Nothing worked out the way that it should. Gwyn had a sense of falling inside himself and distantly he knew it was inconvenient. He knew it was the last thing Ash needed. He couldn’t grasp onto the ripped pieces of himself and hold himself together the way they expected him to.

The words that spilled were not the words he meant to say.

‘I killed so many people,’ Gwyn said.

‘What?’ Ash said, his hand pausing on Gwyn’s face.

‘Hundreds,’ Gwyn gasped. ‘Hundreds and hundreds. They could have been the last of their species. They could have. Maybe they had…language and c-culture and religion and gods and stories and folklore and more. I don’t care if they were begging to die. If they’d been fighting for seventy five years. I don’t want to end things.’

Ash said nothing at all. Gwyn felt his lips curl into an ugly expression, because he could sense Ash’s horror. Ash thought he understood, but he didn’t understand.

‘I didn’t want my cousin to end,’ Gwyn said, his voice coming from deep inside his chest. ‘I didn’t want him to be ended like that. I don’t care if you wanted him dead. I don’t care if the both of you did. I don’t care that you think of my family so…cruelly, like they’re nothing. They let me live. They didn’t have to and they did not want to.’

Ash’s breathing shook, his hand started moving in Gwyn’s hair again. More tender than before.

Gwyn still stared at soil and shadows and felt like he carved every word raw from his own flesh.

‘You think he was nothing more than a bad story that needed to be finished. But he was my cousin, and he l-loved me in the only broken way that he could. My family was cursed. Did you know? Like those people I killed. And I brought death to them as well, for all the King says it was him. I’m not stupid. I know they died because I told Augus I was Unseelie and Augus told the King, and the King saw stories where I could see real people.’

It didn’t matter if he wasn’t making sense. There was a certainty in what he was saying, and he finally found the strength to meet Ash’s eyes, the shocked expression there.

‘I end things,’ Gwyn rasped. ‘I ended the first An Fnwy estate when I was a child. I ended my mother’s happiness. I ended the family line. I ended those people and that curse and whoever else was left in my family and I don’t- I don’t want to be the one who ends your stories. I can’t.’

Ash’s brow had furrowed, his head was tilting to the side. And then his hand tightened on the side of Gwyn’s hair and he smiled. An open, guileless expression.

‘Hey,’ Ash said. ‘Sometimes things need to be ended.’

Gwyn stared at him. Opened his mouth to find whatever words still lurked inside of himself.

‘Sometimes,’ Ash said quickly, ‘you have to finish something to start something new.’

‘That doesn’t mean anything!’ Gwyn shouted.

‘Your life couldn’t stay the same forever,’ Ash said, the smile never leaving his face. ‘Augus’ life couldn’t. Mine couldn’t. It doesn’t work that way.’

Gwyn snarled at him before he could stop himself. Moved too quickly and powerfully for Ash to stop him and pinned him to the ground as he’d done in the very beginning, when Ash had dared come close enough to him that Gwyn had wanted to kill him for it.

Ash’s shoulders felt fragile beneath his palms, Gwyn’s knees dug into his hips and he knew he was hurting him.

‘You shouldn’t trust me,’ Gwyn said, his voice shaking. ‘You don’t even know what I am.’

‘Sure I do,’ Ash said far too easily for someone in the position he was in. ‘You’re Gwyn ap Nudd, Unseelie fae, and part of my family. You’re a bit strange sometimes, and I don’t always know what you’re thinking or what you’re going to do next, but I know that I like you a lot and I think you’re worth it even when you’re sure you’re not.’

Gwyn blinked down at him.

‘You’re mad,’ Gwyn said.

‘Mad as in crazy? Or mad as in angry?’ Ash said, lips quirking.

‘Insane.’

‘And?’ Ash said, laughing. ‘And you’re wild and feral and need someone to remind you that you have a place in the world.’

Gwyn’s arms had slackened enough that when Ash’s jaw clenched, when his body shifted, Gwyn wasn’t entirely prepared for it. Ash rolled him in a show of strength that seemed to come from a far deeper well of power than he should have possessed as an underfae. And then Gwyn was lying beneath Ash, hips straddled and Ash’s forearms resting on his chest and Ash’s face so close that Gwyn felt surrounded by him.

‘I can do that,’ Ash said. ‘I’m not fucking scared of you. I don’t care that you killed hundreds of fae. I don’t care that you’re mad at me for that. Until you tell me you don’t want us, I’m going to make this work.’

Ash moved centimetres closer, watching Gwyn’s face with a kind of calculated darkness that was nothing like his warmth, or just glamour, or his genial charm. Gwyn felt Ash’s nostrils flare against his own nose, moments before lips touched his.

‘I admit,’ Ash breathed against his lips, ‘that I made some big mistakes today. But you’ve made some too.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, and then Ash’s teeth closed on his lower lip, and bit. Gwyn made a sound of pain in the back of his throat and tried to push backwards, but couldn’t seem to get his limbs to listen to him. Ash’s tongue licked over the indentations he’d left behind, and Gwyn pressed a hand to Ash’s side to shove him away, and then his hand stayed against Ash’s body, feeling the faint warmth of his skin through his shirt.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘But one thing I do know – you don’t want a lecture. Probably had a lifetime’s worth of those. You’re family now, Gwyn. I’m sure Augus will lecture you plenty. Comes with the territory.’

‘I’m not your family,’ Gwyn said, shoving at Ash’s side and baring his teeth when Ash hardly shifted at all.

‘Waterhorse strength,’ Ash said calmly. ‘Makes us a lot stronger than we look, when we need it. And you’re not operating at full strength, because you don’t want to.’

‘I don’t have a place with you,’ Gwyn bit out. ‘Augus doesn’t even want us.’

‘Bullshit,’ Ash laughed. ‘That’s bullshit. You’ll see that for yourself in a few days. And until then, you’re stuck with me. And as Augus has found out – I stick to the people I love.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said.

Ash’s mouth burned over his. Teeth scraped as a hand dug into his hair and pinned his head back to the ground, and whatever he’d thought about Augus being the truly dominating one evaporated into smoke. Hardly thinking, he bit back, hating that warmth was kicking through his body, heat bursting in sparks down his spine until it found his cock.

‘See, I like to be practical,’ Ash whispered against Gwyn’s mouth. ‘You’re stressed, I’m stressed. Talking about it won’t work. Can’t sleep it off. You can’t drink in a pub and we’re already here, yeah?’

Ash’s hips rolled down, a tiny, tight motion. But enough that Gwyn was beginning to see the sense in what he was saying.

He looked up at him as Ash moved back, his face not so close to Gwyn’s. There was a light in his eyes as wild and distant as the stars. In the background he could hear metal and rubber vehicles groaning and growling like animals. The trees and plants couldn’t hide the litter – bits of plastic and crinkled metal wrappers. This was where Ash came to hunt, where he seemed to revel in the short intensity of human life.

But this world wasn’t Gwyn’s world, and though his cock had twitched, he wasn’t hard.

‘Not here,’ Gwyn whispered, lips sore.

Then, knowing it would probably be one more inconvenience on top of many others, he closed his eyes and made the signal that meant he didn’t want to talk anymore. Fist up by his shoulder.

‘Good call,’ Ash said.

His voice lacked its usual lightness. Still, he helped Gwyn up and didn’t protest the decision to move, or Gwyn’s need to stop speaking. And when they walked back to Ash’s apartment, Ash kept his fingers twined with Gwyn’s, instead of pulling Gwyn along by the wrist.

*

Ash handed Gwyn an opened bottle of beer, then tipped the long neck of his own bottle back and drank half of it before he’d even sat down on the couch next to Gwyn. They were back in Ash’s lake, in the home that was comfortable but hardly used.

Gwyn was still agitated, but calming now that there was no one around except for Ash. Enough to notice that Ash wasn’t able to make himself seem as gentle and warm as usual. Gwyn didn’t feel unsafe around him – not exactly – because he was a higher status than Ash, and because Ash was listening to him. It counted. Not once had Ash pushed for Gwyn to talk, since Gwyn had made the signal.

But even though his throat wanted to be still and he didn’t want to hear any words coming from his own mouth, he knew he wasn’t done saying what he needed to say.

He stood, clutched his bottle of beer and started looking around. On the dining table he found a pad of notepaper with artificial lines ruled across it. The paper was very thin, not designed for fountain pen ink. On the first page, the words pepperoni pizza were underlined about ten times.

Gwyn flipped the page over to a blank one and looked around, pursing his lips. He found a cup filled with a mishmash of scribing tools that he wasn’t quite familiar with. The graphite pencil was blunt. Then he tried one of the plastic implements and saw that it drew a strange, thin line that didn’t blotch even if he pressed rather hard. The ink itself didn’t seep through or into the paper, was almost oily.

It would do for his purposes.

Ash watched in fascination, sipping from the bottle, as Gwyn bent over the table and tried to think about what he’d been saying earlier. Then, he wrote:

You have built up a story for me in your own mind and it is incorrect. My life has not been easy, but nor is this. You have both given me things I want for myself, but I found some before I met you. I do not like that the cold one Augus has reacted this way but I am worried for him more than I am worried for myself. I do not like the human realm as you do. It is loud and obnoxious and filthy.

Ash frowned as he read over the note that Gwyn handed to him. The paper came away easily from the notepad, it seemed designed for messages that would biodegrade quickly. And Gwyn waited, aware that he hardly ever spoke to Ash, and when he did, it was in situations of emergency. Not like the one they were currently in.

‘Ah,’ Ash said, ‘well…feels like you’re in a bit of an odd mood tonight. I didn’t mean to suggest that I think your life is easy now, ‘cuz it’s obviously not? Gwyn…we both know you’re doing it really hard. As for the story I have built up in my mind, sure, some parts of it aren’t going to be accurate. You and I hardly ever talk, and a lot of my conclusions about you are built up from your body language and what Augus has said. But, Gwyn, your story isn’t correct either. I don’t mean…’ Ash blew out a breath and stared down at the words Gwyn had written. ‘I mean that the way you think about things has felt correct for a long time, because other people needed you to feel that way. And I think you need it for yourself. But just because you feel like you’re not our family, or you don’t have a place here, doesn’t mean it’s true. Unless you don’t want to be our family, or you don’t want to have a place with us.’

Gwyn bared his teeth back at the notepad. He didn’t like that argument. Because he did want to be their…family. Whatever that meant. It seemed like it would be different to what he used to think family meant. And he did want to have a place with them. But he knew the world didn’t work that way. He wrote as much on a new piece of paper and Ash read it over his shoulder and sighed.

‘You could give it a chance,’ Ash said, standing closer to Gwyn and bumping gently into him.

I’m trying, Gwyn wrote. But I upset you both.

Ash’s energy was less brittle now and he nodded, water dripped on his shirt and Gwyn’s shoulder.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘And you’ll do it again. And Augus and I will upset you sometimes. That’s kind of how this goes. People will get upset sometimes. In a healthy world, when a person gets upset, you try and respect what’s happening with them and give them what they need, or apologise, or make amends, or stand your ground if you think you’re right – while not being a dick about it. Augus is upset, so we gave him space because he asked for it. You’re upset, so I apologised and took you out of the human realm, because I made a bad decision. A few. A fair fucking few.’

Gwyn took a series of shallow breaths and then hurriedly scrawled out some words, caring less about perfect lettering now and more about getting his message across.

And you? Why are you upset? What should I do?

‘I’m upset because Augus is hurting, and you’re hurting,’ Ash said quietly. ‘That’s really it.’

And I can help? Gwyn wrote.

This was so much easier than speaking. But still nerve-wracking to wait to hear what Ash would say. Ash didn’t monitor his words the same way Augus did. Gwyn was beginning to realise how very precise Augus was when he spoke to Gwyn. Like every sentence needed to be careful.

‘Yeah,’ Ash said. ‘In a lot of ways. I like affection, but it doesn’t have to be affection. We can play board games together, or go lie down for a-’

Gwyn turned to him and bumped his lips against Ash’s, closing his eyes, not wanting to think about any of this anymore. Not wanting to think about family or having a place with them. Ash kissed him back gently this time, no more biting, but his lips rubbing against Gwyn’s mouth, back and forth until Ash took a deep breath and pulled back to look at Gwyn with something stern on his face. The expression didn’t quite suit him, made him look more like Augus than usual.

‘You don’t need to appease me or make me happier,’ Ash said, stroking Gwyn’s arm. ‘I can make myself less upset because you know, I’m a grown up. You don’t have to do this.’

Gwyn didn’t bother with the pen, dropping it on the table. He turned into Ash’s mouth again and felt his own breathing hitch when Ash’s tongue licked out and caressed his bottom lip like he was beckoning him closer. Gwyn leaned and Ash slid an arm around his lower back. After a few seconds, where Ash seemed to be giving him space to change his mind, Ash pulled him closer and took careful control of the kiss. Turning it from something sweet into something claiming and hungry.

Gwyn left his mouth open, hardly getting a chance to close it, and Ash’s tongue made a home for itself alongside his, sometimes not even moving but just resting there, the sense of domination so clear that Gwyn’s cock was starting to hurt against the inside of his pants.

He was pushed back against the table, Ash standing between his thighs and dropping a hand down quickly, pressing fingers into his flesh as though testing how hard he was. Gwyn hissed, turned his head away, ashamed. It never took long for him to be fully hard, and he got the sense from the both of them that…it wasn’t normally as fast for others.

‘Oh, this is really nice,’ Ash said, and Gwyn could hear the smile in his voice. ‘Can I blow you?’

Gwyn turned back and stared at him, and Ash’s smile turned into an impish grin.

‘Can I?’ he said.

‘I- Really?’ Gwyn said, forgetting that he didn’t want to be talking.

‘Mm,’ Ash said, leaning closer and dragging his fingers down Gwyn’s head until his neck tilted backwards and he was gasping at the ceiling. ‘Only if you want to.’

Gwyn made a sound that was half a breath of laughter and sound of agreement. Ash started to kneel between his legs which was quickly turning Gwyn’s mind into white noise, and then Ash laughed.

‘You’re too fucking tall,’ Ash said around his laughter. He pushed up, grabbed Gwyn’s wrists and pulled him away from the table. ‘Come on, puppy. You get to lie down for this.’

Gwyn felt like he’d been knocked on the head. He always felt like that when arousal started pulsing through his body. He wasn’t used to it, and the sensations were too large for him to process properly.

Ash’s large bed was unmade, clothes were tossed about, his sheets a deep brick red. Ash pushed him back onto the bed, a hand on Gwyn’s chest and the other at his hip, easing him backwards, his thumb digging into his pelvis and not helping the pressure on Gwyn’s cock at all.

‘I have to get you back, you see,’ Ash said, pulling off his shirt and throwing it onto one of the piles of clothing in this room. ‘Though I can’t deep throat like you, I can still make it good.’

The hand against the seam of his jeans was merciless, digging the underside of the zip in over his cock. Gwyn’s elbows dug into the bed and he moaned, one leg bending, one arm stunned into motion as he tried to reach between them and get his fly undone.

‘Easy now,’ Ash said, leaning down and licking Gwyn’s neck. ‘What’s it like? Sore? Good? Lost for words?’

Gwyn made a sound of frustration that cut off into a groan as he tried to buck up into Ash’s hand and move away at the same time. He shoved at whatever part of Ash’s body he could reach with his foot – his calf – and pushed himself up the bed to get his hands to his fly, pulling the stiff new fabric open hurriedly. Ash was already crawling up the bed towards him, a look on his face that was hungry and happy at once. It was infectious, and Gwyn shoved his jeans down as Ash bent towards his cock and flung an arm across his abdomen, pinning him to the bed.

Ash fisted his free hand at the base of Gwyn’s cock, lowered his mouth on the sensitive head in a single movement that was rough in its eagerness. Gwyn’s head pressed into the sheets, he choked as his throat went into spasm. He could feel the hairs on Ash’s arm against his bare thighs, and a droplet of lake water plinked onto his pelvis and made him shiver. His jeans were stuck around his thighs.

Ash’s hand squeezed and released his cock in rhythmic motions that matched the bobbing of his head. His mouth made wet, slick sounds, tongue flat and pressing hard against the underside of Gwyn’s cock. His mouth was so hot that Gwyn felt seared all the way through.

Gwyn had only ever experienced this once, and it was disarming him as quickly now as it had in the past. A thick, tense arousal in his gut, writhing inside of him.

His forearm hid his eyes, body squirming, neck tense.

When Ash lifted off his cock with a wet pop, Gwyn whined in protest. Though the protest was short-lived when Ash began jacking his length with long, intense strokes, the palm of his hand tightening around the head, a fingertip playing mercilessly with the slit.

‘I want to make you come,’ Ash said, breathless. ‘That good with you?’

Gwyn nodded frantically, because how could he not want that?

‘Awesome,’ Ash said, his hand moving faster on Gwyn’s cock. ‘Can I use my glamour?’

Gwyn lowered his forearm from his head and saw the way Ash’s eyes were brighter than usual. As though a tiny light had kindled behind his irises. Ash bit into the corner of his lower lip, didn’t blink as he stared at Gwyn.

‘Will it…hurt?’ Gwyn said, surprised at how uneven his voice was.

Ash beamed at him and shook his head. ‘Not at all. It’ll feel good. I swear.’

Gwyn moaned, because it already felt good. But he nodded anyway, because Ash’s glamour was a warm, sweet thing that soothed him, and he could feel the tension building in his gut that meant he was going to come, and he wasn’t sure why, but it was stressful to know he was capable of feeling wound so tight. The only time he was supposed to be this tense was when he was afraid. And a part of his mind wouldn’t let that go.

‘Y-yes,’ Gwyn said, unable to get the word out around the strength of the heat flowing through him. He put his forearm back over his face, unable to stand that gaze. Ash kneeling beside his legs and looking at Gwyn like he was the centre of the universe.

The first pulse of glamour was slow. Gwyn felt it as the temperature in the room increasing, he broke out into a sweat and stuttered out a broken groan, his breathing all over the place. Already, his balls felt taut, like they were retracting and pushing that ache further up his spine. It wasn’t going to be long. He bit wetly at his own forearm, the flash of pain adding an edge to the pleasure.

Ash lowered his head and sucked the head of his cock with wet, messy enthusiasm. Then, the next pulse of glamour flowed over him, a wave of heat, twisting his gut into knots and blanking his mind of anything but acute lust roaring up his spine. He gasped once, eyes flying open, and then his back arched despite Ash’s arm pinning him down at the hips.

The first spasm of release almost hurt, the ache was so strong and heavy. His hands flew down to the bed and he grabbed handfuls of sheets and felt his fingers popping through fabric into the stuffing of the mattress. Ash hummed greedily, didn’t move away, and Gwyn spilled into heat, unable to stop how his eyes squeezed shut or his teeth gritted together, throat working on hoarse moans that sounded loud despite his closed mouth.

The glamour eased back as Ash’s mouth did, and then the broad flat of a tongue was licking over the head of his cock, stimulating nerves that were already overstimulated. Gwyn started to roll to his side, but Ash kept his hand flat on Gwyn’s pelvis and kept doing it. Only when Gwyn sucked in a breath, thinking he might have to say the signal word, did Ash shift and start kissing his thighs instead.

The kisses moved up over his hip, stirring goosebumps along his side, and then Ash pushed Gwyn’s arm up out of the way, laughing as he unhooked Gwyn’s fingers from the mattress, and licked into his armpit. Gwyn shuddered, whimpered as he turned towards Ash. That felt far nicer than he knew it would, having never given much thought to how sensitive the skin was there; Ash’s tongue was letting him know.

By the time Ash’s mouth reached his lips, Gwyn’s breathing had mostly evened out. He turned into Ash while trying to subtly kick off the jeans where they’d snagged at his calves. The kiss they shared was lingering. Not rough or messy, but sweet. It made him feel special, and it was disconcerting. He pulled back and looked at Ash, and then realised he should probably reciprocate – wanted to – and moved his hand down Ash’s chest.

A hand on his wrist stopped him.

‘Hang on, puppy,’ Ash said. ‘You can do whatever you like, I promise, but let me kiss you a bit longer. Please?’

Gwyn blinked and nodded, his heart wrenching when soft lips met his and unspooled some knot in his chest that lingered after Augus had sent them away. Somehow, Ash was unravelling him, smoothing the hard edges, even as his tongue licked over Gwyn’s lips or into his mouth, even as he sometimes hummed pleasure into Gwyn’s chin and jaw, sighing like someone releasing a great weight.

‘You sound amazing, you know,’ Ash said, between kisses. ‘And I know you’re probably not ready for me to say something like ‘I love you’ yet, I know that, but…I like you a ton, and I’d like it if you stuck around.’

He kissed Gwyn and removed the pressure of a reply, but after that Gwyn’s eyes opened and he looked down at Ash’s curly hair – so close he couldn’t focus on it properly.

Gwyn wrapped both of his arms around Ash’s back – one up high by his shoulders, the other low, where his waist narrowed into slim hips. He felt daring, became aware of just how much bigger he was physically. Augus and Ash had such presence that Gwyn always felt small in comparison. Now, he used his size and strength to gather Ash to him, ducking his head into Ash’s neck and holding him close.

He didn’t know what to say, hardly knew how to find the right words most of the time – let alone at times like this. But he hoped Ash would understand what he meant. And by the way Ash went still and then returned the embrace, the way he felt Ash smile against his collarbone; Gwyn thought maybe he did.

Chapter Text

Augus spent a week completely on his own, and it was wonderful. He missed Ash and Gwyn increasingly, but not enough to want to change the situation. He lounged when he wanted to. He did the things he wanted to do. He looked forward to clients with enthusiasm, even though he was uncertain about when he’d be able to see them again next, knowing his space was not yet safe and secure for them.

So when Ash and Gwyn turned up on his doorstep on a Tuesday morning, Augus knew he’d have to talk to them about the situation. What he didn’t expect – and possibly should have – was Ash saying:

‘Right, first things first, we need to make sure you can keep having the space you need going into the future, so that you don’t have to throw a tantrum to get it.’

That had trailed into a conversation which was mostly Ash talking about how he and Gwyn needed to move out, for perhaps half a month each month, until they figured out a better way of doing things.

Augus knew Ash meant it – after all, he only ever visited once a month and usually only for a weekend in the past. Sometimes two or three months could even go by, if they both got caught up in their lives. But Augus found it hard to gauge Gwyn’s reaction to what Ash was saying. Was he taking it personally? Feeling it as a rejection? Gwyn just stood silently and watched Ash as he spoke, occasionally glancing at Augus and then looking back at Ash quickly, like he couldn’t bear to look at him for too long. His hands were clasped together in front of himself. He was anxious.

But that anxiety could have been caused by anything.

‘Now, since I already have a home to go back to – and Gwyn’s welcome to come with me of course – I think it’s you two who need to decide what you’re going to do here. So I’m going to leave you both to it and go play my DS. I vote not having salad for dinner, just saying.’

With that, Ash disappeared down the corridor to his room, leaving Augus and Gwyn in the lounge. Gwyn still grasped at his hands, then his wrists, and Augus frowned at the behaviour and then held up a hand.

‘Wait there one moment,’ he said.

He fetched the cuffs – Gwyn had put them back where he’d found them, before he ran away – and came back. The look of relief on Gwyn’s face made him frown. Perhaps he shouldn’t have sent them away without giving Gwyn the cuffs at least. Something to tether him back to this space that Augus knew he belonged in. Just not…every second of every day.

Gwyn’s fingers trembled as Augus buckled the cuffs in place. Then, Gwyn let himself be led to the couch, sitting and pressing his wrists down into his knees, as though to feel the leather that was wrapped tight around his skin.

‘What do you think of Ash’s proposed solution?’ Augus said, his voice low enough that he knew Ash wouldn’t be able to easily eavesdrop.

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said. ‘I don’t know what…I can do. I don’t want to make you upset again.’

Augus leaned back against the couch and shrugged.

‘It is in my nature,’ Augus said, ‘to need space alone. Honestly I don’t know how Ash manages it. I think you’re actually a bit more like me, in that regard. You liked your solitude in the forest sometimes, didn’t you?’

Gwyn nodded, looking down at the cuffs. When he looked up at Augus again, worry imprinted across his face.

‘If you want me to move away, or stay in the forest from now on…you can…tell me.’

‘I can,’ Augus said. ‘And I would. If that’s what I wanted. What I actually want is for you to live with me sometimes, and otherwise in sight of the lake, if possible. Amongst those trees near the clearing. So that I know you’re close by, and safe. So that when I need my week or two weeks or even a month to myself, you can see the lake and know that I asked you to live by it, not away from it.’

Gwyn’s breath shook in his throat, and he looked down at where Augus had slid his fingers to cup Gwyn’s hands.

‘Would you be upset if I kept taking on clients?’ Augus said.

Most fae weren’t monogamous, but every now and then one might be obsessed with the idea of having a fae partner entirely for themselves. He wasn’t sure which category Gwyn fit into.

‘Why would that upset me?’ Gwyn said, looking up. ‘Does it upset you?’

‘No,’ Augus said, lips quirking. Perhaps jealousy would be an emotion Gwyn felt entitled to in the future, but they could deal with it if it ever happened. Augus already knew it would be easy to defend. Despite the strong feelings he could evoke in himself on behalf of his clients, they could disappear just as quickly, especially after a job well done. More than that – exercising his dominance in that way kept him healthy, and Gwyn needed healthy people around him.

‘A house,’ Gwyn said. ‘Do I build it? I don’t know how to build a house. I could…try. But I don’t-’

‘If it feels right enough, you may be able to use your power to make it. Every fae can build a home for themselves in the right place. Do you think I assembled the stones and tiles you see around you? No. I suppose your parents wouldn’t have told you. Talk to the King about it, and he’ll help you see what I mean. Otherwise, I think a simple cabin would be easy enough to organise. I have some funds, some contacts.’

‘I don’t even need a house,’ Gwyn said, like he was confessing. ‘I can sleep on the forest floor. I’ve done it all my life. Almost all my life.’

‘I know,’ Augus said. ‘But I’d prefer you had the option of a regular bed to return to in the future. Are you amenable? Will you stay? You don’t have to, you realise. The Raven Prince would have you live in his palace, and the accommodations would be quite-’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head, turning his hands and grasping Augus’ fingers. ‘Don’t make me go live with him.’

‘I’m trying to give you options,’ Augus said, smiling at him. ‘Are you not upset that you can’t live here constantly?’

Gwyn shook his head, shrugged. ‘You always said…you said from the beginning that it was too much. And I do not like living under a roof all the time. In a lake. Under so much water.’

Augus laughed softly, marvelled at how well Gwyn was taking things. He had the sneaking suspicion that perhaps he hadn’t initially taken things well at all, but Ash was obviously adept at helping Gwyn through whatever was happening in his mind, and that gave him hope too. That it didn’t all have to rest on his shoulders, he didn’t have to micromanage every moment to stop it from crashing down around him.

‘Ash says…that I’m family,’ Gwyn said quietly. ‘Is he lying?’

‘No,’ Augus said, squeezing Gwyn’s hands. ‘It’s a good way of looking at it. For us. But we think of family in a different way to you, I’m sure.’

‘You think of it in a nice way,’ Gwyn said. ‘Why would he let me be part of that? Isn’t it…isn’t what you both have too special for me- I-I just mean, wouldn’t you rather-’

‘Ash said something to me a little while back,’ Augus said quietly, risking pressing his palm up to Gwyn’s cheek, even though he startled at the contact. ‘He said that I didn’t want my life to stay the same, even though I was happy and thought I was content. I think he’s right. I was ready for things to expand outwards. I didn’t know how, and let’s be honest, I didn’t expect you, but- As bone-headed as he can be at the best of times, he possesses a modicum of wisdom that lets him see the truth in things before I can. Sometimes families expand, Gwyn. It’s normal.’

‘But it scares you,’ Gwyn said.

‘Yes,’ Augus said, dropping his hand from Gwyn’s cheek and sighing as he leaned against the couch and got more comfortable. ‘But all of this has scared you too. Do you think it’s not worth it, just because you’re scared?’

It was quite satisfying – Augus thought – to see the realisation skate across Gwyn’s face. The way his eyebrows lifted just so, the way he blinked as his eyes opened wide.

‘Oh,’ Gwyn said quietly.

Augus thought that of all the outcomes he’d imagined when he saw Ash and Gwyn again after kicking them out, this unexpected one was his favourite.

*

They settled into routine as though Ash and Gwyn had never been gone. Except this time Augus felt like he was relaxing into it more than usual, knowing that he would have regular access to his own space and aloneness. Until Gwyn’s cabin was built, Gwyn could go to the human realm or Ash’s lake. The solution seemed too neatly done, but as Ash had said, it didn’t mean they’d missed anything out.

The evening found Augus leaning into Ash as they both read their books. Gwyn dozed at the bottom of Ash’s bed, his arms sprawled and his knees tucked in, the cuffs on his wrist making him look like he belonged.

Augus kept looking over the top of his book at him, considering. Ash had drawn him aside earlier to let him know that they’d exorcised some of their tension through intimacy, and Augus stared at Gwyn’s faintly troubled face – so close to sleep – and wondered at Gwyn’s relative ease with sexual contact.

For a while, he’d thought Gwyn had been lying when he said he hadn’t been raped. Or that he hadn’t understood the question. But now, Augus was aware that for all the issues that Gwyn had with people and their motives, certain kinds of touch didn’t scare him nearly as much as Augus assumed they would. If anything, the cuffs around his wrist grounded him. He’d kissed Augus first. He had the signal word and gesture and he used them. He seemed to welcome sensual contact.

Augus didn’t exactly want to test that theory, but he did want to push harder. He looked at Gwyn’s strong thighs, the pulled in muscle of his waist, his broad shoulders, and slowly closed his book, placing it on the dresser.

‘Bro, you up to something?’ Ash said softly.

‘Would you be at all bothered if I used your bed to see what he might allow me to do?’

Ash exhaled sharply. ‘Can I join in?’

‘If all goes well, then…yes. Do you have slick?’

‘I mean, it’s me we’re talking about here, what the fuck do you think?’

‘I’m going to take that as a yes,’ Augus said, shifting on the bed so that he was on all fours and facing Gwyn, then lowering himself down onto his elbows so that their heads were close. Gwyn hadn’t even shifted yet. He must have felt safer than usual – he could jerk out of a doze quickly.

‘Hey, Augus?’ Ash said.

‘Mm?’ Augus said, tilting his head to the side and looking down Gwyn’s body, trying to think of the best way of waking him up without being hit in the process.

‘You’re pretty hot.’

Augus smirked. ‘Enjoying the view, are we?’

‘It’s just- Your ass is kind of facing me here, and you move like a panther…and those two things- I’m really enjoying the view, yeah.’

‘Wonderful,’ Augus said, smiling.

Then, knowing it would get a reaction and bracing himself for it, he trailed his fingers through Gwyn’s hair.

Gwyn’s eyes shot open, his whole body jerked and Augus caught one of the arms that came down by the wrist, squeezing the cuff hard and drawing his focus. Gwyn’s mouth opened, he stared in shock. He seemed to remember where he was, and the arm that was tense in Augus’ grip went lax. He even rolled back just a bit, exposing more of himself as though he hardly had to think about it.

Augus moved closer and watched Gwyn’s face as he bent down and kissed his cheek, then the place where tender skin merged into his ear. He listened to uneven breathing and felt it against his own face as he bent and kissed him properly, lips pressing against lips. He didn’t let go of Gwyn’s wrist, knowing that of all the things he was doing, it was the ache at that joint that would keep him grounded more than the gentle sensuality.

‘I want to do so much to you,’ Augus said as he pulled back. ‘You remember your signals?’

Gwyn nodded and his cheeks flushed pink. He looked wary, curious, there was a gleam in his eyes that suggested arousal.

Augus divested himself of his clothing, and helped Gwyn with his shirt and the tracksuit pants that he seemed to prefer when he was living in Augus’ house. Then, heat beginning to fizz to life inside of him, Augus rolled Gwyn onto his back – one hand at his wrist, and the other digging into his side. Augus straddled him in a smooth movement, pressing his nose to the space where neck met shoulder and inhaling deeply. He felt Gwyn’s wrist flex, fingers splaying.

Gwyn smelled of ozone and carbon, a sharp chemical prickliness that only sharpened as Gwyn’s breathing became shorter, his free hand resting on top of Augus’ thigh.

‘Have you ever fucked someone?’ Augus asked, the words brushing close to Gwyn’s ear. ‘Ever been so far inside someone that you wanted them to feel it in their throat?’

Gwyn made a broken noise, and Ash swore. Augus smiled when he heard Ash put his book down on his own chest of drawers.

Gwyn shook his head, and Augus licked a spiral over Gwyn’s ear and then dragged his lips over Gwyn’s mouth – which opened for more, and Augus didn’t give it to him.

‘Have you been fucked?’ Augus said.

A hesitation, a faint nod, and Augus stroked Gwyn’s torso and rocked into him. The room didn’t smell of a hint of fear, and it was delectable.

‘Did you like it?’ Augus purred.

Another short noise, and then Gwyn nodded and his fingers were flexing back and forth, digging into Augus’ thigh.

‘You haven’t been fucked by me though,’ Augus said, voice low. ‘And I think you want to know what it’s like. To feel someone so deep inside of you that you wonder if you’ll choke on it. Because you like that sensation so very much, don’t you, Gwyn? Remember how it felt, being pushed down on Ash’s cock?’

Gwyn’s breathing was heavier, his hips shifted restlessly. His mouth hadn’t closed again. Augus reached up and dipped fingers inside that wet heat, and then moved away when Gwyn went to touch Augus’ fingers with his tongue. Augus waited a few seconds, and then pressed his fingers deep into Gwyn’s mouth, pressing down on the back of his tongue, feeling the moment when Gwyn’s throat clenched around him, the choked moan that he gave, his eyes squeezing shut.

‘A little like that, isn’t it?’ Augus said, pressing his fingers down harder and forcing Gwyn to swallow multiple times before he could finally get control of his throat. Then, Augus left his fingers there, liking the vice of it and the way Gwyn tentatively sucked. His eyes blinked open, shinier than before, wetter. Augus could smell the faint salt of it – it was the only salt he liked.

Augus thrust his fingers back and forth, mimicking fucking his mouth, which he was determined to do one day. But not today. From the way Gwyn tried to participate, the hazy look in his eyes, he wasn’t averse to the notion at all.

Augus heard the sounds of Ash undressing while on the bed and ignored them. Instead, he squeezed Gwyn’s wrist until Augus felt a sharp moan around the fingers he had in Gwyn’s mouth. Then he shifted his hips so that he was resting lower on Gwyn’s thighs and moved the hand from the cuff to Gwyn’s cock, repeating that same hard squeeze until Gwyn’s hips bucked to get away and his mouth opened wide on fractious sounds.

But his cock was thick with blood, twitched heavily in Augus’ hand. And though his eyes widened as though begging Augus to stop, Augus could scent the moment that Gwyn’s arousal spiked.

‘Oh, dear heart, the things you like.’

Gwyn moaned brokenly and his eyelids pressed together, squeezing a tear out of the corner. He’d settled, shaking, into Augus’ grip. And Augus rewarded him by loosening his fingers and jacking Gwyn’s cock slowly. He slid the fingers of his other hand out of Gwyn’s mouth and cupped his cheek gently, then stroked his neck, his shoulder, felt the strength in his arms.

Ash pressed up alongside Augus’ body, his nose resting just above Augus’ ear, curls touching Augus’ straight, coarse mane.

‘What can I do?’ Ash whispered.

‘Get me something that I can open him up with,’ Augus said, and Ash laughed briefly, the sound rough. Then he moved away and opened a drawer. While that was happening, Augus pressed a careful, tender kiss to Gwyn’s mouth. Marvelled at the shuddering of his ribcage. Then, with both hands, rolled Gwyn over onto his stomach and pressed the heels of his palms into Gwyn’s lower back.

The tube of lubricant was placed by Gwyn’s side, and then Ash was shifting over so that he was closer to Gwyn’s face. He carded the fingers of both of his hands through Gwyn’s hair, kneaded the pads of his fingers into Gwyn’s neck. A minute later, Gwyn went limp beneath Ash’s ministrations and sighed out a long, heavy sound.

‘You’re going to make him fall asleep,’ Augus said, even as he shifted and grasped a handful of Gwyn’s ass in both hands and squeezed.

‘Not fucking likely,’ Ash said, as Gwyn groaned.

Augus hesitated before picking up the lubricant. Gwyn hadn’t said a thing, and Augus arched over Gwyn’s back so that his head was by his ear. Ash used the shift in position to smooth his palm over Augus’ back, over his side, and for a moment Augus was distracted, caught up in the continuing wonder of his brother touching him with an intensity of care that short-circuited his thoughts.

But then he gathered himself together and cleared his throat.

‘Gwyn, you’ve been very quiet. I need to know that you can say the word, and that you’re not locked into one of your bouts of speechlessness. Can you say hawthorn for me?’

‘But I don’t want you to stop,’ Gwyn said, his voice low and rough. ‘The last time you asked me to say it, you stopped.’

Augus chuckled, then groaned quietly when he felt Ash’s lips on the arm he had braced by Gwyn’s shoulder. An open mouth tracing his bicep, licking into the sensitive skin of his inner elbow.

‘I’m not going to stop, don’t you worry. Do you think you can say the word if you panic, or need this to stop?’

Gwyn nodded so vigorously that the curls on his head vibrated.

Augus slid back down Gwyn’s body, sharing a smile with Ash, who then bent down and began mouthing Gwyn’s shoulders and back. Gwyn wasn’t quite boneless, he was too aroused for that, but he didn’t look like someone who wanted to move away from what was happening.

He lubricated his fingers easily, then dispersed some of the extra over his cock, tilting his head back and savouring the heat he evoked in his own body. But he didn’t touch himself too much, wanting the heat in Gwyn’s body even more. He’d wanted this for some time. Wanted it while Gwyn was tied up, wanted it while he was in pain, wanted it now – on Ash’s bed.

He could have made sure Gwyn was more relaxed before he trailed slick fingers between the seam of Gwyn’s ass. But he wanted Gwyn to be completely aware of what was happening, he wanted the slight stiffening of his nervousness, the hitches in his breath as Augus rubbed his fleshy perineum with his fingers before sliding back up and skating over his entrance. Back and forth, wondering how it had been for Gwyn the first time, if he’d liked it so much that he wasn’t moving away or asking for either of them to move slower.

Gwyn’s ring of muscle was tight around the tip of his index finger as Augus twisted his hand and dipped just inside. There he waited, feeling the fluttering uncertainty of Gwyn’s body. He bent down and bit Gwyn’s hip, and Gwyn whimpered, his hips pressing down firmly into the bed. Augus smirked. Gwyn clearly wanted some kind of friction for his cock.

He could have moved slowly, but instead he waited a few more seconds and then slid his finger deep, to the last knuckle. Gwyn jerked, and Augus watched as Ash licked the back of Gwyn’s neck – holding his hair out of the way – then scraped his teeth over Gwyn’s skin. He wasn’t biting hard – Augus couldn’t see indentations, but the two of them together were beginning to drive Gwyn to distraction.

Augus savoured the heat and tension of Gwyn’s ass, sliding his finger back and forth. He withdrew and then pushed back in with two, pausing when tension became too tight.

‘Careful now,’ Augus breathed. ‘Relax for me.’

Gwyn made a strangled noise, bucked up into Augus’ fingers, then ground forwards. But there was permissible tightness, and then there was this.

Augus dragged the nails of his free hand down Gwyn’s side, drawing his attention.

‘Breathe out,’ Augus commanded. ‘Deep breaths, focus on the exhales. Or I’ll stop.’

‘I- I can’t concentrate,’ Gwyn wheezed, voice muffled against the mattress.

‘You can,’ Augus said sternly.

He moved his fingers back a millimetre, just enough for Gwyn to sense it. Then his lips curled up when he felt Gwyn struggling to master his breathing. And there, an incremental relaxation in that tight ring of muscle that Augus took immediate advantage of, thrusting deep and hard and shocking a raw cry out of Gwyn’s mouth.

His fingers moved fluidly then, working against the clench and clamp of muscle. He bent over Gwyn’s body, digging the fingers of his other hand into Gwyn’s shoulder, his own breathing a little less steady now that he was enveloped by all that heat.

Ash shifted, until his warm, wet breath was pushing against Augus’ cheek. Until his lips sealed against Augus’ mouth and his tongue licked its way in – shallow at first, and then deeper. Ash’s lips tasted of the salts on Gwyn’s skin, along with silt and something so quintessentially Ash that Augus blinked through a wave of lust-bright dizziness.

Augus’ fingers kept moving even as he leaned into the kiss. His heartsong had no problems with any of what was occurring, and he responded to Ash’s kissing generously, embracing the myriad sensations stirring in his own body. His cock fully hard, his heart thumping against his ribs, a predatory heat shimmering in his depths.

He shifted his fingers again and pressed down, seeking. Sliding forwards and-

Gwyn’s whole body lurched on a breathless cry. A loud inhale, and then he moaned again. Augus repeated the motion, massaging over Gwyn’s prostate gland until Gwyn was trembling and his fists were clenching into the blankets over and over again. Then, when Gwyn’s hips started humping rhythmically into the bed, Augus withdrew his fingers entirely and savoured the short, injured sound of loss and protest that Gwyn made in response.

‘Up on your knees,’ Augus said, shifting between Gwyn’s legs and hauling his hips up as his legs scrabbled to find the right position. ‘Ash, I want you sitting in front of him. Filled at both ends, if you please.’

Gwyn twisted and looked over his shoulder, and – oh – Augus couldn’t help but smile at the brightness of his eyes, his bitten, plump lips, the flush that was not only over his cheeks now, but across the bridge of his nose and at his jaws and sliding down his neck.

‘Worried it will be too much?’ Augus asked as Ash got into position, sitting with his legs apart, so that if Gwyn lowered his head, collapsed onto his elbows – Ash’s cock would be right there.

Gwyn nodded, swallowed, whole body shaking.

‘It will be,’ Augus said, stroking a hand down Gwyn’s back. ‘That’s the point, Gwyn. I’m afraid you’ve gone and met someone who rather likes sensory overload.’

Ash cleared his throat. ‘Two someones, when you think about it.’

‘Even better,’ Augus said. ‘You need to signal?’

Gwyn looked at Ash, looked back to Augus, then shook his head. But there was more uncertainty there than before. So Augus waited until Gwyn’s expression cleared and he shook his head firmly, and then Ash’s hands were shifting Gwyn’s head so that he was facing forwards. Massaging Gwyn’s scalp, caressing his neck with clever fingers. Gwyn’s body seemed to drop a little, his shoulders working to hold him up.

Augus shifted, spreading Gwyn apart to see how open he was, to see the evidence of his own lube-slick fingers working him, the rim of his ass pinker than it no doubt usually was from the stimulation. He dragged the backs of his fingers over Gwyn’s entrance to watch it open and close, then fisted his cock, made sure the foreskin wasn’t in the way and pressed himself against that tightness and notched himself into place.

He didn’t push in, not yet. Waited instead, leaning over Gwyn’s back, his long hair coiled damply and sticking to Gwyn’s sweaty skin.

Ash was slowly coaxing Gwyn’s head down, which made Gwyn’s back arch very nicely in preparation for what was about to happen. Augus needed a moment to control his own breathlessness, because it hit him harder than it had in the past – they were actually doing this. The three of them. Whatever they’d done in the past was its own lesser form of validation, but this- this was a level of consummation he hadn’t imagined he’d ever have in his life. And now here he was, cock teased by the heat that waited for him, Gwyn trembling and head shifting as he found Ash’s cock. Then Ash looked up and met Augus’ eyes and smiled, the expression sweeter than Augus expected for the moment.

Then Ash’s eyes screwed shut and his head jerked.

‘Yeah, just like that. Just like that, fuck.’

Augus held out his other hand to Ash until his fingers were grasped. Then he lowered Ash’s hand to the back of Gwyn’s head and let go, rubbing Gwyn’s lower back and then grasping his hip firmly.

He bucked his hips in a tight, controlled movement, the head of his cock slipping past resistance and pressing inside. Gwyn moaned wetly around Ash’s cock, and Augus began a rocking, insistent pace – hips moving sinuously as he pressed himself deeper with each inward thrust. He kept Gwyn in place to receive him. He paused when he was as deep as he could go, rolling his hips hard, Gwyn swaying forwards. Then he bent down and kissed the parts of Gwyn’s back that he could reach, a tender counterpoint to what he and Ash were both doing.

Gwyn whimpered, voice strained. Augus savoured it, kept kissing him, licked patterns into his skin and occasionally rolled his hips forward. He enjoyed the way Ash’s expression shifted when it happened, as though he was the one being fucked.

Because that, oh, Augus hadn’t even considered… But he was considering it now. And the way Ash opened his eyes to look at him – that wide-eyed gaze like he’d been struck with electricity. Was he thinking of it too?

‘Do it,’ Ash said, his voice gravelly. ‘I want to feel it as much as he does.’

Ah, well then.

Augus bit down the moan that wanted to vibrate through his chest and held Gwyn’s hips with both of his hands. He withdrew almost all the way, and then thrust back in hard, finishing with a circular movement of his hips that had Gwyn lift off Ash’s cock and cry out loudly.

‘Swallow him back down, Gwyn,’ Augus said, glad he didn’t sound as breathless as he felt. ‘Concentrate.’

Gwyn made a fraught sound of frustration, and then Ash was hushing him and soothing him even as he dragged Gwyn’s head back down between his legs.

‘There you go,’ Ash whispered. ‘Perfect. That’s so perfect, puppy. Let us look after you. You’re doing great.’

‘Yes,’ Augus echoed, starting up a smooth pace that stoked a low fire in his gut. ‘You are. Doing so very well.’

Another broken sound that was in response to the praise as much as it was to anything else they were doing.

After that, Augus focused on immersing himself, instead of holding himself back as he usually did. He lived in the heat and friction, in the tightness of Gwyn around him, in the muffled sounds Gwyn was making and the yielding gorgeousness of Gwyn collapsing to his forearms and Ash groaning thickly in response. He didn’t close his eyes, watching Ash instead, their eyes meeting on occasion and Ash smiling at him and Augus wanting to lean over and devour his mouth but not wanting to give up the perfect rhythm he’d found – certain he was brushing over Gwyn’s prostate with each slide of his cock.

Ash was holding Gwyn’s head down for long moments, before pushing him up for desperate gulps of air, then moving him down again. Ash’s mouth was open, he stared at Gwyn like he was hypnotised, then would look up at Augus with something like incredulity on his face, or wonder.

Gwyn started making desperate noises, hips moving back into Augus’ thrusts, and Augus bit his bottom lip sharply and let go of Gwyn’s hip to reach beneath him and vice his fingers around the base of Gwyn’s cock and balls, feeling the blood pulsing, the impossible heat of him.

‘No,’ Augus said. ‘Not yet.’

Gwyn whined in protest and Augus leaned down and bit him.

‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘Don’t be rude. Wait for Ash.’

A series of whimpers, and Ash hushed Gwyn sweetly, a menacing glint in his eyes as he smirked up at Augus. In that moment, Augus felt some deep connection with his brother that was nothing to do with them being family, and everything to do with them being predators. Augus’ mouth opened on a hard exhale, and Ash’s smirk only widened, and he looked back down at Gwyn and hushed him again, the sound soft despite his expression.

‘You can take it, puppy,’ Ash said, and Augus had to close his eyes and concentrate, because how – how had he ever thought that Ash would be the one that didn’t push Gwyn? ‘I’m not that far away now. You can wait that long, can’t you?’

Augus snapped his hips hard enough that Gwyn was shoved forwards, and both of them – Gwyn and Ash – groaned.

‘Fuck,’ Ash breathed. ‘Really not that far away.’

Augus picked up his pace and kept his hand around Gwyn’s cock and balls, tight enough that it had to hurt – any gentler, and he was sure Gwyn would have come by now.

Ash was the one who came first. His whole body tensed and he gave a pleased, rough moan that made Augus’ thrusts falter. The muffled, choked sounds of Gwyn trying to swallow and possibly not doing it fast enough to keep up was another heady rush of heat that had Augus tilting his head back and staring up at the ceiling, forcing himself to concentrate.

Then, Ash was hushing Gwyn properly – not to tease him, but telling him how good he was, how wonderful, and Augus picked up his pace and drove after his own release. He let go of Gwyn’s cock to get a better grip on his hips, pulling him back into each inward thrust, hips smacking together. Gwyn’s arms moved helplessly on the bed until Ash grasped his wrists and held Gwyn still, soothing him.

Gwyn began to tense, went silent as Augus pushed him closer without getting a hand on his cock. And then Augus bit his lower lip when Gwyn made a tortured sound, hanging on the edge without pushing over it.

‘Touch him,’ Augus said finally, commanding Ash.

Ash reached underneath Gwyn’s body, and Gwyn began shaking.

‘Any time you’re ready,’ Augus breathed. ‘You don’t have to wait for me.’

A rough sound, another, and then Gwyn gasped hoarsely as his release found him, Augus feeling it in the clenching tightness of his muscles around his cock. Seeing it ripple down his back and strain at his shoulders and no doubt rest taut in his thighs. Augus fucked him through it, and Ash petted him, neither of them stopping when Gwyn slumped down against Ash’s thigh and continued to breathe like he’d been drowning.

Augus felt the moment when Gwyn relaxed completely around him, when Augus was able to push that tiny bit deeper – drawing a groan deep from Gwyn’s throat.

Augus rubbed his hip in reassurance, then worked for his own release, closing his eyes and sinking deep into himself, into arousal and heat and the currents of lust that centred around his spine and his cock and pulled at his balls.

It wouldn’t be long now.

Gwyn was making soft, tired noises with each thrust, adding to Augus’ pleasure, until with a sharp moan he began to spill. He lost himself in the pulsing waves of it, his whole body taken over until he began to sag down over Gwyn’s back.

Ash knotted his fist into Augus’ hair and dragged him forwards, thrusting his tongue deep inside Augus’ mouth while he was too dazed to do much more than respond sleepily. His heartsong stirred, then sunk deep again, satisfied. Ash grazed his teeth over Augus’ lips, painted his tongue over Augus’ tongue, then pecked at the corners of his mouth lightly, lovingly, before drawing back.

‘Mm,’ Augus hummed, rubbing Gwyn’s lower back as he slid out of him carefully. He had enough awareness left about him to check briefly for blood – just in case – but there was none at all. Just the faint puffiness of someone well-fucked, a sight that Augus very much enjoyed.

Gwyn rolled onto his side, head pillowed on Ash’s thigh. Augus lay alongside them and ran his thumb along Gwyn’s reddened lips.

‘Perfect,’ Augus said, and Gwyn blinked his eyes open and stared at him sleepily. ‘Are you all right?’

Gwyn nodded, stretched his neck and looked up at Ash. Nodded again.

‘Personally,’ Ash said, ‘I think it bodes well for the future. Given, you know, this is just the beginning and all.’

Gwyn’s eyes fluttered shut and he pressed a hand to Augus’ stomach, curling his fingers in. Then his eyes opened and he stared at Augus for long moments before he mouthed two words that tugged hard at Augus’ heart.

‘Thank you.’

‘One day,’ Augus said softly, ‘you won’t need to thank us at all for this, because it will no longer seem such a surprise to you. Until then, you’re very welcome. Trust me when I say it was my pleasure.’

‘And mine,’ Ash said, having worked out what Gwyn had mouthed. ‘And now I vote we all sleep in my bed.’

Gwyn’s thighs shifted in minor discomfort and Augus couldn’t help the half-smile at that. Augus’ come had to be running out, and Gwyn’s belly would be covered in the stuff from his own release.

‘Actually,’ Augus said. ‘How about you both wait there while I get some damp cloths to clean us up. And then we can sleep?’

‘That’s why you’re in charge, bro,’ Ash muttered, his eyes shut, eyelashes a dark smudge against his cheeks. There was happiness lurking at the corners of his mouth, and his arm was slung over Gwyn’s body as he tilted to the side, ready to collapse.

Augus smiled at them both, flush with an emotion he couldn’t quite name and not upset to find himself feeling at peace with the world.

Chapter Text

They stood before a meadow that felt like it was somehow outside of time. Gwyn didn’t know how, but when the Raven Prince had teleported them both to this space, Gwyn’s skin started to crawl immediately.

In the meadow, a large circle of low, flat stones spaced out like a solstice circle or a place of worship. There were at least thirty stones. Upon some of the dark grey stones rested items or objects. Others were empty. Gwyn stared at them, then looked around the meadow. There was a dense forest on the left side and thinned out temperate woodland on the right. Straight ahead, the shimmering haze of a mountain that might not even be real.

‘Where are we?’ Gwyn said, staring at the peak of the mountain.

‘This is a manufactured space,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘We use it to test potential apprentices. I should have done this earlier. If all goes to plan, you may not even end up hurt or weeping by the end of this encounter. Isn’t it amusing, to think that might be a first with us?’

‘Amusing,’ Gwyn echoed. Then his eyes moved back to the Raven Prince and he frowned. ‘It would be a first.’

The Raven Prince smiled, the gesture bright. How was it that things were easier between them now, when the Raven Prince had killed Gwyn’s cousin? It was a bone deep grief inside of him, and it isolated him. He knew Augus and Ash didn’t understand and it sung into life a frustration inside of him that knocked at the tips of his fingers and the backs of his knuckles until his hands clenched.

But Gwyn knew now that the Raven Prince was a trickster and cruel. And that the Raven Prince would rather return Gwyn to Ash and Augus, than have him live in the castle. Somehow, those two things combined meant that Gwyn was resigned to whatever new torment the Raven Prince would think up. It was like indulging a small child who fancied themselves a teacher. That was a thought Gwyn would never say aloud in the Raven Prince’s presence, because when he’d had such thoughts about his parents as a child, he’d learned better very quickly.

‘The premise is simple, if laborious,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Each stone represents a different field of magic. We move to each and see where your preliminary skills rest. Do not be disappointed if you feel nothing or experience little at most of the tables. It is not a trick, it is simply that most Mages only end up with one or two specialisations for a reason. You are not here to fail.’

Gwyn frowned at him. It was oddly considerate of the Raven Prince to say that.

They went to the first stone together. The Raven Prince crouched easily on one side, and Gwyn lowered himself to his knees on the other, even though kneeling already felt like it was something that only belonged to Augus – maybe Ash as well. And as the Raven Prince explained the first task that Gwyn was expected to perform, Gwyn’s mind drifted to how he’d been spending more of his nights with them both. His body heated, his cheeks flushed, and he felt embarrassed when he realised he’d missed most of what the Raven Prince had said.

It was just- They were so distracting. Living with them in the same house, he wasn’t sure how they were able to go about their daily chores and business, when all Gwyn needed to do was look at one of them and wish they were spending their time elsewhere. Usually on a bed.

Ash had taken to affectionately calling him a ‘hungry puppy,’ and Augus hadn’t mocked him for it once, but it didn’t stop how embarrassing he found it. Or how satisfied and warm and good it felt after they’d spent the night together.

It turned out Gwyn had no skill at all in manipulating metals.

Gwyn’s concentration returned to him as they moved from stone to stone. He wanted to please the Raven Prince, even though he still wasn’t sure he actually wanted to be his apprentice. He would listen to the instructions, concentrate on what he had to concentrate on, and then nothing would happen. The Raven Prince never looked disappointed, had even told him the tests weren’t about failing, but Gwyn couldn’t help but feel like perhaps the Raven Prince was wrong about him.

He didn’t like the feeling.

They came to a table of three tiny crystals that felt like they were humming. Gwyn tilted his head and listened to them, and the Raven Prince snapped his fingers before Gwyn’s face.

‘Sorry,’ Gwyn said.

‘Quite all right. These, here – some are charmed. A charm is that which enchants an object to do something you wish. Some Mages can actually tell which objects are charmed, and what they are charmed to do. I’d like you to tell me which of these are charmed. Do not be alarmed if you cannot tell me what they can do. That will come later.’

Gwyn ghosted his hand over the tops of the crystals. They were all singing.

‘They’re all charmed,’ he said quietly. Because that was what the singing was, wasn’t it? Magic? He squinted down at them.

The whole meadow felt like it was singing. But it was a far quieter song. Like the people who had made the space had deliberately tried to mute the song they’d created in the process. Maybe so that these tests would be easier to perform without distractions.

Gwyn didn’t look up to check the Raven Prince’s face as he touched the first crystal. He then picked it up and held it in his palm.

It was definitely singing. It felt like four notes constantly repeating, a song that Gwyn hadn’t heard before, but that was familiar. He resisted the urge to hum the notes and thought that this stone had been held by someone else who could perform magic. Someone who was – Gwyn realised – not the Raven Prince.

‘You didn’t charm this,’ Gwyn said, looking up at him.

The Raven Prince’s eyes widened in shock, and then he smiled slowly.

‘I didn’t?’

‘No,’ Gwyn said. ‘You didn’t organise these stones? For today?’

‘Why no,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Other Mages do it. I’ll be too biased. I can witness the test, I cannot arrange it. Do you know what the charm is for?’

‘It’s a song,’ Gwyn said, and then flushed and felt stupid. ‘It feels like a song.’

‘Is it a pretty song?’ the Raven Prince said quietly. ‘Do you think it wants to help you? Ah, no, wait that’s leading. If Taronis were here…’

The Raven Prince trailed off with a laugh. Waved a hand to indicate that Gwyn should continue.

But whatever the Raven Prince had meant by leading, Gwyn felt like he’d been given an important clue. The song was sad. It had a minor note and it fell at its end. It was a mournful song. Knowing that much, the meaning of the charm was clear in his mind. He didn’t even feel like he was guessing. It was rather more like trying to divine the title of a song from its notes. The title was there now, and he knew what the song was for.

‘It induces sadness,’ Gwyn said. And then stared at it and frowned. ‘Why don’t I feel sad?’

‘Why indeed,’ the Raven Prince said, grinning now. ‘I think we’ve found a specialty of yours. How fascinating. Charms are often considered low magic, disdained amongst those who work with the celestial and the esoteric. But they can come in quite handy. The rest, if you please.’

Once he’d discovered what the first was for, it was easier to divine the rest. The second was a charm to hide the truth – a song that sounded like muffled drops of water falling into a lake and made him think of Augus. The third charm made him feel angry before he even heard the song, and it also felt far more powerful than the first two.

‘This one is strong,’ Gwyn said, putting it down and not liking the way it felt. His light was already prickling inside of him, saliva beginning to pool in his mouth. He forced himself to stand up and walk away. ‘Bloodlust. It creates bloodlust.’

‘Back to me,’ the Raven Prince said, imperiously.

Gwyn made himself turn around, and the Raven Prince – also standing – placed the tip of his claw to Gwyn’s sternum, and the knotted, hungry feeling was dispelled immediately. For once, it didn’t feel invasive. Gwyn exhaled hard, staring in annoyance at the final crystal.

Then Gwyn noticed the charms around the Raven Prince’s neck as though for the first time. He knew they were charms, yet he couldn’t hear them sing.

‘I can’t hear those ones,’ he said, looking down at the crystals and bones.

The Raven Prince nodded, his expression sobering.

‘Nor should you be able to,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘It does not do for Mages to know exactly what charms other Mages use in their day to day. But if it is your specialty, and if your magic in this arena is stronger than mine, you’ll learn.’

‘Does that not bother you?’ Gwyn said, looking at him in shock.

‘No,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Very little makes me feel insecure in my power. Not anymore.’

They walked over to the next stone. Three crystals that didn’t sing.

‘Do you like being a Mage?’ Gwyn asked, feeling more comfortable. There had been no nasty surprises so far – except for that last charm – and that one, the Raven Prince had helped him instead of harming him.

‘Yes,’ the Raven Prince said.

‘Why?’

‘Why does a bird like to sing?’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Because it must. Even if there was no School of the Staff, no Mages for me to apprentice to, I would have become a Mage.’

‘Not me,’ Gwyn said, frowning. ‘Does that mean I can’t be a Mage?’

‘No,’ the Raven Prince said, shaking his head after a pause. ‘Now, concentrate please. I’d like to you to create three charms from these crystals.’

‘But how?’ Gwyn said.

‘Ah,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘I’m trying to discover your raw magic, remember? Not the magic of someone educated to do it. Use your instincts.’

Gwyn frowned and picked up the crystals. Then put two down and rolled one in his fingers. He didn’t even know what he wanted to make charms for.

With the first, he cheated. Or it felt like cheating. He thought of the song that had sounded mournful in the first crystal charm at the previous stone slab. He held the crystal in his fist and mentally sang the song over and over again, imaged the song flowing from his palm into the crystal until he heard it sing the notes back to him. And there it was, the stone was singing even when his mind stopped.

He put it down and moved onto the next. He wanted to make something original this time. Something new. He tried to imagine what it might be like to help Augus grow better waterweed, to allow his most stubborn herbs to flower. He knew that Augus sometimes tended parts of his underwater gardens that he called the ‘fractious parts.’ Those areas where – no matter how Augus looked after the plants, they might not flower under his care.

The song came to him slowly, and it was complicated. A song to encourage only difficult plants to flower, not every plant. And only those underwater that Augus wanted to flower. It was a song that included Augus, that made Gwyn think of deep, underwater fertility and clever fingers happily plucking and harvesting blossoms and seeds and leaves.

Laying it into the crystal took time, but he didn’t mind. And when he finally heard the song reflected back to him, he realised it was slightly off key, not quite right. He altered it by mentally singing a more accurate version of the song. It sounded like a piano. It was peaceful, and even once he’d put the stone down, he still heard the song in his head like an echo he didn’t want to let go of.

For the third crystal, he thought of bloodlust and how much he hated how quickly he could lose control when it overcame him. He thought of that awful circular caldera with the dead, wretched fae all over. He found a song that made him see the colour blue when he heard it. He put together notes that calmed him. He made an antidote to the other charm that had annoyed him, and he made the antidote so strong that when he placed the crystal down, he felt like he’d calmed himself.

He finally looked up at the Raven Prince, then blinked up in confusion at the sun. At least two hours had gone by.

The Raven Prince watched him with narrow eyes, arms folded in his lap.

‘It won’t take you long to learn what the charms around my neck are for,’ he said slowly, eyes creasing at the edges and making him seem older than he really was. ‘I cannot let you take the middle one to the Each Uisge, either. Another Mage must test it, beyond myself. But you might wish to replicate it when you return to him. I cannot help but think he would be touched.’

‘I can do that?’ Gwyn said, staring at him.

‘It’s your magic,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘It’s up to you to find out what you can and cannot do.’

‘But…’ I could make charms for anything.

Gwyn swallowed, staring down at the crystals singing their different songs. Despite the different notes, it was harmonious, not jarring.

It had taken time, but it had also been easy. He wasn’t feeling tired. He knew those charms were strong. He frowned to think how easy it would be to enchant anything he laid his hands on. He tucked his hands up underneath his armpits and frowned at the crystals.

‘What if I do it by accident?’ Gwyn said.

‘It’s unlikely, but if you charm something in a dream, they can be easily undone. Here, that is what the next stone table is for. I think you’ll have no problems with it, if I’m being entirely honest.’

It was true. Gwyn had no problems at all removing charms from their crystals. It was as simple as draining the song into his mind and hearing it only there, until the crystal no longer sung it back to him. It took hardly any time at all. Easy.

Gwyn felt something sneak through him. A sort of pleasure to see himself excel at something, at magic. His family would never have let him use his magic, and Gwyn hadn’t been interested. But it felt good. He looked up at the Raven Prince to see excitement in his eyes, and as they looked at each other, the Raven Prince lifted his head and gave a playful smile that made him seem years younger.

‘See?’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Fun, isn’t it?’

Gwyn’s own smile widened, and then he looked away, because it felt like they were sharing some kind of secret, and he knew – he knew – he couldn’t trust the Raven Prince with these sorts of feelings.

After that, though, the next few stone tables were nothing but failures. Gwyn had no raw ability to manipulate water or ice, he could not create werelight despite having a hungry light living inside of himself, he could not accelerate the growth of any living thing – not seed, nor sapling, nor tiny chirping bird.

‘That’s not surprising,’ the Raven Prince said, his voice wry. ‘You’ll not like this next test, I think. Even though I think you may excel at it.’

But Gwyn also failed at being able to remove the life from creatures with only his magic. The Raven Prince stared down at him perplexed, and Gwyn did try to vanish the life from a leaf with his magic. He wasn’t going to kill the small bird – not unless they were going to eat it, and he knew they were not. But apparently just wishing really hard for the leaf to die, did nothing more than make him frustrated.

‘Well,’ the Raven Prince said, face pinching. ‘Some psychopomp you are. Your ability to destroy wholesale must only belong to that delicious light of yours. Fascinating.’

‘You’re angry,’ Gwyn said, gently placing the leaf back down on the stone.

‘A little,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Not at you. I had great dreams of what it might be like to have a War General who could fell entire armies with a thought. It shall remain a great dream of mine.’

Gwyn frowned at him in disapproval, and the Raven Prince only smiled winsomely and moved onto the next flat stone.

It turned out Gwyn had some minor ability with wind magic, he could see through illusion and had the beginnings of an ability to work illusion – which the Raven Prince found so interesting he spent far longer at that particular stone than Gwyn really wanted to. Gwyn had an aptitude for sigils and runes, but for no other form of divination. He could not speak prophecy, nor could he discern the past of an object by touching it. He had no aptitude for telekinesis, to which the Raven Prince had seemed entirely unsurprised. At Gwyn’s curious look, he’d only said:

‘Some think it’s a myth.’

‘And you?’

‘It’s not,’ the Raven Prince said.

‘How do you know?’

‘I didn’t fail the test.’

Gwyn stared at him. In all the time that he’d known him, Gwyn had never seen a hint of the Raven Prince being able to move things with his mind. And he seemed unimpressed with the art of it.

As the tests continued, Gwyn felt fatigued. He’d had nothing to eat or drink all day, and the Raven Prince didn’t offer the opportunity for him to nourish himself. Another twenty flat stones only yielded an ability to bespell writing and maps. He also showed a surprising ability to be able to sense out water, even on a map. He could find lost objects.

‘Oh yes,’ the Raven Prince said, clapping his hands together. He looked wild with hunger, stared at Gwyn not like a student, but like an object to be consumed. Gwyn decided he didn’t want to know why an ability to find lost things would be so useful. He suspected it would mean a future of being sent on trips to find things that were meant to stay hidden. It didn’t seem appealing.

The last stone had nothing at all upon it.

‘I want you to summon some animals,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Any at all. Just one. Don’t fret it you cannot. After this, it’s complete, and you can return home. And I’ll make some notes, I suppose, about how you’re quite the find, and how I was right.

‘I failed most of the…tests,’ Gwyn said, staring at him.

‘I said you would,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘You’re rather supposed to. Part of your magical education is to learn how to use what you are naturally gifted at, to bolster the things you have little to no talent for. That ability you have to know charms so innately can be twisted and used to assist you in elemental magic. Or you may use your ability to divine the locations of things, to learn something else. It is a structure you build inside of your mind. Today wasn’t about architecture, it was about foundation stones.’

Then, the Raven Prince waved his hand and indicated that Gwyn should at least attempt the task at hand.

Gwyn frowned. It was easy enough to summon animals; mammals in particular. But it had always been something he’d done privately. It was his. He rubbed at the back of his neck and looked to the woods and then to the forest. He could feel and sense the larger animals easily. Even the smaller animals he could ferret out if he put his mind to it.

But he wanted to finish in a good note, wanted the Raven Prince to be pleased with him.

He reluctantly cast out an invisible net that slunk under the ground and Called a handful of animals to him. A couple of deer. One badger. A bear. An ermine. He kept his eyes lidded and watched them, made sure they didn't attack each other.

There, that would do. Five animals. Some of his talent, but not all of it.

The Raven Prince began laughing in delight. Like Gwyn had told a joke. Quickly, Gwyn dispersed the alarmed animals and sent them away, and then folded his arms across his chest. It wasn’t a joke. But the Raven Prince wouldn’t stop laughing. He even slapped the stone and then rocked to his side, bracing himself on his arm, his other hand coming to his chest as he closed his eyes with raucous mirth.

‘We won’t be telling the Mages that,’ the Raven Prince said, as his laughter tapered off. ‘My goodness.’

‘Telling them what?’ Gwyn said, frowning.

‘Nothing,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘Nothing important.’

‘Tell me!’

‘You can call rather more animals than that, can’t you? What about fish?’

‘It’s harder,’ Gwyn said, feeling like the words were torn out of his chest. He realised the Raven Prince was using that odd hypnotism again. A kind of compulsion that made words spill before he realised what they’d be.

‘Insects?’ the Raven Prince said.

‘Well…yes,’ Gwyn mumbled, looking down. ‘Living in the forest and not being able to send insects away…makes it harder.’

‘I’d never have guessed,’ the Raven Prince said, grinning toothily. ‘Hm. Birds?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you ever do it to make hunting easier?’

‘No!’ Gwyn said, revolted. The idea of using that power just to Call things to him to eat them. It was fundamentally wrong. It shook some horrendous thing inside of him. Was the Raven Prince going to make him do that? ‘No. No, I won’t. You can’t make me.’

‘You’re such a child,’ the Raven Prince sighed, pressing his hands flat to the grey stone and smiling up at him. ‘But then you are only a couple of centuries old yes? Maybe a bit more? Most of that time spent hunted in a forest. It’s like finding a stray dog only to realise they came from good bloodlines and are an excellent hunter. You must have some Mages in your bloodline somewhere.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, shaking his head. ‘My family aren’t…very supportive of magic, or performing it.’

‘I didn’t ask for your opinion,’ the Raven Prince said. ‘I’m stating a fact. You do not get born with this power, and Unseelie at that, without a Mage having dropped their seed or eggs into your bloodline. I wonder who though? And how long ago? It’s obviously skipped some generations. Mages, you see, are often very secretive about their children and grandchildren. They can be used, kidnapped, abducted, tortured. It is so very easy to take someone’s child and manipulate a loving parent into doing almost anything you wish. We have a policy – that we mostly adhere to – to hide our get.’

‘Do you…are you a father?’

‘Perish the thought,’ the Raven Prince said, smirking. ‘But then, I’d not likely tell you if I was now, would I? Honestly, I do not rightly understand why I can baldly say ‘we have a policy not to tell anyone about such things,’ and then creatures like yourself guilelessly ask about those things a breath later. You have a brain, what a novelty it would be if you ever actually used it.’

And just like that, the Raven Prince was back to treating Gwyn as he always had.

‘I don’t think you’re a father,’ Gwyn said mutinously. ‘Because you’re too busy with yourself to have time for any other children.’

It was a risk. A dangerous risk. One that made Gwyn’s heart leap to his throat and his chest knot up.

But it was a risk that paid off. The Raven Prince only laughed and stood, a merriness to his eyes as he extended a hand to help Gwyn off his knees. For once, he didn’t even seem averse to Gwyn touching him.

The Raven Prince’s tolerance for insults were high, Gwyn realised. He even liked them. But they had to be clever. They had to cloak the rudeness in the core of them. Gwyn knew he wasn’t adept at it, but the idea that the Raven Prince appreciated the effort... It was baffling.

‘Ah, I’ve had a rather pleasing day. As for you, I think it time we bring you back to your protectors. I must ask you: are you happy with them?’

Gwyn bit his lower lip and then shrugged.

‘I don’t know.’

It wasn’t that he was trying to be evasive, it was only that happiness was such a strange concept. What was it supposed to feel like? Was it waking from nightmares in the morning to that look on Ash’s face when he stood there unable to touch him? Or the fear he felt that Ash and Augus would disappear? Or waiting for them to realise how awful he was? Or was it in the better moments, that all felt fragile and ephemeral as to almost not be real? Was it the dread of believing that one day it would disappear and he would only have vague memories to hang onto, eventually forgetting their faces and their voices and the sweetness they could evoke?

‘Then do you need anything to be different?’ the Raven Prince said, his voice calm now, not mocking.

Gwyn thought about it for a long time, then shook his head.

‘Do you want to be my apprentice?’

‘I don’t know,’ Gwyn said honestly.

The Raven Prince winked at him. ‘I would be so disappointed if you’d said a blind ‘yes.’ You see? There is some activity in that brain after all!’

Gwyn glared at him, and the Raven Prince laughed, stirring all the ravens nearby to cawing.

*

Later that night, Gwyn had a small round lake stone in his hand. It smelled of silt and soaked up the song he sang into it as he sat cross-legged on his bed. He sang the song over and over, far past the point of the stone catching the tune. He sang until the stone itself was warm in his hand from more than just body heat. Sang until the point where the stone was louder than the song in his own mind.

Then he held it and looked at it and heard the song still. He thought it was a pretty song and didn’t see a plain, boring stone; but a spell that almost vibrated the air before him.

How easy it had been. Time-consuming, but easy.

When Augus ducked his head in to ask if Gwyn wanted anything for dinner, Gwyn held out the stone to him.

‘I see,’ Augus said. He looked baffled. ‘Were you hit in the head quite hard today?’

‘It’s for you,’ Gwyn said, his voice rough.

‘Ah,’ Augus said, confusion crossing over his face. ‘Thoughtful, yet perplexing.’

‘No,’ Gwyn said, frowning. ‘You can’t hear it?’

Augus stared at him and the ‘hear what, exactly?’ was written all over his face. Gwyn stared at him, brow furrowing. Maybe he’d done it wrong, but no – he knew he hadn’t. He could still hear the stone singing. It was so loud.

But then...Gwyn hadn’t heard most of the magic he’d seen and interacted with. Perhaps Augus just couldn’t hear it. For some reason, that struck Gwyn as sad.

He took a breath and handed the stone to Augus, who took it up in his clever fingers and turned it, staring.

‘It’s a charm,’ Gwyn said, clearing his throat. ‘It will… It’s a charm for you to place in your lake. Amongst the plants that don’t flower for you, no matter how sweetly you look after them. It’s…it will encourage them to grow and flower and seed. It will only work on those plants. Not the others. It’s very specific.’

Augus kept staring at the stone, his forehead even more creased than before. When he looked at Gwyn, there was an expression on his face that Gwyn didn’t know how to interpret. But it didn’t make him feel bad to see it, so perhaps it wasn’t an angry or unhappy expression.

‘Did the King tell you to do this?’ Augus said.

Gwyn shook his head. ‘Not exactly. I made something similar today, while I was tested, and he said- he said I could make it for you later, and that you would…’ be touched.

‘It looks so simple,’ Augus said, staring at it.

‘I think I’m meant for simple magic,’ Gwyn said, shrugging. ‘But I can make more. Different ones. Whatever you want.’

‘Do you know how much a Mage would charge for something like this?’

Gwyn shook his head. ‘I’m not a Mage. I’m just…I’m- I just thought you’d like it.’

Please like it.

‘I…’ Augus’ fingers closed over the stone, and then he slipped it into his pocket. He tilted his head to the side and then stepped closer to the bed, touching his fingers lightly to Gwyn’s hairline, just above his ear. ‘Thank you.’

That expression on Augus’ face didn’t disappear, and Gwyn still couldn’t tell what it was – tenderness? Gratitude? Something…deeper, that he couldn’t name. But he smiled as much as he dared, and thought that maybe he did want to be the Raven Prince’s apprentice, if it meant he could have this moment again one day.

Chapter Text

Two mornings later, Augus entered his front door, dripping wet and carrying two baskets full of impossibly silver flowers that glowed purple in their centres. Gwyn had never seen anything like them before – like a silversmith had attached them to green stalks. Nor had he ever seen Augus smile so widely. When Augus caught his eye, his smile broadened.

‘We’re rich,’ Augus said, shaking the dripping baskets.

‘Wh-’ Gwyn stared at the flowers, they were mesmerising. ‘I… The charm?’

‘Yes, your charm,’ Augus said, laughing breathlessly and dropping the baskets on the table. Gwyn hurriedly scrambled to move his parchments away. Why Augus lived in a home surrounded by water, dripped water, and didn’t have water-fast ink – Gwyn would never know. ‘Very strong. I’m giving it a break for now. It will ruin the harmony in my lake.’

Augus withdrew the stone from his pocket and Gwyn heard the song of it as it was placed on the table before him.

‘I can make it…different,’ Gwyn said, looking at it, then looking over at the silvery flowers. Oh, how he wanted to touch them. Would the petals feel like metal, sheened like that? He lifted a finger towards them and then froze when Augus slid his hand quickly beneath Gwyn’s wrist and squeezed the cuff.

‘Ah,’ Augus said in warning. ‘Not these.’

‘Why not?’

Augus’ lips quirked and he shook his head and picked up the baskets, taking them into the pantry. Gwyn turned in his chair and frowned.

‘Why not?’ Gwyn called.

‘You don’t need to make the charm weaker,’ Augus called back, which was a response of sorts, but not the one Gwyn wanted.

Gwyn drummed his fingers on the table. Whenever Augus entered a room, Gwyn wanted to kiss him, or touch him, or talk to him, or not talk at all and be close to him. A confusing array of emotions would tumble and grow inside of him – too fast, too wild, and he would be left feeling vaguely ill and thinking that was perhaps what other people thought of as excitement.

Whenever Ash entered the room, Gwyn would feel a slow-burn heat inside of him, like wax being dripped down through him, until it reached his cock. But that would depend on the expression on Ash’s face, or the feel of his glamour. Sometimes, Gwyn would feel young and new and as simple as he’d ever been in the forest. He would see a gentleness on Ash’s face that would renew something that he hesitated to term innocence, for when had he ever been that?

Augus reappeared, carefully closing the pantry door behind him.

‘They’re silver flowers,’ Gwyn said. ‘They’re very…they’re comely.’

Augus’ smile faded, his eyes turned troubled. He walked over swiftly and Gwyn tensed with a reaction he couldn’t quite stop because when people approached him at speed, when they walked towards him fast, when they-

Fingertips that stroked his shoulder first, and Augus was shaking his head at him and frowning properly now. He looked up and away for a moment, and then looked down again, his brow furrowed. Gwyn wondered how he’d ruined the mood by saying the flowers were pretty, wanted to know how he could fix it, even as he found himself leaning towards that touch and hoping Augus could smooth it all away.

‘They call to you, don’t they?’ Augus said, sighing. ‘They don’t to me. Nor Ash. They’re silver sorrow – a pretty name, not quite accurate. They can be made into a drug of sorts. They soothe grief, loss – particularly that which is most acute. In this world, there are many that will pay so dearly for even a few drops of the stuff. A few moments of peace. A lightening of the soul.’

It was Gwyn’s turn to frown and he found himself tracing the whorls in the woodgrain, not certain what to say. Augus had been so happy, and Gwyn was ruining it. When people were that happy, the other person was supposed to be happy too, weren’t they?

‘But I have…so much more now,’ Gwyn said thickly. ‘I’m not- I’m…glad. My…grief isn’t-’

Fingers feathering through his hair. Augus’ long fingers were too clever. A little finger tracing behind his sensitive ear and the rest of his fingers never catching or causing tangles. Gwyn exhaled heavily and leaned into Augus’ chest.

‘It’s a process,’ Augus said, smoothing curls back from Gwyn’s face and seeming like there was nothing he’d rather be doing than just standing there.

Gwyn closed his eyes and pushed his face into the flat planes of Augus’ belly and wished the world couldn’t still surprise him like this.

‘I want to be happy,’ Gwyn said, his voice muffled, ‘because you’re happy.’

What would his parents say, to know that he’d turned all that education on Courtspeak and manners into these simplistic sentences? But he knew he’d said something meaningful from the way Augus just cupped Gwyn’s head close.

‘I don’t want to ruin it,’ Gwyn added. ‘I ruined it.’

‘No,’ Augus said, not bothering to make the word long and comforting like Ash would, but sounding regretful all the same. ‘It doesn’t work like that, Gwyn. Perhaps I should have also realised that my excitement wouldn’t have trumped your sensitivity to the flowers. I wasn’t thinking. Forgive me?’

Gwyn looked up at him, because Augus so rarely apologised for anything. It was a tacit agreement, somehow, that Ash and Gwyn would simply accept that Augus was often more sorry than he’d say. Ash had explained it – Augus struggled with apologies, just as Ash struggled with not taking things seriously enough sometimes, and Gwyn…well, he knew he had enough things he struggled with.

But Augus looked down at him, gaze wholly serious. Gwyn offered a smile, and Augus offered one back. Not broad and blinding like before, but small and relieved.

I love you, Gwyn thought.

Because that was another thing he couldn’t say yet. Words he couldn’t shape with his mouth.

He’d traced the letters into Ash’s back once, when he’d thought Ash was sleeping. Ash had taken a quick sharp breath and laughed warmly and turned over and embraced Gwyn so tightly and for so long, that Gwyn had thought perhaps nothing could hurt him while he was held like that.

It seemed wrong that Ash knew already, and Augus didn’t yet know. But Gwyn was scared to trace the letters into Augus’ skin.

Augus might be reluctant about apologies, and Gwyn found that easy to forgive when he was reluctant with expressions of love.

For almost a minute, they looked at each other. Then Augus leaned down and kissed Gwyn’s forehead and settled his hair back into place.

‘Are you hungry?’ Augus said, turning away and heading back into the kitchen.

In truth, he wasn’t, but he nodded even though Augus wasn’t looking at him, and said:

‘Yes, a little.’

Because Augus liked to fix things with food, and because Gwyn had learned – through more of Ash’s advice – to say yes whenever Augus offered.

‘It’s how he says he loves you,’ Ash had said.

‘What?’ Gwyn had said, staring at him with wide eyes.

‘Why do you think that pantry is constantly stocked with fresh apples when he doesn’t eat them? And dried ones? And bread now, because you’re here? Trust me on this, man. Let him fuss and give you something to eat. Okay? Just trust me.’

*

That night Gwyn lay upon Ash’s bed. He was on his back, hands resting flat on his chest as he stared up at the ceiling. The light was burning into his eyes, so that whenever he blinked rapidly, he would see glary glows against the black. Then he’d open his eyes wide again and let the light sear a new bright spot into his gaze, and blink again. He used to do it with the sun, but this was far gentler.

‘Gwyn,’ Ash said musingly, putting down his tinny music box – his DS – and shifting. He wore nothing more than a shirt and boxers, and Gwyn thought he smelled good. Both of the brothers did. ‘You like what we’ve done so far, don’t you? You know…the three of us?’

The light streaked across his vision as he turned to look at Ash, biting his top lip. He nodded. Ash didn’t smile with his mouth, but his eyes were warm. He looked intense, and Gwyn swallowed automatically and felt his body heat. Gwyn was a magnet, and Ash a lodestone he couldn’t avoid.

‘Yeah?’ Ash said, shifting onto all fours and sliding closer. He wasn’t slinky movement and svelteness like Augus, but like some more muscular creature – a bear even – that had a grace in his embanked fierceness. A grace in his choice to be gentle, when Gwyn could see how he wanted to consume. Just as much as Augus did, even if it was in a different way.

‘Mm,’ Gwyn managed, his breath shuddering in his lungs.

‘See,’ Ash said, his voice deepening, ‘I…want to ask you something. You don’t have to say yes. You really don’t, love. But…’ Ash’s face over his now, and his hazel eyes brightening by the second, and Gwyn stared up at him and his hands shifted restlessly over his own chest. ‘I kind of want to wear you out.’

Gwyn blinked up at him.

‘I want Augus and I to both wear you out,’ Ash amended, tilting his head and then covering one of Gwyn’s hands with his own. ‘But I want to push you, puppy. I want you so strung out on the glamour you don’t remember your name. I can’t speak for Augus, but I want you underneath me and gasping for breath and sure you can’t handle another second, and I want to tell you that you can.’

A noise escaped Gwyn’s throat, he resisted the urge to squirm.

‘I want you fucked out and fucked open,’ Ash purred, opening his mouth over Gwyn’s, exhaling so that Gwyn inhaled sharply and felt Ash’s breath on his tongue. ‘And sore and wrung out and even crying, just a little, love, and I want us both to be there with you afterwards, wrapped around you while you sleep – because we’ll have spun every shred of wakefulness from your bones.’

A tremor of fear along his spine, not nearly loud enough to make itself heard above the heat that roared through Gwyn’s body at Ash’s words.

They both startled at the sound of a clearing throat, and Gwyn turned his head to see Augus poking his head into Ash’s room and raising his eyebrows.

‘If we do this, I have a condition,’ Augus said slowly.

‘Yeah?’ Ash said, grinning. ‘He hasn’t said yes, yet.’

‘If he does, my condition is simple – you don’t get to come until you’re done with him. Use your waterhorse powers and keep it back for as long as it takes.’

Ash looked down at Gwyn and blew out a breath, licking his bottom lip. Gwyn could tell the move wasn’t supposed to be seductive. Ash was genuinely thinking about what Augus had said.

Gwyn found it seductive anyway.

‘I’m not used to that,’ Ash said finally, sitting back on his haunches and looking over at Augus. ‘Years with humans, you know, I’m used to working on a shorter fuse.’

‘I know,’ Augus said, leaning against the door and looking pleased with himself. ‘That’s rather the point, brother.’

‘That’s not fair,’ Ash pleaded, half-hearted, and then he laughed and covered his head with his hands.

‘Well, if you can’t, we can-’

‘Hold the fuck up,’ Ash said, dropping his hands and grinning. ‘I didn’t say I couldn’t. But he’s gonna be too tired after I’m done, so…are you offering?’ He gestured down towards his tenting boxers.

‘I won’t be too tired,’ Gwyn said in protest.

‘Oh, puppy,’ Ash said, turning to him and shaking his head. Gwyn opened his mouth to protest, and Augus laughed softly.

‘You don’t know what Ash is suggesting,’ he said, walking into the room and taking his shirt off with one hand like he’d practiced, the movement fluid and easy. ‘But I do. We’ve held back with you, you see. It’s not hyperbole, Gwyn. And yes,’ Augus said, turning his attention to Ash. ‘I’m offering.’

‘Cool beans,’ Ash said.

‘No,’ Augus said, looking disgusted. ‘Why do you have to ruin a perfectly sound seduction method with that?’

‘’Cuz I’m awesome,’ Ash said, winking at Gwyn. ‘So what say you, pup? Are you in or out? You know I’m not gonna mind if you say no, okay? And you have your signal thing if you need us to stop.’

It was true. Once, Gwyn had tested Ash’s enthusiasm and his relentlessness, using the word and struggling against his own lust and Ash’s too – but he needed to know that Ash could stop himself. And Ash had stopped so quickly – solicitous and concerned – that Gwyn knew very well that Ash would listen. Augus too. Which meant…

Which meant despite the faint apprehension, he could at least try…

Because a part of him wanted to know what it might be like. He saw the promise of it in their eyes sometimes. In the way that he would be panting and tired and their breaths could be even, evidence that they had further to go and were giving him a reprieve.

Wherever they wanted to take him, Gwyn wanted to prove he could meet them there.

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, his throat feeling raw already. ‘I’m…I’m in.’

Ash made a happy sound and bent down and ducked his head into the space between Gwyn’s neck and shoulder, breathing in deeply. Gwyn squirmed a little, and Augus placed a hand on his chest and looked down at him, pleased and even a little smug.

‘How should I do this?’ Ash said, looking up at Augus while stroking Gwyn’s side and grasping at the meat of his thigh. ‘You got a preference?’

‘Mm,’ Augus said. ‘Make it fast. Too fast.’

A few seconds where Ash didn’t flush exactly, but swallowed hard and his eyes got a sharpness to them that made Gwyn’s breath catch in his chest.

Gwyn jerked when Augus’ hands held his head down – one twisting into his hair, and the other on his forehead, keeping him pinned. Ash was already laughing when he yanked his tracksuit pants down just far enough that he could free Gwyn’s half-hard cock. Ash bit sharply at his thigh and started jacking him fast and on the side of too hard, making Gwyn’s torso twist to try and get away from the intensity of it.

‘Not long,’ Augus said, though he wasn’t trying to be soothing. It was a command. ‘Wait.’

Gwyn sucked down a raw breath and he gripped Augus’ knees, fingers digging in hard.

The first pulse of Ash’s hot, lust-filled glamour didn’t build gently, but rocked into him with force, his cock aching with stiffness and his abdomen tensing unbidden. His mouth opened on a soundless cry, and he couldn’t stop his body from squirming – even though Ash was now straddling his thighs, his free hand keeping Gwyn pinned at the hip.

The second wave of glamour was too much and Gwyn choked on it, even as Augus hushed him and kept his head pinned. This wasn’t what they normally did. The pleasure had a knife’s edge to it, and he had no idea how Augus wasn’t reacting to Ash’s glamour.

Ash moved his hand from Gwyn’s hip, to pressing it flat to his pelvis, just beneath Gwyn’s cock where it arched proudly. Ash took a slow, deep breath, exhaled audibly like he was preparing for something.

‘I never get to do this with humans,’ Ash said warmly, and Gwyn couldn’t tell which one of them he was addressing.

Gwyn felt something like heat pouring from Ash’s hand directly into his gut. A concentrated glamour that was arousal and liquid warmth and quickly turned too sharp for him to bear. His back arched and he knew he was making noises, heard them rasping at his own throat, and Augus was keeping him pinned by his head and his legs were trying to kick to release the tension in his body and the sensations weren’t stopping. Building sharper and sharper until he was keening, begging for something without words.

‘Come on, puppy,’ Ash said. ‘Not much longer now, huh?’

Ash shoved his hand down harder, gripped Gwyn’s cock tightly, and the pleasure-pain of it pulled into a knot and then snapped hard, his body trying to jack-knife and neither of them letting him. He spilled over Ash’s hand in spasms. He kept his mouth open because breathing was a struggle, eyes closed and sweat having broken out all over his body.

It wasn’t until he realised he was nearing the end of his release, that he felt Ash’s hand still on his pelvis, still sending those glamour touched sensations into his body. He shuddered, tried to twist away and heard a voice hushing him.

‘A bit longer,’ Ash said. ‘Just a bit longer now. And then we can start round two. You took that beautifully.’

Gwyn whimpered, aching. Ash only laughed warmly, even as Gwyn’s cock wanted to soften. Something about what Ash was doing wasn’t letting him. He tried to turn his head to the side, and Augus kept his head still. But a few seconds later, the hand on Gwyn’s forehead smoothed down the side of his face and then caressed him gently. That alone had Gwyn trying to surrender to what they were both doing.

‘Fast enough for you?’ Ash said, and Gwyn knew he was talking to Augus even with his eyes closed.

‘That’s some trick,’ Augus said.

‘I met a ganconer once, and he taught me,’ Ash said, laughing low. ‘One of the few times I’ve fucked a fae, actually. Totally worth it. Shhh, puppy, take some deeper breaths.’

Gwyn blinked his eyes open and Ash was looking down at him, smiling fondly. Then Ash bent down and kissed him, his lips warm and wet, and Gwyn felt something fractious settle inside of him. Where he’d been trying to surrender before, now it just happened, and he sank deeper into the bed.

‘That’s it,’ Augus said above them both. ‘Perfect.’

Gwyn lifted one of his hands from where he’d been gripping Augus’ leg and stroked Ash’s back, feeling the bunching and shifting of muscle as Ash changed the angle of the kiss.

After a few minutes of kissing, they all shifted. Augus sliding his hands off Gwyn’s head with a final, careful touch just behind his ear. And then Ash was pulling off Gwyn’s pants, wiping his hands clean on them. He pulled off Gwyn’s shirt and kissed him throughout, undressing taking longer than it usually did.

Gwyn’s cock was still hard – not fully, but enough that he could still feel echoes of that sharp ache in his body, enough that he wanted to keep going.

Augus settled naked against the headboard, spread his legs and beckoned Gwyn to him, a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. Gwyn bit his top lip and went, even as Ash sipped from a bottle of water and then screwed the cap back on, before bringing out the tube of lubricant that Gwyn had grown familiar with over the past few weeks.

He knew what Augus wanted, he wanted it too.

It was a fresher scent that washed over him when he braced himself between Augus’ legs – still musky, still savoury, but Augus always had a fresh-clean odour to him, as though he’d only just stepped out of the shower. Gwyn buried his nose firmly against Augus’ pelvis, the base of his cock, to find the scents he wanted. Those that were thick in the back of his mouth and made him swallow saliva, even as he bunched blankets under his fists.

Augus always let Gwyn start slowly, letting him kiss and nuzzle and lick as idly as he wanted. But Gwyn could never handle doing that for too long, he wasn’t made for teasing, and he wanted so badly to be drowned in what they could do to him. He craved intensity, until all that remained was a world where he had Augus’ cock in his mouth – in his throat even – and hands pressing down on the back of his head even as he struggled, and even when it hurt or ached or became too sharp, he still felt contained and safe, and he’d never once had to use the signal during this. Not once.

So even when he began lowering his mouth over Augus’ cock, even when he felt Augus’ hands press over his head – rubbing before settling and holding him steady – he didn’t feel afraid. His cock twitched and he focused on his breathing. It was the loudest sound in the room. Augus was always so quiet, every moan and faint sound so hard won.

Gwyn moaned around Augus when he felt Ash’s hands on his back. They rubbed at first, stroked and petted him, the touch curving around his sides, moving across his chest, grabbing at his hips before nails traced up the backs of Gwyn’s thighs.

Augus’ hands were loose enough that Gwyn could come up and gasp for air, shifting his arms slightly, resting his forehead on Augus’ thigh. He knew what was coming. Was always worried that he’d forget teeth and hurt whomever he had his mouth around one day. It was a hurt he never wanted to inflict on them.

But he was still unused to this, and so he breathed open-mouthed into Augus’ skin, as Augus’ hands cradled the back of his neck and fingers traced the shape of his mouth.

Ash shocked him though. Instead of fingers cold and slick, it was Ash’s mouth kissing over the rounded globes of his ass. Tongue dragging, teeth scraping. Gwyn blinked, because Ash had asked about this once before – asked if Gwyn would ever let him, and Gwyn had said yes, and then it had never happened and Gwyn had wondered if…he’d somehow given the wrong answer.

He shuddered when he felt a tongue work soft and firm into the crease of his ass. Hands spread him apart, and Gwyn pushed his forehead hard into Augus’ thigh and bit his lips.

Ash flickered his tongue over Gwyn’s hole, making a thick, wanting noise that was louder than Gwyn’s. Fingers dug into his flesh, and then that tongue kept working over him. Gwyn’s thoughts scattered, forgetting the rest of the textures and scents in the room and feeling like he was nothing more than oversensitive nerves and a vessel for whatever Ash wanted to do with him. He panted and shifted helplessly, Ash holding him still and Augus slipping two fingers into Gwyn’s open mouth, stifling the panting and tickling at the back of his throat until Gwyn’s shoulders tensed and his breathing rasped.

Ash pushed deeper, inside, and Gwyn’s teeth came down on Augus’ fingers – he couldn’t stop himself – and he was shaking now. Not just shuddering from time to time, but shaking.

Augus laughed, Ash made a pleased sound that vibrated through sensitive flesh, and Gwyn didn’t know whether to push backwards or move away from it. He was holding onto Augus’ leg now, kneading the blanket with his other hand.

‘Take him apart,’ Augus said, and Gwyn felt his face burn with heat, because Augus wasn’t talking to him, he was talking to Ash.

Ash thrust his tongue even deeper, spreading Gwyn around that writhing muscle, and Gwyn’s shoulders went limp. And Augus was still there, stroking languidly over Gwyn’s tongue, then dragging his fingers down over his lower lip and smearing spit, making a mess. For all that Augus liked to be fussy in his house, he was downright filthy when he wanted to be.

A few minutes of the stimulation, and Gwyn was moaning softly, repeatedly. His cock was hard, but orgasm felt some distance away. But still, there were flickers of it now, kindling in the distance.

Then Ash slid a finger deep into him, slicked with nothing but saliva, and the friction and stretch alongside Ash’s tongue wrenched a whimper from Gwyn’s throat. His legs felt weak, and Ash was still holding him open with one hand, the other searching inside of him. Lifting up and pushing to the last knuckle, then curling down and dragging backwards, finding his prostate and lighting Gwyn up inside.

He felt his teeth begin to clamp and forced his mouth open, whimpers escaping him, and he hated that he was the loudest one – even though they’d told him they liked it – and he closed his mouth and sucked hard on Augus’ fingers, needing something, something, because Ash was licking over his opening and fucking him with his finger with a firm thoroughness that nailed his prostate every single time.

It was sharp all over again. A pleasure that rose in his belly and chest and gripped hard at his lower spine. Hardly thinking, Gwyn pulled his head away from Augus’ fingers and shifted until he could slide Augus’ cock back into his mouth. He knew he was lowering himself too fast when hands in his hair held him back for a few seconds and Gwyn could feel the air cold in his nose as he tried to catch his breath.

‘Wait a moment,’ Augus said, bending lower over him to talk to him. ‘I want you to feel this, please. No distractions.’

Gwyn whined, and Augus made that pleased, amused sound that came over him when he wanted to be cruel.

‘Two,’ Augus said, voice imperious. Gwyn wasn’t sure what he meant and then jolted when Ash withdrew his finger completely and pushed back in with two. He moved slower now, pulsing back and forth into him, sliding a bit deeper every time, and then he pressed down hard.

Gwyn’s throat closed and for a few seconds he couldn’t think at all, his mind upturned into a pleasure that smashed every thought out of his mind. When he came back to himself, Augus was petting him, and Ash was thrusting rhythmically now, so that Gwyn was rocking back and forth with it. Gwyn’s cock was heavy and thick between his legs, his balls ached, and he could feel that odd twisting sensation that meant he was closer than he realised.

Then came the slow, building waves of glamour from Ash. And this time Augus must have been feeling them too, because he moaned slightly and then thrust up into Gwyn’s mouth, seeming to forget that he’d been focusing on holding him still.

Gwyn gave into it by the fifth wave, forgetting how to coordinate his breathing, chest burning, his cock not touched by any hand at all. Ash’s fingers were far too exact, and that pushiness was shoving him over the edge once more.

The cramps of orgasm were almost painful, the heat drowning him, Ash’s tongue flickering at him again, and then curling inside of him. And Ash’s fingers still working, and his glamour still surrounding them all.

Augus rocked gently so that the back of his cock was brushing against the back of Gwyn’s throat, not demanding entry – not yet – but a constant reminder that he could.

It felt like he spilled for far longer than usual, and he felt his body winding down, expecting that they would stop soon. As they always did. They never pushed him further than two orgasms.

‘Concentrate, Gwyn,’ Augus said, rubbing behind his ears and then pushing a bit more insistently at the back of his mouth. ‘Stay with us.’

Gwyn made a confused sound, a sleepy one, and realised that Ash hadn’t stopped at all. Except that now he was kissing over Gwyn’s lower back, intermittently biting him, his teeth sinking deep enough to hurt.

‘No rest for the wicked,’ Ash said, his voice warm.

Gwyn’s eyes blinked tiredly open, brow furrowing, and then he jerked when Augus shifted Gwyn’s head, changed the angle of his throat and shoved up so hard that he wedged into tightness before Gwyn was ready for it. He choked, tried to swallow the gag he felt building in his chest, and on one of those swallows Augus pushed into his throat and forced it open, made it stretch around his length. Kept pushing until Gwyn’s breathing was locked up tight and he shook from want and tiredness both.

He was pulled up, allowed to catch his breath, but Augus was controlling everything now – when Gwyn got to breathe, when his throat would burn and be made raw by Augus’ thrusting, when Gwyn was allowed to bob his head and when he was expected to stay still for whatever Augus wanted.

His cock was limp between his legs, and still there were zaps of arousal flying around inside of him. His eyes began to burn and he blinked rapidly, then kept his eyes closed.

That was when he felt Ash kneel between his legs, shifting Gwyn’s hips and pressing the heel of his hand down into Gwyn’s lower back, keeping him arched.

‘Puppy,’ Ash said warmly, ‘you look fantastic. You know that? And you too, Augus. Getting to you now, isn’t it?’

Augus laughed, the sound breathless. ‘True, but I’m not the one who has to hold back. That’s you.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Ash said. Then a hand slid beneath Gwyn’s torso and wrapped around his cock, and Gwyn shuddered and tried to squirm away, except he couldn’t. ‘Shhh, puppy,’ Ash said warmly. ‘I know. I know you’re a bit overworked right now. But you can go a bit further, can’t you?’

Gwyn wasn’t sure he could, but when Augus lifted his head for Gwyn to catch his breath, no words spilled past his lips. And then Augus was shifting Gwyn’s chin, so that Gwyn had no choice but to look at Augus’ face. Augus’ green eyes were bright and hungry, but also serious.

‘You can say the word any time you need to,’ Augus said quietly. ‘And if you cannot say it, you can make the hand signal. Do you understand?’

Gwyn nodded.

‘Do you need to signal?’

Gwyn hesitated for a long time, then shook his head.

The smile Augus gave him was affectionate on the surface, but beneath that was a darkness that made Gwyn’s heart beat harder.

‘Then you can go a bit further, can’t you?’

Augus shifted his hands around Gwyn’s head, and Gwyn found himself swallowing down Augus’ cock once more. Before he was even all the way down, he felt Ash’s cock at his entrance. His hand squeezed Gwyn’s cock in a way that had Gwyn jerking backwards, unwittingly pushing the head of Ash into him and then freezing at the myriad sensations streaming through him.

How did people do this?

Ash pushed into him slowly. Moving back and forth, stretching Gwyn out. Ash was thicker than Augus, and Gwyn felt it as an overwhelming sense of fullness. Between Augus in his throat, and Ash behind him, he was being dragged deep into a haze, finding himself giving over to their movements, pliant in Augus’ hands.

The rhythm Ash used was one of undulating endlessness. Relentless, but not too hard. It was the hand on his cock that was unforgiving, the most painful thing happening despite the ache in his jaw and the burn in his throat. That calloused palm around his cock dragging the skin back and forth, keeping him stimulated.

Gwyn’s noises, when he had the air to make them, were pained. Every now and then, Augus would caress the side of his head a few times in encouragement. Sometimes, Ash would whisper or roughly dole out words of praise and they would flow over him and keep him receptive to what they wanted.

But he was starting to realise what it meant when Ash had said all those things he’d said at the beginning:

I want you fucked out and fucked open and sore and wrung out and even crying, just a little, love.

Even though Augus had said he didn’t have to hold himself back, he was holding himself back. He wasn’t even leaking precome into Gwyn’s mouth. It didn’t matter how many minutes passed, Gwyn was starting to feel like he’d always had the both of them there, or like they were changing him, moulding his body to them so he wouldn’t recall things ever being any different.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he realised he was thickening in Ash’s hand. When he realised that those sinuous hip movements were skating over his prostate every time now. His mind was almost blank, he could hear Ash’s steady, audible breathing. Heard Augus occasionally moan. Barely paid attention to any noises that spilled out of his mouth when he caught his breath; his cheeks couldn’t burn any hotter anyway.

His cock was definitely sore when he knew he was close to coming. He found himself rocking back into Ash’s hips, just to escape the grip that Ash had on him. And at no point did Ash ever let him escape, if anything tugging faster, squeezing harder at the head of his cock.

‘Come on then,’ Ash panted. ‘You can do it, pup. You’re so good for us, aren’t you? Fucking brilliant. You feel so, so good.’

Gwyn sobbed when he came up for air, but Augus did nothing more than check the undersides of his eyes and push him back down again.

Ash kept coaxing him, encouraging him. His words became nothing but pure praise, and he talked about how brave Gwyn was, and how strong and incredible, and each sentence did something to Gwyn’s chest, made his cock feel heavier.

When he came, he keened against Augus’ cock and his eyes squeezed shut. And then he had to push off hurriedly because he couldn’t control the way his muscles were trembling, the way his jaws clamped shut and the muscles in his neck felt like they were going to explode. His cock felt overworked, overused, the pleasure was a scratchy burn that was bright and heavy all at once, pulling him deeper.

For a few minutes he didn’t think about anything except blackness.

Then there were fingers in his hair. Conversation above him.

‘-I’m asking because I think he can go further,’ Ash was saying.

‘I think he can too, but you’ll have to change your methods,’ Augus said. It was Augus’ fingers in his sweaty hair, smoothing curls back from his face.

‘What’s your preference?’ Ash said, and he sounded out of breath.

‘Milking.’

‘That’s…’

‘I imagine you’re not familiar,’ Augus said idly.

‘Actually…maybe I am?’ Ash said, and Gwyn realised that it wasn’t just Augus touching him, but Ash too. Ash rubbing a circle into his back, and one over his belly, and that was when he realised that Ash wasn’t inside him anymore and Gwyn had somehow ended up on his side between Augus’ legs. ‘Hurts though. At this point, I don’t think I need to change my methods. Will you let me try something?’

‘Using your glamour is cheating.’

‘Nope,’ Ash said. ‘You didn’t say I couldn’t use glamour, you just said I couldn’t come, bro. Too late to raise the stakes. Maybe think of that next time.’

Gwyn shifted restlessly, and Augus hushed him. He’d think he had a stomach ache, if he hadn’t just been made to come three times.

‘Okay, puppy,’ Ash said, his hands still moving. ‘Time for round four.’

Gwyn’s breathing hitched. He stilled and then looked over his shoulder. He opened his mouth to speak, but Ash’s face shifted at whatever he saw on Gwyn’s face. And then he closed the space between them, lunging forwards and pressing his mouth to Gwyn’s, lips slanting over his, tongue sliding into his mouth.

Gwyn moaned weakly, and Ash pushed him back into Augus’ thigh and kept kissing him, biting and pulling Gwyn’s lip back, stretching it out and then letting it go, only to come back and do it all over again.

‘Round four,’ Ash said when he pulled back, his voice darker than it was before.

Gwyn shook his head. Stared up at Ash and willed him to understand how very tired his body was.

‘I can’t,’ he whispered.

‘You can,’ Ash said, staring back. ‘I promise you.’

‘I’m sore,’ Gwyn said, voice plaintive.

‘Gwyn,’ Augus said from above them both, his voice firm. ‘Either signal out or don’t, if you please. Whining is unbecoming.’

Gwyn’s brow furrowed. Because he didn’t want to say the word. He didn’t want to. But he had a feeling that if Ash reached between his legs, Gwyn was going to scream.

Ash frowned at him, and then leaned closer and pressed his lips gently to Gwyn’s forehead.

‘How about a quick break instead. You want some water?’

Gwyn nodded, and Ash smiled at him, kissing Gwyn gently on the mouth before moving across the bed to grab the bottle of water. He took some sips from it first, and then lowered it to Gwyn’s mouth, tilting the water slowly and watching intently as Gwyn swallowed small mouthfuls.

When Gwyn was done, Ash offered the bottle up to Augus, who must have declined. Ash put it aside after screwing the cap on, and then pushed in close to Gwyn so that he was almost lying on top of him. Gwyn could feel his cock hard and sticky against his thigh.

‘Okay now,’ Ash said, and Gwyn realised with some trepidation that was all the break he was going to get. ‘Slow and easy, yeah? You don’t have to do anything at all. I promise.’

Gwyn whined softly, and Ash kissed him with a smile upon his lips.

Ash’s hand reached down and rested just on the inside of the jut of Gwyn’s hip, palm facing inward. Ash kept kissing him, even though Gwyn barely had the energy to participate, just keeping his mouth open and occasionally brushing his tongue against Ash’s.

The glamour was hardly noticeable at first. Just a gentle, soothing warmth that wrapped around him, then dissipated, then wrapped around him again. And so it went until the minutes began to stretch on. Gwyn had lost track of time when it started to build his arousal again, when he groaned roughly and squirmed, helpless, as Ash kept kissing him – their lips swollen.

He kept his eyes closed, didn’t open them when Ash trailed kisses down his chest, when a hand gripped his thigh and pushed it up and open, and Ash was settling in between his legs once more; Augus’ legs still spread wide around the both of them. Gwyn was almost on his back, propped more onto his side by Augus’ thigh and knee digging into him. And when Ash slid his cock into him, Gwyn’s voice broke, his head fell back, and he thought about the word he could use, could feel it on the tip of his tongue.

Instead, he swallowed it down. His eyes burned and then tears were tracking down his face. But Ash’s glamour kept him wrapped tight in comfort and heat and arousal, and so he couldn’t do much more than be pliant and welcoming for all Ash wanted to do.

Augus stroked his face, and Gwyn lost himself in a sensory darkness where he just wanted them close, where he felt he could handle anything as long as they were with him like this.

He made a faint noise of protest when he felt lust turn into a half-hearted stiffening of his cock, and Ash laughed softly, darkly, kept fucking him and promised him with words that he could do it, he could, and that he was being so very good for them. So Gwyn gave up, even though the words ‘I can’t’ still echoed through his mind. Eventually that disappeared too. It didn’t matter if he could or couldn’t, he didn’t know himself like they did.

There was nothing to spill when Gwyn’s orgasm finally found him much later, Ash’s hand tender on his cock and still working it, and Gwyn barely able to get the breath he needed to whimper through it, focusing instead on gasping for breath. Augus stroking his throat and jaw and smoothing tears away. A pleasure so sharp he thought it would kill him, thought he’d existed for nothing else except this, and fell into it – undulated with it – until his world turned black.

*

He woke covered in a blanket, not feeling as sticky with sweat as he expected. They must have rubbed him down at some point. There was a bottle of water next to him, but his eyes moved past that to Ash lying on his back nearby, and Augus straddling him, rocking their hips together sharply.

Gwyn blinked at them bleary eyed, too exhausted to move. He’d close his eyes again, except he’d always wanted to see them like this. They were both so beautiful.

Augus turned to look at him and smiled.

Gwyn smiled back.

Ash started to turn his head and Augus ground down harder, startling a gasp out of his throat. Gwyn looked down between their legs and realised that Augus wasn’t inside Ash, that they were rubbing their slicked cocks together, sliding them against each other. Augus had his hands on Ash’s shoulders and was staring down at him again, and Ash beneath him looked torn open and vulnerable, not as sure of himself as he so often did.

‘You’re…gonna have to kiss me again,’ Ash breathed.

Augus’ back dipped and his mouth lowered, and Gwyn watched with sleepy pleasure as Ash took control of the kiss, even though Augus had control of the way their hips moved together. Ash’s hands in Augus’ hair, gripping tight and then stroking over his waterweed so that Augus shivered and moaned twice in quick succession.

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Ash whispered. ‘That’s right. I’ve got you, bro.’

‘I rather think I have you,’ Augus said, his voice rougher than usual.

‘It’s not a competition,’ Ash said, and then groaned and arched his hips up. ‘Do that again, do that- oh god.’

But Augus moaned too, left his mouth open against Ash’s for a few seconds and just breathed. Their movements were sinuous, well-matched. Ash had his legs bent for leverage and was pushing upwards, and Augus’ toes were curling. Gwyn thought maybe he was the luckiest person, and he licked at his swollen lips. His body was too sore to feel much by the way of arousal, but he felt warm and happy, no more room to worry about whether they wanted him. He knew they did.

Ash leaned up and whispered something into Augus’ ear that Gwyn couldn’t catch. Augus blew out a sharp breath, and Ash sunk back onto the bed, wrapping his arms around Augus’ waist and tightening his thighs around Augus’ hips.

‘Tell me,’ Ash said, his voice gritty. ‘Okay?’

Augus nodded quietly, quickly, his black hair falling around his face like a curtain. Ash’s rhythm changed, and Augus’ hips faltered. And that was when Gwyn realised the control had shifted, and he knew that Ash was keeping a close eye on Augus’ heartsong as he took control of the rhythm.

‘This okay?’ Ash said.

‘Mm,’ Augus managed tightly. Then he slipped an arm between their chests, a hand between their legs, and they both groaned at the same time. Ash’s voice rough and deep, and Augus’ softer and sounding pained. But they grinned at each other before Augus leaned down and they were kissing again.

Ash’s breath stuttered in his chest as he came first, his arms tightening around Augus’ waist and tearing his mouth away to bite hard at Augus’ shoulder. Augus’ arm didn’t move faster, but moved slower, and he was making quiet sounds on every exhale until he shuddered and his hips stopped moving. Gwyn could tell he was spilling, saw it in the shivers wracking his body. Ash telling him that he was beautiful, and amazing – seeming to have an endless well of praise to pull from for the both of them.

Afterwards, Augus slumped down and Ash’s arms that were banded around him became more of a loose embrace, stroking Augus’ hair away from his face.

Augus turned his head to the side and looked at Gwyn, blinking at him peacefully, his eyes lidded.

‘Get some sleep, dear heart,’ Augus said, reaching out with his arm and twitching the blanket up so that it covered more of Gwyn’s shoulder. ‘We’re all tired.’

Gwyn nodded, his hand slipping out from underneath the blanket to brush his fingers across Augus’ hand as he drew it away. Augus looked down at the point of contact and the smile he made was small and private.

Augus left his hand there, and Gwyn fell asleep feeling touched in more ways than one.

Chapter Text

Finally Augus managed to experience a quiet month, and found it a novelty – the first one they’d had since Gwyn had joined them. Gwyn had asked the King of the Unseelie about the possibility of a cabin the last time he saw him for his lesson, and construction had begun. Now Gwyn often spent time aboveground helping out, silently assisting and refusing to talk to anyone except those he wanted to – Augus and Ash – and those he was obligated to; the King.

The last two lessons seemed to have gone far more smoothly with the Raven Prince. Gwyn didn’t talk of the lessons often, but nor did he seem too distressed when he returned. He was still hesitant over whether he actually wanted to be a Mage, but he seemed settled enough about the Raven Prince himself. It was a source of relief for Augus, who worried constantly about Gwyn somehow offending the great King and drawing his ire. There were some things that Augus could protect Gwyn from, but realistically, the King wasn’t one of them.

Gwyn was bolder about spending time in Ethallas forest. He was an adept hunter even without weapons, sometimes turning up on Augus’ doorstep with a brace of pigeons or ducks dripping water and looking triumphant. Once, he’d brought a deer, blood spilling from the tear in its throat and Augus exclaiming about the mess, and Gwyn trying to look shamefaced while clearly proud of himself. Gwyn had gutted the deer, treated the meat and even cleaned up after himself. Augus had studied the skin that Gwyn left to cure in the forest later. Looked at the bite marks in the creature’s throat and decided he wanted to watch Gwyn hunt one day. Wanted to see that animalistic side of him.

Augus didn’t eat meat when he wasn’t hunting, and Ash tended to only have it during rare cravings. But Gwyn’s appetite was vast, and he could clear two deer haunches in a single day – often eating them raw, seeming to have no preference for cooked meat. Augus decided that made sense, given his upbringing.

There was something of a calendar now that sat flat upon the table opposite Augus’ kitchen, detailing when Augus wanted them both out of his home. Ash shrugged when he saw it and just said:

‘Remind me when it’s time, you know what I’m like with dates.’

Gwyn had stared at the calendar like it was a puzzle, and when the dates for their departure rolled around, he didn’t leave with Ash, instead electing to live homeless aboveground. Augus instinctively wanted to encourage him to stay where there was a bed and shelter, but he’d held his tongue and decided that if Gwyn really wanted company, he could choose to have it. It seemed that Gwyn needed to be as completely alone as Augus sometimes.

The leather cuffs were a regular fixture on Gwyn’s wrists now. He kept them even when he left the lake, even wore them to his last lesson with the Raven Prince. Just as often, he would go hours or days without talking, using the signal as freely as he ever did, and Augus wondered if he’d always be like that – someone never entirely comfortable with language. It wasn’t a problem. Gwyn was eloquent with his expressions, and Ash and Augus had grown used to periods of silence in each other’s company anyway. So it felt natural and gave the house a sense of peace. Unless Ash was playing games on one of his confounded small machines.

Augus had thrown Ash’s headphones at him with such force only two days prior, that Ash had whined about concussion. Still, there was only so much Augus could be expected to deal with.

*

Sunday morning rolled in lazy and content. His lake was flourishing, he’d actually managed to see a client and had sent her off feeling like he’d achieved something, his heartsong buzzing on a high he was reluctant to let go of. As a result, he’d planned something for Gwyn.

When Ash woke, scuffing his feet into the kitchen and kissing Augus lightly and clumsily on the ear before wandering into the pantry, Augus stared down at the radishes he was chopping and thought of what it might be like to involve Ash in that side of his life.

‘Ash,’ Augus said, stroking the handle of the knife. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Just did,’ Ash said sleepily, his voice rough from slumber.

Augus rolled his eyes and turned around, munching on crisp radish and leaning back against the counter.

‘Do you avoid those rooms of mine – the things Gwyn and I do together – because you want to? Or because you think you should?’

‘Bit of column A, bit of column B,’ Ash said, sounding more alert. He came out with a handful of dry deer jerky, holding it up to display it to Augus. ‘He puts spices on it and everything. Like, for someone who prefers raw food in its most feral form, he can make a good fucking jerky.’

‘You should tell him.’

‘I have,’ Ash said, grinning. ‘I will again. I’ll tell everyone. It’s awesome. Anyway, what’s this about your rooms of pain and torture?’

Augus found himself rolling his eyes for the second time that morning.

‘Would you…be amenable to watching us?’ Augus said. ‘Nothing extreme. No blood.’

‘Sweet Jesus,’ Ash said, and then he shook his head and rubbed at the back of his neck. ‘‘No blood,’ he says.’

‘Ah, well,’ Augus said, smiling. ‘He’s Court status, and he has a preference for things that most people don’t. But I want to try something with him today, something we haven’t done before. You’re a comforting and stabilising force in his life, and I think it would help to have you there. But I don’t want to do it if you find it distasteful. I don’t want him to feel like what he enjoys is…is that.’

‘I wouldn’t have to hurt him?’

‘Not at all,’ Augus said. ‘Just watch. Sometimes touch him lightly, stroke him. Whatever you feel is best. Although it would be best if you avoided erogenous zones.’

‘But you’d be hurting him?’

‘Not much,’ Augus said. ‘And not…like you think, I suspect. This will be a slow build. He’ll have his word. And he does use it if he needs to. You know that. I doubt he’ll find it as overwhelming or difficult as some of the other things you and I have done with him.’

Augus thought back happily to the night Ash had wanted to wear Gwyn out. Felt something dark and hungry rumble through him. It wasn’t like they were having sex every night – but when they did, they tended to make it last longer than ten or twenty minutes. Augus suspected Gwyn was getting more restful sleep than he’d ever had in his entire life.

‘And he’s up for this?’ Ash said.

‘I haven’t asked him about today, specifically, but he’s expressed…curiosity about it in the past. He’s wondered why you’re never there for it. I think he wants it to mostly remain something between he and I. But I think he does want to see you there sometimes. I can ask him when he wakes up.’

‘Cool beans,’ Ash said, tearing off a piece of jerky and grinning in that way that meant he knew how much Augus hated that phrase.

*

That was how all three of them ended up in one of the rooms where Augus practiced his vocation. Gwyn naked except for the cuffs and as always – unbothered by his own nudity. Gwyn and Ash both watched as Augus dismantled the St. Andrew’s Cross in the middle of the room. Augus pulled up the huge beams that were anchored into the floor, enchanted to hold firm during a fae’s struggles. Then, he unscrewed two square metal plates from the floor and adjusted the beams, waving away Ash’s offer of help. This was his livelihood, he knew what he was doing.

Instead of fixing them into a cross shape, the beams now stood side by side, parallel to each other. Augus lowered them into the ground until they were at the right height and began to secure them firmly. Once bolted down, he stood and pushed on them hard with his shoulder, using both Court strength and his waterhorse weight; they didn’t budge.

He walked towards the wall of tools for whipping and corporal punishment, each hanging neatly on display on its pegs. He turned to Gwyn – who watched everything closely, silently – and beckoned him over. Gwyn hesitated – looking at Ash – and then came. His steps were small, but he seemed comfortable. He had a trust in this room that Augus felt like he built upon every time they shared an experience here. Even when Gwyn knew he was going to receive a punishment, even when Gwyn asked for pain – something he was still learning how to do – Gwyn no longer looked at the room like it was a source of terror.

‘I imagine the people in your life, before you came here, used some of these tools on you before; correct?’

Gwyn nodded, looking not at Augus, but at the tools themselves.

‘Are there any on this wall that have not been used on you?’

Gwyn hesitated, bit his lower lip and then studied the wall closely. He walked up to it, briefly touched the section of riding crops, and then dismissed those and the whips too. Then he stood in front of the floggers, lingering. Augus held his breath. In the tentative times Gwyn had tried to talk about his past, he’d mentioned being whipped, but he’d never once mentioned being flogged. It could have been a terminology issue, but Augus doubted it. It wasn’t a go-to tool for a lot of fae when they used instruments for beating their offspring. Riding crops were the weapon of choice against their children. Whips on rare occasions.

‘These,’ Gwyn said finally, pointing to the floggers. ‘And maybe some of the…some of those.’

He pointed towards the paddles, but Augus wasn’t interested in those. Still, he filed that piece of information away for later.

Augus walked up to his side, shirt brushing Gwyn’s naked arm, and took down three of the floggers. All of these he’d made himself. He’d sourced the leather. He’d woven the handles and cut the tails. He knew exactly what sensations he wanted to inflict as he’d made them, and eventually he became good enough at it that he’d sold some. Maelan had two of his pieces, just as he had one of her bullwhips.

The one in his hand was black, heavy. The strips of leather hanging from their end were thick, the tips cut to a point instead of a square. But the leather was well treated and pliant to the touch.

‘Hold this one,’ Augus said, handing it to him by the handle. Gwyn took it up and stared at it with wide eyes.

The other two floggers were lighter. The one that was white and black was ultimately too pedestrian for what he wanted. The last one was red and well used. Many tails fell from its base, the leather soft and moreish to the touch. He let the tails fall through his hands a few times, looking Gwyn over, then nodded to himself.

Against the wall, Ash sat quietly, though there was a hint of apprehension on his face. It was odd, Augus thought, how delicious it was to draw pained responses from Gwyn – even fearful ones – and it be satisfying and right. And how poorly those responses were received when they came from Ash, who had not a hint of masochism in him, who didn’t want anything to hurt.

‘This is not a punishment,’ Augus said to Gwyn, keeping his words careful.

‘But you’re going to hit me,’ Gwyn said, looking down at the flogger, ‘like it’s a punishment.’

‘Yes,’ Augus said, because prevarication was useless at this point. ‘But it will not be a punishment, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you like it.’

The moment when Gwyn’s expression fairly dripped suspicion always made Augus smile. He couldn’t help himself. Because almost always, Augus was right. Gwyn glared at the flogger in his hands like it had done something to personally offend him.

‘Here,’ Augus said, handing him the red flogger. ‘Touch them. Get a sense of them. The black one is a heavier beast, certainly, but it’s the red one you’ll be getting to know first.’

Gwyn delicately touched the tails, felt the tail tips. He looked at the weaving on the handle. He lifted the leather to his nose and sniffed it. And Augus watched him while unbuttoning his shirt, shrugging it off and meeting Ash’s eyes as he did so, checking in on him. Ash watched Augus now, curious but wary, his legs slightly apart, more tense than he tried to appear.

‘How are you doing, brother?’ Augus asked.

‘Can I say the word if I need to as well?’ Ash said, and though he tried to make it a joke, Augus could tell he was afraid.

‘Absolutely,’ Augus said, smiling at him. ‘Don’t fret, Ash. This will go slowly.’

‘I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,’ Ash said.

‘I am,’ Augus said, feeling more confident, not less.

This was one of his favourite activities that he didn’t often get to indulge with clients, because it was self-indulgent. It was – to him – about sensory feedback, about showing the body what it could take, what it could learn to love. Even people who weren’t masochists could learn to adore a good flogging. It just had to be done well.

Augus liked any opportunity to show what he could do masterfully. When the timing was right.

Eventually he took both floggers from Gwyn’s hands and laid them down carefully on the clean floor. Then he took Gwyn by the wrist and carefully guided him to stand between the two sturdy posts, raising one arm – Gwyn not fighting him – and using rope to bind him in place. First at the wrist – working rope through the D-ring of the cuff, which would brace him nicely – and then further down at his elbow, so that there wouldn’t be too much strain on the joints. Like this, Gwyn’s front faced Ash. And Augus attached his other arm and wondered if it would help Ash to see Gwyn’s expressions, to know that Gwyn welcomed the pain.

Augus stroked Gwyn’s back. Pressed his bare chest against it and felt their heartbeats thumping together. Gwyn’s body temperature was so warm, radiated right through his skin, and Augus pressed his lips to Gwyn’s shoulders and enjoyed it, rubbing his cheek against smooth skin, trailing his fingers across flexing muscle. Gwyn’s head fell forward, his trust in the moment showing through. After some time, Gwyn’s head moved back in a seeking motion, pressing the side of his head to Augus’ forehead, curly hair catching in his damp mane.

‘I like you like this,’ Augus murmured against his skin.

Gwyn made a sound that could have been agreement, or could have been acknowledgement that he’d heard the words.

‘So sweet for it,’ Augus continued. ‘Even when you don’t know what’s going to happen.’

‘You’re going to hit me,’ Gwyn said, and there was amusement in his voice.

‘Such a crude way of saying it,’ Augus said, dragging blunt fingertips up over Gwyn’s back. ‘As though it would ever be that simple.’

He stepped back and kept his hands on Gwyn’s flesh. He lightly stroked Gwyn’s shoulders and flanks, watching the skin dip beneath his touch. He cupped Gwyn’s ass cheeks, pulling the flesh up, digging his thumbs in.

Slowly his touches firmed. Not enough to be truly painful. Augus used the heels of his palms over Gwyn’s back and watched blood flush to the surface. Watched how his pale skin was reddening already. This, he knew, was necessary if he wanted to minimise damage. More than that, it desensitised the nerve endings, made them receptive to what was coming.

Augus needed Gwyn receptive, not shocked. So he worked his back and buttocks and even his thighs with his hands, sometimes using his knuckles, sometimes his elbows, all the time listening to the cadence of Gwyn’s breathing as it deepened and slowed. Gwyn surrendered to the bindings, standing on his feet but letting his arms go lax.

When Augus picked up the red flogger, Gwyn predictably tensed again, but Augus ignored that, expecting it. He looked over Gwyn’s shoulder to Ash, who was bright-eyed and had lost a lot of his wariness in favour of curiosity now. His legs were more relaxed than before, and he was leaning back. Not in the mood to participate, but Augus had told him that he wasn’t obligated. That he was to do whatever felt comfortable, provided it didn’t involve getting himself hurt or unduly interrupting the scene.

Augus grasped the flogger in both hands, one at the handle and one at the tips, an