The House, Walking Onward
"It will be all right."
It's not the first time he's said the words. It's not the first time they've echoed back to him.
It's not the first time Asmodeus hasn't responded to them.
If Asmodeus weren't Fallen—if Thuan couldn't see the light shining up between the coils of Thuan's body—
Asmodeus is Fallen, though. Asmodeus has enough magic to heal even this damage, to walk away from this action that was at once the ultimate betrayal and the ultimate proof of trust.
There is a small, bitter part of Thuan that doesn't want to say anything more. That doesn't want to deal with the fact that they are still here, in the dark, the only light now coming from Asmodeus' flickering magic. Shouldn't a space created by the House—by the magic of the House—fall with the House's death? Shouldn't they have been returned to the surface, to their comrades—does Thuan dare to think the word friends about any of the people there?
To the people they have saved. The people Thuan saved, by sinking his teeth into this place that he swore allegiance and protection to and finishing the job that a dragon-traitor started.
The people Asmodeus saved, and even if Asmodeus didn't have the power or strength to cast the killing blow—can't manipulate the khi currents as Thuan can—Asmodeus cast his magic against the thorn-children that have shadowed him for decades.
Asmodeus did what needed to be done, without hesitation. There had been no equivocation between them, no hedging and hemming and trying to find a way between. If the House needed blood—needed the blood of the people in their protection—then the House had to die.
They're both exhausted. They're both weak, their reserves of stamina and magic drained dry by the events of the last few days. They both have gaping holes at the center of their minds and souls where there should be active presences.
They both have a House that needs them still, a group of people worth more than this beautiful, ice-shrouded pile of dead wards and poisoned thorns ever could have been.
Thuan has just mustered up the courage to stand—to fly, though every muscle in his body protests the thought—when Asmodeus' hands move. The gesture is so unexpected that Thuan freezes, not sure if he had actually started to shift or not.
Asmodeus' hands find the whiskers on either side of Thuan's jaw and tug with determined, sure purpose until Thuan's face is in front of Asmodeus'. If Asmodeus dislikes what he sees—has any issues with the clearly inhuman visage—it doesn't show in any flicker of mouth or eye. After long moments of staring at Thuan's face, looking from one eye to the other, Asmodeus uses his grip on Thuan's muzzle to haul himself to shaky feet.
It's strange seeing Asmodeus totter. Even after all that's happened, after seeing Asmodeus laid low multiple times, there is a part of Thuan that always expects the Fallen to be in control. To be an impossible, immovable object around which Thuan has to carefully thread himself.
"I don't say this often. Not in sincerity, at least." Asmodeus leans forward, his lips pressing to the top of Thuan's muzzle in a kiss that is firm and solid and smells of bergamot and oranges despite the crisp scent of frost and dying plant matter permeating the air. "But thank you. For doing what I needed to do and could not."
Something roils in Asmodeus' eyes—self-censure, perhaps? Or perhaps just the overwhelming sorrow that is as much a part of the Fallen as their arrogance—the sorrow of a people cast out of their home, even the memory of it ripped from them for crimes they cannot even recall in order to judge the fitness of their punishment.
Thuan shakes himself. It is easy, sometimes, in the shining light of the Fallen, to want to forgive them for what they are.
It helps that he knows Asmodeus would want no forgiveness for what he unequivocally embraces.
Turning away from the ruined heart of the dead House, leaning heavily on Thuan, Asmodeus studies the route back to their dependents. "Are you capable of flying and carrying me?"
"If I can't, what is your intention?" Thuan begins to move when Asmodeus does, threading a slow, stately path through the stillness and devastation they have brought to a close.
"A much slower journey, but the destination will be the same." Asmodeus' hand is solid and warm against Thuan's head. "There are matters that will need our attention."
"Yes." Thuan ripples the coils of his body, striving to judge the true state of himself. Everything hurts, true, but he is a dragon. He heals quickly. The worst wound—the emptiness, the silenced scream that he created—will not slow him down physically. "Walk to the edge of the water. I should be able to carry you from there."
"If you can't, we'll both look terribly ignoble arriving dripping wet." Asmodeus' lip rises in something like his usual sneer. "Phyranthe will never let you live it down."
Thuan's gait, which he had managed to school to a semblance of grace, falters at the mention of Phyranthe.
Asmodeus gives his head a tired, amused shake. "You're too easy to rattle, husband mine."
Thuan wasn't the one contemplating suicide a day that seems a lifetime ago, but he decides it's not worth saying. Not when Asmodeus is so clearly, painfully putting his public facade back together, preparing to be what their dependents need.
Preparing to face Phyranthe and Iaris.
Ai Nhi and Vinh Ly and the rest.
Everyone who depends on them, who trusted them with their lives, and in the end Thuan knows that he acted in the right when he sank his teeth into the living heart of thorns that was their House.
Perhaps one day that will make the scream he still hears in his head stop echoing, but right now, as he lifts Asmodeus into the air and flies them both towards the distant, impossible light of ash-clogged Paris, it is all he hears.
They emerge from the hole in the ground into... nothing.
Thuan doesn't know why he had expected everyone to be waiting. Other than Berith, no one even knew where he was going, or what kind of trouble Asmodeus might be in. It's better, smarter, for their dependents to stay away from giant dark holes in the ground.
Their seclusion gives him time to shift from dragon to human shape, something that shouldn't be so difficult and painful. Why does every bit of magic seem to rub against the hole in Thuan's heart and mind, the place where small alien creatures that weren't children once chattered to each other as well as to him?
Asmodeus takes one step, two steps away from the hole and then pauses. His nostrils flare, drawing in the tainted, smoke-laden air as though it were something precious. His head cocks, and Thuan pauses, too, straining eye and ear to try to tell what has caught Asmodeus' attention.
Someone is sobbing in the gardens. Not far away—perhaps a hundred, two hundred meters.
Asmodeus is moving before Thuan has finished processing what it means. Someone is sobbing in the garden, and it is most likely one of their dependents. One of their dependents in danger, and he feels a lurch in his chest at the realization that dependents can die now without him feeling it. Instead of being an assurance that everything is fine, the dark blankness in his mind is emptiness, a false security designed to let grief blind-side him.
Grief always does that, though. Even when someone thinks they are prepared—even when a death has been coming, a slow decay as poison leeches daily into the water—there is nothing that can truly prepare you for the moment someone stops seeing. The moment a chest stops moving, a breath stops rattling.
Thuan doesn't attempt to shift forms again. It would be beyond his ability, and while he is more dangerous in dragon form, he is also more frightening.
Their dependents are almost certainly already terrified out of their minds.
As terrible as the loss of the House is for him and Asmodeus, it was a conscious decision on their part. They saw the danger, knew the alternative, and chose. For everyone else... for those they chose for... to suddenly be alone, in the dark...
Perhaps it means that the person sobbing is merely frightened and not in danger.
It was a small hope, and it evaporates as Thuan follows Asmodeus' trail around a mound of shattered pieces of wood that was likely once a tree and catches sight of two people wrestling on the ground. One has a knife; one is bleeding. One is on the ground; one is straddling her.
Both freeze when they notice Asmodeus.
Asmodeus doesn't run. Thuan doubts that Asmodeus could run if he wanted to. Instead Asmodeus stalks forward, and if he isn't quite as graceful and predatory as usual, there is a roiling fury in his eyes and flickering in the magic that shines from his skin that more than makes up for it.
"My lord..." The woman who was doing the attacking breathes out the words, her eyes wide.
The woman who had been attacked uses the moment of weakness to kick herself free. She keeps one hand pressed to the bleeding wound on her shoulder.
"Nina..." Asmodeus practically purrs out the name as he comes to a halt just an arm's reach away from the woman. "What have you done?"
"I thought—the link went dark, and I thought—" Nina's face slowly loses all color.
"She thought she could take what she wanted." The woman Nina had attacked spits out the words, skittering around so that Asmodeus is between her and her attacker. "Iaris gave me an artifact, had me looking for other dependents to bring to the warded area. She wanted it. She—"
"I wanted to live!" Nina's eyes are wild and desperate. "You were gone, my lord, and I wanted to live, I wanted to—"
Asmodeus' strike is snake-fast. Nina flails with the knife in her hand, but too little, too late. Her thrust misses, and Asmodeus has one hand wrapped around her neck, one around the wrist that holds the knife.
The woman cries out, and Thuan swears he can hear small bones breaking in the stillness of the ruined garden. The knife falls from fingers that bend unnaturally compared to the rest of her arm.
"The House is gone, but Hawthorn is still mine. All those in Hawthorn are still mine. You will not—" Asmodeus' voice is all shivering fury, his grey-green eyes impossibly large and luminous without glasses to hide them.
"My love." Thuan reaches out to lay a hand on Asmodeus' shoulder, feeling the trembling muscles there. "Let's not act hastily."
Asmodeus draws one breath, two, and Thuan feels the trembling slowly fade away. "Yes. You're right. We mustn't act hastily." There's a grim finality to his words that makes Thuan wonder if perhaps it would have been better to let Asmodeus vent some of his fury on this woman who turned on her kin as soon as troubles appeared.
Well... not quite as soon as troubles appeared. Nina is mortal, somewhere in her thirties if Thuan had to guess, and since she is still here she stayed through the explosion of Harrier, the explosion of Hawthorn's own manor, the slow search for the survivors and the dead alike.
But when she thought Asmodeus was gone, when the monster that was supposed to keep her safe seemed to have fallen, she turned upon those she should have stood fast with.
How many others will do that? How many will be planning to leave... and how much extra blood will they shed as they attempt to give themselves whatever advantages they think they can wrest?
The Fallen, whose blood and breath and bones are worth so much on the street—
The dragons, who Thuan brought here but who are still not accepted here—
Thuan is moving before Asmodeus does, heading towards the section of the house where the dragons and Fallen were to set their wards and attempt to save those they could. He hopes that when they arrive he will find a bulwark, a bastion of protection in this sea of churning chaos.
He fears he will find a bloodbath, and his heart is pounding hard in his chest when he turns down one cleared corridor and then another and another in order to find—
"Unka Thuan!" Ai Nhi launches herself over the wards that have been sketched out, a combination of dragon and Fallen magic that would not have held for long against the House but which tells him that at least some of their commands were followed.
Small arms wrap around him, hold him tight for a moment, and then Ai Nhi is moving onward. Her form is mostly human, though there is a flicker of scales at her cheeks, a ghost of antlers above her head that gives away her true nature. "Unka Asmo!"
A large part of Thuan wants to sink into the floorboards, disappear back into the dark from whence they just wrested themselves. Of all the times and places for Ai Nhi to decide to forget all rules of formality—
Asmodeus somehow slips past the child's grasping hands, maneuvering himself and his prisoner through the wards and into the protected space. "Come back, child. There's business to be attended to, and this area is safe."
"I know." Ai Nhi follows in Asmodeus' trail, and the woman they saved follows behind her, her eyes fixed on the dragon-child as though uncertain whether to be terrified, disturbed, or enthralled. "I watched them set the wards. There was lots of yelling and arguing. That's what they're still doing, I'm pretty sure. And—"
And they are no longer alone. The swell of people seems to come from every doorway, filling the space around them. At the front are Phyranthe and Iaris, Vinh Ly and two other dragons. The way they stand makes it clear that though there is no shouting now, Ai Nhi wasn't wrong in her quick assessment of what was happening.
And yet... the wards were crafted. The children, the injured, from the looks of the assembled all those who were capable of walking... all were gathered together under the protections that Thuan had specified.
It isn't perfect. There is a long way to go before there will be harmony. But they have survived, and if he and Asmodeus can convince them to continue to stand together...
Thuan turns from their dependents back to his husband, his stomach clenching as he sees the terrified, resigned face of the woman that Asmodeus still holds.
"You've done well." The words of praise, as precious as gold coming from Asmodeus' lips, fall into a stunned, eager silence. "You kept yourselves safe while Thuan and I dealt with our problems. I appreciate the initiative and ingenuity I see on display here."
With a subtle shift of his hands, Asmodeus drives Nina to her knees in front of him. Her eyes are wide, her breathing fast and harsh. "There have been some changes, as I'm sure you've all noted. The House as we have known it is no more. The price it would have required to keep it going... it's the type of price only Morningstar would have considered paying. But Hawthorn—Hawthorn still stands. Hawthorn is still mine."
"And mine." Thuan moves to stand next to his husband, though every muscle in his body aches to lie down, to turn away, to let this moment be Asmodeus'. Asmodeus is the ruthless one, the vicious one, the one who will do what needs to be done.
But Hawthorn is not just Asmodeus', and that is something that everyone here needs to understand.
Asmodeus inclines his head. "Mine and my husband's. Any who stand against Hawthorn or the people of Hawthorn stand against us, and that is not a wise place to be. Is that understood?"
There is a low rumbling murmur of agreement, and a buzzing crackle of anticipation in the air as everyone looks between Asmodeus and the woman he is holding in front of him.
"My lord..." It's Phyranthe who steps forward, the woman clearly understanding what is happening—perhaps understanding Asmodeus in a way that Thuan never will, the two of them tied together by a fondness for blood and violence and control. "Has a crime against Hawthorn been committed?"
Asmodeus kneels behind Nina, his mouth close to her ear. His words are for those arrayed in front of them, though. "Tell our people what happened."
"I t-tried—" Nina's breath catches in her throat, a sob of fear or fury, it's hard to tell. "When the links all went dead, I thought that Hawthorn was finished. I thought—some of you must have, too! Some of you must have—"
Asmodeus' eyes scan the crowd, and it shouldn't be more frightening to see him without the glasses that he's never needed, but somehow it is. Somehow his naked gaze seems more able to pierce the hearts of those he studies. "Is that true, then? Did you doubt me? Doubt us? Did you think I would let the darkness have you?"
Iaris steps forward, and Thuan is impressed with her strength of will and calm demeanor. She and Thuan may never like each other, but he understands why Asmodeus places such trust in her. "Many of us were afraid, my lord. In a world where even Morningstar can die, where the very ground turns to fire without warning—we were afraid. But fear is no justification for turning on our own."
"She attacked me." The woman with the bleeding shoulder—Thuan should know her name, should know her, a sparkling candle in his mind, but right now there is only empty darkness—steps up beside Iaris. A pretty necklace that sparkles with captured Fallen magic dangles from her fingers. "For this she would have killed me, without hesitation."
Asmodeus' voice is soft and silky and yet somehow fills all of the available space. "Do you deny this?"
Thuan can see Nina consider lying... and the moment the fight goes out of her, her shoulders sagging. "I do not."
Ai Nhi has come to stand beside Thuan, her hand settling into his. Thuan pulls her close to his side, wondering if he should try to send her away—try to shove her to the back of the crowd, where she will not see what is to come.
Asmodeus stands, a smooth cat-motion that has just the slightest hesitation to it. "Hawthorn stands united. Because Thuan and I acted decisively, we are going to come out of this stronger than many of the other Houses. We will forge new wards. We will build new bonds. We will not turn on each other."
Thuan was watching for it, but he still doesn't see the knife appear. One moment Asmodeus' free hand is empty; the next a silver dagger is there, is flashing across Nina's throat, is releasing a torrent of blood that somehow misses Asmodeus' torn and water-logged suit and spreads out along the corridor.
It was a swift death, the cut sure and true. Nina kicks only once before she goes still, her glassy eyes staring at nothing.
Ai Nhi studies the dead woman, her mouth open slightly. Thuan strokes her hair. Should he have turned her away? Should he have tried to hide this from her?
This was justice—harsh and swift, but not cruel, as Asmodeus can sometimes be cruel. This was the type of thing she could have seen in the dragon kingdom as easily as here, and even if Thuan wanted to protect her from it, he cannot.
Asmodeus steps over Nina's body. "Iaris, I want a report on the state of the wounded. Nicaise, I want you organizing search parties. I want anyone not here found and made aware of how the situation has changed. Madeleine, the remaining artifacts—"
Thuan wants to sit down where he's standing. He wants to sleep for a week. He wants this day to be over.
He needs to move to Asmodeus' side. If this is truly to be their house, they have to stand together through this mess.
He is so tired, and Ai Nhi is so warm, and—
Vinh Ly is by his side, disentangling his fingers from Ai Nhi's hair. "I have the child, my prince. Go do what must be done."
Thuan is so very tired of doing what must be done.
But if any of what has gone before is to mean anything, then he can't stop now.
He flows through the energized mass of people, all of them seeming so much more at ease now that Asmodeus is back and giving orders. He moves to his husband's side, and he forces himself to focus on what is being said and to whom. He ensures his dragons are included in the tasks that are given. He checks the wards that have been woven, though his is not an expert touch with khi magic.
He does his duty, as Asmodeus does his, and together they maintain their house even in the gaping absence of the House.
Thuan doesn't know how much time passes between when they start working and when Iaris is at his elbow.
He frowns at the woman. What could she possibly want with him? Surely he hasn't managed to do anything to anger her while—
"There's a room down the hall. Small, not sound-proofed, but private." Iaris' voice is almost too low for him to hear, and is certainly too low to carry. "Get him there before he passes out and causes a riot." Her eyes scan up and down Thuan's own body. "And if I see you again before eight hours have passed, unless the House—house—" It shouldn't be possible, but Thuan swears he can hear the loss of the capitalization—the loss of the personalization—in Iaris' stumbling on the word. "If I see you, I'm going to be very mad. Unless something has literally exploded again."
"It shouldn't." Thuan feels for the khi currents, finding them all quiet and dormant, none of the roiling, pent-up energy or fiery death that they had once carried present now.
Iaris just glares up at him.
"And I'm going." Thuan doesn't sigh, though he wants to. Should he have fought with Iaris? Should he have protested that he isn't a child to be sent to bed? Will this make it even harder for her to accept him as Asmodeus' equal?
He and Asmodeus do need to go to bed, though. Thuan isn't sure exactly how he's still standing, and he knows that Asmodeus is only standing because he's been leaning against things for the last hour—the wall, beds, doorjambs, whatever was at hand and hadn't been too weakened by the debacles of the last few days so as to be unstable.
When Thuan appears at Asmodeus' side, the Fallen is staring blankly into the packed room that contains the children and those adults who could be spared to act as their caregivers. The energy in the room is strange, the tension of the older children and the adults offset by the energy of the youngest.
How many of the youngest have lost family? How many understand that yet? How many nightmares will there be tonight, in this room where tiny feet patter in a game of chase despite the crowded conditions and the devastation around them?
"Asmodeus." Thuan touches his husband's shoulder.
It takes perhaps two or three seconds for Asmodeus to turn to him. When he does, his grey-green eyes seem dim and unfocused. "Can I help you?"
"Come with me." Thuan slips his arm through Asmodeus', giving his husband a support to lean against without being too obvious about it. "Please."
It's the please that convinces Asmodeus, he thinks. The simple bit of politeness turns this from an act of mercy, an admission of weakness, to something they are doing... what? For fun? For romance? A leisurely stroll isn't exactly the type of fun or romance either of them is known for, but at least it gives a veneer to the interaction that should keep anyone else from panicking.
This is to be their life now, Thuan realizes, his footsteps feeling too light, his body disconnected from the ground. They will stitch the tattered remnants of the House together into something new, and they will be watched every moment of the process. Their weaknesses will become weaknesses of this new creature they are trying to forge. When they fail, who will be there to rend small wounds into larger ones? Who will—
A door shuts behind them. Thuan doesn't remember leading Asmodeus to this room, though he must have, right? It's clearly the right one, a small chamber holding a single bed on which they might, perhaps, both fit themselves.
Lying on the bed are clean clothes for the both of them.
Sitting atop Asmodeus' new suit is an unbroken pair of glasses.
Asmodeus stalks forward. Except with the door closed, with no one watching but Thuan, it is more of a stagger than a stalk.
When did that change? When did Asmodeus start willingly showing weakness in front of him? Is it just that he realizes trying to hide the gaping hole in his mind and soul from someone who shares it would be impossible?
Asmodeus fingers the glasses, his hands running over the rims, not quite touching the glass. How had someone found these? How many of the damned things does Asmodeus have, stashed around the house like secret treasures?
Turning away from the glasses, not putting them on his face, Asmodeus studies Thuan for long, tense seconds.
Then Asmodeus is moving, closing the too-short distance between them. His hands have closed on Thuan's arms, are spinning him around, his weight pressing Thuan back.
Thuan strikes the mattress with a thwump that sounds too much like other explosions he has heard over the last few days. He stiffens under Asmodeus' touch.
Asmodeus straddles him, Asmodeus still with his feet on the ground, Thuan... not helpless, but certainly in the less advantageous position beneath him. "My dragon prince... you are quite the conundrum."
"Conundrum?" Thuan's voice is a husky whisper, and he wishes he knew whether he were too tired to want this to continue or not.
"You wish to temper me. You pit yourself as my opposite and my complement at the same time." Asmodeus' hand buries itself in Thuan's hair, destroying any semblance of formality that had managed to remain through all the rest of this mess. "And you are in many ways. And yet..."
Thuan reaches up, grabbing the torn and thorn-tattered edges of Asmodeus' suit and pulling him close. "And yet?"
"I could never love someone who was truly my opposite. Someone who was weak. Or who allowed their kindness to be a weakness." Asmodeus looks into his eyes, expression grave and somber.
Their lips meet, part, tongues exploring each other in a familiar way. Asmodeus' grip shifts, firms.
If this were another time, there could be so much more. If this were another day, and they were in their own bed, before it had been destroyed... if Thuan didn't feel as though he would break apart into a thousand pieces if Asmodeus squeezed too hard or, heaven forbid, brought out a glittering silver blade...
They are as good a complement in bed as they are out of it—frequently fantastic, sometimes explosive, often full of friction.
Right now, though, they are both exhausted. After perhaps a minute of kissing, of petting and caressing, it becomes clear that neither of them has the stamina or true drive for more. Asmodeus shifts their clean clothes off the bed, shoves Thuan over, and collapses next to him. The glow of his Fallen magic is thin, a pale imitation of his usual glory, and his eyes are ringed by dark circles as he continues to study Thuan as though he were a puzzle.
"Just for the record." Thuan trails his fingers down Asmodeus' face. "I could never love someone who hadn't decisively answered as you did when the children proposed their solution."
"They're mine." Asmodeus closes his eyes, and for just a moment his pain is writ large across his face, the gaping hole in the center of Thuan mirrored back to him. "If I could have done what they wanted—if I could have sacrificed a third of them to save the House... if I could do that, I wouldn't want anyone to be able to love me."
Thuan continues to stroke Asmodeus' face, wondering if Asmodeus wants to be loved, period. What happened before Thuan met this man—this Fallen? From the time he and Berith tumbled out of Heaven and into this mortal world, what happened to shape him into this creature? Was he always someone who could enjoy pain, or did he learn that? Did that predatory stalk come naturally to him, or was it something that he taught himself, a way he learned to protect himself and what is his?
So many questions. So many things he is certain Asmodeus wouldn't want to answer, either because the answer is too mundane or because it cuts too close to his well-guarded heart.
He will have time, Thuan reminds himself. Though it feels too short, these days, surely the worst is over now. Surely with the new alliances they are building, with the support of Silverspires, with the good will of the houseless that Emmanuelle has convinced them to court—
Surely after all they have sacrificed, they will have time.
Asmodeus' lips brush against his forehead. "Sleep well, dragon-mine. Hawthorn will still be here in the morning."
Thuan doesn't remember closing his eyes, but he must have, because the words penetrate down through darkness and into the heart of him.
They aren't enough to fill the hole that he and Asmodeus tore in the center of their world, but perhaps, given time, it will prove to be a fair start.