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The House of Desolate Dreams

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The House of Desolate Dreams

 

“You cannot do this.”

“I already have, and I really don't see why you're making such a big deal out of it.” Asmodeus stands at ease in the hallway outside the cell door, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He's gazing at Thuan as though Thuan is the one being unreasonable.

“You cannot lock a visiting dignitary in the dungeons unless they inform you what the purpose of the relic they came to retrieve is!”

“I haven't locked them in the dungeon—you're perfectly aware of where Hawthorn's cells are. I've just... given them some time alone to reconsider their position on what information they'd like to share.”

Thuan just stares at Asmodeus. “You are not this stupid. You've used your magic to make it so that they can't leave the room. What else do you call it other than locking them up?”

“Semantics are very important in politics.” Asmodeus steps forward, placing one finger on Thuan's chest. He's smiling, his eyes cat-gleaming behind his unnecessary glasses. “I haven't locked him in the dungeons, I haven't hurt him, I haven't done anything but mildly inconvenience him. We had this discussion before, about my treatment of Emmannuelle.”

“You're skirting lines.” Thuan frowns fiercely down at his husband's finger. “You're pushing boundaries that don't need to be pushed. This is the first known foray out of Nihon in quite some time, by an emissary of an unknown power, and you're antagonizing them.”

“They antagonized me first.” Asmodeus' hand drops, his smile vanishing. “They demand I return something that Hawthorn rightfully purchased, something I know holds magic though not what it does, and they won't even give me information on its purpose? And you expect me to just go along with it, to just hand over something potentially dangerous?”

“Asmodeus.” Thuan can feel his own temper fraying. He knows that Asmodeus doesn't understand this—that he will never grasp how demeaning it is to be asked to prove ownership and rightful inheritance of items and land and concepts that should never have been wrenched away in the first place. “They're asking you for something that's been sitting useless on a shelf for sixty years. Something Hawthorn never should have been able to purchase. What harm does it do to give it back?”

“I don't know, and that's what I'm going to find out before I turn it over.” Asmodeus turns away from Thuan, back towards the door to the improvised cell. “Now, if you'll excuse me—”

“No.” Thuan places a hand on Asmodeus' shoulder. His fingers dig in harder than he intended them to, but perhaps it's good for Asmodeus to see how much Thuan means this negation. “I am going to talk to them, like one reasonable person to another. You are going to stay out here and keep from causing more trouble.”

Asmodeus' lip lifts in a sneer. “Careful what you demand, my dragon prince. I don't answer to your orders.”

“And I don't answer to yours.” Thuan steps forward, putting his body between Asmodeus and the door. “I mean it. I am going to handle this.”

“You're going to try.” Asmodeus sighs. “And you're going to fail, and I will have lost nothing letting you attempt to be kind to people who are just as likely to be serpents as dogs. Fine. See if you can negotiate the information.”

“That's not what I said I was going to do.” Thuan feels like the thread of the conversation has slipped through his fingers.

“Isn't it? You said you were going to handle it. And I am not turning over something if it's potentially dangerous to our House, not without reassurance that it will not be used against us.” Asmodeus' smirk returns. “Good luck, husband. I'll be seeing to the rest of the House while you manage this.”

And with that Asmodeus turns and leaves.

Thuan lifts his gaze to the ceiling. “He is insufferable and arrogant and impossible and I hate him.”

The ceiling doesn't answer.

Thuan turns to the door. He straightens his clothes, glad that he wore his Viet finery today. He had donned it originally to show that not everyone in Hawthorn was of Parisian descent—that not everyone in Hawthorn would be unsympathetic to the emissary's purpose. Now he hopes it will show Tatsumo that Thuan is not like Asmodeus in other ways, as well.

Asmodeus' power washes over Thuan as he opens the door and steps through. It's a familiar warmth, one that would usually be welcome, but now it fills Thuan with a combination of fury and shame.

The Nihon emissary is sitting at the small table in the room, staring down broodily into the teacup in front of them. They don't look up as Thuan approaches.

Thuan hesitates, then pulls out the other chair and settles into it. “Hello.”

“Hello.” Tatsumo raises their gaze to meet Thuan's. They look young, though that can be deceiving with many of the magical races. “Are you supposed to convince me now that your husband has frightened me?”

“I am supposed to apologize for my husband.” Thuan hesitates, then stands again. He bows low, not knowing if the meaning will be the same in Nihon as it is in his homeland but hoping some part of the message conveys. “You should not be held here.”

Tatsumo studies him, head tilting, hope flaring in their eyes. “Does that mean I'm going to be able to leave?”

Thuan draws a sharp breath, wincing. “I... would very much like that. But the other Head of Hawthorn is worried that there is danger in the item you seek, and doesn't wish to let you go until he knows the exact nature of said item.”

“For you, nothing.” Tatsumo lifts their hands, palms up to the ceiling. “You are not baku. You cannot utilize it. I am sure you have tried, over the years.”

Thuan nods, still a bit unnerved by whatever translation spell Tatsumo is using to communicate. The syllables their mouth is shaping have little in common with the Viet that Thuan hears or the French that Asmodeus hears. “Many things have been tried.”

“Then why keep it from me and my people?” Tatsumo's voice cracks, and perhaps they are as young as they look, to still be so surprised that those in power might be cruel for cruelty's sake. “It was taken without our consent, and we thought it lost for many decades. To find it and have it withheld from us because... because...”

“Because of fear.” Thuan supplies the word quietly. “Because of arrogance. I am truly sorry. I intend to work on my husband. But in the meantime, I wished to know that you are safe.”

“I'm safe. Just irritated.” Tatsumo shoves the teacup away. “And this is the worst tea I've ever had in my life.”

Thuan sniffs delicately. “It's... a very French blend. I can have some other options sent up, as well as food...?”

Tatsumo just stares sulkily at him. “I doubt you have the type of food I eat.”

“You never know until you ask.” Thuan smiles encouragingly.

“I don't think I will, thank you. You already know too much and care too little.” Tatsumo crosses their arms in front of their chest.

Thuan resists the urge to grind his teeth. Instead he allows his human form to slip, scales adorning his cheeks, antlers rising proudly from his forehead. “You would be surprised at what we know. And at how much even Asmodeus cares. Some of this is posturing, yes, but some of it... he truly does want to keep his House safe, no matter what.”

“He doesn't need to hurt my people to keep his own safe.” Tatsumo's frown only deepens. “I have shown no aggression. I offered coin for the Key. I don't know what else is desired.”

“You've done more than most would have, and been rewarded poorly for it.” Thuan wonders briefly how much Tatsumo offered for the relic, and if telling Asmodeus a higher number would help persuade him. Not that Tatsumo should have to pay at all to take back what was stolen, but if it keeps there from being bloodshed...

That's dangerous thinking, he knows. Trying to appease unreasonable people for their hurt feelings at having past crimes pointed out helps no one. He's just become too used to thinking of Asmodeus as reasonable. Vicious, but reasonable; dangerous, but leashed.

“Why are you here?” Tatsumo's question is soft. “Were you stolen, as well?”

Thuan startles, surprised at both the question and the implications. “No. I... it was an arranged engagement, between Asmodeus and my people in the dragon kingdom beneath the Seine. There were attempts at betrayal on both sides at first, but Asmodeus... he and I have come to an understanding.”

Tatsumo's sympathy vanishes. “An understanding where you help him continue to steal from others like yourself?”

“We are alike in that we're not human, but if that's the bar you're setting, then Asmodeus is like us, too.” Thuan speaks slowly, trying to thread the needle of not forgiving Asmodeus but also not turning Asmodeus into a slavering monster. He's seen enough of those over the years. Asmodeus would never slaver, and he really does seem to be trying to be less of a monster so long as Thuan keeps it safe enough for him to do so. “My kingdom... we didn't prosper here as we hoped, but we also were never conquered.”

“We weren't, either. The kami have kept our shores clear, and we've had nothing of enough value to warrant the attention of people like your Asmodeus.” Tatsumo sighs. “If my grandmother hadn't gone off with the key... but she did, and she was taken as an attraction, sold to a Fallen and the treasure lost to us.”

“Why did your grandmother leave with a treasure that was precious to your people?”

Tatsumo hesitates, their eyes raking up and down Thuan's form. “How familiar are your people with the Darkness That Bleeds?”

Thuan narrows his eyes, studying their diplomatic envoy. “The name isn't familiar to me, though I would have to ask others who are more focused on lore to see if they know anything similar.” For a moment Thuan misses the libraries he used to haunt, the shelves upon shelves of knowledge that he would have had at his fingertips.

“The Darkness rises rarely, but when it does, my family is one of the few things that can stop it without destroying the vessel that has been claimed.” Tatsumo's fingertips trace characters on the tabletop that Thuan can't read. “It's part of our purpose. If you have not experienced attacks by the Darkness, I am glad. But the Key is very helpful when we're engaging in a battle for a vessel, and it would be quite beneficial to have it back.”

“Could you tell me more?” Thuan leans closer to the diplomat.

The baku shakes their head. They refuse to meet Thuan's gaze. “You said Asmodeus will protect the House. Personally? Or will he send others?”

Thuan frowns. “That doesn't seem like the type of question I should answer.”

For a brief moment Tatsumo's hand closes into a fist, and darkness seems to condense around them, shadows darker than they should be. Then they let out a shuddering breath. “You're right. That would be cruel. And I strive not to be cruel. You will work on seeing me free? Even if you can't get the Key, I would like to have my freedom back.”

Thuan hesitates, then turns to the door. Asmodeus' magic is generally stronger than his, and Asmodeus is in general a better magician than Thuan. But perhaps...

Five minutes of attempts later, Thuan is no closer to being able to bring Tatsumo out of the room than he had been when he started. He is much sweatier, though.

“Thank you.” Tatsumo smiles sadly. “I appreciate your trying.”

“Give me some more time with Asmodeus.” Or with some of the other Fallen, though finding a Fallen who will assist him in countermanding Asmodeus will be difficult. Unless he slips Emmannuelle in. She has been Thuan's companion in thwarting Asmodeus before, just as he has been hers in thwarting Selene when either of their lovers gets too caught up in doing supposedly-necessary evils.

Asmodeus is at his desk working. He glances at Thuan over his glasses, eyebrow arching in question.

Thuan sighs. “I haven't learned much. They swear that the Key is something that can only be used by their kind—”

“Doubtful, but proceed.”

“Fallen magic is not the be-all, end-all of magic, you know.” It's a discussion they've had many times, one that Thuan thinks he is close to winning as Asmodeus learns more about khi-based magic.

“It's not, but it is potent and powerful, and sometimes sheer power can overcome other differences. But really, do tell me what else you've learned.”

“It's supposedly meant for use against something they called the Darkness That Bleeds.” Thuan shrugs helplessly. “They say it's not dangerous to the House. I believe them, and I want them freed.”

“You always want to free everyone.” Asmodeus' voice is soft, and he rises from his desk, coming to stand in front of Thuan. “We cannot start just giving away everything that someone else claims is theirs.”

“They said they offered to pay for it.” Thuan steps back, away from Asmodeus' distracting hands.

“They did, but not nearly what Harrier paid for it.”

“And what did we pay Harrier for it?” Thuan arches a brow.

Asmodeus smiles. “A fraction of what Harrier paid, because it was known at that point to be... difficult to get to function.”

Thuan rubs at his eyes. “Can you please just undo whatever spell you made and let the diplomat go?”

“I could, but—”

There's the sound of a knock on the door, urgent and sharp.

Thuan glances at Asmodeus, but he shakes his head before calling out, “Enter!”

A young woman peeks through the door. “Sirs, the... guest, the one Master Thuan was talking to, they're... quite upset. Calling through the door, claiming something bad is going to happen.”

Asmodeus' eyebrows arch up. “Really. Well, Thuan, shall we go speak with them?”

Thuan nods, uneasiness curling in his guts.

Tatsumo is indeed pounding on the door to their guest quarters. To Thuan's ears it sounds like he's speaking perfect Viet. “Please! Someone! Anyone! It's coming! I don't know why, but it's—”

“What is?” Asmodeus' words are sharp.

“The Darkness.” Tatsumo responds promptly. “From the north. Please, keep your people away from it. Please.”

“I find it interesting that the threat you warn us about should suddenly turn up when you need to be let free.” Asmodeus' tone is icy stillness, but his eyes burn with a mixture of respect, curiosity, and fury. “I will heed your warning, but if I find nothing or, worse, if one of my people is hurt—”

“Just go!” Tatsumo's voice is still frantic. “Go, and do what you can to protect everyone.”

Asmodeus hesitates, then turns sharply and walks away.

Thuan pauses by the door. “This Darkness...”

“I've never actually seen it. I know very little that can help you.” Tatsumo sounds absolutely miserable.

“The magic we have at our disposal—”

“I don't know! I had never really seen a Fallen before, and Asmodeus had seemed so nice before he locked me in here...” Something strikes the door, hard. “He's strong enough to hold me. Hopefully he's strong enough to stop the Darkness, too.”

Thuan curses softly under his breath and hurries after his husband.

***

The threat rolls out of the water about thirty minutes after Tatsumo gives his warning. It circles, a blob of darkness that leaves wet patches in its wake, wending a path that leads unerringly towards Hawthorn.

Asmodeus meets it at the gates to Hawthorn, standing with a gun in one hand and a sword in the other. He eyes the mass of darkness, a faint smile on his face. “You don't seem so intimidating.”

The creature—for surely it's a creature—makes a low, keening sound. Tendrils begin stretching out from the dark interior, lashing out in questing strikes.

Asmodeus shoots the thing in its center of mass. The bullet glows white-hot, clearly imbued with Asmodeus' power.

Thuan begins trying to craft with the khi elements around him, to build a net that will hold the creature, slow it.

Others are joining the fray, Fallen and dragon and other denizens of the undersea kingdom working side by side. Magical scents permeate the air, but nothing seems to halt the creature's determined procession forward.

Asmodeus shoots the creature again, and this time its keen is high and piercing, a ululation that causes some of the defenders to drop to the ground clutching their ears. Tendrils that tear into the ground like sharpened shovels lash out in all directions, and the first line of defenders moves uneasily, magical and physical shields rising.

Asmodeus continues to smile, but Thuan can see the fury in his eyes as he marches towards the creature, emptying two guns in rapid succession.

Then Asmodeus draws his sword, and the light around him burns white-hot, almost painful to look at. Thuan can see the ghosts of wings at Asmodeus' back, ghosts that match the scars no magic or mortal healing can mend.

His sword cuts into the creature, and it keens again. The bits that Asmodeus cut free slide to the ground and disintegrate into fetid gel.

The creature focuses its attack on Asmodeus, but Asmodeus doesn't falter. The Fallen moves like a panther, swift and certain, body utterly still until he's a blur of motion that leaves more of the monster dissolving into goo.

Except he doesn't move quickly enough, and tendrils of the beast lash around his sword arm. Blood, glimmering and phosphorescent with the pulse of Asmodeus' power, suddenly showers out and towards the ground.

Thuan screams. He doesn't mean to, but he wasn't prepared for this. Asmodeus isn't supposed to be hurt, not now, not by something they can barely name. They haven't even had a chance to figure out this latest argument, this debate about where lines of morality lie.

Asmodeus turns to look at him, and the grimace on his face turns to a sultry smile. The fingers of his free hand—the hand not being gnawed on by the creature—form a series of complicated symbols.

And Asmodeus' magic burns so bright it's blinding, erupting from the sword like a star burning into the sky. The monster's keening rises up above the range that humans can hear, then Fallen, and then out of Thuan's range, too, though he can still feel it vibrating his antlers.

Phyranthe steps forward, her magic slashing at the flailing creature; Vinh Li does the same.

Abruptly the keening stops. The creature wobbles, form shivering like the ocean as a storm rolls in.

And it's abruptly... gone. Splashing down onto the cobbles of the street, sluicing over Asmodeus' feet and wetting his trousers to the knees.

Asmodeus wobbles, just slightly. Only for a second, but Thuan sees it, just as he sees the dimming of Asmodeus' glow, the continued patter of blood into the muck and mess.

Raising his good hand, Asmodeus forms a fist. “Attend still! Look for other creatures. We defend our home.”

The cheer that follows is immediate and intense.

They love him so much. They fear him, Thuan is never able to forget that—Asmodeus won't let anyone forget that—but they love him too, because they know he will always do this. If there is a threat to Hawthorn, Asmodeus will be there, bodily between it and his people.

Thuan pushes his way forward, reaching Asmodeus' side without incident.

“Go to our... guest.” Asmodeus stares hard into Thuan's eyes. “Find out why this thing came. If they're the reason it did, make sure they can't summon another. If they're not, I want to know what did summon it. I've never seen anything like it.”

“I'll question them.” Thuan gestures to the blood sparkling on the ground. “You're still bleeding.”

“Iaris will be here with first aid soon. I've had far worse.” The right side of Asmodeus' mouth tilts up in a small smile. “Though it's good to see you worry about me.”

“Of course I would worry. You're my husband and my co-Head of House.” Thuan hesitates, then wraps his arms gently around Asmodeus, holding him for just a moment. “And you're mine. Ridiculous as you are, you're mine. I don't want to see you eaten by a nightmare.”

“You won't.” Asmodeus pats Thuan's back with his good hand. “Now go. Be useful, co-Head of House.”

Thuan goes, though he doesn't want to. He wants to continue to assist with the clean-up, with making sure Asmodeus is taken care of, with strengthening wards and improving protections.

Thuan is the diplomatic one, though, and diplomacy is what is needed here.

Tatsumo is pacing the confines of their cell, their arms wrapped around themselves. They freeze when Thuan enters the room. “What happened? I can't feel it as well anymore. The darkness, the hunger... it's faded.”

“It's evaporating from the street. Hopefully.” Thuan moves to the small table again, settling in the chair, trying to make himself look less threatening. “Will you speak to me about it more?”

Tatsumo hesitates, not moving from their spot. “Will you grant me my freedom?”

“I need Asmodeus or another Fallen to do so, but yes, I think I can arrange that. You just protected the House, after all.” Thuan studies Tatsumo's face. “Unless you're the reason the House was endangered...?”

Tatsumo shakes their head, and Thuan sees no evidence of a lie there. “I didn't call it. I don't think I did, at least. But... it might be drawn to me and my kind? I don't know. We've never traveled. In Nihon, the Darkness... it goes where it's called. Where darkness festers. Where nightmares bloom.”

“Very poetic, but not terribly illuminating.” Thuan tries to keep his voice gentle, suspecting that the young baku is trying to be descriptive and not cryptic.

Tatsumo huffs out an annoyed breath. “Does Hawthorn have enemies?”

“More than many places, fewer than some.” Thuan speaks slowly.

“Are there people here with nightmares?” Tatsumo lifts a hand. “Don't bother—I can tell you that there are. Many, many nightmares, baked deep into the fabric of this place and the essence of your people. It wouldn't be hard to summon the Darkness That Bleeds here. But who did so... I don't know.”

Thuan sighs. “Did you talk to others about your plans and skills before coming here?”

Tatsumo arches an eyebrow. “If you're asking if anyone is coming to rescue me, or if this might have been a poor rescue attempt... I won't tell you the former, and I don't think so to the latter. No baku would countenance calling on the Darkness.”

“Did you talk to other Houses before you came here?”

“Of course. It took me some time to track down the Key.” Tatsumo scowls. “You think one of the other major powers caused this?”

“Some certainly wouldn't hesitate to.” Thuan sighs. “We killed it. It's turned to some kind of viscous substance on the street.”

“You haven't killed it.” Tatsumo speaks gently, as though to a child. “You don't kill nightmares. You just change their form. At least, you do if you're not a baku.”

Thuan frowns. “You mean it's going to try again?”

“I mean it most likely already is.” Tatsumo shrugs. “Watch those who interacted with it. Watch for signs of anything... wrong with them. And please, if you see such, tell me immediately.”

“If it bit someone... if it drew blood from them...” Thuan keeps his voice level, though in his mind he hears the faint patter of blood falling like rain.

“I would watch them very closely. Especially if they are someone to whom nightmares and darkness like to cling anyway.” Tatsumo watches Thuan.

Thuan keeps his expression clear, stretching his acting skills to the limit. “What am I looking for?”

“Dangerous behavior. Deadly behavior.” Tatsumo touches their chest. “Eyes and heart that do not belong to the body they wear.”

More poetic language, but Thuan thinks he understands this well enough. He nods. “Thank you. For both the warnings. I'll see that you're freed immediately, and if you'll be kind enough to wait while we sort matters out, I'll see that some sort of arrangement is made for your Key.”

Tatsumo's eyes widen. “Truly?”

Thuan nods. “Truly. You've been more help than you needed to be, and I... may have further need of you. Thank you, Tatsumo. Truly.”

Tatsumo still looks faintly stunned, but they nod. “You're welcome.”

With a slight incline of his head, Thuan rises and heads for the door.

He'll have to talk to Asmodeus first, but he intends to make certain his words to Tatsumo are born out, especially since there's a very good chance he'll need Tatsumo to be cooperative again soon.

***

“I'm fine.”

“I hope that you are.” It's hard for Thuan to imagine that Asmodeus isn't. His husband has changed shirts, and the stitches that Iaris painstakingly worked on don't show. There's barely any stiffness to the way Asmodeus holds his injured arm, making the wounds disappear.

Which is what Asmodeus wants, Thuan is certain. He wouldn't want anyone to think he's weakened or at less than full strength.

Perhaps he can use that. “It's worth checking, isn't it?”

“We can't trust them.” Asmodeus studies Thuan through his glasses. “As you have several times lamented, I locked them in a room they didn't want to stay in. They have no reason to help us.”

“Sometimes people will help you just because it's the right thing to do.” Thuan holds up a hand to forestall Asmodeus' arguments against that—it's a debate they've had far too many times. “But also, there seems to be some... enmity between Tatsumo's people and this Darkness That Bleeds. I believe them when they say that they want to make sure it's completely gone.”

Asmodeus considers. “I do owe them, I suppose. If you're absolutely certain that they didn't summon the creature...”

“They didn't.” Thuan speaks with more certainty than he feels.

“Then they helped us defend Hawthorn when they didn't have to.” Asmodeus sighs. “I'm still not giving over the Key, but I will lower the ward and let them stay as guests of Hawthorn.”

“Which is what they should have been doing already.” Thuan relaxes. “Shall we?”

Asmodeus nods, and the two of them head down to Tatsumo's room.

It doesn't take Asmodeus more than a few seconds to undo his own work, Fallen magic shivering over Thuan's skin as it dissipates.

Tatsumo steps warily through the door at Thuan's encouraging gesture, their shoulders finally relaxing once they're in the hallway. “I appreciate this return to basic decency.”

“I appreciate the assistance in protecting my House.” Asmodeus studies Tatsumo. “This doesn't mean I will be giving you the Key, not without more information on what it will do.”

Tatsumo scowls at Asmodeus, and their eyes flash a strange grey-blue color, pupil and iris vanishing into one pool of color. “Darkness take you to the furthest depths of the underworld and forget you there.”

Thuan recognizes a curse when he hears one, even if that curse is very clearly a translation of something more personal. “What my husband means to say is that we're still negotiating between each other about what will be needed in order to return the Key to its proper homeland.”

“If that's how you need to put it.” Asmodeus smiles. “I'll allow Thuan to be your guide for now, since you seem to get along with him so nicely. Come and find me when everyone has decided to be reasonable.”

Tatsumo makes a strange half-hiss, half-trumpeting sound as Asmodeus turns and walks away.

It takes all of Thuan's lessons in grace and etiquette to keep his dismay from obviously showing on his face. “Honored guest, please, come with me. We can discuss matters more calmly over a good cup of green tea, perhaps?”

Tatsumo glares up at Thuan, and their eyes flicker that inhuman blue again, something soft seeming to sprout and then fade from their face. Fur? Thuan still hasn't seen Tatsumo outside of a human guise, but he's guessed enough to know that the baku, like Thuan, isn't truly human. “You cannot hold a monster close to your heart and then ask me to trust you.”

“I don't ask for your trust, just your patience and your willingness to discuss matters with me.” Thuan tries to keep his voice calm, soothing. “Asmodeus can be reasonable—see how we've achieved so much already?”

“This isn't reasonable, it's at best an absence of base cruelty.” Tatsumo mutters the words sulkily. “But certainly, let's continue this farce.”

Thuan leads Tatsumo to a room that is typically reserved for denizens of the Seine kingdom to relax and conduct less pressing business in. He doesn't know if the decorations will be more familiar to the visiting Nihon dignitary than the ones Hawthorn typically uses or simply a different type of strange, but he figures anything that is less Asmodeus and more Thuan will be useful.

He spends several hours coaxing Tatsumo into a better mood, plying the baku with tales of the dragon kingdom and several different varieties of tea and a slow parade of snacks. When it's time for them both to retire for the night, Thuan thinks he's made good progress, though he also feels he's no closer to getting the information Asmodeus is demanding. They can pick matters up tomorrow, though. For tonight, he will have Ai Nhi escort the baku to a guest room.

Tatsumo pauses at the room's threshold, turning back to Thuan, tugging Ai Nhi to a standstill. “Watch anyone who touched the creature tonight. If it has sunk claws into them, the deepest night will be the most dangerous time.”

Thuan nods. “Thank you for the information.”

“Thank you. For at least being able to maintain a veneer of civility.” Tatsumo inclines their head just slightly. “I will see you in the morning.”

“In the morning.” Thuan waits for Tatsumo to be out of sight before hurrying towards his own rooms and the stubborn, irritating man waiting there.

***

Asmodeus is not all right.

Thuan should have noticed when Asmodeus slipped from their bed, but he was tired from a long day playing diplomat, from the stress of the battle, and when Asmodeus told him he was fine and urged them both into bed, he allowed it.

Thuan doesn't know how long Asmodeus has been gone when he's woken by the sound of someone pounding on their bedroom door. Long enough for the bed to get cold.

Long enough to get into who knows what trouble.

Thuan drags a robe around himself, opening the door and almost tumbling Madeleine to the floor.

“My lord—” The old woman is frantic, her breath coming in short, pained-sounding pants. “Asmodeus—he needs—you—please—Phyranthe—she's not—”

“Where?” Thuan grips Madeleine's shoulders, trying to give her the comfort that Asmodeus usually would supply simply by standing there, solid and immovable.

From the way Madeleine is shaking, she doesn't find Thuan nearly as comforting. “The gardens. Near... near the Pit.”

Thuan nods. “Catch your breath. Search the halls for—” For bodies. “For any injured. I will return shortly.”

Thuan shifts to his dragon form, allowing himself to sweep swift and sure through the halls of Hawthorn and out under the scant moonlight.

It isn't hard to find Asmodeus. He and Phyranthe both glow bright, their magic twining around them save when they hurl it at each other.

“—will not tolerate betrayal.” Asmodeus' voice is cold, an ice knife under the skin.

“I would never betray you.” Phyranthe is bleeding, angel blood staining the grass around her, expression showing a dismay and despair that Thuan never would have expected to see.

“Asmodeus!” Thuan waits until he's landed about twenty feet away and changed back to his human skin to call for his husband. “What's the meaning of this, husband?”

Both Asmodeus and Phyranthe pause. Phyranthe looks more terrified than Thuan has ever seen her, eyes wide, hands held defensively.

Asmodeus... he's wearing one of his usual sneers, but his eyes are all wrong. They dart left and right, and he seems... confused about what's happening. “Who are you?”

Another flickering light draws close to them, and Thuan isn't surprised to see Berith, limping as quickly as she can towards them. “You know him, brother. Surely nothing can break your infatuation with your dragon.”

Asmodeus staggers back a step as though Berith struck him, raising a hand to his head. Dark shadows flicker across his face.

No—dark shadows writhe within his eyes, covering the iris, staining the sclera ink-black.

“Asmodeus.” Thuan steps forward more slowly now. “Remember what we talked about? How Tatsumo said that the creature you fought could try to influence people?”

Asmodeus shakes his head again, and his sneer falters, pain showing clearly for just an instant before he sends a burst of Fallen magic towards Thuan.

It's all wrong. It's pure power, none of the finesse and attention to detail that Thuan is used to seeing from his husband.

It burns Thuan's hand as he weaves protection too slow to completely deflect the barrage, and he yelps, flinching back.

Asmodeus' eyes widen, and the shadows vanish. “Thuan! I think—there's something—” His head rocks back as though struck by something, though Thuan can't see anything.

Then Asmodeus has a knife in hand, though Thuan doesn't know where he pulled it from. Asmodeus is only half-dressed, in a white shirt with an unbuttoned collar and trousers that appear black in the moonlight.

The knife rises... and settles deep into Asmodeus' own arm.

“Phyranthe.” Asmodeus' voice is calm, eerily so given the blood starting to pool and slide down his arm. His eyes are clear again, though, pure Asmodeus. “Put me to sleep. Thuan, get—”

Asmodeus doesn't get to finish his request, because Phyranthe works too quickly. Her magic twines around Asmodeus, and he drops to the ground like a puppet with his strings cut.

Thuan winces. “I could have done that more gently.”

“You take too long to work out your spells in a combat situation.” Phyranthe's words are even more clipped than usual, and Thuan sees that she has burns across her left hand and left cheek. “I'll take him to your room, try to control... who knows what. To handle any problems. Berith, you're with me. Thuan—”

“I know who we need.” Thuan shifts back to his dragon form. The extra seconds he'll save may not be necessary, but he has too much nervous energy to burn.

He only hopes Tatsumo is willing to provide the assistance they need.

***

“I had suspected it would sink claws into him. He is not a good man. Darkness clings to him like shadows to a grave.” Tatsumo frowns.

Thuan bows low. “Please. I know I have no right to ask this, but if there's anything you know that might help...”

“I know how to help. But you've given me little incentive to do so.” Tatsumo crosses their arms in front of their chest. “Would it not be better for you to let the darkness have him? It will be a mercy killing, then, and this House will be yours.”

Thuan straightens, trying not to show the panic he feels at the thought of being left sole Head of House. He would manage it, if he needed to. He's put too much time and effort into the House to fail them when they needed him most—and they would desperately need him if they lost Asmodeus.

But trying to be sole Head of House, handling the diplomacy, the bickering, the forays by other Houses and the houseless to see what weaknesses could be uncovered—all while dealing with a grief that suddenly feels far too possible—it would be horrific.

He would try, but he doesn't know how well he would do, and he doesn't want to have to see the results of his trying, whether those results be success or bitter failure.

“Please.” Thuan bows low again. “I will give you the Key if you will tell me how to save my husband. I will give you anything that is within my power.”

Tatsumo studies him, head tilted to one side. “You're afraid to rule without him?”

“Yes.” It's the honest truth, and Thuan knows that he is better at wielding truths than lies. “But more than that, I would miss him.”

“Why?” Tatsumo steps forward, the question a demand. “What is there about him that's worth saving?”

“He...” Thuan closes his eyes, trying to find the words he needs. “Asmodeus isn't kind, no, but he isn't...” Can he say that Asmodeus isn't cruel? Asmodeus can be quite cruel, in the right circumstances. “He loves the House. Truly and deeply. He would sacrifice himself in a heartbeat for the House. I've seen him do it. He's learned to enjoy cruelty, yes, but he doesn't wield it lightly. He would cut his heart out for Hawthorn. Or for me. And he would learn, too, for the same things. He has learned to be more cautious where he cuts. To be less quick to inflict pain. He may not be a good man, but he's my husband, and I love him. And I think, given time—given a world that is shaped by myself and my friends—he could become a good man.”

“I do not understand this place or its people or you. I do not know why you would love someone who is so inherently twisted.” Tatsumo shakes their head. “But I hear the truth in your words. You love him; you want to save him. I can do so, if you give me the Key and trust me. Will you do so?”

Asmodeus wouldn't. Asmodeus would ensure he had some hold over Tatsumo, some reason for Tatsumo not to stab him in the back.

Asmodeus is fighting for his sanity and quite probably his life.

“Come with me. We'll fetch the Key and I'll take you to Asmodeus.” Thuan turns, leading the way towards where the old relic is stored, hoping he isn't making the wrong decision.

***

Asmodeus lies still as death on their bed, his cheeks flushed, the usual ambient light from his skin flickering worryingly.

“The Darkness That Bleeds is feeding quite nicely on this one.” Tatsumo is holding the box that contains the Key tight to their chest. Their eyes run over the people in the room—Phyranthe, Madeleine, Berith. “I will need one of you. The one who knows him best and will be best able to call him from nightmares to sane footing.”

Madeleine immediately looks to Thuan. Berith's eyes turn more slowly, her expression contemplative, before she nods at a decision only she knows.

Phyranthe's eyes stay locked on Asmodeus' still form for long, long seconds. Then she, too, turns to Thuan, her jaw so tight it must hurt. “If you fail, I will never forgive you.”

“If I fail, you will see that the House is kept safe, by whatever means necessary.” Thuan glances to Berith. “You will help her. As will everyone else. This House is more than just Asmodeus and myself.”

But they are load-bearing pillars, and if Thuan fails—

Thuan will not fail. He keeps his fear in a tight ball in his chest as he turns to Tatsumo. “What do we do?”

Tatsumo moves to the edge of the bed, setting the long box down. He opens the two latches that hold the dark red wood closed with reverence.

The Key is beautiful, a spiraling length of gold and silver with a star picked out in diamonds on one end and a strange two-pronged handle on the other.

Tatsumo runs a hand along the Key reverently. Then they glance up at Thuan. “I am going to shift. Please don't let anyone do something foolish.”

Thuan nods.

Drawing a breath, Tatsumo leans forward, and their form melts away. Skin gives way to soft grey fur that looks silky as seafoam. Tatsumo's eyes become the strange blue-grey mirrors that Thuan had seen before. Tatsumo's skeleton shifts, becoming quadrupedal rather than bipedal, and their small human statue transforms into a bear-like creature that Thuan suspects would only come up to his hips. Each paw is tipped by clawed toes, and a long, prehensile truck droops down, hiding any sign of a mouth.

The trunk reaches down, wrapping around the Key. Tatsumo's trunk fits perfectly into the golden swirl down the length, and the split end wraps around their face as though it were meant to settle there.

Those unsettling eyes turn to Thuan. Touch my fur.

There is no pretense of a voice anymore. There are just concepts, transmitted directly from Tatsumo to Thuan. “What are we doing?”

Hunting. The darkness is inside him, seeking to own and overcome. But dreams are my realm, and I can devour it as surely as it could devour him. Tatsumo raises the Key. With this I can bring someone with me into the dream-scape. You will help to draw your husband from whatever lies are being woven around him, and I will enjoy a feast.

Thuan glances at Phyranthe, but it seems Tatsumo's words have been for Thuan only from the lack of reaction.

Instead of Phyranthe, he addresses Berith. “I will be going into another realm with Tatsumo, in an attempt to destroy the creature attacking Asmodeus. Will you ensure we aren't bothered?”

Unless Asmodeus wakes with black eyes. In which case we have failed, and they should kill him. Tatsumo shifts uneasily on their front paws. I have never done this before. I know what should be done, but it will be my first time.

“Your first time using the Key or your first time facing the Darkness?” Thuan's voice is sharper than he intended.

Tatsumo's trunk droops in an obvious sulk. Both.

Phyranthe's lips pull back from her teeth.

“It will be fine.” Thuan cuts the woman off before she can say something they'll all regret. “I know Asmodeus, and we all know he won't ever go down easily. But Tatsumo says if the worst happens, and Asmodeus wakes with black eyes... don't hesitate. You know he wouldn't want you to.”

Berith closes her eyes, hugging herself, and her frailness is more obvious than ever as her chin lowers to her chest.

Phyranthe gives a short, sharp nod. “Be swift, then.”

Thuan reaches out, resting a hand on Tatsumo's fur. It feels as insubstantial as smoke.

Tatsumo lifts the Key, touching the diamond surface to the bare skin on the back of Asmodeus' hand.

And everything dissolves into clouds and ash.

***

“Mercy!” A Fallen shrieks the word, his hand covering a gaping wound in his guts, trying to keep himself intact. “Mercy.”

“No.” Asmodeus' voice is implacable, colder than midwinter night could ever hope to be.

Thuan shivers as he watches Asmodeus' sword slide home in the Fallen's chest. His hand is still clenched in Tatsumo's fur, and he looks down at the baku.

The baku raises those eyes to Thuan. You said you know him. Where are we?

Thuan knows, though he wasn't there. They are in Hawthorn's library, and the smell of smoke and blood and death is everywhere. He doesn't need to see the scarf tied around Asmodeus' arm to know what night this is. “It's the day he claimed Hawthorn. The day he became Head of House.”

It's a charnel house. Tatsumo's disdain is obvious. I will seek the Darkness; you convince him he needs to stop feeding it.

Thuan opens his mouth to protest, but Tatsumo is already trotting off.

Leaving Thuan alone with his husband, as his husband stalks the halls of their home and murders everyone who will not support his grasping for power.

“Asmodeus!” Thuan calls Asmodeus' name.

Asmodeus pauses, as he had out on the lawn earlier. He turns slowly to Thuan, his eyes narrowing. Then the sword rises. “Who are you? Who do you support?”

There's a tension in Asmodeus' voice that Thuan suspects wasn't there the actual day of the coup. Thuan runs his tongue over his lips. “A friend.”

Asmodeus arches a brow, and his lips twist into a familiar, disdainful grimace. “If you were a true friend, your allegiance would show clearly.”

“This isn't real.” Thuan blurts out the words, his heart aching too much to hold them in. “Or... it was real once, but it's not anymore. You've been Head of Hawthorn for decades.”

Asmodeus tilts his head, lips pursing. “Why should I believe you?”

“You want to, don't you?” Thuan can feel himself smiling, though there's a sad edge to it. “You wouldn't ask me if you didn't want to and didn't know why. Can it really strip you of your knowledge of me, Asmodeus? Of the years we've spent together? Of Ai Nhi? Of—”

Asmodeus' sword lashes out, and Thuan stops, too stunned to dodge.

The blade doesn't cut his skin. It just flashes through the air in front of him, bifurcates the lapels of the robe he's wearing.

Asmodeus is breathing heavily, his eyes bloodshot. He raises one trembling hand to his head. “I don't—I...”

Darkness floods up from the floor, and between one breath and the next Asmodeus is gone, dragged away by shadows.

Thuan drops to his knees, touching the floor. It begins to fade immediately, though, moth-eaten carpet giving way to cold stone.

Tatsumo trots out of the shadows, their claws scratching on the stone. It is very hungry. Very determined. And sees a great deal of food in your husband.

“He's seen a great deal of darkness.” Thuan looks up. He had expected to find the dungeon, but instead he finds himself looking into an expanse of brilliant stars.

The street.

They're on the street, and there is a glow not far away that can only be a newly Fallen angel.

No—two newly Fallen angels, naked and helpless, their human forms crushed and broken from their Fall. Figures move in the flickering light, and one of the Fallen calls out.

Thuan runs.

It's foolish. This is a moment that's long past. Asmodeus has been the predator rather than the prey for decades. But even in memory, even in nightmare, it's wrong for Asmodeus to be helpless like this.

The humans scatter, leaving blood spatters in their wake.

Thuan kneels by Asmodeus, wondering where to touch him—what will cause the least amount of pain.

Asmodeus glares up at him, face already taking on that hard, cruel cast it will carry for the rest of his life. “Kill you. I will—”

Thuan leans down and kisses him.

Asmodeus stiffens beneath him, and for a moment Thuan is worried he made the wrong decision. Worried that he will find a knife in his ribs, or a sword in his guts, or Asmodeus' hands twisting his neck.

Instead hands grasp Thuan's hair, hold him tight, and the kiss deepens to something like it should be.

A familiar keening ululation shivers through the air, and Asmodeus once more sinks away, stolen by shadows.

Thuan scrabbles at the ground, but it's useless. He looks up to see Tatsumo's face moving, and after an unnerving moment Thuan realizes they are chewing.

That worked well. Tatsumo comes over and pats Thuan on the shoulder with their trunk. You were a good choice. I have hurt our enemy.

How much has the enemy hurt Asmodeus? How much more will it be able to hurt him? “How badly did you hurt it?”

Badly enough to count, not badly enough to stop it. Not yet. Tatsumo pats Thuan's shoulder again. Let us see what other treats we will find.

Thuan stands, and when he turns this time he sees that the cobblestones are indeed the cobblestones of the Hawthorn dungeons.

“Hurt her!” The man who screams the words is unfamiliar. “Hurt her, damn you, and smile while you do it! More! She's Fallen, she'll heal.”

Thuan feels his stomach turn, but he resists the urge to be sick. Drawing a shallow breath, he walks towards the sound of the voices.

Asmodeus is covered in blood. Thuan doesn't allow his gaze to move towards the woman being hurt or the man giving the instructions. He just grabs for the khi lines of this place, driving the man away from Asmodeus. “This isn't real either, my love.”

Asmodeus freezes, the instrument in his hand held still. He looks at Thuan with confusion, then dawning understanding. “Thuan. Your name is Thuan and—” Asmodeus' empty hand rises to his head, and his eyes swirl, black over green. “No. No. I will not. I will not.”

Tatsumo is suddenly at Thuan's side. “Mmm. It does not want to give up its prey.”

“Of course it doesn't.” Thuan steps forward, moving slowly, trying not to startle Asmodeus. “Predators never want to give up their prey. But you are not prey. You are the apex predator. The Head of Hawthorn. The monster that keeps other monsters away. The one who turns on his own House if it is needed.”

The many-pronged instrument of torture twitches towards Thuan and is stopped by Asmodeus' free hand. Asmodeus trembles, his eyes swirling black and then grey, black and then grey. “Thuan, be careful. I can't—”

“You can.” Thuan reaches out, just brushing the backs of his knuckles across Asmodeus' cheek. “Of course you can.”

Asmodeus draws a breath, his whole body leaning towards Thuan.

Thuan leans forward. He doesn't know if he intends to kiss Asmodeus again or just press their foreheads together, mingle their breaths.

He doesn't get a chance to do anything, because Tatsumo darts forward, trunk managing to grab Asmodeus' shadow and rip it.

Asmodeus screams in tandem with the creature, and the shadows once more swallow him.

Thuan curses, a long string of Viet that would have had him reprimanded severely by everyone but his grandmother.

Tatsumo chews, and Thuan is surprised to feel the baku's head pressed against Thuan's lower back. Don't worry. We're making progress.

“We're traipsing through my husband's nightmares while a monster tries to devour him.” Thuan wipes a hand across his face. “It's hard to consider that we're making progress.”

But we are. Tatsumo gestures to where the dungeon wall has given way to Hawthorn's groves. It wouldn't be running so hard if we weren't. It's looking for somewhere it can take him that you can't save him from.

Drawing a steadying breath, Thuan walks forward.

They're on Hawthorn's grounds, heading towards... oh, yes, he knows what they're heading towards.

The grove.

The place where Asmodeus once intended to murder him.

The place where all the previous Heads of Hawthorn served the House in perpetuity.

The place that he and Asmodeus destroyed, tearing the House apart rather than sacrificing the lives of those within.

He walks towards the trees, already knowing what he will find.

Asmodeus hangs limp, his blood still dripping from fresh wounds. He breathes, but it's sharp, short gasps that come further and further apart.

“Asmodeus.” Thuan whispers his husband's name, knowing he doesn't need to speak any louder.

Asmodeus' head twitches, lifts. Hawthorn branches show between his parted lips when he tries to speak.

“This isn't your place.” Thuan steps forward, heedless of the branches that try to reach for him. He is Head of Hawthorn. They will not hurt him.

“Hawthorn...” Asmodeus breathes out the word and a thin trail of blood. “For Hawthorn...”

Tatsumo stands frozen in the grove, their eyes roving over the other not-dead bodies. This place...

“Is real. Was real. It isn't anymore.” Thuan reaches out, burying his fingers in Asmodeus' hair, holding tight. “You know that. We killed this place. Perhaps later than we should have, perhaps too soon, I don't know, but we killed it and we lived. The House lived. This nightmare has no claim or hold on you.”

Asmodeus' eyes are his own, beautiful behind the cracked lenses of his glasses. “Thuan...”

“I'm here.” Thuan moves closer. “I love you, and I'm here, and we're both going home. We're going to stop this creature, and we're going home, to the House that we saved and have made into more than it ever could have been while it fed on death.”

Asmodeus coughs, and a combination of blood and leaves spatters Thuan's chest.

Thuan allows his hands to trail down Asmodeus' cheeks, looking deep into his eyes. “Fight for me. Come with me.”

Asmodeus' whole body shudders, a shiver that starts at Thuan's fingertips and runs out almost like a seizure.

Then he's stepping forward, whimpering as he leaves flesh and clothes behind on the branches. He collapses into Thuan's hands, a mass of blood and pain and grasping hands.

Thuan holds him, gathering him close, watching for shadows. He will not lose Asmodeus again.

Asmodeus chokes, spitting out another handful of leaves and blood and poison berries. “You...”

“Me.” Thuan smiles.

“Be... careful...” Asmodeus chokes again, but he's starting to look more annoyed than pained, which is a good thing. “It—”

Which is when the keening starts again.

It hurts so much. It's like something is digging claws into his mind and soul and rending them apart, tearing them at every seam. Thuan holds Asmodeus close to him with one arm while he tries to cover his ears with his other hand.

Something wraps around his wrist, digs sharp thorns into his neck. He had been so busy trying to protect Asmodeus he didn't think about protecting himself, and now—

Now shadows fill his veins.

Now despair greys his vision, and he has to blink hard to get anything to come into focus.

He sees a flash of the library he spent so much time in as a boy, smells all the scrolls and books burned to ash; he feels a sword dig into his back as he watches his aunt fall, her head cut from her body; he feels the burn of angel essence in his veins as he allows all that this foreign land and magic is to erode him away from the inside out.

But none of that is his true nightmare.

None of that is at the heart of him.

Thorns pierce his wrist, his back, his neck. They try to crawl through his veins, to pierce through his chest and steal his essence—steal the essence of all that he belongs to, of all that the dragon kingdom holds—but Thuan isn't weak enough to allow that to happen.

Not yet.

Not until the betrayal is complete.

Asmodeus stands before him, sword unsheathed, cruel smile on his face. “I am sorry about this, husband. But it's necessary.”

“No.” Thuan struggles helplessly against the thorns holding him to the sacrificial trees. “Please. Don't do this.”

Asmodeus won't do this. Of course he won't. They've had—they've had—

They've had what? A night together, debauched and wonderful? That's not enough to build a relationship on, let alone a love.

Thuan is going to die here. No—he is going to wish to die here, but he knows from the other corpses that true death won't be what he gets. He will hang here, not living, not dead, and everything he loves will crumble because of him.

Because he dared to love a Fallen angel and that angel—

Blinding white light cuts through Asmodeus' form, shattering the smug, smooth figure into a thousand pieces of shimmering glass.

Thuan blinks, trying to make sense of what he's seeing. Behind Asmodeus is... Asmodeus, but this one is bloody and broken, his clothing reduced to tatters.

“Mine.” Asmodeus takes a step towards Thuan, leaving a perfect crimson footprint behind him. His lips bleed as they pull back into a snarl. “Thuan is mine, and you will not have him, and you will not use me to hurt him.”

The sword is pure Fallen magic, honed and sharp. It cuts through the hawthorn tree with ease, staying steady even as the light from Asmodeus' body falters and flickers.

Thuan staggers forward, into the circle of Asmodeus' protection.

The shadows press in around them, hungry, searching.

Thuan takes Asmodeus' free hand, holding tight. He gathers what khi strands he can find, prepared to go down fighting as well.

And then the shadows... dissipate.

Thuan doesn't know how else to describe it. With a whimpering moan, the shadows start to waft away like fog before the rising sun. One moment they are thick as smoke from a burning corpse; the next they are the grey of a campfire; and then they are simply... gone.

A very sleek, very pleased looking Tatsumo sits just a bit in front of Thuan, trunk curled once more around the Key. Well done, both of you. Very well done indeed.

Thuan stares, shifting his hand from Asmodeus' to slide around his husband's waist.

“Thuan...” Asmodeus stares at Tatsumo.

“That's the baku. In their true form. I think...” Thuan looks around them, at a landscape that is becoming just the grounds at Hawthorn, nothing more. “They defeated the Darkness?”

I ate it. Tatsumo burps. This small piece, at least. It is a vast and hungry thing, but it will not be able to control either of you again after tonight.

“I see that you have the Key.” Asmodeus manages to roll his head and look reproachfully at Thuan despite the fact they're both covered in blood and puncture wounds.

Thuan returns Asmodeus' stare evenly. “Would you really rather we face that thing alone?”

Asmodeus smiles, leaning his weight heavily against Thuan. “We would have managed something. But this way... was much more expedient.”

Then Asmodeus is falling, no longer supporting his own weight at all.

The dreamscape around them begins to flicker in and out of existence.

Tatsumo darts forward, the Key waving towards Thuan. Grab it! Quickly!

Thuan does so, not letting go of Asmodeus as he does, and everything dissolves into nothingness once more.

***

Thuan wakes with a gasp. He's in his bed, next to Asmodeus' body.

He's covered in blood, and so is Asmodeus.

Phyranthe and Iaris are both cursing, wrapping bandages around Asmodeus' hands. They pause as Asmodeus' eyes slit open.

Phyranthe's glare slides from Asmodeus to Thuan. “Explain.”

“We won.” Thuan groans, feeling as though his whole body has been twisted inside out. “He's safe. The cost of winning was... high.”

They both fought valiantly. Tatsumo settles the Key back down in its box before resuming their human form. “I was impressed with their resilience and dedication.”

“I'm so very tired.” Thuan sighs. “Berith, could you see Tatsumo back to their room?”

Berith murmurs an acquiescence, and it's only when she's gone that Thuan realizes maybe it wasn't wise to send one of his few allies in the room away.

“Am I going to bleed to death?” Asmodeus looks speculatively down at his arms, which are more of a mess than Thuan has ever seen.

“No.” Iaris wraps bandages rapidly around Asmodeus' arms. “Though you'll be feeling this for a while.”

“Then all of you leave.” Asmodeus forces himself into a sitting position, moving slowly, and Thuan can see the tension that he uses to keep his muscles from shaking. “Thuan and I have a few matters to discuss.”

Phyranthe opens her mouth to protest, but Asmodeus stops her with a simple look.

The others file out, leaving Thuan alone with Asmodeus.

“What did you promise them?” Asmodeus asks the question quietly.

“The Key.” Thuan draws a breath. “It seemed the least I should risk, given the circumstances.”

Asmodeus gives a slow nod. “Given that it's my life you bought with it... and that you discovered what it does, it seems... I can't really be angry about it.”

“I would be... irked if you were.” Thuan can't help but relax a bit at hearing Asmodeus be so much himself though, so recognizably present and aware and concerned about the situation.

“You saw...” Asmodeus draws a breath. “You saw some things I never wanted anyone to see.”

“I won't...” Thuan hesitates, not certain what it is he wants to promise. “It doesn't change anything. There was nothing shocking or surprising.”

Asmodeus' lips twitch up into a hesitant smile. “Truly?”

Thuan slides his fingers across Asmodeus' bandaged ones. “Truly. Do you think I don't know you, Asmodeus? Do you think I'm not aware of your flaws and your scars and your strengths all together?”

Asmodeus closes his eyes, leaning forward slightly.

Thuan shifts his hand, raising it so that he touches the cloth lying above the scars where Asmodeus once had wings.

“You don't really...” Asmodeus' voice falters, just slightly. “You don't really think I would hurt you, do you?”

Thuan pauses, his hand still on Asmodeus' back. “Not without my permission, you wouldn't. That nightmare... it's an old one.” One based on truth, but only a sliver of the truth that would become Thuan's life. “Now... I would fear having to run the House alone more than I would ever fear you.”

“For what it's worth...” Asmodeus turns to look at him, eyes bloodshot and tired. “I would fear running the House without you by side now, too. I would do it, but... I think, for this world that is slowly taking shape, you are a necessary force.”

Relief blooms in Thuan's chest, and he carefully, gently, gathers his husband into his arms. “We've both had our places, and we both have our places. Hopefully the latter is better than the former.”

Asmodeus huffs out a breath that may be a sigh or the ghost of a laugh, but his arms wrap around Thuan, holding him tight.

“Come on.” Thuan gently slides himself and Asmodeus to the edge of the bed. “Let's go find bedclothes that aren't sodden, and get a little bit of sleep. There's...” Thuan glances at the clock and sighs. “An hour or so before dawn still.”

Asmodeus chuckles. “No rest for the wicked.”

“But some for the weary.” Thuan makes sure Asmodeus is standing without swaying too much before setting about getting them a clean area to sleep.

When they tumble into bed ten minutes later, Asmodeus kisses Thuan, and the fact that they both taste of blood pales next to the thrill of them both still being alive.

Everything else they can manage in the morning.

***

Thuan stands next to Tatsumo at the gate into Hawthorn. He bows the proper amount to show respect. “Thank you again, and I hope that overall your visit hasn't been terrible.”

“It has been... enlightening, in many ways.” Tatsumo watches Thuan, their eyes more curious than wary now. “I have certainly learned a great deal.”

“Oh?” Thuan smiles, trying to make the inquiry seem light and friendly.

“Your husband... I can see now why you love him. I do not think I could. He is uncivilized and capable of a cruelty that I do not understand, but underneath his feralness, at his core, he is a protector. A defender. It is easy to love someone like that.” Tatsumo hesitates. “I think perhaps being conquerors has left a scar on this country that, while not as deep as the one it has left on others, still festers and rots.”

“I think...” Thuan draws a breath, lets it out slowly. “There are always people who will want to conquer. It's just making sure that there are enough people with enough power to stop them, to form alliances rather than allegiances.”

“You think you can be that force.”

“I think someone has to be, and I am in a position to do so.” Thuan raises his hands slightly. “I don't know if what I'm doing—what others I am friends with are doing—will actually last. Will actually make things better. But we're trying.”

“You are.” Tatsumo smiles, and it transforms their face, makes them look young and excited again. “I am glad that I came here, even if parts of the trip did not go as planned.”

“You'll return a hero.” Thuan nods to the bag that contains the Key. “And you and yours are welcome at Hawthorn anytime. I give you my word on that.”

“I will keep you to it.” Tatsumo bows, a perfect mirror of Thuan's earlier action. “Be well.”

“Be safe.” Thuan twists the khi currents around them, sending a puff of warm, flower-scented air after Tatsumo as they head off on their journey.

There are mysteries still to unravel. Thuan is more certain now, having seen Tatsumo devour the creature, that Tatsumo wasn't responsible for summoning it. Meaning one of Hawthorn's enemies has uncovered new, dangerous magic—something Thuan had suspected would come as the Fallen and their allies learned to look beyond their own arrogant assumptions to see how the rest of the world functions.

If this is the first volley in some new war, though, it has failed in its purpose. Hawthorn still stands strong and firm, and Thuan intends to see that they continue to stand in solidarity with those that Thuan has been meticulously curating alliances with.

It isn't perfect, this world they are crafting. It isn't just, perhaps—Thuan suspects that for justice to be served would mean stripping everyone in power of it, and he's not sure that would even be wise.

But this world is... functional.

It is kinder than it had been, before Thuan and Emmannuelle and Isabelle and so many others began striving to make it so.

He has a place, and a husband, and a home that he loves dearly.

It's a solid foundation to start from, and he thinks, perhaps, they will one day make something good out of it.