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Shaping Something from Nothing

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“Mercante…”

It had slipped past her lips and into the air, becoming real, before she realized her mistake and fear washed over her.

Anne sharply sucked in a breath and held it, as if the name could be recalled and left to suffocate in her straining lungs. Everything was still, including her own hand, which only moments before had been frantically moving beneath the sheets in pursuit of something she couldn’t name.

She had almost gotten there, too...

Heart pounding and light headed, Anne cautiously let the spent air out of her lungs and began breathing shallowly, wide eyed and listening intently. There wasn’t much to be seen; she was on her side and facing the wall. Anne tilted her chin down until she could see the boxy shape of the standing mirror at the corner of the room, still draped in a sheet.

The back of her neck was prickling.

The rest of the room would be a mystery until she turned over, but she was frozen in place. Maybe, if she stayed perfectly still and closed her eyes she would fall asleep, and he would never, ever speak to her about any of this...

She deluded herself into thinking this was a possibility until the bed dipped near her knees as the weight of a man pressed down on it.

Anne startled and sat up, though managed an attempt to casually slide the fingers of her right hand from her underwear, as if her arm had naturally settled between her legs to sleep. It was awkward, and her fingers were wet. It also allowed the blanket to slide off her shoulders before she could catch it.

Though she had been expecting it, the sight of the smirking man in dark clothing sitting at the edge of her bed sent a shock through her nerves. She sucked in another sharp breath, but did not otherwise make a sound. Fear and shame rendered her mute.

He broke the silence first.

“So you’ve called for me in a moment like this...” and trailed off, a too-wide grin splitting his face behind a raised hand; he was laughing.

Denial was the only option for her here, really. How could she ever face him again if he had ammunition like this to bring up and shame her with whenever he wanted?

“Who called you?” Heat radiated from her face. “What are you doing in here, you creep?! It’s the middle of the night!” She grabbed her pillow and made as if to throw it at him. “Get out!”

But Mercante did not budge, his grin widening. “Is that really how you want to speak to me, hmm?” He leaned closer to her, and instead of throwing it she clutched the pillow to her body like a shield, though she managed to hold his strange, narrow-eyed gaze. “Since I’ve come at your request.”

And then his eyes opened, his weight shifted and Mercante leaned in so close that he was nearly above her; his mouth now uncovered, his conspiratorial murmur was quite clear, “I heard you, don’t deny it.”

That caused her to look away, shame and embarrassment overriding everything else. She was caught, denial pointless. “It wasn’t a request. That wasn’t...it wasn’t for you.”

“Oh?” He questioned, appearing to examine her closely, hand back at his chin. She wouldn’t - couldn’t look at his expression, or be in the same room with him for much longer. She didn’t trust herself to speak, so instead she nodded, wishing that he would have his laugh at her and leave.

Tomorrow she would figure out where to run away to, debt and life be damned.

But he didn’t laugh this time. The demon placed one broad hand on the bed and slid it towards her, nearly but not quite touching her through the blanket, before saying something truly frightening; “That is unfortunate, since I’ve come to offer my assistance, hmm?”

That got a reaction. Anne jerked her head up and glared at him; he was grinning, obviously delighted at once again having the upper hand. “Do not screw with me, Mercante.”

“I assure you, I am being quite sincere.” The hand began to slide again, until it was moving up her calf, then squeezing gently at her knee over the blanket. It felt like fire, but she didn’t flinch.

She obviously felt it, though.

“Of course,” he began as she interrupted with a gasp; the hand stopped midway up her thigh, before slowly receding, “the choice to accept, or not, is up to you,” he removed his hand from the bed but leaned in close, the startling red of his eyes cracking open to gaze at her, “Anne.”

Here he paused, seeming to realize that the young lady beneath him needed a moment to gather her wits. As the moment stretched on he leaned back and finally looked away.

“However, if my presence is not wanted here…” Mercante drawled, flourishing one elegant hand towards the door, “then I shall be on my way.”

“N...no, you can stay…” Anne answered carefully, watching his gestures rather than his almost-certain-to-be-smirking face. She had clearly lost her mind.

“If you want to,” she added quickly, and managed to feel even more foolish.

She had expected laughter, but not the hand that lightly cupped her cheek and coaxed her face up to meet his piercing eyes. Rather than a smirk, his smile might have been described as fond.

“Oh, Anne. Dear Anne. This isn’t about what I want,” he murmured, now sliding deft fingers through her loose hair. “You called for me, and I’m here. So, what do you want from me?”

“I don’t know…” It was too hard to think when he was touching her. She wished he’d pick between keeping his eyes open or closed. He seemed more honest when they were open…

“Is this a trick?”

The eyes came open again, this time in indignation. Mercante seemed to consider saying something biting, thought better of it, and instead smugly stated, “Hardly. Really, this is a rare opportunity. I don’t often offer my assistance for free, as you well know.” Noticing her tense up at his words, he continued more gently, “Forgive me if I don’t understand your hesitation, Anne. I fail to see how this is a bad deal for you.”

And there he was again, making something difficult sound so easy.

But, if she were being honest, she wanted it, and Mercante seemed to want it too...

Anne allowed herself to catch her breath before asking, “What kind of “assistance” are you talking about, anyway?” The last thing she wanted to sound was eager.

Now Mercante didn’t answer immediately; his gaze felt almost cautious. “....hmm. You really don’t know anything, do you…”

“What?!” Anne hadn’t had time to process why she took offense to that statement, but she certainly felt it. “What is that supposed to mean, huh?!”

“Just an observation.” He was obviously doing his best to take her seriously, which somehow irritated her even more. “I had assumed that friend of yours would have taught you a thing or two by now, so to find you so clueless is-…”

“Are you talking about Mar-!” she interrupted, “-no, I mean, what ‘friend’ are you talking about?!”

“Oh, I believe you know exactly who I’m talking about, Anne. No need to be so shy. It’s only recently that you began sleeping in the shop, and-...”

“How dare you?!” She interrupted him a second time, and to the monster’s credit, he allowed it.

Mercante didn’t even attempt to speak before she continued, “I believe that is none of your business.”

Did he know? But even as she thought that question, she knew that she didn’t want the answer.

Besides, Mark had been a terrible teacher.

“I just want to feel good. I don’t know what to ask for.” For the second time that night, Anne was surprised by the words leaving her mouth. But she didn’t want to take these back. Not it it meant that Mercante would keep looking at her with that fond expression…

No, wait, what was she thinking-...!

“Then allow me to assist,” Mercante answered evenly, so close that the loose hair framing his face was tickling her nose and cheeks.

Anne would never admit it, but she had thought he was going to kiss her in that moment.

Instead, Mercante seized her up out of the bed with one oversized shadow-hand and gracefully switched their positions, though he placed her back to his chest and spread her legs across his right thigh. “Comfortable?”

If his hot breath hadn’t been directly in her ear, or his thigh pressing at her through her underwear, she might have had less of a positive reaction. Instead, it was nearly all she could do to answer, “N-no, who could be comfortable like this…” while cautiously allowing her body to settle back against him. With some lingering hesitation, Anne relaxed her arms until her fingers were brushing the sheets. Mercante’s bare forearms came down to rest across her waist and she vaguely noted that he wasn’t wearing his usual sleeves; when had he removed the coat?

She was dizzy with nerves.

They laid like that for a moment, the only movement being the rise and fall of her chest and his arms slowly snaking across her body. As they slid lower, one hitched up the hem of her nightgown as the other pressed against the thin fabric of her underwear.

On instinct she pressed back, quietly expressing her approval through stifled moans and responsive breathing. Interpreting this as permission to go farther, he teasingly hooked his fingers on the strip covering her front before slipping his entire hand beneath the waistband and into direct contact with her slickened clit.

Since she’d been nearly to completion before calling in the interruption, she was already swollen and quite sensitive; her response was immediate.

“Mercante, ah… !... mm…” Anne canted her hips, eager to give him a smoother angle but simultaneously overwhelmed with feeling. Without thought she reached up to grip at his biceps, prompting Mercante to hold her closer and lightly penetrate her with the tip of his index finger.

Anne whimpered in bliss as it slid inside easily. “It seems you’ve already gotten yourself ready. How long were you doing this before I got here, hm?” His voice was huskier than usual, especially when he followed up with, “How naughty, Anne.”

It was difficult to be annoyed when she was being made to feel so good, but of course this bastard managed to do it. For him to dare asking such a facetious question, when they both knew he had been listening from the beginning... “Shut up,” she snapped between breaths, “you’re twice...no, ten times more perverted than me…”

And yet, Anne was the one moving her hips up and down, pressing herself into the touch that had paused to be maddeningly still.

“...Hm.” Mercante answered, before taking revenge in the form of sliding a second finger inside of her with no warning. He also began to move, rubbing at her with long, deliberate strokes.

Anne was a bit more impatient, rocking her hips eagerly into the touch. Her desire was charming, but made it difficult to establish a rhythm. With his left hand the shopkeeper held fast at her hip, pressing her back into his own body. Her surprised gasp told him that she probably felt his own interest; good - it would give her something to think about.

But not now; he didn’t want to give her any time to think about anything other than the pleasure rising in her abdomen. He sped up, curling his fingers into her and changing the angle according to what garnered the most response.

She was already so close, it felt like mere moments before Anne cried out, grasping at him as her walls throbbed around his fingers, her legs trembling. He didn’t stop moving until, overstimulated, she fought the post orgasm haze off long enough to move one hand over his wrist and still him.

She laid panting in his lap, near boneless and blissfully content, until Mercante had the audacity to lean close again and murmur with a faint smirk, “Does this mean you’re satisfied, now?”

Masking her embarrassment as annoyance, Anne pushed herself roughly off and away from him. She half crawled, half rolled to the side of the bed closest to the wall and lay down facing it, before saying in her most dismissive tone, ‘Course I am. Is that all you wanted? I mean-...is that all you came here for?”

She hoped, but doubted, that her hair was completely covering the blush that was searing her face at that moment. She had felt what he wanted; it was crazy, but her heart thrilled at the thought of him taking her back into his arms. With the right encouragement, maybe he could be coaxed into asking her for something that she shouldn’t want but absolutely, undeniably did-...

Instead, Mercante chuckled quietly and she felt the bed shift as he removed himself from the mattress. She was trying and failing to ignore the pang of disappointment that went through her as he breezily replied, “That depends. Is that all you wanted, Anne?”

The cold disregard of his words and amusement in his voice were enough to break her fantasies. After years of practice, she was able to cast the disappointment aside in her mind, for later.

“I’m good,” she answered, quickly. She didn’t turn to look back at him, and couldn’t put words to any of the thoughts pouring through her head. The silence stretched on and, unable to take it any longer, she awkwardly added, “Thanks, I guess…?”

There was no answer. She waited a few beats longer before turning to look back at the rest of the room.

It was empty; Mercante had gone.

Chapter Text

Saturdays mornings were their busiest, so it was eerily easy to not talk about what had happened between them.

Anne kept so focused on her tasks that once the morning rush had trickled back out into the street, she found herself idle before noon. Though she avoided the shopkeeper and stepped out for lunch, the sudden, odd lack of customers after her return lulled her into letting her mind wander back to that…

Just as she was shamefully remembering how good it felt to have his arms looped across her waist and his warmth at her back, he walked through the room, prompting her to bolt upright and watch him with open suspicion.

He gave her an odd look but didn’t comment, which was both a relief and deeply irritating.

Mercante passed harmlessly into the next room. Her face was burning - why did she have to stay on guard around him, still? Why couldn’t he be...nice? And easy to talk to?

Though the same could be said about her. It made her restless.

Anne needed a distraction. She knew she should be doing schoolwork, her best shot at a better life now that Mercante was paying tuition. He only threw that one back in her face occasionally, and she needed to make good on the support.

She made it through one page of dry text before her mind wandered back to the night before. While in a posture that suggested she was deeply engrossed in the book, she began to replay memories of the night before with excruciating clarity, searching between the lines for his intentions. And if she lingered on the satisfying parts more than puzzling out the strangeness of their relationship, well...

All at once she became aware of a presence standing behind her already rigid posture.

Pre-tensioned as she was, it was almost possible to hide her surprise. She had expected him to approach her before this, honestly - maybe had started to become unnerved when he hadn’t.
But now he was here.

“Anne. You appear distracted.”

“So what?” Anne spun around on the stool, tipping her face up the barest amount to look up at him through her lashes; he was standing closer than expected, smiling. “We had a deal, right? I help out around here when I can, but my main job is to go to school so I can get the hell out of here-...”

“Oh, my. I fear for your future if it takes you so long to finish a page…”

“You...you were watching me again?”

Again. She’d gone and brought it up.

“It’s because of you.”

“Oh?” Mercante replied in what amounted to a purr, stepping even closer. On instinct she stood up to meet him, and then retreated backwards as he kept up the approach. The counter soon pressed into her lower back as he leaned in, “Are you suggesting that I am obligated to help...again?”

He smirked at her stricken expression.

Immediately thrown off by embarrassment, she turned her head towards the entrance, hissing, “What are you saying, what if customers-…!”

But her protest cut off as she noticed that the door was closed, the lock in place. When had Mercante…?

“It wouldn’t do to remain open while my employee is in such a state,” he offered, cupping her cheek with one hand. It was surprisingly tender; unlike his favored form of punishment, Mercante’s hand remained human, nails blunt and skin soft. She felt like she knew where this was going, while the wary side of her psyche shrieked that this was another one of his games.

Anne leaned into the touch despite that part of herself, eyes narrowed and lips slightly parted.

Mercante took in her heated expression, stroking a thumb across her burning cheek. “How may I be of assistance today?” He was staring at her intently; it would wound her pride to give in, and yet, her guardian seemed so...sincere.

The next thing she knew, he had used his free hand to sweep her in close to his body, settling his mouth against the hair above her ear. “How unlike you, Anne~...to be so shy…”

Anne’s brain was currently short-circuiting, unable to formulate an intelligible response. Instead she opted to groan softly, fist her hands in his robes and pull him closer.

Mercante huffed a laugh, the puff of air against her ear doing as much to make her shiver as the hands running down the sides of her body. “Now, now~, our agreement is only binding if you say yes.” He squeezed at her upper thighs with both hands, fingers ghosting over the curves of her rear. “Can I touch you, Anne?”

Agreement? Binding? Frustrating topics to think about now; he was cheating, as she probably would have agreed to anything if it meant that he’d calm down the fire in her body.

“Yes,” she gasped, tugging at him harder.

She was immediately hoisted back onto the counter, Mercante crowding in close to kiss at her hairline. The unexpected display of affection surprised her; last night had been abrupt, but now…

“Mercante, you’re…” but trailed off as he nosed his way down the side of her neck and she distinctly felt the pull of sharp teeth dragging over her skin.

Teeth that were definitely too sharp to be human. She was sure that a normal person would be repulsed, yet Anne found herself tilting her head to the side to expose more skin in anticipation. Mercante saw the invitation for what it was, leaning in farther with a quiet hum. He opened wide and paused, teeth resting lightly against flesh - waiting.

Anne mewled, loosening the merchant’s ponytail as she buried a hand in his hair and pulled him in. She felt more than heard his pleased hum before he lightly bit down.

Her entire body jolted and she squirmed against him; it hurt, but it was also something else. Anne opened her legs wider and Mercante pushed in between, guiding her into leaning back with gentle hands at her waist and shoulder. That feeling of something else became nearly overwhelming when his teeth let go and something warm, wet, and rough dragged over the sore spot.

Her thighs clenched at his hips as her core throbbed in arousal.

“Is that your tongue?” she gasped, already feeling foolish. She felt him smirk against her neck; rather than dignify her with an answer, his tongue came back to slide down towards her collarbone, teeth skimming lightly.

The building intensity of the sensation was so unexpected that she pried him back by the hand still fisted in his hair before he reached the juncture of her neck. As such, when she held him to eye level the appendage was still lolling out of his mouth.

She really shouldn’t have been surprised that it was distinctly inhuman - black, pointly, and just a bit too long. She watched it slowly retreat behind his usual smirk, swiping across his lips in an exaggerated way before disappearing.

Of course, just as she was staring at him, he was watching her, red eyes open. She finally met them directly with her own, mind too buzzed with warm static to feel much embarrassment.

Until he started speaking again - naturally.

“You seem to enjoy my tongue,” he murmured, skimming both hands along the outside of her thighs to emphasize how tightly she was holding him in place. Before she could fluster at his observation, he leaned in to touch their foreheads together, offering, “do you want to feel what else it can do?”

Part of Anne was scandalized at the implication, but it was at odds with the part of her that had seized on his use of the word “want”. Because, despite the times he had offered with shocking sincerity, what Anne wanted was...what she truly wanted…

It was overwhelming to think about. So Anne turned to doing what she did best - following instinct - and switched her brain off. Freed from hesitation, she pulled again at Mercante’s hair with one hand while pushing up from the counter with the other, connecting their mouths in an unpracticed kiss.

At first neither moved, and it was torture. The warm static and bravado she rode in on turned into burning embarrassment, the thought of “what did I just do” blaring through her mind.

She released her hold at his scalp and started to consider avenues of retreat when his hand slid up the back of her neck and into her own hair, gently holding her in place.

Mercante pulled back the barest amount to murmur against her lips, “How unexpected, Anne.”

Relief crashed through her and, in a surge of confidence, Anne pushed back towards him and reconnected their mouths. Both of his arms wrapped securely around her body and she relaxed completely into his hold.

She reached under and around his caging arms to settle both hands at his shoulders and pull him down and closer. She was now almost reclining, the demon’s waist pressed into the crux of her thighs, which were clenched around him. One hand pushing up against the back of her head, Mercante’s other hand slid slowly between her back, hip, and thigh before returning up, a sensation that was both pleasant and not nearly enough.

The shopkeeper was...not suited for kissing. His lips were not as pliant as a real human’s, partially because he kept them considerately between her and his teeth - for the most part. His...fangs, if she were being honest, were hidden but there, too large and sharp for earnest kissing. It was strange when compared to the kisses she’d had before…

-Granted, there wasn’t a large pool of evidence.

But (and she would have been deeply reluctant to say it out loud), because it was Mercante allowing her to connect in such a way, Anne was thrilled. Caught in a giddy moment of delighted insanity, she pushed her tongue into his mouth to swipe across his teeth.

And for the first time that she could detect, he was clearly pleased, shuddering around her before humming his approval. She murmured back -possibly his name- before daring to push farther and swipe inside again, this time past his teeth and against his flickering tongue.

He responded by pushing back, and then some, forcing her tongue back into her own mouth. He stopped petting her to support their weight about the counter. Just as his tongue was thrusting forward, Mercante lowered her body the rest of the way down while pushing harder against the back of her head. He kept himself suspended above her except for his chest and hips, which pressed teasingly against her own.

Anne moaned, though it was muffled, around the tongue filling her mouth- which was obscene, but somehow doing a lot for her right now.

As if to capitalize on this, Mercante’s tongue briefly retreated before thrusting back in. And then he did it again, pushing effortlessly back against her attempts to match him. She gave up and relaxed, the rough slide and movement making her think of-...

She wasn’t feeling particularly coherent.

Part of her was scandalized, though it was dwarfed by the whole of her that was absolutely wired to be in this situation.

It compelled her to try and please him back.

He wasn’t letting up, however. So she did the next best thing by lightly biting at him before sucking at his tongue.

Mercante rewarded her with a quiet moan and minute thrusts against her core. She could feel that he was hard, and it sent a wave of rolling heat up through her body.

But before she could grind against him in earnest, he was pulling back, one hand back at her thigh as the other spread brazenly across her breasts to keep her from following. When she relented to staying reclined, though raising herself slightly on her elbows to both keep an eye on him and her head from tipping over the far side of the counter, he smiled, mouth open and tongue peeking through.

The hand on her chest slid over to cup her right breast through her shirt, thumbing at the stiffened peak through the thin material. Anne arched into the touch, startled at how good it felt.

He groped at her a bit longer before all at once he was roughly pulling her forward and hiking her skirt up over her thighs, folding it back along her torso. Anne shouted in surprise, falling flat on her back and unable to see what he was doing, but very aware that panties were the last barrier left before her lower half was entirely exposed.

Her legs made to clench together but were stopped by Mercante’s torso. He left Anne to support her weight like that and brought both hands up to the waistband of her underwear, hooking beneath before going still.

Anne couldn’t remember shutting her eyes, but she unclenched them and looked down to meet the fabricated being’s patient stare.

She would say whatever he wanted to hear, as long as he-, “Please, please don’t stop… Mercante-...”

He stripped the garment off her with ease, and by the immediate cooling sensation she realized with stinging embarrassment that she was already wet. Since she couldn’t close her legs she threw an arm over her eyes, which is how the anticipated brush against her throbbing clit still took her by surprise.

Even though she should have expected it by now, being touched by someone else was addicting in how much better it felt than going alone. She spread her legs wider and pushed up her hips, spurring him on with scattered encouragement. Anne didn’t care, dignity be damned - what she needed now, was…

The digit stroking at her entrance pushed inside, and it felt wonderful. He fingered her deliberately, large hands firm but gentle. Anne wanted to move with him but kept herself back. He was picking up speed, the slick seeping out of her enough to ease his stretching. She pushed back against him harder, attempting to ask for more without the indignity of begging for it.

Of course, Mercante intended to embarrass her either way.

All at once he stopped, dropping to his knees and propping her legs on his shoulders, calves draped down his back. She flew up to her elbows and met his grin.

“Since you liked my tongue so much-”, was all the warning she got before he leaned in and sealed his mouth over her core, flicking his tongue across her before plunging inside and licking in an overwhelming assault of her senses.

She clenched her thighs around his head and cried out, hips jumping erratically.

Oh, god. She wasn’t going to last.

Anne surrendered to the sensation, able to do little more than accept his attention while gasping out noises of approval. This felt better than fingers; better than anything she’d ever experienced, really. The smooth pressure rippling inside her was lighting up all of her nerves, and it was so deep that it may as well have been the real thing.

That was made even more true as he began to gently thrust that tongue in and out. She managed to find one of his hands and squeezed it, shuddering as Mercante focused all of his attention on bringing her to the peak.

With Mercante’s inhumanly long tongue pressed simultaneously at her clit and core while a finger teased alongside, Anne nearly whited out as she came, totally unable to hide her audible reaction, which may have included his name...

When she came back down to her body, lying flat but securely on the counter, Mercante had stepped back and was attentively working the underwear back up her legs. Once they were returned he smoothed the various fabrics of her outfit back into place while gratuitously stroking her legs and, upon noticing her return to awareness, offered a satisfied smirk.

“Perhaps you’ll be able to focus, now.”

The flippancy irked her in a way that made her want to shove him away, but also pull him back in to smother it herself.

It’s the afterglow, she told herself as she leaned up to fist her hands in his robe. The shopkeeper made a quiet noise, stumbled forward and caught the edge of the counter, which she used as leverage to hoist herself up and against him. She gently mouthed at stiff lips until they parted, curving into a too-wide smile.

He really was aroused for her; she could feel him pressing against the layers between them - a hard, hot line. You’re not getting away this time, she thought, even as she said aloud, “We can close for the day, right?”

His eyes widened, and though he appeared at a loss for words Anne could feel him press tighter against her. She shivered in pleasure that went beyond physical; to be able to tempt him was thrilling.

It was an open invitation - the most honest she’s able to manage at this time, anyway.

But by now he can read her clearly. Mercante slowly sinks down around her, angling to murmur directly into her ear, “I suppose I can indulge you, Anne…”

His weight is somehow reassuring; she basked in the attention for a moment longer before squirming against him. “Okay, but not here.”

“Oh?” He deftly flicked open a button on her uniform, and then another, startling her with the pace. “But isn’t there something to the thrill of it? Giving into passion in such an inappropriate place~...”

“Mercante, seriously-!” Somehow a groping hand had already wandered under her dress and against bare skin. She’d suspected that he’d been holding back, but this was intense. “Take...take me to bed, not here, where someone could…”

Mercante chuckled deep in his throat, kissing at her neck in the way he’d learned she liked. “Mm, if you insist. But who would ignore-...”

At that moment there is a heavy pounding at the locked door, in sharp contrast to the high and clear voice that followed it.

“Mercante, these are normal business hours and this is a welfare check. Open this door.”

Beneath him, Anne looked absolutely stricken.

“Ah,” the shopkeeper says simply, tone tight and clipped. “I suppose she was due for a visit.”

Chapter Text

“Pardon me, Officer-”

“It’s Lieutenant now, shopkeeper - as I’ve told you before,” Krisha cut in, barely glancing beyond the delicate teacup he passed into her hands. She was alone, unlike prior drop-ins where she’d shown up with another officer in tow. Despite the change in rank she remained as eye-catching as ever, though she’d swapped her scarlet suit jacket for a darker shade of red. Her long, pale blond hair fell neatly across her shoulders.

Of course, their fraught history meant that he wouldn’t be complimenting her any time soon.

Mercante’s face briefly twisted into a grimace bordering on inhuman before he continued in a measured tone, “My mistake, Lieutenant. To what purpose do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

Krisha looked perturbed at both his stiffly polite words and expression. “I’m here for Anne, of course.”

“Of course,” Mercante echoed. As if that weren’t obvious.

And yet, at present, Anne was nowhere to be seen. She’d scarcely registered it was Krisha at the door before kicking him off and running out of the room with the buttons of her uniform still undone.

Perhaps he should have been more sympathetic - while he can control his own physical reactions with a thought, an ordinary human body is not so obedient. And Anne had looked entirely disheveled after his...ministrations.

His raised hand barely covered the grin that split his face at the thought. Krisha’s face pinched slightly at the sight of it. She cleared her throat, obviously uncomfortable with the lapse in conversation and keen to complete her visit. “Would you be so kind as to call her out here, please?”

“That won’t be necessary.” Mercante leaned back and crossed his arms. “She is fetching something from the back and will return momentarily. I suppose you’ll have to wait here with me.”

Krisha also settled back on the couch, subtly making it clear that she would not be deterred by waiting. “Alright, then.”

The tea had been a decent excuse for something to do since Anne had clearly needed time to gather herself. But he was growing impatient now that the stern woman was staring over her mug at him from across the coffee table.

Both found the idea of small talk with the other repugnant. Even worse, the woman could yet bring up questions about old missing persons cases that he was in no mood to answer - let alone discuss a certain serial killer.

As Krisha’s eyes at last began to wander around the store, Mercante activated the dust of his unnatural powers that he always kept stuck to his partner’s body. The mental link between them connected easily, “Anne. Just what is taking you so long…?

Are you freaking kidding me, Mercante?!” Anne shouted down the line, Krisha’s fierce eyes flicking back to his face as he winced. “If you wanted me to go out in public, let alone be seen by an overly nosy detective, then maybe you should have thought twice before marking up my neck!

He barely contained the smirk that almost came over his carefully neutral expression again; while it scarcely mattered what Krisha thought of him now, it was better to avoid having her catch on to the full extent of his abilities. “Oh, dear. My apologies.

Liar!” Anne seethed, rubbing uselessly at the red patterns before hissing, “You’re not sorry at all - you broke skin, Mercante!

So it would be a while longer - though he chose not to relay that information.

Cover it up then.

He resigned to breaking the silence before the other took initiative. Since she already knew the truth of what he was, Mercante leaned in and transfixed her with chilling scarlet eyes to press, “I believe these ‘welfare checks’ of yours were to end when Anne came of age, no? Just how long do you intend to monitor her life?”

Krisha matched his eye contact as she set down the half empty cup. Despite his theatrics she kept an aura of calm, though it was obvious to his keen eyes that she still found him deeply unsettling. Her pride wouldn’t let her dodge a fair question. “Officially yes, that may be so. But I see no reason why I can’t continue to personally confirm that her welfare is being taken seriously.”

Anne is surprised at the question - less so by the answer, though it comes across as a feeling rather than words. He’d opened their mental connection partially as a means of coordination. Krisha had yet to come around to approving of their arrangement so they needed to be on the same page.

At the moment, however, it is also for the purpose of annoying his partner over her increasingly long absence. “Is that not overstepping your duties?”

Talk about overstepping - I didn’t expect you to get involved in this. Don’t say too much or it’ll take ages to get her to leave.

Is that so? I’d rather not have this conversation in your place, but seeing as you aren’t here...

Krisha sighed in annoyance. “Obviously this goes beyond duty. Things may have quieted down around here but I still worry about her.” She picked up the tea again, staring into it a moment before continuing, “Earlier today I visited the dormitory where Anne is staying. While I knew there was a chance she wouldn’t be there, given that she now finds herself with so many new social opportunities-,” Krisha paused for emphasis, expression clearly showing her derision, “-I was surprised to hear from the other girls that Anne has been spending her weekends somewhere else. An antique store, they said, though none of them could tell me the name.”

“And? You’re here because you disapprove of her choice?”

“I still have some doubts about Anne’s judgment here, to be honest. Given your record-...”

“Oh?” Mercante rudely interjected, leaning forward and folding his hands near his chin. “I wonder how Anne would feel about such patronizing sentiment. With Mr. Benjamin’s support, Anne is in control of her own life independent of me - as was agreed. I did not coerce her to return here nor do I prevent her from attending to her own affairs, including school. I see no reason for this intrusion on my business.”

“Given your record,” Krisha continued with irritation, “of encountering dangerous situations as well as vanishing without a trace, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned.”

She’s being quite stubborn - I doubt she will accept being sent away. Perhaps you could oblige her-...

Just...give me a moment, okay?

How close can I come to implying that we’re involved before she catches on, do you think...?

You wouldn’t dare…

Hurry up.

“Oh, don’t be dramatic - you’ll never let that go, will you? It can hardly be called ‘vanishing’ if you were given notice before we left. So, we didn’t have a set itinerary - I brought her back before the terms were broken, right?”

Krisha’s frown deepened, but before she could retort he swept on, waving a hand and smirking, “Regardless, she does spend most of her time in school these days - as was also agreed. You can’t expect to dictate how she spends her weekends. Perhaps next time when you wish to see her you could call ahead, or consider writing a letter…?”

Uh...could you maybe tone it down?

“Please spare me the suggestions, shopkeeper,” Krisha snapped, before closing her icy eyes and visibly gathering herself. When she continued it was through a thin veneer of forced calm. “Today is Saturday, and now I’m aware that’s when she spends time…’helping’ you with this business. Surely you can spare her for a single conversation.”

Professional air slipping further, Krisha gestured around the dusty shop with clear disdain. “I can’t pretend to understand why she comes back here. Surely there are better uses of her time.”

“Hmm,” was his muted response. Mercante sat back with his hand at his mouth, expression reigned back to a slight, unreadable smile. He eased back on sharing thoughts with Anne; given that the conversation had taken such a personal turn it was better not to risk revealing too much in either direction.

While he doesn’t want to give Krisha the satisfaction of agreeing, it was strange that Anne continued to stay - both at the shop and in his ‘life’, as much as it could be called that.

Perhaps that discrepancy was why he was compelled to satisfy her...

Are you ready to take over here?

I’ve fixed my hair and clothes, but I can’t hide this mark from her, Mercante. It’s too hot for a scarf and a bandage will make her too suspicious. Besides, why do I have to solve this when you were the one that did it?

It seems I was caught up in the moment...as were you, as I recall,” he returned smugly as Anne radiated annoyance. “However, you do have a point. I’ll erase the marks but in exchange I want you to come and get rid of her.

“While I’m not convinced that you must meet with her here-...” He stood up and let the statement hang for a moment before continuing, “-I will go check on what is keeping her back. Excuse me, Lieutenant Krisha.” Mercante nodded at the mollified woman, clearing away her empty cup as he went.

Anne was silent; he could sense hesitation through their connection. “What? What is it now?

Maybe...next time, you can put it farther down. Since this dress has a high collar.

Mercante faltered on the last stair. Oh- he was definitely in trouble.

What was that?” Anne asked immediately, “That feeling just now? Was that-...

But then he was already upon her, “I believe I should be asking you that. Just what are you saying, Anne…?”

Mercante looked to the offending mark on her neck, taking it in before cupping his hand against her throat. Anne wasn’t sure she had an answer for him, so she kept silent and watched his face. A warmth that came from more than simple contact passed through his hand.

He stroked at her skin with his thumb as the sensation faded, sliding his eyes to hers for one paralyzing moment.

When he slowly pulled away again the blemish was gone.

Anne sighed to break the tension, “Okay, fine. I’ll go see what she wants.” She walked past him to pause at the doorway, “But, Mercante, you…”

“...me?” He pressed, cocking his head and smiling in a way that was probably intended to be alluring, but would have been off putting to anyone else.

Anyone else but the former, clearly crazy street urchin.

“Don’t you dare think I’m just going to forget about earlier.”

“...Very well,” Mercante’s smile shifted to something softer. “Hurry back.”