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Inner Demons and their Hunters

Chapter Text

Once upon a time,

500 years ago, a single human prince once sought to bring all beings of the world together, united by peace and mutual respect.

Some listened to him.

Mythics, dragons and kitsunes and fairies and elves and many other races united under his banner of trust and believed in his dream.

Others opposed him.

Monsters, demons who thrived off discordance and desperate souls, goblins who preyed on the weak and the vulnerable, beasts and creatures born from evil stood against the prince and his ideals.

In order to accomplish his goal and protect his people, the prince sought out a magical blade, a divine weapon that would eradicate evil from the world.

Through many trials and dangerous quests, the prince traveled far and wide, until his prayers were answered by the angel Gabriel, who presented to this hero the sword Blanc.

This sword, as pure and white as holy light itself, promised him the power he sought.

But nothing in this world is free.

To wield a blade that can strike down gods, one must feed it.

And so the prince and his hungry sword made their way home, carving his way through the land, deadly, ruthless, as compassionate as a plague.

As every drop of blood dirtied his blade, Blanc's will became stronger, until it was no longer clear whether the prince wielded the blade or the blade wielded the prince.

His subjects, ignorant of their prince's fallen grace, gathered at the gates with cheers and open arms, welcoming back a prince whose pure heart was gone.

The prince entered his kingdom, and the gates closed behind him, creating Earth's largest slaughterhouse.

As the last child fell, the prince lifted his sword, once white as radiance itself, now black and stained with blood.

"It's not enough," he thought. "I need more power to save them all."

And so he continued on through the lands, killing everything in his path.

After all, compared to saving humanity...no cost was too high.

 

"That's fucking weird," Nathaniel said, taking a long sip from his wine glass as he leant back in his chair. Alix slammed the giant book closed-Nath wanted to scold her, that book was a thousand years old for fucks sake-and placed it on the table between them.

"There you go, it's translated." Alix crossed her arms, leaning back in the chair. "Basically, this one's an old book of legends about cursed artifacts, as well as a few spells."

"Curses?"

"Some of them," Alix said, waving a hand nonchalantly. "But there are a few disenchantment and warding spells, too."

"Sounds useful," Nathaniel said. "People try to pawn off the weirdest shit at my store. Do you think you could translate the whole book?"

Alix hummed, trailing a finger around the rim of her glass. "For a price," she said, after a moment of consideration. "150 gold."

"Fuck," Nath spat, baring his teeth. His tail swished behind him like an agitated snake. "Can't you spare, like, a friend discount?"

"Hmm," Alix said. "We could always trade."

Nathaniel threw his head back dramatically. "Fineeeee," he growled, stretching. "Come back tomorrow after the shop closes. I know you've got your eyes set on those enchanted rollerblades."

Alix's eyes lit up. "I'll work on translating tomorrow," she said, tucking the book under one arm. "After that I'll see if I can get the museum to make an offer with you. This book would sit well in our collection of magic shit."

"Let me guess," Nathaniel said, smirking. "They'll pay you to translate it too?"

Alix raised her hands. "Whatever pays my groceries," she said. "Although..." she paused. "One thing did interest me."

"Hm?"

"You asked me to translate the sword's legend, specifically."

"I was just interested, that's all." Nathaniel shrugged.

"Right." The woman narrowed her eyes. "This wouldn't have anything to do with this employee who part times as a bounty hunter that you hired a few months ago? The one owning a sword that fits this description?"

Nathaniel stilled, eyes turning sharply to his friend.

"I saw him come in when you called me over last week to take a look at this book," Alix answered before Nath could question how she knew that. "I recognized the sword too. You don't see Celestial steel like that just anywhere."

"And?"

"The sword appears to be dormant," Alix assured. "About 400 years ago, rumor has it that a fairy trapped the sword's will with a magic spell."

Nathaniel relaxed slightly.

"But!" She raised a finger. "It's still dangerous. The sword absorbs power from those it kills. And since it's make is Celestial, if it happened to kill a creature that could unbind the enchantment, say, if it managed to kill a demon," his friend fixed a cold stare at him. "Well, don't play with knives anytime soon, Nath."

Nathaniel nodded. "I'll be careful."

"Good." Alix picked up her glass, downed the rest of its contents in one go, made a face, and set it back down. "Have a good night."

"I'll try," Nath said, escorting her downstairs, out of the old junk shop, making sure to re-lock and ward the door once she left.

His shop, Hidden Treasures, was full of odds and ends, little trinkets and video games and a rack for snacks and drinks, but the most interesting parts, the items that he kept in glass cases protected with every sealing enchantment he knew, were the magical items.

Any item permanently imbued with magic was valuable, and Nathaniel's store had built up a reputation for finding uses of any and all enchanted items, dangerous, cursed, or otherwise. Nathaniel wasn't exactly fond of the shady business partners he'd encountered, and the kinds of items that had been transferred into his hands, but running a junk shop in a district like this meant he had to do a few...under the law deals to pay bills.

Eh. What the cops didn't know wouldn't hurt. Well, it might hurt the cops, but it wouldn't hurt him. As shady as some of his customers were, they knew how to keep their mouths shut.

After all, breaking a contract with a demon was more dangerous than whatever punishment the law might inflict.

Most people didn't know he was a demon-his horns, wings, and tail could be mistaken for a dragon's, and he didn't exactly broadcast his magical abilities. Hell, the only times he made contracts were when he sold or bought items for the junk shop, and no one bats an eye if someone adds a few more precautions to the exchange of magic items. In fact, he'd even been praised by some of his customers for "dealing with business so professionally".

Speaking of professional business...

There was someone standing outside the locked door.

Backlit by the sunlight outside, most of the man's features were cast in shadow, but the first thing that Nath noticed was that this person was really fucking tall. A goliath?

The said figure grabbed the door handle and started shaking it. And kept shaking it. And then noticed him watching and started knocking on the door.

Nath groaned. "Shop's closed," he yelled through the magically enforced glass. "Come back tomorrow."

"I'm supposed to talk to you today," The figure shouted back. "Boss told me to."

"I don't give a fuck who your boss is, we're closed." Nathaniel was about to turn and go back upstairs when a smaller figure stepped out from behind the other one, almost comically small in comparison.

Nathaniel recognized the silhouette instantly, and his blood ran cold. It wasn't every day his boss showed up to visit. He never visited. What the fuck.

"Open the door," the other person commanded, voice somewhat reedy and high-pitched, which would have been hysterical in Nath wasn't starting to fear for his life.

The demon did as he was told.

As both the large and small figure stepped out of the harsh light, their features became more visible.

The small one, a gnome with dark skin and glasses on his nose, nodded up to the demon. "Good evening, Kurtzberg," he said, crossing his arms. "How are things?"

"They're going well, sir," Nath said, trying to mask the nervous pitch in his voice. "I-I'll admit, I wasn't expecting you to show up in person. Was there something wrong with last month's rent, or...?"

The gnome lifted his head, an unreadable expression on his face. "Markov was compromised," he said. "The police attempted to capture him last month, so we will no longer be using him for our business deals."

Nathaniel turned to the taller man. He had no visible Mythic or Monster traits, he looked...human. Strange. He was also looking around the shop with an expression of childlike wonder, which was even stranger.

"This is Kim," the gnome said. "He will be in charge of collecting your rent, as well as any...business trades that may arise."

Kim stuck out his hand, grinning from ear to ear. "I look forward to working with you! Your shop looks cool!"

Nathaniel blinked, momentarily taken aback."Uhhh, likewise," he said, shaking his hand. "If you don't mind me asking, are you part orc, or goliath, or...."

"Nope! I'm human!" The man laughed, and Nathaniel fought down the shock before it crossed his face. The boss rarely worked with humans, much less trusted them with deals like this.

The gnome coughed politely. "Kim," he said, in a voice that Nath had learned to fear. "This is a business operation. We are not here to make friends."

"Sorry, Max," Kim said, rubbing the back of his neck apologetically.

Nath was reeling in shock so hard his brain might as well have been flipped upside down. His shady landlord was here in person, had brought along a human to do business with, and said human had just spoken his name just like that? Nath had heard of other tenants disappearing for milder offenses.

"We'll be taking our leave now," his landlord said, grabbing Kim by the hand and dragging him out of the store, an equally bizarre action since Nath had never seen the gnome do anything close to physical exertion other than ordering someone else to do it for him.

"See you later," Kim called, stooping down a little so Max could pull him away more effectively.

Nathaniel locked the door once again, only now realizing that he was sweating a little and his wings and tail were shaking from nerves.

He needed another drink.

Nathaniel was about to head back upstairs when his phone buzzed in his pocket.

The demon made several guttural spats under his breath, cursing in his native tongue as he fished the phone out of his skinny jeans. If one more fucking telemarketer called him he was going to have a mental breakdown.

'Marinette Dupain-Cheng' read from his screen in bold letters.

Nathaniel sighed and put the phone to his ear. "Yes?"

"I saw that mafia boss leaving your shop just a few seconds ago," the voice answered back. "I wanted to make sure you weren't dead."

Nathaniel pressed his head against the window, looking at the tailor shop just next to his store. That store had been there long before Nathaniel was even born, and the fairy that ran it, Marinette, had lived much longer.

Of course, in fairy years they were about the same age, or so Marinette would say whenever she invited Nathaniel over for dinner and the occasional hookup. She was a unique friend to have, but good company.

"I'm alive, believe it or not," Nathaniel said, looking up to see the silhouette of the woman against the circular window above the shop.

There was a long sigh from the other end of the receiver. "That's good to hear," Marinette said. "It'd be a shame to lose a cute neighbor such as yourself."

Nath scoffed. "Good to know where your priorities lie, Marinette."

Marinette laughed. "Any chance someone as cute as yourself might come waltzing over tonight?"

"Not tonight," Nath said, putting a hand on his hips. "I've had enough heart-racing social interactions for today. Besides, I just finished redoing the warding locks on the front door and they're a pain to remove."

"Alright," the fairy waved a hand dismissively behind the window. "I'll call one of my other friends."

"Have fun," Nath said. "And put a soundproof enchantment around your room this time, for fuck's sake."

"Will do," Marinette sang, followed by a click as she hung up.

Nathaniel sank into the folding chair behind the counter with a weary sigh. Alcohol could wait, right now he just wanted a nap. Letting his head lean back, arms crossed, Nathaniel let his vision unfocus as he closed his eyes.

There was a knock at the door.

Nathaniel's eyes flew open, fingernails digging viciously into his arms.

He was done with people.

People were the fucking worst.

Pissed beyond reason, Nathaniel turned to fix a steely-eyed glare at the silhouette peeking in through the window-

-and his anger vanished immediately.

Emerald green eyes were looking through the glass, eyes that belonged to a very cute human man with a giant fucking sword strapped to his back and a suitcase.

Ah.

Right, he was coming back from his mission today.

Nathaniel got to his feet, ready to welcome his only employee and housemate.

"Welcome, Marc," Nathaniel said, opening the door. "Glad you're back safe."

Chapter Text

"Gallia City, Noir Road, Hidden Treasures Junk Shop," Marc recited to himself, like he had several times before. He hadn't had a lot of time to take missions in the past few months, what with the new semester starting and all, but he had to pay off college loans somehow, and his job with Nath was only giving him a place to stay and nothing more.

Still, it was nice to have a place that he could forward to coming back to after bounty missions, with the familiar redhead shopkeep quickly rushing to the door to undo the locks.

"Welcome, Marc," Nath said, nodding his head a little. "Glad you're back safe."

"Thanks," Marc said, stepping in with a smile. "I missed this place."

Missed this place was a bit of an understatement. Marc was an anxious person by nature, and taking a mission in a neighboring city for a few days had brought a lot to be anxious about. Unfamiliar people, unexpected outcomes, knowing that at any time he could get lost or accidentally insult someone and get fired or forget to bring something he needed-the mission itself wasn't too bad, just a normal track and exterminate-but everything else had kept him constantly on edge for the past three days.

Of course, the shop was unexpected in its own way, with its ramshackle appearance, full of various odds and ends, all of the objects neatly presented but none of them organized in any way that Marc could recognize. It was like walking into a presentation of a little bit of everything, priceless and worthless items displayed side by side. It was fun. The whole store seemed to radiate with Nathaniel's personality.

There was a large poster behind the cashier desk with the store's name, "Hidden Treasures". The poster was emblazoned in bright colors, with a fancy-looking dragon curling around the logo. It looked well made, and by the glistening of the paint and the way the dragon's eyes looked like it followed the viewer, probably enchanted, too. A testament to his past, according to Nathaniel.

Nath was a half-dragon. Not quite dragon enough to get the benefits of shapeshifting, not quite human enough to move to a bigger neighborhood, or so he'd told Marc. In truth, he was a little short for what Marc had assumed a half-dragon would look like, but the wings, tail, and curved horns helped fill in the space that his height didn't take up.

"Come on." Nath took Marc's suitcase from his hands. "Go upstairs, get washed up. I'll get dinner started, we've got wine left over, and you can tell me all about how your mission went."

Marc looked back to where Nath's car was parked outside the door. "You sure there's no deliveries I need to make first? It's my job, after all."

"Oh, there are plenty of deliveries that have been stockpiling up since you've been gone," Nath said, already opening the "Employees Only" door and working on lugging Marc's suitcase up it. "But they can wait until tomorrow."

"Okay." Marc shoved his hands in his pockets and gave a tired yawn as he glanced around the store, namely towards the area behind the counter, where all the magic items were locked behind clear casings. Some of them, like the clay spider statue in a glass jar or the ring with a green gem looked normal, while the levitating clockwork hummingbird was practically glowing with magical enchantments.

"Hey, the ring is new," Marc called upstairs.

"Yeah, and it's a fucking asshole," Nath yelled back. "It'll teleport all over the shop unless I have an antimagic ward around its box. The one I have around it now is only gonna last a month or two, so hopefully I can sell it off before then."

Marc chuckled a little. Nath's lack of formality was part of what made this work so much less anxiety-inducing than his bounty hunter jobs-not to mention that he got along with Nathaniel surprisingly well, it was almost too easy to forget that the half-dragon was still technically his boss and not his sassy, dorky, occasionally horny on main roommate that relied on him to do deliveries around the city of Gallia.

The walls were decorated with hundreds of paintings and art pieces that Nathaniel had either accumulated into his shop or created himself, filling the shop with color from floor to ceiling-save for a small board near the back titled "EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH", with Nath's name and face on it.

"That's a little joke," Nathaniel had said, when Marc had first stepped into the shop looking to buy a cheap shirt or two. "Since, y'know, I'm the only employee, so..."

Marc had given a small laugh, more out of pity than anything else.

Leaving the downstairs shop area, Marc followed Nathaniel up the stairs to the living quarters.

Their area was cramped but homey in the best way. The main room was split between the open kitchen area with a table and chairs on one side, and the bookshelf, armchair, and easel crammed into the other half around a little decorative rug.

Aside from the main room, there was Nath's room, the bathroom, and his room-Nath had set his suitcase down in front of the door, already busying himself with making food.

It was a very cozy and organized home, despite its small size. Marc could smell the aroma of one of Nath's scented candles, lightly flickering on the kitchen countertop.

"Did you get the problem with the hot water fixed?" Marc asked, pulling his suitcase into his room and closing the door.

"I called a friend of mine to fix it for us," Nath replied. "It should work now."

"Sweet. I need a hot shower."

"Better wait to get a hot shower or you're getting cold dinner," the half-dragon warned. Even through the closed door, his voice was clear. Small living area and thin walls will do that, for better or...worse. Marc could recall a few nights where he'd had to throw a shoe at the wall and remind Nathaniel that he either needed to throw up soundproof wards around his room or masturbate quieter.

Once he'd gotten changed and emptied his suitcase, Marc walked back out to see Nathaniel placing two plates of some kind of rice dish on the table.

"Hey, perfect timing," Nath said. "Come on, sit down. I'll get the wine."

Marc gratefully slid down into the seat, wasting no time with getting food in his face as fast as possible. "Thanks."

"So." The half-dragon placed two wine glasses on the table and took a seat opposite to him. "How did it go?"

"It was okay," Marc said, looking back at where he'd set the sword and its scabbard. "A couple of werebeast goblins had taken place in an abandoned hunter's lodge near Dépaysement, likely exiled from their main group to wait out the full moon. So my job called me out to get rid of them."

"Sounds scary," Nath commented. "You didn't get infected?"
Marc checked over his arms and legs. "Not a scratch," he said, smiling. "That's how you know I'm good."

Nath's tail twitched. "Yeah."

"More importantly, I managed to finish my readings for one of tomorrow's classes," Marc said. "I still have to finish my homework for the other ones, though."

"Rest in peace to you, then," Nath said, raising a toast with his glass.

Marc groaned in response. "Tell me about it."

"Maybe you should take less missions?"

"I'm trying, but I gotta pay for my tuition somehow."

"Yeah, I'd guess bounty hunting pays a lot more than other normal part-time jobs," Nath said.

"That and a whole lot of other reasons," Marc mumbled.

Nath paused, his fork halfway to his lips. "Oh?"

"It's kind of a family expectation," Marc said. "They gave me this sword, and they want me to do something with it." He noticed Nath's eyes flick to the sword, wings raising defensively outward just a little. Curious. "Bounty hunting isn't my passion, though," he continued. "Still, at least it's something I know how to do, and beats working a minimum wage job just for some cash."

"That's why I never went to college," Nath said, shaking his wings a little and retracting them back to his sides. "Shame things have to be so expensive nowadays."

Nathaniel wasn't the kind of person to talk about his past, so any mention of his life before Marc was in it prodded the swordsman's curiosity, a constant battle between not wanting to pry too much into his friend's secrets and the half-dragon's strange nature. "You had passions of your own?" He asked, cautiously inviting further conversation.

"Yeah," Nath said, leaning back. "I wanted to be an artist." The half-dragon gestured to the easel on the far side of the corner. "But college was a bit too pricey for me, so...I ended up with this shop out of pure luck."

It made sense that Nath would have wanted a career as an artist, but the mention of the store caught his interest. "So the shop's not a family business?"

"No." Nathaniel gave a wry smile. "I'm not on great terms with my family."

Shit, he pried too much.

"Sorry," Marc said, ducking his head.

"Don't worry about it."

Well now he was worrying about it. Double shit. Anxiety was a bitch and it continually made a little bitch out of him.

"Well hey," Marc said, in a desperate attempt to make things not-awkward again. "For what it's worth, I think your art's pretty great."

Nath chuckled at that, a light sound that eased some of the tension from Marc's shoulders. "Thanks. I have to admit, seeing all the work you have to do as an English Major kind of makes me glad I chose not to go to college. I would not be able to write half as many papers as you do in a week."

"Thanks, it's the perfectionist in me that insists I have to be good at everything," Marc said, flashing a quick finger guns at the half-dragon.

"I think I just saw your eyebags grow twice their size from that remark alone," Nath commented. "Look, if these are the choices you make in life, that's fine, but please take care of yourself."

"I'm trying," Marc said. "And I'm glad you're looking out for me."

Nath raised an eyebrow. "You know what I think?"

"What."

"I think you need to get laid."

Marc choked on the rice in his mouth. "ghk-whAT?"

Nathaniel patiently waited until Marc had cleared all the rice from his lungs. "I'm serious," he said, resting his elbows on the table and leaning forward. "It helps with stress. Get yourself a date sometime, or like, some friends with benefits, or something. It works for me, after all."

Marc gave a modest smile-interrupted by another hacking cough-and looked back down at his plate. "I'll think about it," he said.

What else was he supposed to say? "Yeah, I've actually been trying and wouldn't ya know, candidate one is actually sitting across from me at this table but I've got the confidence and experience of a sea cucumber in the desert and would literally die before I tried to ask you out"?

Yeah, no. That wasn't happening.

The rest of the evening passed by relatively smoothly. It always did with Nath, the half-dragon had a charisma that was impossible to resist, and Marc found himself loosening up around his friend.

It was ridiculously lucky how well they get along. They had similar tastes in music, Nathaniel owned books that Marc read and admired (whether or not Nath had read those books or just liked the cover art was still something Marc hadn't figured out yet), and the half-dragon had a quick wit and tongue that flashed at the most unexpected times, catching him pleasantly off guard with a sudden quick remark or a joke.

"Well," Marc said, with a regretful glance at the clock. "I've got school tomorrow. Should probably get ready for bed and try to get as much homework done as I can."

"Fair enough." Nath raised his glass. "Well, I'm glad you're back safe."

Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was Marc being...well...him, but the swordsman felt a rosy tint rise to his cheeks at the half-dragon's small but awkwardly wholesome gesture.

Like dorks, they clinked their glasses, draining the last drops of wine together.

Nathaniel smiled. "Welcome home."

Chapter Text

Things went smoothly for the next few weeks.

Marc got readjusted to his life as a college student and Nath's employee, Nathaniel brought Marc back up to speed on deliveries, and that was that.

In the mornings Marc would leave for his college classes while Nathaniel opened the shop. In the evenings Marc would come home, take Nath's car and do any deliveries that the shop needed, and then they'd make dinner, read books, chat, anything, really, between the hours where Marc wasn't deep in an ocean's worth of homework.

It was almost unnerving how quickly the two had fallen into rhythm.

Nathaniel was used to being alone, passing the time with art, talking with Alix, or sometimes spending an evening with Marinette. But now there was someone else to share that time with, and his little dingy home felt a little brighter in a way he hadn't expected.

Nath wouldn't have considered himself to enjoy the...domestic lifestyle, yet here he was. He couldn't help it, Marc was just a pleasant person to be around. Ignoring the whole...murder sword thing. That was a little off-putting. But other than that, Marc was a total sweetheart and Nathaniel adored him for it.

And then things started going awry.

Nathaniel spent an evening with Marinette. There wasn't really a proper procedure to it, but Nathaniel didn't expect her to grab him by the collar and drag him inside the moment he knocked on the door.

"Feisty today?" He teased, his heart rate accelerating. Then he saw the fury in her eyes and his heartbeat accelerated again, but in the bad way this time.

"The sword," she hissed, her translucent wings flared like a barrier. "Where did your employee's sword come from?"

"A-apparently it's passed down from his family," Nath said.

Marinette didn't really look like a scary person. She wore pigtails while she worked. She was short, had a sweet-looking face with bluebell eyes and spotted red wings. Even during sex she was always observant and accommodating to the other person's desires, sweet even when she was rough, caring even when she was commanding.

Nathaniel was also certain that she could kill him with a snap of her fingers at this very instant.

The fairy pressed him back against the wall. "Do you have any idea what that sword is? What it can do?"

Nathaniel nodded. "It's the-its the sword Blanc," he stammered. "But it's dormant right now, it can't take control of its wielder."

Marinette stepped away with a huff. "Well at least you know what it is," she said, crossing her arms. "Nath, you're taking a big risk with him."

"I can take care of myself," Nath insisted.

"And what if he finds out what you are?" Marinette spat. "He's a bounty hunter, Nath. He's been trained to fight people like you."

Nath set his jaw in a firm line.

"He'll kill you," Marinette hissed. "And if he kills you, then he's as good as dead too, as well as this neighborhood, this city, anything in Blanc's way once it awakens."

Nathaniel grabbed her shoulders. "I know," he said. "That's why I'm keeping him close. Once he trusts me enough, I'll tell him about the sword's real danger, convince him to trade it out for some other magic sword. Trust me, I know what I'm doing."

Marinette looked him in the eyes. "I only managed to seal the sword because my own prince slay himself on it," she said. "I can't promise I'll be that lucky twice."

"I'll be careful," Nathaniel promised.

Marinette hesitated, then nodded. "If you need me to intervene..." she let the sentence hang in the air, as both a promise and a threat.

Nathaniel nodded. "I'll let you know."

"Good." Marinette slapped his chest. "Now, as much as I'm worried for your safety, fear kills the mood, so let's move on. Take off your shirt."

Nathaniel laughed. "If you insist."

They spent the night trying to forget the danger, the fear, trying to lose themselves the way they had lost themselves before.

Even with the fairy straddling him, one hand in his hair and the other snaking down his pants, it was hard for him to put the thought of the sword out of his mind. But he tried, nonetheless.

And if Marinette swirled a few protective sigils around Nathaniel's chest, whispering ancient words between fevered kisses, well, Nath wasn't going to say anything.

 

~oOo~

 

He woke up the next morning in Marinette's bed, alone.

The sheets were already magically cleaned, tucked up over his chest. Nath smiled. Marinette had always been an early riser. A quick glance at the clock proved it was already way too early for him to be up.

Normally, he would prefer to sink back into the soft white blankets, doze for a few hours and open his shop at a later, respectable time.

Wait, Marc would be getting up soon. He'd get worried if Nath wasn't back.

Yawning, the demon stepped out of the bed, wings curled around his naked body like a blanket as he glanced around the room for wherever his clothes had ended up. He found them neatly folded at the end of the bed.

"Listen, sweetheart, your boyfriend's great, but if you think he's taking it too slow then you should talk to him about it!" He heard Marinette's cheery voice say from downstairs. Looks like she already had a customer.

After he was more presentable, Nathaniel made his way down to the tailor's shop. Marinette was busy bustling around a kitsune woman with reddish-brown hair and glasses, who was standing on a small pedestal in front of a mirror while the fairy took measurements.

Alya, Marinette's friend. Nath had met her a few times before. They'd had a drunken hookup one time. If it had been an unfamiliar person, Nathaniel might have stayed hidden, but Alya was a pretty chill lady when she wasn't sticking her nose in everyone's business while being exceptionally shady about her own.

"Morning," he said, leaning against the doorframe.

Alya's eyes flicked to him, then down to Marinette. "You've been keeping yourself busy," she said, smirking.

"There are muffins in the kitchen," Marinette called over her shoulder, ignoring Alya's teasing tone. "You can take the whole box, if you remember to save some for your roommate."

"Oh, he has a roommate?" Alya's eyes twinkled. "Is he hot?"

Nathaniel ignored her, already feeling his mouth watering at the mention of breakfast. "You know, Marinette, treat me this good all the time and I might actually fall in love with you," he joked, grabbing the muffins and heading towards the door.

"Ha!" Marinette wrapped her measuring tape around Alya's waist, lightly pushing the kitsune's bushy red fox tail to the side. "Maybe if you were about 500 years older," she said. "I don't date people outside of my century."

"Don't die on the way home," Alya said.

Her voice was light, and it was supposed to be in a joking manner and his house was only next door, but there was the slightest shift in the tone of her voice, and Nathaniel knew that the illusionist spoke truth.

"I'll try not to," he said, as he left the two women to their own projects.

"As I was saying," he heard as he made his way out, "I'm sure Nino would listen if you just talked to him! I haven't had a committed relationship in 500 years and even I know he's a keeper."

"Alright, girl. If you say so."

"Of course, if it doesn't work out..."

"Ha! I'll bring my lonely, broken self over to your bedroom right away."

Nathaniel walked home, a box of muffins under his arm. Today was already looking to be a good day. He'd had sex, he had food from Marinette, he woke up early (this one wasn't a pro in his book but it set at a gentle neutral)-

-and all thoughts of a good day froze when he saw two people already in his store.

Did he lock the doors yesterday?

He remembered doing it, so how...?

Was he being robbed? Who robbed people at like 5:30 am?

Stepping closer, the demon started to recognized both figures. Marc and Kim. Marc had his sword in hand, but appeared to be talking politely with the other human.

Trying to open the door showed that it was still locked, which only raised more questions as to how Kim had gotten inside. Nath waved his hand and the magic locks dispelled while he opened the manual locks with his keys. The little door chime rang as he stepped in, instantly halting the conversation between Marc and Kim.

"Nath!" Kim said, a grin spreading across his face. "I let myself in, hope you don't mind. Your boyfriend nearly cut out my throat!" He laughed, pointing at the thin line of blood across his neck like a child proudly showing off a skinned knee.

What the fuck.

Whaaaaaat the fuck.

Nathaniel didn't know if he should be more afraid of the fact that Marc had gone for Kim's throat, or that Kim had survived.

"He's-he's not my boyfriend," Nath choked, finally settling on that point rather than addressing whatever had happened. "How did you get in?"

Marc gave a side glance to him. "This guy says he works for your landlord."

"I do," Kim insisted, sticking out his lower lip. "Max-sorry, I'm not supposed to use his name-the boss needs you two to come with me."

"Why?"

Kim shrugged. "He didn't say."

Marc grumbled something under his breath, which sounded a lot like "be late for class," and "goddamn himbo."

Nathaniel blinked. "Both of us?"

"Both of you."

Marc turned to Nath, turning the blade of his sword ever so slightly and raising his eyebrows.

No, you can't kill him, Nathaniel tried to communicate through facial expressions. It seemed to work, since Marc slowly sheathed the sword back into the scabbard at his side.

"So?" Kim asked, capturing Nath's attention. "Are you coming?"

"Marc," Nath said, not taking his eyes off of Kim. "Email your professor and tell him that you'll be late for your morning lecture."

Marc gave him a questioning look, but nodded and pulled out his phone.

"Give me five minutes," Nathaniel said, gesturing to his wrinkled clothes.

Kim nodded. "I'll call the boss."

Five minutes later Nathaniel was dressed in cleaner clothes, and Marc was standing in front of the shop's entrance, one hand still on his sword hilt, the other holding a blueberry muffin.

"These are Marinette's, right?" Kim said, unashamedly helping himself to the box, much to Nath's distaste. "What did you do to get these, sleep with her?"

"Yes." Nathaniel narrowed his eyes at Kim. True, most people in the Dupont neighborhood knew Marinette, she was a popular lady...who was this guy?

"Ah." Kim popped another one in his mouth. "Makes sense."

Marc tilted his head, eyes flitting to Nath and Kim with a confused look.

Nathaniel sighed. "Marinette owns the tailor shop next door," he explained. "She's a...girl around town, you could say."

"Yeah," Kim nodded. "Most of the people around here know her. She really makes you feel special."

"She's a prostitute?"

"No, no," Kim shook his head. "She's a friend, but like, when you really like your friend and want to...I don't know how to explain it."

"Friends with benefits," Nath deadpanned, grabbing a muffin for himself before Kim could eat them all and popping it in his mouth.

"That's the word!" Kim snapped his fingers. "Like me and Max!"

Nathaniel choked.

"Nath?" Marc rushed over to him as he doubled over, coughing out bits of muffin that he had accidentally inhaled. The swordsman gave him a few solid whacks on the space between his wings, and Nathaniel wheezed, lungs gasping for un-muffinated air.

Things suddenly made a lot more sense. Nathaniel wished they hadn't made sense. Oh gods, he wished they hadn't made sense.

Kim raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, I should have said 'the boss'. You good?"

"Yeah," Nath said, letting Marc help pull him back to his feet. "I'm okay."

"Anyway," Kim said, nodding to Marc. "I'm sure Nath could introduce you to her! She's a really great friend!"

"I'm sure she is," Marc responded cooly, hand still on Nathaniel's arm. "But I don't really swing that way, so, uh..."

"Just friends then," Kim said, clicking his tongue. "Gotcha."

"Maybe," Marc said, stepping away.

"So," Nathaniel cleared his throat, folding his arms and trying to give off I-own-this-shop-don't-fuck-with-me vibes. "You didn't come here just to break into my shop and eat the muffins that Marinette gave me, did you?"

"Right!" Kim straightened, pulling a phone from his jacket pocket. "Hey," he said. "We're ready to go!"

Before he had the chance to hang up there was a flash of blue light, arcing through the air in a perfect circle until the ends connected and the area in the middle shimmered, creating a portal to another place. Nathaniel could just barely see the hint of wood floor, a different scene than the tile in his shop. His don't-fuck-with-me vibes vanished in an instant.

"A teleportation portal," he whispered, awed. "That's advanced magic."

"After you," Kim said, gesturing to the circle.

Nathaniel stepped through, followed closely by Marc.

The instant chill of cooler air made Nath shiver as his feet hit the wooden floor. He glanced around at the unfamiliar surroundings.

The walls were covered in wires and buttons and screens, and Nathaniel didn't understand what any of them did, but they were the only source of light in this small room with no visible windows or doors. A familiar drone, Markov, was circling around him, scanning the demon with green lasers.

"Oh, watch the horns, Markov," Nathaniel warned, ducking as the robot flew a little too close to his head.

"Thanks for the warning," Markov chirped in response.

"Huh, it speaks," he heard Marc mutter behind him. Right. Marc had never got the chance to meet Markov.

"Good morning, Kurtzberg," the voice of his boss said. Nathaniel turned to see Max, sitting in front of a table, twirling his fingers in a circular pattern, blue flecks sparking from his fingertips. "Have a seat."

There were two seats on the opposite end of the table. Nath took one chair, while Marc took the other.

Oh gods, this was an interrogation room, wasn't it?

Nathaniel tried to recall everything that had happened in the past month that might have upset his boss. Nothing was coming to mind. Shit. He was blanking.

Kim stepped through the portal, and as Max waved his hand, the blue lights on his fingers disappearing as the portal closed.

Marc crossed his arms, squinting suspiciously. "What kind of landlord are you again?"

Max leaned forward in his chair, steepling his fingers. "Nathaniel Kurtzberg, Marc Anciel," he said, his voice somehow managing to be menacing despite his reedy voice. "I have a job to offer you."

Chapter Text

Marc was seriously starting to reconsider what kind of job he had applied for.

Normally, delivery jobs didn't entail sitting in a dark room with your boss's boss after said boss's boss used magic to break into the store.

Normally, Marc didn't have to worry about almost killing his coworkers. But Kim, credit to the other human, was both agile and surprisingly considerate, making sure not to break anything in the shop when he had backflipped out of the way of Marc's swing. It had been a very impressive backflip, too.

Not enough blood, a voice in the back of his head hissed. More blood to feed the blade.

Marc sighed. Intrusive thoughts were the worst.

"What kind of job?" Nathaniel asked. His voice was cool and his face impassive, but Marc could see that the redhead's tail was thrashing below the table.

Max snapped his fingers, and the robot thing-Nath had called it Markov-landed on the table, attaching to a small mechanical device in the corner.

The table lit up, a holographic image flickering into existence a few inches above the surface.

"Holograms?" Nath said.

Max nodded. "The advantages of combining magic and technology are not unknown to me."

Marc swore he saw Kim mouth "nerd" with a cheeky grin, but that must have been a trick of the light or something. He turned his attention to the image, which looked to be some hexagonal object that he couldn't quite get a good look at from this angle.

"A nest of Miracle Wasps," Max said, gesturing to the image. "You, Kurtzberg, should be familiar with this object."

Nathaniel's tail whipped below the table, slapping against Marc's ankle. "I do," he said. "You bought it from my shop about...three, four months ago?"

"Three and a half," The gnome corrected. "Tell me, Kurtzberg, what do you know about this item?"

Nathaniel licked his lips nervously. "Well, Miracle Wasps are a rare breed of magic beasts from the Feywild that mainly feed off of other wasps, bees, and hornets," he said. "They tend to infiltrate hives and imitate workers, adapting their own physicality and behavior pattern to blend in until they can reach the queen and immobilize her."

Max nodded. "And their powers?"

"The venom of a Miracle Wasp can paralyze a human for several hours," Nathaniel said. "But for insects, they can also secrete a special venom that puts the target completely under their control. After they control the queen of a hive, they lead her to their own nest, keeping her prisoner. The pheromones she produces will gradually attract workers to her in small groups, making them easy pickings while the wasps that have already infiltrated the nest destroy eggs and food supplies."

Marc tried not to react as Nathaniel's tail curled around his leg, oddly similar to how someone would reach out to hold a person's hand when they were nervous.

"But humans can control Miracle Wasps, too, " Max said. "Miracle Wasp nests often bond with sentient beings for protection. Which is also why they're in such high demand as illegal pets."

The redhead nodded. "It's possible," he said. "But that requires being stung by the queen of their hive and forming a mental link with her. Not an easy task, given that she's more intelligent than-wait, you already know this, why are you-"

"You've done your research," The gnome interrupted. "Gaining control of a Miracle Wasp hive requires gaining the trust of the queen. In our case, the hive you sold me had a queen that had already stung someone."

"Does that change anything?" Nathaniel narrowed his eyes.

"Well, a queen doesn't change her allegiance easily. It's more productive to wait for her to die and a new queen to be born, but that can take years, or months if someone chooses to actively kill the queen-though the latter would be very dangerous."

Nath stiffened very suddenly in his seat. "What do you mean kill-"

He stopped abruptly as the boss fixed his eyes on the half-dragon. "However, in this case, it works in our favor. Which brings me to the job I have for you."

"Took you long enough," Marc whispered under his breath, then immediately wished he hadn't said anything when the gnome's dark eyes fixated on him.

Nathaniel's tail grew vice-like against Marc's leg. The half-dragon was ramrod-straight in his seat, tenser than a drawn bowstring.

Apparently, the gnome man didn't care, because he turned back to Markov and waved a hand. The hologram disappeared. "Three days ago, I delivered this nest, along with other artifacts, to a client of mine in another city," he said, crossing his arms. "Markov made the delivery. At 2:34 am, he was shut down by some unknown force, most likely a small range EMP. When we found him, Markov and all of the artifacts were undamaged, but the Miracle Wasp nest was nowhere in the surrounding area."

"You think it was stolen deliberately?" Nathaniel asked.

"Most likely. That's why I need you two."

The boss turned his head to Marc, but he kept his mouth firmly closed. Call it intuition or just the basic reading of the room, but this didn't really feel like a situation that he was supposed to talk in.

"Kurtzberg, you were the one that had been stung by this hive's queen, correct?"

The grip on Marc's leg was probably going to leave bruises at this point. "I used them for security," the redhead answered. "It was a better alternative to keeping them in a box, and once I formed a connection with the queen, we became...friends. Sort of."

"If you were in sufficient vicinity of the swarm, they would return to you at your command," Max said. "If it was simply lost, then we can reclaim it with ease. But if it was stolen..." his eyes narrowed back onto Marc. "We could use an experienced fighter."

A cold feeling settled in Marc's bones. He'd only ever fought Monsters and beasts before, but it's not like he hadn't prepared to fight evil people if such a job came up, but this all felt like he was getting into something way over his head, but the intrusive thoughts in his head seemed really eager about violence and why did he take this job again-

"How much?" He finally answered, managing to keep his voice at an even tone.

A wry smile flitted across the gnome's face, and he adjusted his glasses. "Fifteen-hundred gold upfront," he said.

Holy fuck.

"Each."

Holy Fuck.

"And Thirty-five-hundred gold each upon completion."

Holy goddamn fucking hell.

Marc's mind was spinning. Five thousand gold? Fuck having morals and shit, he was gonna get his student loans paid off!

Nathaniel turned to Marc. "What do you think?"

How was he so calm about this? His boss had just offered them both a small fortune!

Pretending to not be affected by the huge sum of money and failing miserably, Marc nodded, eyes wide.

"Alright then." Nathaniel turned to Max, extending a hand across the table. Man, the light really was playing tricks on him or something, because Nath's hand seemed to glow with a faint red light, the fingernails shifting into an almost claw-like form. Hologram lights were wild.

"The two of us will help you find the Miracle Wasp nest and the queen in exchange for the previously agreed fee," Nath said. "If something goes awry, such as one of us being injured to the point of serious damage or killed, our contract will require changes determined by me. If that is not possible, the contract will be considered void. You will not attempt to break or change the rules of our agreement without a discussion with me. Those are my terms."

The boss stared at his outstretched hand for a long time. "I appreciate your honesty with your contracts," he said, reaching forward and taking the redhead's hand. "Very well then. I agree to your conditions."

"Then it's a deal."

As they shook hands, Marc could sense a new tension in the air, like a slight pressure on the back of his skull. Magic? At this point he wasn't really sure what were tricks of the light, actual shit happening, or his own scatterbrained think box malfunctioning from the sheer amount of bullshit he'd been processing today-it wasn't even 7 am yet!

"I'll have Kim contact you this evening," the gnome said, pulling away. "Prepare any combat equipment you may need, you'll likely be traversing through wildlands for several hours. Markov, the payment."

Marc was absolutely not able to come to terms with what was happening. There were no words in his lexicon that could accurately describe his mental state, but as the small robot unlocked a panel in the wall and dropped a large variety of bills and gold pieces in his hands, he was struck with the knowledge that whatever was going on, it was real and it was happening.

"Thank you, have a good day," Markov said in a cheery voice, unexpectedly cute and out of place for what had probably just been a deal with a mob boss. Nothing was making sense anymore.

Max made a circular motion with three of his fingers, and a portal appeared to the side of the table, back into the shop.

Nathaniel pocketed his money and stood, his leg quickly uncurling from around Marc's leg. He extended one wing to push the chair back into place. "Let's go, Marc."

They stepped out of the dark room and back into the morning sun shining through the shop windows. Marc blinked at the light change, rubbing his eyes and glancing outside to make sure no one had seen them teleport back. There was a Kitsune woman walking out of a nearby store, but other than that, the streets were empty.

Nathaniel let out a long breath. "Well," he said. "That happened."

"What kind of job did I take?"

"The one you just took or this job in general?"

Marc leaned against the counter, rubbing his forehead. "I just, I don't know!" He threw one hand in the air, gesturing to the space around him. "I expected a boring delivery job and a boss that I wouldn't know too well, but now you're one of my best friends somehow and we just took a gig from someone who was probably a mafia boss and-" he groaned, running his fingers through his hair while the other hand was still clutched around the money in his pocket. "I'm gonna call in sick today. Wouldn't be able to think in any of my classes if I tried."

The half-dragon moved to the door, working on undoing the lock enchantments. "That's fair-wait, best friend?"

Marc looked away. "I mean, well, I don't have many friends so there's not a lot of competition," he muttered. "The bar's not that high."

"Eh, I don't got many friends either," Nathaniel said, shrugging. "I know the people on this street well enough but other than that..." He rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess I'm kind of flattered."

Maybe it was the whole ridicule of focusing on that rather than anything else that had just happened, but the tension in Marc's shoulders eased and he chuckled. "You...wouldn't happen to know of a place where I can train? I usually have a warm-up routine that I do before I go on missions, but I don't want to go to the college gym if I'm calling in sick. Besides, it's not fun to stretch something when you're killing goblins or giant venomous centipedes."

"I know there's a gym nearby , my friend made me go with her a few times. They've got all sorts of stuff there."

"Your friend...Marinette?"

"No, no, a different friend, Alix. She's...I wanna say you'd like her but she's kind of a handful and you're pretty introverted. Then again, she is friends with me, so."

"Alright." Marc flashed a grin to the half-dragon. "Guess I get a free day off today."

Nathaniel smiled back. "I don't get a lot of customers in the morning, so if you'd like, I could show you some of the interesting items we have around the shop. You should probably know what all the magic items do in case you need to deliver any of them."

"Fuck yes," Marc breathed.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel had to admit, half of the fun of showing off the magic items was watching how Marc's face lit up like a kid the morning after Red Harvest. The other half of the fun was being able to ramble about his specific interests without the stress of trying to sell it off. Magic items were always fun to talk about.

"What's the clay spider in the jar for?"

"That's a summoner. It attracts all spiders in the surrounding area to it."

Marc made a visible face of disgust.

"I keep it in the box so it can't summon any spiders right now, but when set out it can be used for pest control. Or, if you're more malicious, you could put it under someone's bed. I had a kid, about 18, 19 years old, who wanted to buy it to prank his little brother, but he didn't want to fill out the forms for handling magic items so it's been here ever since."

"What about the..." Marc knelt down to the lower shelf. "Is that a glass dildo?"

"Legally, it's a crystal dildo transfigured to work as a normal dildo with no risk of...well...getting cuts in your no-no areas. But in actuality, it's also cursed."

"Cursed?"

"You can't get off while using this, apparently, but it's enchanted so the user doesn't want to get rid of it. I've been waiting to sell this to someone I don't like-and believe me, there's a list."

"What do you mean?"

Nathaniel sighed. "I've been bullied and/or hit on by enough assholes to consider it an annoyance at this point. They interfere with sales and make my life miserable, so sometimes, if I really don't like them, I might throw a mildly cursed object their way at a discount."

"Isn't that illegal?"

"Have you seen this shop?" The demon gestured to everything around him. "This place is legal in the same way a cardboard cutout of a building is an office."

"Yeah, fair enough."

Nathaniel smiled as Marc turned his attention to another item. The raven-haired man had a surprisingly flexible moral compass.

Well, for someone who worked under the radar most of the time, that was a win in his book.

Eventually the morning became afternoon, and Marc went up to their place to work on some project or another as customers started arriving.

Business was pretty standard. Most of his revenue (apart from his delivery service) came from the rack of drinks and snacks, as teenagers who liked wandering into the "shady part of town" came filtering in to look at all the weird items and dare each other to try and pocket a little ring or that weird statue of a snake eating its own tail.

There were few that ever tried, of course. Nathaniel didn't exactly give off the aura of someone who would take lightly to being stolen from. Besides, dragons had a reputation of being defensive with their stuff, and Nathaniel could be intimidating when he wanted to.

He was just about to close up shop and call it a day when a car rolled up to the street and an elvish woman stepped out of the door.

Nathaniel had seen her once before in his shop. One time too many in his opinion.

He was tempted to just lock the door then and there but before he could the woman entered his shop with a scowl, eyes hidden behind expensive-looking sunglasses.

Chloe Bourgeois. Practically the poster child of what an elf looked like. Tall, blond, rich, and self-entitled. However, the wisdom and regality that elves were said to adopt in their old age had apparently not affected her yet, as she was still a snobbish asshole, barely out of her first century but acting like she'd been around since the dawn of time. The fact that her dad was the mayor only seemed to enhance her vanity.

"Ugh," she drawled, glancing around the shop with distaste. "I can't believe someone would sell magic items in a filthy, low-life place like this. The air of Beast Town doesn't agree with me."

"Good afternoon!" Nathaniel said brightly, hiding his annoyance behind a well-practiced smile. Only pricks called the Dupont district "Beast Town." It was a tried-and-true way of telling who was going to disrespect you, so he grit his teeth and resentfully prepared to be blatantly disrespected. "Welcome to Hidden Treasures, what can I help you with?"

The elvish woman looked at him in the same manner that a seasoned and self-entitled corporate boss would look at the vomit stain his employee's service dog made on the carpet floor.

"I'm looking for a certain item," she said. "Something with power enhancement."

Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. "That is a very specific interest."

"Well I'm not going to pay you for sass," she spat, heeled boots clicking as she walked towards the counter.

Nathaniel resisted showing her what actual sass looked like. If it was any other customer, he might have done it, but Chloe Bourgeois was rich and it was never a good idea to piss off rich people because the police usually sided with them.

"Is there anything special you have in mind?" Nathaniel asked. "Power enhancement is kind of a broad term."

"Something powerful," Chloe snapped. "How incompetent can you be?"

Nath almost made a face, but just barely managed to keep a neutral expression. "Something powerful". Come on. What did she think he was, a fucking psychic? He could read minds about as well as she could read a room.

"Well," he said. "The closest thing I can think of would be the Feather of Sentience."

Carefully, he undid the locks on one of the cabinets, pulling out a long, intricate peacock feather.

"This here is fey crafted, one-of-a-kind, grown from a Peacock-Pheonix Hybrid in the Fire Plane," he explained, setting it on the counter. "The tuft of down here at the base can be removed, and when attached to an inanimate object, can create a sentient monster with a singular magical ability that reflects the own user's magical capabilities. It can also be gifted to other people, using their abilities instead of your own."

Chloe's eyes narrowed. "How does it work?"

Nathaniel pulled the tuft of fluff from the feather. It came off easily in his hand, drifting towards a little action figure on one of the nearby shelves. Upon touching it, the figure sprang to life, leaping with agility off of the shelf and landing on the counter.

"There's no easy way to explain how to gift it a power," the demon said, as the figure pulled a little pen from its newly-created pocket and began to draw on the ground. A flock of miniature birds flew from where it had drawn, up into the air before dissipating into a scatter of lights.

The elvish woman watched this with what she probably assumed was an impassive face, pushing her sunglasses up to her forehead.

So she was interested after all.
"It's mostly a matter of practice," Nathaniel said, waving his hand. The action figure resumed its original position and instantly stilled as the tuft of down flew from its chest and scattered into ash. "It takes twenty-four hours for a new tuft to regrow after you've pulled it off."

Chloe scoffed. "Twenty-four hours? That's ridiculous. Can't you make it grow faster or something?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "I didn't make this."

"Ugh." The elf turned away from him, one hand tapping long, manicured fingernails on the counter.

For all her bitchiness and snobbish air and everything about her that Nathaniel despised, Chloe had a very bad poker face.

"How much?"

A wide grin spread across the demon's face. "Well, it comes in a package deal with another magical item. Crafted by the Elementalist's Celestial lover, this is a magical item that enhances the user's emotional and physical state, thus amplifying the feather's abilities." He reached back for the glass dildo. "It's made of pure crystalline but transfigured to function safely, making it both a valuable and unique item."

Chloe raised an eyebrow.

"Trust me," Nathaniel said. "This is a purchase you won't regret."

 

~oOo~

 

"I can't believe you actually managed to sell it off."

Nathaniel flipped the sign closed and turned to Marc, who was leaning in the stairwell, eyebrows raised practically to his hairline.

Nathaniel gave a short laugh. "For almost twice the price, too. Never underestimate the stupidity of rich kids. You just gotta say that it's 'one-of-a-kind' and 'expensive' and they'll buy practically anything. Ready to head out?"

Marc stepped out, sword strapped to his back.

"Taking the sword with you?" Nath commented.

Marc shrugged. "I always do. I even have different scabbards for different occasions."

"Right, but...do you need it?" Maybe he could convince Marc to leave it home until the mission. Just in case.

Marc's shoulders hunched defensively. "A bounty hunter never goes without a weapon," he said, his voice strained with a curious hint of tension.

Seems like he'd hit a sore subject. Oops.

Those thoughts were instantly wiped from his mind when Nathaniel's eyes flicked down. Marc had changed into shorts, and holy fuck those legs.

His legs looked like twigs when he wore jeans, but now, exposed to the light, it was all too clear that whatever was on his legs was pure and solid muscle. This man looked like he could kick leg day into the next century.

He'd never really seen Marc without a jacket or sleeves past the elbow, and right now was no exception, but Nathaniel's mind was definitely wandering. If the rest of his body was as toned as his legs, well...his heart was hammering just thinking about it.

"Um."

Nathaniel's eyes snapped up to meet Marc's. The raven-haired man had a pink tint to his face.

Oh no, he definitely saw him checking out his legs.

Quick, say something witty.

"Legs...uh...yours do look nice," the demon said, stumbling over his words a bit.

Fuck.

Marc looked down at the ground, biting his lip. He was either very flattered or very uncomfortable with this situation. Or both.

Nathaniel was quickly regretting having opened his damn mouth.

"Thanks," Marc said, regaining his composure and looking back up at him with a smile.

Oh. So he was flattered, then.

Nathaniel cleared his throat loudly. "So, uh, ready to head out? If you want to drive that's fine."

"Nah, I'm good," Marc said, walking past him and out of the door. Nath respectfully averted his eyes and focused on locking up.

No point in being horny now. They had a gym to get to.

There'd be time for thoughts like that later.

Chapter Text

Marc sat in the passenger seat of Nath's car, gazing out the window and daydreaming.

Nathaniel had complimented his legs.

Maybe he actually had a chance with the cute half-dragon.

It was no secret to Marc that he was attractive. He'd been flirted with, he'd dated people, he'd had flings and one-night stands and met a few creeps that had thankfully been scared away by his big-ass sword.

He was a ten, but Nath was a solid twelve at least.

They'd lived together for a few months and Marc felt like he knew almost everything about Nathaniel. He was an expressive person, eager to talk about the things he cared about. He was charismatic, always flashing a smile to Marc when he came home, lending an ear when Marc had to rant to someone about a school project or an asshole on campus. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, something that Marc greatly admired.

He was touchy about his past and his family but Marc didn't blame him. It was no secret that Mythics who weren't from upper-class families had it hard, and Marc wasn't one to pry into people's personal lives.

It's not like the swordsman was on the best terms with his family, either.

But other than that, Nathaniel was like an open book. A book that Marc would read over and over again if he could.

A loud honk startled Marc out of his thoughts. They were currently at a stoplight and the light had just turned green, and apparently the person behind them was feeling impatient. Nathaniel leaned back in his seat, glancing at Marc as the driver behind them honked his horn loudly and insistently.

"I'm tempted to just stay here until it turns red again," Nath said. "Just to piss him off."

"Don't," Marc advised. "It's not worth it."

Nathaniel pouted, eyes wide. "But they're being an asshole."

"And we have places to be," Marc reminded the half-dragon. "Do you want to make your friend wait for us?"

Nathaniel sighed, but listened to Marc anyways.

It wasn't long until he rolled up to a large building, where a pink-haired woman with tattoos up her arms was leaning against the wall, scrolling on her phone.

Nathaniel stepped out, swearing under his breath as his wings caught inside the car door for a moment.

"Nath!" The woman yelled, catching sight of the winged man.

"Yo!" Nathaniel raised a hand in greeting. "Marc, this is Alix. She's my best friend and a constant annoyance."

"Yeah, the feeling's mutual," Alix shot back, grabbing Nathaniel by one horn and tugging his head down so she could give him a noogie between his horns.

"Stop it," Nath whined. "Don't grab my horns."

"Awww, your cute little baby ram horns," Alix cooed, ruthlessly rubbing her knuckles into Nath's hair while the redhead squirmed.

Marc watched the two squabble, fighting down a laugh at their antics.

One of Nath's wings shot out and smacked Alix in the side of the head, pushing her away. She jumped back, laughing as Nathaniel stumbled for balance from her sudden absence, nearly careening into Marc before righting himself again and turning to scowl at her.

"Marc, right?" Alix stuck out a hand. "Nice to meetcha."

"Likewise."

"Yeah, yeah," Nathaniel ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing it back out again. "Is the combat room open?"

"Yeah. It's pay per visit, by the way," Alix said, shooting a finger gun at Marc. "Nath's paying for you."

"What? No I'm not!"

"Well he's not my roommate."

"Fuck you." The half-dragon rifled through his pockets.

Marc was tempted to step in. After all, he had just gotten fifteen-fucking-thousand gold, a few coins were nothing, but then again, he didn't bring any of it with him, and from the way Nath was digging through all of his pockets, it seemed he hadn't thought to bring much of it either.

"There." Nathaniel pulled out a handful of gold-piece bills, all from different pockets. "I think I have enough, but you're covering me if I don't."

"No promises."

Marc fought to keep a smile down as he watched the two banter. Even though half their vocabulary was hostile remarks and swear words, it was almost blindingly obvious how much they cared for each other.

It also made for a good fifteen minutes of fighting before they actually made it to the combat room itself, a large, empty room with training dummies to one side and a rack full of prop weapons on the other.

"Okay," Alix clapped her hands. "Don't forget to stretch properly. I'm gonna go do my regular workout, so catch you guys in like an hour."

The easygoing smile from Nath instantly vanished. "You're not staying with us?"

Alix shrugged. "I'm not really a fighter, so I don't see how much help I'd be here."

Nathaniel stepped forward and grabbed his friend's arm, pulling her close and whispering something in her ear.

The sudden shift in mood made Marc curious, but it was probably rude to try and eavesdrop on what they were saying. Besides, from what snippets reached his ears, the half-dragon seemed to be speaking in a language he didn't recognize. Nath had his secrets, that was fine. That wasn't really his business.

Alix responded in the same language, and Marc could have sworn her eyes flicked to him as she was speaking.

Shoot, he was eavesdropping after all.

Marc turned his back to the two, unhooking his sword and scabbard from his back and leaning it against the wall to do his stretches.

Some things were private, Marc could understand and respect that.

But maybe the half-dragon wasn't quite the open book that Marc had assumed.

 

~oOo~

 

[Make sure he doesn't accidentally stab me with the sword, okay?] Nathaniel whispered to Alix in Inferni. It's not like she could do much, but a mediator would definitely make him less terrified.

[Sure,] she replied in the same language. [Wouldn't want you two accidentally triggering the apocalypse or anything. Seriously, Nath, you're playing with fire here.]

[No, I'm playing with knives. I'm pretty good with fire,] Nath hissed back.

Alix cleared her throat. "Hey, Marc," she said, switching back to Common. "I'll be sticking around. Nath wants me to give him some brawling pointers."

"Cool." Marc was currently stretching with his palms on the ground and his ass in the air.

Oh, those shorts did not hide much. Nathaniel made a little choking noise and averted his eyes.

Alix raised an unimpressed eyebrow at Nath. "And because of that."

"Because of what?" Marc stuck his head between his legs to look at them.

Nathaniel bit his lips, turning away. He was not going to stare at his ass. Nope. Nuh-uh. No way in hell. "Don't worry about it," he said, crossing his arms.

Alix slapped him on the back, eyes starting to twinkle with mischief. "No need to be so tense. You gotta go stretch too."

"I...uh...I don't know-"

"Just copy Marc," Alix said, grinning in a way that made it hard to tell who was the actual demon between the two of them.

"Follow my lead," Marc prompted, blissfully unaware of what was going on behind him.

"Okay." Nath's voice cracked a little as he moved to stand next to Marc.

"Now, you'll want to bend over like this," the raven-haired man said.

From this angle it was better. This way he couldn't see the defined muscles in Marc's calves, curving up to disappear under too-short shorts. He could do this. This was fine. The stretches weren't hard, he was just working out with a buddy, everything was going well, no wandering thoughts.

He'd read smut before. There was one scene in particular that was coming to mind where an elf and an orc were working out together and getting very sweaty-and he really shouldn't be thinking about that right now. Nath shook his head. He was strong-willed. He had to be strong-willed.

Until Marc took off his jacket halfway through his stretching routine and Nath's strong will vanished like a raindrop slipping into a storm drain.

Nathaniel's mind had wandered before, trying to imagine what kind of upper body strength the swordsman possessed in order to wield such a giant blade.

None of his wandering fantasies could do the real thing justice.

Marc's arms were fucking ripped. His skin practically glistened with how the light bounced off his arms and around his simple black tank top. The fact that Marc managed to look like a toothpick of a person when his limbs were covered was honestly incredible, because this man had muscles, he had a lot of them, and he looked extremely hot.

He saw Alix throw something at him from the corner of his eye before something smacked him in the back, making him lose his balance.

"Ow! Alix!" The demon turned around to grab the water bottle Alix had thrown at him.

"You looked thirsty," Alix yelled from the other side of the room. "It's important to hydrate!"

"She's right," Marc said, standing back up and arching his back, popping the vertebrae. "Making sure you drink water while exercising is a good way to maintain a healthy routine."

Nathaniel glared at Alix, who flashed a grin at him the moment Marc's back was turned.

"You asked me to stay and give you pointers," she said. "It's your fault if you don't like my help."

Nathaniel was starting to regret keeping Alix around.

Weighing the pros and cons, Alix being there in case Nath used a spell that hit the sword, or got murdered by the sword and unleashed a psychopath into the world versus not having Alix tease Nath about his crush...

It was close, but Nath would have to settle for making sure he and the people he cared for didn't accidentally get ruthlessly slaughtered by said crush.

Hell, looking at those toned arms for too long might do him in anyways.

"Alright," Marc grabbed his sword from the wall, unsheathing it. "Stretching's done."

Nath's eyes fell on the blade and his insides shriveled like a very scared raisin.

"Whoah, whoah whoah," Alix stepped forward. "We don't...you don't use real swords in here."

Marc tilted his head.

"There's prop swords on the wall. You can probably find one with a similar weight and balance and practice with that. This place doesn't allow....actual weapons."

"Oh, okay." Marc resheathed the sword. "Sorry."

Nathaniel placed a hand over his rapidly beating heart, mouthing a "thank you" to Alix. She gave him a thumbs up in return.

Man, he was getting really tired of fearing for his life every few hours.

"Okay," Marc grabbed a wooden sword from the rack, turning it over in his hand. "So, Nath, what do you fight with?"

"Me?" Nathaniel blinked. "I'm not really a fighter."

"We might be facing trouble," Marc noted, giving the prop sword a few swings and frowning. "Can you defend yourself?"

"Other than this one fire spell I can do, my magic isn't useful in a fight. I specialize in warding and imbuing objects, y'know, technical stuff."

Marc grabbed another sword. "What about physically? Can you throw a good punch?"

"Look, I'm not specifically made for battle, but I can handle myself in a fight." Nath crossed his arms. "Being a half-dragon has its perks."

"How so?"

"Well, I'm one of those kinds of Mythics that are automatically stronger than the average human, just cuz, you know," Nath struck a pose, grinning. "I'm special."

"Fuck off," Alix groaned.

"Alix is jealous."

"Am not!"

Marc giggled, setting the swords down to try another one. "That's not very convincing, Alix."

"Nath, you should try mock fighting him," Alix called. "Show him how strong you really are."

"Fuck you," Nath yelled back, but he turned and saw Marc looking at him, a wooden sword in his hand and a curious expression on his face.

"Well," Marc said, walking around Nath in a wide circle, "I am interested in knowing what you're capable of."

Sweet hell on earth.

Nath had assumed Marc being more confident when he held a sword was just a tiny side effect of Blanc, but nope, apparently any sword made Marc into a god of self-assurance.

"How about it?" Marc said, bringing the sword up and tilting his head. "I can go easy on you if you like."

If Nathaniel wasn't a competitive person, his knees might have gone weak. "If you go easy on me, you'll end up out cold on the floor," he warned, reaching behind to tuck his wings through the slits in his shirt before pulling it over his head and throwing it to the side. The sigils that Marinette had drawn on his chest last night caught the light in a barely visible sheen.

Marc raised his eyebrows, glancing at his bare chest. His eyes were a bright, glittering green, excited, a grin spreading on his face that sent a thrill through the demon's spine.

"Alix, will you moderate?" Nathaniel tilted his head, tail swishing and curling behind him.

Alix had one hand over her face. "Fine," she said. "You'll fight until you manage to pin the other down for three seconds or until someone concedes. Fair?"

"Fair."

Nathaniel brought his hands up. Marc readied his sword.

"You're not getting a weapon?" Marc asked.

Nathaniel smiled. "Don't need one."

The swordsman shrugged. "Your loss."

Alix raised a hand in the air. "We'll start in three...two...one...go!"

Nathaniel lunged first, closing the distance easily. The confidence in Marc's face turned to shock and he barely had time to move his sword, blocking Nathaniel's leg as he grabbed Marc's shoulder and tried to hook one leg around the inside of his knee. With a grunt, he pushed Nathaniel away and sprang back.

"You're faster than I thought you'd be," the swordsman said, grinning.

Nathaniel didn't answer, smiling wolfishly, circling the other as his tail swished eagerly behind him.

There was something exciting about fighting Marc. Normally, the thought of attacking the kind-hearted man would shock him, but here, the kind-hearted man was a wild beast, and Nathaniel was no different.

Marc took initiative this time, stepping forward, swinging the sword in quick flashes. Even with such a large and heavy weapon, the swordsman maneuvered it like it was made of air, but as the weighted wooden blade struck against Nathaniel's arms, the demon could confirm it was most definitely not made of air at all. Ow.

His concentration slipped for a split second and the wooden sword knocked his arm away, striking soundly against his ribs.

"Fuck!" Nathaniel hissed at the pain, jumping away, but Marc followed relentlessly, changing from quick strokes to large, heavy swings. Nathaniel was starting to regret not picking a shield or something, because he was having to block the swordsman's attacks with his bare arms and that shit hurt like hell.

Maybe it was time for Marc to receive a taste of what he could do.

Stepping forward, the demon stepped into close quarters with Marc, grabbing his sword arm in a tight grip. Marc grabbed his other hand, locking them together in a stalemate.

Marc jerked his right arm free, rearing his sword back to strike-

Nathaniel's wing shot out, clocking the swordsman in the face and sending him reeling. He stumbled back, raising one hand up to shield his head, but Nathaniel stepped forward, closing the distance once again.

It wasn't a very elegant fighting style, grabbing someone by the arms and pummeling the shit out of them with his wings, but it had worked for him in the past, and it was working now. All it would take is a lucky strike to the temple and Marc would be out cold.

At least, it worked until Marc managed to get his knee up and into the demon's stomach, kicking him away. As Nathaniel fell, his tail wrapped around the other's leg, vice-like, pulling him down.

Marc might be a trained swordsman, but when it came to full, hands-on brawling, Nathaniel had the upper hand. Using his wings as leverage, he flipped over, pinning Marc to the ground.

Alix's voice rang out, barely audible over the blood rushing in his ears. "One, two-"

Marc slammed his sword into Nathaniel's shoulder, knocking him off balance as a flash of hot-white pain flashed through his side. The swordsman darted out from his grip, back onto his feet, watching his movement at a distance.

"Not...ah...not bad," the raven-haired man gasped, sweat sheening on his face. "You know how to hit hard."

"Ha, same for you," Nathaniel replied, rubbing his shoulder. Any harder and it might have been dislocated.

Marc ran forward, sword at the ready. Nathaniel tried to dodge, to get in close, but the swordsman was more wary now, dancing just out of reach, sword flashing as quick as lightning, parrying, thrusting, blocking.

The thrill and adrenaline pumping through Nathaniel's blood was quickly accompanied by a growing sense of animalistic fear as the swordsman's strikes started to gain speed and momentum, striking faster, hitting harder, almost a blur as he practically danced like a deadly bludgeon, battering ruthlessly against Nathaniel's defense.

There was a moment of sheer terror when Nathaniel saw the gleam in Marc's eyes and knew he lost, just seconds before the sword swung down to crack against his leg and the world went sideways.

His back hit the ground, knocking the air from his lungs, wings pinned beneath him, and Marc was standing above him, one foot on his chest and his wooden sword pressed against the demon's neck.

"One, two, three!" Alix yelled out.

"Too bad," Marc said, panting for breath. "I hit harder."

Nathaniel let his head fall against the padded floor. His heart was hammering, the adrenaline slowly fading.

"I lost," he gasped, a little delirious from the pain and the pressure of the sword against his throat and the boot on his chest, blocking his airway just enough to make the demon struggle for breath.

Marc seemed to notice this and stepped away, straightened back and raised head suddenly collapsing like a folding chair as his confident persona vanished. "Are you okay?" He kneeled down, taking one of Nathaniel's hands in his own. "Your arms look like they might be bruised. Is anything broken?"

Nathaniel flinched, but Marc's fingers were light over his arms, careful not to apply pressure. "I don't think so," he said. "I think I'll be okay."

The swordsman ducked his head sheepishly. "I got a little carried away, I didn't mean to-"

Nathaniel laughed, a low chuckle in the back of his throat that rumbled comfortably in the silence following their battle. "I'm glad," he said. "At least now I'll be less nervous when we head out on our mission, now that I'm sure you can take care of yourself."

"Yeah," Marc smiled, trailing his hands down to link with the demon's fingers. "Me too."

Nathaniel's heart stuttered a little in his chest.

Marc's eyes were half-lidded, eyelashes hovering over pink cheeks as he examined Nathaniel's body for injury. There was a part of Nathaniel's heart that had grown fond of the swordsman, that adored the fact that for all his skill and ferocity on the battlefield, sweat shining on his skin, he could be as soft and gentle as a doe in the meadow.

Another part of Nathaniel's heart stuttered in fear.

Marc was a double-edged sword. The stronger he was, the safer he would be on his missions...

...and the harder it would be to stop him if Marc ever decided to turn his weapon against the demon himself.

But here, with the swordsman's lips half-parted as he carefully ran his hands over Nathaniel's bare chest, examining and apologizing for the bruises forming on the man's ribs, that part of his heart seemed trivial, unnecessary.

Marc's hands cupped the demon's cheek, and Nathaniel found himself leaning into his touch, eyes fluttering closed, losing himself in the falling tide of his adrenaline. He felt safe, cared for, in the arms of the man who could bring his ruin as easily as the sun ruins the night, as the unknown ruins truth and truth ruins friendships built on fragile secrets.

Alix coughed loudly and Nathaniel's eyes flew open.

"Sorry," he said, jerking away from Marc's touch. Marc pulled back too, eyes still wide with concern.

"You both look tired out," Alix said, walking up to them.

Marc shrugged. "I've worked up a bit of a sweat, nothing too bad."

"Ugh..." Nathaniel flopped back on the ground. "That's a blow to the old self-confidence."

"Being naturally stronger than the average human doesn't mean much against someone who trains almost every day," Marc said, patting his shoulder sympathetically. "You put up a good fight, though. I'm proud of you!"

"You got your ass absolutely handed to you," Alix deadpanned.

"Fuck off," Nath groaned, placing a hand on his ribs.

"Whatever. Let's take a small break, ten, fifteen minutes. You can use that time to heal your wounded pride."

Nathaniel gave a thumbs up. "Great."

Chapter Text

The trio leaned against the wall of the combat room, surrounded by an array of water bottles and various snacks that Alix had accumulated from the vending machines.

Marc turned to look at Nathaniel. The half-dragon was currently wiping sweat from his forehead with a towel. The bruises on his arms and sides were starting to become more obvious now, and Marc still felt a twinge of guilt at not holding back.

Then again, his face and shoulders where Nathaniel had bludgeoned him with his wings still hurt a lot. A well-placed strike could have easily knocked him out. Holding back would have been dangerous.

"Doing well?" He asked the redhead.

The other looked up, smiling. "As well as I can," he said. "If I could have had anyone pin me to the floor, I'm glad it was you."

Alix made a face, muttering "Of-fuckin-course," under her breath.

Something about the tone in his voice felt like there was more to what he was saying beyond face value. The fact that Nath was shirtless and sweating also added to the subtext that Marc wasn't sure existed but if it did...

Marc turned away sharply, biting into a granola bar and trying to distract his thoughts before it became too obvious that he was obviously ogling the half-dragon's half-naked body.

"So, Marc," Alix said, throwing an empty water bottle at the trashcan on the other side of the wall and silently fist-pumping when it landed in. "Why are you a bounty hunter?"

Marc covered his mouth, still halfway through chewing. "Family expectations. It's really just a side job, though, until I can finish my English degree."

"Yeah, but it's still pretty dangerous, isn't it? Kinda feels like the risk isn't really worth the money."

"Well, it helps pay for college," Marc explained, swallowing. "And it feels...it's like I'm doing something good, making a positive difference in the world by helping to eradicate all the Monsters from this realm."

The two suddenly became very quiet.

Marc glanced up. The smile on Nathaniel's face had vanished completely, so still he could have been mistaken for a statue.

Alix raised an eyebrow. "All Monsters?"
"Well," Marc tilted his head a little. "I'm sure there are probably some Monsters who are good, but Monsters in general are evil..." he glanced between their faces. "...right?"

It didn't take a genius to read the room and figure out that he'd said something wrong.

Alix closed her eyes and let out a long, slow, breath. Her fingers tensed into the mat.

"Alix," Nathaniel said, his voice a low, warning tone.

"This," she hissed, teeth gritted. "Is why I hate the human educational system. Fucking hell."

Oh gods, she was mad at him. He'd royally screwed up.

"I'm sorry," Marc said. "I...uh..."

Nathaniel looked at him. "Something you should know about Alix," he said. "Her family works at the museum down the street, she's spent her whole life learning about history, and the misconception that all Monsters are evil-"

"It pisses me off," Alix interrupted, opening her eyes and fixing a murderous stare towards the swordsman. "Marc, I hope you don't need to go anywhere soon because I am going to sit your ass down and explain to you how everything you just said was wrong."

Marc looked to Nath in alarm, but the half-dragon just folded his arms and shrugged in a you brought this on yourself kind of way.

"O-okay," Marc said, leaning away from the terrifying woman.

"Most people assume there are three general species of humanoids," Alix said. "Humans, the base norm, and then the two subsets, Mythics and Monsters. Sound reasonable?"

"Uh...yes?"

"No!"

"I'm sorry!"

Alix shook her head. "No, you don't...you don't know better, I should...I'm just upset, okay? I'll try to be more calm about this."

Marc nodded. Nathaniel was holding one of Alix's hands, running a thumb over her palm.

"Humans aren't the 'main species' or anything like that," Alix said, rolling her eyes a little. "The only reason they're classified as separate from Monsters and Mythics is because humans have an insanely successful birth rate. For most humanoid species, they can only have a baby once every ten years or so, or they just have really low infancy survival rates. The fact that humans take up 70% of this realm's population and aren't naturally magical are the only things separating them from both Monsters and Mythics."

Marc nodded. "Okay, that makes sense."

"Now." Alix crossed her arms. "You were probably taught that the difference between Monsters and Mythics is that Mythics are 'good' and Monsters are 'evil', right?"

Marc squinted. "That's not the case, is it?"

Alix nodded. "Correct. See, you're learning!"

"I could tell because you looked like you wanted to rip my throat out when you said it."

"Do you know how often I have to hear rich entitled humans walk through the museum and spout historical inaccuracies? Mythics, too. This society thrives on misinformation, and I'm tired of it, but..." Alix rubbed her forehead.

Nathaniel turned to Marc. "You're getting all this? Everything making sense so far?"

Marc gave a hesitant thumbs up.

"The start of this dates back to when multi-species societies started being formed, over a thousand years ago. Once humans learned that not all 'other humanoids' came from other realms like the Feywild or the Astral Realm or the Abyss, they became...a little less hostile towards what they called 'the magicfolk'. And then they started getting real friendly, and fucking each other, and we ended up with a lot of half-breeds."

Marc glanced over to Nathaniel. The half-dragon was watching Alix with a fixed expression.

"Half-elves became popular in big regions, since they looked just like humans but also had magic. And from there, elves came in, and dwarves, and dragons, and started building cities made for coexisting species. Those species became known as Mythics."

"What about Monsters?"

"Well, every species has its own set of challenges and needs. Not all cities were accomodating, and some Mythics with grudges-mainly elves but let's not unpack that bag of worms right now-actively made societies that were uninhabitable by other species. Those that didn't want to exist with the humans but didn't want to be forced into a separate realm protested, but never quite managed to band together in the way that humans and Mythics did. So they were classified as Monsters, species that were detrimental to the improvement of humanoid life and inherently dangerous to their new society."

"Oh."

Alix nodded. "As Mythics and Humans started taking more land to extend their cities, Monsters were forced to either move to separate realms or become the villains that this society has made them out to be. Take goblins, for instance. You've probably fought many, since the government sees them as nothing more than bandit tribes and bounty hunter companies issue a lot of hunting missions for them."

Marc nodded, feeling numb. "Goblin exterminations are...are some of the most common missions I've done." A cold feeling settled in his spine. "You mean I've-"

Alix raised a hand to stop him. "In most cases now, goblin tribes are dangerous and should be dealt with. goblins by nature hyper fixate at a young age, and are hard to turn from their moral and social path once they've learned it. The ones you fight are born from centuries of killing, looting, and hurting others to help themselves. It's a vicious cycle of people telling them what they have to be and them conforming to that standard for survival. But," she leaned back, casting a quick look around them. "That doesn't mean all goblins are inherently evil. I'm...from a goblin family, after all."

Marc blinked. "You're what?"

"My dad's half-goblin," she explained. "He tends to hyperfocus on everything historical, which makes him a great museum curator since he has practically every exhibit's history memorized. My older brother's the same way. I wasn't as hyper fixated on stuff like they were, but I was definitely more feral than the average human when I was a kid."

"You should have seen her when we were young," Nathaniel said. "She was ridiculously small but would fistfight anyone who looked at her the wrong way. Including me."

"We used to fight so much," Alix said, laughing as she turned to look at her half-dragon friend. "You just had a really punchable face."

The redhead grinned back, sticking his tongue out through his teeth. "I remember you broke my nose once. Miss Bustier freaked the fuck out."

"I did, yeah. Anyways," Alix turned back to Marc, serious again. "No species is inherently evil. I've seen Monsters do terrible things, yes, but I've also seen Humans and Mythics do the same. Do you understand?"

Marc swallowed. "I do. But...if there really are good Monsters, then why don't we hear more about them? Wouldn't there be stories? Wouldn't someone say something?"

Alix fixed a dead stare on him. "At the risk of being cliché and blaming the news for our problems, the flow of information and how it's restricted to painting Monsters in an exclusively bad light is responsible for a lot of why you and other Humans wouldn't know..." her words trailed away and her shoulders started to sag. She looked tired. Nathaniel's hand moved to rub her shoulder, and he finished answering the question for her.

"And we can't do shit about it."

His voice was hollow, an empty, broken sentence that held heartbreaking stories behind his tone.

Alix pulled her knees to her chest. "The only reason my family hasn't been killed or...or forced off to another realm is because we kept quiet. I do what I can to teach people who come by the museum, but a thousand years of hate can't be undone so easily, especially when some of the Mythics who set these rules in place are still alive today. And yeah, Mythics have it a little better, but they still face hate. If you're not rich, well," she looked to Nathaniel. "Most humans won't give two shits about you."

Marc didn't know what to say. Nathaniel blinked rapidly, like he was trying to hold back tears. Alix's fingers clenched into the matted floor again.

"I'm sorry," he finally spoke. "I...is there anything I can do to...help?"

"I don't know." Alix looked up at him. "I don't know how to make hate go away. I guess you could start by not letting people know my big secret, heh."

"Of course." Marc looked across the room at his sword. He'd always held it with a sense of pride. To him, holding the sword made him feel like the hero of an old legend, someone who fought to protect the people.

Right now the sword felt evil to him. How many innocent people had he killed? How many families had he slaughtered just because he'd been told to?

Looking at the long white blade, he felt like he wanted to throw up. He wasn't a hero, was he? He never had been.

"Anyways," Alix gave a short laugh, wiping her eyes with her jacket. "That's my tragic backstory. Sorry for bringing down the whole mood."

"No, no, it's okay," Marc said. "I...thank you for telling me."

Nath glanced at the two. "Do we wanna keep training? I feel like now's not really a good time anymore, but..."

"Yeah, we're done." Alix got to her feet, letting out a long breath. "I am not cut out for emotional moments like that. Fuck, I need someone to lighten the mood."

Marc raised an eyebrow. "Do you have anything in mind?"

"Well, we could talk about some of my favorite embarrassing stories about Nath!"

The sympathy on Nathaniel's face was quickly replaced with fear. "Alix, no!"

"He used to think 'get off to' just meant 'enjoy something a lot'."

"Alix, please, don't-"

The woman ignored him, a smile widening on her face. "You can imagine my surprise-"

"Alix!"

"-when he told me he 'gets off to satisfying video compilations'."

The redhead buried his face in his hands, turning away from them. "Oh gods, I hate you."

"You think you hate me now? Just wait until I tell him about the filing incident."

"Alix, I will send you to the Nine Hells if you say another word about that."

"I'd like to see you try, bitchboy!"

Marc left the two friends to bicker, going to place the wooden sword back on its rack and pick up his normal blade.

He wasn't a hero. He was an idiot.

"Hey."

Marc turned. Nathaniel was standing behind him, picking his shirt up from off the floor. "Something on your mind?"

"Yeah." Marc looked away, sighing. "I had this big, romanticized version of being a knight in shining armor, fighting villains and saving people. But...I'm just hurting people, aren't I?"

Nathaniel frowned. "There's not really an easy answer. There are Monsters who hurt people, that's undeniable, but some do it because they're scared, or hurt, while others actually do act out of malice."

"I don't know if I should be a bounty hunter," Marc admitted. "Not if I'm going to be killing innocent people."

"Heh, no one is innocent. Everyone fights because they think they're in the right, but few rarely are. Whatever choice you make is up to you." Nath placed a hand on Marc's shoulder. "All I can advise is that you keep learning, keep your mind open but keep yourself safe, too. That's how you'll know if you're doing the right thing."

Marc nodded. "Okay." He grabbed the sword scabbard, slinging it onto his back.

"Well, I've still got my own workout to do," Alix said, twisting her hips to pop her back. "Catch you guys tomorrow, hopefully."

"Yeah, see you." Nathaniel gave a two-finger salute to her as they headed out, into the afternoon sun.

Gods, it was still afternoon? Marc would have at least wanted to sleep on these new thoughts before having to do anything else, but it was at least several hours too early to do that. Not to mention the whole mission thing that was happening this evening, whenever Kim was going to show up or whatever.

"So," Nathaniel said. "That was Alix. Usually hangouts with her aren't as...well...depressing as today was."

"It's alright," Marc waved a hand. "You two seem close."

"Childhood friends," Nathaniel responded.

"Is she also one of your...uh...friends with benefits?"

Nathaniel choked.

"Sorry!" Marc blurted, as the half-dragon's eyes widened in shock. "I didn't mean-that's personal, I shouldn't have-"

"No, no, she-well, I would-" Nathaniel stammered. "No, uh, I-I would be murdered. She would kill me."

"Right, I don't know why I said-anyways," Marc turned away, face beet red.

He could still see Nathaniel looking at him out of the corner of his eye. Oh gods, he probably thought he was weird or a creep or-

The half-dragon chuckled.

Oh.

The ride home was silent, a little tense, a little full of wandering thoughts and heavy feelings that Marc wasn't sure he wanted to delve too deeply into.

Nathaniel might be an open book, but it was like he was written in a different language.

He had a lot to learn about the world, about his mysterious friend who fought without elegance but with experience, who became tense when Marc held his sword, who never talked about his family, who was always so organized but never sorted anything in a way that made sense to anyone but himself.

Marc was always intrigued by what he didn't understand, and he was definitely in over his head with mysteries and secrets, especially when it came to Nathaniel, a perfect balance between familiarity and unknowns.

He wanted to learn more about him.

He just needed to figure out how, when, if he should make a move.

"You need something?"

Marc blinked, suddenly realizing that he had been staring at the half-dragon for several minutes now. His face reddened like a cherry in summertime. "No, not really. Just lost in thought."

Nathaniel drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, and he nodded, eyes trained on the road ahead.

The swordsman leaned back in his seat, staring out the window at the passing treeline, the buildings in the far distance.

For now, he should put away all his feelings and try to focus on the mission.

He'd sort out his feelings tonight, when he had privacy.

Yeah, I bet you will, the snarky part of his brain thought rebelliously.

Dammit.

Chapter Text

Marc and Nathaniel spent the rest of the afternoon anxiously waiting for Kim's arrival.

They hadn't been given an exact time, only to expect Kim in the evening, so the two ate an early dinner, then Marc sat down on a chair in the shop, sharpening his sword while Nathaniel started sorting through the items in the back, looking for anything that he could borrow.

"I don't really have any battle-useful stuff," Nath said. "Not that I'm selling, anyway."

Marc looked up from sharpening the blade. "I feel like that implies you've got something that you're not selling."

"Yep. This, here," the half-dragon said, removing a simple-looking gray coat from under the counter. "This is a cloak of invisibility."

Marc squinted. "It looks like a suit jacket."

"Well, cloaks aren't really in fashion in most regions," Nathaniel explained. "It was actually a gift from Marinette. I keep it under the counter here in case an emergency happens and I need to disappear."

"Why would you need...?" Marc stopped mid-sentence as Nathaniel turned away, pulling the jacket over his shoulders and working to fit his wings through the back slits. Right. The same reason Marc had been hired as a delivery man.

"Hope it still works," Nath muttered. "Haven't used it in forever."

"You know, one of my bounty hunter managers supposedly has enchanted glasses that make her invisible," he said, to distract himself from the scenarios of Nath ever needing to use the jacket.

"Huh, that's interesting," Nath said.

"Yeah, but I've never actually seen her use them...uh, pun unintended."

"If Kim keeps us waiting any longer, I'm just going to go to bed," Nathaniel said, jumping onto the countertop and swinging his legs over the edge as he watched the sunset outside. "Screw the money, I need sleep."

"Same." Marc lifted his sword up, turning it so the light caught on the edge of his blade. "He could at least have given us like...the general hour he's gonna be here. It's making me anxious just waiting for him." He sheathed his sword into the hip scabbard he'd chosen for this mission and stood up, pacing aimlessly around the room.

Nathaniel watched him with piercing blue eyes. "The boss said he was sending the Miracle Wasp nest to a client outside in another city, so we'll probably be traveling outside of the walls to look for it, won't we?"

"Probably."

"How dangerous is it outside of Gallia?"

Marc paused, turning to face the half-dragon. "You...haven't been out of the city?"

Nathaniel hunched his shoulders. "I grew up in a different realm. Left when I was a kid and ended up here. I made friends with Alix and her little group, and they took turns housing me until I could get a place of my own. So, I've never actually been out of this city."

"Oh." Marc blinked. "What was it like where you were from? I mean, what realm?"

Nathaniel bit his lip, pointedly turning away. "Somewhere I never want to go back to."

Marc didn't press any further.

"So..." the half-dragon looked at him. "What's it like? Do you think we'll have to fight anyone?"

"Well," Marc pursed his lips. "It's not too bad outside the city. I don't know if we should expect a fight, since usually I'm the one actively searching for it, but it's generally more dangerous the further off the roads you go, from my experience. I think our biggest challenge will be magical beasts rather than actual humanoids." He paused. "But if we do run into Monsters...I don't...what should we do?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "Hopefully we can talk with them, but if what the boss said was true and they're criminals, and if they attack us," he looked up to Marc. "Better them dead than you, in my opinion."

"Well it's nice to know you care," Marc said, smiling a little.

"I've started to get used to not living alone," Nath said, leaning back.

There was a knock on the shop door.

Nathaniel hissed something in a different language. "Fucking cock ass," he growled, jumping off the counter. "Couldn't even bother to teleport in, now I gotta undo my lock enchantments, what an asshole."

Kim was standing outside, a large pack slung over his shoulder and a bo staff in hand. "Hey," he said, waving as Nathaniel flung open the door. "Ready to head out?"

"Took you long enough," Nathaniel grumbled. "Where are we going, anyway?"

"Outside the city."

"Yeah, but where?"

Kim shrugged. "Don't ask me. Markov's our GPS." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of a sleek black car with tinted windows behind him.

"You know," Marc said, stepping out. "I'm probably the least experienced in street smarts out of you three, but I'm pretty sure it's not a good idea to get in cars with strangers."

Kim blinked. "We're not strangers," he stated. "We're coworkers."

Marc walked to the car and slid into the back seat while Nathaniel took shotgun. "Doesn't mean we're not strangers."

The robot that they'd seen before, Markov, was attached to the steering wheel, pulsing a faint green light. "You should arrive at your destination within forty-five minutes," the robot instructed as the car took off.

"Hey Marc," Nathaniel said, turning to look at the swordsman. "Just thought of this, but how do you even get out of the city for bounty missions if you don't have a car? Do you...take the bus or something?"

Marc leaned back. "I have a motorcycle."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I've been keeping it parked on campus, though. I won a parking license for the college in a raffle this year and didn't want to block up space in front of the shop, so it's been there for the past few months or so. Some asshole tried to steal it once, but I was lucky enough to be there when he tried. It's impressive what just carrying a sword can do to scare off thieves."

And apparently makes you look really hot, Marc thought to himself, but didn't say aloud.

"I could enchant your bike," Nathaniel offered, waving his hand. "I'd need some of your blood, but I could make it so it only turns on for you. I've done it before with the car, it only takes like...three hours?"

Marc's eyes widened. "You'd do that?"

"On one condition." Nathaniel grinned. "I'd like to go on a ride with you sometime. I've always wanted to know what it's like."

Free security for his motorcycle and a possibly sexy ride with a sexy man? "Deal."

"Hey, does anyone mind if I put some tunes on?" Kim didn't wait for an answer before turning on the radio. "Thanks guys."

Nathaniel opened his mouth to object, but the radio instantly started blasting some of the loudest, most generic pop songs he'd ever heard in his life and the half-dragon seemed to decide it was probably better to just shut up and endure it than try to argue with him over the music.

Marc leaned back into the seat and closed his eyes, arms crossed.

It was gonna be a long forty-five minutes.

 

~oOo~

 

By the time they reached their destination, the sun was well below the horizon and Nath's patience was starting to waver just a little bit.

His nails were digging into the side of his arm, his teeth were gritted, and if one more song came on about some cheesy, over-romanticized heterosexual relationship built on unrealistic ideals he was going to burn the radio.

Maybe he was a little on edge. When they'd reached the edge of the city they'd been stopped by police, but Marc had a bounty hunter licence so the officers just glanced at it and let them through.

Still, Nathaniel was a little strung-up about that. He tried not to interact with law enforcement if he could help it.

He hugged his jacket around his shoulders, readjusting it again. The jacket was a little tighter than he was used to, he'd grown a little bit since he'd last worn it. The demon could still feel its magic under his fingertips if he concentrated, like a little buzz in the back of his skull.

"I love, I love, I love, I love the way you hold me," Kim sang, loudly and obnoxiously. Nathaniel kind of wanted to rip his tongue out through his teeth.

Markov beeped. "You have arrived at your destination."

"We're here!" Kim announced cheerily, as though Markov hadn't literally just said that less than a second ago.

"Great," Nathaniel mumbled through clenched teeth, popping the car door open and briskly stepping out into the road.

The headlights from the car were the only lights around for several miles, illuminating the road ahead and the dense forest on either side. Other than the twinkle of the stars above and the distant glimmer of the city in the far distance, it was pitch black and very, very dark.

"You didn't happen to bring any flashlights, did you?" Marc asked, stepping out and standing next to Nathaniel.

"Uh...I brought one," Kim said, popping open the trunk and pulling out the large backpack, which looked like it belonged to a mountain hiker. The bo staff was connected to the side of it. Maybe they'd get to see Kim fight with it. That would be interesting.

"Great," Marc grumbled, fingers on his sword. "So Nath and I are just gonna stumble blindly after you, then?"

"Well, we're supposed to be following Nath, since he'll lead us to the Miracle Wasps." Kim raised a hand as Markov detached from the car and flew to perch on the human's fingertip.

"I can see in the dark," Nathaniel said. "So you don't have to worry about that."

Marc glanced over to him. "Really?"

"Yeah...it's a dragon thing."

Kim blinked. "I didn't know dragons could see in the dark."

Nath stiffened, sweat starting to form on the back of his neck. "Some of them can," he lied. "There are different kinds of dragons, you know, with different abilities, like being able to smell a person's blood or controlling the weather. It's...a rare trait. Not many dragons have it."

Nathaniel knew a little bit about dragons. He knew that dragons probably did not have the ability to see in the dark. He sincerely hoped Kim and Marc didn't know that.

Judging by the blank look on their faces, they were completely unaware.

Nice.

"Cool," Kim said, tucking Markov into the front pocket of his t-shirt. "The transport was attacked around here, so...look around, I guess? Do some weird magic thing?"

Nathaniel gave him a withering glare. "Some weird magic thing?"

"Yeah! You're the magic dude!"

"I can't just-I can't just wiggle my fingers and make spells happen! I need spell components, stuff to draw sigils with, I need, I need time! I don't even know what you want me to do!" Nathaniel snapped, turning on the human.

Markov whirred to life again. "If I may," the robot chirped. "Nathaniel Kurtzberg, you were expected to lead these two into the surrounding forest, while searching mentally for the Miracle Wasp colony to respond to your vicinity. Kim and Marc are here to assist in protecting you in case we encounter danger. I am here to instruct you on the route that will cover the most ground and to lead you back to the vehicle once our mission is complete."

Nathaniel gave a dirty look to Kim. "Well, at least Markov actually knows what we're doing."

Kim, seemingly unaware of the hostile undertones of Nathaniel's remark, patted the robot on the head and grinned. "He's very smart."

Nathaniel turned to Marc. "Let's go." He started marching into the forest.

"Wait, Nath, I can't-" Marc stumbled after him, grabbing onto the demon's hand. "I can't see anything."

Nathaniel slowed, but only because he wanted to make sure Marc didn't trip. He wanted to be as far away from Kim at possible as the moment. "Just hold onto my hand, okay?"

Marc nodded. "I don't know how much good I'll be as a bounty hunter on this mission," he whispered.

Kim turned on his flashlight, illuminating the trees in the very close vicinity.

"I suggest we walk in a circular path, using the car as a focal point and gradually spiraling outward for maximum efficiency," Markov instructed.

"Got it. Tell me if I'm off the track." Nathaniel trudged forward, hand tightly clasped in Marc's.

It was infuriatingly slow going. Since Kim was in the back, his flashlight did little to no help illuminating the pathway ahead, but Nathaniel was too pissed to let him lead, anyway. Marc was doing his best, but his near blindness meant that he stumbled on practically every root and dip in the ground that they walked past, unknowingly stepping on Nath's tail every few minutes. Nathaniel was half-tempted to scoop the swordsman up in his arms and just carry him through the forest, but he didn't want to be that close to the sword.

Even if carrying Marc through a forest would make this entire trip so much better than it was currently. For now he was just going to have to settle with holding Marc's hand as they clambered over uneven ground.

He closed his eyes and focused, trying to tap into that familiar buzz in the back of his head. If the Miracle Wasps were around, he would be able to sense them. Probably. Magic wasn't super reliable. Another branch caught on his wing and he bit back a curse.

Marc's grip suddenly tightened. "Stop," he hissed. "Do you smell that?"

Nathaniel paused. "No?"

"Smoke," Kim said, walking up behind them. "Someone's ahead of us."

Nath sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose in confusion. "I don't smell anything."

"I thought dragons had super good noses," Kim said. "Like, they could tell what kind of person you were just by how your blood smelled."

"Half-dragon," Nath said. "Can't have all the superpowers. Anyway, what do we do?" Nath looked at the two humans.

Marc narrowed his eyes. "Nath, you go ahead and investigate. In our current condition we're more of a liability, so we'll stay here. Don't engage, just see what's going on, okay? If something happens, throw fireballs, make noise, and we'll get there as quick as we can."

Nathaniel nodded, letting go of Marc's hand and slipping away. He could see the swordsman's head turn in the direction of his footsteps, eyes searching, probably looking for him in the darkness.

Kim placed a hand on Marc's shoulder. Marc shrugged him off with an offended look.

With a grin, Nathaniel turned and headed forward.

It was risky, heading into the forest without really knowing where he was supposed to go. Apparently humans had better noses than demons, since he couldn't smell anything resembling smoke. If Kim or Marc started to get suspicious he could probably play his bad nose off as some sort of internal damage. Trying to put his unease behind him, he continued forward, or...where he thought was forward.

He was starting to think he might have gone the wrong way when he caught the smell. Yeah, that was smoke. Pushing on, more confident but also more anxious, Nathaniel crept forward through the trees until he came to a clearing, where a small fire was burning under a large, bubbling cauldron next to a murky pond.

There was a little, well-made cottage nearby, covered in dry, sickly-looking moss, but around the house bloomed hundreds of brightly colored flowers, a striking contrast to the clean, white bones littered around the clearing.

Uh....bones. That usually wasn't good.

Maybe it was best to avoid this place.

"Meow."

Nathaniel froze, glancing down. A cat had emerged from the treeline and was rubbing its face against his leg. Even with his ability to see in the dark, he couldn't get a good glimpse of the cat through the surrounding underbrush and shadows.

"Hey," he whispered.

"Mrrp." The cat jumped onto a nearby tree branch near Nathaniel's arm and batted at his hand, pressing its face into his palm. Nathaniel's heart froze as two empty eye sockets stared up at him.

The cat was made of bones.

Nathaniel jerked back, clapping a hand over his mouth to stifle any sound. The animated skeleton tilted its head, tail flitting back and forth. Now that it was in clear view Nath could see that the shadows weren't from the trees at all, but a writhing mass inside the creature that misted off its skeletal frame and seemed to hold the entire beast together.

"Cupcake?" A high-pitched voice called out from the woods. "Cupcake, where are you?"

"Meow!"

"No, no no," Nathaniel hissed, backing away. "Shhhhh, shut up, shut up, please."

How the cat was even making noises when it had no lungs was something that could only be attributed to the bullshit powers of magic. He started to back away from the cat but it fixed a pointed stare at him, tail perking up and waving into the air as it started to follow him into the forest, meowing loudly.

"Shshshshstop following me, go away, no, no," Nathaniel stumbled over a root, backing away from the cat as it continued to walk forward-was it purring? Oh god, the cat liked him and that might get him killed. He grabbed onto the branch of a nearby tree, ready to climb for his life and hope that would be enough to save him. Wait, he had his invisibility jacket, he could-

"Cupcake!"

Nathaniel shrieked as a woman tore herself out of the tree he was holding onto, bark splitting open as she rushed forward and scooped the skeletal cat up in her arms. She turned to him, one hand raised and glowing with bright light-

-and paused, blinking. "Nath?"

Nathaniel stopped panicking for a moment to observe the woman's short hair, wide, blue eyes, pink complexion, and short stature- "Rose?"

Rose's expression lifted, and a bright grin crossed her face. "Nath! Oh, it's so good to see you!" The glowing light in her palm flickered and danced around her fingers, as though responding to the excitement of its owner. The cat, who was apparently named Cupcake, nuzzled its face into her chest.

"I haven't seen you in forever! How long has it been, five, six years?" Nathaniel laughed, barely able to believe his eyes.

"I haven't seen you since high school," Rose said, rushing forward and pulling the demon into a hug. Little flowers started to bloom from her sleeves, as they always did whenever she was happy.

"How have you been? How's Juleka?"

"She's doing just fine," Rose assured, giving a little giggle. "We're actually married now."

"Really? Oh, that's great!"

"Yeah, we wanted to invite you to the wedding, I promise, but I know how you are with social gatherings and we were trying to keep it discreet so the police wouldn't...you know."

"So you live out here?"

"Yep! It's close enough to the city that I can teleport through the oak tree in the park when I need to go shopping, and it's far enough away that Juleka can work on her spells in peace. Besides, we pretty much have the whole forest to ourselves! It's a nymph's dream come true."

"I'm happy for you two," Nathaniel said, smiling. "It's funny, I was just telling my friend about how I had Alix and you guys to keep me safe when I first came to the city. He's actually here now! Just, ah, he doesn't-" Nathaniel dropped his voice low. "He doesn't know that I'm a demon."

Rose nodded. "You kept the half-dragon story?"

"It's served me well so far."

"Got it." Cupcake started wriggling in her arms, and she set the cat down on the ground. "Ooh! You should have dinner with us! I'll tell Juleka to cook up something nice."

"That's really sweet of you," Nath said. "Um...we're kind of on a mission at the moment...do you know anything of a...transport that was attacked a few days ago?"

Rose tilted her head. "You'll need to be a bit more specific."

"I don't have all the details," Nathaniel admitted. "But I know someone who does! He's also here with us."

"Alright!" Rose knelt down to her cat, scritching it between the ears. "I'm gonna take Cupcake home, he shouldn't be out this late. You go meet up with your friends and I'll come get you all."

"See you then," Nathaniel said, turning and walking back into the forest. "Uh, you wouldn't happen to know where-"

"Your friends are over that way," Rose said, pointing into the forest in the opposite direction than Nathaniel was about to head.

"Thanks."

Chapter Text

Trying to find Marc and Kim was admittedly harder than finding the smoke. For starters, the humans were trying to be quiet and hidden, and Nathaniel's memory wasn't good enough for him to remember the trees around him. They all kind of looked the same, not to mention this was technically his first time in a forest and it was more than a little overwhelming. Branches and twigs caught and scraped him at every turn, he kept stubbing his toe or tripping on loose rocks, and he could hear bugs nearby but couldn't see any and it was freaking him out a little.

It'd probably be fine if he called for them, right? Rose was nearby, she'd intervene if something tried to attack him in the forest. Probably.

"Marc?" He called. "Marc?"

"Polo!" A voice yelled back. Nathaniel frowned. Kim.

"Shut the fuck up," he heard Marc say, and started shuffling his way towards them.

"What? You've never heard of 'Marco Polo' before?"

"I don't appreciate you making a joke out of my name."

Nathaniel pushed through the bushes, catching a glimpse of Kim's flashlight, which was currently being shined into Marc's face. "Hey, I'm back," he said.

The look of relief on Marc's face spoke volumes. "Nath! What did you find out?"

"Well, I followed the smoke and it led me to two old friends of mine," Nathaniel explained. "And they're inviting us over for dinner. I was thinking we could ask them some questions, they might know where the wasp colony has gone."

Marc tilted his head, a hesitant look on his face. "How do you know they weren't the ones that took it? What do we do if it comes to that?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "That's no business of ours. The contract we made with the boss only stated that we have to find the Miracle Wasp nest, that's all. Once it's found, it's no longer our concern."

Marc stepped forward, hands outstretched to try and find him in the dark. Nathaniel grabbed his hands. "I'm excited for you to meet them," he said, beaming. "They're really nice and-"

There was a sound of high-pitched squealing from one of the nearby trees.

"Ooooooh, how cute!" The bark of the tree split in two, opening up for Rose as she stepped out, the light still shining brightly in her palm.

Marc gave a startled shout and jerked away from the new voice. Nathaniel kept a tight grip on his hands so the swordsman wouldn't trip and fall over-or, y'know, unsheathe his sword and kill his friend.

"Who are you?" Kim pointed his flashlight at the nymph. Rose ignored him, rushing to Marc and Nathaniel with wide eyes.

"Hey there! Nice to meet you!" Rose grabbed Marc's hand, practically tearing it out of the demon's grip so she could shake it.

"Oh! Uh, hi..." Marc was caught off guard, one hand being vigorously shaken by the much-too-enthusiastic nymph, the other still clutching Nath like his life depended on it.

"This is Rose," Nathaniel explained with an embarrassed grin. "An old friend of mine from high school."

"So you're Nath's friend?" Rose gave the swordsman a winning smile, letting go of his hand.

"Y-yeah, I'm Marc."

Rose's eyes traveled down to where Nath and Marc's hands were still connected. She met Nathaniel's eyes with a glimmer of curiosity. "Sorry if this is a little forward, but when you say friends, do you mean 'friends', or like...'friends'?"

Marc raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"Friends with benefitsssss," Kim whispered.

Oh boy.

Marc very pointedly fixed his gaze to the earth. "That's not...um..."

Nathaniel shook his head. His face was no doubt bright red, if the heat in his cheeks and jackrabbit pace of his heart was any indicator.

"Oh!" Rose's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable-"

"You're fine!" Marc choked, still refusing to look anyone in the face. "Can we just-uh-forget about this and move on?"

"Right! Juleka's waiting!" Rose waved her hand, and the trees started to shift and bend out of the way, creating a straight path through the woods. "Follow me!"

"Uh....you couldn't do that before," Nath said, watching the dirt smooth out in front of them. "Could you?"

"There weren't enough trees in the city. But I've had plenty of time to practice out here!" Rose lifted her hand in the air, tossing the ball of light up. It split into several pieces and hovered around her like fireflies.

With the magically formed road and lights guiding the way, the little group managed to reach the clearing in only a few minutes. There was another woman kneeling in front of the cauldron now, with long, black hair that Nathaniel instantly recognized.

"Juleka!"

The woman looked up, pale face and skin glistening in the low firelight. She gave a polite smile to the group and returned to stirring the pot.

"Is that soup?" Kim jogged to the front of the group and up to Juleka, leaning over to look into the cauldron.

She looked up at him, shaking her head.

Rose grabbed Kim's pack and pulled him away. "It's a potion," she said. "You probably shouldn't get near it. Honey, will you be joining us for dinner?"

Juleka nodded.

"Come on," Rose waved to the group. "It's more comfortable inside."

 

~oOo~

 

Marc had read more than a few fairytales in his lifetime.

He loved old legends, little bits of history retold in vibrant detail. There was something comforting in knowing that happily-ever-afters existed, that good could triumph evil, that romance wasn't just a wisp of a dream to continually chase but never hold.

This little cottage looked like it split the divide between a classic fairy tale and a horror story clean in half and then stuck the two genres together in surprisingly perfect harmony.

Crystalline magic lanterns and chandeliers hung from the walls and ceiling, filling the room with a warm, orange glow, highlighting the skull-themed decor engraved in the wooden beams and the shelves full of neatly labeled items like "Lavender" and "Toad Eyes".

Rose led them into the dining room, where a long table was already set for five, set with an array of cheese and fruits and fresh-baked bread that smelled incredible.

"Juleka should be done soon," the lady said. "Have a seat, we've got plenty of food."

Marc looked at Nath. They'd already eaten an early dinner. That didn't change the fact that Marc wanted to taste everything on the table.

From the look Nath was giving to the array of food, practically drooling already, it seemed they were both in full agreement.

Kim was already sitting down and loading one of the empty plates with food.

"This isn't enchanted, is it?" Nathaniel asked, looking over the fruits suspiciously.

"Well, they're magically grown," Rose said, taking a seat at the head of the table. "But the food itself isn't magical, if that's what you're asking. It's all safe, you have my word."

That seemed to be enough to assure Nathaniel, who grabbed a basket of bread and passed it down the table towards the swordsman.

The food was some of the best Marc had ever tasted. Who knew fruit and fresh bread could make a grown man cry tears of joy? He did. He knew now, because he was almost crying.

Why was Nath so well acquainted with people who knew how to make amazing food? Did he know how lucky he was? Marc had survived his first semester on greasy cafeteria pizza and instant ramen noodles, and now it felt like he was eating like a king. This was the height of luxury.

The door opened, and Marc took a sidelong glance to see the black-haired lady step in, face hidden beneath long bangs.

"Everyone, this is my wife, Juleka," Rose said, gesturing to the woman as she took a seat on the other side of the table. Her long black cloak and general gothic aesthetic was a complete contrast to the more extroverted, cheerful woman introducing her.

"Nice to meet you," Marc said, dipping his head respectfully. The woman turned to him, eyes slowly moving up and down his body, fixing on the sword at his hip. She didn't say a word.

Rose cleared her throat. "So, as much as I would love a decent conversation with an old friend, it's very late, and you said there were things you wanted to ask us?"

"Right." Nathaniel wiped his mouth with a napkin. "The transport that was attacked. It was carrying an item known as the Miracle Wasp nest, the only item stolen."

"It disappeared four days ago," Kim said, speaking around the bread roll in his mouth. "At around two, three am."

Rose looked up across the table at her wife. "Four days ago, hmmm...Juleka, didn't you say something about a group that was passing through the forest around that time?"

Juleka cleared her throat. "They disturbed some of the ghosts in this forest," she said, voice quiet but seeming to fill the room, pulling his attention to her words with an obviously enchanted voice. It sounded like the most beautiful words he had ever heard.

Her voice was magic.

Marc jerked away, quickly glancing at her, scanning her form. Whatever bit of skin she was showing seemed to glisten and reflect in the light in a pattern that didn't seem to make sense on a human's skin, almost as though she had miniature scales across her face and hands-

"You're a siren," Marc blurted, before his manners caught up to him. Sirens were Monsters that usually inhabited the coast, if the fairytales he read were to be believed, so to meet one face-to-face, not to mention this far inland, was very unexpected.

Juleka dropped her head lower, muttering something that sounded like an apology under her breath.

"Oh, no, I didn't mean to," Marc stammered. "That was impolite of me, I'm sorry." His heart felt like it was hammering at a hundred miles per hour...strange.

Rose stepped in for her wife. "Juleka doesn't like enchanting people with her voice," she explained. "So you'll have to forgive me if I tend to take up the conversation-"

"Why do you have that sword?"

Rose halted midsentence as Juleka spoke up again. Her voice was louder as she looked up at him, practically filling his senses with the sound alone, and Marc found himself answering before his brain could catch up to his lips and exercise caution.

"I'm a bounty hunter," he said, hands twitching, head buzzing, "so I have it with me in case I need to fight Monst-in case I need to fight...in-in case I..."

His lips didn't feel like they were working right. Every muscle in his body felt tense, and there was a deep, foreign feeling in the back of his spine pumping adrenaline through his body. Why did he feel so nervous?

"Your sword is cursed," the siren said, eyes still fixed on him. "I can hear the souls inside it screaming."

The blood was pounding in his ears. Feed, feed, feed, it insisted. His fingers itched to draw his blade-no, no, he couldn't do that, oh gods, what kind of person was he, thinking about-

Nathaniel grabbed his hand under the table, and Marc realized he was trembling from head to toe. "Marc, snap out of it," he hissed.

Marc blinked. "Huh?"

"It's the sword," Nath said. "Take the sword off."

No no no no no-

Marc was sweating. His limbs were shaking, why were they shaking?

"Take the sword off," Juleka commanded, her voice sweet as honey and as terrifying as an ancient scream in the night, encompassing his very being with serrated words.

As though her words seemed to take over his body, Marc's fingers fumbled around his belt as he unbuckled the scabbard and threw it to the ground. It clattered to the floor.

The feeling in Marc's body vanished, the tension leaving his body in a rush, leaving him shaking and boneless. Nath helped him back in his seat. He didn't remember standing up in the first place.

"What the fuck just happened?" He gasped, pressing a hand to his head. "Oh gods."

Whatever confident aura Juleka had been exuding was gone, as the siren sunk back into her chair, quiet again.

"Your sword is cursed," Nath said. "I knew it would seek out the blood of a Monster with magical capabilities, but I didn't realize it would affect you that strongly. Once you realized Juleka was a Monster it...reacted, and tried to-"

"You knew?" Marc turned to Nath, eyes wide. "You knew I had a cursed sword with me? And you didn't say anything?"

"I wasn't sure if you knew!" Nathaniel crossed his arms. "I wasn't sure if the sword would try and take over you if I said anything! Hell, I'm scared to be within three feet of that thing!" He nudged the sword further away with his foot, as though it would suddenly leap up and attack him. Fuck, Marc didn't know how curses worked. For all he knew it could do that.

Rose and Kim were watching them, completely still. Kim had his hand halfway to his mouth, a grape forgotten between his fingers.

"This...seems like a discussion you two should have one your own time," Rose said, finally breaking the silence. "For now let's focus on what you wanted to know. As glad as I am to see an old friend again, I'm tired and would like to get to bed."

Hesitantly, Marc and Nathaniel turned away from each other.

"There was a small group that passed through the forest, about four days ago," Rose said. "Since we're not legal potionmakers, we stayed low, didn't interact. They were gone from the forest the next morning. I asked some of the trees around, and it seems one of them split off from the group and headed back in the direction of the city."

Nathaniel drummed his fingers on the table. "Did you get a physical description? Do you know what species the group was?"

Rose lifted her hands in a what do you expect from me gesture. "Do you think trees have eyes? No, I don't know."

Marc felt something rubbing against his leg. He looked down and quickly bit his lip to stifle a scream.

Nathaniel noticed him suddenly tense. "What's wrong?"

"There'ssomthingonmyleg." Marc stayed frozen, speaking quickly through gritted teeth. Maybe if he didn't move it would think he was a piece of furniture or something.

Nathaniel lifted the tablecloth to peek underneath. "Oh, that's just Cupcake." He reached down and picked up a shadowy, cat-like skeleton. It meowed in protest and started wriggling, freeing itself and jumping up onto his shoulder, observing the half-dragon's red wings with empty eye sockets.

"Cupcake?" Marc squeaked.

"Our cat," Rose said. "Juleka specializes in Necromancy, so she reanimated him when he got abandoned on the side of the road by his original owners. Isn't he cute?"

Now that Marc knew what the creature was and that it wasn't going to kill him...yeah, it actually was pretty cute.

"Anyway," Rose said. "The other group headed west, outside of the forest. That's all the information I have for you."

"Thank you," Nath said, reaching up to scritch Cupcake's head. Its skeletal back arched under his touch, purring loudly and rubbing its skull against the half-dragon's fingers.

"Someone split off and went into the city," Marc examined the bread on his plate, before looking up at Kim. "The police have records on who comes and goes from the city, right?"

Kim gave him a blank stare.

Marc sighed and looked down at Markov, patiently sitting in Kim's front pocket. "Do the police have records on that?"

"There are security cameras stationed at the city walls," Markov replied.

"Do we have access to them?"

Markov hummed. "I will consult my creator on this when we return."

"Oooh, you have a fun pet too!" Rose leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the robot. Markov shuffled deeper into Kim's front pocket.

"His name is Markov," Kim said, patting the top of his head where it was barely visible.

"Aw, is he shy?" Rose put her hands over her mouth. "That's so cute!"

"Markov is programmed to avoid being seen by people that he doesn't work with," Nathaniel explained. "He's not supposed to draw attention to himself."

"Oh." Rose sat back down. "Well, he looks very adorable."

"Compliment acknowledged," Markov replied, voice somewhat muffled through the fabric of Kim's shirt.

"We should be going now," Nathaniel said, standing up. "Thank you so much."

"It's our pleasure." Rose helped detach Cupcake from his shoulders. The cat meowed in protest, but didn't resist.

As the rest of the group got to their feet, Marc cast a nervous glance at the sword on the ground. He couldn't just leave it there, but if he picked it up...

"You can't get a new sword, can you?"

Marc's eyes snapped up to meet Juleka's. The amber in her eyes seemed to glow an otherworldly color.

"Your soul is bonded to the sword, isn't it?"

Marc stuttered. "I....how did you know?"

"I know."

"His soul is what?"

Marc turned to Nath, who was staring at him in shock.

Nathaniel's fingers were clutching a now-squished orange slice in a death grip. "What do you mean his soul is bonded to the sword?"

"Nath, maybe we should talk about this another time," Marc said, an edge in his voice.

"Marc-"

"Please."

The steel in Marc's tone made the half-dragon pause. He nodded, silently.

"Let me help," Juleka said. She knelt down, carefully picking the sword off the ground.

Marc noticed how both Nath and Rose tensed, but Juleka kept a careful grip on the scabbard, lifting it to the table. She raised a hand, and Cupcake jumped out of Rose's arms, trotting over to rub the siren's palm.

"I used my blood to bring him to life," Juleka explained, running her hand along the cat's ribs. "Siren blood can be also be used to strengthen or diminish enchantments. And because your sword only gains power when it absorbs souls, it won't react if it doesn't kill anything, but can still be suppressed with Necromancy." She grabbed one of the cat's ribs and broke it off with a snap.

Marc gasped, but Cupcake didn't seem to react, still rubbing against her arm and purring as shadows pooled in around his missing rib, filling in the space where it used to be.

Juleka offered the rib to Marc. "Take this to my brother Luka. He's much better with siren magic."

"Who?"

"I know where he is," Nath said. "Luka Couffaine. He owns an old music shop down the street. Great friends with Marinette."

"With benefits," Kim muttered under his breath. Juleka gave a disgusted glance in his direction.

"I'll let him know of you," the siren mumbled, tapping something on her wrist. At a closer look, it seemed to be a mirror attached to a bracelet.

"Juleka, dear," Rose said. "Maybe you should leave before Marc picks up the sword. Just to be safe. You can use your magic mirror to talk to Luka outside."

Juleka nodded, setting the cat rib on the table. Scooping Cupcake in her arms, she made her way towards the door, stopping to peck Rose on the cheek and then leaving.

"Well," Rose rubbed her hands. "I've never really been good with saying goodbye. If you'd like, I can walk you all back to your car! The forest gets a little sassy at night."

"That would be wonderful," Nath said. "Thank you so much for the food."

"Oh! Before I forget," Rose darted away into the kitchen, returning with a massive glass bottle filled with a bright red liquid, offering it to the half-dragon. "It's a special red wine; I've been perfecting a recipe with my grapes. Raising them has been a little difficult since this isn't their preferred environment, but a little love and care goes a long way." She paused. "You do drink wine, right?"

"Oh, absolutely," Nath said, taking the bottle from her hands.

"Let's go," Kim said, taking one last bread roll and not-very-stealthily pocketing it. "Marc?"

Marc pocketed the cat rib, taking care not to break it. Taking a deep breath, he grabbed the sword.

There was an instant where he could feel something probing at his mind, but he tied the sword firmly around his waist and grit his teeth, forcing that feeling away.

"Thank you," Nath said, using one of his wings to give his friend a side hug. "You've been a great help."

"Feel free to come visit again," Rose said, patting the half-dragon's cheek. "And if your little shop needs a few potions, don't be afraid to ask, okay?"

"Sure thing," Kim cut in, grabbing an extra loaf from the table.

Rose frowned, turning to him. "I'm sorry, I don't believe I caught your name...who are you again?"

"His coworker," the human replied.

"Kim," Nath started. "The offer wasn't meant for...nevermind. Let's go."

"Let's go!" Kim cheered, hoisting his backpack up. "Markov, which way's the car?"

"Continue at a Northwest angle until you reach the street," Markov replied. "The car will be roughly 0.25 miles North from there once we exit."

Marc followed the group outside. Juleka was nowhere to be seen, but the cauldron outside was still bubbling.

He'd tried to kill her.

There was a bad taste in his mouth, and Marc knew it wasn't from anything he'd eaten.

A hand grabbed his, and he jumped, looking up to meet sympathetic blue eyes.

"We'll talk about it in the car," Nathaniel said, giving his hand a little squeeze.

Marc nodded. "Please don't...let go of my hand."

"I won't."

Chapter Text

With Markov's instructions and Rose clearing an easy path, they made it back to the car with no issue at all. Nathaniel kept his grip tight around Marc's hand.

Marc's soul was bonded to the sword.

What did that mean? How did it happen? Soul-binding magic couldn't be learned, so it had to be inherent to a species with that ability.

If his soul really was bound to Blanc...

Nath didn't want to think of what kind of Mythic or Monster had the power to do that. He could think of a few, sure (a demon), but he didn't want to.

"See you later!" Rose said, waving goodbye as they got in the car. "Don't visit too often though, the cops might get suspicious!"

"Will do," Nath said. He would have waved goodbye, but one hand was still holding Marc's, and the other was clutching the large bottle of wine she'd given him and he was not going to drop that, so he waved his tail and hoped the message got across.

He ended up sliding into the backseat with Marc, since the swordsman didn't seem to have any intention of letting go of his hand just yet. Nathaniel couldn't really blame him. Experiencing the effects of a curse firsthand was never a fun experience.

"So," Nath said, as the car started moving. "Let's talk."

Marc looked down at his lap.

"Marc."

He could see the swordsman's lip quiver. "I didn't know the sword was cursed," he whispered. "I thought-"

"Marc-"

"I thought it was me, I thought I wanted to kill her-" Marc choked, covering his mouth with his hand.

"It wasn't you," Nath insisted. "It wasn't."

There were tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. "I'm sorry."

Nathaniel rubbed his thumb along Marc's hand. "The sword is very powerful, but most of its power is sealed. However, it can still give you subconscious prompts. You were trained to kill Monsters, so, once you recognized a Monster, the sword tried to use your mentality against you."

Marc looked away, seeming to curl even smaller into himself. "So it was me."

"No, it wasn't." Nathaniel sighed. "You've been taught your whole life that Monsters are evil. You can't unlearn that in half a day, even if you wanted to. But you were making a conscious choice to not act on what you learned. That's why you felt it." The demon squeezed his hand tightly, hoping that Marc understood. "You were fighting those feelings, and the sword fought back."

Marc sniffed, wiping his eyes. "I'm scared," he whispered, voice cracking.

"I know."

The forest passed by them through the windows. The only sound was the humming of the car and the steady rolling of tires on gravel. Even Kim had managed to develop enough social awareness to turn off the radio when they got in, traveling down the road in silence.

Nath had to ask Marc. He was afraid to. He didn't want to know. He had to know.

"What did Juleka mean when she said your soul was bonded to the sword?"

Marc stiffened, eyes flitting to the front seat. "Is it...is it okay to talk about with Kim and Markov...?"

"I'm like 90 percent sure my shop is wiretapped anyway, so there's no point in trying to hide it."

"I also scan and tamper with your security cameras in case authorities try to check them for incriminating evidence," Markov spoke up.

"Thanks Markov," Nath said. "Marc, you don't have to say anything if you don't want to. But I want to know how to help you."

Marc nodded. "Okay. Well."

Nath leaned back as the swordsman shuffled to face him more directly, still looking down at the seat.

"I guess it starts with how I got the sword in the first place. I...my family...I don't talk with them a lot. They've got an 'ends justify the means' kind of mentality."

Nath nodded. He could relate to that.

"My parents even ended up getting promoted from their association and became independent hunters. It was kind of a big deal, everyone was expecting me to follow in their footsteps. So, when I told them I didn't want to be a bounty hunter, that I wanted to write and make stories..." he hunched his shoulders. "They didn't take me seriously. They told me I was confused, that I didn't really mean it, that..." Marc shook his head, a wry smile on his lips.

"They sound like a bunch of assholes."

Marc gave a choked laugh. "Yeah. They gave me fighting lessons every day, started taking me on extended missions so I could learn what it was like living as a bounty hunter. They even took me on a few missions in different realms."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, I went to the Abyss this one time, it's sort of a sister realm to the Nine Hells."

The Nine Hells. Home. Nathaniel tried to keep a straight face, but his tail started flicking in agitated movements. "I've heard of it. What was that like?"

Marc frowned. "Cold. Not like, the cold here on Earth, but a different cold, like it was seeping into your soul. Everything felt frozen, and hostile, even the wildlife-I mean, have you seen an Abyssal chicken? They're like nightmare fuel."

"I have not," Nath answered. "I don't think I want to."

"It was awful. I ended up losing my sword down a bottomless ravine, my parents got mad at me, and we had to camp in a tent next to a giant cliff because my parents insisted that we couldn't go into the city since it was run by Monsters, and it was an 'evil city'."

Nathaniel winced. "Yeah, some people are like that."

"They took me to meet up with the lady that had hired them, a strange woman in a long blue and black dress that hid her face and body completely. I was only twelve, I don't remember much, but I remember her house was warm. She was professional, but she seemed like she cared, underneath that monotone voice. My parents warmed up to her real quick."

Marc's fingernails were digging into his palm.

"They warmed up to her so much that they told her about me, complained about how I wasn't the perfect little weapon-for-hire that they wanted me to be. And she offered them a deal. She told my parents that if they took some more missions for her, she would give me this magic sword that I would always want to have with me, and that would make me enjoy fighting, maybe even more so than they did." Marc gave a short, humorless laugh. "I guess my parents should have been more cautious before they made a deal with a demon."

Nath felt his blood run cold.

"I guess she never specified how many missions they would do," Marc continued, seemingly unaware of Nath's shock. "Because they still take missions for her, whether they want to or not. And I'm stuck with this sword. If I'm too far away from the sword for too long, I start having chest pains, and headaches, and the longer I keep it away, the worse I get. It might even kill me if I'm too far away from it."

Oh.

"Nath." Marc looked up at the demon, eyes wide, voice trembling. "What kind of sword am I bonded to?"

They rolled up to the gates of the city. Nath could hear Kim talking to someone outside the car for a brief moment, but he couldn't care less about the police right now.

"Marc," he whispered, one wing extending to touch his friend's shoulder.

Marc was shaking. "Nath," he croaked. "What's going to happen to me?"

"It's going to be okay," Nath assured. "We'll figure something out, I promise." He pulled the swordsman closer with his wings, the best imitation of a hug he could give at the moment. Marc let out a small sob, burying his face in the demon's shoulder.

There wasn't anything he could do. Nath was too aware that he couldn't do anything, and it hurt. A contract with a demon wasn't just something you could hire a disenchanter for, remove your curse and move on with your day. The only thing he could do was let Marc cry, until the car eventually slowed and he began to see the familiar lights of their home.

"Well, this is where I drop you two off," Kim said, stopping in front of the Hidden Treasures junk shop.

Marc sniffed, wiping his eyes. "Thanks," he said as he stepped out, but Nath had the feeling he wasn't talking to Kim.

"We will contact you when we have more information," Markov said. "Goodbye."

The demon supported the glass of wine on one hip while he unlocked the front door. Marc stood next to him, hugging his jacket to his chest and looking absolutely miserable.

"Hey," Nath offered, once the doors were open. "It's been a rough day. How about some wine to take the edge off?"

A shadow of a smile crossed Marc's face. "Okay," the swordsman said. "But I still have questions for you, too."

"All the more reason to get alcohol in our bodies as soon as possible."

Tossing his invisibility jacket back behind the counter, Nathaniel started redoing the locks again, heading upstairs and pouring two glasses of wine from Rose's bottle while Marc got changed into something more comfortable.

He couldn't tell Marc that he was a demon. Now that he knew how much control Blanc had, even while sealed, he couldn't risk it. A taught hatred towards Monsters was one thing, but a personal grudge against demons...no, it was too dangerous. Just knowing what he was could make Marc turn against him, whether he wanted to or not.

He took a sip from his wine, trying to calm his nerves. It was really good wine. Not that he expected anything less from Rose, she always made sure her gifts were the best they could be, but damn. He admittedly didn't know much about good wine but this sure was one of them.

The human slid into the seat next to Nath, taking the offered glass. "Okay, so, I did some thinking."

"Okay."

"Juleka said she could 'hear the soul inside my sword screaming'."

Nath nodded.

"Does that mean..." Marc looked up at Nath. "My sword is alive?"

"Well." Nath took a long drink of wine. "That's not an easy question to answer. Do you know anything about your sword's powers?"

"Only that it's bonded to me, and it sends me into a 'berserker mode' that enhances my physical abilities when I use it in combat. I didn't know it was cursed until, well...that. But how did you know?"

Well, there was nothing to lose from being mostly honest. "When running a shop that sells magic items, you need connections," Nath said. "Access to magic records, legends for enchanted shit, someone who can translate runes from planar magic and a way to translate runes from race-specific magic, et cetera."

Marc made a face. "Sounds tough."

"You don't know the half of it. When I saw you walk in with that sword, I noticed a few things." The demon leaned forward. "For starters, your sword is made of Celestial steel. It's a very strong metal, practically unbreakable, and less reflective than normal steel."

He placed a finger on the table. "Secondly, your sword has a double-hooked pattern on the end. That's a style that was in use about five hundred years ago. The runes on the hilt enhance the holder's capabilities, allowing them to wield the heavy steel as though it was lightweight. This allows the user to stab someone from a distance with relative ease. The hooks on the end of the sword catch on the inside of the flesh and then slide along the natural curve of the barb, causing internal damage. One thrust from that kind of sword is usually fatal."

The swordsman gave him an incredulous stare. "You just knew all that off the top of your head?"

Nath shrugged. "It pays to have a history nerd as your best friend sometimes."

"Fair."

"Celestial swords are very rare outside of their realm, so I did some searching around for legends about Celestial swords, and I found one. Your sword, the sword Blanc, was created to grow stronger by absorbing the souls it killed and turning them into raw power, allowing the user to resist magical effects, poisons, disease, and enhance their physical abilities. But the problem with using souls in magic is that enough souls will merge and create a mind of their own inside the item, creating a false sentience. Blanc took over its original master's mind, puppeteering him into a bloodthirsty weapon of genocide. You can imagine just how many souls it had to kill to create a mind that strong."

He could see the horror in Marc's eyes. "So it could..."

"No, it's sealed by Fey magic. In its current state, it can't fully take over your mind, but it can still manipulate your subconscious." Nath took another drink, he'd need it to give him the courage for his next words. "It's technically still safe to use. Because of the seal, anyone you kill with that sword will only give you a temporary boost, instead of being permanently sealed into the sword. But there's a catch."

"A catch?"

"Celestial magic is very strong, but it directly conflicts with another form of magic-Infernal magic. Think of it like two opposite magnets-" his brow furrowed. "-No wait, opposite magnets attract, that's not a good metaphor."

"Like oil and water?"

"Sure, let's go with that. Oil and water can't mix. You can have them side by side, but you can't make them mix, they'll instantly repel each other. If Blanc was used to kill a magical creature from the Infernal Plane, such as the Nine Hells or the Abyss, it would trap a soul with Infernal magic inside a Celestial item." Nathaniel leaned forward. "That would create a magic wipeout."

"A what?"

"When two conflicting magic forces collide, they create an anti-magic charge that shuts down any magic in the surrounding area. The more powerful the collision, the greater the charge, until the stronger enchantment is all that remains. And with Blanc's Celestial power, if it came across a strong enough Infernal magic..."

"It'd break the seal."

"Exactly."

Marc was silent, mouth open. Nath couldn't blame him, it's not like learning you had a doomsday device bonded to your soul was an easy pill to swallow.

"Marc, do you understand?" Nath reached for the swordsman's hand from across the table, gripping it tightly. "You cannot use this sword against a demon or anything else from the Infernal Planes. Even drawing blood might be enough to trigger a wipeout so please."

Marc's breath shook, but he swallowed, nodded. "Okay."

"Good." Nath drained the last of his wine, grabbing the bottle to pour a second glass, offering more to Marc.

The swordsman accepted it gratefully, and there was a long silence as both of them reflected on the things they'd learned, washing down every bad thought and unpleasant possibility with another sip until they all melded together into something incomprehensible, and thus, not as painful to think about.

A demon had given Marc the sword. Maybe they had been relying on his ignorance to break the seal. But what would they have to gain from releasing Blanc again? To cause chaos for chaos's sake? Did they have some ultimate plan in mind?

Best not to think about it now. Ultimate plans like that were too big for him. He didn't want to be involved in anything more than he had to.

Nathaniel usually didn't rely on alcohol to solve his problems. But then he set down the second glass and realized the world was kind of spinning, and looked up at Marc to see the swordsman had his head in his hands.

"You didn't pace yourself?" Okay, he wasn't too drunk. Thank fuck, he hated being drunk. Or, drunker than he was now. There was a pleasant buzz in his head, blurring the lines of rational thought.

"You didn't either," Marc responded, still staring at the table. "But I feel better now."

"Yeah, wine...wine'll do that to ya." Nath blinked. "Man, this stuff's potent. Stronger than it tastes."

"Never trust alcohol that someone else gives you," Marc chided.

"Yeah but..." Nath tried to think of an argument, but his head was full of fuzz. "But she's nice to me." Man, Rose really was nice. She was such a kind person. He should give her a gift the next time they visited. There was an enchanted glass flower he had in the shop-wait, the flower would slowly kill everything in a short radius-Juleka might like it, though.

"She let me pet her cat," Marc said. He looked like he was about to cry. "I'm allergic to cats, but I wasn't allergic to him and I'm happy about that."

"That's nice."

Marc sniffed. "Yeah, he was really cute, too. I really like cute things."

Nath put his chin in his hands, resting his elbow on the table. Cupcake was really cute, but no cat, dead or alive, could ever be as cute as Marc himself.

The swordsman laughed, flashing a shy smile to Nath, who realized he'd spoken out loud. "Well, that's really sweet of you to say. You're pretty cute yourself, you know."

Nath's heart was beating insistently. "Oh?"

The swordsman's eyes flit away, biting the edge of his bottom lip and tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. "Well, I don't know if anyone's told you this, but you're very attractive."

Nathaniel could feel a blush growing on his cheeks. "Well, so are you. Attractive, I mean."

Marc hummed. "I was thinking about something." He traced the edge of his glass with his finger. "Kim seemed to be really hung up about that friends with benefits thing."

"I think he's just dumb," Nath said. "I think he's saying it so he won't forget or something."

"Yeah." Marc looked up at Nath from under his lashes, eyes as piercing as emeralds. "But it got me thinking."

All the breath in his lungs felt like it'd been sucked from his body. Nath stammered, mind jittering and trying to piece some coherent thought together.

"We're friends," Marc said. "Yeah?"

That confidence. The same confidence that he had when he held a sword, the confidence that he rarely showed. The swordsman stood up, carrying his glass over to the sink, as though he hadn't just insinuated what Nathaniel thought he would only dream of.

"Y-you've got some benefits in mind?" Nath asked, tracking Marc with his eyes as the raven-haired man returned, standing in front of him.

Marc placed a hand on Nath's chair, leaning closer, closer. "Something like that." He paused, inches from Nath's face, lips parted, eyes half-lidded, waiting.

Nath grabbed the swordsman's shirt and pulled him into a kiss.

Marc didn't hesitate to kiss him back, hot and messy and passionate, teeth scraping against his lips, tongue quick and insistent, tasting the alcohol on their mingled breaths. The swordsman's hands linked around his neck, fingers tangling into red locks.

He tasted wonderful, better than Nath could have ever dreamed of. Gods, he could get intoxicated by the sheer taste of Marc alone.

Nathaniel wrapped his arm's around the swordsman's waist, pulling the man into his lap as his tail wrapped around Marc's thigh, curling higher-

Marc's hip bumped into the table, knocking the wine glass to the floor. It shattered with a crash.

"Ah!" Marc jumped away, startled back to reality. Nathaniel quickly uncurled his tail from around the swordsman's leg, getting to his feet as they untangled from each other.

"Oh, no," Nath started moving the table and chairs away from the broken glass.

"I am so sorry-"

"It's alright, it's fine, I'll get the broom." Nathaniel shooed Marc out of the way, stepping around the shattered wine glass. "At least it wasn't the bottle."

"I feel really bad, I didn't mean to-"

Nath turned, pressing his finger to Marc's lips. "It's fine, okay? Go sit on the armchair over there, I don't want you getting your feet cut."

Marc did as he was told while Nath grabbed the broom from the janitor's closet in the junk shop and set to cleaning up the floor.

Maybe it was a bad idea to make romantic decisions while drunk. Yeah, that probably wasn't a good plan.

"I think we should continue this conversation later," Nath said, dumping the shards in the trashcan. Marc helped him move the table back in place. "We'll discuss this again when we're sober, okay?"

Marc's eyes were brimming with tears, but he nodded. "Okay."

Oh no, he was blaming himself. Even though he wasn't supposed to make romantic decisions, Nath instantly broke his own rules and stepped forward, pressing a quick peck to Marc's cheek. Marc blinked. "There's a lot that's happened today," Nath said. "We both need to sleep on some things."

"I have school tomorrow," Marc groaned. "Oh no."

"Drink some water and go to bed," the demon instructed. "I'll see you in the morning, we'll figure things out tomorrow."

Once he made sure Marc had gotten to bed without falling over something, Nathaniel went to his own room, sinking down into the old mattress with a sigh.

Of course he had to end up catching horny feelings for the person that was most dangerous to him.

But to know that he felt the same way...

Nath smiled.

A lot of things happened today, but at least some of them were good.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel woke up with his throat dry and a bit of a headache.

"Fuck," he croaked. He'd overslept.

Why did he ever think opening the shop at 7 am every weekday was a good idea? He was his own boss, there was literally no reason he had to do that. He could have chosen to have a shop that opened at 10 am if he wanted. But noooooo, he'd decided being a responsible adult meant waking up at the ass-crack of dawn practically every day.

Grumbling, he stumbled to the living room, finding a glass of water and his painkillers sitting on the table, left by Marc before he went to his classes. Nath smiled. It was nice to have someone else looking out for you.

Speaking of, Marc had sent him a text message thirty minutes ago.

 

Marc: Is it ok if I bring my motorcycle to the shop today?

 

Oh, right. He had promised to enchant Marc's bike, hadn't he?

 

Nath: Was planning on meeting up w Luka today for ur thing

But I can probably do it tommorow if nothign comes up

Marc: Tomorrow's Saturday, I won't be at campus all weekend
Nath: O shit

Marc: Monday?

Nath: Yeh Monday

 

Grabbing a granola bar from the pantry, Nathaniel made his way downstairs to open the shop. The magic cleaning set he'd bought from a customer came to life with a snap of his fingers, sweeping the floors and cleaning the windows. The cleaning set was cursed, which made it hard to sell, but so long as he stayed a certain distance from the broom and kept the mop bucket fed, he didn't mind keeping it around for personal use.

And, of course, there was already someone looking into the windows, rattling the locked door.

By now Nath would recognize that tall build and idiot grin anywhere. He undid the enchantments and opened the door. "Hello, Kim," he said, frowning. "Does the boss need something?"

Kim rubbed the back of his head. "Actually, I came here to buy something, if that's okay. I saw you had swimming goggles behind the counter and I was wondering if I could take a look at them?"

"Oh." Nathaniel blinked, taken aback. "Oh, well sure, I mean, if you're willing to pay then-GAH!"

He'd stepped too close to the broom, which had instantly turned and rammed him in the ass with the blunt handle, sending him careening forward a few feet. Once out of its immediate attack range, the broom straightened and continued sweeping the floor.

Kim raised an eyebrow. "Does it always do that?"

"Yeah, it's cursed," Nath groaned, wincing. "Just don't...don't get too close to it." He threw the rest of his granola bar at the mop bucket, which instantly sprouted teeth and devoured the treat whole.

"Anyway, these goggles," Nath said. "They're Mortalis magic. You can breathe underwater for about 15 minutes, once a week. That's it. They're 300 gold."

Kim whistled. "My normal swim goggles cost 10 gold."

"Yeah, but permanent enchantments are expensive." Nath crossed his arms. "Take 'em or leave 'em."

"You're not a very good salesman."

Nath could feel a vein in his forehead pulsing. "Well, some people grow on you-"

"Aww, that's nice-"

"-like a Stinkhorn mushroom."

"A what?"

Nath shook his head. "A Stinkhorn mushroom. They grow in some places on Earth, but mostly in the Nine Hells."

"What, you studied biology or something?"

"Do you want the goggles or not?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure, hang on." Kim pulled a card out of his pocket. "I can't wait to show these to Ondine!"

Nath wasn't the prying type, but Kim must have either seen the puzzled look on his face or didn't care because he continued. "Ondine's my swim buddy at the gym. We have competitive races every weekend, and her birthday's coming up, so I thought I'd get her some goggles." He grinned. "Oh man, she's gonna love these!"

"Pretty expensive for a gift," Nath commented, removing the enchantments on the glass door and retrieving the googles while Kim put his card in the chip reader.

"It's worth it," Kim said. "She's half mermaid, so she can't breathe underwater, but she's got the tail and everything. I figured something like this might make it a little easier for her."

Nath paused. "Huh."

Well, it made sense that Kim would have a heart of gold. The brains certainly weren't working in his favor, so he had to have something going for him. Maybe that's why Max kept him around. Besides the...obvious reasons.

Nath turned the tablet on the counter towards Kim and extended his hand. "Here, take my hand, read the contract, and click the 'I agree' button down at the bottom."

"Okie dokie." Kim grabbed his hand, skimming through the contract and pressing the button.

Kim was lucky that Nath wasn't the kind of person to hide things in his contracts. A more malicious demon might have taken advantage of his trusting nature and tweaked the contract a bit. Nevertheless, a checkmark appeared on the tablet, there was a little flash of red sparks as the demon felt magic energy rush down his arm, and Nath handed the goggles to Kim. "Have a nice day."

"Thank you!"

If the demon had a little smile on his face as Kim left, well, no one was there to prove anything.

Nath saw the broom shuffling towards him out of the corner of his eye. "Oh no you fucking don't!" He snapped his fingers again and the cleaning supplies trotted back to the janitor's closet, settling back into their designated spots.

Now all he had to do was man the shop until Marc came home.

And then they'd have to talk about what happened last night...

Oh fuck.

 

~oOo~

 

"I'm back," Marc said, opening the shop door. The bell at the top of the door rang, and Nath looked up.

"Oh, hey," the half-dragon said, standing up and walking out from behind the counter. "You usually don't come back this late."

"I missed the bus," Marc said. "Had to wait for the next one." He didn't add that he'd missed the bus because he remembered that he was going to talk to Nath about the kiss and spent ten minutes panicking in the bathroom, but hey, details weren't important.

"That's good," Nath said. "I was starting to get a little worried." He leaned against the counter, running a hand through his hair, untangling stray hairs from his horns. "So...um..."

"I'm gonna put my backpack away first," Marc said. "Unless you wanted to talk now?"

"I mean, we can wait until the shop closes if you want-"

"No, no, it's fine," Marc said, though he was sure Nath could see the flush in his cheeks. "I'll be down in a second."

After a second and ten more minutes panicking upstairs, he came back down, no more prepared to talk to Nath than when he'd gone up.

"So." Marc rubbed his hands, then decided that rubbing his hands was a weird thing to do, clutched his sword scabbard to help ease his anxiety, remembered that Nath was scared of the sword and drawing attention to it was probably a bad idea. He unbuckled the sword and set it against the wall. Oh, no, Nath saw that and now he was definitely drawing attention to the sword. Oh gods, now he was thinking about how the sword was cursed and he'd been trying not to think about that all morning.

Great start. One word in and he already wanted to bail.

"So yesterday you offered a 'friends with benefits' relationship," Nathaniel said, as evenly as though he were reading budget transcripts. His face was completely emotionless and he wasn't looking Marc in the eyes.

"Why are you using your customer service voice?" Marc blurted out before he could help himself.

Nath's professional demeanor instantly crumbled. "I'm a little nervous, okay?"

"How do you think I feel? I asked to fuck you and you're talking to me like you want me to join your rewards program!"

Nath sputtered. "We don't have a rewards program!"

"That's the part you're focusing on?"

The two of them froze. Nath dropped his head in his hands, groaning. "Can we start over?"

"Yeah. Uh...please talk to me like a normal person this time."

The half-dragon snorted. "Alright. Well, I'm not...great with words and all that shit, but I think you're attractive, and I do want to try...being benefits with you."

Marc didn't want to admit how quickly his heart leapt in his throat, but he couldn't stop the shy smile from spreading across his face. "So, uh..." he rocked back and forth on his heels. "How do friends with benefits work?"

"Well, most of the time nothing changes," Nath said, patting the counter next to where he was leaning.

Marc moved next to the half-dragon, hoisting himself up to sit on the countertop. Now that the initial awkwardness was starting to fade, there was a more excitable energy in the air. "Okay, okay. Normal friend stuff?"

"Yep. But sometimes," Nath's hand rested lightly on Marc's knee, fingers barely brushing against ripped denim. "Things happen."

"Like what?"

The half-dragon smirked, moving to stand between the swordsman's legs. Marc felt heat pooling towards his stomach. "Maybe you'll find out," Nath said, one hand reaching up to hook around the choker Marc was wearing, pulling him closer, lips parting.

The bell rang as the door to the shop opened.

Marc and Nath turned to face the stranger, frozen in the doorway.

"I-I'm sorry," the man said, already backing away. "Was I interrupting something?"

"Yes, Mr. Monlataing, the shop's closed right now-"

"No, I was just-"

Nath and Marc spoke in unison, but the stranger had already turned on his heel and left, striding down the sidewalk and not looking back.

Marc burst into giggles. "That's twice now we've been interrupted," he said. "First the table incident, then someone walking in-it's like the universe is determined not to let us have a moment."

"Maybe I should close the shop early," Nath said. "Finish the moment we started."

"No, no," Marc said. "I have to do homework, and deliveries, it's okay."

"And we have to talk with Luka," Nath said. "Who knows how long that's going to take? Come on, I can close up now, it's fine."

Marc hopped off the counter. "Well, someone's eager," he teased.

"I've been thinking about it all morning," Nath said, a gleam in his eye. "Forgive me if I'm a little forward."

Marc patted the half-dragon's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Tonight," he said. "If nothing happens to...complicate things. How does that sound?"

He could feel Nath's tail lightly curling around his ankle. "It's a deal then."

"So." Marc stepped away, re-buckling his sword. "How many packages do we have this time?"

"Just one." Nath grabbed a box from behind the counter. "It's a painted bird whistle for Mr. Ramier."

"The pigeon man?"

"Yeah."

"You know him?"

"Not really. He shouted at me once for trying to install visual bird deterrents on the signs, ranting about how 'they just need somewhere to build their nests! Modern architecture is actively violent towards them!' And I mean, he has a point, but then I have to clean shit off the sign, and the sidewalk, and it's too much work."

Marc squinted at the address. "This is just the address to the Nightingale Park."

Nathaniel shrugged. "He probably lives there for all I know. If that's where he wants it delivered then hopefully he'll be there. If not, just...I don't know, set it in front of a pigeon or something, he'll find it."

"Alright." Marc tucked the box under one arm. "Take care!"

"Don't let anything happen out there!" Nath called back. "We have plans tonight!"

Marc chuckled, walking outside. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."

Chapter Text

The two of them stood outside of an old-looking music shack. Not old in the way that it was falling apart, but old in the way that the building felt like it was supposed to be from a different time and place, where large blocky speakers hung over the doors and people said things like "groovy" and "totally sick, dude".
Nath knew that was because of Luka's co-owner, an ambitious tortle who'd designed this place and their sister shop on the other side of town, and was also the kind of person who unironically said "groovy" and "totally sick, dude" sometimes. He was just like that.

"Please hold my sword when we go in," Marc said, frozen outside the glass-tinted doors.

"I don't want to hold your sword-"

"Please, Nath, I'm scared I'll see him and try to slit his throat and then Juleka's gonna be mad at me-"

"I'll hold your hand, okay? That way you can't grab the sword."

Marc nodded, reaching out and grabbing Nath's hand in a death grip. Nathaniel tried not to wince. Marc wasn't exactly weak.

"Come on."

"Oh, gods," Marc whined, as Nath pulled him up to the shop door. "This is embarrassing."

"You got the cat bone?"

Marc stuffed his other hand into his pocket. "Yeah."

"Alright. Oh, and one more thing. Don't...don't try to lie to him."

"He'll get mad?"

"Eh, he's pretty chill, but it's literally impossible. He can read your soul."

Marc gave a nervous laugh. "That doesn't sound ominous at all."

"Yeah." Nath pushed open the shop door, which played a little tune as he opened it.

The man sitting at the counter-or more specifically, on the counter, didn't seem to react, eyes closed as his fingers lightly plucked the strings of a sleek black guitar.

He felt Marc's grip tighten around his fingers.

"Hey, Luka!" Nathaniel waved his free hand. "Long time no see!"

The siren's eyes opened slowly, blue irises staring into his soul through lashless eyelids. "Nathaniel," he said, strumming a chord on his guitar as he spoke. Like Juleka, his voice seemed to speak into the demon's very soul, but it was softer, more controlled.

Nathaniel felt a shiver run down his spine. Even though Luka was obviously controlling his voice to suppress his siren abilities, there was still a natural charm in the way he spoke. "How's the shop?"

Luka's face didn't change, a pleasant smile still on his face. "It's been fairly quiet this last month. I assume you're not here for business?" His eyes flicked over to Marc. "Hello."

"H...hey, sir." Marc swallowed. Beads of sweat were gathering on his forehead. "My name's Marc."

The siren's eyes narrowed. "So you're the one fighting with a cursed sword," he said, setting his guitar to the side.

"Yeah, I know," Marc said. Nath was starting to fear that his fingers might break from how the swordsman was clutching them. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be rude."

"Juleka sent us," Nath said. "She says you can help with mind-control resistant magic." He looked down at the mirror bracelet on Luka's wrist, identical to the one his sister wore.

Luka hummed, tilting his head to the side. "I can try," he said. "Anything else?"

"She gave me a cat bone." Marc took the bone out of his pocket, offering it to Luka. His hand was shaking.

"Calm down," Luka said, and his voice reverberated in the air. This time, he didn't bother suppressing his siren voice, and Marc instantly stilled as the siren leaned forward to take the bone from his palm. "I'll see what I can do. Hand me your sword."

His voice felt like honey in Nath's brain, so he could only imagine how Marc felt. The swordsman's green eyes turned glassy and he unbuckled the sword from his belt, handing the scabbard to Luka.

"Nath, little treasure," Luka said, flashing a charming smile at the demon. "Would you mind sealing up the shop for me while I take this to the back? We wouldn't want to be interrupted."

"Uh, yeah!" Nath turned to the shop door, locking it and beginning to cast a few wards over the glass.

"Little treasure?" Marc said, blinking free of Luka's spell and turning to the demon.

Nath could feel a blush creeping up to his ears. "Shut up."

"Cute nickname."

"I know."

"Didn't you say he was friends with Marinette? Do you two also-"

"Alright," Luka called out. His voice wasn't raised in the slightest, but it carried through the building as clear as a crystal in a sparkling river. "I'll need to talk with you two before I start this."

Marc leaned into Nath's ear. "Does he call you 'little treasure' because you have a little-"

"No!" Nath's face was beet red. Marc looked like he was biting down a laugh, turning away to follow Luka.

The siren led them to the back, which was currently housing several instruments, some carefully packed in boxes, others disassembled, including a large grand piano that looked like it had some pieces removed. Luka led them to what looked like a portable air conditioning unit, pulsing a faint purple light through the bars.

"What's that?" Marc asked as Luka started to move it away.

"It's a magic humidifier," Luka said. "It regulates the humidity and temperature of the whole shop, so the instruments don't go out of tune. Of course, the magic also hides this from any enchanted screeners." The siren knelt down towards the floor, pressing his fingers into the carpet.

From his throat came a low, throaty hum that seemed to shake Nath's very core, like the call of a whale, followed by a series of high-pitched whistles and clicks, some of which seemed impossible to make with the mouth.

"He's speaking Aquan," Nath explained when Marc glanced to him with a confused look. "Common doesn't travel well underwater, so most aquatic races know some variation of Aquan or Primordial."

The carpet underneath Luka's hands started to pulse in a shimmering runic pattern, and then his hands pushed through the carpet and he was gone.

"Whoah!" Marc instinctively reached for where his sword would be, but Nath grabbed his wrist.

"It's alright," Luka's voice called from below the floor. "It's just illusion magic now."

"Come on." Nath pulled Marc towards the carpet. "There's a ladder underneath, so watch your step."

"You've been here before?" Marc knelt down near the floor as Nathaniel started his descent. The demon could see the wheels turning in Marc's head, trying to piece together what kind of relationship they had.

Nathaniel ducked into the secret room before Marc could start making connections.

The room was dimly lit, with blue atmospheric lights illuminating the walls. Luka was setting the sword in the middle of the room.

"So, where is this-" Nath heard Marc say, before he stopped, words stuttering away as some of the objects in the room came to light. "Oh."

"I assure you, everything is properly sanitized," Luka said, unsheathing the sword carefully and setting it on the ground. "And sound-proof from the outside, too."

Marc sidled up to Nath. "I expected a lot of weird things would happen when we met this guy."

"And?"

"Somehow I didn't have 'he leads us into his secret sex dungeon' on that list."

"It's not a sex dungeon," Nath said.

"Really? That looks like a fuck machine, that's definitely a sex swing, and that-what is that?"

"It's a water tank," Luka said, as calmly as though he were discussing the weather.

"It's a water tank," Marc repeated, turning to Nath with wide eyes, hands on his hips. "What kind of friend is he?"

Nath's face felt like it was on fire. "It's not like that. I mean, it kinda is, but only a few times, it isn't-" he fumbled for the right words, finding none.

"This room is rarely in use," Luka added. "It just keeps the cops from searching too close and finding my other room. It's a...red herring, I believe that's the common phrase?"

He could feel the shock radiating from Marc as the swordsman's mind was probably thinking of every possibility imaginable and panicking.

"He grows weed," Nath said, to cut Marc's overthinking short. "That's all."

"Oh, okay." Marc visibly relaxed. "Because my thoughts were going towards 'murder chamber' and, well..."

Luka chuckled. "Murder chamber, heh. No, my sister and I prefer to work with creatures that are already dead."

From anyone else that might have sounded creepy, but Luka's voice was almost too trustworthy, courtesy of having a naturally beautiful voice. It's a good thing Luka and Juleka were such mellow people. Nathaniel would hate to have to face a siren with ill intentions.

Luka took the cat rib and began running it along the edge of the blade, making small, dolphin-like whistling noises under his breath.

"Might as well get comfortable," Nath said, stretching. "This might take a while."

The demon took a seat on the one neatly made bed in the room. Marc, after some hesitation, sat next to him.

"This place is strange," Marc whispered.

"In more ways than one."

"No, I mean, it's like I can't not speak my mind around here." Marc hugged his jacket closer around himself. "It's a little scary."

"Siren magic does that to you. Try not to take it personally."

Marc glanced around the room. "I don't even know what half of this stuff is," he said.

Nathaniel pointed across the room. "I sold him those handcuffs," he said.

"Are they enchanted?"

"No, they were part of a kink bondage kit, but the rest of the items were covered in acid, so I threw it out." Nath grinned a little, looking up at the ceiling. "But get this-the box had never been opened. I even did some tests, it was a brand new set, just...dripping with acid!"

"Weird," Marc said, grinning.

Nath laughed. "No, weird is this one time when an old goliath man just walked right up past me and into my house, then fell asleep in the armchair. He didn't even say anything, he just walked right past!"

"What did you do?"

"What was I supposed to do? He was nine feet tall and built like a stone golem! Three minutes later a dwarvish woman ran in asking for him and then carried-literally carried-him back outside. Apparently she was his wife and he was drunk or something."

The mental image still made him chuckle, and Marc grinned, too.

Ten minutes passed. Then thirty.

"How long is this going to take?" Nathaniel asked, after forty-five minutes.

"Roughly four hours," Luka answered, before resuming his chanting.

"Fuck," Marc whined. "And I can't even leave."

The demon made a sympathetic noise. "Is there, like...a certain amount of time you can spend away from the sword before it gives you chest pains and all that?"

"I think so," Marc said. "But it's not that long."

"Do you want me to go get some food for you?" Nath stretched. "We have leftover pasta in the fridge."

"Oooh, the chicken alfredo?" Marc's eyes instantly brightened.

"You know it." Nath turned to the siren. "Luka, will you let me use your microwave?"

"Sure."

"Do you want pasta, too? I feel like I should offer."

Luka smiled, not taking his eyes off the glyphs he was drawing on the floor with the cat bone. "I'm good."

"Alright. I'll be back soon." Nath clambered back out of the room, heading outside.

Hopefully Marc wouldn't miss him too much.

 

~oOo~

 

Five minutes in and Marc was really missing Nath.

In his defense, he was alone with a siren that he'd never met, sitting in the siren's dimly lit sex room. At least the lights in the water tank were pretty to look at. He was tempted to pull out his phone but wasn't sure if he was allowed to; secret rooms and phone locators and all that.

It was about 25 minutes to get back to Hidden Treasures, given traffic and how bad the roads were, then Nathaniel would have to undo the locks, grab the food, redo the locks, and come back here, so that meant...about an hour, maybe more.

Great.

"You're tense."

Marc immediately stiffened.

Luka was facing away from him, but he could hear the knowing smile in the siren's voice. "It's alright. You don't have to be afraid."

"I'm not afr-" Marc started, then stopped, sighing. "I'm not great with people."

"I understand." Luka tapped the cat rib twice, three times, along the tip of the blade. "But you do well with Nathaniel."

"I...do well?"

A low hum, almost a drone, seemed to emanate from the siren's chest, but he kept speaking. "He's happier with you around."

"Well, I wouldn't know about that..." Marc glanced away.

"It's true. His song was quieter, muted, but now," the drone faded, replaced with a sound similar to glass wind chimes.

"I don't know if that's because of me, though." Marc said. "I feel like I've just made things...more complicated for him, since I came by."

"Nathaniel was already complicated to begin with," Luka said. "But he has more trust in you than he has in any other human. That counts for something."

"I'm guessing he doesn't have a good history with humans." Marc tilted his head.

Luka gave a short laugh. "Most of us don't."

"Right."

Luka set the cat bone down, pickup up the sword and flipping it over. "Fear is a dangerous thing," he said. "It divides us, sets sides where sides don't need to be set. And out of fear rises hatred. And when others are brought up learning to hate without reason, it only adds more fear." He drew a circle around the sword. "And so the cycle continues."

Marc leaned forward, arms resting on his knees.

"It takes years to undo the damage hate has made." Luka turned to Marc, a smile on his face. "But I see you, and I see how he looks at you and I know that hate won't last forever."

Marc felt his heart stutter. "It's not like that," he said. "We're just friends, that's all."

Luka raised an eyebrow.

"And maybe there are some benefits that we've talked about," Marc added, because Luka was still looking at him and he was starting to feel very anxious. "But it's not romantic or anything, we're still just friends!"

The siren kept watching him for an uncomfortably long amount of time, before closing his eyes and nodding. "I've been alive for more than 300 years," he said. "And I've heard that phrase twice now from a close friend." Luka turned away, resuming his magic ritual. "Keep believing that for as long as you'd like," he said. "But by the time you're ready to stop lying to yourself, it might be too late."

Marc felt something clench uncomfortably in his chest. "What does that mean?" He asked, a little more hostile than he intended.

Luka didn't answer.

Marc leaned back with an irritated huff. He didn't know what he was talking about. Luka didn't know anything about him. It wasn't like that at all.

It was a while before he heard the little alarm tune of the door opening, and soon Nath hopped down, wings spread to gently drift to the floor, a plate of pasta in each hand and two forks tightly wrapped in his tail.

"I've never seen you fly before," Marc observed as the half-dragon's feet touched the ground.

"I can't fly," Nath said. "Not without a strong updraft. These wings are made for gliding short distances only."

"Well, that explains it." Marc took one of the plates from Nath's hand. "Did you get enough pasta to last us three more hours?"

"Depends on how slow you chew it." Nath sat down next to Marc, rifling through the satchel at his hip. "But I also brought your portable phone charger."

"You're amazing."

As Nathaniel settled on the bed next to Marc, eagerly digging into his food, Marc realized he still couldn't shake the chill that seemed to have settled in his spine, raising goosebumps on his arms.

No, Luka was wrong. They were just friends.

He turned to see the siren's eyes on him, one eyebrow cocked. He looked ethereal in the shifting light of the water tank, like some beautiful, mystical being that was staring into the deep recesses of his heart.

Marc promptly turned away.

He didn't know anything at all.

Chapter Text

Three very long hours later, the cat bone had been scraped across the edge of the sword so many times it was practically just a little white nub. Luka crushed the remains in his palm, sprinkled the dust across the hilt of the sword, and leaned back to observe his handiwork.

"It should be easier to resist now," he said, turning to the two. Marc looked up from his phone in surprise. Nath was taking a nap on the bed next to him. "The souls in the sword have essentially been merged into the strongest soul, creating a single point of focus rather than a mass of instincts. It's much easier to resist a single person than a crowd."

"Thank you," Marc said, standing up and stretching. His back popped with the motion, making him wince. "Nath? Nath, wake up."

"Ghuh?" Nath blinked awake, hair tangled around his horns and one wing flopping to the side. "Is it over?"

Luka picked up the sword, sheathing it back in its scabbard and setting it on the ground in front of Marc. "Try picking it up," he said.

"Um..." The swordsman turned to Nath. "I'm a little nervous," he laughed, a fearful sound that bubbled from his throat.

"Don't worry," Luka said, flashing a charming smile. "If anything happens I'll pin you down."

Maybe it was the way he said it, or the siren magic messing with his head, but the breath vanished from Marc's lungs as his heart stuttered and his eyes widened.

Oh.

"Y-you promise?" He said, before his mind could tell him why that was a fucking terrible thing to say when his face was this red and his thoughts were swimming in the gutter.

The siren gave a knowing smirk. "I'll tell Nath to do it."

Nathaniel rubbed the drowsy from his eyes, apparently still disconnected from the conversation. "I'll try my best," he said. "What are we doing?"

Marc knelt down, and slowly, hesitantly, touched the sword.

It was like an electrical shock was punched into his brain, a single, driven voice, hissing, whispering, slit his throat, kill him, spread his guts across the ground, fight fight kill kill-

"Shit," Nath said, stepping away from him very quickly. "Uh...Marc? You good?"

Marc took a long, deep breath. It wasn't overwhelming. Not like last time. He could fight this. He would fight this.

"I'm okay," he said, getting to his feet. Now that he was accustomed to it, the urges felt inconsequential, like an annoying whine in the back of his head. He buckled the sword back on his belt and smiled. "Thank you."

Luka bowed his head in response, turning to scale the ladder and leave.

"Do we...owe you anything?" Nath stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Like, is there a fee?"

The siren chuckled, pausing. "No, this was a request from Jules. Though..." he smiled at Nath. "If you don't mind coming back tonight, I'd like to hear some of the sounds you can make."

Goddammit he was smooth. His voice was like sweet cream and judging by the way Nath's face was starting to redden, Marc could easily guess what "sounds" Luka was implying.

"Uh, no," Marc cut in, grabbing the half-dragon's hand. "Nath and I already have plans tonight."

Luka turned to him, still smiling, eyes piercing through his soul. God damn he was a sucker for blue eyes, even if the man kind of creeped him out a little. "Well, no one said you couldn't join in," he offered, giving a flirtatious wink in the swordsman's direction.

Oh shit.

Marc felt like his knees might go weak. "Um..." he squeaked, in a very well-composed and not at all internally combusting manner. "Maybe another time?"

Luka tilted his head. "You've got a lovely song in your heart," he said. "A little directionless but well-meaning. I look forward to seeing how your symphony progresses." He turned and climbed up the ladder without another word.

"How does he do it?" Marc hissed, once Luka was gone. He clutched the half-dragon's arm like a pillar. "How is he so smooth, so hot, so, aagh?" Unable to think of any other adjectives, he flailed a hand in the air.

Nath nodded wisely. "He's got two things we don't."

"What?"

"Weed and a lack of social anxiety."

Marc paused, thinking. "Yeah, okay, that tracks."

Nathaniel yawned, showing the slightest hint of sharper canines. "I didn't realize I'd take a nap," he said. "Sorry about that."

"It's fine." Marc stuffed his hands in his pockets. "At least you'll be awake for tonight."

It took a moment for either of them to realize what he'd said. Then Nathaniel turned to Marc with raised eyebrows, and Marc tried to defend himself but the words wouldn't leave his mouth.

"Well, someone's eager," Nathaniel purred, trailing his tail along the swordsman's waist.

"Don't use my own words against me," Marc grumbled, pouting a little. "Let's get out of this sex dungeon."

Nathaniel laughed, gathering the discarded dishes from their dinner and scaling the ladder with nimble steps.

Luka was sitting back on the counter, guitar in hand, as though he had never left. "Take care," he said, as Nath started to undo the wards on the door. "Oh, and Marc."

"Yeah?"

Luka plucked a string, paused, then started adjusting the tuning pegs. "Your sword can still hold other people's souls for short amounts of time. The more people you kill at one time, the harder it'll be to resist. Pick your battles carefully."

Marc nodded.

"Oh, and..." a knowing smile crossed the siren's face. "Have fun."

"We will," Nath said, opening the door. "Bye."

Marc slid into the passenger's seat, hands in his lap. "Well," he said. "That was...certainly something."

"Luka's a unique personality," Nath said.

"I feel like that can be said for all your friends," Marc noted.

"Eh, he's more Marinette's friend than mine. I only really know Luka for his dick and weird, insightful comments."

"And his weed?"

"Nah," Nath shook his head. "I've tried it, sure, but didn't like it. I hate being too out of my mind, it makes me anxious."

Marc nodded. "Like with dentists and when they give you sedatives?"

"Or like when you're too drunk and can't think straight. I've always been scared of like, saying something incriminating when that happens."

"Yeah, yeah." Marc looked out the window. "I can understand that."

There was a beat of silence. Nath turned his attention back to the dark road ahead, while Marc rested his chin in his hand and gazed out the window.

Something touched his leg.

Marc glanced down to see the tip of Nath's tail slowly trailing up the side of his shin, curling around his knee.

"Oh, already laying on the moves?" Marc teased.

"Huh?" Nathaniel glanced away from the road. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize-"

"It's fine," Marc cut in. "I don't mind."

"Yeah?"

Marc smiled, resting his hand on the red appendage. "How does it work?" He asked, trailing his finger along the scales.

"Hm?"

"Your tail. Can you feel when it touches things?"

"Eh...sort of. At the tip, no. But for most of it, well...it's like when your leg falls asleep, and everything you feel is kinda muted....like that. Gets more feeling the further up you go."

"Interesting."

"Really sensitive at the base, though. Hurts like a motherfuck if I sit on it wrong."

Marc ran his hand along Nath's tail, examining the muscles skipping under his fingers. "What about your horns? Are they sensitive?"

"Uh... " Nathaniel reached up to grab one of his horns, tugging his head to the side. "Nope. Can't feel anything."

"What about your wings?"

Nath extended one wing, letting Marc touch it. "The bones are pretty tough, about the same as my tail. Good for bapping people over the head."

"I recall." Marc ran his fingers across the translucent material on the inside of his wings.

The inside-hey!" His wing jerked back tightly against his shoulder blades. "The inside is very sensitive. Don't touch there."

"Sorry."

Nath's tail flicked up, arching into Marc's open palm. "This is nice, though," he said. "When I was a kid, I used to get stressed a lot so I'd hold Alix's hand with my tail under the school desk."

Marc sighed, a little wistful. "That sounds nice."

"Having a tail?"

"Having a friend like Alix." Marc rubbed his thumb across Nath's tail absentmindedly. "Must be nice to have someone so close to you."

"You...didn't have many friends?"

"I wasn't allowed to." The swordsman leaned his head against the seat of the car, listening to the engine hum. "Coming from a family of bounty hunters, ironically enough, puts a target on your own back. My parents homeschooled me, I wasn't allowed to go out unless I had one of our guards or a parent with me. Once they started taking me on missions, I met a few people, but we always left before I could really make friends."

"That sounds rough."

"You should have seen the look on my parent's faces when I told them I wanted to go to a college in another city for my next semester."

"They didn't take it well?"

"Oh, they were livid." Marc gave a short, humorless laugh. "But I don't regret leaving. Once I finish college, maybe I'll get an apartment here, or move to another city. As long as I'm away from them, I don't care."

"It can be scary facing the world on your own," Nath said. "Especially when you know there are people out there to hurt you."

Marc nodded, swallowing hard. "It's worth it."

"It is."

By the time they got back home, the temperature had dropped dramatically. Marc hugged his arms, wishing he'd thought to bring a jacket with him.

"Here." Nath draped one wing over the shivering swordsman, working on opening the door. Marc leaned into Nath's side, regretting the fact that he was wearing ripped jeans. He could feel the cold wind against his thighs and didn't like it at all.

"You're warm," he commented, pressing his cheek against the half-dragon's shoulder.

"Am I?" There was amusement in Nath's voice, as he opened the door and led them inside. A hand touched his cheek, tilting his head down slightly to make eye contact. "I can certainly warm you up more, if you'd like."

Marc ran his fingers through the half-dragon's hair, fingers finding the ends of his horns and drifting past them to the base of his skull, down to the nape of his neck-

"Gah," Nath tensed up. "You're cold."

Holding back a laugh, Marc moved one hand to Nath's shoulder instead, while the other unbuckled his sword and set it against the counter. "Better?"

Nathaniel leaned forward, letting his lips press slightly against Marc's like a soft whisper. "Much better," he said, pulling away. "Now, you made a promise."

"I did," Marc said, raising his eyebrows playfully. "Remind me what it was again?"

A tail curled around his thigh, more intentional now, rubbing up against his ass. "I'm sure I can jog your memory."

He stepped forward, pressing Marc's hips back against the counter, and kissed him.

Just like their first kiss, the swordsman didn't hold back, chasing the half-dragon's lips and tongue like he was addicted to the taste.

It'd been too long since he'd been kissed senseless. He could already feel excitement stirring in both his heart and his jeans as Nathaniel's hips bucked forward against his, demanding, desperate, his hands almost vice-like as they gripped his shirt and anchored the two together.

"Fuck," he gasped between wild kisses, as Nathaniel's slightly longer canines scraped across his lips, not sharp enough to hurt, just enough to send shivers down the swordsman's spine.

And then Nathaniel pulled away, examining Marc's face with bright, gleaming eyes. Marc couldn't help the whine that escaped his throat as his lips met cold air.

"Probably wouldn't be best to do this in front of the windows," Nath purred. "Let me lock up and then we'll go somewhere more comfortable, hm?"

Dazed, Marc waited for Nath to set the wards and then let himself be led upstairs, into Nathaniel's room.

He hadn't really looked into the half-dragon's room, for the sake of politeness. The walls were covered in paintings, beautiful works of art and sprawling canvases that spoke wonders of the half-dragon's artistic abilities.

"Woah," Marc breathed, momentarily captivated by the sight. It was only when Nathaniel pushed him onto the bed and crawled on top of him that he remembered, right, yeah, he was supposed to be having sex right now.

But god, the room smelled like Nathaniel. It was almost overwhelming, how much of the half-dragon's personality seemed to shine in this tiny room. Everything around him just fit with Nathaniel's essence, from the paintings that covered from floor to ceiling to the soft blankets beneath his head to the gently flickering candles on his dresser, the only light source in the room.

"Hey," Nath whispered. "Something on your mind?"

"Oh!" Marc snapped his attention back to the half-dragon. "Sorry, I was a bit distracted by all the art, and the...when did you have time to light candles?"

"It's ever-burning hellfire," Nath said. "I've had it for years. Saves a bit of money on electrical bills."

Marc reached up to thread his finger's through Nath's hair. "Well, I appreciate the mood lighting."

Mood lighting didn't even cover it. The way the light danced across his horns and wings in a soft orange glow, illuminating little veins and scales that he'd never noticed before, it was like he was made to bask in candlelight.

Nathaniel pressed a kiss to his lips, teasing Marc's lower lip with his teeth before moving down to his jaw, his neck, edging his choker lower to nip at soft skin.

"Ha," Marc gasped, slipping one hand under Nath's shirt, trailing fingers across his spine. The half-dragon made an appreciative noise in the back of his throat, pressing his hips against Marc's groin.

Fuck. It'd been too long since he'd done this.

He hadn't really slept with a lot of people, and college, along with the other stressful parts of his life had made finding the time or energy to jack off nearly impossible. Now, with his cock already painfully hard against his skinny jeans, it was almost embarrassingly obvious how clumsy and inexperienced he was.

"Anything you want me to do?" Nathaniel asked, conversationally, a casual lilt in his voice as his tail circled across Marc's inner thigh, trailing higher.

"T-taking requests?" Marc stuttered, face red and flushed. "How awfully kind of you-ah!"

The tail found its way to Marc's aching crotch, rubbing against the tent in his pants. He moaned at the touch, eyes squeezing shut as he tried to keep what little composure he had left. He was losing quickly.

Nathaniel moved back, away from Marc's neck, sitting on his knees as he watched Marc pant and groan. Marc couldn't even see what expression the half-dragon had on his face, it was all he could do not to cream his jeans then and there.

He felt when Nathaniel pushed his other leg out of the way, moving forward to pin his legs apart, his tail slowly retracting, soon replaced by the light pressure of his palm, toying with the buckle on his belt.

"P-please, Nath," Marc said, surprising himself with the desperation in his voice. Nath's eyes snapped up to his face, eyes gleaming.

The buckle came loose, then his pants, and Marc bit his lip hard as those warm fingers found his dick, already leaking precum.

"Marc," Nath's voice was light and teasing.

"Agnh," Marc replied, "Ah-Nath, fUCK-"

The half-dragon took his cock in his hand, pumping it slowly, torturously, and Marc felt the blood rush in his ears as he squeezed his eyes shut and came, a loud cry on his lips.

"Oh," Nath said.

Breathing hard as his mind reoriented, Marc glanced up to see Nath's surprised face looking back at him, then back down at the mess on his hand and across Marc's jeans.

"I, uh..." Nath looked a little sheepish now. "I didn't expect you to come so quickly."

Marc's face was starting to flame with embarrassment. "Sorry," he said, looking away. "I guess I'm a little out of practice."

"That's okay," Nath said, a little smile on his face. "If you want to stop now, that's fine."

He knew Nath had been waiting for this. They'd both been looking forward to this. There was no chance in hell he was just going to leave it at a short handjob and call it a night. Nathaniel was either a god of selflessness or he knew how to hide his disappointment well, and he could guess that it was probably the latter.

Marc sat up, grabbing Nath's shirt and using it for leverage, bringing the two face to face. "N-not yet," he said, nerves still shaking and head still whirring, his mind full of fuzz and still very horny. "You don't want to stop, do you?"

Nathaniel blinked at the sudden shift in mood. "What?"

"You haven't had the chance to cum yet." Marc let his hand rest on the half-dragon's thigh. "Besides, we've got the whole night ahead of us, and I've got plenty of stamina, if you're up for a few rounds. I want you to fuck me brainless."

Nathaniel noted the bright look in Marc's eyes, and a matching glimmer shone in his own pupils as he chuckled, tension easing once again. "I suppose I don't have to open the shop early tomorrow. It's the weekend."

"Perfect." Marc hooked his hands behind Nath's neck and leant back, pulling the half-dragon on top. "I hope you're up for a challenge."

Nathaniel only smirked in reply, leaning down to kiss him, rough and passionate and eager, and Marc responded with a determined energy, ready to fuck the night into morning again.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel woke up, feeling sore and content.

It didn't take long for him to realize why, when he opened his eyes to see Marc, still sleeping, lips slightly parted and bundled in Nath's wings like a cocoon. The swordsman had hickeys across the whole front of his chest and neck, and though he couldn't see his legs, Nath had enough memories of last night to know he definitely had some marks down there, too.

He looked...surprisingly adorable. Especially for someone that had kept him awake most of the night. He hadn't been joking about his stamina, that was for sure.

One of his wings had gone numb from Marc laying on it, but Nath couldn't bring himself to wake the swordsman up.

He didn't have to, because Marc was soon stirring as well, green eyes blinking awake. "Ouch," he mumbled.

Nath chuckled. "Mood."

Marc sat up, rubbing one eye. "Good morning."

"How did you sleep?"

"Like a rock," Marc said, shuffling off Nath's wing. "That was...a lot."

"Yeah." Nath grinned. "But hey, you managed to hold yourself together pretty well on that last one."

"I need more practice," Marc grumbled, looking over his naked body, examining all the bruises and hickeys that had accumulated across his body.

Nathaniel smoothed some of the stray hairs poking up from Marc's bedhead. "We can certainly arrange that."

"Hm?" Marc looked up at Nath. "Really?"

"Why not?" Nath grinned. "You're not bad, just....a little inexperienced." He leaned forward, flashing a wide smile at Marc. "And I can tell you're already a fast learner."

Marc laughed and swung his legs off the side of the bed, standing up, hands on his hips. Nath certainly didn't mind the nice view. The clearly defined muscles in Marc's thighs and ass looked absolutely delightful.

"Did you paint all these?" Marc walked over to the wall.

"Yeah." Nath's tail waved delightfully in the air as he watched Marc walk from one end of the room to the other. Normally, he was very proud of his art, but right now there was something much nicer to look at.

"They're amazing," he whispered. "The colors, the dynamics, the-ah, that one moved!"

"Yeah, it does that."

"Wow." The swordsman bent over to examine some of the lower paintings.

Maybe Marc was just super attractive. Maybe Nathaniel was just eternally horny. Either way, Marc's bare ass was definitely affecting him.

"Say," Nath said, resting his chin in his hand as he watched the swordsman's hips. "Think you're up for a morning round? Get a bit more practice in?"

"Huh?" Marc turned to face Nath, following his line of eyesight and flushing a deep red when he realized what the demon was looking at. "Uh...maybe not now. Despite what you may think, there's only so much my ass can take."

"Alright. Just thought I'd ask." Nathaniel stretched lazily, shaking the numbness out of his wings.

Marc left to go grab clean clothes from his own room. Nathaniel flopped back down on his bed, sighing contentedly.

All things considered (including the whole sword-apocalypse murder thing), Marc was not the worst sexual relationship he'd had. Marc wasn't actively trying to get anything from him or use him, as far as he knew. That was already an upgrade from some of his other hookups. Adding to his great personality and good looks, he'd definitely be in Nath's top ten. Maybe even top five, once he figured out the ins and outs of a good fuck.

Alix would probably chide him for being reckless if she knew what he was doing. No, Alix hated hearing anything about his sex life. Marinette, on the other hand...yeah, Marinette would scold him.

Nathaniel glanced at the clock. 2 pm. Holy shit. No wonder his stomach was growling like a dragon.

Eventually, he found the energy to get up, get dressed, and head out to the main room.

Marc was already cooking something in the kitchen-eggs, by the smell of it.

"You didn't have to-" Nath started, but Marc cut him off by raising a finger.

"How do you take your eggs?"

Nathaniel grabbed two plates from the cupboard. "I've only ever made scrambled," he said. "But feel free to surprise me."

It was no surprise to Nath that he and Marc had fallen into a more domestic lifestyle than he had intended. But now, coupled with their new...hobby, it all felt a little more romantic.

Ha. That would be wild, if he ended up catching romantic feelings for Marc.

"Here." Marc slid a plate of scrambled eggs towards Nath.

"Thanks." Nathaniel had eaten many scrambled eggs in his lifetime. Somehow, Marc managed to make eggs taste so much better. "So, any plans for today?"

"Homework," Marc replied. "There's a research paper that I've been putting off for the past few days, and it's due on Monday. What about you?"

"I've got to make some calls," Nath said. "Buy some stock for the snack shelves, call the thrift store on the other side of the city to see if they'll give me their magic items since their store doesn't have a license to sell that stuff, you know, business things."

"Sounds complicated," Marc said. "I don't envy you."

"Eh, it shouldn't take too long. After that," Nathaniel walked to the bookshelf on the other side of the room, pulling out an old leather book. "I've got studying to do."

Marc looked up with interest. "What's this? 'Abjuration: 15 Spells to Protect your Home and Family'. You're learning Mortalis magic?"

"Alix got me this for my birthday," Nath said. "It's pretty dense stuff, but I'm trying to work on a low-energy dispelling enchantment. Sometimes, it's just not worth keeping a curse on an item, better resale value if they're non-magical and all that."

"That sounds cool," Marc said. "I knew it was possible to learn magic, but I didn't really know how it worked."

"Well, you need to have innate magic in your blood, for starters," Nathaniel said, opening the book. "So unless you've got some magic ancestors in your DNA, that's a no-go."

Marc shook his head. "All human, sadly."

"Shame."

"Wait, so does that mean you could learn Luka's siren speaking if you had the right books?"

Nath shook his head. "Well, there's a difference between race magic and planar magic. Race magic has a few abilities that could maybe be picked up by those from the same Plane-for example, a mermaid, being an Elemental from the Water Realm, could learn some kinds of siren magic, but not all of them. And a fairy from the Mortal Planes wouldn't be able to learn any siren magic at all, but could learn an elf's charmspeak, or a dryad's healing magic. And that's not even including a Plane's general magic-" he tapped the book lightly- "which can be used by just about anyone with magic abilities."

Marc gave him a blank, confused stare.

"Complicated stuff, I know," Nath said.

The swordsman opened his mouth to say something, but his phone started to ring. The look of wonder on his face was quickly replaced with annoyance. "One moment."

Nathaniel watched him walk away from the table, pacing in their small living area.

"Hey, Ivan," he said, one hand in his pocket. "What's up?"

Nath knew he should be focusing on his book, or making calls like he said he would. But he wasn't feeling up to either of those things, so he just leaned back, finishing the last of his eggs and watching Marc pace.

"I'll call you later," Marc said. "Bye." He hung up and instantly dropped his cool, professional demeanor for an irritated scowl.

"Bad news?" Nath asked.

"It's my job." Marc sat back down at the table. "They want me to come in for a mission, since I haven't done any for a few weeks. I'm supposed to go in for briefing tomorrow, then if I decide to accept, I'll set out Tuesday afternoon with some other bounty hunters."

"I was under the impression you worked alone," Nath said.

Marc's scowl deepened. "I do. But apparently this is a larger mission, and since I've worked with Ivan and Mylene before, they want me to join them on this one."

"Are you gonna take it?"

"I'm not making a decision until I hear the briefing and know exactly what we're dealing with," Marc said. "If they need me, sure. But the company knows that I'm prioritizing my college classes right now. Speaking of which," he grabbed his laptop and started walking back to his bedroom, "I've still got a research paper due in two days, I don't know how much of tomorrow I'll have left, so that means....writing a thirteen-page essay in one day."

Nathaniel winced. "I'll bring you dinner, if you want."

"That's sounds wonderful." Marc gave an honest but pained smile to the demon. "See you then. Oh, and uh...thanks...for the sex, by the way."

Nathaniel snorted. "What?"

"Just thought I'd say!" A pink tint was rising in Marc's face. "Okay, bye!"

Nathaniel bit his lip, trying to keep from laughing. "Bye," he said.

Even as he turned his attention to his book and his financial documents, a little part of the demon's mind was occupied, wondering idly when he would have the chance to spend another night with the swordsman.

Hopefully Marc's mission wouldn't throw a wrench in any of their plans too soon.

Chapter Text

Marc didn't slow his pace as he sprinted down Noir road. He'd bolted the moment he stepped off the bus. Holy fuck. Holy fucking shit.

"NATHANIEL!" He yelled, throwing the door open.

"AH!" The half-dragon instantly jerked back, making a sudden movement with his hand, like he'd just thrown a baseball.

Marc barely had time to register what was happening as a small fireball rocketed from Nath's fingertips.

By pure reflex alone he grabbed his sword and swung it, slicing the magic flames in half. There was a low boom as he sliced through the flames, shaking the nearby aisles with a strange shockwave before settling. The embers sputtered out of existence, their hissing, smoky remains the only sound in the store, save for the shocked breaths of Marc, Nath, and the three teenagers who had been browsing the snack aisle.

"Oh my gods, I am so sorry-are you okay?" Nath started, rushing out from behind the counter.

"I'm fine," Marc said, sheathing the sword (which had been startled into violent promptings since he'd unsheathed it and he was really trying to ignore that right now-) and raising the other hand towards the teenagers. "Hey, kids."

The three stared back at him, slack-jawed.

"I panicked, I'm didn't mean to do that, are you hurt? How's the sword? Are you feeling okay?" Nathaniel grabbed Marc by the shoulders and started checking him over for any scorch marks.

"I'm okay," Marc insisted, and, after seeing for himself, Nathaniel relented and let go. Marc instantly grabbed his hands, holding them to his chest, pushing away Blanc's voice. This was too important. "The sword's a little antsy, but that's not important right now-Nathaniel, I have to tell you something."

Nathaniel turned to the teens. "Sorry, the shop's closing for fifteen minutes," he said. His hands were trembling.

"But-" One of them started. A friend grabbed his hand, pulling him out. Marc thought he heard "Did you see what that guy did? Don't try and fuck with that!" as they left.

"Okay," Nath said, once they were gone. "Marc, what's-"

"I think I know where the Miracle Wasp nest is."

Nathaniel stilled, eyebrows raising practically to his hairline. "Are you serious?"

"You said their venom could paralyze humans, right?"

"For several hours, yes." The half-dragon let out a shaky breath. "But how, when?"

"I went in for mission briefing today. There was a caravan of wandering traders that were ambushed just a few hours west of Gallia, heading to Dépaysement. Most of their inventory was stolen, and some of the group was injured."

"Juleka did say something about a group heading west." Nathaniel scratched his chin. "But that doesn't really prove anything."

Marc felt like his heart might burst out of his chest. "No, but get this-the entire caravan was found paralyzed, stung by some kind of insect. Nath, I think it's them!"

"Oh." Nathaniel gripped Marc's arms in a sudden rush of energy. "Holy shit. It could be them!"

"It could be!" Marc giggled loudly, barely able to contain his excitement. "Do you want to come with me on my mission? I'd have to fill out paperwork for that, but I can definitely convince Ivan and Mylene to bring you along!"

"Okay!" Nathaniel's smile widened across his face. "This, I can't believe-" he grabbed Marc's face in his hands and kissed him.

Marc responded with an almost giddy fervor, laughs exchanged between their lips until they were both red in the face and gasping for breath.

"Marc, if this is real-" Nathaniel suddenly paused, wings dropping until the edges touched the floor. "We're gonna have to fight people, aren't we?"

"It's okay," Marc assured. "I'm used to fighting. Besides, you can control the wasp nest, right?"

"Uh...yeah. Once I'm in range with the queen."

"So it's no biggie. This will be an easy job." Marc gave the half-dragon a comforting smile, and Nath took a breath and nodded, seemingly assured. "Think about it," the swordsman whispered. "Five thousand gold."

"Oh, I've been thinking about it." Nathaniel grinned. "When this is over, I'm taking you out to dinner. My treat."

"You've got someplace in mind?"

"I'll ask Alix if she knows of any good restaurants around the city. The only high-end place around this neighborhood is that old enchanter, Andre, who sells ice cream potion mixes."

"What kind of potions?"

Nath shrugged. "Basic stuff. Charisma elixirs, energy potions-he's mostly known for his love potion specials, but he's got a variety."

"The more you talk about it, the more I want to try it. Ice cream sounds great."

"It's expensive," Nath warned.

"We'll have five thousand gold each," Marc repeated. "Five. Thousand."

Nathaniel snorted. "Yeah, that's fair."

"Great! I'll be able to pay off my student loans and then-" Marc squeezed Nath's shoulders, his smile quickly turning stressed and then vanishing into complete panic. "I still have to finish my paper, fuck!" He started sprinting upstairs.

"Remember to bring your motorcycle back to the shop tomorrow," Nathaniel called up to him.

"Right!" Marc answered back, already throwing the door open to their home and setting his sword scabbard against the wall so he could sit down. He'd already written the first draft, but there was still a lot of editing to do before he could submit it.

Or he could upload it now...it was pretty coherent after all...

Marc shook his head. As much as he wanted to just submit his essay and be done with it, he was a perfectionist by heart. So he cracked his knuckles, settled into the chair and started reading over his work.

He could hear the bell chime faintly as Nathaniel opened the door downstairs, likely to usher the teenagers from before back inside to resume business.

Once this job was over, he'd have to get something nice for Nathaniel. Maybe some enchanted art supplies.

Shit, he was supposed to be focusing.

Scrolling back up to the top of his paper, Marc started rereading his work again, definitely not thinking about his charming friend and wondering what kind of gifts the half-dragon might like.

 

~oOo~

 

The next afternoon, Nathaniel waited in the shop for Marc to come home, tracing the sigils he was going to be making on a sheet of paper for practice and searching for the online tutorial he'd used to ward his car in the first place. He'd moved the old car into the expanse of grass between Hidden Treasures and Marinette's tailor shop to make room for Marc's motorcycle.

The demon glanced up at the clock again. Marc would probably be getting home earlier since he didn't have to wait for the bus today. He always started checking the clock frequently around this time. A part of him was always happy to see Marc enter into the doorway with a smile and a wave.

God, he sounded sentimental. He was used to having to look out for his friends, that was all. He'd do the same for Marinette and Alix if they were in Marc's place. Maybe.

Five minutes before Marc usually came home, a sleek black motorcycle came to a stop in front of Nathaniel's shop and the demon's heart soared directly into his throat.

He wasn't interested in cars and motorcycles and all that, it was Marc that was making his breath catch and his jaw go slack in awe.

For starters, he was wearing leather. Leather boots, leather pants, leather jacket, a black-and-white ripped shirt with some sort of chain necklace-he looked like an emo kid's wet dream, which honestly didn't differentiate too much from some of Nath's wet dreams.

Taking off his helmet and tucking it under one arm, Marc ran a hand through his bangs and turned to face Nath. The glass was slightly tinted, but Nathaniel could see Marc's eyes finding his outline through the glass and a smile grace his lips, stepping away from the motorcycle and toying with the hem of his shirt.

Fuck, he was horny.

Nathaniel raised a hand in greeting, already rushing towards the door.

"Hey," Marc said. "How's the shop?"

"Business is slow, as usual," Nathaniel replied, only slightly trying to hide the way his eyes explored the swordsman's figure. "I think at this point I've been getting more income with your package delivery than with actual walk-in customers. Speaking of your package-" Nath's eyes glanced down for a moment- "-delivery, there's a few orders you can do while I work on your motorcycle, if that's okay."

"Alright."

Nathaniel was partially thankful Marc would be gone. He didn't need distractions when doing magic that he wasn't really good at. He may have wanted the very attractive, very sexy leather distractions, but he sure didn't need them.

As Marc began carrying boxes from the back room and loading them into the car, checking the addresses on the packages and typing them into his phone, Nathaniel grabbed some chalk from upstairs.

"Are you going to draw on my motorcycle?" Marc hoisted a box on one hip so he could put his hand on the other.

"I'm going to enchant the chalk," Nathaniel explained. "That way it'll stick to the surface so I can draw sigils on it. Don't worry, it'll disappear once I'm finished. Be glad I'm not using spit, or blood, or...other things."

"Other things?"

Nathaniel was tempted to tell Marc about the protection sigil Marinette had drawn on his chest last week, but decided against it. That was Marinette's business, not his.

"There are a number of things you can use to make sigils," Nathaniel said. "One of the first enchantments I made was by tracing a pattern onto a sequin blanket. I'd use the rug upstairs, but that would mean bringing it out into the street and I don't want to do that, so."

"Fair." Marc swirled the keys around on his finger. "See you in a bit."

"Yep." Nathaniel set his phone on the ground, whispering incantations under his breath until the chalk turned into a slightly off-white color and started to stick to his fingers.

Hopefully no customers would show up while he was in the middle of an incantation. The shop was technically still open, after all.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc took a moment to cross the last name off of the list on his phone. He'd gotten to know quite a lot of strange people in the month or so that he'd been doing this job. The last person, an old half-fey woman, had offered for him to sit and have a chat before he went back to work. Marc had politely declined. After all, he kept his sword in the car and it wasn't a good idea to be away from it for too long.

Well, it was over now. Now he could get started on reading the 150 or so pages of dense-as-fuck books that he needed to analyze before next Wednesday. As well as the homework for his other classes, some of which he hadn't even looked at yet.

His phone started to ring. Marc groaned, instantly noting the "Raincomprix Hunters Inc." on the screen. His job again.

"Hello," he said, answering the phone. "This is Marc speaking."

"Hey," a woman answered. Marc instantly recognized the voice. One of his managers, Sabrina. The boss's daughter. "The police force is asking us to help them in conducting a private investigation, and I think you'd be good for the job."

Marc could feel the dark circles under his eyes growing heavier at the thought of adding more work onto his already busy schedule. "I'm currently trying to focus on my studies," he said.

"The investigation is being held around your area," Sabrina continued. "You're our best option for a successful job. Don't worry, we'll pay you well."

Marc gritted his teeth. He really didn't want to take the job, but outright denying it wouldn't put him in a good light. "What's the mission?"

"Search and contain. We have rumors of a few Monsters being sheltered around Beast Town, officially known as the Dupont district. It's a low-income neighborhood, home to several small businesses and mostly inhabited by Mythics."

Marc felt his blood run cold.

"I want you to help assist the authorities in searching the neighborhood for Monster infiltration. Since you're already living in the Beast Town region, I figured it would be easier for you to gather information."

The swordsman's breath was shaking. "I...I need time to think about this," he said, trying to keep his voice calm.

"Of course. We'll need to discuss your wages and figure out a way to work around your schedule, after all. I'll text you details later tonight. The investigation starts tomorrow."

"Right." Marc hung up.

Alix was in danger. Luka was in danger. Others-he didn't know how many more-were going to be in danger.

"Fuck!" Marc squeezed his eyes shut, leaning his head to rest against the wheel of the car. No, he couldn't panic. He had to get back to the shop, he had to tell Nath. Nath could do something. Nath knew people.

Nath could help.

Marc tried to keep that thought in his mind as he sped towards home.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel stood, up, looking over his hard work with an appreciative eye.

It had actually taken a surprisingly quick amount of time to get it finished. He'd estimated three hours and had managed to complete the job in one. The chalk had transformed into a pure white light, hovering above and around the motorcycle where he'd drawn the lines. All he had to do now was wait for Marc to come back so he could seal his blood into the keys and he'd have a magically locked motorcycle.

"I should do this for a living," Nathaniel mused aloud, twirling the now-unenchanted chalk between his fingers.

As if on cue, his phone started to ring, Marc's ringtone, which Nath had set as the intro music to the song Marshmallow Punk. Nath pocketed the chalk, wiping his hands on his jeans and humming a few stanzas before answering.

"Hey," he said, circling the motorcycle and examining his handiwork. "Everything okay?"

Marc's breath was shaking on the other end. Nath forgot everything about enchanting as alarm iced through his veins.

"Marc?"

"I'm almost home," Marc said. "Nath, something big happened."

Something big usually didn't mean something good. Nath took a few quick steps back as he saw Marc turn into the street and park between his and Marinette's shop. His alarm only heightened as he saw the fear in Marc's eyes, the swordsman clambering out of the car while Nath hung up and ran to him.

"Nath," Marc said, grabbing his arm and dragging him towards the inside of the shop. He was looking over his shoulder, paranoid, tense in his grip.

"Hey, what's going on?"

Marc closed the shop door, turning the lock. "My job," he said. His eyes were panicked, furiously blinking away the threat of tears. "They're going to do an investigation around this area, they're looking for Monsters-"

The demon's heart stopped. His wings, which had been extended slightly to hug Marc, tightened at his sides like a vice. "What?"

"They want me to help in the investigation, Nath." The swordsman looked behind him, as though he were expecting the police to show up at any moment. He looked like he was on the verge of a panic attack. "Nath, I don't know what to do, you need to let Alix and Luka know, fuck-"

Nathaniel grabbed Marc's face in his hands, turning the swordsman's face to look at him. "Let's talk upstairs, okay?"

Leading Marc upstairs, Nathaniel pushed open the door to his bedroom, prompting Marc to have a seat on his bed. "This is the safest place in the building," he said, closing the door behind them. "You can talk freely here."

Marc clutched the bedsheets beneath him, teeth gritted. "The police are starting an investigation tomorrow. They want me to help them find Monsters. Nath, your friends are in danger, I don't know what to do, I know them, I can't turn them in!"

Nathaniel knelt down in front of Marc's knees, taking one of the swordsman's hands. "Take a deep breath," he said, rubbing Marc's palm with his thumb. "It's okay."

"How are you so calm about this?"

"This isn't the first time there have been investigations like this before," Nath said, smiling reassuringly as he looked up at his friend. "They're pretty common, actually."

"So..." Marc looked at Nath. "So it's okay?"

"It will be." Nathaniel looked up into the swordsman's eyes. "I'm glad you told me, though. Once an investigation like this starts, word gets around pretty quickly, but knowing before the investigation even begins will help a lot. Thank you, Marc."

"The Monsters that live here," Marc said, as Nathaniel started to stand up. "None of them are...actually bad people, right?"

Nathaniel sighed. "It's a bit more complicated than that," he said, sitting down next to Marc. "I don't think it's a matter of 'bad people'. There are definitely some people-not just Monsters-in this area who are criminals, sure, but there are so many more who just want to live. Not all realms are as wealthy, or spacious, or...morally forgiving as this one. And if protecting a lot of innocent or good Monsters means not catching those 'bad people' today," He patted Marc's shoulder. "There are other ways for the law to find them."

Marc nodded. "Okay."

"For someone with a flexible moral compass like your own, you've definitely got a strong conscience," Nath joked, flashing a smile.

"Yeah," Marc said, the corner of his mouth lifting slightly. "It's thanks to the social conditioning my family tried to teach me so now I have to question every choice I ever make."

"That's....okay." Nath gave his friend a solid pat on the shoulder. "That is a thing that you are dealing with. Wow. Well, um...I am here for you if you need to talk."

Marc flashed a peace sign. "It's fine. The trauma gave me personality."

"Mood," Nath said. "Wait, no! I shouldn't be endorsing your behavior! Fuck!"

The swordsman was starting to giggle now, and Nathaniel couldn't help chuckling, too.

"Come here," he said, pulling Marc into a hug, wrapping him tightly in his wings. There was a moment of comfort as the swordsman responded, practically melting against him. "We're going to be okay," he whispered. "Alright?"

Marc nodded. "I trust you."

"Good."

As they separated, Marc suddenly turned away, brow furrowing. "What if I took the job? I could intentionally try to sabotage the mission."

"I don't want you to put yourself in danger like that," Nathaniel said, shaking his head. "Besides, we've dealt with investigations before, we'll be okay."

Marc smirked. "You don't want me to put myself in danger? Me? A bounty hunter?"

"Look, fucking with the law is different than fighting criminals. As someone who has broken the law multiple times, here's my advice-don't break it more than you absolutely have to."

"Alright, okay, fine, I get it."

"You're also a really shit liar."

"I get it!" Marc raised his hands. "I just wanted to help, that's all."

"And you have!" Nath got to his feet. "So don't push your luck."

"I won't. One of my managers is going to be sending me more details tonight, though," Marc said. "I'll see what I can get out of her and then deny the offer."

"Marc, I just said don't push your luck."

"I won't!"

"Don't push it."

Marc laughed. "I will be very careful," he said.

Nathaniel squinted at the swordsman. "I don't believe you but I'm going to take your word for it. Now we just have to get the word out."

"Okay, how do we do that?"

"I'll talk to Alix. We have a code set up for situations like this. You talk to Luka. I know he's got a lot of connections."

"I just go to his shop?"

"No, no, call him. I have his number, just say you want to spend a night with him or something."

"What?"

"Look, it's Luka, he'll know you've got something else going on just by the tone of your voice. Besides, my phone could be tapped, in which case I'm probably fucked already, so I don't want to drag you down with me."

He could see Marc was starting to get nervous again, but the swordsman stood up, taking a deep breath and calming himself. "Okay, we have a plan. I feel a lot better about this."

Someone knocked on the door downstairs.

"Shit, the shop's supposed to be open!" Nathaniel rushed downstairs.

"That hasn't stopped you before," Marc teased.

Nathaniel quickly unlocked the door. "Hello, welcome to Hidden Treasures," he said, placing a hand on his chest and gasping for breath. The woman standing in front of him gave him an odd look, pulling her child a little behind her as she did so. "Sorry about that, there was an emergency meeting, we had to close for a moment."

As Nathaniel made his way to the counter, he saw Marc leaving. "I'm going to go grab my sword," he said. "I left it in the car."

"Make sure to move it so it's not in front of Marinette's shop," he said, adjusting his shirt collar and trying to make himself look like he hadn't been on his hands and knees drawing sigils on a motorcycle for the past few hours.

"Sure thing, boss," Marc said, heading out the door.

Nathaniel stifled a laugh. It felt weird hearing Marc call him boss. I mean, technically he was, but it's not like he dealt with anything about his shop with any kind of professionalism. Then again, showing off in front of customers probably helped this place seem more like a well-functioning establishment.

"Mommy, can I have that doll?" He heard the child say, peeking around her mother and pointing at one of the shelves.

"You have plenty of dolls at home," the woman said. "You don't need another one."

The kid glared up at her mom, a stubborn set to her jaw. "But I want it!"

Oh boy. Nathaniel felt a frown cross his face, instantly souring his mood. He really didn't want to deal with a kid throwing a tantrum in his shop.

 

~oOo~

 

One loud tantrum from a child and a rushed apology from the mother as she dragged the child out of the store later, Marc returned, passing a glance at the two and the mother struggled to get her child back into the car, who seemed to have opted for laying on the sidewalk and screaming.

"I was gonna ask if you needed to finish the enchantments on my motorcycle but..." the swordsman made a face at the scene outside.

"I just have to bond your blood to the keys," Nath said. "I'm done with the motorcycle."

"Oh, really? Great! Uh...how are you going to get my blood?"

Nathaniel took the motorcycle keys out from his pocket. "Hold out your arm."

Marc gave Nathaniel an apprehensive look. "You're going to scratch me with my own keys?"

"Yep. After that, you or anyone you willingly gift the keys to can use your motorcycle, no one else."

"How does my blood make it so-nevermind, magic is weird." Marc stuck out his arm, squeezing his eyes shut and wincing. "Just do it."

Nathaniel paused. "Are you...squeamish around blood?"

"Yeah. What of it?"

He couldn't believe this. "You're a bounty hunter! You kill things all the time!"

"It's different," Marc said, eyes still squeezed shut. "When I'm fighting, there's supposed to be blood. It's expected. Besides, you've seen what kind of disaster personality I have when I'm not doing bounty hunter stuff. It's just how I am."

"You're weird." Nathaniel dug the sharp end of the key into Marc's upper arm, ignoring the hiss of pain from the swordsman. "Shit, I didn't get any blood."

"You're joking, right?" Marc opened his eyes a little bit to glare at Nath. "Tell me you're joking. You're just playing a mean joke on me."

"I'm really sorry about this."

"Fuck you-ow!"

"There we go." Nath ran his finger across the key, spreading the little bit of blood he'd managed to gather across the metal with a careful finger. There was a flash of light outside as the sigils surrounding the motorcycle dissipated and started to float up into the air. The child outside stopped screaming for a moment to watch as the lights scattered into the sky.

"There you go," Nath said, placing the keys in Marc's open palm. "Now you can-Marc, you can open your eyes now."

"I don't want to."

"Marc, there's barely any blood. It's okay."

Slowly, Marc opened one eye, looking down at the small red streak across his arm. "Okay," he said, relaxing. "It's not as bad as I thought it would be."

"See? You're fine."

"It felt so much worse, though."

"What do you want me to do, kiss it all better? Take your keys."

Marc took the keys, eyes flitting up to Nath's mischievously. "Would you kiss it all better if I asked you to?"

Nath snorted. "You've already got a date with Luka coming up."

"It's not a date," Marc protested. His eyes flit up to the security camera in the corner. "We're just going to have a chat, that's all."

"Do you want me here when you call him? For courage?"

"Please." Marc hoisted himself up to sit on the counter.

Nathaniel fished his phone out of his pocket, finding Luka's number and handing it to Marc.

"I should have written out what I was gonna say," Marc lamented as the phone started ringing. "I'm not prepared for this? How do you ask for-Nath, I don't know what to do!"

"Just ask if he's available tonight," Nath said. "It's okay, don't panic."

"You say don't panic and then you do this, Nath, and expect me not to-"

"Hello, little treasure. What do you need?"

Marc froze, mouth snapping shut, breathing heavily as Luka's voice sounded through the phone's speaker.

"You don't breathe like Nathaniel," the siren commented. "Ah, Marc. Can I help you?"

"Hi," Marc squeaked. "I, um...are you available tonight?"

There was a pause. "That's very forward of you," Luka said, voice dropping almost to a purr. "I can clear my schedule, if you'd like."

"Yeah." Marc's voice sounded like he was trying to push air out of a balloon. "See you later." He hung up before Luka could answer.

"I think that went well," Nath said.

Marc's face was beet-red. "Went great. Yeah."

"You don't have to actually...go through with it if you don't want to," Nathaniel said.

"Are you sure he knew what I meant?" Marc buried his face in the crook of one arm, waving the phone in Nath's general direction with the other.

"He recognized you by your breathing! I'm pretty fucking sure he knew what you meant." Nath took his phone back from Marc's shamefully flailing arm.

"Okay. But if..." Marc paused, turning to Nath. "You wouldn't be upset if I, well...actually spent the night with him?"

"Of course not!" Nath patted Marc's thigh. "We're not actually in a...relationship, you don't have to worry about how I feel. If you want to screw other guys, do it. I'm still screwing other people, after all."

"Oh." Marc blinked. "Right."

"Mess around, have fun," Nath coaxed. He ran his hand along the swordsman's thigh again, admiring the leather and the feel of muscles beneath.

"I still have homework to do," Marc groaned. "Fuck, this is stressing me out."

"You've got a few hours before it's properly evening," Nath said.

"Yeah, but I have a mission tomorrow, and my project is due on Wednesday, I don't know how I'm going to get it all done in time without pulling an all-nighter."

"Maybe you could email your professors? Ask them to extend your deadline?"

"I could try." Marc hopped off the counter. "See you later, Nath. Thanks."

"Don't be afraid to ask if you need to unwind from your stress," Nath said, giving a crooked smile to the swordsman. "I've heard that having sex with a half-dragon is a guaranteed homework-stress remover."

"Ha. I'll keep that in mind." Marc left, the "Employee's Only" door closing behind him.

Nathaniel checked outside. The child and her mother seemed to have left by now, and it didn't look like there were any customers outside.

As much as he had been trying to keep his cool around Marc, the news about the police investigations were prickling his skin in all the wrong places.

He called Alix's number. It didn't take long for her to pick up the phone.

"What's up?"

"Hey, punk."

He could practically feel the change in tone in Alix's aura. He called her a lot of things: Al, gremlin, bitch, but never punk. Not unless he had something important to say.

"What do you want?"

"I was hoping we could hang out after I finish work," Nath said. "Remember that place by our old school?"

"The one with the fucked-up tree?"

"Yeah."

"I'll be there-JALIL! FUCK OFF!" Nathaniel could hear someone else's voice in the distance on the other end of Alix's phone. "Yeah, I know what dad said, I'll be there in a second-hey Nath? You still there?"

"I'm here."

"Yeah, I'll probably be about thirty minutes late."

"That's okay."

"See you then-OH MY GOD FUCKING SHUT UP-" The call ended.

Nathaniel blinked. Alix's family was always...interesting.

There were a few things he would have to hide, some cursed items that the police might recognize if they investigated his shop, along with some papers, and evidence of his contract magic, but that wouldn't take too long. Other than that...there were a few sigils he'd have to draw on his body, in case the police tried to do blood testing. By tomorrow this shop and the owner would look completely innocent.

Feeling a little bored, he unlocked one of the boxes, pulling out a little ring with an emerald embedded in it. It was cursed to teleport away from its original position at random times, which made it hard to sell and annoying to try and contain, but the gem seemed real and could probably make good money.

He'd been keeping it contained with an anti-magic ward around its box, but that ward was going to be fading any day now. Best to try and dispel the teleporting runes before he'd have to call Marinette to redo the ward for him-and her prices weren't cheap.

He couldn't blame her for the hustle, though. Anti-magic wards were way above his skill level, and money was money.

Nath placed the ring on the counter, using the chalk in his pocket to draw the dispelling magic runes he'd been studying. The first circle of runes lit up as he started the incantation, circling above the ring. Three of the runes didn't light up (he must have drawn them wrong), and the rest of the pattern quickly flickered and disappeared.

Nathaniel sighed. Drawing runes was more than just making the pattern, it required the correct incantations and the right timing, with the right amount of concentration to imbue it with magic. It was like working on a puzzle that reset if you didn't finish it in time, while also trying to sing The Birds of Hell by that one famous succubus composer whose name he couldn't remember.

Taking a deep breath, he readied the chalk and started over again.

 

~oOo~

 

Alix was already there when he arrived, sitting in the high branches of the twisted, ancient tree near their old school.

"Hey," he called. He saw Alix's head move towards his voice. She was too far away for him to see her expression.

"Come join me," she called down. "The view's nice."

Nathaniel wasn't anywhere near as athletic as Alix was. But he tried anyway, flapping his wings to give himself extra leverage as he slowly, carefully scaled the giant branches, easily towering over the little building next to it. There was a shiver that ran up his spine as he looked down and saw how high up he was, but it was more from exhilaration than fear.

"Come on," Alix said, once he neared, extending a hand. "You can see the stars really well from up here."

Nathaniel brushed twigs from his grey jacket, shaking his wings free of stray leaves. "And I don't think we'll be overheard from up here."

"Exactly. Now what's going on?"

Leaning against a sturdier limb, Nathaniel wrapped his tail around the branch beneath him for stability. "Marc said cops are gonna start investigating around the neighborhood tomorrow. Just thought I should let you and your family know, see if you can get the word out to some of your friends."

"Oh dang," Alix said. "I guess it does pay to play with fire sometimes."

"Sometimes, yeah." Nathaniel let a lazy smile cross his face.

Alix squinted at him. "What's going on with you?"

"Hm?"

"You've got this dopey look on your face. It's weird."

Nathaniel pushed at her with his foot. "You're weird," he retaliated.

Alix grabbed his ankle. "Nath, how much have you been playing with fire?"

Nath hummed noncommittally. "A little bit."

"Jesus," Alix dropped his ankle. "You were supposed to convince him to get rid of the sword, not seduce him!"

"Hey, in my defense, I was the one seduced," Nath said. "He kissed me first."

"I don't want to hear any more about your sex life." Alix turned away.

"I didn't even say anything about sex! I mean, we did, but-"

"Stop it. Stop talking." Alix slapped his leg. "You're disgusting. I hate you."

Nathaniel laughed. "Love you too, Al."

"Fuck off."

"Besides," Nath said, "I can't make him get rid of the sword anyway. He's cursed."

Alix's playful demeanor was instantly snuffed out. "Oh shit." She paused. "You serious?"

"His parents made a contract with a demon." Nath put his arms behind his head, leaning back. "So now he has 'a magic sword that he will always want to have with him, and that will make him enjoy fighting'. And by that I mean if he's too far away from the sword he has health problems and it also kinda mind-controls him when he kills things and fills him with bloodlust." Nath groaned. "I fucking hate demon contracts. I thought I was done with other people screwing me over when I left the Nine Hells."

"Yikes." Alix made a face. "What are you going to do now?"

"What can I do? I don't know the exact wording of the contract so I can't try and make a counter-contract. Besides, my contracts are all small things, not...not soul binding! My magic isn't strong enough to do that!"

"Give yourself some credit," Alix said. "You don't do lots of big contracts but you've done hundreds of little ones. You're probably a lot more powerful than you realize."

"Still won't do me any fucking good if I don't know the original contract." Nathaniel grit his teeth. "I could read the contract off his soul if he gave me permission, but that's basically telling him outright that I'm a demon."

"Would that be so bad?"

"He's got a personal vendetta against demons and a mind-reading sword that can and will try to make him kill me! Yesterday Marc barged into the store, I panicked and threw a fireball at him, and he cut it with Blanc!"

He saw Alix freeze up, fingers digging into the branches. "You what?"

"It's okay, the wipeout was small, since he already destroyed the fireball naturally, nothing was disenchanted, the sword is still intact. But if something happens where he tries to fight me...it's too risky, I'm not doing it."

Alix didn't seem assured by this in the slightest. "So what, Marc lives the rest of his life having to carry a giant apocalypse toothpick with him?" She crossed her arms. "Is that fair to Marc? To you?"

"It's not!" Nathaniel hissed. "What do you want me to do about it?"

His pink-haired friend gave him a piercing look. "I want you to stop treating this like he's a lost cause. You've already seen that he's open to listening to other people."

"I'm trying to be careful," Nath said.

Alix snapped off a twig, peeling off the bark with her fingernails. "You think he'll kill you?"

Nathaniel hesitated. "Not really. I mean, sort of, but it's more than that."

Looking back, he wasn't really as scared of the swordsman as he'd used to be. He didn't shy away from Blanc as much, though he still viewed it with caution and apprehension.

"You're scared you'll lose him."

Alix spoke the words he couldn't.

Nathaniel nodded, letting a sigh escape his lips. "Either he finds out I'm a demon and the sword takes over, or...he finds out I'm a demon and hates me for it."

"You don't think he could find out you're a demon and be okay with it? He could resist the sword. You could find a way to break his curse."

"I'm scared to take that chance."

"Nath." His pink-haired friend looked at him, eyes piercing. "Are you careful, or are you scared?"

The demon's tail twitched. "Is there a difference?"

There was a long, sharp silence. Alix stood up abruptly. "Think about it," she said, starting to climb back down from the tree. "You'll find the answer soon enough."

"Alix-"

"Thanks for the heads up on the police, by the way." The pink-haired woman swung nimbly from the branches and dropped to the ground, starting to walk back home.

"Alix, come on!" Nathaniel jumped from the tree, wings extended, slowing his descent as he fell into step next to his friend. "Talk to me."

Alix stopped, turning to face him. "I know plenty of careful people, Nath. My dad, he's careful. He doesn't let anyone get close to him, he doesn't make friends, he barely talks when he's not doing museum business. My brother, he's careful. To an extent. He talks a lot about a lot of bullshit, but he knows when to keep his mouth closed, he knows when things are dangerous and he needs to shut up. You-" she pointed her finger in his chest. "You're not careful. You're playing with something that can get you seriously hurt, and when I try to offer you a way out, you shut them all down because you can't get your head out of your own ass!"

"This isn't an easy situation, Alix! I'm trying to keep this neighborhood safe!"

"No, trying to keep this neighborhood safe would mean slitting his throat while he's sleeping and dumping his body in a ditch, then burying the sword where no one will ever find it. Or making a contract with him so he can never use his sword against someone with Infernal blood. Or firing him from your little delivery job and never contacting him again. Or maybe actually trying to find a way to break his curse. But you're too scared to do what you know would be best for this neighborhood."

"Alix!"

"I'm trying to be careful, Nath! I don't want to see my best friend killed if I can't help it!" The pink-haired girl stepped back, the anger vanishing from her eyes, replaced with a cold, steely look. "If you were actually 'careful', you wouldn't let how you feel about him put you in danger." She turned on her heel and stormed off without a second glance.

Nathaniel turned and went the other direction, silently fuming. He'd thought Alix would at least have his back but this? She'd spent too much time reading old legends, it was obviously making her paranoid.

Marc was still gone when he came home. Guess he was spending the night at Luka's. Nathaniel placed his shoes by his room door and flopped down on the bed, instantly hissing in pain as he accidentally sat down on the base of his tail.

"Fuck!" He seethed. Tears gathered at the corner of his eyes, and he rolled on his side, wrapping his wings around himself.

He noticed a flash of green next to the bottom of his dresser. The ring that he had been trying to disenchant was laying on the floor. Apparently it had teleported upstairs while he was gone. Guess the anti-magic ward was already broken.

Nathaniel glared at it. The little emerald in the center seemed to glisten almost mockingly at him. Just another thing he was stuck with because he was too useless to make something out of it.

Gritting his teeth and closing his eyes, the demon pulled the covers over his head and tried to go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Marc parked his motorcycle in front of the shop, blinking, bleary-eyed in the early morning. The sun was still far from rising, and he needed to grab his backpack and laptop before he could head to campus.

Predictably, the shop was closed. Nath didn't open until a few hours after he was usually gone.

Swinging off the motorcycle, Marc instantly winced as his legs protested the movement. Nathaniel had said he knew Luka for his dick and...well, he wasn't lying. Marc just wished he'd gotten more clarification first.

Hopefully the half-dragon wasn't a heavy sleeper. Pulling out his phone, Marc called Nath's number and waited.

And kept waiting.

Just when he thought the phone would send him to voicemail, Nathaniel picked up. "Yeah?"

"Hey, sorry, I'm outside." Marc knocked on the glass. "Uh...please let me in?"

"Fuck...yeah, hold on, I'll be there."

Marc patiently waited outside until the 'Employees Only' door opened and Nathaniel walked out. He was already dressed, but his clothes were wrinkled, like he'd slept in them. Weird. Nathaniel never did that, he was always so organized about even the most minuscule things.

"I didn't think you'd be back until after your classes," Nathaniel mumbled, opening the door. "My bad."

"I just have to grab my stuff," Marc said. "And get some breakfast. And probably change my clothes. Yeah, I need to change my clothes."

"I'll make breakfast," Nath said. He turned away, shuffling back upstairs.

Marc paused. "Are you okay?"

"It's nothing." Nathaniel's tail wrapped around his own ankle as he kept walking.

Marc could hear the half-dragon moving around in the kitchen while he got changed in his room. He didn't have to take the bus today, since he had his motorcycle with him, so at least that gave him an extra hour or so before he had to leave.

Nathaniel usually made pancakes on Tuesday. Marc was slowly starting to get used to some of the many small habits that the half-dragon adopted. Still, he couldn't help feeling that something was off with his friend.

That feeling only seemed to grow when he and Nathaniel sat down together for breakfast.

"You've hardly touched your food," Marc noted.

Nathaniel's rested his chin against his hand, poking at the food with his fork. "I'm just tired, that's all," he said.

Marc could see the way his shoulders were drooping, wings hugged tightly to his back. Slowly, he moved his foot forward under the table, until his shoe found Nathaniel's ankle. Almost instantly the half-dragon's tail wrapped around his leg, like a snake searching for warmth.

Nathaniel's eyes flicked up to him.

"Hey," Marc said. "Talk to me. What's wrong?"

The half-dragons lip trembled slightly. "I talked with Alix," he said, hand tightening around his fork. "And we...got into a fight."

"Oh."

"She doesn't really trust you," Nathaniel said. "She's the one that told me about the legend of Blanc, she probably knows a lot more than me, but she's-" he gritted his teeth. "She's scared I might get hurt because of you."

Marc put his chin in his hand, looking down at his pancakes. "I mean, I don't blame her," he said, after a long moment.

"How can you say that?"

"Because I know what kind of damage I can do, Nath." Marc looked up at him. "I know what I'm capable of. When I saw Luka yesterday it still took me a good three minutes before I could talk to him like a normal person. I'm constantly terrified of hurting someone, so I don't blame her for trying to be careful."

"But-" Nathaniel opened his mouth, closed it, and looked back down at the table again. "She wants me to stop being close to you," he said.

Marc felt his heart twinge at that. Even if he understood her caution, it still hurt to know Alix thought of him like that. "Would it make you feel better if I didn't carry the sword with me as much?"

"I thought you needed to keep it with you," Nath said.

"In a certain radius, yeah. If I keep the sword in my room, it should be close enough that I don't get any pains. Would that be better for you?"

"I...uh, yes," Nathaniel said, eyes wide. "Yeah, it would."

Marc leaned forward. "I want you to tell me if anything I'm doing is making you uncomfortable," he said. "Okay?"

Nath nodded. "I don't know what to do with Alix," he said, placing his chin in his hand. "I mean, we've fought before, but I feel bad just leaving on a sour note."

"Then call her when she wakes up." Marc finished his pancakes, standing up. "I should probably get going. You did tell Alix about the...thing, right?"

"She knows," Nath said. "How about you and Luka? You didn't come home tonight, so I'm assuming something happened."

"Yeah, I told him." Marc paused. "And then he invited me to stay the night, and I thought 'why the fuck not'? And then...well..."

Nath raised his eyebrows, a smile crossing his face. "He's different, huh?"

"I kinda wish you'd told me that he had a tentacle for a dick."

Nath snorted. "Sirens, man. They're fun."

"It was certainly surprising." Marc hunched his shoulders awkwardly. "I was not expecting...it-that was a lot."

"Would you do it again?"

"Oh, absolutely." Marc laughed, and Nathaniel responded with a grin. "By the way, do you have a motorcycle helmet? We'll be taking it for my mission, and I can give you that ride you promised."

"I think there's a helmet in the back somewhere," Nath said. "But I don't know if it'll fit, my horns might be too weirdly shapen."

"Your horns are pretty close to your head, it should be fine."

"Hopefully." Nathaniel yawned. "It's too early for me to be up. I'm going back to bed."

"What about your pancakes?"

"I'll put them in the fridge for later."

"Alright. See you this afternoon, get some rest, we don't want you tired during the mission."

"Yay, mission." Nathaniel grumbled. "I don't know how you do it, the whole 'Oh wow, I'm a morning person, I wake up before the sun shows its asshole to the world', what the fuck."

Marc chuckled. "See you later, Nath."

"Don't die." The half-dragon leaned back in his seat, fishing his phone out of his pocket. "Hey, Alix," he said, as Marc was leaving. "Yeah, sorry about before. Can we talk?"

Marc smiled as he left. Grabbing his backpack, he hoisted it onto his shoulders and went back outside.

 

~oOo~

 

Going outside of the city walls was terrifying, in Nath's opinion.

Doing so while riding on a motorcycle? Even more terrifying.

Holding onto Marc as they sped down the road, feeling the shift of the swordsman's leather jacket against his chest as his hands clutched the strong muscles of Marc's waist? Terrifying, but it was also kinda turning him on a bit.

His wings ached from the pain, tied to his back by a belt. They'd quickly learned that his wings weren't strong enough to resist the drag of the wind, so Marc had lent his shiny leather belt to help him secure his wings so they wouldn't flap around and accidentally drag him off the bike. That also meant Blanc was also tied to his back, which kept Nathaniel constantly on edge.

It didn't help that the only other time he'd had his wings tied against himself was when he was trying bondage sex with Luka. He'd quickly learned that restraints turned him on but also made him really panicky, so it wasn't something they did often. True to what he'd learned about himself, Nathaniel was both horny and panicking right now.

His tail was wrapped tightly around Marc's waist. He'd learned as a kid that getting his tail stuck in the wheel of a bike was painful, he didn't want to learn how it'd fare against a wheel attached to a motor. Just the thought of it made him tense. On the plus side, though, it meant he was pressed very close to Marc, and the horny part of his mind was having a great time.

The view was especially scenic. They'd gone past Juleka and Rose's forest area and were now traveling across a large, rocky expanse. Nathaniel could see mountains rising up in the distance, the likes of which he hadn't seen since he'd left the Nine Hells, and maybe not even from then. The harsh, rocky terrain reminded him of his earlier years, but the trees and grass and occasional river differed from the giant mushroom forests that he'd used to see in the distance as a child.

After an hour or so of mountains passing by, the area felt a little less scenic. The steady vibration of the motorcycle had become a mind-numbing drone to his senses, and he was sure his legs were falling asleep. The helmet he had gotten from the back of the store was just big enough for him to squeeze his horns through, but it felt like his skull was being slowly crushed with every minute.

With all of the nothing surrounding them, it wasn't hard to notice the white van with tinted windows on the side of the road. Marc slowed, parking in the grass next to it.

"Anyone you know?" Nathaniel asked. Gah. His throat felt dry.

"Yeah, that's Ivan's," Marc said, getting off the motorcycle and helping undo the belt around Nath's middle. Nathaniel felt a rush of sheer relief as his wings were freed and the sword was taken away. Marc walked up to the van and knocked on the door. "Ivan? You in there?"

Nathaniel pulled off his helmet and grabbed Marc's water bottle, shamelessly desperate for something to drink. He saw the door to the van open.

A massive hand grabbed the door and he almost choked.

Slowly, a goliath carefully stepped out of the van, standing up to his full height and towering above Marc. He was built like a marble statue, muscles practically rippling under his skin. He looked like he could make earthquakes just by flexing. Holy fuck.

"Marc," the goliath said, looking down at the swordsman. Nathaniel couldn't tell if Ivan was angry or if it was just the way his face was structured.

"Hey," Marc replied, seemingly unperturbed by the hundreds of pounds of sheer muscle staring down at him, blocking out the sun and casting the swordsman completely in shadow.

The door on the other side of the car opened. Nathaniel instantly stepped back.

To his surprise, a rather small, chubby woman walked around the car. Brightly colored flowers were woven in her hair, and she had a staff in her hand with a sunflower blooming at the end. "Marc!" She exclaimed, running over to give him a hug. She looked like sunshine personified.

"Mylene!" Marc leaned over to hug the woman, smiling. She stood on her tiptoes, kissing him warmly on both cheeks before stepping away to stand next to Ivan.

Nathaniel saw the goliath's eyes turn to him and every inch of his body froze. For a second he considered using his invisibility jacket, just so he could escape from the man's intense scrutiny.

"Ivan, Mylene, this is Nathaniel," Marc said. "He's the half-dragon that I've been working with, and he's also an expert at identifying magical items."

The goliath gave a grunt, stepping forward. "Nice to meet you, Nathaniel," he said, extending a hand that was adorned in a kind of metallic brass-knuckle fingerless glove.

Nathaniel swallowed. "L-likewise." He reached forward, shaking Ivan's hand-or more correctly, his palm, since his fingers couldn't fit around Ivan's entire hand. Thankfully, Ivan seemed to be aware of his strength, gently holding Nath's hand as he shook it. Nathaniel suspected the goliath could probably pop his arms out of his sockets like pulling a toothpick from a marshmallow if he wanted to.

"Hello, Nathaniel," Mylene said, once Ivan had let go. "I hope we can work well together."

The contrast between the giant, hulking goliath and his small, mouse-like partner was almost comical. Of course, she wouldn't be a bounty hunter if she was weak, so Nathaniel shook her hand cautiously, scanning her seemingly-honest face for any indication of her abilities. She had a staff...maybe she practiced magic?

"So," Nathaniel shoved his hands in his pockets. "What's the plan?"

"Mylene's going to help us track our target," Marc said. "We have two goals: find and recover the stolen inventory, and apprehend the targets. Ivan and I will deal with the group, while you and Mylene search for the items they stole. Mylene has an itemized list. After that, we take all apprehended members as well as found inventory to Dépaysement, where the local police in that city will deal with the rest."

"Are you sure it's safe to bring him along?" Ivan asked, staring at Nathaniel.

"We need him to deal with their magic. If anything happens to him, I'll take responsibility." Marc looked up at the goliath. "Besides, we're too far away from the city to send him back now."

Apparently satisfied with Marc's answer, the large man nodded, rolling his neck and grunting as his joints cracked.

"Okay then. Everyone ready?" Mylene knelt down to the grass, setting her staff down as she dug her fingers into the earth. Ivan watched over her, hands folded politely behind his back.

Nathaniel shuffled over towards Marc, leading him back until they were out of earshot. "So these are your friends, huh?" He whispered.

"Yeah, they're cool," Marc said.

"I haven't met a lot of goliaths. He's a little scary."

"Don't worry, when he's not fighting, Ivan's a total sweetheart."

"He looks like he could break me in half."

Marc laughed, raising an eyebrow with a smug look. "I know. He's twice as beefy as Kim and a thousand times less annoying."

Nathaniel turned to him. "You're into that, aren't you?"

"Kind of." Marc smirked. "Shame I'm not his type. And by that, I mean 'shame I'm not Mylene'."

Nathaniel raised his eyebrows. "They're together?"

"Have been for as long as I've known them. Saving up money to get married, last I heard."

"Huh. Good for them, I guess."

Ivan's gaze moved from Mylene to the two of them. Marc and Nathaniel instantly stiffened, but the goliath just gave them a curious look and resumed watching over Mylene doing...whatever she was doing.

"What are her abilities, anyway?" Nathaniel asked, dropping his voice lower.

"Oh, she's a dryad, like your friend," Marc answered.

"And she lives in the city? Must be exhausting for her without many plants around." Nathaniel winced sympathetically.

"From what Ivan's told me, their house has basically been transformed into a mini jungle."

Mylene suddenly straightened, rising to her feet and capturing the group's attention. "Found them."

"Nice!" Marc grinned. "How far away?"

"There's a small group about half a mile from here, heading away from the road. Humanoids, guessing by how their footprints are disturbing the grass. But they're heading into a less-vegetative area, so I suggest we hurry or I won't be able to track them anymore." Mylene pointed in the direction of the group, towards a cluster of rocky hills.

"Damn," Marc shielded his eyes with his hand, following where the dryad was pointing. "Guess we're walking."

Nathaniel groaned.

"Exercise is important," Mylene chided, already jogging off towards the hills, Ivan right behind her.

"Exercise can suck my ass," Nathaniel grumbled, falling into step next to Marc. "I don't know how you and Alix do it every day."

"Sheer willpower and a desire to not die, in my case," Marc said. "Speaking of Alix, did you get things figured out with her?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "Sort of. She's glad that you seem to be making an effort to not kill me, and she does like you as a person, but...as much of a risk-taker as I know her to be, there are some lines she doesn't like crossed."

"But things are good between you two now?"

"Things are good." Nathaniel bumped Marc with his wing, who nudged him back, smiling.

"Stay quiet," Mylene said, extending her staff out in front of her. "There are a lot of magical beasts around here."

Marc instantly straightened, eyes flitting around while one hand moved towards the hilt of his sword. Nathaniel started to move away. If they got ambushed, he did not want to be in Blanc's striking range.

There were a few key benefits to be a demon. The hot sun didn't bother him as much as it did for his companions, and his enhanced strength meant that he was able to keep up with the rest of the group fairly well for the most part.

The downside was that he wasn't used to the strong winds. As they entered into the rocky hills, the craggy tunnels and jagged cuts in the rock funneled air at an alarming speed, pulling at his wings and veering him off balance at unexpected times, slowing him down until he was struggling to keep in step with the rest of the group.

"Walk behind me," Ivan instructed, as the group paused to let him catch up for the fourth time since they'd entered the hills. Nathaniel complied, trying to grab his wings so they wouldn't get pulled all over the place.

"Sorry," Nathaniel mumbled for the fourth time that day, gratefully stepping behind the goliath as they started moving again. Thankfully, Ivan's massive body helped to shield him from the winds, while Mylene and Marc flanked him on both sides to catch the demon if a stray gust caught a wing and sent him staggering out of line.

Even though he knew they were helping him, Nathaniel couldn't help but feel a little claustrophobic, surrounded by people who were trained to fight Monsters.

There was a tingle in the back of his skull, a small pressure. Nathaniel instantly froze, heartbeat accelerating suddenly. He recognized that feeling.

"What is it?" Marc asked.

"They're here," he said, breath quickening.

There it was, the faint magical aura of the Miracle Wasps, like an itching, buzzing energy between his skull and the nape of his neck, barely perceptible. Gods, he'd missed that nostalgic sense of the Miracle Wasp's magic, missed communicating with the queen, feeding her sugar water in bottlecaps while she perched on his finger.

"You can sense them?" Mylene sounded almost incredulous, tilting her head to look at him.

"Miracle Wasps," he answered. The dryad's eyes widened, mouth making an 'o' shape. Nathaniel squinted, trying to focus on the mental link between him and the queen.

He could sense her. She was there! Slowly, encouragingly, he reached out with his mind, waiting for her to respond.

He felt something change, as the queen began to reach back-

-and he felt fear, hatred, anger, a torrent of grasping and whirling thoughts, like a thousand claws digging into his brain, shredding his nerves and gouging into his mind-

"AH!" He grabbed his head in his hands, reeling back, falling, blinded by the sheer pain digging into his senses, his ears were ringing, she was in his skull, tearing him apart from the inside out-

"NATH!"

The demon snapped back to reality with a gasp. Marc was holding him, Ivan and Mylene were standing over him, their expressions blurred in his vision.

"Talk to me, please," he could hear the fear in Marc's voice.

Nathaniel gasped, feeling tears stinging the corner of his eyes. His thoughts were loosely muddled and swollen, a pounding headache in his skull.

"Nath, are you okay?" Marc knelt down, grabbing his shoulders. "What happened?"

Nathaniel forced himself to string words together, gasping for breath. "I can't reach her," he said, grabbing Marc's arm. "Something's wrong, they've done something to her, I can't get through!"

"Calm down," Mylene said, kneeling down next to him. "It's okay, just keep breathing."

Slowly, the pain began to subside, but he could still feel the queen's presence in the back of his mind, reaching, yearning, like a buzzsaw yearns for wood. His fingers dug into Marc's leather jacket, trying to ground himself to reality while Mylene patted his back and whispered soothing words that he couldn't concentrate on.

Ivan held out a hand, helping him back to his feet. The demon shook his head, grabbing Marc for support as his thoughts finally reconnected.

"I thought I could get through to her," Nath said, rubbing the back of his head where he could still sense their connection. His eagerness to connect with her was gone, leaving him trembling and afraid in its absence. "I don't know what they've..."

"Better to learn that now than in the middle of a fight," Ivan said, placing a large hand on Nath's shoulder and nodding solemnly.

Mylene placed her hand on his other shoulder. "You're doing a great job."

That didn't make him feel much better. The only reason he was here was to track the Miracle Wasps, and he couldn't even do that. He might as well be dead weight on their mission now.

"Everything okay?" Marc asked.

"I think so." Nathaniel looked around him. "But uh...it's kinda nerve-wracking when everyone's paying attention to me, so..."

"Oh! Sorry," Mylene said, promptly standing up and turning away from him. Ivan did the same.

"I can still follow her location, though," Nathaniel said. "If you need me to."

Ivan looked over his shoulder at him. "Would that put you in danger of...that happening again?"

"Maybe?"

"Then don't."

Marc nudged his tail with one arm. Nathaniel instantly curled it around the swordsman's fingers, and the group resumed their track through the massive crevice that split the two hills neatly in half, each side rising higher above their heads the further they walked.

"I feel like this is a bad place to be," Nath said, rubbing one arm nervously.

Marc glanced at him. "You mean the limited visibility, the fact we're in a tight space that can easily be ambushed, or because there are high walls above us that are perfect for ranged fighters to pick us off?"

"Well, I didn't really know how to put it in words, but yes, all of those."

Marc smiled. "Don't worry, we know what we're doing."

"We're trying to draw them out from where they're hiding," Mylene said, her voice low and nearly lost in the whistling of the wind. "These hills are home to many natural caves, which is likely where they're hiding. If we tried to find them by going through the tunnels, we risk getting lost or running into hostile beasts."

"Easier to make them come to us first," Ivan grunted.

"Right, but they still have the Miracle Wasps," Nathaniel protested. "And if I can't control them, they can just pick us off right here. And also...like, the other things you said. Ranged fighters and ambushes and all that."

"Mylene's got us covered for that," Marc said, nodding to her.

The dryad raised her staff. "I'll do my best."

Nathaniel frowned, looking the dyrad up and down. He knew Rose could talk to animals, was she planning on convincing the wasps not to attack them?

"So, uh..." he said, trying to think of some way to continue the conversation so he wouldn't have to think about whatever might be happening with the queen or the fact that they were literally putting themselves in danger strategically- "You guys have worked together before, h-huh?"

"Once," Ivan replied. "Extermination mission."

Nathaniel's tail tightened around Marc's hand nervously. This was not making him feel better.

"There was a group of criminals, about six months back," Marc said. "They were trying to create a portal to one of the other planes, killing and looting any supply transports that passed their way for resources. Of course, it was a small group, so they hadn't made much progress by the time we found them."

"You found them," Mylene corrected. "Ivan and I were still chasing down a wounded pegasus that had managed to escape during the attack. We didn't even get back until long after you'd already finished them off."

Marc shrugged. "Well, if you want to get technical, they found me. So I took care of them."

"You could have left at least one of them alive, though. It would have saved us the trouble of finding out where they hid everything."

Marc shrugged. "They all rushed me at once, what did you expect me to do?"

"Shh." Ivan held up a hand. They stilled as the goliath cocked his head to one side. "Mylene."

Mylene passed her staff to Ivan and knelt down, digging her fingers into the ground again. "They're nearby," she said. "Two separate caves. I don't think they know we're here."

"One of those groups has the Miracle Wasp queen," Marc hissed, even though the wind was masking practically every noise they made. "We want to deal with that first before we try to fight them."

"What do you plan to do, sneak in?" Mylene responded. "Our skills aren't really stealth-centered."

"I can sneak in," Nath said, like an utter dumbass.

The group turned to him.

Goddamit he hated that the attention was on him now. He was a fucking fool. A clown in a circus of good intentions and utterly screwed execution.

"I can turn invisible," he said. "There's no time limit, as far as I'm aware."

"That's risky," Marc said. "I don't like it."

Mylene straightened, grabbing her staff and tapping it on the ground. "I can give him one of my flowers," she said. "That way I can track him."

"And if he's in danger?" Marc clenched his grip around Nath's tail. "He's not as experienced as us."

"He can also be addressed directly," Nathaniel said. "And I want to find out what wrong with the queen."

Marc turned to him. "Nath-"

"That's why I'm here, isn't it?"

He saw the swordsman hesitate, conflict clear across his face.

"It's a gamble," Ivan mumbled. "Putting a civilian in danger. Management wouldn't like this."

"I can fight," Nath protested. "Let me do this. It'll be safer for all of us once I find out what's going on."

Mylene and Ivan looked at each other, to Marc, back at him, then Ivan nodded.

"Here," Mylene said. She twirled her fingers around the staff in her hands, and a bud began to bloom from one of the knots in the wood, growing at a rapid pace into a small white lily. Plucking it from the stem with careful fingers, she turned to Nath, standing on her tiptoes. The demon knelt down as she tucked it behind his ear. "Take this, too." She reached into her tunic, pulling out a small black marble with a white center. "Ivan and I always carry these when we're on missions, so I'm letting you borrow it this one time. Squeeze it twice, and it'll let you telepathically communicate with whoever holds the other bead. Call us if you're in danger."

Nathaniel took it, turning it over in his hand. A magical item like this would probably be very expensive. "Thanks," he said. "Uh...what kind of magic is it?"

"Elemental. Don't lose it." Mylene's voice was surprisingly stern.

Nathaniel instantly stopped trying to evaluate its worth and tucked the marble inside his jacket pocket. "I'll be careful," he assured the dryad. Good thing it wasn't Celestial.

"Most of the caves seem to be covered in a moss-like fungus," Mylene said, "So I can get a somewhat clear visual of most of the caves. I'll guide you through them from here," she glanced to Ivan. "If you don't mind letting me borrow your telepathy bead, cinnamon bun."

Ivan nodded, smiling at the nickname.

"Sounds like a plan," Nath said, adjusting his jacket so it sat more comfortably on his wings.

"Be careful," Ivan said, stepping back and letting him pass by.

Nathaniel winced as he caught the brunt of the wind face-first. Steeling himself, he trudged forward, snapping his fingers and turning invisible.

Turning invisible was always a weird experience. Physical things still affected him, so he could sometimes forget that he'd turned invisible at all if he wasn't careful. There was the tingle of magical energy in the back of his skull as his jacket activated, almost completely drowned out by the Miracle Wasp queen's attempts to reach for him.

Well, at least he knew the suit was working. Looking back at his companions, he could see Ivan and Marc's eyes glancing around the canyon. Mylene's eyes were closed, but she was turned towards him.

Grabbing his wings and trying to pull them to his sides as best he could, Nathaniel trudged his way forward.

He had a queen to find.

Chapter Text

Sticking close to the wall, Nathaniel clambered his way forward, up the steadily inclining path.

Being surrounded by people who could kill you at a moment's notice was scary, sure, but this was somehow worse. Here he only had the wind, which was still fucking annoying, and incredible danger ahead of him.

"Nath," Mylene's voice echoed in his head.

Nathaniel jolted, fumbling for the bead in his pocket. He squeezed it twice through the fabric of his jacket. "Yeah, what's going on?"

"The entrance looks to be right above you. It's at the top of the hill."

Nathaniel looked up at the stone walls towering on either side of him. "So I go up there then?"

"Yes. Do you need help?"

"I don't think so." Nathaniel continued higher up the hill, trying to judge the distance. It looked to be a good ten feet above his head.

Maybe if he kept walking up the incline he could double back around to the cave entrance?

Those thoughts were quickly stifled as he continued upward and noticed a figure in the distance, up where he assumed the slope ended.

He couldn't catch any details from this distance, but they looked to be sitting at the end of the narrow slope, looking down into the crevice and effectively blocking his path.

"Mylene, there's a sentry at the end of this passage. Do not go forward. I repeat, do not go forward."

"I noticed that," came the quick reply. "Do you see a way around him?"

"Other than up? No."

"If you come back I can help you scale the wall."

"I'm gonna try something first, okay?"

Nathaniel backed further up the slope. He double-checked to make sure he was still invisible so no one would see him, slowly creeping farther up, until he was at a reasonable incline.

Turning so the wind was at his back, Nathaniel spread his wings and sprinted.

Leaping into the air, there was a moment of exhilaration as his feet left the ground and didn't come back down, the strong wind holding him aloft.

He hadn't flown like this in so long, not since he was a child in the Nine Hells. The winds in Gallia weren't nearly strong enough for him to fly, but here, the aerodynamics of this rocky environment were almost reminiscent of his old home. Still, it had been years since he'd really flown, and he was very much out of practice.

Clumsily, he flapped his wings, trying to gain height, rising steadily higher, higher, until he breached the top of the crevice and found himself coasting over a beautiful green hill, dotted in soft green grass, little yellow flowers, and about a dozen or so goblins with weapons in their hands as they patrolled the area.

Nathaniel pressed his lips together to stifle an alarmed squeak as he barely passed over the head of one goblin, before the winds caught him and lifted him higher once again. His wings were already starting to ache from holding him aloft, he was so out of practice, fucking ow-

He searched for the cave entrance that Mylene had pointed out. He didn't have to search hard, from this vantage point it was easily visible, a large, gaping hole in the ground surrounded by the small goblin encampment from all sides.

Luckily for him, "gaping hole" was still a bit of understatement. The entrance looked like it could comfortably fit a full-sized Mortal Plane dragon and maybe a baby one too, for good measure. He'd seen pictures of asteroid craters, and this hole didn't look out of place among what he'd seen. Angling down, he flew easily over the heads of the two goblins who were guarding the staircase down and began his descent into the cave itself.

The entire area was instantly plunged into darkness. Nathaniel blinked as his eyes adjusted to the sudden light change, swiftly making his way towards the ground before his wings gave out from the strain.

There were fewer people in here, thankfully. Most of the cave was uninhabited, save for an occasional creature walking to and from one of the many tunnels. Many of them were goblins, but he could see other Monsters too; ogres and werebeasts and half-humans and what even looked to be an old, shaggy minotaur, graying fur matted and caked in dirt as he shuffled from one tunnel to the other, dragging a large, spiked club behind him and flaring his nostrils as he muttered to himself. Nathaniel kept a wide berth around them all, but especially the minotaur.

"Mylene, I'm inside," he sent. "Where do I go?"

"Look around," Mylene responded. "See if you can find stolen items or the wasp nest."

He could see a few giant centipede corpses off to the side, cut open and being prepared for meat. At least the Monsters had already taken care of whatever magical beasts might have lived in these caves before. Personally, he would have preferred facing magical beasts than actual humanoids, but better one than both.

A buzzing sound caught Nath's attention. Unlike the buzzing of magic in the back of his head, this one was audible. The demon whipped his head around, trying to find the source.

His eyes fell on a wasp, seemingly flying aimlessly around the cavern.

It wasn't the queen, but at least it was a start. Nathaniel crept closer to it as it landed on a nearby stalagmite, flicking its wings.

Before he could get too close, the bright yellow insect flew off again, towards one of the tunnels. Nathaniel followed it, carefully navigating his way through the room.

Thankfully, his invisibility jacket seemed to work on wasps too, or the wasp just didn't give a fuck, since it didn't seem to notice him as it continued meandering down.

"Nath?"

Nathaniel jumped as Mylene spoke to him again. "What?"

"I don't want to rush you or anything, but, uh...could you hurry up?"

Nathaniel scowled. "Since I'm currently trying not to get lost, no, I can't."

"Okay, okay, that's fine, I get it," Mylene said. "It's just that, um...the guard at the top noticed us. So, I tried to silence him."

A sudden, piercing wail sounded through the cavern, like an alarm, setting Nath's teeth on edge and drilling into the already present headache he was currently dealing with. The demon flattened against the wall as he heard shouts from below, followed by a mix of Monsters spilling out of the tunnels towards the entrance.

"Shit, we've been found!" He heard someone yell over the rush of voices and clanging items. "Finish them off and then grab everything, we're moving!"

The ground rumbled, almost knocking him off balance.

"Yeah, it didn't go well. Ivan and I will deal the group from the other cave, Marc's coming to help you, stay out of the fighting, okay?"

"Got it," Nathaniel responded. The wasp in front of him suddenly twitched, turning towards the entrance again, and sped off.

Nathaniel was about to run after it when he heard a much larger buzzing noise. A deep terror filled his heart as he turned to see a swarm of wasps emerging from one of the tunnels, angry and buzzing and heading right for him.

Nathaniel ducked, covering his head as they flew past, filling the air like a dense and terrifying fog.

He heard a voice, sourceless, booming, echoing through the cave so loudly it was impossible to tell what had been said by the sheer reverberations.

The ground rumbled, followed by a sudden rush of air. Nathaniel's insides felt like he was suddenly dropping from the sky, even as his feet stayed on solid ground.

Every wasp in the area fell to the ground like rocks.

"No!" Panic seized Nathaniel's body before he could stop himself. He got up and scrambled towards the mass of unmoving insects.

"I've put the wasps to sleep," Mylene said. "Go find the queen, quickly!"

Oh, thank god, they were just asleep. Miracle Wasps were an endangered species, for fuck's sake!

Placing a hand over his heart to try and still his mini heart attack, Nathaniel turned to the tunnel where the wasps had come from. At least now he had a better idea of where the nest would be, and in that wasp, their queen.

Gingerly stepping around the wasps, he tiptoed his way down the tunnel, following their trail deeper into the cave.

 

~oOo~

 

"Mylene!" Marc shrieked.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Mylene gasped, hands over her mouth. The guard that had spotted them was now several feet higher in the air, his corpse suspended by a sudden thick vine had sprouted from underneath him and impaled his skull before he could shout for help.

"He's fucking dead!"

Alarms were blaring on either side of them. The goblin's corpse swung freely in the breeze, practically a beacon to their location.

"I didn't mean to!" Mylene said. "It was supposed to be smaller! I'm not used to the vegetation in this area!"

"We have to get out of here," Ivan said, getting on one knee and linking his fingers together. "Marc, you first."

Marc ran towards Ivan, stepping into the cradle of the goliath's hands as he flung his arms upwards, slingshotting the swordsman into the sky. He was flung far over the walls, soaring ten, fifteen feet-oh gods, too high for his liking.

There was a rumbling sound as another giant vine erupted from the crevice, with Ivan and Mylene clinging onto it.

"Go get Nathaniel!" Mylene yelled as they shot past. She leapt off the vine, twirling her staff above her head. The sunflower at the end expanded, turning massive and umbrella-like, and she floated to the ground, landing neatly in the grass. Ivan landed next to her with a thunderous crash, causing the surrounding goblins who were about to attack her to suddenly rethink their life choices, turn around, and run the fuck away.

Marc turned his attention away from the couple. They could handle themselves. Besides, he had his own problems to deal with, the most prevalent one being the very fast approaching ground.

Hoping that there weren't jagged rocks beneath the soft grass, Marc braced for impact.

His feet hit the ground and he rolled, jumped, flipped, and landed, a trained acrobatic maneuver that hopefully looked impressively intimidating to the Monsters around him. Unsheathing his sword, Marc turned to the first goblin that was charging at him.

"Listen, pal," he said, dodging the goblin's spear easily. "My weapon is very lethal, so maybe don't fight me?"

The goblin screamed, pulling out a dagger and rushing for him. Marc stepped back, and with a quick stroke, the goblin's body fell, soon followed by their head.

Energy sparked to life as he felt Blanc start to stir.

"Hey," Marc said, turning to the two other goblins who were now running towards him. "If it makes you guys feel better, I actually do feel kinda bad about this now. But I'm not-" he parried the first goblin's sword- "-going to let you kill me-" a swipe, cutting off the second goblin's arm- "-when my friend-" a stab through the second one's chest- "-is in danger right now!" He finished his sentence with a wide swing, cleanly slicing through their torsos like cutting through butter.

He could feel the adrenaline pulsing through his veins, the sword chanting excitably in his mind, feed, feed, feed-

"Shut up," he mumbled at it.

There was a buzzing sound, and Marc looked up to see wasps pouring out of one of the caves, descending upon them rapidly.

"Uhh, Mylene?!" Marc called, backing away.

"On it!" Mylene clapped her hands together, then flung her arms out. "SLEEP!" She commanded, and her voice boomed, followed by a gust of wind that blew Marc's hair back and sent him stumbling from the sheer force, a little disoriented.

When he managed to focus again, the sky was clear of wasps. The ground, on the other hand, was dotted with little black and yellow insect bodies.

"Huh," Marc said. "If you could do that, then why did we even bring Nath in the first place?"

"I didn't know if it would work on a magic beast! Nathaniel's in there!" Mylene called, pointing towards one of the cave entrances. "Go!"

Marc started running, sword at the ready. Something crunched under his boots as he ran. Whoops, rest in peace Miracle wasps.

There was already a small group gathering at the mouth of the cave, weapons drawn and blocking his way. He slowed, glancing at them. At first glance, he'd guess there were about thirty Monsters, maybe more.

Marc pointed his sword at them. "We're part of Raincomprix Bounty Hunters. Drop your weapons and surrender or I will be forced to take lethal action against you."

Predictably, no one did. Marc sighed.

A large, old minotaur pushed his way through the ranks, easily towering above his smaller companions. "Foolish boy," he said, voice thick and accented. "All of us against you?" Scoffing, the minotaur lifted his club off the ground and rest it against his shoulders. "Easy, like play of child."

"For me, yeah," Marc said, tilting his head casually to one side.

The minotaur's nostrils flared. He roared, lifting his club in the air and charging.

Good, the sword whispered.

Marc let out a deep breath, tightening his grip on Blanc's hilt.

As the minotaur charged, a wild gleam crossed his eyes and he swung the heavy club down towards the swordsman.

He was the first of the Monsters to fall.

 

~oOo~

 

The sleeping bodies of the wasps turned out to be a very useful trail for Nathaniel to follow. The caves seemed to go on forever, and without them, he would definitely have gotten lost ages ago.

Most of the cave was unlit, but goblins didn't need to see in the dark anyway, and goblins seemed to make up most of this group. That didn't surprise Nath-goblins had pretty high fertility rates and were one of Earth's native species, so wherever there was Monster trouble, there were usually goblins. Even if they belonged on Earth, that didn't stop police from "conveniently" forgetting that to arrest and punt them off to another Realm if they so much as saw a goblin walking down the street.

Nathaniel eventually crept into a large, open chamber with magic light fixtures affixed to the ceiling, casting a dim light in the cavern. The walls seemed to have been magically polished, giving the room some form of modernism amid the surrounding stalactites. There were barrels and boxes and all sorts of items stacked high up to the ceiling on one side. On the other, an underground river slowly wound its way into the room, pooling into a large, natural basin before continuing back out through a small tunnel. And in the center was a table, where a goblin was busying around scattered papers and two specific items.

Nathaniel noticed them instantly. The first was a sack, ornately decorated and vaguely lumpy, with wasps who seemed to have been in the process of crawling out of the sack surrounding it, hanging off the edges or pooling in the sack itself.

The second item was a small, crystal cage, and in it sat a drowsy, staggering, bulbous wasp.

The demon gasped.

There was no mistaking it, that was the queen. But there was something horribly wrong with her. The queen's abdomen was swollen, almost to twice its usual size, clearly displaying the glowing yellow runes that were scattered across her entire body. She was slowly twitching, probably still fighting against whatever Mylene had done to her nest. A bright purple gem was affixed to her head, between her antennae. Even while keeping their mental link tightly shut, he could still feel the burning anguish and rage, overwhelming her entire being and threatening to overwhelm Nath's, too.

The goblin paused, listening as another low boom shook the ground. Dust sprinkled from above, something that Nath did not appreciate in the slightest.

Nathaniel crept around the goblin, looking for something he could use, some weapon or a bear trap or something. The goblin herself didn't look anything out of the ordinary, colorful hair, rugged skin, short, several knives strapped to her shins, who needed that many knives?

Another boom.

"Shit." The goblin shoved the rest of the papers into a bag at her side and grabbed the sack of wasps and the queen's cage. "Come on, dearie, time to go."

Fuck. He couldn't let her get away!

Nathaniel summoned a ball of fire in his hand, chucking it at the goblin.

"AH!" She jumped back, narrowly dodging the flame as it shot past her head.

"Sorry," Nath said, readying another fireball. "You're not leaving with her!"

"Who's there?" The goblin pulled a knife from her jacket, dropping the cage and bag.

Careful not to get the nest or the queen in the crossfire, Nathaniel let loose another firebolt.

With impressive reaction time, the goblin dodged, running straight for him and closing the distance, much like Marc had done in their first fight.

Nathaniel grabbed her arms as the goblin jumped. Her feet planted on his chest and she lunged forward, teeth bared. He barely had time to move his head back before her jaws snapped shut on empty air. He struggled, trying to keep the knife that was pointed at his chest at bay.

"Get off me!" He yelled, striking at her with his wings. There was a solid crack as he connected with the goblin's shoulder, causing her arm to fold. In return she kicked down, her foot landing solidly on his gut before he could brace and knocking the air out of his lungs.

Pulling her hand free, the goblin slashed down with her knife, straight to his heart.

The runes on Nathaniel's chest, the ones that Marinette had drawn on him, suddenly flashed a brilliant red. The knife tore through his shirt and skidded harmlessly across the glowing runes, catching the edge of his invisibility jacket and tearing through.

"Shit!" Nathaniel hissed as the magic cloth tore and his invisibility vanished. The bright runes on his chest shattered, scattering into dust. Backing away, the goblin looked up at him and her eyes widened in fear.

As she jumped away, he saw something underneath her cloak. A bright, purple brooch (familiar?), fastened to her underclothes.

"Demon!" She spat, turning and grabbing the cage and the sack before Nath could stop her.

"No!" Nathaniel started running, chasing after her as she sped down the tunnel, ducking into tunnels that he hadn't noticed before. He chased her deeper and deeper into the caverns, barely able to keep up with the sound of her footsteps, until he rounded a corner and she was gone.

"Fuck!" The demon ran a hand through his hair, searching, trying to find out where she had gone, where he'd ended up. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

She had a purple brooch. He knew that purple brooch, he'd sold it in his shop, but who had bought it? What did it do? It'd been at least a year or more since he'd seen it.

It was no use now. He couldn't find her.

"Mylene," he called, grabbing the bead in his pocket. "There's a goblin, she grabbed the nest and the queen, I need you over here!"

"Oh, gosh, I'd help," the answer came back, a little rushed. "But Ivan and I are kinda in the middle of-I'll call you back!"

Great.

Hissing, Nathaniel turned and tried to navigate his way back out.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc gasped for breath, standing in the mouth of the cave.

Bodies surrounded him, a mountain of corpses, their blood, sweet blood, soaking into the ground and filling the air with its intoxicating smell.

Yes, yes, the sword whispered in his ear, alluring. Kill more. More blood. Pierce through them. Make them scream.

His muscles were aching with the sheer power flowing through his body. He felt giddy, hazy, heart beating too fast and itching to move, to do something, anything.

Not enough. He needed more.

"Marc?"

Turning, Marc saw someone else, coming out of the cave. Red hair, red horns, red wings, red tail.

"Nathaniel," he said, voice dropping low, almost to a rasping growl. The half-dragon froze, eyes quickly taking in the scene around him. Marc could see the tear in his shirt, exposing beautiful, alluring flesh.

Make his blood flow, the sword screamed, alive and awake and insistent. Make him scream. Pierce through him and devour him whole. We need him.

Marc stepped forward, as though he were in a trance.

"S-stay back," Nathaniel said. He was shaking.

Marc was shaking too, limbs trembling in excitement. His heart was pounding, blood rushing in his ears, throat dry, needing him, needing to get to him.

"I need you," he gasped.

Nath paused. "What?"

"Now." Marc dropped the sword and ran for him.

 

Chapter Text

Nathaniel didn't even have time to react until Marc was on him, on top of him, hands fisting into his jacket, pushing him off his feet.

This was where he was gonna die. Fuck, fuck, fuck-

The wind was knocked out of him as his legs buckled and his back hit the ground, Marc kneeling over him, pinning him down, pupils full-blown and encased in the slimmest ring of emerald before those eyes closed and the swordsman pressed his lips against the demon's.

Nathaniel's mind shorted out. He froze, as Marc continued to bite and moan and press against his lips, sudden and surprising and unexpectedly exhilarating amidst the terror that had been fueling Nath's adrenaline moments before.

When Marc pulled away for breath, Nathaniel brought his arms up and against the swordsman's shoulders, keeping Marc back for a few seconds.

"Marc, what the fuck?!"

Marc's chest was heaving, he was sweating, there was blood splattered on the side of his face. "Nath-" he choked, squeezing his eyes shut. "Nath, please, I'm sorry, I need you, I, fuck-" he bucked his hips, pressing his groin against Nath's stomach. Nath could feel the tent in the swordsman's pants straining against his navel.

Oh shit. Marc was horny.

The realization came to him as Marc paused, shaking and gasping above him, like it was taking everything in him to stay there.

"Please," Marc rasped. He looked hot. He looked so goddamn attractive. Fear and sensuality were bleeding together in his mind, and he must have made some sort of acknowledgment because Marc gave a shaking gasp of relief and bucked against him.

"Ah!" Nath gasped, eyes flying wide as his blood rushed down and his hips jerked up. Marc grabbed his wrists, pinning them above the demon's head as he kissed Nathaniel once more. Nath pushed back, tangling his tongue with the swordsman's, losing himself in the feeling of Marc's lips and body pressing against him.

He shouldn't be feeling like this. He shouldn't be enjoying this so goddamn much. He didn't even know why Marc was acting like this, probably had to do with Blanc somehow but the blood has left his brain and gone too far south for him to make guesses.

But there was something thrilling, animalistically exhilarating about knowing how close to danger he was walking, hands pinned above him while Marc's teeth moved to meet his neck in a fury of passion, teeth scraping a bit too hard against his jugular as though the swordsman was going to rip his throat out, tongue soothing the marks and overstimulating his senses.

"Marc," he gasped, tail thrashing, curling. His wings were pinned under him, cushioned by the mossy floor of the cavern. Marc released one of his wrists to grab a horn, pulling the demon's head back to expose more of his neck.

Nathaniel whined, scrabbling at the swordsman's leather jacket with his free hand, trying to find purchase. Every touch felt electric, nerves alight with the sheer power of it all, as Marc took control and kissed him senseless, lips moving back up to capture his once more in a messy, demanding tangle of tongue and teeth, lips locked in an entirely new sense of the word.

"F-fuck," he stuttered, as the swordsman slotted his knee between Nath's legs, pressing up against his steadily growing erection and bucking hard.

"Nath," Marc growled, the vibrations in his throat spilling into the demon's lips. "Nath, I need you."

Nathaniel groaned, arching his back up, jerking his hips against Marc's knee in a desperate attempt to create friction. "Then fucking do it already," he hissed.

Marc pressed into him, grinding with a new ferocity, eyes meeting Nath's with a shining, intense look that set him on fire. The demon found himself breathless just by meeting his gaze, like an ancient tree meeting a wildfire, knowing it is about to be lovingly devoured.

"Incredible," Marc whispered, pausing, a smile on his face, surprisingly tender.

Nath's breath caught in his throat.

And then Marc swooped down to steal the demon's lips again.

Another kiss, deep and unrestrained. Nathaniel's hands grasped against the swordsman's ass, pushing his hips up to connect with Marc's again and again, rhythmic, reveling in the feeling as the swordman's muscles flexed beneath his fingers with every movement, faster, thrusting harder, more, more-

"Marc," Nath groaned as he rutted against Marc, aching for release. "Marc, ngh-"

Marc responded with a growl, teeth fastening to the nape of the demon's neck, and he ground into Nath and came, the demon following close behind, gritting his teeth to stifle the cry that nearly escaped his lips.

He nearly blacked out from the intensity of it all, high on adrenaline and his post-orgasm and sheer bliss. When the demon opened his eyes again, it was to see Marc, collapsed on top of him and cuddling him, head resting on his chest, eyes closed, panting for breath.

Seconds passed. Minutes. Slowly, Nath's mind reoriented, focusing on the swordsman's steady breaths against his collarbone.

Well, at least he seemed calmer now. That was good.

Nathaniel let his head rest against the moss, taking in the smell of sex and blood-not his blood, and not any of Marc's either-

Fuck.

Nath sat up.

"What-" Marc blinked, sitting up. "What's going on?"

Nath looked around, alarmed. There was a pile of Monster corpses at the mouth of the cave. They'd just fucked in the middle of a battlefield.

He turned to Marc, who seemed to be having the same thoughts running through his head.

"Oh, fuck," Nath gasped.

"We have to get cleaned up before Ivan and Mylene come back," Marc said, panic in his voice.

"How? There's like forty corpses!"

"Not the bodies, Nath! Us!" Marc got to his feet, knees locked together.

Nathaniel was suddenly very aware of the sticky mess in his pants. "Shit, okay, um, well...there a cave with some water, I saw it when I was trying to find the queen. Come on, hurry!" he scrambled to his feet, grabbing Marc's hand and leading him down into the caverns, stumbling on jelly legs down the winding tunnels, until they were back in the room where he'd fought the goblin woman.

He was starting to remember all the responsibilities that their mid-mission fuck had pushed out of his mind. The wasp nest. The purple brooch. The inventory that they were supposed to be looking for-well, looking at the boxes on the other side of the room, looks like they found their inventory-but the other two problems were now very much at the forefront of his mind.

"Get in the water, get in the water," Nath demanded, pushing Marc towards the river. The swordsman took off his boots and complied, making a noise of disgust as he waded in, the water coming up to his stomach.

"It's cold," he complained, as Nathaniel kicked off his shoes and stepped in after him.

"It's fine-gah-okay, yeah, it is cold, but there's a lack of hot showers nearby, if you haven't noticed," Nathaniel retorted, pulling off his shirt and throwing it onto the rocks. Fuck, the water was really cold. He could feel his balls practically shriveling back inside his body like a spectacle of reverse puberty.

"Smartass," Marc grumbled, casting a quick glance at Nath's chest and raising an eyebrow. "What's that?"

Nath looked down. The runes on his chest had left an ashy residue after they'd disappeared, and they were starting to irritate his skin a little.

"Oh, Marinette drew some protection runes on my chest about a week back," Nathaniel explained. "Saved my life when a goblin tried to stab me in the chest."

"Well, that was nice of her," Marc said, turning away to wash his junk.

"Are you...okay?"

There was a pause. "I think so?" Marc looked back. "If you're talking about what just happened, I'm so, so sorry, I didn't realize 'the sword uses your subconscious to manipulate you' went further than just killing people."

"I-it shouldn't," Nath said.

Marc tilted his head. "Well, uh, I can't remember much, but there were a lot of mixed messages, so maybe I was supposed to kill you and got confused or something. You're...you're not mad at me, are you? I'm sorry, I was trying to hold back, but I didn't want to kill you, and-"

Nathaniel laughed. "I'm not mad. Your horny saved my life, I guess."

And probably stopped an apocalypse, too, but Nath wasn't going to say that out loud.

"I'm okay now," Marc said. "Just had to...get my energy out, I guess." There was an adorable pink flush in his cheeks, so unlike the burning hunger that Nath had been facing moments before. "But, uh...maybe you should stay invisible on the way back, maybe?"

"Hm? Why?"

Marc hunched his shoulders. "Your neck is kinda, well..."

Oh, right. Marc hadn't exactly held back from leaving an array of hickeys and bite marks all across his jugular.

"About that." Nathaniel pointed to the jacket, which he'd also thrown onto dry land. "The goblin made a tear in it, and I guess that tear broke one of the runed stitches on the inside, so I can't turn invisible anymore."

"Damn."

"She ran off with the nest and the queen, too," Nathaniel said. "I was trying to get you so we could chase her down." Now that he could focus again, he realized the queen's presence was no longer in the back of his mind. Shit. "She probably ran by and escaped when we were fucking."

Marc groaned. "I'm keeping this out of my report. If I say we tried to follow her in a tunnel and got lost, will you back me up?"

"Oh, absolutely." Nathaniel paused. "Even if she did get away, we did gain some things out of it."

"We completed the original mission," Marc said.

"Well yeah, but we've also got a lot of the Miracle Wasps here. We can gather them up while they're sleeping and transport them somewhere safe. If we can gather enough of the wasps, the queen won't be much use without an army to control."

"I'm sure Mylene can help us gather them up," Marc said. "She loves animals and all that."

Nathaniel raised a finger. "One more thing. I don't know if it's a lead or not, but I saw the goblin wearing a purple brooch, and there was a similar gem in the head of the queen. They've done something to her, and I think that brooch is the answer. Lucky for us, I'm pretty sure I sold that brooch about a year ago, so I should have records of what it does and who bought it."

"You don't remember what it does?"

"I didn't have it for very long," Nath said. "Usually I have some time to fully investigate my magic items, but the brooch got sold like, a week after I got it."

"Well," Marc hummed, voice echoing in the open chamber. "I guess that's a start, though. Convenient."

A thought struck Nath, and he chuckled to himself.

"Hm?"

Nath grinned. "I just...it's kinda funny how we're having a professional, bounty hunter conversation like this and just...washing our dicks off in the same river," he said.

That earned a snort from the swordsman. "Shush."

"You're gonna add that to your report, too?" Nath cooed, barely able to keep down his snickering. "Just two men in an underground pool-"

Marc splashed water at him.

"Ah!" Nathaniel raised his wings, shielding himself from the cold water.

"You deserve that," Marc said, crossing his arms and turning away.

"Aww, come on," Nathaniel teased, wading over to drape himself across Marc's back. "Two bros, washing dicks together."

He could see Marc fighting to keep a straight face. "Nath, keep your voice down."

"Two innocent boys, cocks in our hands and-"

"Hey, where are you guys?" Mylene asked, her voice sounding directly in the demon's ear.

"FUCK!" Nath sprang away, slipping and falling into the water with a splash.

Marc burst into laughter as Nathaniel shot back up from the water, gasping and dripping wet. Crawling back to dry land, the demon fumbled with cold hands for his jacket, palming the bead in the pocket. "Yeah, we're fine," he sent, casting a disgruntled look at his raven-haired friend. Marc was doubled over, wheezing. "Marc and I were chasing a goblin and got lost, but I...I think we found the way out."

"What happened to the flower I gave you?"

Nath reached up for where she'd tucked the white lily behind his ear. Gone. "Uh...I guess I lost it. Sorry."

"Well if Marc's with you now then that's okay. I'll be waiting for you at the entrance, join us as soon as you can. Ivan's bringing the van around."

"Got it." Nathaniel turned back to Marc, who was struggling to breathe, clutching his sides and laughing.

"Did-did Mylene just call you?" The swordsman's voice was high and strangled. Nathaniel's face was burning.

"Yeah."

Marc buried his face in his hands, cackling.

"Oh, it's funny for you," Nath said, hands on his hips. "You didn't have her voice literally right there, in your head."

"Oh gods, I have tears in my eyes," Marc said, looking up at the demon. "I wasn't expecting that, I-ha, I can't breathe, it's too much-" He dissolved into giggles again.

Nathaniel crossed his arms, waiting patiently for Marc to recompose himself. Eventually, Marc took a deep breath, sighing, and smiled back at Nathaniel, eyes bright.

"You good?"

"Yeah."

Nathaniel clambered out of the river, re-buckling his pants and shaking the excess water from his wings. "Come on," he said, turning back to his friend and offering a hand. "We still have a mission to finish."

As Marc stepped forward, his smile vanished, hissing in pain as one hand came up to clutch his chest.

The comfortable warmth in Nath's heart instantly disappeared. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"

"No, no," Marc waved the demon away, straightening once again. "It's the sword. If I'm too far away for too long, the curse-" he let out a long breath through gritted teeth. "It's okay, it's manageable right now."

"Well, let's go," Nath said, pulling his shoes back on and grabbing his shirt and jacket. "Mylene's waiting for us at the entrance."

Marc nodded, coming out of the water and grabbing his boots. He sat next to Nathaniel on the ground, pulling them on. "Ugh, there's water in my leather pants now. It's uncomfy."

"Better than dried cum," Nath said.

"Yeah, that's fair."

 

~oOo~

 

Finally gathering their things again, Marc followed Nath back to the front of the cave, where Mylene was waiting at the front, sitting on a very sturdy flower that hadn't been there before.

"Hey guys!" She said, getting up and stepping over the minotaur's severed head to greet them. "Did you two fall into an underground lake or something?"

Marc jerked his head towards the bloodied mess around them. "We got a little bloody from fighting, so we decided to wash off first."

"There was so much blood," Nath said, completely straight-faced. Marc had to fight down a giggle.

Mylene looked down and made a face. "Yeah, I can imagine. Nath, what happened to your neck?"

"Oh! Um, well," the half-dragon turned to Marc. "One of the goblins attacked me. And, uh, scratched my neck a bunch."

"Oh no!" The dryad stepped forward, looking concerned. "Do you need healing?"

Nathaniel instantly slapped a hand over the hickeys. "No, no, I'm fine!"

"Mylene!"

The group turned to see Ivan jogging up to the cave. "The van's as close as I can get it," he said. "Let's pack up."

"Aww, thanks, cinnamon!" Mylene ran to her partner, and the goliath stooped down so she could give him a peck on the cheek. "You heard him, boys, let's start moving things into the van. Ivan and I have a few prisoners on our end, what about you, Marc?"

Marc awkwardly looked around him. "Uh, nope. Sorry."

"Oh, that's okay!" Mylene smiled sympathetically. "You're both safe and that's what's important."

"Let's also get the Miracle Wasps gathered up," Nath said. "How long does...whatever you did to them last?"

Mylene looked at the sleeping wasps dotting the area. "It lasts for a few hours, but you're right. Sweetie, do we still have that container?"

"Uh, I can check," Ivan said, rubbing the back of his neck. The two of them left the cave.

Thankful for the distraction, Marc went to grab his sword, breathing a sigh of relief as the constricting pain in his chest vanished the moment his fingers touched the hilt.

Nathaniel tried to make the collar of his jacket cover his neck a little more while Marc lifted his sword up to the light. The blood on his sword had turned the steel into a solid black color, but as the sunlight hit the blade, it began to return to its white, clean state.

"Whoah," Nath said.

"Cool, right?" Marc gave the blade a few turns, letting the sun catch the blade from all angles.

"I knew Celestial steel was self-cleaning, but I've never seen it in action before," Nath said. "I have to know, is it the sunlight itself that cleans the blade or something else?"

"Once the blood dries to a certain point it just disappears," Marc said, sheathing the sword.

"Nice."

Marc looked down. "Should we...start gathering the wasps together?"

"I guess so," Nath said. "We can start-I don't, know, pushing them into a pile or something."

The swordsman nodded, dropping to his knees and gingerly picking up wasps from the ground. It was honestly hard to tell if the insects were sleeping or dead, but Mylene and Nathaniel seemed to know more about them than he did.

"If any of the wasps got stepped on during your fight then I'm gonna cry," the half-dragon said, scooping a handful into his open palm.

Marc thought about the crunching he'd felt under his boot and sincerely hoped Nath didn't mean that. "I feel like it says something about how you're more concerned about dead wasps than the fact that I killed like forty people."

Nath made a face. "I mean, I'm a little disappointed, but, y'know, cursed sword, what can you do? And it's not like I knew any of them personally. Besides, one of them tried to use my beating heart as a knife holder so..." He shrugged.

"Not to mention they attacked a caravan of innocent people," Marc added.

"That too. Besides, I raised this colony's queen. I feel a little responsible for them."

Mylene soon returned with a large empty plastic bucket with a mesh lid, and the team carefully searched the caverns and surrounding area for sleeping wasps. Nathaniel led them down to the chamber with the boxes and the underground river.

"Yeah, that looks like almost all of our inventory," Mylene said, pulling a notebook from her pocket. "The cave Ivan and I went into looked to be mostly for traversing the hills, so I don't know how much progress we'll make trying to explore those today. Not to mention, if there are more of those golems in the tunnels, we might not be able to deal with them alone."

Nathaniel perked up. "Golems?"

"A big stone one," Mylene said. "It kept reforming, no matter how many limbs we cut off. Ivan and I had to collapse a tunnel on top of it to finish it off, and we're not even sure if it worked."

Nathaniel frowned. "That doesn't sound like a normal stone golem."

"Which is why I want to be more cautious around that area. I'll make a note to ask the higher-ups about mapping these tunnels out."

Ivan grabbed the largest-looking box, lifting it easily onto his shoulder. "Let's get these in the van," he said.

Marc could feel the future aching in his joints just by looking at the boxes.

"How are we going to fit prisoners and all this into the van?" Nathaniel asked, looking up at the boxes. They took up the entire left wall of the cavern, floor to ceiling, and spilled out into the central area, too.

"Magic," Marc said, grabbing a barrel and lifting it up. It was heavier than he'd expected, and he grunted a little at the weight.

"Yeah, okay, that makes sense," the half-dragon said, propping the bucket of wasps on one hip. "I'm not even sure why I asked, it feels kinda dumb now."

Marc grinned. "We're going to load all of these boxes on top of the van, and balance them really well so they don't fall over," he joked.

"The prisoners go on top," Nath added, in good humor.

"You mean like that old game, 'Don't drop the Dwarf'?"

"Oh my gods, my school used to play that." Nathaniel laughed. "We used to have competitions during science class; we used a brick for the Dwarf, though, since we didn't actually have the game."

Marc winced. "That sounds so dangerous."

"It was! Alix and I were playing once and our tower fell over and hit this girl in the face. It was really bad, we both got detention but Alix tried to blame it all on me."

"Rude."

"In fairness, I also tried to blame it all on her. We had a big fight afterwards." The half-dragon's wings drooped. "Didn't talk to each other for a week."

"Do you..." Marc hesitated. "Do you two fight often?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "It happens sometimes. She's hotheaded and I'm stubborn, we don't always get along. But she's still my best friend, no matter what. We always make things right with each other eventually." He looked to Marc. "This time's no different."

"I'm glad to hear that." Marc turned to Nath. "So are you going to help lug boxes or not?"

"I've got babysitting to do," Nath said, cradling the bucket in his arms. "I can't damage the babies."

"Give the babies to Mylene," Marc said. "We need you to carry boxes."

Nathaniel grumbled, but handed the bucket to Mylene, who tucked it under one arm, waving her staff with the other. Large, thick vines began to grow from the cave, lifting boxes out of their stacks and bringing them down to where Marc and Nathaniel could grab them.

"That's amazing," Nath said. "You must have practiced a lot to be able to do this!"

"It takes a lot of concentration," Mylene admitted, not taking her eyes off the vines. "Can you grab that box over there? My vines can't hold it for very long."

"Got it."

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel had plenty of experience moving boxes. He had a whole back section of the store full of inventory overflow, fancy glass and donated clothes and things that he would gladly put in the front if there was any room.

That didn't mean he enjoyed hauling boxes for several hours into a magic van that had an interior almost twice as big as his entire shop.

"Ivan and I used to live in this van before we got the house," Mylene had told him as they were sitting in the trunk for a short break. "Back when we first joined Raincomprix Hunters. But things have really gotten better for us over the years."

"That's nice to hear," Nathaniel said, pausing to wipe sweat from his forehead. The bucket of wasps was seated between his legs; the wasps were beginning to stir and were lazily exploring their new environment. "How long have you been bounty hunters?"

"A little over five years," Mylene said, stretching. Ivan sat down next to her, the van shifting a little at his weight. The dryad sighed contentedly and nestled into his side. "It's not our most ideal life, but we're happy."

Nathaniel felt his heart melting. They looked so happy together, it was almost hard to believe that the couple would ever hurt anyone for a living. But he could see the dried blood on Ivan's brass knuckles as he fondly ran his fingers through Mylene's hair, and there were about a dozen goblins and a kobold (the lizard kind, not the fey kind) bound and gagged by vines in the corner of the van. Nathaniel was very deliberately ignoring them.

By the time all the boxes had been transferred into the van, the sun was starting to approach dusk. The group sat together in the van as Ivan drove back down the rocky hillside, back to where Marc's motorcycle was still parked next to the road.

"Mylene and I can deliver all this to Dépaysement if you want to go home," Ivan said, turning in his seat to Marc and Nath. "You did good."

"Thanks," Nath said. "Marc, do you want to head home?"

"I need a shower," Marc responded, wiping his face with his sweat-soaked shirt. "And I have school tomorrow, crap."

Mylene gave a comforting smile. "You boys get some rest," she said. "We'll handle delivery. Marc, I'll send you the report forms tomorrow, okay?"

Marc nodded, opening the door of the van and hopping out. "See you later," he said, waving to them.

Nathaniel climbed out, groaning as his tired feet hit the ground. He could feel sweat plastering his hair to the back of his neck. "I am so tired."

"We'll be home soon," Marc said, unbuckling his belt. "Come on, let's get your wings tied up again."

"Kinky," Nath mumbled, raising his arms so Marc could secure his wings.

"I'm remembering that," Marc said, raising his eyebrows as he cinched the buckle closed around Nath's chest.

"Is that a threat?"

Marc swung a leg over his motorcycle, turning to Nath with an upturn of his lips. "Maybe."

Nathaniel let out an exhausted chuckle, settling in behind the swordsman and coiling his tail around Marc's waist. Blanc was pressed between his wings, but he was too tired to think about that at the moment.

The motorcycle rumbled to life, and Nathaniel leaned into Marc's back as they began the long journey back home.

Chapter Text

"You're too reckless," Marinette chided, turning the shop sign to closed before returning to the demon. "If I hadn't given you that protection sigil, you could be dead right now."

Marinette's tailor shop usually had a bright, cheery aura, colorful fabrics hung in view and mannequins adorned in fashionable outfits. With the lights turned off it was less bright and more eerie, with the long, floating tapestries gently billowing from the air conditioning, and the mannequins-eugh, he didn't even want to look at the mannequins now.

Nathaniel sat on one of the simple, beautifully crafted wooden chairs in the tailor shop, tail meekly tucked behind his legs as the fairy examined the tear in the jacket. "Can it be fixed?"

Marinette frowned, holding the jacket under a bright lamp on the counter. "With the right runic thread, yes. Unfortunately, I'm low in stock on that, and it's not cheap."

"How much?"

"Well, thankfully it's a small tear, so once I order the thread, it should be an easy fix. Still expensive, though." Marinette's brow furrowed as she mentally calculated numbers. "350 gold."

Nathaniel winced at the number, but nodded anyways. "I'll pay it."

"Good boy." Marinette placed the jacket in a closet behind her desk, her shoulders dropping a little. "At least it was only a small tear," she said, voice quiet. Her tone gave away her true concerns.

"Thanks to you, I'm not hurt," Nath said, standing up.

"But you could have been."

The demon tensed as Marinette turned around. The fairy usually kept a cheerful persona on her face with warlike tenacity, but not now. Now, her eyes looked tired and the shadows cast lines across her face, homage to the centuries she'd lived through.

"Marinette-"

"I've had enough lovers make wrong decisions and meet their fate, one way or another," she said, waving a hand dismissively. "I've grown desensitized to it, I suppose." She paused, hand still in the air. "But I'd rather you don't die if you can help it."

"There's a lot going on," Nathaniel said, picking at his tail anxiously. "Some of it I can deal with, some of it...I'm trying to deal with."

Marinette's eyes traveled across his face, reading him. "Do tell," she said, wings fluttering lightly behind her.

Nathaniel gave a little laugh. "There's a lot to tell."

"Maybe so, but we've both closed up shop for today." Marinette reached up to undo her bun, letting her blue-tinted hair fall down across her shoulders and smoothing the locks with her fingers. "If you don't have any plans today, I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to talk," her eyes met Nath's for a second before flitting away coyly. "Among other things."

"I swear the only person who manages to out-horny me is you," Nath said, flashing a smile to the fairy.

"That's why we get along so well," Marinette sang, swaying her hips as she walked away.

Nathaniel chuckled. "Alright," he said. "But not for too long. There's a contract that I've need to find when I get back."

Hopefully Marc wouldn't mind him coming home late today.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc sat behind the counter of Hidden Treasures, chin on the polished countertop and dully watching the grass ripple in the sunlight of a Wednesday afternoon.

It's official. He couldn't deal with this. He hated college.

The counter space around his head was surrounded by books and his laptop and a writing journal and his organizational notebook and six different colored pens, none of which were helping him write the historical analysis paper he was supposed to submit tonight.

He couldn't give half a fuck about elvish nobility and their monopoly over cross-Planar portals right now. His brain was officially fried. He'd hoped moving downstairs to the thrift store area would give him at least a little bit of inspiration, but the change of scenery didn't seem to do shit for his tired brain.

When was Nathaniel coming home?

He desperately missed his half-dragon friend, if only so he could have someone to complain to.

Marc grumbled, casting disinterested eyes back at his laptop. Just looking at the three sentences he had managed to write and the rest of his uncompleted outline was giving him a headache. If there were any gods still alive in the Astral planes, maybe they could do him a favor and smite him so he wouldn't have to write this. Or write it for him. He wasn't picky.

Staring out the window, Marc noticed a car roll up to the front of the store. Eh, didn't matter. The shop was closed already.

All thoughts of ignoring the stranger vanished when they stepped out of the car. Marc did a double-take as his boss, Mr. Raincomprix, walked up to the shop and knocked on the door.

Oh gods, why was he here? What did Nath do?

Marc scrambled to his feet. The man was waiting patiently outside, and Marc knew the windows were only slightly tinted and his boss could definitely see him through the glass. Since Nathaniel was gone and Marc would be home, he'd only bothered to do the manual locks, so Marc quickly opened the door to greet the stout human.

"Ah, Marc. Good evening," Mr. Raincomprix tilted his hat to address the swordsman, one hand resting comfortably on his belt. "My daughter mentioned something about you taking residence here. Is Mr. Kurtzberg home?"

Marc swallowed, heart hammering. "Oh, uh, not at the moment, sir," he said. "Is something wrong?"

The older man gave him a calming smile. "No need to be worried. We're just helping the police investigate for any Monster activity in this district."

"Right, right." Marc nodded. "Sabrina told me about that."

"We were hoping you could help in our investigation," Mr. Raincomprix said.

Marc shuffled nervously under the scrutiny of his boss. "Sorry for not taking the job," he said, motioning back to the books on the counter. "I've been busy with college and helping with the shop."

The bounty hunter clapped a hand on Marc's shoulder. "I completely understand," he said. "You made a commitment to your education, and I'm glad to see you upholding those commitments."

Marc faked a smile. "Thank you, sir."

"Besides," Mr. Raincomprix added, "it gave me a chance to reconnect with some of my old colleagues at the station. Brought back old memories to when I was an officer."

"Well, uh..." Marc shifted. "I'm glad I could...help, with that, sir."

Mr. Raincomprix stepped away, straightening. "Well, I was hoping to talk to your friend, but since he's not here, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"

Marc blinked. "Oh! Of course."

"Your friend, Nathaniel Kurtzberg. He owns this shop, correct?"

"Yes."

"Pretty unusual to have a shop that sells magic items in a place like this. And what species is he?"

"Half-dragon," Marc answered, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

Mr. Raincomprix nodded, stepping inside. Marc followed him as he slowly glanced around at the racks, the Hidden Treasures sign above the desk, the magic items behind the desk, the Employee of the Month board (which now had Marc's picture on it, to his embarrassment and Nath's insistence).

"Are you...looking for anything specific?" Marc asked.

His boss turned to face him. "I trust your judgement, Marc," he said. "You've always done your missions with thorough diligence and integrity, so I'll be straightforward with you. Do you have any suspicions of Monster affiliation in this establishment? Has Nathaniel Kurtzberg bought or sold cursed or forbidden items to your knowledge? Have you done any investigations?"

Marc didn't consider himself to be a liar. He approached most things with honesty, and though his moral compass may, admittedly, twist and turn from time to time, he always stuck to honesty when it came to what he believed in. But some things were more important than truth.

"I don't believe that there are any illegal dealings with Monsters or forbidden items in this place, sir." Marc lied to the bounty hunter's face.

Mr. Raincomprix studied him for a long, terrifying moment. "You think so?"

"I've been through practically every inch of this place," Marc said. Technically it wasn't a complete lie, he hadn't exactly been searching for anything, but he had been in every room. "As far as I can tell, Nathaniel mostly just mans the shop and does art in his free time."

The bounty hunter looked past Marc to the closed door that led upstairs, eyes eventually moving back to the tapestry with the thrift shop's name written on it. "I see," he said. "Thank you, Marc. I would stay and chat for longer, but I have other places to investigate. If you notice any suspicious behavior, contact me immediately. Magic is a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands, after all."

"Of course, sir," Marc said, swallowing the lump in his throat. "You can count on me."

Mr. Raincomprix smiled. "I know." He turned and walked back to his car, driving off without another word.

With shaky hands, Marc closed the door, locked it, then slid to the floor, hands fisting through his hair.

Fucking hell.

He'd just lied to his boss's face.

That was definitely a crime. He'd just done a crime. Fuck.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, the swordsman took a deep breath.

Welp. Guess he was a criminal now.

That didn't change the fact that he still had a paper due by midnight and his schedule only allowed for two mental breakdowns today, both of which he'd already used.

Groaning, Marc moved to sit back down at the counter, looking over his books and the outline he'd written in colored pens.

Usually he liked writing. He went to college because he wanted to learn how to write better, to create beautiful worlds of his own and share them with people.

But today, his mind kept drifting back to his mission, to Nath, to that short but incredibly charged moment in the cave. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so alive with intensity.

Marc rested his chin in his hands, sighing. It wasn't just the sex that was captivating his mind, it was just...Nathaniel in general. His dependability, his humor, the way he was teasing and sassy and wasn't afraid to speak his mind, but was also considerate and kind...

The swordsman let out a dreamy sigh, then froze.

No no no no no.

He couldn't...like Nathaniel, could he?

They were just friends with benefits, right?

But they lived together, they fucked, they kissed sometimes, usually during the fucking, but sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they just kissed.

But there shouldn't be any feelings behind those actions, no ulterior motives besides the carnal "I-want-to-stick-my-dick-in-that" feelings.

But there were.

But there shouldn't be.

But there weeeeeeere.

Marc slammed his head on the counter with a thud.

He liked Nathaniel.

Despite his prior ruling, he suffered through his third mental breakdown of the day.

Chapter Text

It was Friday afternoon when Nathaniel found the contract for the purple gem.

He wanted to claw out his eyes from scrolling through backlogs and backlogs of old deals, written and immortalized on his laptop's thumb drive. Any of the deals he made without writing were also there, after he'd read his own soul and transcripted the wording into his documents. It helped to keep things organized, after all.

Of course, all his meticulous sorting didn't help him when he didn't know the name of the item, the date when he'd specifically sold it, or the name of the person he'd sold it to. It took all of Thursday for him to realize he hadn't actually sold it last year, but the year before.

Not to mention he felt like he should know who bought it, like a memory hanging at the cusp of his consciousness, unreachable but still present.

Propping his head up with one arm, he flipped through digital page after digital page of contracts, short descriptors of the items he'd sold and their abilities (the descriptions of cursed items could be hidden in case the cops looked through his computer, thanks Markov).

His half-lidded eyes fell to the next item's title: The Brooch of Transmission.

It was like a light switch had been turned on in his mind. He sat up immediately, eyes skimming the page with a much less tired demeanor.

"Description: A butterfly-shaped brooch with an amethyst gemstone in the center. Craftwork and enchantment are Celestial.

"Powers: This brooch allows the wearer to mentally connect with a sentient creature via enchantment magic, enhancing their abilities and establishing a telepathic connection. An unwilling creature must have a stronger willpower than the holder to resist the connection. If the unwilling creature succeeds in resisting the holder, the holder cannot try to form a telepathic connection with the creature for 24 hours.

"History: Was used by an unknown Celestial before being stolen by a kitsune and brought to Earth. Records of its use are unclear.

"Sold to: Chloe Bourgeois."

Nathaniel let out a low breath. There was more text, detailing the exact contract she'd signed, but it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

Chloe Bourgeois had the Brooch of Transmission.

Of-fucking-course she did.

Nathaniel was just about to scream into his gingham jacket when the door opened and a man with short brown hair stepped in, looking around the room.

"Hello," he said, waving a hand as he approached the counter. "My name is Vincent. I was told you had some SDXC memory cards for cameras?"

Nathaniel blinked, reorienting himself back into the salesman mentality. "Photography items are on the third shelf to the right, near the back," he said, pointing in the general direction.

"Thank you," Vincent said, heading to the shelf.

Nathaniel watched him leave, then turned his attention back to the screen. What should he do? Should he call Marc? Or Max?

Well, his boss usually contacted him first. He had a way to contact Markov in case of emergencies, but did this count as an emergency?

Before he could make a decision, the door opened again, and a second man stepped in, blond hair tinged with purple highlights.

"Hello," he said, approaching the counter with a wave and a smile. "My name is Vincent. I was told you had some SDXC memory cards for cameras?"

Nathaniel glanced over to where the brown-haired Vincent was still looking through the photography equipment. "Um." He said.

"Is something wrong?" Blond-haired Vincent said, still smiling.

Fuck it, this wasn't his problem. "Photography items are over there, where that other guy is," Nathaniel said, pointing.

"Thank you."

Nathaniel watched him head over to the other Vincent with a squint in his eyes, as though one of them would simply disappear if he watched for long enough. But they didn't seem to be doing much of anything, so he looked down at his phone. Maybe texting Marc would be the best bet.

"Get lost, Vincent, I was here first!" The brown-haired man snapped.

"You already have an SDXC card!" the blond man whined. "I've only got an SDHC!"

Nathaniel glanced up at their squabbling with a disinterested look, even as his tail twitched in annoyance under the counter. He didn't care about...whatever their deal was, but the moment one of them started getting physical, he wouldn't hesitate to kick them both out.

 

~oOo~

 

"Sorry, Professor Damocles," Marc said, walking down the street towards Hidden Treasures. "Yes, I know it was due last week, I'm sorry, I've had a lot going on, just please-I'll have it done by Monday, I promise." He hung up, biting his lip to keep from crying in the middle of the street.

Just take deep breaths. Hopefully things would be calm at home.

Marc stepped through the door to find two customers arguing loudly in the corner of the store. There was a brown-haired man with his hands on his hips, while a blond-haired man crossed his arms, chin jutted up at an unreasonably snooty angle.

"What would you know about chiaroscuro techniques, Vincent?" The brown-haired human spat, practically leaning over into the other man's space. "Your compositions are as tacky as your hair dye!"

"Bold words from someone who wouldn't recognize a good key light if it was pointed at his face," Vincent hissed.

"Maybe if you spent less time chimping and more time making sure your photo subjects were actually good, you'd recognize what a good picture really looks like," the other man retorted with a huff.

"As opposed to your 'spray and pray' method, Vincent? Ha!"

"How dare you!"

Marc kept a wide berth around the two humans, making his way towards Nathaniel, who looked completely dead to the world.

"I got your text," he said. "How long have they been...?"

"Two hours," Nathaniel responded, face expressionless.

Marc glanced back at them. "Two hours?"

"Yep." The half-dragon pressed his lips together. "Two hours and eleven minutes, if you want to be exact. All for a goddamn memory card."

"Holy shit. Should we do something about it?"

"I thought about it," Nathaniel said, resting his chin in his hands. "I was gonna step in if things got handsy but they've just been shouting at each other about color theory and lighting techniques."

"Want me to do something about it?"

Nathaniel paused.

"Well at least I know how to settle on a focal point!" One of the Vincents yelled, voice cracking a little from how long he'd been screaming.

"Your photos are overexposed and you know it!"

The half-dragon sighed. "Yeah, do it."

Marc stepped forward, interrupting the two photographers in the middle of their bitching fest. "Excuse me, gentleman," he said, let his hand rest none-too-subtly on the hilt of his sword. Normally, he wouldn't think about using his sword to threaten innocent people, but he was too stressed to care. "You're causing a disturbance."

"I-Vincent started it," the blond-haired man said, pointing accusingly at the other man.

"Ah!" The brown-haired Vincent's mouth formed a perfect 'o' of indignation.

"Stop." Marc raised his other hand before one of the Vincents could start arguing again. "Either figure things out like civil people, or get out."

The two photographers looked over to Nathaniel, who was leaning back in his chair and watching them.

"What he said," Nath called back, arms folded over his chest.

Disgruntled, they turned to face each other again.

"Rock paper scissors?" The blond-haired Vincent asked.

The other Vincent scoffed. "A child's game? That's..." His eyes flitted to Marc, who was watching them with a humorless expression. "That's fine."

It took seven tries, since they kept choosing the same sign, but eventually the brown-haired Vincent won. Casting a spiteful look over his shoulder, blond Vincent strutted out of the store, spine straight to keep what was left of his pride intact.

"That'll be 40 gold," Nathaniel said, standing up and stretching his wings.

"Ah, no thank you," Vincent said, raising a hand politely. "That's too expensive." He left the store, leaving Marc and Nathaniel stunned as they watched him walk away.

"Oh my god," Marc said, hand over his mouth.

Nathaniel shrugged and sat back down. "Not the first time I've seen something like that happen. Anyway, Marc." The half-dragon turned his laptop to face the swordsman. "I found the brooch, these are the details."

Marc leaned over, squinting at the small screen as he skimmed the text. "Butterfly-shaped brooch...telepathic connection...records of use unclear...sold to Chloe Bourgeois?" He looked up to Nath. "Does that mean she's responsible for the Miracle Wasp Nest being stolen?"

"Either that or the goblins stole it from her." Nathaniel sighed. "I full-heartedly believe that Chloe's an evil piece of shit who would do something like this, but I don't think she's competent enough to organize a group to steal it for her. Besides, it doesn't really add up. What would she have to gain from this? She's already fucking rich, and her dad's the goddamn mayor. She can get pretty much anything she wants."

Marc frowned. "Well, it's a start, at least. Mylene and Ivan told me that they're planning a search party in a few days to hunt down the rest of the group. I'll join with them and see if we can learn anything else."

"Should I come too?"

"I wouldn't push your luck," Marc said, frowning. "The higher-ups aren't really happy that I brought a civilian with me on a mission. I don't think they'll let me do it a second time."

"What about the wasps? We need to deliver them back to the boss."

"They're currently being held by the authorities in Dépaysement," Marc said.

"Yikes." Nathaniel winced. "Well, as long as we know where they are, it's not our problem. Like I've been saying, we just need to know where they are, and the rest isn't our business."

"Hmm." Marc looked back at the brooch's description. "Hey, it says it's Celestial, like Blanc! So an Infernal could destroy it?"

The half-dragon gave a sharp, bitter laugh. "Destroy that? You'd need a hell of a strong Infernal spell to bring that down. The stronger enchantment survives, and that thing's very old and very strong. The best you'd get is a big ol' magic wipeout."

"Ah, too bad." Marc turned away from the laptop. "Any packages for today?"

"Yeah, two orders." Nathaniel checked his orders. "Andre's Ice Cream-the business, not the man...well, technically the man, but he's using his business name to order-anyway, he wants the cart wheels we have in the back. The second order is for a..." Nathaniel paused. "It's for a Vincent, buying an...SDXC memory card."

"What?"

Nathaniel blinked. "Do we have a second memory card in the back? It says this is from the storage in the back, one second." He got up, rushing to the back room.

Marc checked his phone. He had a list of things he needed to do, including finishing his homework for Friday night (which was due tonight, fuck), finishing filling out the paperwork from his Tuesday mission, replying to an email that Mr. Raincomprix had sent him, doing the assignment for Professor Damocles that was due last week, maybe getting a start on the homework he needed to do over the weekend, getting together with Ivan and Mylene to figure out when they were going to start doing searches for their mysterious group, and holding an online meeting with his academic advisor at 6 pm to talk about his failing grades and missing assignments.

He felt tears stinging in his eyes at the thought of everything he needed to do. Every time it felt like he finished something, eight more things seemed to take his place.

"We have three SDXC memory cards!" Nathaniel shouted back. "Three! I had two in the back this whole time!"

Marc forced his easygoing smile back on his face as Nathaniel came out from the back, waving two plastic packets in his hand.

"I could have avoided two hours of listening to them fight! Shit!" Nathaniel pressed both packets over his eyes, the closest imitation he could get to burying his face in his hands.

"Yikes," Marc said, chuckling a little.

"Here." Head in one hand, the half-dragon shamefully offered one of the packets to Marc. "Take it. I forgot to put the address on the packet, but it's on my laptop. Andre's wheels are in the left, near the back. They're labeled."

"Don't overwork yourself," Marc said, patting Nath's shoulders. His voice cracked a little as he said it. He had so much work to do. He had to finish his assignments or else he'd get a bad grade and lose his scholarship and have to go back home because his bounty missions couldn't pay for college-

Nathaniel looked up at Marc, an odd expression crossing his face. "Hey," he said, voice suddenly going soft.

"What?"

Nathaniel set down the other packet, taking Marc's face gently in his hands. "You look like you're about to cry. What's going on?"

The lump in Marc's throat became an unbearable pressure, and the tears that he had been fighting back started to form in the corners of his eyes.

"Oh, Marc," Nath said, motioning for the swordsman to sit down in his chair. Marc complied, staring down at his shoes.

The half-dragon knelt down next to Marc, one hand on the swordsman's knee. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I..." Marc felt tears falling from his cheeks, even as he tried to keep them at bay. "I don't-I don't think I can do this." He sobbed, losing the smile he'd been fighting to keep on his face.

Nathaniel stood up a little, slowly opening his arms and letting Marc lean into his embrace, the half-dragon's wings curling over him like a four-armed hug. Marc cried openly into his friend's shoulder, hands clutching Nath's jacket and holding him close.

The half-dragon stayed there as he cried, one hand gently running through his hair while he whispered soft words in a language Marc didn't know, but felt comforted by nonetheless.

"I don't know what to do," Marc gasped, tasting the tears and snot running down his cheeks and past his lips. "I have all these-these bounty missions that my boss wants me to take, and I'm failing in school, and my professor says I might-I might lose my scholarship if it keeps up, and then I'd have to move back home to continue my degree, but I-and I'm worried for your friends because of everything that's happening but I can't do anything, I don't know what to do!"

Nathaniel pressed a kiss to his temple, carding his fingers through Marc's locks. "Shh," he murmured.

"It's like I can't do anything right," Marc wailed. "My job only wants me because my sword is powerful, not-not me, I can't do well in college, I'm putting you all in danger just by being here, everything I do hurts someone else, or-or hurts me, and I can't-" he broke down again, fingernails of one hand digging into Nathaniel's shoulderblades while the other fisted into Nath's clothes, hands shaking.

Nathaniel whispered something else that he couldn't understand, a lulling hum and a soft rumble in the artist's throat that somehow became syllables.

Marc fell apart in the half-dragon's arms, letting himself cry in a way he hadn't been able to do for years.

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel wasn't the best with crying people. Usually, he was the one crying, with Alix patting him awkwardly on the back. She wasn't great with crying people, either.

He'd cried in front of Marinette before; the fairy had an almost unnerving habit of managing to make you spill all your secrets, but her method of consolation usually involved comfort sex, and Nathaniel had a feeling that wasn't going to help at this particular moment.

Maybe he'd had someone to comfort him when he cried as a child, but he couldn't remember having anyone to hold him, certainly not his parents.

He wasn't sure what to do, so he stayed, holding Marc, letting the swordsman sob brokenly into his shoulder, body shaking. His legs were starting to cramp a little from standing in such a strange position, but he wasn't going to move if Marc still needed him, so he steeled himself, bracing an elbow against the back of Marc's chair, wings extended like a blanket over Marc's back.

[it's okay, I know it's tough, it's okay, I'm here,] he whispered in Marc's ear, again and again in Inferni, knowing Marc couldn't understand him but hoping it provided some form of comfort for the swordsman.

Slowly, Marc's sobs softened, until he was sniffling quietly into Nathaniel's shoulder, little tremors running through his body with each shaky gasp for air. He pulled away, and Nathaniel moved his wings back, wincing as his muscles ached in protest.

"Thanks," Marc said, rubbing his face with one arm. "I'm sorry."

"You don't have anything to apologize for," Nath replied, cupping Marc's tear-soaked cheeks in his hands. "Sometimes we just need a good cry."

"I-I'm usually better with this." Marc sniffed, blinking tears away. "I didn't mean to break down."

Nathaniel pulled Marc's water bottle out of his backpack, which was leaning against the counter, and handed it to the swordsman. "It's okay if you're stressed."

"Ha, stressed is-stressed is an understatement," Marc said, taking a drink. His hands were still shaking.

"I can reschedule Andre and Vincent's orders for tomorrow, if that helps you." Nath took Marc's free hand in his own. "I'll email them, say that there was a complication with the orders and it'll take a little more time."

Marc smiled, shaking his head. "No, no, that's fine. The deliveries-they're the easiest part of what I have to do, and I feel like I should be helping you more for having-for having a place to stay-"

"You're helping a lot more than you realize," Nathaniel assured. "If you need me to do anything for you, just ask, okay?"

Marc wiped his eyes with the collar of his shirt. "I don't know how...if I'm going to keep my scholarship this year," he said, sniffing. "I don't want to move back home."

"You don't have to move back home," Nath said, "I'll be happy to let you stay here, even if you're not in college."

"It's not that," Marc said, gritting his teeth. "I'm trying to get my degree so I can get a job with writing and quit being a bounty hunter. I don't want this." He looked up at Nath. "I'm tired of killing people just to pay off student loans, and if I lose my scholarship, I'll have to take more jobs, and then I'll have less time to study, and-" he stopped, choking on his words as tears started falling again.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. He was crying again.

"Hey, it's alright," Nathaniel said, grabbing Marc's hands. "We'll figure something out together, okay?"

Marc sniffed, an empty smile pushing through his tears. "Thanks," he said, standing up. "I think I just need to be alone right now."

Nathaniel let Marc move past him and grab his backpack, heading upstairs. "Let me know if you need anything," he said, watching as the door closed behind the swordsman.

Maybe it was best to give Marc some space.

Chapter Text

It was a few hours before Marc came back down again. His face was red and puffy from crying, and his body language was tense, lips pressed together as he silently took the boxes for deliveries and carried them to the car.

Nathaniel stood to help him with the cart wheels, and Marc finally looked at him, eyes still shining from tears but calmer now, quiet but no longer overwhelmed. Neither said a word.

He let Marc have his space that day, interrupting only in the evening to bring the swordsman some of the takeout he'd ordered. And if he hid a bar of chocolate from the shop's snack rack under a napkin, well, no one could prove it was him.

The next morning, at around noon, Nathaniel was working in the shop again. He was pretty sure the chair had molded to perfectly fit his ass from all the years of sitting on it.

The door to the upstairs opened, and Marc peeked his head out, catching eyes with him. He paused, standing sheepishly on the first step. He was wearing a pair of fluffy grey pajamas with pink accents. The sword was probably still in his room.

"Hey," Nath said. "How are you doing?"

"Better," Marc said. "I had a video call with my academic advisor yesterday, and we decided that I should probably withdraw from some classes this semester and take them another time."

"Is that good?"

"It'll make things easier for me." Marc sighed, stepping into the shop. His mismatched socks padded across the floor as he neared. "I'm sorry for getting emotional."

"Marc, you're stressed," Nath said, turning in his chair to face the swordsman. "I think getting emotional was warranted."

A little smile lifted the corners of Marc's lips. He nudged his foot slightly against Nath's tail, and it coiled around his ankle instinctively. "I think I'm also going to hold back on missions for a while," he said. "I'll keep in touch with Ivan and Mylene, since that's important, but I'm turning down everything else."

Nathaniel nodded, giving his friend a reassuring smile. "That sounds like a good idea."

"Yeah." Marc paused, fidgeting with the edges of his shirt sleeves. "Can I...this is a little embarrassing but...can I have a hug?"

"Oh-I mean, yeah, of course!" Nath stood up, maybe a little too hastily, letting Marc hesitantly shuffle into his arms.

"Mhm," the swordsman mumbled as he sank into the demon's embrace, which made Nathaniel's nerves tingle in a way he didn't expect.

"Is it cuz I'm warm?" He joked, letting his wings fold over Marc's shoulders.

"Yeah."

Nathaniel huffed lightly, tucking his head into the crook of Marc's neck with a smile. "Maybe I should offer this as a shop service," he said. "Warm hugs, five gold."

"You'd be rich by next week," Marc responded, pressing his nose into the demon's hair, his soft breath tickling the other's scalp.

"You'd get a discount, of course."

"Of course."

"Four gold."

"Cheapskate."

Nathaniel laughed. "I'm glad you're doing better," he said, his hand trailing in circles across the swordsman's back.

"I'm glad you're here," Marc whispered. "I don't think I could do this alone."

Nathaniel felt electricity run through his body, tingling at the ends of his fingers and toes with a pleasant sensation. He pressed a kiss to Marc's jaw, and the swordsman turned to catch his lips before he could move away.

Did friends with benefits kiss like this?

It didn't matter, Marc's lips were soft against his own and that was the only thing that was important right now.

When the swordsman pulled back for air, his eyes were half-lidded, a lazy smile on his lips. "I'm sure there's a way to show my gratitude," he said, fingers playing with the buttons on Nath's shirt.

The familiar rush of heat sparked through his body. "I could close the shop for a few minutes," he said, raising an eyebrow.

Marc's smile widened, stepping back to head back upstairs. "I'll be waiting," he whispered, giving a wink as he left.

A small part of Nathaniel felt that it was a little irresponsible to prioritize sex with Marc over his normally strict work hours. The rest of him didn't give a fuck.

As he moved to lock the door, something caught his eye, and he froze.

There was a police car parked on the other side of the street, a few stores up.

No flashing lights, no sign of movement, though he could see the silhouette of someone in the driver's seat of the car.

Swallowing the uneasy feeling in his chest, he locked the door and made his way upstairs.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc didn't hear much from anyone for a few weeks. He'd called Mylene and Ivan a few times, but they were still busy scouting the expansive wildlands between Gallia and Dépaysement, searching for the Miracle Wasps and the group of thieves that were still at large.

"Sorry, Marc," Mylene had told him. "There's a lot of ground to cover. Ivan and I are used to doing this together, and I know you've been stressed with school. We can handle this. But I'll let you know if we find them!"

No word had come back from Nath's boss about Markov checking the police records, but Nathaniel didn't seem to be too surprised. There seemed to be cops camped out at every corner now. Since the police investigation had started, he'd seen more officers in their blue uniforms and tactical boots than he'd seen in his entire life, even as someone whose job usually required working in tandem with the police force. It seemed like every other day he was getting stopped by some inquisitive cop during his delivery runs, but his bounty hunter's license was usually enough to assure them that he was a "law-abiding citizen" and wasn't "smuggling drugs" or whatever they thought he was doing. He'd even run into a few of his coworkers patrolling the streets.

Nathaniel, on the other hand, seemed constantly on edge with all this heightened police activity. He didn't go outside much before all this happened, but seemed even less inclined to leave than before. Even walking to Marinette's store, next to his, seemed too risky for the half-dragon.

"She's still waiting for her special thread to be delivered before my jacket can be fixed," he complained to Marc one night. "With how long it's taking for the thread to be delivered, I really fucking hope the materials are worth it. I miss my jacket. I don't feel safe without it. Goddamit, why did the knife catch where there was runic thread?"

Marc listened patiently while his friend lamented the loss of his invisibility cloak. At least the downtime gave the two of them the chance to engage in...other activities.

And while Nathaniel wasn't keen on going out, Marc didn't mind spending a night or two with Luka every once in a while. According to the siren, since the police force and bounty hunters were working together, having a bounty hunter visit him often seemed to make the police back off.

"There's a disconnect between the police and your coworkers," Luka said, after one of their sessions together. Marc was still flat on the bed gasping for breath, sweat on his forehead. Even with his stamina, Luka seemed to know how to push him to his limits and further.

"A disconnect?"

Luka was fiddling with the strings of a viola, tuning it with nimble fingers. He'd brought it down to work with while Marc was still recovering. "Bounty hunters usually only work with the people from the company they're contracted with or are independent and work with who they choose. Police don't. So the bounty hunters don't tend to communicate as much with the police. Those that know you're a bounty hunter assume you're investigating my place, so don't bother questioning me."

"That's nice," Marc said, slapping his knee lightly to try and make the jelly-like feeling in his legs go away. Luka gave him an amused smile.

"It's interesting," he said. "Listening to your melody develop. And I do enjoy hearing your perfect cadence, so this relationship is very beneficial."

"Most people just call it an orgasm," Marc said, turning his head to look at the siren.

"I'm not most people, am I?" Luka said, a teasing lilt in his voice as he lifted the viola to his shoulder, running the bow smoothly across the strings.

Marc let his head rest against the pillows again. "That's true. To be fair, I've heard people use worse terms during sex."

"Oh?"

The swordsman laughed, watching the reflection of the lights in the water tank drift lazily above him on the ceiling. "I knew this guy in college, during my first semester, who called balls 'meat kiwis'. It was super weird."

Luka chuckled, an airy sound that felt natural in the quiet afterglow of their hookup. The music he was playing felt soft, felt soothing, and Marc felt his eyes begin to lazily drift shut before the sound stopped abruptly.

"What is it?" Marc sat up. Luka had gotten to his feet, making his way towards the ladder.

"There's a policeman knocking on the door outside," the siren said.

"Want me to play my bounty hunter card and get you out of trouble?" Marc asked, stretching as he stood up, looking around the room for wherever his pants and sword had ended up.

"You're not a very good liar," Luka said, giving him a dead stare.

"Well shit. What do we do then?"

The siren looked him up and down. "I could enchant your mind," he said, tapping his chin. "Make you a charismatic, smooth-tongued individual, if you'll allow me."

The thought of Luka intentionally using his siren magic on his mind made his fingers twitch in suspicion, but he'd known the siren for a while. Nath was friends with him. Luka wouldn't do anything to screw him over, right? No. He'd been nothing but helpful to Marc since the day they'd met.

Marc didn't know how long they had, but knowing a policeman was outside really made his guts scramble with anxiety. "As long as it's quick," he hissed.

"It will be," Luka said, taking his chin with one hand and leaning in. "Because you're a very good liar."

Marc felt the threads of magic probing against his mind, and fought the instinct to resist them. He blinked, tilting his head from side to side. Everything seemed normal.

"Did that...work?" Gah. His tongue felt weird.

"We'll see."

Getting redressed, Marc followed Luka back to the front of the shop. Luka opened the door while Marc leaned against the counter, pretending to examine his nails while he watched out of the corner of his eye.

"Hello, officer," Luka said. Unlike the usual mystic sound of his voice, he seemed to have suppressed his siren magic completely. His voice still sounded soft and alluring, but the magic was gone.

He saw the policeman, a young-looking man stand to attention, eyes flitting behind him to look at Marc. The moment his eyes landed on him, the swordsman felt magic spark in his mind, the words falling from his lips like he'd practiced them his whole life.

"Oh, hello," Marc said, pretending to have just noticed the man. "I had just finished my investigation. Marc Anciel, Raincomprix Hunters." He flashed his badge at the cop as he walked by. "You have a good evening, sir." He nodded to Luka.

"And you as well," Luka replied, voice even and unbetraying of any emotion.

The moment he looked away from the policeman, the charismatic feeling vanished, and Marc tried not to shrink in on himself as he kept walking to his motorcycle.

Fuck, that worked. How did that work? Gods, he was sweaty. He needed to leave before he blew his cover by standing and panicking like a dumbass.

Marc swung a leg over his motorcycle, casting one last glance at the siren before he left.

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel was sitting at the table upstairs, practicing with disenchanting that goddamn fucking stupid ass teleporting ring again when Alix called him.

Giving up on trying to disenchant it, he picked up his phone. "Hey Al, what's up?"

"How are you doing, emo boy?"

Nathaniel felt his hairs stand up. Like how he used "punk" as a nickname for Alix when things were serious, she called him "emo boy" when there was something important she needed to say, something she couldn't risk saying over the phone.

"I was thinking of going for a walk in Nightingale park tomorrow afternoon, but I'm a little nervous about going alone," Alix said. "Want to come with?"

Nathaniel held back a snort. Alix could easily kick the ass of anyone who tried to mess with her. "Things have been looking a little scarier lately," he said, hoping she understood that he was nervous about walking to the park alone and not just commenting on their fake walk in the park. The police were still out and about and Alix's kicking-ass capabilities wouldn't help in that regard.

"You can invite Marc, too," Alix said. "I'm sure he'd enjoy the fresh air."

"I'll ask him," Nathaniel said. "5:00?"

"Be there or I'll kick you in the dick," Alix responded in a singsong voice, hanging up before Nathaniel could react.

If she needed to talk to him, that meant something important was probably happening. Had something happened to her dad, or to Jalil? No, she didn't seem that concerned when she called. Then again, she could have been faking it.

Nathaniel looked down at the table to see the ring had disappeared again.

"Motherfucker." He stood up, looking around the room, spotting it seconds later under the table.

His phone buzzed again, and a text message from Marc popped up.

 

Marc: I'm home

Marc: Let me innnnnn

 

Nathaniel set the ring on the table. "You better stay there," he growled, pointing a scolding finger at the inanimate object before going downstairs to tell Marc of Alix's offer.

Chapter Text

Alix was already in Nightingale park when Marc and Nathaniel arrived, sitting in the branches of the large oak tree on the side.

Nathaniel took a deep breath as he stepped onto the soft grass. This was "the" hangout spot for him and his friends when he was a teenager. The tree, unofficially known as the Piss Tree since the surrounding high foliage provided adequate cover to make up for the lack of toilets around, still stood as tall and recognizable as he remembered it.

"Hey boys," Alix called, waving a hand. "Over here."

"Rose says she uses this tree to teleport into the city for grocery shopping," Nathaniel commented as he neared.

"Does she?" Alix climbed down from the branches. "Haven't seen her. She probably goes at night so she can't get caught."

"That's definitely illegal, I'd hope she's doing it at night," Marc said, glancing up and down at the massive tree.

Alix glanced at the swordsman. "Come on, let's walk," she said, patting Nath on the shoulder.

"Hey, Alix," Nathaniel said. "I know you called us here for something important, but can we talk about the sword for a second?"

"Sure," Alix said. She looked relaxed, but Nathaniel saw the slight tense in her shoulders and set in her jaw. Nathaniel glanced over to Marc, who looked like he wasn't sure what they were going to talk about, but nodded anyway.

"So, Marc has a bit more control over the sword than we first thought," Nath said, steering the group a good distance away from any other people in the park. "A few weeks ago, I went with Marc on a mission. And he ended up fighting some people."

"And you were there?" Alix grit her teeth, turning to Nath with an incredulous stare. "Nath, this is exactly what I meant by being too reckless! What the fuck?!"

The demon raised his hands. "It's okay! It's fine! He didn't hurt me."

"Much," Marc muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets. When Alix gave him a questioning look, he cleared his throat and clarified, "Turns out some emotions are...stronger than others."

Alix blinked. "Some emotions?"

Nathaniel and Marc instantly clammed up, looking away from each other. Understanding dawned in her eyes.

"Oh fuck you," she said.

"Hey, I'm not dead!" Nathaniel defended. "I made the right choices!"

"You were lucky," Alix said, glowering. "You should have stayed away."

"I'm agreeing with Alix on this one," Marc said, raising an eyebrow. "If I didn't have that kind of relationship with you beforehand, who knows what could have happened?"

"My invisibility jacket was broken and I was trying to exit! I didn't know you were there!" Nathaniel crossed his arms, turning to Alix. "Look, I just wanted to let you know that Marc's probably not going to kill me, and you don't have to be worried for me in this case."

Alix glared at him for a long moment. "I'm always worried for you, dumbass," she said. "Marc, do me a favor and make sure he doesn't get himself killed by you or anyone else, okay?"

"I'll try my best," Marc said.

Nathaniel huffed. "I can't believe you both are ganging up on me."

"It's for your own good," Alix said. "I'm honestly surprised you don't take midnight walks down Animaestro Street."

"I'm not that much of a danger magnet," Nathaniel argued.

"You are," Alix and Marc said in unison. They looked at each other in surprise.

"Wow. Woooow," Nathaniel said, raising his hands up and turning away. "I see how it is."

"It's true," Marc said, amused.

"It's not!" The demon put his hands on his hips, whirling back around to face his friends. "I do careful things! I don't go outside when it's dangerous-"

"-you don't go outside ever-"

"-Shut up." Nathaniel snapped his fingers. "I'm not dead and I think that speaks volumes of how careful I've been."

Alix shrugged. "Well, being careful was kinda why I called you."

"Hm?"

Alix glanced around quickly, checking for possible eavesdroppers. "I know you don't go out much, and I don't know how much Marc has seen, but things are starting to get pretty dangerous."

"You mean the police activity?" Marc asked.

"It's more than that." Alix looked to the swordsman. "They searched a Kitsune lady's house last week while she was at work and found she was housing a jorogumo woman and two imp twin girls. As far as I know, they all escaped, but now the police have started actively searching for any kind of criminal activity, going against protocol just to make arrests. A few days ago they arrested another Kitsune woman who had rumors of alleged tax fraud."

"Shit," Nathaniel whispered.

"The mayor's made a proposition to the council to have the neighborhood completely evicted," she said. "He says there's an 'overwhelming increase of criminal activity in Beast Town that has likely formed a community of thieves and lawbreakers'. I don't expect that he'll go far with that idea, but it's making me nervous."

"I haven't heard anything about that," Marc said, looking shocked. "I mean, I know the bounty hunters and police haven't exactly been coordinating with each other but this? Have you tried reporting them?"

"Fuck no," Alix said. "I don't want to put a target on my family!" She pointed a finger at Nath. "I want you to be even more careful than you were before. Don't go outside, don't talk to people, and for hell's sake, don't get arrested. Got it?"

Nathaniel put his hands on his hips. "Then why did you call us outside to talk-"

"I had to make sure we couldn't be eavesdropped on," Alix interrupted, then shifted her finger to point at Marc. "Make sure he stays out of trouble and don't bring trouble to him, okay?"

"You're really taking this seriously," Marc commented.

"I have every reason to take this seriously," Alix shot back. Her face may as well have been set in stone for how committed her expression was to the words she spoke.

"Fair. I'll do what I can."

"Good."

With that conversation out of the way, the rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the park together. Nathaniel wasn't really the kind of person who was into having long walks, but he had to admit the fresh air was a nice change of pace.

Marc and Alix, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying it well enough. Marc had a content smile on his face as he looked around the park, raising a polite hand to Mr. Ramier as they passed by him. The man waved his painted bird whistle with a smile and resumed talking to the pigeon that was sitting on his lap.

"Ah, I gotta be home before sundown," Alix said, glancing at her watch after a while. "Jalil found this knock-off version of chess that has ancient symbols as the pieces and he wants to play a match with me."

"Yeah, we should be getting home soon too," Nathaniel said. "See you later."

"Don't die," Alix said. "Marc, make sure he doesn't get into deep shit, even if you have to get a baby leash for him to keep him out of trouble."

Marc paused, an indecent smile curling the corners of his lips. "A leash?"

Alix glared at him. "I know where your thoughts are going, fuck you, I'm leaving." She started briskly walking away.

Nath snickered. "Bye, bitch," he called out to her.

"See ya later, fucker!" She yelled back.

"Take care," Marc said with a polite wave.

Nathaniel started heading back towards the car. "So...Alix mentioned a few scary things."

"Yeah, it makes me nervous," Marc said. "She said something about Mayor Bourgeois wanting to evict Dupont."

"Yeah, that seemed a little excessive." Nathaniel hooked his tail around Marc's waist. "Do you think it could be related to Chloe?"

"It's worth looking into, at least."

Nathaniel agreed. "I'll do some research when we get home."

"Do you want me to make dinner? We've got taquitos in the freezer. Put together some salad, and that's a good meal."

"Go for it."

"And after dinner..." The swordsman bumped his hip lightly against Nath's.

Nathaniel snorted. "Did the leash comment give you ideas?"

Marc pursed his lips. "Maybe."

"Eh, I'll try anything once."

 

~oOo~

 

"Hey Marc, come look at this for a second."

Marc looked up from the salad he was making. "What's up?"

Nathaniel was sitting in the armchair, looking at his laptop. "According to this article, Mayor Bourgeois admits the idea to evict the Dupont district was originally his daughter's. She's got to be involved with the Miracle Wasp nest!"

"So Chloe wants this place gone," Marc said, one hand on his hip. "That still doesn't prove she's working with the group outside the city, or that she's the one that took the wasp nest."

"Come on, it's Chloe, she's evil," Nathaniel whined.

"I just don't think we should jump to conclusions," Marc said, grabbing oven mitts to pull the taquitos out of the oven. "She's a suspect, yes, but we need concrete proof before we act."

Nathaniel groaned. "You want us to act? She's the mayor's daughter, Marc."

The swordsman set two plates down on the table. "Doesn't mean she can't be stabbed," he said coolly, sitting down to eat.

Nathaniel stared at him. "Wait wait wait, hold up," he raised a hand, closing his eyes. "If Chloe really was the person who was working with them...you'd actually..."

"I'd cut her throat." Marc casually poked at his salad with a fork.

Nathaniel didn't say anything for a long while. Marc stopped eating and looked up to see the half-dragon staring at him, open-mouthed.

"What?" Marc shrugged. "If she's responsible, then she got people hurt. If that's the case," he waved his fork in the air. "I don't take prisoners."

"Fucking hell," Nathaniel said, his face a mixture of awe and fear. "You know, you kinda scare me sometimes."

Marc hunched his shoulders. "Yeah." I kinda scare myself too sometimes.

There was a knocking sound from downstairs. Nathaniel tensed, closing his laptop.

"Do you want me to go check?" Marc asked, grabbing his sword where it was leaning against the counter. "Just in case it's the police."

"I'm the only one that can undo the locks," Nath said, getting up.

"Alright. Just stay behind me, okay?"

Marc made his way downstairs, one hand on his sword, the other held in a tight clutch by Nathaniel's tail. Of course, he wouldn't actually draw his sword on the police...or would he? He could easily kill a cop, ability wasn't the dilemma here. Eh, that was a moral question to file away for later. At the moment, just having a hand on the sword's hilt gave him a sense of comfort, helping him keep an air of confidence, like he was just on another mission.

He opened to stairwell door to see a familiar human standing outside the glass, knocking.

Marc didn't think he could be so happy and annoyed at the same time, but here he was, staring at Kim's dumb face pressed up against the door.

"Marc! Nath!" He could hear Kim yell against the glass. "Hey!"

Nath's tail uncurled from his hand. "Ugh, he's getting spit on my door. I have to wash that."

"I mean, it is better than the police," Marc said.

Nathaniel frowned. "Is it though? Yeah, I hear you, Kim! One sec!"

Once the locks were gone, Kim stepped in, grinning. "Hey guys! Let's talk upstairs." He walked past them, up into their living quarters, leaving the swordsman and the half-dragon watching him in astonishment, the same astonishment that would be given to a particularly ugly bug.

Nathaniel made an offended choking noise. "We don't hear anything from them for weeks, and then, and then, gah-" he hissed, eyes wild with barely restrained fury. "I am this close to choking him."

"I don't know if your hands would fit around his neck," Marc said, matter-of-factly.

The half-dragon made a frustrated growl in the back of his throat. "I'm gonna close back up, go make sure he doesn't eat my food."

Marc nodded, heading upstairs after Kim to find him in the kitchen area, taking a taquito from the tray and biting into it.

"Ah!" Kim's mouth fell open as he fanned his mouth, and Marc wrinkled his nose at the sight. "Hot!"

"Yeah, it's also not yours." Marc grabbed a hot pad and pulled the rest of the tray away from Kim. "Do you have any information? We haven't heard anything from you guys for about a month."

"Yeah, Markov has the records. Max wanted to talk to you now, he says you guys also have information about the nest that he wants to hear."

Marc sighed. "Nath, I'm putting our food in the fridge," he called. "Looks like we'll have to eat dinner later."

The loud, long groan of annoyance that came from downstairs made Marc smile fondly as he set to cleaning up, swatting Kim's hand away as he tried to sneakily grab a second taquito.

"Don't you have your own food?" He said.

"Yeah, but I'm still hungry," Kim replied instantly, as though it was a phrase he spoke often and always had at the ready.

Marc closed the fridge with an air of finality. "That's not my problem," he said, as Nathaniel walked up the steps.

"I'm guessing we're having another meeting with the boss?" Nath smoothed his shirt out, glancing wistfully at the fridge.

"Yep!" Kim grabbed his phone. "Hey Max, we're ready!" He said.

Marc knew what to expect now, but the sudden flash of blue light in the center of the room still caught him off guard. He stepped back, watching as the portal opened to a very different room from the one they'd been in before.

Nathaniel was the first to step through, then Marc, then Kim. The portal closed, and Marc blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.

The first thing he noticed was the table, a long, sleek wooden one with patterned glass in the center. There was a soft carpet under his feet, large, plush armchairs surrounding the table, and expensive gnomish-style wallpaper, patterned with gemstones that had been cut so thin you could run your hand across the wallpaper and not feel a single groove. Similar to the last room, there were no visible doors or windows.

And, of course, sitting in front of them on a couch, a tablet in his hands, was the boss himself. The light from the tablet was reflecting off his glasses, hiding his eyes.

"Hello, sir," Nathaniel said, taking a seat on one of the chairs. Marc took the seat next to him.

Kim sat down next to the boss on the couch, practically overshadowing the smaller man with his frame. Marc couldn't see his face very well in the dark, but Max didn't seem to react at all.

Markov flew overhead silently, scanning him, then Nath, before hovering next to Max's other side.

"Nathaniel Kurtzberg, Marc Anciel," the boss said, setting the tablet on the table.

Marc sighed. Well, there went his plans with Nath for tonight.

It was going to be a long evening.

Chapter Text

Nath's tail flicked against his ankle. So nice of his boss to interrupt them without a moment's notice. His grumbling stomach and grumpy feelings really appreciated it. But the fear for his boss was stronger than his annoyance, so he dutifully ignored his stomach and focused on the boss.

"Markov informed me that the two of you encountered the Miracle Wasp nest on a mission with two other bounty hunters, just last month," Max said.

Well, that confirmed it. Their shop was wiretapped. Of course, Nathaniel already knew that, but now he was starting to wonder just how much the little robot had seen.

A look from Max in his direction startled him out of his wandering thoughts.

"W-we did, sir," he said. "The queen is being held by a group of thieves somewhere between this city and Dépaysement. Ivan and Mylene are still searching for them."

"Some of the wasps have been captured and are being held in the bounty hunter's main offices in Dépaysement," Marc added.

"But the Akumas are still in possession of the queen," Max said.

Both he and Marc paused. "The what?"

"Akumas," Max said, setting his tablet on the table. "They're a large, goblin-oriented organization of criminals that frequent this region. The evidence that we've gathered confirms that this is one of their many bandit groups, gathering resources for their main family."

"Huh." Marc folded his arms, looking impressed. "Can't believe you figured it out before the authorities did."

Nath made a face. "I mean...it's the authorities. Not that hard to believe."

Marc's eyes widened. "That would also explain why they're collecting such large inventory," he muttered, almost to himself. Nath watched him as his brows furrowed. It would make sense for a bounty hunter to know of specific criminal organizations, especially if this one was as big as Max seemed to be making it out to be.

"It could provide some motive as to why they sought to control the queen," Max said.

Nathaniel's tail flicked. "Yeah. They're using the Brooch of Transmission to take control of her by force."

The gnome nodded. "I'm aware," he said. "And the brooch was formerly bought by Chloe Bourgeois, correct?"

"Yep," Nath said, sinking back into the large armchair. "We're not sure if Chloe's working with them by choice or not."

The corner of Max's lip twitched up into a smirk. "I believe we can shed some light in that regard. Markov was able to access the security cameras on the city walls, and I believe we found the person who separated from the Akumas and returned to Gallia," he said, opening a drawer and pulling a piece of paper from the desk. He slid it in front of Marc. "Does this person look familiar to you?"

The swordsman leaned forward, squinting at the paper. "I can't see in the dark," he said, after a long moment.

Max paused. "Right. Humans," he said, waving his hand. The room instantly brightened, though there was no visible light source in the area. Nathaniel blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the sudden change in light.

Marc looked up at Max. "This is the person who was working with the thieves?"

Nathaniel looked over Marc's shoulder. It was a picture from a security camera, showing a woman poking her head out of a black car. Well, she wasn't Chloe Bourgeois, unfortunately. But judging from the way Marc's breath froze, eyes scanning the picture again and again, he knew who she was.

"The only other person who could have conceivably been suspect was a delivery truck heading from Bon Mot. We trailed him, but he doesn't seem to have any connections."

"But this is Sabrina Raincomprix," Marc said, looking up. "This is one of my managers."

The boss leaned forward. "We have evidence showing that Miss Raincomprix has been in contact with the Bourgeois family for years, especially with the family's daughter. It's very likely she convinced Chloe to give her the brooch or stole it herself."

"That would also mean this Akuma branch-if you're certain that's what they are-would have information on the bounty hunter's movements," Marc murmured, tapping a finger to his chin. "Which would explain how they seem to be avoiding detection by Mylene and Ivan. But even so, what would Sabrina have to gain from this?"

"The group we're searching for doesn't seem to have any specific intent beyond the ordinary looting and stealing, customary to most bandits outside the walls. Perhaps this group has some kind of blackmail that they're using on your manager."

"You think that's the case?" Nathaniel asked.

The boss paused. "No. I don't."

Marc raised an eyebrow.

"My theory is exclusively based on intuition, but I'll have to look further into this. Until then, keep looking for information. Mr. Anciel, I want you to keep a close eye on Miss Raincomprix. Be aware of any suspicious activity."

The swordsman crossed his arms, leaning back in the chair. "I'll keep my eyes open."

Nathaniel smiled. Maybe this meeting would actually be a short one after all.

"Mr. Kurtzberg."

Oh shit.

"Your rent is due tomorrow. Kim will be picking it up in the evening."

Nathaniel gave a nod. "Is that all, sir?"

"For now." Max stood up, and the portal appeared again. "We'll talk again at a later time."

 

~oOo~

 

Marc hung back a little bit as Kim and Nathaniel started walking towards the portal. A question still lingered in the back of his mind. "Hey, Markov?" He asked, voice low.

The little robot whirred, turning to face him.

"So, you're the one who's been eavesdropping on us, right?"

"That is correct."

"Uh...so how much have you been spying on us?" Marc fidgeted, unable to look the robot in the little interface that served as its eyes. "Are you watching all the time, or...?"

"Are you referring to the sexual activity between you and Nathaniel Kurtzberg?"

Marc felt the redness rising to his face. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boss look up from his tablet, glancing at the two of them over his spectacles.

"Affirmative," the robot stated. "It is my job to observe and document your actions and words to prevent you from taking actions that would put my creator and our operation at risk."

Marc squeezed his eyes shut, grimacing. Oh gods, this was embarrassing.

"If it eases your concerns," Markov said, moving to float in front of him, "any information that I gather is confidential and can only be accessed by the boss."

Marc wanted to crawl into a hole. Nathaniel and Kim paused to look back at them, curious.

"If it makes you feel better, I would like to note your growing increase in sexual proficiency," Markov said. "You are progressing at an above-average rate."

Marc wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. "Thanks," he squeaked.

Nathaniel, Kim, and Max were all staring at him. He wanted to crawl into a hole, never come out, and fucking die.

"Would you like a statistical analysis of your-"

"No, no, I'm good," Marc choked, walking past the robot, into the portal, and as far away from the conversation as possible. "Bye."

He kept walking until he was in his room, closing the door, kicking off his shoes and burying his face under his blankets.

Nope. He was done. That's it. No more talking to people ever. This was where his life ended, with a mob boss having intimate knowledge about his fucking habits.

He could hear Nathaniel and Kim talking out in the main area, Kim sounding amused, Nath sounding annoyed. They went down to the main shop soon after, leaving Marc to huddle determinedly under his covers and pretend that hadn't happened.

He didn't realize Nath had come back upstairs until there was a knock on the door. "Marc? Can I come in?"

"Yeah," Marc said, voice muffled under the blankets.

The door opened, and he felt a hand patting his back, trying to distinguish his form under the blankets before resting on his shoulder. "I did not need to listen to Kim's weirdly extensive knowledge about sex toys for that long. Who knew that man actually had some kind of knowledge in that peanut brain of his?" He gave a small chuckle, then paused. "You okay?"

Marc pulled the covers off his face so Nathaniel could see the mortification in his eyes. "I just got my sex life analyzed in front of a mob boss. Do you think I'm okay?"

"Oof." Nath grimaced sympathetically. "Well, look on the bright side. At least it was my boss and not yours."

"Markov watches us have sex," Marc groaned. "That's weird."

Nathaniel hummed. "I don't think he 'actively' watches us," he said. "Then he wouldn't have time to do...whatever he does. I think it's more like he's just wired up to the cameras that are probably hidden in every room of this house, so he can check them whenever he wants. Besides, he's a robot. He probably doesn't care about us having sex."

Marc paused, thinking. "That's true. On the other hand, your boss has so much blackmail on us."

"Yeah, I know." Nath shrugged, sitting down on the bed. "But he's the one who got me a place to stay in the first place, so I can't really complain. Compared to some other places I've lived, 24/7 surveillance by an indifferent robot is manageable."

Something about the way he said it made Marc lift his head and face the half-dragon. As much as his mind wanted him to wallow in his own embarrassment, the way Nath's voice lowered was setting off concern alarms in his head, so he pushed his embarrassment aside and curled a little bit more toward Nath.

"Other places? Like where?"

Nath sighed, draping himself over Marc's body with a sad smile. "Oh, you know. The benches in Nightingale park, abandoned buildings, tall trees, Alix's couch, Juleka and Luka's RV, Mireille's couch-this was mostly when was I pretty young, though." His face fell, eyes distant. "When I was old enough, Luka taught me how to drive, and Alix convinced her dad to give me their old van. I slept in that for a few years, until Max made a deal with me and I got this place."

"That sounds rough," Marc said, voice soft.

"Ha," Nath said, a humorless laugh. "I've seen worse. I was lucky to have my friends to support me." He looked down, picking at the end of his tail. "Things could have gone a lot worse."

Marc reached a hand out from under his blankets to tuck the hair out of Nathaniel's eyes. The half-dragon sniffed, turned away, then looked back at him.

"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to intrude on your moment."

"It's okay," Marc said, pulling Nath down into a hug.

"If the constant surveillance is a deal-breaker, just-" Nath's voice cracked. "Just let me know, okay? If you're not comfortable living here then I'll help you find another place."

"I'm not going anywhere," Marc promised, moving his blanket out of the way so he could hug the half-dragon properly. "Besides, if you think this is constant surveillance you obviously don't know anything about my parents."

Marc could feel Nathaniel's lips press against his collarbone. "I hope I never have to," he murmured.

"I hope so too."

The quiet moment between them was suddenly interrupted as Nath's stomach growled. He pulled back, a sheepish grin on his face.

"You haven't had dinner yet?"

"I forgot," Nathaniel admitted, standing back up. He stretched his wings, practically filling the room with them. Marc always found it impressive how his wings managed to look so small when they were folded close to his back, when in reality the half-dragon had two large blanket-sized appendages with him at all times.

"I should probably finish eating dinner, too," Marc said, flopping his head back down on the pillow and making no move to get up.

Nathaniel chuckled. "I can heat yours back up for you if you'd like."

"Thanks. I'll be out in a minute."

Nathaniel left, closing the door behind him. Marc stayed, laying down among the messy blankets of his usually clean room, feeling warm and smitten.

Smitten?

Fuck.

Now that he had a word to place his feelings onto, everything seemed to click into place. He was smitten. He was absolutely smitten with his roommate/boss/closest friend and benefit.

Trying to ignore this was like trying to push an inflated beach ball under the water, his feelings kept bobbing back up to the surface no matter how many times he tried to deny it or squash them back down again.

He didn't have time to think about this sort of thing! He wasn't a child, foolishly thinking that he could find his one true love out there somewhere. Hell, if he ever went actively looking for love, it'd probably just be for tax benefits at this point.

But even as he pushed those thoughts away, standing up, getting ready to go back out to finish his food, the thoughts in his head centered on one undeniable fact.

He was smitten with Nathaniel Kurtzberg.

Chapter Text

Marc parked his motorcycle outside the Raincomprix Hunters office building, fighting down the unease in his throat.

It's fine. He'd been here before. He'd been here loads of times, submitting paperwork or sitting in at boring meetings that he hated. He'd been here so many times. He shouldn't be scared.

But ever since Max had told them that his manager was the one working with the thieves outside the city, he'd been hesitant to visit, afraid that Sabrina would somehow know that he was onto her and then frame him to get him fired, or put him in jail, or sign him up for a mission outside his skill level that would get him killed.

It'd taken him three days to actually work up the nerve and find time in his schedule to go to the office, but now that he was here, he was wondering if he should go back home and wait to work up a little bit more nerve.

No. He had a job to do.

Waving hello to the person at the front desk and flashing his hunter license, he headed upstairs, up to the mission briefing room.

The room was covered in hundreds of screens, color-coded missions scrolling by, showing ones in progress and ones still in need of picking up, ones for solo hunters and ones for teams, missions locked specifically for Independent bounty hunters, faces of wanted criminals and names of groups that he'd seen on the board his whole life slowly moving from one side of the wall to the other. Marc ignored them all. Staring at the constantly shifting screens for too long tended to give him a headache.

"Ah, Marc!"

The swordsman turned around to see Mylene approaching. Unlike her usual combat robes, she was wearing simple, unassuming casual wear, though the staff in her hand vanished any hope of her blending in, along with the goliath fiancé she always had at her side.

Ivan was wearing a large black t-shirt with a band logo on it. Marc suspected it was one of the few shirts he had, since shops didn't normally have extensive clothing options for goliaths. The shirt was still a bit too small on him, showing several inches of his midriff when he stood to his full height.

"Hey guys," Marc said, waving a hand. "How's the search been going?"

Mylene's polite smile wavered a little. "About that," she said, moving to one of the screens. At her command, the mission for Ikari vanished and was replaced as one of the boxes floated to Mylene's fingertips, opening to a file.

Marc blinked as the letters came to view. "Mission Terminated?"

"Yeah, management decided it was a waste of resources," Mylene said. "Since we don't really know where they are. We were going to contact you about it tonight, but since you're here now..."

"You tried your best," a voice said from behind them. The group turned to see Mr. Raincomprix walking in, a cup of coffee in his hand. "Your dedication is admirable, but at this point they've probably moved on to another region. Wandering bandits tend to not stay in one area for too long. The best we can do is let the other bounty hunter offices know and put faith in their hunter's abilities."

"Yes sir," Mylene and Ivan said.

"Hello, Marc," his boss said, tipping his hat towards the swordsman as he took a seat at the table, pulling up a holographic screen. "I haven't seen you in a while. Are you interested in taking a new mission?"

Marc swallowed the nervous lump in his throat. "Not today, sir," he said. "I was just hoping to follow up with Mylene and Ivan."

Mr. Raincomprix nodded, eyes scanning the digital files in front of him. "Not a problem. Make sure to take care of yourself."

"Right. Um...how is Sabrina doing?" Marc fought to keep his voice from trembling.

"Hm?" His boss's eyes flitted up to his. "Oh, she's doing well. At the moment she's taking a two-week long mission in Bon Mot, apparently there have been rumors of a group of cultists living in the underground tunnels, seemingly the cause for the sudden bouts of property damage that have been going on in that city for the past month."

Marc nodded, afraid that if he spoke Mr. Raincomprix would notice his nervousness and start asking questions.

"If you need to talk to her, I'd suggest waiting until the mission's over." Mylene pat his upper arm, the closest she could get to his shoulder. " Bon Mot's a burrow city."

"Really? How far back?"

"They started resisting modernization about 200 years ago," Mr. Raincomprix said. "No cell service, nothing even close to the technology we have today. They called for help by sending a falcon with a letter to our office!" He laughed, waving the hologram away and standing up to leave. " Take care."

Mylene sighed wistfully, leaning against the table. "Back when my family lived in a burrow city we had an aviary full of carrier pigeons right down the road. They were all sweethearts, but they kept cooing at all hours of the day and night."

"Do you ever miss living there?" Marc asked. He'd passed by burrow cities when traveling with his family, but never stayed in one.

Mylene hummed, a little blue flower blooming on her chin where she tapped it. "It's certainly quieter," she said. "And there usually aren't as many Humans. But if I hadn't left, I wouldn't have met Ivan, and I like hot showers too much to go back." She squeezed Ivan's hand, smiling. "I do miss all the wildlife, though. Maybe we can go on a vacation someday?"

"That sounds nice, hon," Ivan said.

God, they were so sappy. It was really cute.

Would he and Nathaniel act like that if they were...?

Marc shook his head. He wasn't a child reading novels about true love anymore. He hadn't even known Nathaniel for that long, only about three months. Then again, he had read stories of lovers who got together the day they met, living happily ever after. But that seemed unrealistic.

What would be a normal amount of time to know someone before you could date them?

He heard Mylene giggle, and realized with a start that his last thought was not as quiet as he'd first assumed.

"I'm not sure," Ivan said, looking contemplative. "For us it was...a year?"

"Yeah, we knew each other for about a year before we started dating," Mylene said. "If you're worried you didn't wait long enough to date Nath, that's fine, everyone has their own pace."

Marc spluttered. "W-we're not dating!"

Mylene blinked, then squeaked, turning red as a cherry. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry! I just-the moss in the cave told me what happened, so I just assumed, and I shouldn't have-"

"The moss what?"

Ivan's face had gone from contemplative to confused. "What happened?"

"Not important," Marc said, waving a hand in the air.

"Yeah, it's-it was personal," Mylene stammered. "But if you want to date him, Marc, then that's perfectly fine, I'm sure Nathaniel has feelings for you, too! Ivan and I can help if you ever need advice, okay?"

Ivan nodded.

Marc felt like he was speedrunning metamorphosis from a small, slight embarrassment of a human being to a walking cringe magnet. He gave a thumbs up, refusing to look either of them in the eyes. "Th-thanks."

Great. Now Nath's boss and two of his coworkers knew about his sex life. Marc's face felt like it was burning.

"Well, Ivan and I were thinking of taking another mission," Mylene said, noticing Marc's awkwardness and quickly changing the subject. "Do you want to join us?"

"I-not right now," Marc said, smiling apologetically. "Schoolwork and all that."

"No problem!" The dryad examined the mission board, filtering through jobs. "Ivan, what do you think of a job at a tropical resort? Apparently they've been having problems with sirens and harpies scaring away the tourists."

"Sounds nice," Ivan said, as Marc made his way out.

All in all, this wasn't really a success. He was supposed to figure out Sabrina's movements and search for any suspicious activity. Instead, he got a lot of dead ends and relationship advice.

Marc sighed. He had more important things to worry about now. Like schoolwork. Since he'd dropped out of a few classes, his workload was much less overwhelming, but still significant. At least now he had enough time to start picking up reading again. There were a few books from campus library that he'd picked to read on the bus, too, for the days when he didn't need to take his motorcycle anywhere.

They were romance novels, sure, but hey, he liked the genre. The good ones were nice and the bad ones were fun to laugh at, usually. And Nathaniel liked the genre too, so if Marc found a good one, he'd let Nathaniel borrow it for a few days before it had to be returned.

Would Nathaniel really agree to a date if he asked?

The thought made Marc's stomach twist anxiously. He didn't have the nerves to ask, not yet.

Maybe in a few more months.

 

~oOo~

 

"Uh, kid?" Nath asked, looking over the counter at the small child in a superhero t-shirt and pajama pants walking around his store. "Where are your parents?"

The child had a thumb in his mouth and was idly wandering through the shelves.

Nathaniel was panicking. Should he call the authorities? He really didn't want to attract the police to his shop, but there was an actual infant walking around, unattended in his thrift store. That was bad.

"Lollipop," the baby cooed, wandering over to his snack rack.

"Oh, no." Nathaniel rushed out from behind the counter as the baby grabbed the lower rack and started to try and climb up it to the lollipops. He picked the child up under the armpits, pulling him away as the rack started to lean forward a little from the child's weight.

"No, no lollipops," he said, moving the baby away and propping him on his hip. "You're gonna get hurt if you try to climb that."

The baby turned to look him in the face. Nathaniel saw the way the child's face scrunched up and felt a spike of horror as the child started screaming.

"WAAAAAAAAAAH!!"

Nathaniel winced at the sound, glancing out the window. If the cops saw him with a baby that wasn't his-

Oh fuck, there was a lady across the street looking at them.

"WAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!" The baby continued screaming, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. Nathaniel felt like his ears would start bleeding soon if he kept holding this baby.

The lady was running across the street, opening the door.

"Hi, is this your kid?" Nath asked, as the child screamed and writhed in his arms.

"Oh my god, thank you," the woman said, taking the crying child from his hands. "I'm so sorry, he usually doesn't run off like this-"

"It's fine!" Nathaniel said, shouting a little over the blaring alarm-like sounds that the child was still making.

"Shh, it's okay, August, mommy's here," the woman said, bouncing him on her hip. "Thank you again!"

Nathaniel held the door open for her as she walked back outside, her baby still sobbing loudly into her shoulder.

"That is a loud baby," Marc commented, leaning against the glass.

"Fuck!" Nathaniel jumped. "When did you get here?"

"I just got here." The swordsman gestured to his motorcycle. "I'm surprised you didn't hear me."

"Yeah, well," Nath grimaced. "You weren't wrong when you said the baby was loud. I think my ears are bleeding." He stepped away from the door, letting Marc inside. "So, any luck at your job?"

Marc shook his head. "None. Mylene and Ivan's mission was called off, and Sabrina's taking a two-week long mission in Bon Mot."

"Damn. So we're back to square one." Nathaniel crossed his arms. "I really don't know where to go from here."

"Well, we could just wait until Sabrina comes back," Marc said, shrugging. "It's only two weeks."

"True." Nathaniel shrugged, turning to busy himself with fixing the snack rack. Thankfully, nothing had fallen over, but there were several items that had gotten misaligned. "Was Sabrina the one that called off Ivan and Mylene's mission?"

"Well, it would have been a group decision by upper management, but Sabrina might have been the one to bring it up."

"Fair enough." Nathaniel raised his voice a little, side-eying the security camera all the while. "Mylene and Ivan aren't looking for the Akumas anymore," he half-yelled at the device. "So, y'know, if 'someone' wanted to go find them they'd have to do it themselves now. Just saying."

"And please stop watching us have sex it's really weird," Marc also called out, quickly glancing behind them afterwards in alarm to make sure the door was closed.

Nathaniel didn't expect an answer but was still a little disappointed when there was no reply. "I think they got the message," he said.

Marc stretched. "Well, we've got two weeks before we have to do anything."

"You say that as if we didn't just spend the last three weeks waiting for something to happen," Nathaniel said.

"I'm always a fan of not being overwhelmed by work. Speaking of work," Marc turned on his heel to face the demon. "Any deliveries today?"

"Quite a few, actually," Nath said. "One of them's for Luka, too. I know you'll like that one."

Marc chuckled. "Hey, your loss if you're not getting some."

"True," Nath grinned, tail flicking against Marc's ass with a light slap. He couldn't blame the swordsman for enjoying Luka's company. Maybe they should try a threesome sometime.

Filing that thought away for later, Nathaniel grabbed the rest of the deliveries from the back.

"This is a lot of clothes," Marc commented, raising an eyebrow as Nath pulled bag after bag from the back.

"You have no idea how many clothes get donated," Nathaniel said, throwing the fourth bag into the car trunk. "But every few months or so, I get a large order from an elf named Ali Achu. He works with some of the charities around here, donating the clothes in good condition and turning the ones with more wear-and-tear in them into blankets for homeless shelters and local charities."

"That's nice," Marc said, carrying two bags under his arms and navigating his way carefully through the store.

"He's one of the few rich people I actually like," Nathaniel said, collapsing the seats in the back to make more trunk room. "He supports small businesses, he's not a stuck up bitch ass motherfucking shit stain on the side of the earth like another elf I could mention," Nathaniel helped Marc load the rest of the bags and boxes into the truck. "And he's shorter than me."

Marc raised an eyebrow. "The fact that he's shorter than you weighs into this?"

"He doesn't look down on me. Besides, most elves are tall as fuck. It's nice to meet someone who you can talk to without hurting your neck from looking up so much." Nathaniel closed the trunk with a slam.

"I don't think the problem is that elves are tall as fuck," Marc said, grinning. "I think you're just short."

"Fuck you," Nath said, crossing his arms. There was no venom behind his words, and by the mischievous glint in Marc's eye, he knew, too.

"See you in a bit," Marc said, patting Nath on the cheek as he walked by.

"Don't die," Nath called back, before heading inside where there was air conditioning and a place to sit down.

There was a little ring with a green gem on his seat.

Nathaniel gave an exasperated sigh. "Why don't you stay in your box?" He chided, picking up the ring and turning it in his fingers. With all the teleporting it did, it was a miracle this thing hadn't gotten lost already.

He sat down, setting it on the table and pulling out some chalk. He had time, he'd had a bit of practice, maybe now he could finally disenchant it.

Slowly, carefully, he began to draw runes around the small ring. The runes stuck to the counter and began to glow, a dim, red color that accented the green gem beautifully.

He began the vocal section, a low chant in an ancient tongue, words that he'd memorized and practiced in the mirror over and over, but were still thick and heavy on his tongue from the strange accents.

There was a light hum as one set of runes was completed, hovering into the air and turning blue. Nathaniel's breath shook in excitement, but he kept going, continuing to the second and final section.

This was where he normally messed up. His hands were starting to shake from the nerves, barely managed to keep his voice steady. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead as he focused, not daring to blink, while he recited the final stanza, the final few words-

He finished the incantation, the runes turned a brilliant white and shattered into a sparkling shower of white lights, fizzing out into nothingness.

"Yes!" Nathaniel dropped the chalk, wiping his forehead with a sleeve.

He'd done it! He'd completed the spell!

Almost laughing from the exhilaration, he looked down at the ring-

-and it wasn't there.

It felt like he'd taken a frost bolt to his chest, freezing his excitement and joy momentarily, replacing it with suspicion and anxiety.

Slowly, he looked around, turning in his seat.

The ring was sitting in the box behind his desk.

"Oh, fuck you," Nath sighed, going to unlock the box and pull the ring out again. He could still feel the enchantment inside of the ring if he concentrated, like an artificial magic heartbeat.

The spell had worked, so why wasn't the ring disenchanted?

Maybe because it was a spell for minor disenchantments. This ring could be a lot more powerful than he thought.

There could be more to this ring than he realized. He hummed, spinning it on the counter. The person who sold it to him said it was just a teleporting ring, but maybe they were wrong. After all, when he wasn't focusing on it, the ring would sometimes teleport to places where he could see, almost like it was trying to get his attention. And when he was focusing on it, the ring tended to teleport just far enough away to make him search for it, like a child playing hide and seek.

He compared the width to one of his fingers. It was a little small, but-

Was he actually considering putting on the magic ring?

Fuck no. That was a bad idea on so many levels. That was how people lost fingers, or got cursed forever, or shit like that.

Nathaniel eyed the ring suspiciously. The green gem was almost the exact shade of Marc's eyes, a thought that made his heart leap suddenly.

Nathaniel pulled out his phone, calling Alix. He didn't have to wait long for her to pick up.

"Hey, what's up?"

"Hey Al," Nath said, peering at the barely visible runes on the inside of the ring. "Can I use the museum's identifying scanner?"

"Did you get something interesting?"

Nathaniel let the ring rest in his palm. "Not really. It's more of a hunch."

There was a moment of silence on the other end for a while. "I'll let you and Marc stop by tonight, 8 o'clock."

"Well, that's assuming Marc wants to come with me," Nath said.

"He fucking better," Alix replied. "We're not breaking into the museum without someone to cover your ass."

Nathaniel was tempted to make a joke about Marc doing more than covering his ass or something along those lines, but he could practically feel the glare Alix was giving him through the phone and decided against it. "Alright. I'll check with him when he comes home. Bye."

"Take care," Alix replied, hanging up.

Nathaniel was about to go back to examining the ring when he got a text from Marc.

 

Marc: There's a gate around Ali's mansion how do I get in

Nath: Theres a rose with a button under it

Marc: The flower is a reciever?????

Nath: yeh

Marc: Why???

Nath: Cuz fancy I guess

Marc: I don't trust magic plants >:(

Nath: sounds like a u problem

Marc: It's a we problem

Marc: Mylene knows we fucked in the cave because there was moss there

Nath: wait really

Marc: I hate plants now

Nath: Valid

Nath: Not an exhibitionist? :3

Marc: >:(((((

Nath: btw can you come with me to the museum at 8? Alix is gonna be waiting for us

Marc: ?

Nath: I wanna get a magic item identified

Marc: How long is it going to be and can I bring schoolwork

Nath: Yeah sure

Nath: I don't know how long it'll take

Marc: ok

Nath: Thank u <3

 

Nathaniel looked back down at the ring. Green. Like Marc's eyes.

He kept the ring with him for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

The Gallia Museum of History wasn't a small building by any means. It was well-funded and had some very notable historical items under its roof, which also made it very difficult to break into.

Fortunately, Nathaniel didn't need to break in, since Alix had the keys.

"Wave hi to the security cameras," Alix said, waving hello as she passed through the dark, empty lobby. Marc and Nathaniel did as they were told, sheepishly grinning at the camera staring directly at them.

"Offices are in the back," Alix said. "So you guys get a fun little free sneak peek of a few exhibits on the way."

Even though he'd done this many times before for some of his magic items, it always creeped Nathaniel out, walking in the dim light through rows of plaques and replicas dedicated to different eras.

"That's a big statue," Marc commented, looking up at the giant stone carving of a Human with a crown and a fairy woman, standing together. The dim light of the museum made them look intimidating, an imposing guardian duo over the rest of the items nearby.

"That would be the statue of Prince Agreste and the Ladybug," Alix said, giving it a glance as she walked by. "One of the few historical artifacts in this region that survived the burning storms a few hundred years back. Fun fact, Prince Agreste was the original holder of Blanc."

"Huh. Cool." Marc patted the sword on his hip. "Look, Blanc, it's your old owner," he muttered, barely loud enough for Nathaniel to hear. Nath grinned at the swordsman's little joke.

"There are legends that say Prince Agreste fell in love with the fairy, who only ever gave her name as Ladybug. Fey rules were a lot different in that time, you weren't allowed to give your real name," Alix explained.

"So what happened to her?" Marc asked, looking curious.

"Well, after Prince Agreste ended up with Blanc and became an all-crazy-murder-person, Ladybug tried to defend the people from him, and tragically fell with the rest of the kingdom. Once he realized what he'd done, the Prince then set the sword against a chair and fell on it in his grief."

"Yikes."

"That's the story that the general populace knows, anyway," Alix said. "But I don't think it's entirely true. I think Ladybug either gave up her life to seal the sword Blanc, or she never died in the first place. No one's found her body, after all, and someone had to have sealed the sword. Who else could do it but a super powerful hero?"

Nathaniel bit his lip, looking up at the statue. He couldn't blame Marinette for not wanting to be found, to let her legends die with her title. If being a tailor was what made her happy, he wasn't going to spoil that for her. Still, she did look very pretty in traditional Feywild clothes.

"After she died, some nobles gave her the honorific of a Lady, true to the Prince's wishes," Alix said. "This is notable since before then, it was very rare for a Mythic to be given a status of noble blood in the Earth realm, but most people forget about that because then they'd have to call her Lady Ladybug, and most people weren't a fan of that so...that whole part of her story kinda got erased from public history-well, what little bit of story we have left from that area."

"She looks badass," Marc commented, slowing his pace a little.

"You should hear some of the legends they have about her!" Alix spread her arms wide, before dropping them at her sides. "Of course, most of her stories are labeled as fictional, even though we have proof of the stories being written from her era and there's actual evidence that some of the stories are real. But nooo, we can't have good Mythic role models unless they fit Human narrative." She gave an annoyed huff. "She used to be known as the Hero of Creation, but now most people just know her as the Prince's side piece."

"Oof." Nathaniel winced.

"But enough of my bitching," Alix said, continuing to lead them through the exhibits. "You can hear all of my ranting while whatever you've got gets identified. Speaking of which, what do you got?"

"It's a ring," Nath said, feeling for the object in his pocket. Thankfully, it hadn't teleported away. "Some of the runes on it are Elemental, but I'm not sure from which realm. And there are runes here that I don't recognize at all."

"Eh, magic from the Elemental planes tends to get mixed and matched," Alix said. "That's what makes their magic so versatile."

"Neat," Nathaniel said. "I tried to disenchant it with a minor dispelling, but it didn't work, so I think it might be more powerful than I first thought."

Alix hummed. "It could also be that your spell just sucked."

"Rude."

Alix unlocked a door in the back, turning to look at them. "Where's Marc?"

Nathaniel turned around. Marc was far behind them, staring at the exhibits with wide eyes, mouth agape.

"Marc," Nath called. The swordsman's eyes snapped to him and he instantly looked sheepish.

"Sorry, I got distracted," he said, jogging up to meet them.

"We can go to the museum sometime when it's open," Nath said. "Okay?"

"Don't your shop hours conflict with that?" Alix asked.

"Eh, I can close the shop on one of the weekends, it's fine," Nath said, waving a hand.

"And you wonder why most of your revenue comes from online," Alix said, looking unimpressed.

Nathaniel walked past Alix, tail slapping childishly against the ground. "I'm usually consistent with my hours," he said. "I just make a few exceptions sometimes."

Alix looked at him with wide eyes, before scrunching her nose up and giving a loud, very fake sneeze into her arm.

Nath made a disgusted face. "What the fuck was that?"

"Sorry," Alix said, wiping her nose. "I'm just allergic to your bullshit. Anyway, the machine's just through here."

He could hear Marc stifling a laugh behind him, but Nathaniel didn't turn around, walking determinedly to the large, ancient machine in the center of the room. There was a large pedestal at the center of the machine, big enough to fit an average-sized human. The objects surrounding the pedestal looked like nightmare fuel, pipes and wires and sinister-looking red lasers all hovering over the center like a spider's legs curled over its belly.

"You know the drill," Alix said. "Pay up."

Wordlessly, Nathaniel pulled a gold ten-piece from his pocket, setting it into Alix's waiting hand. He stepped up onto the pedestal, delicately placing the ring in the center, and quickly backed away.

"You sure it's not just gonna teleport out?" Marc asked, as Alix stepped forward.

"The machine has an anti-magic field that activates for that specific purpose," Alix said, heading to the digital interface that was nestled in the middle of what seemed like a hundred different old buttons and levers. There was a whirring sound as the old machine came to life, the spider-like appendages moving and circling the ring, scanning it.

"Alright," Alix said, watching as information flashed across the screen. "It's running tests now. Since it's small, I'm going to guess this'll take about an hour."

"Cool. Marc looked around. "Are there any lights in here? And an outlet where I can plug in my laptop?"

"It's only going to be for an hour," Nath said. "How bad's your laptop battery?"

"It's not bad, but I don't like using it when it's not charging," Marc said, hooking his thumbs under his backpack straps.

"There's a couch with an outlet over there," Alix said, pointing to the far corner. "Nath, can you get the lights?"

"On it," Nath said, though he didn't really know where the switch was.

It took him a while, and Alix had to point it out to him, but he found the switch. The lights turned on, illuminating the large, empty chamber they were in, fluorescent lights all too bright in the eerie quiet.

Marc got his homework organized on the desk next to the couch, and after a while, Nathaniel went to sit next to him.

It was a little chilly in the room, so Nathaniel wasn't surprised when Marc started to slowly lean into his touch.

"Get your tail out of the way," Alix said, grabbing the appendage and pulling it away to sit next to him on his other side. She huddled into her jacket, eyes flicking to the giant moving contraption.

"My tail goes wherever it damn pleases," Nath said, flicking it in the air. It landed on Marc's knee and he absentmindedly brushed it off, eyes fixed on whatever he was looking up on his laptop.

Nathaniel sighed, curling his tail up into his lap. Fishing his phone out of his skinny jeans, he nestled into his wings and prepared to waste the next hour away.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc had been putting off researching for one of his papers for a while, and was hoping that this hour would force him to get his shit together and actually focus on looking up stuff.

But then Alix and Nathaniel started talking, and Marc found his attention wavering. Researching long, boring debates about whether Humans that had been infected with Lycanthropy or Vampirism were classified as Monsters now was...kind of depressing. The few articles he could find about it all seemed on the fence on whether or not it counted as a disease or transmutative magic, mostly focusing on ways to keep yourself safe and possible 'cures' for the afflictions-which tended to usually just be ways to hide your symptoms from the general populace.

"I saw Mr. D'argencourt the other day," Alix said, as the three sat together on the couch.

"Oh, really?" Nathaniel lifted an eyebrow. "How is he?"

"Well, he says he hasn't been able to get a job as a gym teacher anywhere else after what happened at our school," Alix said. "But now he does fencing classes and says he's the happiest he's ever been."

"That's nice," Nath said, smiling. "At least one of our old teachers got something good from that."

Marc looked at them curiously. "I'm guessing something happened at your school?"

"Something, yeah," Alix said, scratching the back of her neck. "Dad homeschooled us after that, I think he was more traumatized than we were."

Judging by the way Alix was looking at him, she had a story to tell, for better or for worse. It probably couldn't be worse than scrolling through public forums full of assholes saying "the only place a werewolf should go is to the dog pound" and other unsavory comments.

Marc sighed, setting his laptop back down. "Is it a fun story or an 'I'm going to have nightmares listening to you two' kind of story?"

Nathaniel leaned into Marc's shoulder. "The nightmare kind."

The swordsman settled into the couch. "Great."

"So," Alix said, before he could make an excuse not to listen, "We used to have this teacher named Miss Bustier."

"Bustier? As in the lingerie?"

Nath snorted. "Believe me, we all made jokes about that at some point."

"When you put a bunch of kids who just got into high school in a room with a homeroom teacher named Miss Bustier, it's basically inevitable," Alix said. "But, tragic name coincidence aside, she was actually an amazing teacher. Without her, Nath and I wouldn't have met."

Marc turned to Nathaniel, who had a glassy, far away look in his eyes. He was smiling a little, but his fingers were digging into the fabric of his jeans.

"I don't think I ever told you how she found me," Nath said, turning his head a little to acknowledge Alix.

"You didn't."

Nathaniel shivered, looking up at the ceiling. "It was raining," he murmured. "I remember that. I was cold, and I was hungry, and there was a storm coming in, so I ended up hiding in a dumpster, trying to stay warm. I remember the lid opening, and this lady with red hair looking in at me. Now, normally, when people saw me, they'd look shocked, or scared, or disgusted, but she just looked at me with the kindest eyes I've ever seen and said, 'you look like you're in need of a hot shower and a meal'."

"Nath," Alix said, "You know that's how kids get kidnapped, right?"

"Hey, I was starving, and she was friendly. Sue me. Anyway, she let me in her house, made me food, talked with me, and let me sleep on her couch, so I was basically ready to die for this lady if she asked me to." Nathaniel gave a low chuckle. "Then her wife woke up the next morning and chased me out of the house with a pair of scissors."

"Yeah, that tracks," Alix said. "Miss Mendeleiev never really gave off 'ask questions first' vibes."

"Oh, I was terrified of her from day one. But Miss Bustier wanted to help me, so we came to a compromise, and they got me enrolled in school, so I could get an education and at least one free meal a day."

"It sounds like you really liked her," Marc said.

Nathaniel turned to Marc. "I did," he said, the corners of his eyes crinkled to make what Marc could only describe as a mournful smile. "She was the closest thing I've ever had to a mother figure."

"Was?"

"She's long dead now," Alix said. "Well, more accurately, she was dead before we ever met her." Seeing Marc's confusion, she sighed. "Caline Bustier died in a car crash when she was twenty-three. Her wife, Miss Mendeleiev, was a practitioner of all kinds of magic, and when Miss Bustier died, she began to focus on more Necromancy-based spells, which are, simply put, illegal as fuck."

Marc blinked, still confused.

"Miss Bustier was a zombie," Nath clarified.

"Oh." Marc straightened. "That's...that's possible?"

Alix nodded. "Like I said, very illegal. But possible. See, in order to keep Miss Bustier's body from decomposing, Miss Mendeleiev needed a steady supply of fresh, healthy blood for spell components. And there's a lot of blood to be found in a high school. A vial or two from the kids of a low-income neighborhood won't get noticed by the police."

"So, Miss Bustier became our homeroom teacher, and Miss Mendeleiev taught science," Nathaniel said. "Every few weeks, Miss Mendeliev took some of our blood "for experiments", but other than that, things were pretty normal. Miss Bustier may have given some of the coldest hugs I've ever felt, but her personality was warm and full of passion for teaching."

"I thought zombies were..." Marc paused, suddenly recalling the last time he'd assumed Monsters were evil.

"Most professionals claim that zombies don't have souls," Alix said. "That they're just animated husks that will search out fresh blood to keep themselves alive. And even if it's true that some Necromancers have used zombies to make nearly invulnerable armies before, the idea that they don't have souls is still mostly speculation."

"So she could have been alive after all?"

Alix shrugged. "I don't know. All I know is when the police learned a zombie and a Necromancer were teaching a class of high schoolers, they stormed the building and dragged Miss Mendeleiev away, then...they came for Miss Bustier."

Marc felt goosebumps rising under his skin, partially from the cold, but mostly from the look in Alix's eyes.

"It was almost the end of the school day," Nath said, resting his chin in his hands. "The police came in, surrounded her, but she just sat there, calmly smiling, eyes still as kind as they'd ever been. I remember..." he paused, let out a trembling breath. "I remember hearing Miss Mendeleiev screaming as they dragged her away, insisting that Miss Bustier was alive, that she had a soul."

Alix patted the half-dragon's shoulder.

"I've always wondered if she did," Nathaniel said. "Juleka thinks so, that's why she's studying Necromancy herself. And, Miss Bustier was so kind, so caring, if it wasn't for the runes under her false skin patches, no one would have known she wasn't a human anymore."

"Well," Alix crossed her arms. "If you asked me who the soulless one was; Miss Bustier, sitting at her desk and reminding us all to stay calm, and that she...loved us...and the police, who tore her limb from limb while she sitting there, in front of us-if you wanted me to tell you which one was soulless," Alix paused, looking down at her shaking hands, then to Marc. "I wouldn't have said it was the zombie."

Marc looked at the two of them. "That's...a lot."

Nathaniel snorted a little. "That's one way of saying it. Hell, saying it out loud...we really went through something fucked up, didn't we?"

"We should've gotten therapy or something." Alix leaned back, shaking her head. "Anyway, blatant subject change-how long does your ring have left to be identified?"

Nathaniel shrugged. "I don't know, it's not my machine."

Alix rolled her eyes, standing up to go look at the interface.

Marc was still a little at loss for words. Alix hadn't exaggerated, he was probably going to have nightmares about this. "Do you need...a hug, or something?"

The two looked at him. Nathaniel made an "eh" motion with his hand. "I mean, it happened years ago, so...I mean, I'll take a hug, but it's not like we can really do anything...okay," he said, words trailing off as Marc leaned forward and hugged the half-dragon.

Alix looked back at them, eyes softening, the jaded, almost combative exterior fading for a moment before she straightened her shoulders and looked back at the machine.

Nathaniel sighed, relaxing in Marc's arms. "Thanks," he murmured, head tilting to rest more comfortably under Marc's chin.

The smooth texture of his horns felt oddly pleasant against his neck, but Marc made sure to stay away from the nubs of the horns that ended near the back of the half-dragon's skull. Nathaniel let out a small noise, probably involuntary, legs and tail curling up onto the couch until he was leaning fully into Marc, almost curled up on his lap.

Marc didn't mind at all. In the chilly room, Nathaniel's ever-constant warmth was welcome, and the swordsman found himself nodding off, eyes drifting shut and slowly blinking open again in a hazy cycle between rest and wakefulness, the rest growing heavier on his eyelids with every deep, soft breath.

 

Chapter Text

"Have you two been sleeping okay?"

Alix's voice roused Marc back to wakefulness. The pink-haired woman was standing over them both, hands on her hips. Behind her, the machine had stopped moving, its appendages returned back to their original state.

Had they really fallen asleep? What time was it now?

Nathaniel yawned, pulling away. "I can tell you what we have been doing instead of sleeping," he murmured, a shit-eating grin widening as he rubbed one eye.

Alix's concern vanished abruptly, replaced with a look of disgust. "Well, excuse me for trying to look out for your health."

Nathaniel smiled at her. "You knew when we became friends that I'd spend every moment making your life hell," he said, a teasing coo in his voice.

Alix reached over his head, tugging at one of his horns affectionately. "I know, but you're still an asshole."

"Counterpoint," Nathaniel mumbled, pushing her arm away, "We're both assholes. It's not anyou, it's anus."

Marc snorted.

"Anyway, do you want to know what this does or not?" Alix waved the ring in front of Nath's face.

Nathaniel snapped awake at that, standing up to snatch it from her hands. "What does it do?"

"I don't know, I haven't read it yet," Alix said, pulling a receipt-like paper from her pocket. "Here."

Nathaniel sat down, reading over the paper with eager eyes. Marc peeked over his shoulder as the half-dragon began to read aloud.

"An emerald bloodstone affixed to a Night Platinum band. Bloodstone is currently unused. Oh, it's a bloodstone!"

Marc frowned. "Bloodstone?"

"They're enchanted gemstones that absorb someone's blood for magic purposes," Nathaniel explained. "I guess that's why my disenchantment kind of worked, then. I managed to clean out whatever was in the bloodstone, but didn't get rid of the enchantment as a whole."

"Night Platinum is from the Stone Realm, right?" Alix looked over the ring. "That stuff's pretty much impossible to break. And expensive, too."

"Yeah, no wonder I couldn't pry the emerald out," Nath said. "Hold on, the name was engraved in its runes, according to this. 'Ring of Life Bonding'."

Marc let out a low whistle. "That sounds pretty powerful."

"When the bloodstone is activated by a humanoid, the ring can then be gifted to another humanoid. After putting on the ring, it binds with the flesh and cannot be removed unless the bloodstone is deactivated again through a disenchantment spell or a bloodstone solvent. Yeesh, that's scary."

"But like, what if you cut off their hand?" Marc asked. "Would the ring still be stuck to their finger, or would it not count as a full humanoid anymore?"

Nathaniel raised his eyebrows, but continued reading. "Once the ring has bonded, the humanoid will share a lifespan with the humanoid who activated the bloodstone, maturing at the same rate. If the humanoid who activated the bloodstone dies, the one holding the ring will...also die."

"Holy shit," Alix said. "That's...that's not just powerful, that's early Arcanum ages of powerful. How is that possible? What kind of magic is it?"

"Hold on, hold on," Nath said, quickly skimming to the end. The half-dragon's fingers froze, eyes practically bulging out of his sockets. "Holy shit. Alix. Alix."

Alix rushed to his side, crawling over Marc's knees to get to the paper. Marc leaned back, letting the two of them do their own...magic thing.

"Craftwork is Elemental, enchantment is...Astral?" Alix shook her head. "That can't be right."

"What's Astral magic?" Marc asked, trying to find a view that Alix's entire body wasn't blocking.

Alix stepped back, grabbing the arm of the couch. "Astral magic is fucking god magic, Marc," she hissed, grabbing a chunk of her hair in her hands. "This is definitely pre-Arcanum, no one's been able to reach the Astral Plane for-that shit's worth billions, at the very least. I mean, ignoring the whole this is an artifact that's outlived planets aspect, do you know how much money a Human would pay to be able to bond their lifespan to someone like an elf, or a dragon?"

Marc looked at the small ring, then back up at Alix. "What do you mean?"

"Elves, dragons, demons-they're races that can live for thousands of years, even longer," Alix said, her face a complicated mix between horrified and excited. She looked at Marc. "If someone like you or me was wearing that ring, and someone like Nath activated the bloodstone, you'd essentially never be able to die of old age."

Marc blinked, the potential of the ring dawning on him like gravity dragging a meteor towards a city. "Oh."

Nathaniel looked stunned, ring frozen between his fingers, the paper in his other hand.

"Wait, there's more," Marc said, grabbing the paper and reading it. "If the ring is unbonded, it can teleport short distances, gravitating towards a creature with a long lifespan." He looked at Nath. "So you're telling me that the ring likes you because you can live thousands of years?"

"Millions of years, technically," Nathaniel answered, eyes still affixed to the ring.

"What the fuck?" Marc put a hand to his head, as though trying to slow the thoughts swirling in his brain. "What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuuuuu-how old are you now?"

"Uhhhhh-"

"Nathaniel. Kurtzberg. How old are you?"

Nathaniel seemed to blink free of his trance, turning to Marc. "Uh...23."

Marc paused, squinting, trying to find any hint of a joke or teasing tone in his voice. "Like...23...thousand years old?"

The half-dragon shook his head. "Nope. 23."

"Most dragons take hundreds of years to mature," Alix said, hands on her hips. "But Nathaniel's a half-dragon, so I guess he matures like a human until adulthood but still has a dragon's lifespan. Lucky him."

"Oh god, this is bringing up so many questions!"

"You've worked with Mythics before, haven't you?" Nathaniel squinted. "Like Mylene and Ivan! Dryads live for a couple centuries, but goliaths have the same lifespan as humans."

"I never thought about this before," Marc said, dropping his head in his hands and staring at the ground. "Mylene's gonna outlive Ivan-holy crap, you're gonna outlive all of us, aren't you?"

"Eh, it's fine," Alix said, shrugging. "Nath and I used to talk about it all the time as kids. At some point you just gotta accept the inevitability that some people just live longer, and what's important is making the most of the time that you have."

"I don't know how this never occurred to me before," Marc said. "I mean, I didn't really know any Mythics until I left home, but-"

"Well, that's why it's never occurred to you before," Alix stated, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. Even if Nath's special and gets to live until the end of the world or something, at least I'll be here to grow old with you. Hopefully."

"Thanks," Marc said, not comforted at all. His mind was still struggling to comprehend the absolute mindfuck of new information he'd just received.

"I don't want to think about that," Nath said, frowning. "And I guess I'm gonna have to get an enchanted box to keep this from teleporting away."

"Yeah. You don't want to fucking lose that. Gods, my Dad would kill to have an Astral artifact in his museum...hey, maybe you could bond it to one of us," Alix said, leaning forward and slinging an arm around Marc. "Which one of us do you love more?"

Marc stilled. Love? It's true, he had feelings for the half-dragon (whether or not those feelings were requited was a whole other issue that he was trying not to think about), but Alix and Nathaniel had known each other for years. They had familial love, but Marc and Nathaniel had only known each other for a few months.

"No, don't do that," Nathaniel whined. "Don't make me choose!"

Alix laughed. "I'm teasing," she said, poking Nathaniel in the chest with a finger.

"Not funny," Nath said, pouting and crossing his arms.

"Although, seriously speaking," Alix patted Marc on the shoulder. "If you did have to choose, I'd want you to choose Marc."

Marc's heart stuttered, tripped, and flatlined for a good three seconds.

"What?" He and Nath said in unison, both looking up at the pink-haired woman.

Alix shrugged, stepping away from Marc to scratch her nose. "I've found it's more fun to learn about history than to live through it. Besides, that would mean I'd outlive Jalil and Dad. I can't do that. Theoretically, if you have to choose, don't pick me."

"Stop that." Nathaniel glowered. "I'm not thinking about it, I'm not making a choice, and I'm not going to think about any of what you just said. I am, however, going to be keeping this really expensive and powerful ring." He turned it over in his hand, pausing. "The bloodstone was cleaned, so it shouldn't bond to my finger, right?"

"Try it," Alix said.

Nathaniel peered into the emerald, as though trying to look for flecks of blood, then slipped it on his finger. "Well, it's not sticking," he said, after a moment of fiddling with the ring. "Thank fuck. Oh hey, it shifts to fit my finger. That's handy. Now it shouldn't teleport away."

"It does make me wonder who it was bonded to before," Marc said, frowning. "If the person who activated the bloodstone was already dead when someone else put the ring on, would they just die instantly?"

"That is a horrifying thought and I'm not going to consider it," Nathaniel said, standing up. "Ready to go home?"

Marc stretched, moving to pack up the schoolwork he had set up and done very little of. "Yeah, I guess," he said.

 

~oOo~

 

Even though he said he wouldn't think about it, Nathaniel couldn't help letting his thoughts wander back to the ring.

"If you want, I can think of something to help distract you," Marc whispered in his ear as they stepped back into Hidden Treasures.

"Okay," Nath said, but he looked down at where the ring was on his finger and felt his thoughts wavering again.

The powers that it held were scary to think about. True, extending someone's lifespan to make them live longer seemed to be what the ring was made for, but what would happen if the ring was put on someone who'd lived for thousands of years but the bloodstone was connected to a human? A malicious person could steal someone's whole life away in an instant. It made him wonder what kind of being from the Astral Planes had made this, and why they'd done it. Was it to give another person a longer lifespan or to take it away?

He tried to shake the feelings away, and when Marc placed a hand on the small of his back, fingers playing with the tender spot at the base of his tail, Nath let himself be led back to his own bedroom, hoping that a night with Marc would help him forget the apprehension that seemed to have settled deep into his mind. He even locked the ring in a box under his bed in a vain hope that not being able to see it would be able to distract him from the sheer enormity of what he'd learned.

"Hey," Marc said, snapping him back to reality. "Your eyes glazed over for a second."

"Sorry," he mumbled, letting Marc push him down on the bed.

Rather than climbing on top of him, however, Marc moved to lay down next to him, green eyes piercing in the dark. "You look lost in thought," he said, in the way that seemed to invite conversation.

Nathaniel quickly realized that Marc was waiting for him to answer, and sat up, propping himself up against the pillows. "It's...the ring," he said, and even though he'd locked it away just moments ago, he glanced over to his dresser and wasn't surprised to see the ring there, gem glinting in the everburning candle's light.

"That's creepy," Marc commented. His finger trailed down Nath's spine, pausing between his wings, curiously exploring the way the wing muscles contorted his back.

"I don't know what to make of it," Nathaniel admitted. "It's incredibly powerful. I feel like it's beyond me."

"Stronger than the Feather of Sentience or the Brooch of Transmission?" Marc asked, his hand rubbing idle circles against the demon's spine. "In my opinion, the brooch and the feather are stronger, since their abilities are more versatile."

"Well, the brooch and the feather are only as strong as their holders," Nath said, turning over to face Marc. "And they are strong, but Astral magic is something different entirely. This ring...if the bloodstone activator dies, the person wearing the ring dies, too," he said. "That's what worries me. Something that can kill another person just like that is incredibly dangerous."

"Pretty much anything can kill another person 'just like that' depending on how you use it," Marc said. "I get why you're anxious, though I don't really understand magic stuff like you or Alix, but in my opinion, the bloodstone seems to rely on trust. I think it's for putting your life in the hands of someone else and trusting that they'll keep you safe. And it's in safe hands with you."

"Is it though?" Nathaniel gave the swordsman a pained look. "The Akumas who took the Miracle Wasp nest also have the brooch, because I sold it to someone like Chloe. For all I know, they could have the Feather of Sentience, too! I don't know if I can be trusted with things like this!"

"Hmm," Marc tapped his chin. "Mylene and Ivan did say something about fighting a stone golem. Would the Feather of Sentience be able to make something like that?"

"I don't know," Nath said, distressed. "Like I said, its powers are reflective of the holder, and the more powerful the conjuration, the harder it is to control. I don't know if it would be easier to tame a stone golem or make one. There's...there's a lot of unanswered questions, and they're all making me nervous."

"Well, we can't find answers right now," Marc said, shifting his body closer. "But we can find them later, okay?"

Marc looked so earnest, so sure, Nathaniel found it hard not to be persuaded by the swordsman, especially when Marc's hand began to wander lower, thumb teasing the waistband of his pants.

He sighed, smiling as Marc took that sigh as an indication to move closer, faces almost inches apart. "Okay," he whispered, before leaning forward to close the gap.

To his surprise, Marc moved back before he could meet the other's lips. He blinked at the swordsman, confused, while Marc sat up and positioned himself between the demon's knees.

"Let's see what I can do to help you take your mind off things," Marc said, fingers working on unbuttoning Nath's pants. It seemed like he hadn't noticed Nathaniel was going in for a kiss.

Well, a kiss between the legs wasn't unwelcome either.

"I think you should keep the ring with you," Marc commented, after a pause. "It's better than accidentally losing it if the ring decides to follow someone with a longer lifespan."

"I thought you were trying to take my mind-ngh-" Nath's sentence was cut short as Marc took his still-hardening cock in his hands and started to pump it slowly from base to tip.

"I will soon enough," Marc said, smiling. "Don't worry about that."

Nath's watched, eyes riveted to the pink of Marc's lips, the flashes of the swordsman's tongue, and then all thoughts were vanishing from his mind as Marc brought his lips to the demon's cock, replacing everything that was currently taking up his brain with sensation.

"When did you-fuck-get so good at this?" He found himself gasping, as Marc's head bobbed, steadily taking him in, tongue stroking the underside of his dick while his lips worked around the shaft.

Marc only answered with a hum that quickly dissolved into a moan as Nath's tail coiled around the swordsman's body, under his shirt, flicking and twitching with every ministration.

When he slid off Nath's cock with a wet pop, tongue darting out to catch a stray bit of pre-cum, the demon couldn't help but whine at the loss.

"Don't worry," Marc said, leaning forward to give him a messy kiss, the hint of a salty tang on his tongue. "I'll make sure your mind's too occupied to think about any unanswered questions."

"What do you have in mind?" Nathaniel asked, not sure he could hide the excitement in his voice even if he wanted to.

Marc smiled. "You'll see," he said, working to completely free Nath's pants from his legs, then unbuckling his own.

"That's an unanswered question," Nath responded.

The swordsman laughed at that, a sultry sound that set Nathaniel ablaze with an almost feverish heat. He leaned over to Nath's bedside table, pulling it open and glancing over the contents inside. Nathaniel knew there were a few...interesting items there, along with condoms and lube. The fact that Marc was examining the contents made him squirm with the thought of what Marc might have in mind for him.

"Well," Marc said, turning to look at him with a smile that burned like hell, "if you're a good boy, you'll find the answer to that question tonight."

Nathaniel's breath froze in his chest. He might not live to a thousand years or more if Marc kept looking at him that way. At this point he was starting to suspect that Blanc didn't actually have anything to do with Marc's confidence and the swordsman was just more assertive when he was comfortable with the control he had.

Or maybe Luka was helping him be more commanding. That was also a possibility.

"You're still thinking," Marc chided.

"It wasn't about the ring this time," Nathaniel answered, as Marc crawled over him and grabbed his wrists, holding them down against the bed. He squirmed a little, letting himself enjoy the way Marc's hands were firm and unmoving but still gentle, just strong enough to keep him secured but not hurt him.

His tail, a wild and unrestrained thing, coiled around Marc's bare ass, rubbing across the swordsman's cock. If he had enough muscle control, Nathaniel might have tried to make his tail wrap around Marc's dick, but he was nowhere near coordinated enough for a stunt like that, even without his currently distracted state.

Marc leaned down, finally kissing him in the deep, heated way that Nathaniel had been craving, and Nathaniel found every thought was meaningless when faced with the feeling of warm skin against skin, scraping teeth and tongue, gasps and moans and musk and sex and the feeling of losing himself, over and over to someone who holds your very being in their hand and promises that now, in this moment, you are breaking because you will be put together again.

And Nathaniel fell apart.

Chapter Text

At least Kim had the courtesy to wait until the weekend before ruining Marc's plans. He didn't have to worry about classes on the weekend.

Nevertheless, the sight of the familiar black car with tinted windows in front of the store and the tall, buff man with an ever-present grin on his face made Marc sigh in exasperation.

"Hey Nath," he called, looking back at the storage room. "Kim's here."

He could hear Nath groan, the sound of boxes being moved. "I'll be there in just a second!"

Marc sighed, resting his elbows on the counter. "Hi, welcome to Hidden Treasures," he said, as Kim stepped in. "Can I help you with anything?"

"Oh, you're working at the register now? That's cool," Kim said, stepping up to the desk.

"I'm actually just here to keep an eye on the store while Nath finds something in the back," Marc said. "He'll be out soon."

As if on cue, the door behind the counter opened and the half-dragon stepped out, carrying a china teapot under one arm. "I remember this got put in a separate box," he said, moving to a shelf and placing it on a plate surrounded with similarly decorated teacups. He whirled around to face Kim, brushing dust off the front of his artist's smock. "Let me guess. The boss wants me to help find the Miracle Wasp hive again?"

"Actually, we know where it is," Kim said.

Nath stopped. "Really?"
"Well, we know where to find it," the human clarified. "I'll explain in the car."

Marc raised an eyebrow at Kim. "Right now?"

"And do you have a car that could look any more suspicious than black and tinted windows?" Nath asked, moving past Marc to put away the painting project he had been working on. "There are police watching us, you know."

"Is it suspicious? It's just a car," Kim said, looking back at it. "Like, it's got four wheels, it drives, it's fine."

Marc squinted. It seemed being dumb could theoretically work in Kim's favor if the police got on their case. That man didn't look like he had a single brain cell swimming around in his head.

"Do we have to leave now?" Nathaniel frowned. "The shop's still open, and Marc and I could have had plans for tonight."

"Your shop closes in 30 minutes," Kim answered, "and Markov said you two didn't have any plans today."

"Little snitch," Marc heard the half-dragon whisper under his breath.

"Anyway, I'm coming back in 45 minutes, be ready to leave then," Kim said, waving goodbye. Marc and Nathaniel watched as the car sped away.

Marc saw the irritated twitch in Nathaniel's eye before the half-dragon spun around to look at him, spreading his arms wide.

"What if we went out for dinner today?" He asked, eyes bright with petty fury.

"Nath," Marc sighed, shaking his head.

Nathaniel pouted, eyes pleading. "We could get ice cream, go see a movie...no?" He sighed. "Okay, fine." The half-dragon snapped his fingers, and Marc quickly moved out of the way as the cleaning supplies started to shuffle out of the back, keeping a wary eye on the magically-animated appliances as they sauntered past.

"That thing gave me a bruise yesterday," he said, pointing to the broom. "I almost cut it in half."

"Oh gods, please don't do that," Nath said, suddenly more serious. "That thing's made with Infernal magic, you'd cause a wipeout. It probably wouldn't be strong enough to undo the enchantment on Blanc, but I don't want to risk it. Besides, this is a shop full of magic items and a wipeout in here is really bad for business."

"Noted." Marc looked at the sword leaning next to him behind the counter. "If Kim really knows where the nest is, I have a feeling I'll have to fight people again."

"Yeah," Nath said. "And I don't have my invisibility jacket yet, which worries me."

"Well, I'm not worried for you," Marc said, looking up at him. "I don't think I can bring myself to hurt you, even when I'm in that...crazy...murder-rampage state."

"Aww, that's sweet."

"I'm more worried about Kim."

"Oh yeah, you would absolutely slit Kim's throat."

"Without a second thought."

"Don't worry, Kim might not be smart but Markov is. He'll make sure Kim stays away from you when you're fighting." Nath raised his voice, looking up at the camera. "Markov, make sure Kim doesn't die!"

Marc quieted, looking down at his hands. "I'm also...I'm worried we'll end up fighting someone from the Infernal Planes, and I won't be able to stop myself. What if there's a devil there, or a demon, or an imp, or..."

Nathaniel frowned. "It's unlikely. The portals to the Infernal Planes are pretty heavily guarded."

"Yeah, but it's still possible," Marc said, glancing at the half-dragon. "Oh! Broom alert."

Nathaniel quickly stepped out of the way, letting the broom pass by him. "Thanks." He walked around the counter, leaning against Marc's chair and running a hand idly through the swordsman's hair. "And hey, if we do meet an Infernal, I'll try to kill them first, then you can start your murder rampage. It's not a great plan, but it's something."

Marc sighed, involuntarily leaning back as the half-dragon's fingers ran lightly across his scalp. He could feel the cool metal of the Ring of Bonding against his head where Nath was wearing it. "Well, at least a bad plan is better than no plan at all."

"Yeah." Nathaniel hummed, pressing his nose into the tuft of hair at the base of Marc's skull. "Your hair's so nice," he murmured. "There's no horns in it at all, it's so soft!"

Marc chuckled, reaching behind him to pat Nath's cheek. "Your hair's soft too," he said.

"Yeah, but you can't run your hands through it cuz my horns are in the way," Nath responded. Marc looked up at him as he moved back.

"Yeah but think about it this way," Marc said, reaching up to tug at one of Nath's horns lightly. "I can do this. It's sexy."

Nathaniel gave a fond smile to him.

Marc chuckled. "And you like it, don't you?"

"You can't prove shit," The half-dragon responded with a smile.

"You sure?" Marc raised an eyebrow, pulling Nath down by the horn to kiss him. It was a bit of an awkward angle, but they made it work.

Nathaniel gave a low hum, pulling away after a while. "Maybe I like it a little bit."

 

~oOo~

 

About 40 minutes later, Nathaniel came down the stairs, wearing leather pants, an old shirt he wouldn't mind getting blood on, and a normal, boring-ass jacket with no enchantments whatsoever but nice, deep pockets. He'd also prepared for some...other things, too, but Marc didn't need to know about those just yet.

Marc was already decked out in leather everything, an outfit that wouldn't look unusual at a punk rock concert but was also efficient for fighting. There was a knife in a small scabbard on the other side of his belt.

"Accessorizing with new weapons?" Nathaniel asked, eyes flitting to the knife.

Marc patted the hilt with a smile. "Well, after thinking about how dangerous Blanc can be if I kill an Infernal, I decided to at least have a backup on hand, just in case. I've fought with other weapons besides Blanc, you know."

"Does the knife have a fancy name, too?"

"Yeah, Reversion."

Nathaniel squinted. "Reversion?"

"You know," Marc shrugged pulling out the knife and giving it a few swings. "It reverses your state of living. From alive to dead, reversion." He sheathed the knife again in a quick movement. "I was young when I named it, don't judge me."

"I'm not judging," Nath said, raising his hands. "It's better than anything I'd come up with."

"What would you name it? I'm genuinely curious."

"Don't ask me to name things. I don't name any of my paintings for a reason."

"You don't?"

"No, they're all numbered."

Marc looked shocked. "Numbered? Nath, sweetheart, your paintings deserve names."

Nathaniel ignored the way his heart jumped to his throat when Marc said 'sweetheart'. "I'm not good with naming," he said, pointing to one of his paintings for sale in the shop. "See, that one, the one with the dwarf kid crying over a skinned knee while a goliath tends to his wounds?"

"Yeah?"

"Alix wanted me to name it, so I did."

"What did you call it?"

"I called it 'Dwarf kid crying over a skinned knee while a goliath tends to his wounds'."

Marc winced. "Okay, I'll admit, not the best choice."

"So." Nathaniel put his hands on his hips. "What would you name it?"

Marc tapped his chin. "Well...what are you trying to tell with your painting?"

"Huh?"

"What do you want your audience to think? What do you want the viewer to see, to feel?"

The audience? The viewer? Who? What? He just painted it because he felt like it, that was all. He couldn't guess what someone was gonna feel looking at his painting, people were complicated.

Marc must have noticed his blank stare. "What kind of emotions does the painting give?"

Nathaniel blinked. "Um...sadness? I don't know, Marc, I just paint what's in my head, I'm no good with this naming shit."

To his saving grace, Kim's car appeared in front of the shop at that moment.

Marc noticed this and sighed, standing up. "Well, that's okay then. Let's get going."

Nathaniel followed Marc out the door, back to where Kim was waiting. Markov was perched on the wheel again like a robotic bird that didn't look like a bird at all.

"So," Marc said, taking shotgun. "You said you'd talk once we were in the car. Where's the nest?"

"Don't know," Kim said as they took off down the road. "But we have a pretty good idea of how to find them. Max and I went to talk to your friends in the forest, and turns out they might have a way to track our group."

Nathaniel leaned over Marc's seat. "You mean Rose and Juleka?"

"Yeah! Turns out one of the wasps ended up at their place yesterday. Rose says it keeps trying to lead them somewhere."

"Huh." Nath's brow furrowed, his confused look no doubt speaking volumes of the inner monologue running through his head. "That's strange."

Marc turned to look at Nath. "How so?"

Nath looked at him. "Miracle Wasp queens are very intelligent, but the normal Miracle Wasps are...less so. I don't understand why one of the workers would leave the colony, unless it was told to by the queen."

"Do you think the queen's trying to find help?"

"Can she? They put the brooch on her, after all." Nath thudded his head against Marc's seat. "I hate magic. No one knows shit about how it works."

Marc patted his head sympathetically. "We're surrounded by stuff that we don't understand," he said. "Like Kim."

"Hm?" Like a dog hearing its own name, Kim perked up, looking to them. "What's up?"

"Nothing," Nathaniel said, waving him away.

Markov beeped to life. "They seem to be perplexed about how your disposition has allowed you to survive for this long," he said, like the little tattletale he was.

Kim patted Markov on the head. "I understood none of that, but you do you, buddy," he said, smiling.

Marc let out a sigh of relief, leaning back towards Nathaniel so their heads were touching.

Markov instantly turned so his interface was pointed towards them. "My creator has requested that the two of you do not engage in public displays of affection while in the vehicle," he said.

"With all due respect, your honor, I'm touch starved," Nath said.

"He's touched starved," Marc repeated. "We're not gonna kiss or anything, if that's what you're worried about."

Markov whirred. "Calculating...platonically physical contact is acceptable."

"Thanks," Nath said, resting his head on Marc's shoulder.

"Did you guys get benefits or something?" Kim asked, looking back at them.

"That's none of your business, shut up."

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel was dreading having to navigate their way through the forest again.

Thankfully, there was already a woman standing on the side of the road, familiar black hair and pale skin. If he didn't know who she was, he'd have been scared shitless by the ghost-like woman just standing there like a creature from a horror movie, watching as Kim parked on the side of the road.

"Juleka!" Nathaniel cheered as he stepped out of the car. Marc followed behind, hands tucked deliberately under his armpits.

It'd been too long since he'd seen her last. Granted, it had only been a few weeks, but after not hearing from her or Rose for years, he was shamelessly desperate to reconnect with his old friends.

Juleka looked over at Marc with a raised eyebrow and stepped back.

"It's alright," Marc said. "Whatever Luka did to the sword worked."

The siren seemed to relax at that, turning and walking back into the forest. With a quick glance to each other, the rest of the group began to follow.

Nathaniel jogged up to Juleka. "Is Rose okay? I was assuming she would be taking us."

"She's fine," Juleka mumbled. "Just busy."

That was all he was able to get from her as they walked through the forest, the sun's golden hour filtering through the leaves and casting a lovely dappled pattern on the ground. The forest looked almost completely different in the sunlight, and Nathaniel soon gave up trying to remember the path they were traveling and focused on not losing Juleka.

Soon enough, they came upon that familiar cottage decorated with flowers and bones. Rose was in the boughs of a nearby tree, singing to a nest of baby birds, while a skeletal adult bird flew up into the branches and landed next to her, a worm in its beak. The shadows that filled out its form made a stark contrast to the brightly colored baby birds that scrabbled and fought over the morsel. Cupcake, their reanimated cat, was sitting patiently under the tree, watching the birds with transfixed eye sockets as his tail swished from side to side.

Nathaniel put his hands on his hips as he neared the large tree. "You busy?" He asked, looking up at her.

"Oh! Nathaniel! Hi!" Rose waved to him. "Yeah, mama bird got hit by a truck so Juleka and I were working on reuniting her with her family. The babies were a little scared at first, but I think they trust her now."

"That's nice," Nath said. "Kim told us you knew where to find the Miracle Wasp nest. Something about a wasp trying to lead you somewhere?"

"Oh! One moment," Rose said, leaping down from the tree. Vines shot up from the ground to catch her as she fell, and she landed in front of the group with an elegant flourish.

"Impressive," Marc commented.

"Thanks! He's just in here." Rose dashed inside, the door closing behind her. The rest of the group looked at each other, unsure whether or not to follow her inside.

Before anyone could make a decision, the door flew open again and Rose dashed out, one hand closed into a loose fist.

"Tada!" She said, opening her hand. Nathaniel instantly stepped back as he noticed the familiar neon yellow markings of a Miracle Wasp standing in her palm.

Even when he'd owned the nest, The demon had never been brave enough to hold the wasps other than the queen. He'd been stung one too many times to want to risk it again; paralyzation aside, getting stung hurt.

"Wow, he's so calm," Marc commented. The wasp in question didn't look like it had any thoughts in its head at all, but compared to the last time Marc had seen the wasps, Nathaniel could guess that anything was calmer than a buzzing, angry horde.

Rose giggled. "That's because he's with me," she said. "I would not recommend any of you trying to hold him."

"I have no intention of...yeah, I don't want to, that's a big stinger." Marc pulled back.

"So, here he is," Rose said, presenting the wasp like an elementary school's show-and-tell. "I did a little 'speak with animals' spell, and he says that his queen sent him to go find who she's bonded to and help her."

"Who the queen was bonded to?" Marc instantly looked over at Nath. "Does that mean you?"

"Probably." Nathaniel stepped forward, closer than he would normally get to the wasps. He wasn't really sure how good their eyesight was.

"Ah!" He jumped as the wasp suddenly flew from Rose's hand, circling around his head. Stiffening, Nathaniel tried not to panic as it landed on his jacket and started crawling frantically across his body.

"Hey, he recognizes you!" Rose beamed.

"Yeah," Nath lifted his arm as the wasp started to crawl across his sleeve, willing his hammering heart to slow down before he keeled over from a heart attack. "I am the guy the queen's bonded to, after all."

"Wow, can I hold him?" Kim asked.

"No!" Nathaniel stepped away from him. "Get the fuck away, I don't want you scaring him."

To Nath's annoyance, Kim stepped closer. "I'm not gonna scare him," he insisted.

"Get the fuck away get the fuck away-get. The. Fuck. Away." Nathaniel looked to Marc, eyes wide.

Marc grabbed the other human's arm. "Kim, back off," he said.

"Yeah, you don't want to mess with Miracle Wasps." Rose placed herself between Kim and Nath, patting Kim's shoulder. "They can get very...skittish."

"They can be deadly," Nathaniel added, already feeling beads of sweat gathering on his forehead just by looking at the wasp. "If you get stung by a lot of wasps at once, or if you get paralyzed in a position that restricts your breathing, these things can kill you."

Even Markov flew out of Kim's letterman jacket, looking at Kim with what Nath assumed was a stern expression on his face.

Reluctantly, Kim stepped back. Nath couldn't understand how Max dealt with someone like him, his childish nature was more annoying than endearing.

His attention was pulled away from the human as the wasp flew off his jacket, circling him, shooting off a few feet away, then turning and circling back.

Marc looked at the rest of the group. "Well, I don't speak wasp, but I'm pretty sure he wants us to follow him."

"Aww, he's so smart," Rose said, placing a hand over her heart. Little pink flowers started to bloom around her feet.

"Shame," Nath sighed, looking wistfully back at Rose and Juleka. "I was hoping we could chat some more."

Rose linked her hand with Juleka's, waving to them with the other. "You could come visit after your mission!" She said, smiling cheerfully. "And if you want to hang out, I can always teleport through the oak tree in Nightingale park!"

Kim cocked his head to the side. "You mean Piss Tree?"

"Noooo!" Rose wailed. "Don't call it that! It's mean!"

"Let's go," Nath said, grabbing Marc's hand and walking away before Rose could start ranting about one of her biggest pet peeves. "Thanks for the wine, by the way!"

"You're welcome!" Rose called out.

Kim, noticing he was being left behind, jogged next to them to follow the wasp, which was flying in front of them, darting back to Nath every few paces to make sure they were following. Nathaniel tried not to flinch every time the large wasp suddenly zoomed towards his face at high speeds. Every time it sped towards him he felt ten years shaved off his lifespan.

He shuffled closer to Marc, curling his tail around the swordsman's arm. "I know we talked about going out and doing something special after the wasp nest was found, so what if we hung out with Rose and Juleka for an afternoon? Once this is all over, of course."

"You're just saying that because you want to spend more time with them," Marc teased. "I don't blame you, though. I like them."

"They're good friends," Nath said, smiling.

"Really nice," Marc agreed.

Nath pulled Marc lower, breath hot against the swordsman's ear. "But afterwards," he said, "when we're back home..."

"Pfft." Marc nudged demon's side. "Yeah, okay, sure. You horny bastard."

Nath laughed at that, nudging him back.

"Yeah, I think they're benefits," he heard Kim whisper behind them.

Markov made a little beeping noise. "I believe the more correct term would be that they are in an 'open-ended' relationship. Marc Anciel and Nathaniel Kurtzberg, though engaging in sexual activity, have also been noted to also display acts of romantic affection on occasion-"

"Okay, that's enough!" Marc yelled, turning to Markov. "Please shut up!"

"Shutting up," Markov replied.

The tips of Marc's ears were bright red, and Nathaniel couldn't blame him. His own face was probably nearing the shade of his hair, too.

He wasn't really ashamed of the sex. Everyone and everyone's mother knew about that at this point. But the robot blatantly called their actions "romantic", and sure, Nathaniel did think Marc was nice and charming and adorable but also badass, and he cared for Marc as more than just a hole to stick his dick into, but "romantic" seemed to be assuming a lot about them. They were still just friends, after all.

As if noticing he was getting distracted, the wasp flew back and landed on his face.

"Fuck!" Nath jumped, already raising a hand instinctively to slap it away, but Marc grabbed his arm before he could do it. They stood, frozen for a few seconds until the wasp flew off again, continuing to follow it deeper into the forest.

"Hey, how far away do you think it's going to take us?" He asked, starting to get a little concerned.

"Guess we'll find out," Kim replied, hoisting his backpack higher as the sun began to set.

Nathaniel sighed.

It was gonna be a long walk.

Chapter Text

Whoever thought following a wasp blindly into the forest was, in Nath's opinion, a fucking moron.

Oh wait. He was the one who decided to follow the wasp blindly into the forest. He was a fucking moron.

The sun was long gone by this point, and the night was colder than the Ice Realm of the Elemental Plane. Nath didn't even know if an Ice Realm existed, but it probably did, and it was probably warmer than wherever they were right now.

Thankfully (or not), his ability to see in the dark meant that he wasn't losing track of the wasp. Kim had brought out his singular flashlight, which meant he could at least see the ground in front of him and the backs of Marc and Nath, but Marc was once again having difficulty navigating the uneven ground completely blind.

Nathaniel considered summoning a fireball, letting it sit in his hand so Marc could see, but learning how to keep a fireball still was not one of his talents, and the more he thought about it, the more likely he could see himself losing control and blowing himself up. So he opted for grabbing Marc's hand like he'd done before and guiding him through the steadily widening forest.

It was like the trees were starting to grow apart, long, thin trunks climbing higher and then branching out into an extensive canopy that blocked any possible moonlight. The longer and higher the branches reached, the more Nath felt like he was being stretched to his limits, legs and body aching, begging for sleep.

"Markov, please tell me there's someplace to sleep along the way," Marc grumbled, trying to stifle a yawn.

"Our current pathway will be leading us towards an abandoned burrow city," Markov said. "Do not worry, I have already calculated the necessary and most optimal points of rest on our journey."

"How long until we get there?" Nath asked.

"At this pace, thirty-two minutes."

Nath grit his teeth, choosing to suffer in silence. Marc squeezed his hand sympathetically.

To his surprise, Kim didn't say anything, or even comment. At the beginning of the trek, he'd started whistling a jaunty tune that made Nathaniel seriously consider murder, but now he was refreshingly silent, keeping in easy step behind them. Apparently even he was smart enough to know when to conserve his energy.

Several minutes later, the trees began to have such wide space between them that their branches could no longer intertwine, and moonlight began to filter through, illuminating the grass in tones of silver and blue. As though capturing the moonlight, some of the surrounding flowers began to open, glowing in a multitude of colors.

"Glassmoon flowers. They're beautiful," He heard Marc whisper.

"Yeah. Shame I'm too tired to really admire it."

The swordsman nodded, a hint of a laugh escaping his breath. "Yeah."

Nathaniel didn't flinch this time as the miracle wasp flew to him again. He'd stopped flinching for a while now. Still, a little bolt of unease shot through his spine as it landed on his jacket and stayed there. He stopped, waiting for it to move.

"Are we there already?" Marc asked, noticing the little yellow bug in the moonlight. "Man, I'm wishing we brought someone who could speak wasp, like Rose."

"I don't think we can count on having a wasp translator nearby." Nath looked back at Kim and Markov.

"Negative," Markov replied.

Kim shook his head. "I can speak a few languages, but wasp ain't one of them."

"I think he's just tired," Nath said. "I mean, he's a magic wasp, sure, but he's still just a wasp."

"Huh." Marc examined the insect. "Do wasps even sleep?"

"Well they have to get tired at some point." Nath shrugged, continuing to walk in the general direction they had been traveling.

Marc nodded. "Can relate to the being tired bit."

 

~oOo~

 

Even with the glow of the glassmoon flowers and the moonlight now fully illuminating the path in front of them, Marc was still having trouble finding his way through the forest. Nathaniel's tight grip on his hand was the only thing keeping him from stumbling and falling into a face full of oddly short, cut grass, time and time again.

The entire forest seemed...off. This wasn't a surprise, magic was an abundant force of chaos and he'd seen his fair share of odd places that seemed to defy logic, but even so, the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end, and the unease coupled with the cold chill in the air made him very tense and nervous.

The trees were too evenly spaced out. The grass all grew to the same height, disguising the small dips in the ground and the way the dirt was rocky and uneven beneath the facade of completely smooth earth.

Of course, the most unnerving parts were where the forest wasn't completely even. Every so often, they'd come across a giant crater in the ground, like an asteroid had slammed into the ground and vanished, carving giant holes across the earth. Nothing grew around those craters.

"I see buildings up ahead," Nathaniel said, breaking the silence. Marc squinted. It took him a while, but eventually he found them, shapes in the far distance, different from the uniform spacing of the trees. Lots of shapes. The more he looked the more shapes seemed to come into focus, spreading farther out across the horizon.

"How big is this city?" Marc gaped at the distant buildings that seemed to stretch across the horizon.

"Haut Monde, though technically considered a burrow city, gained most of its revenue functioning as a tourist resort," Markov explained. "Although it has the outward appearance of an old burrow citing, dating 600 years back, the interiors use technology that was in its prime before it fell, which was 120 years back."

"Right, you said it was abandoned," Nathaniel nodded.

Marc's hand crept to the hilt of his blade. "Abandoned usually means trouble. What happened here?"

"The city was originally built to harbor Tomeoe Tsuguri, an ancient dragon from the Fire Realm who settled in the nearby mountains over 20,000 years ago. She was the one who insisted this become a burrow city, and when they turned it into a tourist spot, Tomeoe grew furious and destroyed it."

Kim whistled, pointing his flashlight towards the distant ruins. "That's a lotta damage."

Marc turned to Nath, raising an eyebrow.

"Don't look at me," Nath said. "I don't know every dragon that exists in this world."

"I know, but how...?" Marc looked back at the city. "That's a big city."

Nath spread his wings. "Have you ever seen a fully-transformed dragon? They get massive, and Fire Realm dragons keep growing with age. It's no wonder she got mad, once you've got a resort, you get airplanes, and then there's regulations for flying Mythics, which she was probably trying to avoid, and...I can absolutely see why she'd get mad."

"Yeah, but destroying the city seems a little excessive."

"Really old Mythics have different perspectives on life and death," Nathaniel said, shrugging. He looked down at the ring on his finger. "It can be scary to see what people become once they've lived a thousand years or more."

Marc tightened his hold on the half-dragon's hand. "Please don't become someone who destroys cities," he said.

"Heh. I'll try not to." Nathaniel squeezed his hand comfortingly. "Besides, I can't turn into a full dragon, so city-destroying is a bit out of my power range."

"That's good," Marc said. "So is...what was her name again?"

"Tomeoe Tsuguri," Markov responded.

"Is Tomeoe still here?"

"Affirmative. After Haut Monde was destroyed, a bounty was placed on her head, but no one has been able to collect it. However, it is unlikely that we will encounter her, since she is reported to have been asleep for the past thirty years."

"Fucking hell." Nathaniel shivered. "No wonder no one's tried to rebuild this place."

Marc turned to look at Markov. "Wait, wait, when you said Tomeoe Tsuguri...you meant Ikari?"

"Tomeoe Tsuguri is her official name, but she is also known as Ikari, yes."

"You know her?" Nathaniel blinked.

"I know of her," Marc answered. "She's on our list back at the office, one of the higher bounties." He grabbed one of the branches off a nearby tree, snapping it between his fingers.

Nathaniel's tail flicked, catching Marc's ankle for a moment. "I don't like that you said 'one of the higher bounties'. That means there's other people with bounties like hers."

Marc shook his head, tossing the branch away. "Nath, you're not gonna like what I'm gonna say next."

"Oh no."

"She's one of the higher bounties, but she's far from the 'highest'."

"Oh no."

"Yeah." Marc dug his hands into his pockets, letting out a huff of air. "There are some fucked up people on that bounty board."

"They'd have to have killed a lot of people," Kim said, an understatement of the era.

By now they were starting to get closer to the city, and Marc could easily see the damage in the buildings. The walls around the city were filled with holes, collapsed in some places, which was handy since there was no gate in sight.

As they crawled through the ruins, Marc felt more chills run down his spine. He could see where the dragon's claws had dug into the stone, marking it so deeply that the shape was still clear even after 120 years. Some of the buildings looked partially melted, like they'd been burned to the point of liquifying.

Marc had never considered going after larger bounties. Those were for entire squads of trained, Independent hunters to handle, people with arsenals of magic weapons at their disposal.

Still, navigating around a footprint so big he could lay down in the imprint of one of the smaller claws and have room left over, the swordsman couldn't help but wonder if anyone could actually apprehend a dragon this old and powerful.

Nathaniel glanced around. "Do you really think any of these places are going to have functioning beds after 120 years?"

"Likely not," Markov answered. "But we should try to find someplace sheltered from the elements, nonetheless."

It took a long while of searching, blinking through tired eyes, but eventually they managed to find what looked like a stone cathedral that had managed to withstand the dragon's onslaught. Marc almost cried with joy when they stepped in to find the floor of one of the rooms covered in long, different colored furs-at least, that's what he could make out in the dim light.

Nathaniel grabbed his arm before he could walk on them, kneeling down to examine the pelts. "Everything's old in here, be careful. I'd be surprised if this doesn't have bugs."

"I have bug spray," Kim said, patting his backpack.

Markov detached himself from Kim's shoulder, hovering over to scan the pelts. "These are recent," he said, shining a blue light on them. "There is a variation of bear, elk, cow, unicorn, selkie, yeti, kitsune-"

"I'm sorry, unicorn, selkie, yeti and kitsune?" Nath interrupted. "What?"

The relief and thought of sleep that he'd been clinging to vanished in an instant.

"Oh." Marc stared into the room. "That's...that's bad."

"First off, those last three are people, which I'm really fucking concerned about-and second, the unicorn pelt is almost definitely cursed." Nath's tail thrashed behind him. Marc had to step out of the way to avoid getting his ankles whipped.

"There is a very extensive variety of furs and pelts," Markov commented. "Would you like me to continue?"

The half-dragon looked like he might throw up. "No, just-tell me if any of them have magic so we can avoid them, okay?"

"Understood. There is also a small runic ward around this area, please do not proceed until I have finished scanning it."

Marc looked to Nath, who had a hand over his mouth and was looking at the furs in horror. "Hey," he said, reaching for Nath's arm.

"Someone skinned these, treated these, and left them here," Nath said, voice barely above a whisper. "Someone skinned people for these."

"You think it was Ikari?" Kim asked.

"She's been asleep for 30 or so years. I think it's someone else," Marc said.

"Akumas."

Marc nodded. "At least this probably means we're on the right track."

Nathaniel noticed Marc's hand on his arm then, moving to grab his hand. "I don't want to stay here," he whispered.

"You need sleep," Marc said, leaning into the half-dragon's shoulder. "We'll leave first thing tomorrow morning, okay?"

Nathaniel squeezed his eyes shut. He looked small, scared, but nodded anyway.

"Analyzing complete," Markov said. "This appears to be a bug-warding enchantment."

"That was fast," Marc commented. "Maybe we should have asked him to look at your ring."

It was a cheap attempt at distracting the red-head, and both of them knew it, but Nath played along, looked down at the emerald ring on his finger and smiled. "Warding runes are faster to read than enchanted items," he said. "But yeah, maybe."

"Woah," Kim said, peering over Nath's shoulder to look at the ring with owlish eyes. "Those are some benefits."

Nath smacked him away with his wing. "Fuck off."

"Markov," Kim asked, holding out his hand for the little robot to settle in his palm. "What if we found whoever skinned these people, and beat the crap out of them?"

"That is highly dependent on who did this," Markov answered. "If Tomoe Tsuguri is responsible, we will not engage. But all evidence seems to suggest these were collected by an Akuma branch or another wandering group of criminals."

The human squatted low, still peering at Markov. "Do we have a way of finding out exactly who did this?"

"With the tools on hand, no." Markov hovered away, returning back to the room of furs. "The unicorn pelt is the only magical one, and it's buried under several other furs. As long as you do not make direct contact with it, you will be fine."

"Alright," Marc said, stepping onto the furs. "Let's bed down for tonight, and...try not to think about what we're sleeping on."

Nathaniel nodded, seeming to have quickly recovered from his shock. "One of you needs to break the runes so the wasp can stay with me. Should we take watches?"

"No need," Markov said, floating over to Kim as he made himself comfortable in one corner of the room. A small laser shot from his midsection with a little "pew" sound (vocalized by Markov), breaking one of the runes, and there was a flash of light as the ward broke. "I will be keeping watch all night so you humanoids can recharge."

"Right." Nathaniel made his way to the middle of the room and sat down, twisting his tail around one leg to keep it out of the way. Carefully, he placed his hand next to the Miracle Wasp, still clinging to his shirt. Slowly, the wasp crawled onto his hand, letting the half-dragon set it on an uneven stone brick jutting out from the wall.

"You didn't seem too bothered by all this," Nath commented, as Marc settled into a dip in the furs on the other side of the small room.

"Well, I've seen a lot of horrible things during missions," Marc said. "I've kind of gotten numb to it at this point."

Nath raised an eye. "But you're still squeamish around blood."

Marc choked. "I-that's different!"

"How?" Nath sat up on his elbows. "I'm not saying it to be mean, I'm genuinely curious, how is it different?"

"I don't know!" Marc threw up one hand. "I don't do well with blood when I'm not on missions, I don't know what you want from me! It's just-I've fought people who have done horrible things like this before, so I'm used to this." He gestured to the furs below him. "This is fucked up, but it's a fucked up I can expect."

Sighing, the half-dragon flopped back down. "I guess that makes sense," he said, looking up at the ceiling.

"It's not easy, seeing things like this," Marc said, reaching out towards Nath. The half-dragon's tail came up to coil around his wrist.

Nathaniel gave a little chuckle. "Would you believe me if I said I was freaked out because I've seen something like this before?"

Marc stilled. "What?"

"Not this this, specifically, but I have seen...you know. People, skinned." Nath's wings curled around his body like a shield. "Back where I was from, resources weren't always easy to come by, so some people...some people made do with what they had."

Marc let out a slow breath. "I...I don't think you ever specifically said anything but...you're not from this realm, are you?"

There was a little twitch in the tip of Nath's tail, but other than that, no reaction. The half-dragon's eyes were glassy, unfocused. He blinked, exhaled. "Yeah."

"If it's okay to ask," Marc hesitated, examining Nath's face. "How did you get here? To Earth?"

Nathaniel looked over his shoulder. Kim was using his backpack as a pillow, the bo staff resting lightly in his hand, ready to use at a moment's notice. It looked like he was already fast asleep. Markov was stationed at the entrance to the room, completely still and silent.

"Planar portals are pretty heavily guarded," Nathaniel said, looking back to Marc. "But you'd be surprised how much you can get away with if you have money."

"Money?"

"My family..." Nathaniel hesitated, then continued. "My family, along with some other people, were funding an illegal Planar portal. It was heavily guarded, and I knew it was going to be even more guarded once it got calibrated, but it was already set to the Earth Realm, so I snuck in, took a chance...and ended up here."

"You went through an uncalibrated realm portal? Are you insane?" Marc stared at the half-dragon.

Nath's voice cracked. "I needed to get out."

The way he said it made Marc pause, looking over Nath's face again. His breath was shaky, lip quivering slightly-but that could have been from the cold. Marc didn't think it was.

"Well, you're out now," he said, patting the tail in his hand. "That's what matters."

Nath closed his eyes. "Yeah."

Marc shivered as a gust of wind blew through the open entrance. Nath sighed, smiled, and extended a wing out towards Marc. "Sword off first," he said, but held his wing open anyway.

Normally, the thought of cuddling with Nath would have brought a deep blush to the swordsman's face, but it was cold, and Marc suspected there was some selfish desire for warmth fueling Nath's actions, too. So he unbuckled Blanc and set it to the side, then shuffled forward, ignoring the tinge of pink that was rising to his cheeks anyway. There was an instant feeling of warmth and comfort as he let the half-dragon's wing drape over him and pull him closer to Nath's chest.

"It's funny," he found himself whispering as he pressed closer, seeking warmth to mirror the flush in his skin.

Nath's breath tickled his ear as he spoke. "What is?"

"Well," Marc tried not to let his breath hitch as the half-dragon's tail coiled around both their legs, anchoring them together, "the only other times we've slept like this is when one of us couldn't walk back to our own bed."

"Or didn't want to," Nath responded, whispering it like a secret.

Marc wasn't sure if he meant that in a "lazy, didn't want to get out of bed way" or a "romantic, wanted to keep holding the other" way. For him, it was usually the latter, but he didn't want to self-project on Nath. The half-dragon probably meant the former.

"Goodnight," he breathed, finally letting his exhausted eyes flutter shut.

"Mhm," Nath replied, sounding half-asleep already.

The furs under them weren't as soft as the bed Marc was yearning for, but they were comfortable, and Nath was comfortable, and warm, and maybe smelled a little sweaty but he kinda liked that.

He closed his eyes and fell asleep in the half-dragon's arms.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel had slept through his fair share of uncomfortable places, and this place wasn't the worst by a long shot.

Still, after getting used to sleeping in a comfortable bed for years, he'd forgotten how much his bones would ache when he woke up, his hips and back already protesting as he opened his eyes and saw Marc's face.

Well, he'd suffer sleeping on furs for a thousand nights more if he got to wake up to a sight like that every morning. It was rare for him to wake up before Marc, so he took a moment to appreciate the soft pink of Marc's half-parted lips, his long eyelashes, the soft curve of his little button nose, the way his hair curled slightly to frame his face.

It was unfair that a man who made his living slaughtering criminals could look so god damn cute while sleeping.

Without meaning to, his tail curled tighter around their legs, rubbing against the inside of Marc's knee. The swordsman mumbled something, eyes fluttering open.

He looked beautiful.

"Morning," Nath said, trying to sound nonchalant but amused. What came out instead was more of a tender, intimate whisper. Fuck.

Marc yawned, moving to sit up. Nathaniel reluctantly pulled his wing back so Marc could do so, watching the swordsman through half-lidded eyes. "You should get up too," Marc said.

"Ugh. Don't wanna."

He saw Marc glance off behind him. "Well, it's either you wake up now, or the wasp that's looking at you wakes you up instead."

"You can't tell if he's looking at me," Nath said, getting up anyway. He winced at his muscles protested the movement.

"I'm pretty sure he's looking at you."

Nath twisted to look at the Miracle Wasp, which was awake and standing on the corner of a stone brick, twitching a little. "Well damn, it kinda does feel like he's staring at me. Creepy."

"Hey, Nath!" Kim's voice sounded from outside the building. "Come here, I need your help!"

"Yeah, one sec!" The demon stretched, grunting as his joints popped. "Guess the shop isn't opening today," he mumbled to himself, stepping outside to find Kim assembling sticks and dry kindling into a hastily made firepit.

"You can make fire, right?" Kim said. He motioned with the stick in his hand to three open cans of...something next to him. "Mind helping me start this?"

Nathaniel knelt next to Kim. "You brought rations?"

"Markov told me to. They're best when hot."

"Well, at least we have food," Nath said, flicking his fingers towards the flames and whispering an incantation under his breath. Fire sparked from his fingertips, warming the underside of his palm for a second before catching onto the kindling.

"Thanks!" Kim beamed up at him. "Breakfast'll be ready in a few minutes."

"Fine." Nath looked around for Markov, spotting the robot a few feet away, trying to drag a stick twice his size towards the pile of sticks next to Kim.

"Oh! I got that, little buddy," Kim said, standing up to take the stick from Markov.

"Hey, Markov," Nath called. "How long were you planning for us to follow the wasp for?"

"If we don't reach our destination by this afternoon, Kim and I will head back and return with supplies for a longer journey while you and Marc continue onward."

"Great." Nathaniel crossed his arm, scowling. "I love it when you guys tell me stuff like this beforehand. I do have a shop to run, you know."

"We have already taken that into account."

Nathaniel felt a vein on his forehead twitch. "Marc has school tomorrow."

"The boss will have that handled."

There really wasn't a way of talking them out of this. With an irritated growl, Nath stood up to go find Marc. The swordsman was re-buckling Blanc to his side, keeping one eye on the Miracle Wasp.

"Is it hungry?" Marc frowned, watching the little insect wander around on the stone brick. "You said Miracle wasps eat other bees and stuff, if I recall."

"I think they'll eat just about anything if they're hungry enough," Nath said. The wasp flew over to his arm, landing on his wrist. Now that'd he'd gone several hours traveling with it, Nathaniel was mostly sure that the wasp wasn't going to sting him. Kind of.

"Maybe he needs water," Marc said. "Fuck, I need water. Kim better have brought water with him because I'm going to be real pissed if he didn't."

Nathaniel raised his arm, elevating the wasp to eye level. "You creep me out, you know that, right?" He told the bug.

Marc glanced to him, smirking. "Does he 'bug' you?"

Nathaniel pressed his lips together, closing his eyes. Marc was snickering as he let out a long, slow sigh, fighting down a smile. "Let's go, Marc," he said, refusing to let the swordsman win.

"You thought it was funny."

"I didn't."

"You did."

 

~oOo~

 

After a quick meal that actually tasted better than Marc had expected, and a few minutes of Nath trying not to squirm as the wasp drank water from the palm of his hand, they continued following the insect through the ruins of Haut Monde.

It was a beautiful city, even in its destruction. He could see why the city used to be a popular tourist resort. Many of the outer buildings seemed to have a seamless balance between natural and manmade beauty, but the further into the ruins they got, the more that balance began to shift towards more recognizable items, broken lightbulbs and wires overshadowing the greenery, the bones of furniture where the fabric had long since turned to dust, leaving skeletal remains of an old past.

"Be careful," Markov advised, volume low. "I scouted the perimeter last night, and it seems there has been recent group activity nearby."

Marc instantly dropped a hand to Blanc. Nath tensed as well, wings raised. Even Kim, who was in the middle of yawning loudly, stopped mid-yawn to listen to Markov, then resumed yawning more quietly.

"So the Akumas could be hiding in this city?" Marc whispered.

"It's possible."

Well. Maybe they'd find the wasp nest tonight after all. Hopefully so, Marc was getting really tired of having to ask for extended deadlines from his professors for late assignments. It always made him nervous to ask for things, especially when he could tell some of them were starting to get fed up with him continually asking.

"Hey, I got a few questions before we actually find this group," Nath said, pausing to let the wasp rest on his finger before it continued flying again. "What are we going to do when we find the group? We don't have a dryad with us to subdue the wasps, and I can't guarantee I'll be able to control the queen when we get in range. Do we have a plan to not get paralyzed?"

"Yeah," Kim said, as though it was the most obvious answer in the world. "Why do you think I brought bug spray?"

"I-" Nathaniel paused, whirling to face the human. "You're going to kill the wasps?"

"No, it's not that kind of bug spray," Kim said, waving a hand. "You put it on yourself and it deters bugs."

Marc hoped he looked as unimpressed as he felt. "So we're going to fight a group of people carrying very deadly magical weapons-using the items you'd bring on a camping trip?"

"We would," Kim answered, "but I didn't bring a sleeping bag."

"Fucking hell." Nath threw his hands in the air. "Markov, please tell me you have an actual plan."

"The boss determined that this bug spray would be sufficient. It is enchanted to make the wearer completely undetectable by insects."

"Oh my god." The half-dragon buried his face in his hands. "We're facing Miracle Wasps with a can of bug spray. Fuck my life."

"I mean...it's enchanted," Marc said, trying to hold onto a shred of optimism in this very pessimistic outcome. "That's a little better than normal bug spray."

Nathaniel muttered something in a different language. Probably a swear word, by the look on his face.

"Oh! Right!" Kim slung his backpack from his shoulders, still walking. "I was going to spray us all when we woke up, I forgot. Markov, why didn't you remind me?"

"Nathaniel needs to be visible to the wasp in order for it to lead us to the rest of the nest. However, you are free to apply the spray to yourself or Marc if you'd like."

"I feel really confident about our safety right now," Nathaniel said, his expression contradicting everything he'd just said. He could hear Kim spraying himself behind them.

Marc winced. "Here's to hoping we're still alive by tomorrow."

"Hey Marc!" Kim called, then remembered they were supposed to be quiet and pressed his lips together. "You want some bug spray?" He stage-whispered.

Marc was starting to catch a whiff of what the bug spray smelled like and wrinkled his nose in disgust. He didn't want that smell on him or any of his clothes-but he'd rather smell like a hand sanitizer-old potato salad mix than get swarmed by a nest of Miracle Wasps, so he took the bug spray from Kim's hand.

"How long does the enchantment last?" He asked, spraying it across his arms and legs. Fuck, it smelled even worse up close. His eyes were starting to water.

"About an hour," Kim said.

Marc sighed. "Does the smell last-"

"No, the smell lasts longer."

"Of course the smell lasts longer." Marc threw the can back to Kim, trying not to breathe too much through his nose. Nathaniel shuffled away from him a few steps with an apologetic look.

"Dammit," Marc complained. "If I'd know the spray would only last an hour I would have waited until-" He froze as Nath stopped, wings flaring out behind him in alarm. "Nath?"

"She's here," the half-dragon whispered. "The queen."

The wasp started to fly away, further down the long, empty road, leaving them behind.

"Wait!" Kim said, already jogging after it, but Nathaniel grabbed his shoulder.

"It's okay," he said, straightening. "He's done his job. It's time we do ours."

"How about we do our job without standing where anyone could see us?" Marc asked, grabbing Nath's arm and pulling the two men behind one of the ruined buildings.

"Do we have a plan?" Nath asked, looking to Markov.

"Step one is infiltration," Marc said. "We need to figure out where they are, what weapons they have, and where the wasp nest and the queen are. If we can find the brooch, too, that'll be helpful. We still don't know if they have the feather, so that's something to look out for as well."

He peered around the corner of the building. It was a good thing they'd chosen to hide, too, because he could see movement in the far distance. People. Far enough away that they'd only be visible if someone was looking, but there, nonetheless.

"I can conduct a heat scan around the area," Markov offered. "Kim, if you may don my disguise."

"On it." Kim reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulling out a little piece of fabric.

"What's that?" Marc squinted, trying to peer around Kim's hands as he started affixing buttons and straps around the robot.

"Oh my god," Nath said, as Kim pulled away. "Is this really going to work? How-how is this going to work?"

Marc liked to think he was a professional person. He could be an anxious mess all other hours of the day, but when he had a job to do, he did it with a serious dedication to the job. He didn't get distracted, he stayed focused-or so he thought. Looking at the little robot now, all sense of professionalism vanished in his moment of shock, leaving him gaping at Markov in surprise.

"Tada," Kim said.

Marc clapped a hand over his mouth, trying to keep a serious face.

Markov was wearing a little knitted bee costume.

This whole trip was so worth it.

Everything they'd just gone through? Didn't matter. This was the highlight of his week. Holy fuck. There was no way in hell they'd manage to fool anyone, but it was really fucking cute.

"I love this," he said. "It's not functional at all but I love it."

Nathaniel crossed his arms. "Marc? What the hell?"

"Look, cute things are my weakness, don't judge me."

"I thought blood outside the battlefield was your weakness."

"No pictures please," Markov said, spinning around. "Kim, please activate the enchantment for me."

Kim tapped Markov twice, and the bee costume became considerably less cute.

It was an illusion, obviously, but Marc still fought an instinctive jolt of fear as the bee costume shimmered and turned into a perfect replica of a Miracle Wasp.

"Okay," he said, immediately stepping back. "That's...that'll work."

Nathaniel nodded approvingly. "Much more realistic."

"Thank you," Markov said.

Marc shook his head. Now that they were so close to danger, he couldn't afford to lose his composure anymore. "Speaking of wasps," he said, turning to Kim. "Spray Nath."

"What?"

"One bug spray, coming up," Kim said.

Nath scowled, crossing his arms. "Better than getting paralyzed," he muttered, as Kim started shaking the can. "Hold up, wait-I can do it myself, gimme the can!"

"Step two," Marc said, ignoring Nath and Kim fighting for the bug spray. "The wasp hive will probably be guarded. I need someone to work as a distraction while Nath and I grab the nest."

"Oh, you mean me?" Kim asked. Nathaniel took that opportunity to snatch the can out of his unsuspecting grip.

"Yeah, you." Marc raised an eyebrow. "You're loud and very attention-grabbing. Can you run fast?"

Kim's face lit up, chest puffing out proudly. "Can I run fast? Oh, you've got no clue who you're talking to if you have to ask-"

"Great. Step three," Marc turned back to Nathaniel. "There will probably be guards there. I trust that you know more about Monsters and Mythics than I do. If you recognize anything or anyone as Infernal, let me know. I'll use Reversion on them instead of Blanc."

Nathaniel nodded. "Step four, we grab the nest, the queen, the brooch, the feather-if it's there-and then we run."

"Exactly."

"Then it's a plan." Nath clapped Marc on the back. "Let's get this done."

"Please seek shelter nearby while I am gone," Markov said, already leaving. "I will aim to return with haste."

Once Nathaniel finished applying the bug spray, the group began to make their way slowly towards the most stable-looking building, a half-collapsed hut with no roof. It was more of a wall than a house, so they hunkered down in the small space and waited.

"I know why you wanted Kim out of the way," Nathaniel whispered.

Marc's eyes flit for a second to Nath's face, very close to his in the cramped area. "Other than so I wouldn't kill him once I go insane?"

He knew what Nath was thinking, even before the half-dragon's face split into a grin. "You didn't want him to get in the way of step three-and-a-half, did you?"

Marc's stomach lurched, but not in an unpleasant way. As much as he tried to hide it, there was a bundle of nerves knotted in his gut, and excitement mixed with a tinge of fear, eagerness and apprehension conflicting. "Were you counting on it?"

Nath hummed, leaning into his side. "What do you think?"

Oh, he was scheming something. The little glint in his blue eyes wasn't an innocent spark, the man had plans.

"You're reckless," he scolded, heat pooling in his core all the same.

"Only for you," Nath responded, tail coiling around Marc's ankle.

Kim leaned into Marc's other side. "What are we whispering about?"

"Nothing," Marc said, pushing him away.

Kim pouted. "You two always keep secrets from me."

"This isn't a 'you' conversation," Nathaniel said, trying to scratch under his horns. "So, what do we do if Markov doesn't come back?"

"We'll give him an hour," Marc said. "After that, we'll assume he's been caught and do a rescue mission."

"What do we do for an hour?" Nath asked.

"Truth or dare?" Kim suggested.

"What?"

"Never have I ever? Two truths one lie? Gay chicken?"

Marc hoped the incredulous expression on his face was accurate enough to explain everything his words could not. "I...what?"

Nath rubbed his chin. "How do we even play gay chicken if we all like guys?"

"Maybe not the best idea, then," Kim said, chuckling a little. "Max can get pretty jealous sometimes, even if he pretends he's not."

There was a flicker of something across his expression, but it was gone before Marc could place it. Nath raised his eyebrows, but wisely kept his mouth shut.

"Look," Marc crossed his arms. "If we're going to do something, I'd prefer it be quiet. We need to stay alert, you know."

"But I get bored," Kim said, sticking out his bottom lip.

Nathaniel made a face. "At the risk of agreeing with the himbo, I'll have to admit my sitting-and-waiting skills aren't the best. I always gotta be doing something when I'm at the shop, or else I get..." he wiggled his fingers. "Antsy."

Kim beamed. "Hey, at least we can agree on something! That's progress!"

"Don't let it get to your head." The half-dragon rolled his eyes and turned to Marc.

"Haha, it's too late for that." Kim grinned, sticking his tongue out. "Next thing you know, we'll be friends. But no benefits. Like I said, with Max...he's...you know."

For the first time since they'd met, Kim's smile faltered, then vanished completely as he looked down, going silent. Marc felt a chill run down his spine at the sudden lack of energy from the usually energetic human. "Max is what?" He asked, leaning forward a little. It was dangerous, prying into the secrets of a mob boss, but if those secrets were making Kim like this then something was up.

Kim shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, I know how I feel, but..." he chuckled, an easy smile that didn't make it to his eyes. "I don't know if he even likes me."

Marc turned to Nathaniel. The half-dragon looked attentive, concerned, even. The two locked eyes for a moment, then looked back at Kim.

Nathaniel leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "What do mean?"

"Well..." Kim looked down, picking at the dirt under his thumbnail. "I guess it started with how we met...though I don't really remember how Max and I first met that well. It was during my first year of college. I went out for drinks with my friends, saw some dude harassing a dwarf girl, I punched him, his friends ganged up on me, my friends bailed, next thing I know I wake up in a bed half-naked and Max is stitching up a stab wound on my hip."

"Huh." Marc crossed his legs. "That's...certainly an interesting story."

"It is, isn't it?" Kim's smile brightened. "Strangely, not the weirdest situation I've woken up to. But anyway, turns out Max looked up who I was, learned I was a college student, figured out I was stressed about student loans, and offered me a job doing some varied physical activities."

Marc squinted. "You mean fucking?"

"Ha. Not really. I got hired to move boxes." Kim stretched. "It was a good way to exercise, and I got paid well, so I liked my job. Sometimes, Max was there, or Markov, and they'd teach me special things. Like how to keep secrets." His gaze sharpened as he looked at Marc and Nathaniel, voice dropping low and deadly serious. "Or how to play dumb."

Marc's blood ran cold.

Fuck.

Kim wasn't an idiot at all. He fucking knew what he was doing all along.

He couldn't see Nath's face but judging from the sharp intake of breath behind him, the half-dragon was also shocked.

How long had he been stringing them along? What kind of fucked up person could con everyone he ever met, and con them well?

Kim started snickering. "Don't worry," he said, waving a hand. "I'm at least smart enough to know that I'm an idiot. Max always says 'the best lies are hidden in a mountain of truth' and I have no clue what that means, but I guess it makes me trustworthy?"

"Oh my god," Nath said, placing a hand over his heart. "What the hell, Kim?"

"Prank," Kim responded, shooting a finger gun at the half-dragon.

"I hate you."

Marc pushed the mini-heart attack he'd just had out of his mind. "You were telling a story about you and Max," he reminded Kim.

"Right. Well, as Max and I got to know each other better, I got different jobs, like being Max's bodyguard at fancy dinners, or being Max's bodyguard at clubs, or at the movies, or at amusement parks, or just being his bodyguard when he was alone working on something new."

It sounded more like Max was inviting Kim to dinners and clubs and trying to hang out with him, but Marc didn't say anything.

"And one day," Kim continued. "He kissed me. And I kissed him back. And he showed me a sex toy he'd designed, and I-"

The half-dragon gave an awkward cough, interrupting the story. "I'm not sure I want to hear the rest of this anymore," he said.

Marc nodded. "You don't need to go into details, Kim."

"Right." Kim shuffled awkwardly. "Well...I don't know if he actually likes me. We haven't kissed since that one time, and he pays me to try out the toys he designs, but does that mean we're friends with benefits or just friends?"

"So let me get this straight." Nathaniel leaned forward. "Max pays you to test out sex toys-while he watches, I'm assuming."

"Yeah, he takes notes."

"And he takes you out to dinner and movies and fancy shit like that."

"Well, as his bodyguard."

Nath gestured with his hand. "Hmm. Well, I can't really visualize him doing anything like that, so I'm not sure what to think."

Kim pulled his knees to his chest, an unusually shy gesture. "I'm starting to think that...maybe I'm the jealous one?"

"You want a relationship with him?"

"...I think so. I mean, the sex is great, even if he doesn't actually get involved, but I want to, I don't know, kiss him? Hold his hand?" He sighed, leaning back against the stone wall. Marc was oddly reminded of those old fantasy movies where the prince meets the princess for the first time and falls in love. With the expression on his face, someone would think he'd fallen for the most beautiful princess in the world. Except Kim was a beefcake of a man who had apparently fallen for a fucking mob boss.

"Have you tried asking him about it?" Marc asked.

"I mean," Kim fidgeted. "I've thought about it. But I want an actual game plan before I go all in, you know? That's why I've been meaning to talk to you two for some advice."

Nath blinked. "Us?"

Kim nodded. "I mean, you're Marc's boss, and you got together as friends with benefits, so you guys know what you're doing."

"I mean..." Marc waved his hand non-committally. "It's not complicated. You're friends, and you fuck. That's it."

"Yeah," Nath said. "If he's your friend and you have sex, then you're friends with benefits."

"Okay," Kim said, nodding. "But what about the other stuff?"

"The other stuff?"

"You know, kissing, and cuddling, and stuff like that." Kim scratched his chin.

"Well," Marc shrugged. "Kissing is kind of a half-benefits thing, unless it's not in the moment, then usually those are more romantic gestures."

Kim looked him in the eye. "But you and Nath do it."

Oh.

Marc opened his mouth, waiting for his brain to deliver some saving grace of smooth talk to his tongue so he could somehow word his way out of this. But the only thing that went past his lips was a very-not-smooth choking sound.

"Well," Nath said. "You see. Um."

"So do 'friends with benefits' kiss or not?" Kim sat forward, looking at them intently.

Marc wanted out of this conversation. Let him run into the fucking forest and never return. Oh gods. He couldn't think of anything to say, he could not bring himself to look at Nath, his face felt like it was growing redder and redder by the second-

"Hello, I have returned," Markov said, as his wasp illusion floated over the wall.

Oh thank fuck.

"Wow," Kim said, instantly glancing up to Markov. "That was way faster than an hour."

The illusion vanished, revealing Markov in his knitted bee costume. "I am very good at my job," he stated.

Kim grabbed the little robot, hugging him to his chest. "You sure are," he said, beaming. "You're so good at your job, I'm so proud of you!"

"Filing compliments into "Self-Confidence-Boost' folder," Markov said.

Marc was watching the two, but his mind was so far away from the moment that his grandmother would be washing-machine-spinning in her grave if she knew how inattentive he was while on the battlefield at this moment.

Was he...actually in a relationship with Nathaniel?

He'd never been in a relationship before. He didn't know fuck all about the rules of dating someone. He'd just been going with what his gut and his dick told him. And yeah, he had feelings for Nath, he knew that all too well, but was Nathaniel reciprocating? Was he oblivious?

"The wasp nest and queen have both been located at the top room of that building," Markov said, using one of his robot appendages to point to the tallest building in the distance. "My heat scans detected at least two dozen humanoids occupying that area. I was unable to infiltrate the building itself, as my scanners determined that to be too large of a risk. There are also approximately fifty other residents in the general radius of the building, maybe more. Marc, are you paying attention?"

"Huh?" Marc turned to focus on the robot. "I...yeah. Two dozen, that's easy enough."

"You seem distracted."

"I'll be fine." Marc put a hand to his sword, using the familiar grip to ground him back to reality. He could file that mental breakdown for later. He was supposed to be the professional here, he had to act like it. "Kim, you and Markov start a distraction. Keep them occupied for as long as you can. Nathaniel and I will slip around behind these buildings and finish off whoever stays."

Kim gave a thumbs up. "Ready to cause mayhem, little buddy?" He asked.

"I believe you will be the one causing mayhem," Markov replied. "I will simply direct you on the optimal path to avoid being surrounded."

"Alright, we have a plan. Time to finish this job." Marc turned to Nath, fighting down the way his heart tripped over itself as he locked eyes with his...friend with benefits? Boyfriend? Unlabeled partner?

Nathaniel gave a quick nod. "Let's do this."

His eyes were steady and calm. Marc couldn't help but admire how focused he was.

He gave a quick nod, steeled himself.

They'd both need to stay focused if they were going to do this job right.

Chapter Text

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Nathaniel was grinding his heel into his tail to keep it from flopping all over the place and betraying how absolutely-not-calm he was.

Fucking hell, how did Marc manage to be so calm and focused? Did he know something Nath didn't about how friends with benefits worked? Was he just ignoring the whole situation and hoping it would never be brought up again? That seemed likely. This should never be brought up again.

He watched as Kim tucked Markov into his letterman's jacket. The little bee outfit was still on him. He'd been surprised to find out that Marc was so affected by that.

Mental note: Marc really likes cute things. A lot. Like, Rose levels of a lot.

"Wish me luck," Kim said, grabbing his bo staff in one hand and vaulting over the stone wall.

Nathaniel watched as Marc peeked over the wall. "What's he doing?" Nath asked.

"Um-"

"FUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUU!" There was a scream from Kim, then another, louder scream that was definitely not from Kim. Something exploded, glass broke, there were a thousand other sounds Nath couldn't place.

It was like throwing a bomb into an anthill. The once-still ruins of Haut Monde were suddenly alive with shouting and screams, clanging of metal and mayhem. Nathaniel started to peek over the wall, but Marc grabbed him by the horn and dragged them both down,

"What the fuck did he do?" Nath hissed.

Marc opened his mouth to answer, then closed it tightly as a familiar buzzing sound began to make itself heard about the clamor.

"Oh god." Nath clutched Marc's arm. "I really hope this bug spray doesn't fuck us over."

"Shhh!"

Nathaniel pressed his wings as close to his back as he could. Hopefully he'd applied enough spray back there, it was hard to reach some areas on his wings and if he'd done a bad job, the wasps would find him. So he kept his wings tightly closed and tried not to think about what would happen if the wasps did catch them.

Probably death, either by a lot of wasps stings or by the Akumas. Neither option seemed to suggest a painless death.

Well, one good thing came from all this. He was so scared for his life that he couldn't even focus on the fact that he didn't know what kind of relationship he had with Marc anymore. Hell, he missed not having to fear for his life every twelve seconds. What happened to just being a normal shopkeep, keeping a low profile, and not causing problems? He missed that. He wanted to go back to that. He wasn't a fighter, he couldn't hide, he had one combat spell and a fighting style that only worked for one-on-one battles.

"They're following Kim," Marc said. "Now's our chance."

Nath stood up, and was immediately thankful he wasn't Kim because there were a lot of people chasing him. He caught a glimpse of the human for a second between the mass of limbs and weapons, sprinting at full speed towards the treeline.

Above them was a swarm of wasps-not as many as there had been last mission, but still a sizeable bunch, buzzing and writhing as they searched the area, eventually following the running group. So the bug spray worked. Thank fuck to that.

He could see the tall building, the one that Markov had pointed out. It was too far away to see many details, but Nath could make out the forms of people gathering outside the building, the glint of something reflecting the sunlight-probably weapons.

"Kind of dumb to station people outside the building," Nath whispered. "That all but proves they have something to hide in there."

Marc looked back at Nath. "Anyone who looks Infernal?"

Nath squinted. "You're not actually expecting me to figure that out from this distance, are you?"

"...right. Sorry." Marc shook his head, standing up. The last few stragglers running after Kim had now disappeared among the mass of rubble and buildings in the distance. "Stay hidden if you can, but if you see any demons, or imps, or anyone like that, let me know. If not, stay quiet and don't draw attention to yourself."

"Glad to see you're taking the Blanc situation seriously," Nath said.

"I'm not cut out to be the villain of a story," Marc replied, flashing a smile at the demon. "Too cute for that."

"Well, I've seen a lot of stories where the villain is unreasonably attractive," Nathaniel said.

Marc laughed. "That's sweet. But 'mindless killer' isn't my style."

"I mean..." Nath gestured towards the group in the distance. "Eh."

"That's different. We know they're criminals."

"You're still gonna be mindlessly killing them."

Marc rolled his eyes. "Only kind of. Come on, before Kim's group comes back."

They split off, Nathaniel taking to the shadow of the nearby buildings while Marc made his way down the middle of the road, one hand on his sword.

He saw the exact moment when Marc was noticed, as a dwarvish man with a close-shaved beard snapped to attention, slapping the back of one of his companions. The group turned to face Marc, sixteen people in total, a variety of weapons unsheathed and pointed in the swordsman's direction.

Markov had said there were two dozen in that building; some of them probably ran off after Kim. But from the sixteen here-ten goblins, four half-goblins, a dwarf, and a human man-none of them looked Infernal.

"I'm from Raincomprix Hunters," Marc declared, voice clear and confident. "I'm giving you one chance to put down your weapons and surrender."

"Raincomprix?" One of them yelled back, a thin, spindly goblin with most of his teeth missing. "We ain't done nothin' wrong, fuck off!"

"You've got stolen goods in that building," Marc said, unsheathing Blanc. "Don't mistake me for someone who's going to let you live if you try to fight me. Understood?" He set one foot back, assuming a fighting stance.

"Hey, you can't prove shit," the human spoke, glaring at Marc.

"Hm." Marc pointed the sword to him. "Then you won't have an issue with me going upstairs to search the top floor?"

Even from this distance, Nathaniel could sense the change in attitude. The group facing Marc tensed, somehow seeming more hostile than before. Impressive, considering they were already pointing weapons at him before this new level of hostility.

"Fine," the human spat, lowering his axe. "We'll show you the way."

"Thank you." Marc didn't sheathe his sword. "Just one other question, if you don't mind."

It looked like the human did mind, and minded a lot, but didn't object.

"The furs. In the house back there." Marc jerked his head back the way they came. "Who did that?"

The effect was instantaneous. The group cast quick glances at each other, weapons that had once been lowered now raised again.

"What does it matter?" The dwarf asked, crossing their arms.

Marc looked down at the dwarf for a long moment. "It doesn't," he said. "I have my answer."

Nathaniel crept closer as the group parted for Marc, the human man beckoning him with one hand. Behind him, the goblins began to ready their weapons again.

Shit. Nathaniel started whispering an incantation, readying his fire spell.

One of the half-goblins stepped in behind Marc, slowly raising his sword in the air-

Nath cast a bolt of fire in the goblin's direction.

"Fuck!" One of the goblins screamed, diving out of the way as the bolt arced and missed, careening towards the group. Marc didn't turn around.

The one with the sword cursed, swinging down.

The sword never made it to Marc's neck, meeting Blanc with a metallic clang.

Nath froze, another firebolt fizzling out in his hand. He hadn't even seen the swordsman move. Marc hadn't even turned around, the sword brought up and across his back to stop the goblin's blade.

The rest of the group stepped away. Nath couldn't blame them, even the half-goblin with the sword was shaking.

Marc tsked, shaking his head slowly. "Didn't think you were planning to be so compliant," he said, and with a flick of his wrist, the half-goblin fell, the head disconnected from his shoulders.

Nath pulled back, pressing himself against the wall, heart pounding at the sight of blood. He didn't want to look. He didn't want to see this.

"Run!" He heard one of them yell, before his voice was cut short in a wet, choking noise.

There were screams, far worse than anything he'd heard before. It was one thing knowing that Marc killed people for a living, it was another thing to be less than thirty feet away, listening as the swordsman felled one after another, the sound of screams and the slice of blade through flesh and bone resonating in the otherwise empty air.

Was it Marc who killed them? Or Blanc? It didn't really matter, did it? They were dead all the same.

Nath clutched at his shirt, one hand over his mouth, squeezing his eyes shut.

"Please-" one of them gasped, then silence. It was over as quickly as it had begun.

Slowly, carefully, Nathaniel peeked around the corner. Marc was standing just a few feet away, looking down at the human's corpse under his boot, Blanc still jammed into the center of his face.

He didn't know what sound he made to alert Marc, but the swordsman's head snapped up, looking right at him.

The swordsman's eyes were full-blown, fixed on him like a vice. Even if there was nothing physically holding him, Nath felt frozen in place, like bands of iron were affixed against his joints.

"I'm sorry," Marc said. Nathaniel tried not to notice how every muscle in the swordsman's body was tense, taut as a bowstring about to snap at the slightest movement.

Nath licked his lips, took a deep breath, tried not to think about how all these people had been alive just seconds before. "They were killers," he said, steeling his resolve. Those furs belonged to their group, it didn't take an interrogator to see they were guilty. There'd been humanoid skins in there, for fucks sake. He shouldn't try to feel bad for them.

Marc let out a low, shaky breath. "Nath," he said. His eyes were staring at the demon, knuckles white against the hilt of the sword.

Oh, right. "Even as small a group as this?"

Marc nodded, biting his lip. "I'm sorry," he said again.

"Well," Nath stepped back. "I was hoping to do this after we at least got the nest and queen, but that...that's okay."

Marc stepped forward.

"Stop." Nath held out a hand. "Drop the sword first."

The swordsman let out a low whine, eyes fixed to him, all but fucking him with his gaze. Nathaniel tried to slow the jackrabbit pace of his heart by sheer will alone, but with the way Marc was looking at him, it was hard to stay calm.

Marc's hand released from the sword's hilt, Blanc remaining upright with how tightly it was secured in the corpse's skull.

"Good," Nath said, hand still outstretched in a 'wait' motion, looking around the area for somewhere more private. There were a few upright buildings, some sparse trees and vegetation, but nowhere that seemed secluded enough from anyone who might come back.

"Nath," Marc hissed.

"I know," Nathaniel said, slowly stepping back. There wasn't anywhere safe nearby.

Marc remained rooting to the spot, but he seemed to be getting antsier with every step the demon took backwards. "Nath."

Nath made a decision then.

He turned and ran.

The effect was instantaneous. He heard the pounding of footsteps behind him as Marc gave chase, much faster than Nathaniel had been expecting. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck-

There was terror-pumped adrenaline buzzing through his body, knowing that the swordsman was right on his heels, like a weasel chased by a panther, living on borrowed time of the panther's sadistic mercy-

Two buildings, still standing, creating an empty, shadowed alley between them. It wasn't perfect, but it was hidden. He changed direction, running into the alley, spinning to face Marc just as the swordsman all but tackled the demon, pinning him against the wall and knocking the air from his lungs.

For a horrifying moment, Nathaniel locked eyes with Marc, faces inches apart, helplessly pinned against the stone, and wondered if he'd gone too far this time. But then Marc's lips crashed against his, biting, hungry, the moans in his throat spilling into the demon's lips, and Nathaniel stopped thinking altogether.

He felt intoxicated, buzzing with energy and almost trembling with the sheer force of Marc's tongue pressing into his mouth, his breath hot and demanding, and Nath breathed it all in, welcomed the fear and arousal alike as the feelings and emotions swirled together into a singular need.

"Marc," he gasped, a rushed, breathy exhale between a brief moment where their lips weren't connected. Marc growled, bucking his hips against Nath's, and Nath nearly forgot what he was trying to say from the sheer bliss of it all.

"Marc," he said again, more insistent this time. Marc froze, his grip on the demon's wrists loosening as he pulled back.

"I..." Nath reached into the pockets of his inside jacket, fumbling for the items he'd grabbed before they left. Marc's hands moved to his hips, shifting restlessly as Nathaniel finally pulled out a pack of condoms and lube. "I came prepared this time."

Marc's eyes flitted down.

"Not-well," Nath coughed awkwardly. "Not 'fully prepared', but if you can hold off on fucking me for like five minutes I can-mmf-"

Marc pressed forward, kissing him again, hands sliding under the waistband of his pants. Nath squirmed at the contact of Marc's fingers working his pants past his hips, wrapping his arms around Marc's shoulders to keep himself stable.

There was a chill of air against his cock when his pants were pushed down to his knees. Marc drank in Nath's gasps and moans, imprisoning them between his lips as he took the condoms and lube from the demon's hands.

"Turn around," Marc ordered, opening the cap and rubbing the lube across his fingers. Nath turned to brace himself against the stone wall. Holy hell, his dick was hard.

"Fuck," Marc breathed, and Nath whined as one of Marc's hands slid up against his tail, teasing across the sensitive base where it connected to his back. "You like that?"

"I-ah-" Nath opened his mouth to respond, shutting it tightly with a groan as Marc's other hand cupped his ass, fingers brushing against his hole before the first digit pushed inside, then a second, pumping into him with barely restrained fervor. The pain of the stretch was quickly replaced with pleasure, and Nath tried to find some grip against the stone wall before he lost it altogether. Marc's hands weren't rough, but there was a restrained strength in the way that he moved, hinting to the sheer power the swordsman was keeping at bay.

Marc leaned forward, lips brushing against the nape of his neck, teeth nipping at his skin for a moment. "It's taking everything in me not to just fuck you right now," he whispered, breath shaking.

There was a thrill of arousal that shot through his body at that, making him shiver. Marc wanted him. The barely cohesive thoughts in his mind flit around his mind like wisps, soft, affectionate knowledge in that even now, Marc was still holding back to make sure he wasn't hurting the demon in his desire.

But he had to agree with Marc, he wanted the swordsman's cock in him, the sooner the better. Nath arched back against his fingers with a gasp as Marc pulled against his tail, pressing deeper into his hole. "M-more."

Marc didn't hesitate to slide in a third finger, attacking the back of Nath's neck with teeth and tongue, a ruthless love song of wanton sounds and the smell of musk, the feeling of precum dripping from the demon's cock and the slightest taste of blood from biting his own lip so hard.

Hell, he must look like a sight, fingers digging into the stone wall of an ancient ruin, pants to his knees while the swordsman grabbed him by the tail and turned his will into putty with a twist of his fingers.

He couldn't stop the whine in the back of his throat when the swordsman pulled out, tail whipping behind him, trying to find Marc's fingers and pull him back. There was the sound of the condom packet being ripped open, the unbuckling of the swordsman's belt, then Marc's hands returned to his waist, the weight of the swordsman's cock pressed against his entrance, and if not for Marc holding him steady, Nath's legs might have buckled from the sheer thrill of it all.

"You ready?" Marc asked, voice husky in Nath's ear.

Nath squeezed his eyes shut, nodding. "D-don't hold back," he gasped, maybe not something he should have said, given how Marc's fingers tightened against his hips in a vice-like grip.

Marc laughed, breath tickling across his neck, and pressed in.

Nath gasped, writhed, keened, but Marc's grip didn't even waver, testament to his strength as he slid into him, inch by torturous inch, until he was fully sheathed inside the demon, filling him.

Marc shifted, pulled back, and Nath barely had time to realize what was coming and utter a strangled 'fuck' before the swordsman snapped his hips forward.

Everything that Marc had been holding back overflowed. The swordsman fucked into him, hard and fast and ruthless. Nath let out a loud cry, louder than he'd have liked, but there was no stopping it now. He was completely at Marc's mercy, boneless with sheer pleasure, hands scrabbling for purchase against the stone wall.

"Marc, Marc, fuck-"

Again and again, he felt the thrust of Marc's cock inside of him, a jackhammer against his prostate, overstimulating in the best way possible. His tail thrashed, and the swordsman grabbed it, using it to pull Nath even deeper against him, earning a wild moan from the demon.

Nath could feel his orgasm swelling and frantically pawed for his dick. "Marc, I-" he choked, turning his head as Marc pressed forward to kiss him, as fiercely as he was fucking him, and when Nath came, it was with a muffled cry and the taste of Marc's tongue between his lips.

Marc fucked him through his orgasm, spearing deeper, harder, until his pace began to stutter and he dug his teeth into Nath's jacket, coming with a groan and a final ram of his hips against Nathaniel's ass.

Nath braced himself weakly against the wall, gasping for breath. He could feel Marc slowly pulling out, earning a quiet whine from the demon.

"Ah...maybe you should have gotten a condom, too," Marc gasped. Nath could see the swordsman pull off his own, tying it and throwing it into a patch of grass. Eh, it was a ruin, a little littering wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to it. Besides, it's not like they could do something about the mess that he'd sprayed across the stone wall, either.

"It...it occurred to me a bit too late," Nath said, legs shaking.

Marc hummed and pulled Nath to him, wrapping his arms around the demon's middle and pressing his nose into the stretch of back between his wings. Glad for the support, Nath let himself go limp in the swordsman's arms, mind full of hazy cotton and euphoria as Marc leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the alleyway.

Nath was very aware that they were both still naked from waist to knees, pressed flush against each other, but if no one had shown up during his battle cry of an ass-pounding, it was unlikely they'd show up at this very moment.

Hell, if someone did show up, Nath seriously doubted he'd be able to run. Jelly legs were an understatement, Marc's arms around his waist were the only thing keeping him upright at this point. They stayed in that position for several minutes, trying to regain breath and rational thought.

"Hey," Marc whispered, after a long moment.

Nath shifted. "Yeah?"

"...Thanks."

Nath snorted, shifting in the swordsman's arms to look at him. "For helping you get all your energy out?"

Marc flushed red and nodded.

Hell, it wasn't fair for him to be so endearing after all that. The demon's heart skipped once, twice, but he kept his emotions in check.

"Well," Nath said, lips curling up in a smile. "I'll have to admit, ever since you first pinned me down in that cave, I've been a little curious about how it'd feel. So...you know. This wasn't an entirely altruistic thing, I had other motives."

"Yeah, but..." Marc buried his face in Nath's shoulder. "I could have hurt you."

"But you didn't. And in return, I got one of the best fucks in my life." Nathaniel slapped Marc's bare ass with his tail. "You're good."

"That's..." Marc smiled. "That's good to hear. I should probably go get my sword back, though. And...finish the mission."

"Hooray for mission finishing," Nath said, pulling away. His legs protested having to carry his own weight again, but Marc helped him stay on his feet as he fished a packet of wipes from his jacket. "Here. For your dick."

Marc accepted the wipes gratefully, and the two set to getting themselves cleaned off. "I do feel bad, though," he said, throwing the wipes into the grass with the condom.

"About killing all those people?"

Marc stuttered. "Oh. Well, actually I was feeling bad about not having a trashcan or something to put these wipes in, instead of just throwing them on the ground...but now that you mention the killing..."

"I mean, Rose would be livid if she saw me littering." Nath shrugged, rebuckling his belt. "And considering that the people you killed probably were at least associates in...whatever the deal was with all those pelts of literal people and sacred animals and shit...killing them's kinda the lesser evil? Maybe?"

Marc pulled his pants back up. "Whatever you say. Come on."

Nath clung to Marc's shoulder as they walked back towards the group of corpses. "I really hope no one else is in that building," he commented, stumbling on jelly legs. "Or that Kim's group doesn't come back. Like, that was a really good fuck but I don't think I could survive a round two."

"Yeah, I-" Marc paused, the hand supporting Nath suddenly tensing hard, voice dropping icy cold. "Stay here."

"What?"

"Oh, no. Oh, fuck." Marc pulled away from Nath.

Nath's legs started to tremble. "Shit." He quickly waddled to the nearest outcropping of rock and grabbed it for support, watching Marc run to the pile of corpses.

"No, no no no no." Marc ran a hand through his hair, desperately searching through the bodies. "Fuck!" he yelled, and Nath realized what was wrong as Marc looked back at him with a face of sheer panic.

Blanc was gone.

Chapter Text

"Where's the sword?"

Marc was really, truly scared. He'd never lost the sword-misplaced it, a few times at home-but never lost it. There was a tightness in his chest already, whether from panic or the symptoms already coming into effect, he didn't know.

Fuck, was he going to die if he didn't find it?

"Shit, shit, shit," he hissed, pacing around the dead bodies. He hadn't missed any, had he? He'd been thorough in making sure they all died. Had someone else been there? Had they taken Blanc? Fuck, he needed the sword. He needed it. He needed it.

"Marc," Nath said, coming forward. "I need you to calm down-"

"DON'T TELL ME TO CALM DOWN!" Marc yelled, whirring to face Nath.

The half-dragon stepped back several paces, shocked.

"I'm-I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," Marc said, feeling moisture starting to bud at the corners of his eyes. He wanted to throw up, he wanted to stab something, he wanted to cry, he wanted to find out where his sword had gone.

Nath stepped forward again, slower, one hand extending to him like he was a wild animal, eventually finding its place on his shoulder. "We'll find your sword," he said. "It's only been a few minutes, whoever took it can't have gotten far. We'll grab the nest, then go get Markov, okay? Markov will know what to do."

Marc nodded, blinking back tears.

"Take deep breaths," Nathaniel instructed. "It's gonna be okay. You're gonna be okay."

Nath didn't know that. Nath couldn't know if they'd find his sword or not. But Marc forced himself to swallow, to try and maintain some semblance of calm, and start making his way into the building. One hand clutched the knife in his scabbard. At least he wasn't completely defenseless, a thought that gave him a very small bit of comfort.

The building was surprisingly well kept. It looked to be some form of a rental space, old wood and furniture rotting where it stood, but nowhere near the ruin of some of the other buildings. But as old as the wood was, most of it still appeared to be in good shape. The staircase leading up appeared to be fully intact.

"Well, that's some good luck," Nath said, pointing to the banister. A small (well, as small as they were, which wasn't really small at all) Miracle Wasp was on the rail, wandering idly across the decorative frame. "I might need your help up the stairs, Marc."

"Oh. Right."

Marc cast a quick glance at Nath's ass, as though he'd somehow be able to see evidence of the moment they'd spent. He wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he'd actually, physically hurt Nathaniel. Knowing Blanc's power, it wouldn't have been difficult for a too-tight grip to shatter his friend's hipbone.

"Do I have something on my ass?"

"Huh? Oh, no," Marc said, looking up at Nathaniel. He didn't mean to get caught staring. "I just...you're sure I didn't hurt you?"

"I'm fine," Nath said, patting his arm. "Just a few bruises. Come on, let's go."

Helping the half-dragon up the stairs was a slow and patient process. Even though he insisted he was fine, Marc could see Nath wince a little with every step. If the marks on his neck were any indication of how rough he'd been with the half-dragon, the swordsman could guess there was a least some bruising down there.

Still, a small part of Marc felt a little proud at that. He shouldn't, he'd hurt Nathaniel, but it had been one of, if not the most intense fuck of his life and Nathaniel didn't seem to carry any regrets about that. He'd actually welcomed it, the horny bastard. Marc smiled affectionately.

The stairs led up, past large, windowless openings that gave an impressive view of the ruins below. Marc peered out, hoping one of them would be at an angle where he might be able to see Kim's group, or at least some stray goblin running off with his sword, but none of them did.

"Ow," Nath muttered under his breath.

"Hm?"

"I said 'wow'. It's a really nice view."

Marc sighed. "If you need to take a break, just let me know."

"No, no, I'm fine. We need to get the queen as soon as possible so you can get your sword back. If we can free her from the brooch, I can use her and the nest to help us."

Marc couldn't really argue with that, but guilt was a bastard and it bastardized his confidence, so he closed his mouth and helped Nath slowly ascend the staircase.

There were more Miracle wasps, too. Hanging onto the walls, floating lazily above them, curious but non-threatening. That was a good sign. The nest was probably nearby-oh there it was.

They didn't even have to make it to the top of the staircase to see it, sitting in a cage on an old marble pedestal. Wasps circled around the cage in lazy circles, filling the air with a constant, unsettling drone. No queen in sight, though. Maybe she was inside the nest, that's where queens usually were in normal hives. Of course, nothing about the Miracle Wasp nest had shown normativity so far, but maybe they'd be lucky.

"They didn't even hide it?" Marc wondered. "I mean, it's a large city and all, but this feels off."

"Well, the Miracle Wasps don't like being in closed spaces," Nath said. "But I'd bet that cage is cursed or something. Yeah, look, there's runes on it. It's definitely cursed."

"Think you could disenchant it?"

Nath groaned. "You got any liquid or something that I can enchant to draw runes with? I didn't bring any chalk."

"Uh..." Marc patted his pockets. "I have a knife, the condoms you gave me-the lube! Will the lube work?"

"Yeah, probably," Nath said, taking the bottle from Marc's hand.

Marc felt a twinge in his chest, like he'd pulled a muscle. He winced. The symptoms were already starting. "Let's do this quick," he said, suddenly nervous again.

Nath whispered an incantation under his breath, and the bottle of lube flashed with a quick shimmer of light. "Alright, try not to distract me, please. I'm still new at this."

Marc leaned against the railing and watched as Nathaniel started to draw circles around the cage, careful not to touch it. Nath was whispering something under his breath, some kind of incantation as the runes began to glow red, then blue, hovering off of the table and circling the cage in two rotating circles.

One of the wasps landed on the back of his hand. Marc froze, watching as it crept up his arm. He wasn't fond of normal wasps, but this one was almost as big as his hand, and the stinger was fit to scale, too.

It should be fine, right? He had bug spray on. It lasted an hour.

...how long ago had he put the bug spray on?

There was another flash of light. "I did it!" Nath said, and Marc was about to respond when the wasp jerked, and Marc lost all thought to the rush of blinding pain.

The effect was instantaneous.

"Gh!" His jaw froze up, his arms, legs, every muscle in his body tightened and froze. His hand felt like it was on fire, but he couldn't even move his head to look at it.

"Marc?" Nath turned to him, the smile on his face vanishing instantly. "Marc!"

Marc couldn't even respond. It was like he was frozen in time, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't blink, but he was still alive, staring at Nath with whatever expression was now affixed to his face.

He could feel Nath's hands on his cheek, looking him over. "Oh, fuck," he breathed. "Marc, I'm so sorry."

If he could cry, he'd be sobbing right now. But no matter how badly the venom was spreading up his arm, his eyes refused to make tears, even if it felt like he was slowly burning from the inside out.

There was another twinge of pain in his chest. Fucking great, that was still happening.

"I-I'll go get help, so don't panic, okay?" Nath said, looking like he was on the verge of panicking himself.

No, no, no. He didn't want Nath to leave.

Marc wanted to talk, to beg Nath not to go, but he couldn't even muster a whimper as Nath sped down the stairs, running as fast as he could on injured legs. He couldn't even think clearly, he just wanted the pain to stop-

"Hello, Marc," a voice said.

The air shimmered, wavered, and then he wasn't alone in the room. Orange hair, close cut to the shoulders, well-dressed in a leather vest-

Fuck.

This was a nightmare. This had to be. He couldn't move, he couldn't scream, he could only watch as Sabrina Raincomprix tapped her glasses, releasing the invisibility spell.

Of course. Of course she could turn invisible. Fuck, he'd even mentioned it to Nathaniel the first time he'd seen the half-dragon's invisibility jacket.

So she was the one who stole the nest.

Oh gods.

"You're probably in too much pain to focus on what I'm saying," his manager said, stepping back. Only then could Marc see the sword in her other hand-his sword. Blanc. "If you're not at that level yet, you will be soon. I've heard Miracle Wasp venom is incredibly painful."

The way she said it, so emotionlessly, not even looking him in the face; Marc felt a rush of emotions-anger, fear, fury, terror, hatred, helplessness, pain-and he couldn't show any of it.

"I've always been intrigued about this sword of yours," Sabrina said, lifting Blanc to the light. "Celestial steel, obviously enchanted-from the records we have of your fights, I assumed it was an enhancing power, strengthening your mind and body to resist spells and physical attacks alike, but now..." she turned it over in her hand. "I'm suspecting it's something more." She looked at him, raising an eyebrow. "Thank you, Marc. You may have helped us more than you realize."

Fuck you, Marc wanted to scream. The tightness in his chest only seemed to constrict more, knowing that Blanc was so close, and he couldn't reach out to grab him.

"I'll be back for you in a few minutes," Sabrina said, moving past him and down the stairs. "Right after I take care of your half-dragon friend."

A sound escaped his gritted teeth then, strangled and barely audible. The footsteps paused for a moment.

"Curious," Sabrina said.

And then she was gone.

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel stumbled, running in the direction that he'd seen Kim head off to. Was he really planning to catch up to Kim and the group of fifty or so criminals chasing him?

This was a bad idea. He shouldn't have left Marc alone. But if he got to Markov, the robot might have a solution-

His legs almost gave out from under him, and he tripped, wings flapping to keep from tumbling into the dirt. Just the small run had his bruised legs screaming. Maybe getting fucked by a really strong swordsman hadn't been the best course of action at the moment. Regret was starting to mix with the pain. He should have been taking this mission seriously.

There were footsteps behind him. Nathaniel looked back in alarm, fireball at the ready-

-and froze at the sight of Blanc being pointed at him.

Marc wasn't holding it. Someone else was, a woman in bounty hunter-esque clothes and glasses. Someone that Max had pointed out in their last meeting.

"Sabrina Raincomprix, working with Raincomprix Hunters," the human said, confirming everything he'd just realized. "I suggest you comply or I'll be forced to take lethal measures against you." Her voice was cold, as threatening as the sword in her hand.

If his legs hadn't been trembling before, they definitely were now. "I-I don't want any trouble," he said, slowly raising his hands in the air. "This is a mistake, I was....I was-"

"On your knees."

Nath shrunk in on himself. "Please, I, I just-"

"On. Your knees."

Nathaniel sank to his knees. Every inch of his body was trembling now. A single bead of sweat dripped from his chin to the dust.

Sabrina put her fingers to her mouth and whistled, a loud, piercing sound that echoed in the ruins.

More footsteps. So they hadn't really been alone after all. Nathaniel cursed to himself.

"What do we do with him?" A voice said, someone he didn't recognize. Nath willed himself not to glance up, afraid that any wrong move would find the sword against his neck.

"Take him under with the other human while I grab the bounty hunter," Sabrina said. "Separate cells, I want to question all three of them individually."

Fuck. They got Kim. Nath bit his lip, staring down at the ground with his heart in his throat. What about Markov? Did he get away?

"Got it," one of the strangers said. He saw Sabrina's shoes turn, walking away, and allowed himself to relax for a fraction of a second.

"Gh!"

A heavy boot connected with his side, knocking him off balance. Nathaniel let out a gasp of pain as a second foot landed on his wings, pinning them both down.

Five goblins stared down at him, weapons drawn and pointed.

"Who wants to take this?" One of them asked.

"I'll do it," a second one said, stepping forward.

Nath didn't even have time to wonder what they were doing before the boot came down on his face and the world went black.

Chapter Text

"Wake up."

Marc's eyes snapped open as his body collapsed against the wall. For the first time in hours, he could move again. His lungs burned, gasping for air. Every inch of his body was sore from holding the position he'd been stuck in.

"Looks like you passed out from the pain," Sabrina said. She was standing several feet above him, staring at him through an open in the ceiling, the only entrance he could see in the pit he'd woken up in. "Lucky for you."

Marc didn't feel very lucky. He was in an old prison cell, that much he could gather, but his head was throbbing and his vision was starting to blur. The pain in his chest was very present, like someone had placed a lump of red-hot coal inside his ribs. Blanc's curse was nothing to laugh at, and Marc didn't feel anywhere close to laughing.

There was a rope tied around his ankle, secured to a rusted hook in the wall above him. It'd probably break easily. Well, it would he could actually gather the strength to do it. At this point, even something as fragile as that could probably hold him now.

The bounty hunter crouched, peering at him through the bars. "Why did you follow us?"

Slowly, Marc propped himself up against the wall, one hand over his heart. "What?" His throat was dry, scratchy.

"You have nothing to gain from following us here," Sabrina said. "The mission was called off, you wouldn't have gotten a reward. I'd think with how busy you are with your studies, this would be a waste of your time."

Marc didn't answer. He'd gone through a bit of torture and interrogation training during orientation, knew the basics of how to question someone and what to do when he was being questioned himself. But that'd been years ago, and his mind wasn't really in a place to try and remember what he'd been taught. So he said nothing, wincing as he drew a shallow breath, the burning in his chest protesting every movement of his lungs.

"But you're not trying to track down this group of criminals, are you?" His manager stared at him, indifferent to his pain. "You're here for the Miracle Wasp nest."

He must have shown some kind of reaction, because Sabrina pulled back from the bars with a satisfied hum. "I thought so. Who set you up to this? Your half-dragon friend? The person our stone golem captured? Someone else?"

Marc sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. Fuck. They had Kim.

Sabrina cocked her head.

"You seem to be in immense pain," she said, as coolly as though she were talking about what she ate for breakfast. "Odd. The venom should have worn off by now."

"It's...the sword," Marc rasped. "It's cursed."

Sabrina gave him a piercing look. "Lying won't help you get out of this situation," she said.

"I'm not lying." Marc craned his head up to look at her. He could see the flicker of flames illuminating her face. They were probably underground...well, more underground than he was now. At least the pain was manageable enough for him to maintain some coherent thoughts. That probably wouldn't last long.

Sabrina didn't know anything about the sword. Maybe he could-ow, fuck it hurt to breathe. He could do something. Maybe. Get information.

"You want answers, right?" Marc said. He dropped his head to his chest, it hurt to look up at her for too long. "I won't be able to answer for much longer."

A pause. "Is that a threat?"

Marc chuckled, every movement sending another shard of pain through his body. "I want to ask you things, too. Answer my questions, I'll answer yours. And if I think you've answered honestly, I'll tell you how to avoid the curse so you don't..." he coughed, tasting blood in the back of his tongue. "So you don't end up like me."

It felt like an eternity before the light shifted above him, and Sabrina spoke again. "What do you want to know?"

So many things. There was so much he wanted to ask, and everything he'd planned seemed to slip from his mind. She was being surprisingly lenient to his demands, and Marc could easily guess she was only doing so because she didn't plan to leave him alive.

Best to start from the beginning, in that case. "The Miracle Wasp nest," he said. "Why did your group take it?"

"We needed something to immobilize but not harm people," Sabrina answered. "The Miracle Wasps fit our purpose well."

"Your purpose?"

"My turn to ask a question." Sabrina cut him off. "How did you find out we had the nest?"

Well, if she was going to be an asshole, two could play that game. "Nathaniel told me," Marc answered.

"And how did he know-"

"Nope, my turn to ask a question," Marc snapped, hoping Sabrina could hear every ounce of defiance in his voice. "You didn't answer my last question in full, so I'm not answering yours until you take our deal seriously."

Sabrina glared at him-or at least, he thought she glared at him, it was kind of hard to see with most of her face cast in shadow-and tapped Blanc against the stone. "I have other ways of making you talk," she said.

"Like what? Torturing me?" Marc gave a dry laugh. "I'm already in too much pain to move-ow, fuck, shouldn't have raised my voice."

Sabrina was silent for a long while. Gods, she really liked long, tense pauses. "They're to immobilize the police forces so the Akumas can infiltrate Gallia."

Marc jerked his head up (or tried to jerk, but it was more of a slow, painful lolling of his head) to look at her. "You want them to raid the city?"

"How did your friend know about the wasp nest?"

Marc gave her a withering glare.

"Those were your terms," she said, crossing her arms. "I'd suggest you take our deal seriously."

Oh, he fucking hated her. She was a pain in the ass before, but now that he knew she was actually evil he could at least be justified in wanting to spit in her face. "Nath sold them in his shop," he said. "Recognized them when I told him about my mission."

"Hm."

"Why are you sending people to raid the city?"

Sabrina swung her feet over the edge. "Not the entire city," she said. "Just Beast Town."

Marc would have bolted to his feet in alarm if he could. Instead, he gripped the side of his shirt, fingernails digging into his stomach. "Why?"

"There are several reasons." Sabrina leaned over the hole to look at him. "Beast town and its inhabitants reflect poorly on the city of Gallia as a whole. Getting rid of so many people will affect this city's economy, sure, but it'll be beneficial in the long run. There are some very powerful politicians who've set their sights on that little plot of land, and they'll do more good with it than a handful of low-class Mythics."

"Are you fucking serious?" Marc wished looks could kill, he'd slit her throat right where she sat. "Those are people's lives you're talking about! That's murder!"

Sabrina cocked her head, expression never changing. "That's our job," she said. "Every garden has its share of weeds that need to be cut out. You're willing to protect the weeds growing inside the city?"

"They're people," Marc spat.

Sabrina gave a humorless laugh. "I thought you of all people would know better."

Fuck her. Fuck her and everything that she stood for. Fucking Sabrina Raincomprick, that asshole.

"Everyone else already knows that Beast Town's full of criminals," Sabrina continued. "Why do you think I sent the police to investigate? There's story after story of all kinds of horrible people the police found there on the news now; the city will see Beast Town's destruction as a stroke of good luck."

Marc wanted to scream at her, but his throat was starting to close up. It was getting harder to breathe.

"Why did you follow us?"

Gritting his teeth, Marc forced himself to focus on breathing. He still had questions to ask. This conversation wasn't done yet. He could figure out how to rip her spine out of her back and hang her with it afterwards.

"That's the job," he said, glaring at her. "Hunting down bad people."

"No, the job ended once I said it did and took the mission off the board." Sabrina scoffed. "I always knew you had delusions of justice, but I didn't realize you'd go this far. Maybe I expected too much from you."

"Maybe you're a callous bitch," Marc mumbled under his breath, before raising his voice again. "I know you have the Brooch of Transmission," he said. "What about the Feather of Sentience? Do you have it?"

"We do. The stone golem created by it was what allowed us to capture your elusive friend. Speaking of, who is he?"

Giving information about Kim or Max seemed like a bad idea, so Marc, despite not being a great liar, tried anyway. "He's one of Nath's friends. I don't know him too well." Technically it wasn't a full lie. He didn't know Kim very well and the man was more connected to Nathaniel than he was to him.

"Really now?"

Before Sabrina could sniff out his lies, he jumped into another question. "Are you working with Chloe Bourgeois?"

Even with his vision blurring in and out of focus, he saw the way Sabrina's limbs stiffened. "What makes you think that?"

"The Feather and the Brooch were both sold to Chloe from Nath's shop."

"No. She has nothing to do with this," Sabrina replied in a stiff voice, colder than her usual tone.

If Marc had to guess, that was probably bullshit. But his head was starting to throb really badly and he wasn't sure if he could trust what he was hearing anymore.

"One thing about your behavior here surprised me," Sabrina continued. "After you killed the group outside, I assumed you and your friend would continue up into the building, but instead the two of you ran off somewhere. Did you know we had people waiting to ambush you? Were you gathering intel?"

Marc slid further down the wall until he was lying flat against the stone floor. A part of him wanted to tell Sabrina exactly what they were doing just for the whole spite of it all and because Sabrina probably wouldn't believe him anyways, but whatever ounce of logic he still had in his pain-wracked body told him that letting Sabrina know he was emotionally close to the half-dragon was a very bad idea.

Not that they were actually together or anything. But like Kim had said, they kissed and held hands sometimes. That was kinda romantic. And yeah, he liked Nath, but Nathaniel just seemed to go along with what he was doing. Was he using Nath by forcing unreciprocated feelings on him?

"Marc? Marc?"

Blinking back into focus, he looked up at Sabrina. Telling her to fuck off, as cathartic as that would be, wasn't possible at the moment. It was starting to become incredibly difficult to talk. Everything hurt, he couldn't think of anything else to ask her, he didn't want to talk to her anymore. He needed Blanc.

"Looks like you're not willing to cooperate," Sabrina said. Her voice sounded muffled by the throbbing of his heartbeat in his own ears. "So let's skip to the end for now. The curse on the sword. What is it?"

"I need..." Marc winced. "I need to touch the sword first."

There was a pause. "Do you think I'm an idiot, Anciel?"

Marc pressed his lips together in silent defiance. The light above him shifted once more, and Marc half-expected Sabrina to jump down into the pit and make him answer.

"We'll talk about this again later," Sabrina said. "Whether I have to force the answers out of you or not."

She stepped away from the pit, out of sight.

Marc groaned, curling in on himself.

Just breathe.

Gods, he hurt. And it was only going to get worse.

He couldn't see a way of getting out of this alive. Kim had apparently been captured, who knew if they had Markov or not. And they knew Nath was out there-assuming they hadn't caught him already. Even if he was, there was no guarantee the half-dragon could get help before Blanc's curse inevitably killed Marc.

Hopefully Nathaniel was doing better than him.

Wherever he was.

 

~oOo~

 

"Well," Nathaniel bared his teeth in the most animalistic sneer he could muster. "If it isn't Chloe-fucking Bourgeois."

He hoped the blood on his face added to the extra feral effect. His nose didn't feel broken, but it was definitely bleeding, and he couldn't even wipe it away because his hands were chained behind his back. The Ring of Bonding was still on his finger, though. They were probably too scared to touch a magic caster's hands. Not that the ring could do him any good here.

He looked to be in an old-timey jail cell. The bars were rusted, and looked like they could probably be kicked in easily enough, but the two goblins sitting on either side of the cell along with the wasps crawling around dissuaded him. He'd heard one goblin talking earlier about whether on not they should have put him in their jail-hole instead, but the other one hissed "he's got wings, you idiot! A hole in the ground won't hold him! Besides, Glasses wanted to put the dangerous one in our most secure jail."

Dammit, he was starting to get dizzy again. He was probably concussed. No, he was definitely concussed. No one takes a boot to the face hard enough to knock them out cold and wakes up perfectly fine.

"Hey! We were in the middle of talking!"

Oh, right. Nath collected his wandering fishbowl of thoughts and looked back up at the lady on the other side of the bars, long blond hair and clothing that looked like it belonged anywhere but in these ruins.

He narrowed his eyes. "Why are you here?"

"Ugh." Chloe rolled her eyes, a hand on her hip. "Sabrina said the queen was acting weird and needed someone who actually knew shit about magic to control it, so I had to come all the way over here. They don't even have proper parking spots for my car, and the beds are so tacky, it's the worst. Not to mention that horrible bug spray that Sabrina made me wear because she doesn't trust the wasps, it smells terrible."

"You know, I already had a headache before you walked in," Nath said. "I don't need two."

Chloe glared at him. "This isn't about you, street boy. You couldn't even begin to understand how much I'm suffering right now."

"I don't see you in a jail cell with your hands tied," Nath said, shrugging. "I think you're just being a bitch."

Chloe whirled on one of the goblins. "Shoot him."

The goblin looked about as unimpressed with her struggles as Nath was. "Why?"

"Oh my god, how incompetent can you be? I want to teach him a lesson! They do this all the time in movies!"

"That's going to kill him," the goblin answered, face impassive. "These bolts are laced with fast-acting poison."

Ha. At least the goblins weren't taking any of her shit, either. That was a small ray of revengeful sunshine in his terrible day.

Chloe spat something in Elvish at them, turning around to face Nath. Nathaniel had tried to take Elvish as an extra language at some point, but gotten bored, so he only really knew how to say "hello" and "fuck". Even so, he recognized one of those words in her tirade, and it wasn't "hello".

"Hey," he said, just to throw more fuel on the fire for the hell of it. "How's that crystal dildo working out for you?"

Chloe stiffened as the two goblins looked at her, eyebrows raised. "That's none of your business," she said, setting her jaw.

"Well, I was the one who sold it to you so," Nath gave her the most shit-eating grin he could muster with a face full of blood. "You know, customer satisfaction and all that shit-"

"Take it back."

"You can't give back used sex toys, that's against our sanitation policy."

"Fuck you."

"You can't do that either."

Now Chloe looked like she really wanted to shoot him.

"Miss Bourgeois," one of the goblins said. "The wasp queen is here."

"It doesn't even matter," Chloe said. "Even when I use the brooch, she still won't sting me and let me take control. I've tried everything, Charmspeak, bribery, she doesn't listen! I can't even fully control the wasps with the brooch." She glared at him, as though he was to blame for all her problems. "So you're going to make her do it."

"Excuse me?"

Chloe motioned to someone outside his field of vision, and Nathaniel's deep-set frown only deepened as he saw the goblin that he'd fought in the caves step into view, holding the Miracle Wasp queen in one hand. The queen looked just a lethargic as before, the purple gem affixed to her head. It didn't take long for him to see the brooch, now proudly attached to the goblin's neck.

Nathaniel felt his heart breaking as he looked at the queen. He'd raised her from the day she'd first crawled out of the nest, looking for someone to bond to and keep the hive safe. It had taken months of him interacting with her, letting her sit on his shoulders while he worked, buying live bees, hornets, and wasps for the hive to eat, and eventually, trusting her to sting him and form their bond. And now, he could feel her overwhelming pain and anguish in the back of his head, as her swollen, violated body struggled to even stay upright.

"Tell me who the queen's connected to," Chloe put her hands on her hips. "You were the one who had her first, right? You would know who she's bonded with. Maybe once they're gone she'll finally obey me."

The goblin holding the queen pulled out a familiar knife, pointing it at him through the bars. There was blood on the knife, a revelation that made Nath's stomach lurch.

"That's Marc's knife," he said. "What did you do with him?"

The goblin lady bared her teeth at him in a terrifying smile that he'd seen on Alix several times. "That's none of your business, demon."

Chloe raised an eyebrow. "Demon?" She looked back at him, lips curving into a wicked smile. "Well, that's going to make this much more interesting."

Nath swallowed the nauseous feeling that swelled to his throat.

"To think that a demon was living in Beast Town? Oh, that's perfect!" The elf let out a laugh. "And I thought Sabrina's plan was too complicated to work. If the authorities knew what you were, they'd shut down the neighborhood for sure."

"Well." Nath leaned back against the wall. "I'm not in Dupont at the moment. You can't prove shit."

Chloe smirked. "I'll find a way."

"Why do you even want the neighborhood gone, anyway?" Nath's tail whipped from side to side. "I heard about the article with your dad, what did we ever do to you?"

Chloe tapped a finger to her lips. "Imagine this," she said. "A hotel. A beautiful hotel, rich, luxurious, making Gallia the most popular city on Earth." She looked down at him. "And imagine a small group of peasants and criminals taking up the very spot that would be absolutely perfect for that lovely hotel."

Nathaniel stared at her. "Are you serious? You're killing hundreds of people just to build a fucking hotel?"
"It's not like your pitiful lives could do anything better."

"That's not a debatable point! You're ruining people's lives!"

The elf looked down at him. The expression on her face already told Nathaniel just how little she cared about the people of the Dupont neighborhood. "I'll do what's needed to get what I want," she said. "Now you tell me: who is this queen bonded to?"

Nath grit his teeth. "I don't know."

"I don't believe you." Chloe looked over to the goblin who was still holding the queen. "You. Make him talk."

The goblin twirled Reversion in her fingers. "Didn't think I'd get to use this twice today," she said, pushing open the gate to his cell. It creaked open with a loud screech; Nath half expected it to fall off the hinges.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. He couldn't even extend his wings to defend himself, his hands were tied behind his back in a way that pinned them together.

"H-hey, wait," he said, scrabbling away from the approaching goblin. "We can work something out-"

"We sure will, demon," the goblin said. "I'll cut you open and you'll say what this lady here wants to know."

Nath squeezed his eyes shut. He felt like hyperventilating; the queen's own fear and negativity felt like it was mirrored with his own emotions, amplifying them. The wasps around started to twitch and buzz, a humming, terrifying drone.

"What are they doing?" Chloe asked, a hint of nervousness creeping into her voice. "Hey! Don't use the wasps on him!"

Nath opened one eye. The goblin was looking back at Chloe and the wasps, which were now frantically crawling across the walls, an agitated sea of insects swarming across the stone.

"I'm not doing that," she said, backing away. "I don't know-"

The goblin screamed as wasps swarmed around her, covering her from head to toe, a swirling mass of yellow and black, surrounding her completely. The two goblins watching turned and ran as the knife in her hand dropped to the ground, hand petrified and swollen with hundreds of stings.

Her last scream paralyzed in her throat.

As soon as the goblin with the brooch froze, the wasps stilled, frozen over her body like some kind of horrific mummification. The damage was done. With that many wasps stinging her at once, the goblin wouldn't live long.

It was quiet. Nath gasped for breath, staring at the corpse inches from his face.

And then Chloe gave a yell of frustration, throwing the door open and storming into the cell. The demon watched, eyes wide, as she tore the brooch and the queen from the goblin's body and turned to him, eyes wide with fury.

"This," she hissed, holding the queen by her middle and shaking her in front of his face. He saw the gem disappear, the queen's body deflating to its normal size, the wasps unfreeze and begin to crawl across the goblin's paralyzed body, still agitated. "This is what I mean by not following what I say. How do you control her?"

From this close, he could smell the bug spray on her skin. No wonder the wasps weren't converging on her. Either she bought the same enchanted bug spray as Kim or she'd stolen it from his bag. Either way, this was a very bad situation and he didn't know how to get out of it.

The infectious hostility from the queen vanished as the Brooch disconnected from her. Nathaniel felt her exhaustion and reached out to her mentally, trying to comfort the creature. She responded with a weak surge of emotions, helplessness and despair at the forefront of her mind.

I'm here, he sent, though he knew the queen couldn't understand his words. It'll be okay.

"Answer me!" Chloe shook the queen in front of his face. "Who is she bonded to?"

Nath's back was pressed flat against the wall, as far away from the screaming elf as he could manage. "I don't know," he insisted, breath shaking.

"Liar!" Chloe held the brooch in her other hand, pointing it to him. "If you won't tell me the truth then I'll make you!"

The gem began to glow a bright purple, and Nathaniel grit his teeth as he felt something trying to worm its way into his skull. The brooch. He resisted, trying to force it out of his head. He wouldn't let Chloe take control of him.

It was a good thing he spent so much time around enchanted objects, or else he might have succumbed to the elf's bullheaded willpower. But he had a job to do. He had to get out of here. He had to find Marc, find Kim, get out of this place and back home. He'd spend a hundred years back in the Nine Hells before some self-entitled rich kid got the better of him.

He snapped his fingers, willing a fireball to buzz against his fingertips. There was no way to attack Chloe with his hands behind his back like this, but he didn't need that. At the spark of Infernal magic, the Brooch's Celestial powers disconnected from his mind with a dull boom and a small gust of wind, the fireball fizzing out in his hand.

"Fuck you," he gasped, pushing her out of his head. "I'm twice as stubborn as you are."

Chloe stepped back, looking at him, then down at the weakly struggling insect between her thumb and forefinger. A look of disgust crossed her face. "Fine," she said. "I'll do what's needed to get what I want."

His feeling of victory was short-lived. Chloe opened her hand, letting the Miracle Wasp queen fall to the ground.

The queen's thoughts reached out to him, her mind muddled, exhausted. He saw two of her legs twitch as she tried to stand and failed.

"All this for a little bug," she sneered.

Nath scrambled to get up, protect her, but before he could, Chloe raised her foot-

"NO!"

-and crushed the queen.

The bond vanished from his head in an instant, leaving a part of his mind cold and empty, a part that he didn't even know existed until it was gone.

Chloe stepped back, then turned and walked away, closing the rusted door behind her. Nath didn't even look up to see her go. His eyes were fixed on the twisted, broken, lifeless body of the queen.

"What did you do?" He heard a voice outside his cell speak. Sabrina.

"We're doing things my way," Chloe responded. He heard her footsteps grow fainter, disappear.

Nathaniel didn't know when tears started to fall.

They fell all the same.

Chapter Text

It must have been hours, maybe a day before the cell door opened again. Nathaniel didn't even look up, curled up resignedly in the corner of the room, as far away from the queen's corpse as he could be.

The goblin's body and Marc's knife had long since been removed by a few Akumas. The wasps, too, had eventually wandered off, probably to return to their nest. Without a queen, they would prioritize protecting the remaining eggs until a new queen hatched.

Nathaniel flinched a little at the loud screech of the door opening, but made no other movement.

"Come on," he heard a voice say, followed by the sounds of grunting, and a solid thud on the ground. "In you go."

Slowly, Nathaniel raised his head. His eyes took in the other person in his cell, the familiar leather jacket, lithe frame, tousled raven hair-

"Marc!" He jumped to his feet, sliding to his knees next to the human.

He was breathing, thank fuck and all other obscenities. The swordsman's eyes were shut tight, face red and sweating, one hand clutching his chest in a death grip.

Nathaniel wanted to shake him awake, ask him what was wrong, but his wrists were still tied and the best he could do was carefully maneuver his tail to brush the other's hair out of his face.

"Marc," he said, voice breaking. "Marc, Marc, wake up."

A strangled whimper made its way past the swordsman's lips.

"Putting them together?"

The sound of Chloe's voice made him flinch. Apparently wherever they were didn't have very thick walls.

"Interrogating him in the pit wasn't as useful as I'd thought," Sabrina responded. "The shadows obscured most of his face, so it was hard to discern if he was lying or not. We'll use him as leverage for questioning the shopkeep. Besides, I think it would be better to move the other human into the pit instead."

"Ugh, he's still fighting?"

"As best he can. We have the stone golem holding him down, but he still tries to escape from its grip. Besides, there's no use trying to interrogate him anymore, not after what that goblin did. If the wasps hadn't killed her before I got back, I would have." He could hear the annoyance in her voice.

"I don't really blame her," Chloe said. "He was utterly annoying."

"It would benefit us to keep him alive for a little longer," Sabrina instructed. "Wear down his spirit, then use the telepathic connection of the Brooch to get information from him. The same applies to the other two, of course."

"How much longer do we have to wait?"

"Soon, Chloe. You can trust me on this."

Nath bit his lip. He didn't want to know what they were doing to Kim, what they were planning to do to him and Marc.

Speaking of, the swordsman began to stir, eyes fluttering open. "Nath?"

His voice sounded so weak.

"I'm here," Nath whispered, shifting closer. "Are you okay?"

He wasn't okay, it was a stupid thing to say and he regretted it as soon as the words left his mouth. Marc grimaced, curling in on himself with a barely audible sob.

Nath squirmed against the restraints, ignoring the pain as his wings were bent at an unnatural angle before he finally managed to pull them free, wrapping his wings around Marc in the only gesture of comfort he could give.

"It hurts," Marc croaked. There were streaks of dried tears across his face and new ones rising to the surface.

"Marc? Marc, just keep breathing, okay?" Nath looked up at one goblin watching them, an old lady with grey hair and a crossbow in her lap. "Please," he said, standing up to address her. "Please, he needs help."

The goblin raised an eyebrow. "You want me to put him out of his misery?"

"He's cursed," Nath pleaded. "The sword that he had, if he's too far away from it..."

The goblin made a "tch" sound, shaking her head. "That's none of my concern."

"But he'll die! Please, ma'am, he just needs to be near it, that's all. I...I have a ring. Astral magic, I swear. I'll trade it with you if you'll just..."

She stood up then, setting her crossbow to the side and nearing the bars. "Let him die," she said, staring him in the eyes with a cold look.

Nath's breath froze.

"That man killed my daughter, my grandson, my son-in-law, my best friend," the old woman said, grabbing the bar of the cell with a wrinkled hand. "I can name every person that human took from us."

"We only fought because you attacked people!" Nath spat, feeling his blood boil. "You're criminals!"

"We're survivors!" The old lady snapped, clenching her fists. "I didn't want to kill people!"

"Then why are you doing this?"

The anger left her, and she stepped back, turning to sit back in the chair with her crossbow. "You tell me, demon."

Nath paused, wings raised in hostility. "I'm nothing like you," he said, voice shaking. "You're working with the very people that you hate, why not kill Chloe Bourgeois, Sabrina? It's obvious they're just using you. You're hypocrites."

The goblin sighed then, looking down at her hands. "We have to do what's best for us," she said. "We're running low on supplies, and we need what-how they call? Beast Town-can offer. I don't like them, self-entitled bitches, but they offered a way in and a way out, and can keep us safe while we loot. It's a deal we can't refuse."

"And you trust them?"

The lady scoffed. "Of course not. But if we disagree, Glasses sends bounty hunters after us and we all die. This way, we'll at least have enough food and supplies to chance surviving the mountains, get somewhere where they can't reach us."

"This isn't right," Nath said. "The people in Dupont just want to survive, too."

"And they will if they run fast enough." Crossing her arms, the old woman cocked her head. "Tell you what, demon. You care for this man, yes?"

Nath looked down at Marc. His eyes were closed, the faint shudder of his chest the only movement.

"I do," he said. He'd never admitted it aloud before, and it felt strange saying it to someone who was essentially his enemy, but he watched as she hummed, tapping one finger against her knee.

"I know how much it hurts to lose someone," she said, voice soft. "I will not forgive you two for killing those I love, but I can help him."

"Really?"

"Make a contract with one of the women who came here," she cut in. "Make it so they can't double-cross us. The elf knows what you are, but the human is still unaware of your true nature. You do this, and I'll bring the sword near to your...friend. Those are my demands."

"You want me to make a contract with her?"

"I want my family to live to see the end of this," the goblin said, crossing her hands over her lap. "If you want him to do the same, you'll do what you demons are known for and make a contract that they can't refuse." She sighed, leaning back in her chair. "For both our sakes, I hope you succeed."

Nath sighed, slowly nodding. "Okay. I'll do what I can."

 

~oOo~

 

He didn't sleep at all that night.

Assuming it was night, there was no way to tell time in the little cell. But he could feel his eyelids growing heavy, weighing down his sore muscles and the grumble of his stomach. The dizziness and disconnected thoughts had now dulled down to a consistent headache that kept him awake.

That, and the faint noises that were coming for Marc.

Every few minutes, the swordsman let out a whimper, or a cry, barely louder than a breath of wind but all too loud for Nath, whose ears were focused on tracking every shallow breath that left Marc's body. He was afraid, terrified that one of those sounds would be Marc's last.

He had to think. He had to figure out a way to get Sabrina or Chloe to make a contract with him, it was the only way.

"Hold on, Marc," he whispered. Who knew if the swordsman could even hear him anymore. "I'll get you out of this."

He turned to the goblin sitting in front of the cell. This one, a younger man, had switched out with the old lady a few hours ago. His head nodded, eyes closed as he dozed off, crossbow resting at his side.

If he could find a way to undo the chains, slip free, he could put a silent ward in the surrounding area, kill the goblin, and then...

...and then what? There were probably hundreds of Akumas around him. He had no way of fighting them all, he didn't know where they were keeping Kim, he didn't even know where Sabrina was, and didn't fancy his chances in a one-on-one fight against her.

There was a slight tremor in the earth, the rocks shifting slightly. The lantern hung on the ceiling swayed, light flickering.

"Huh?" The goblin blinked awake, looking around. He locked eyes with Nathaniel. "Okay, demon. I don't know what you're doing but you better stop it."

"I'm not doing anything," Nath answered honestly.

There was another tremor.

The goblin hoisted the crossbow up, pointing it at him. "Don't play games with me," he said. "I'm serious-"

And then the ground opened up and swallowed him whole. His scream as he fell was short-lived before the earth closed up again and silenced him.

Nath froze, staring at the space where the goblin suddenly wasn't. "Um." he said.

The ground opened again, and a single Miracle Wasp crawled out.

Nath watched as it flew to his cage, resting on the iron bars. Miracle Wasps couldn't...make holes in the ground. Not to his knowledge, anyway.

And then a familiar voice reached his ears.

"Hello, Nathaniel," a cheery, robotic voice said. "Do not be alarmed."

"Markov! Thank fuck!" The demon scrambled to his feet, rushing to the cell. "Where's Kim? Where have you been? How did you do that?"

"My heat scans indicate that Kim is nearby," Markov said. "He sent me to go find help shortly before being captured. So I got help."

The stones shifted once more, and three more figures emerged from the hole: a dryad in a flowery pink dress, a gothic siren, and a dark-skinned gnome.

They were going to be okay. They were going to survive. Thank the Astral Planes and everything in it, they might have a chance.

"Come on," Rose said, pushing open the cell. "We're getting you out."

"Marc needs help," Nath said, the moment she entered. "He's separated from the sword, Sabrina has it, I, I don't know how much longer he has-"

"Hey, hey," Rose knelt down next to him, cupping his face in her hands. "He's going to be okay, we're here now."

"Please, please help Marc," Nath said, trembling, trying to hold back tears like a single stick holding back a waterfall.

"We will. But you've got injuries, too. Markov, can you do anything about these chains?"

"Equipping laser." Markov flew to Nath, working with the bindings on his wrists. In seconds they snapped, falling to the ground. Nathaniel winced, tentatively rolling his shoulders to ease the cramps in his arms and hands.

"Juleka, honey," Rose said, turning to her wife. "Can you get Marc and Nathaniel to the tunnels and stay with them? I know you don't like fighting."

Juleka nodded, moving to stand next to Marc.

"I can help," Nath said, leaping to his feet and nearly falling again as one knee almost buckled under his weight.

"Negative," Max responded. "You'll slow us down."

"They have both the Brooch of Transmission and the Feather of Sentience," Nath said. "They're using the feather to make a stone golem to hold down Kim. I can dispel it-probably," he added as an afterthought.

Max looked at him, eyes unreadable past the tint of his glasses. There was a shimmer across his body, some kind of illusion that made it hard to focus on his features. Probably so he couldn't be recognized. "Don't make yourself a target," Max said, snapping his fingers. Markov flew to his side. "Miss Couffaine, if you don't hear back from us in an hour, I'd suggest you save yourself."

"Here," Rose said, grabbing a few vials that were hidden inside her dress. "I know you have a lot of magic, but here's a healing potion for Marc, and some other ones in case you need them. I grew a tree in the tunnels so we can teleport to you if we're in a pinch."

The siren smiled, pulling Rose in for a brief kiss. "Stay safe," she said.

"Always am. Come on Nath, let's go!"

Nathaniel cast one last glance at Marc, being scooped up into Juleka's arms. The swordsman tensed, whimpering at the movement, so unlike the fierce yet gentle man he'd grown to care for. It hurt to see him so broken and helpless.

"We'll get you out of here," he promised the swordsman, turning and running after the other two as they made their way forward.

Chapter Text

"Hey, who are you? How did you-mmf!"

Rose raised a hand, and vines shot from the earth, entangling the half-goblin that had noticed them leaving. Max looked back at her, nodding curtly. "Good work."

"Thanks," Rose said, sounding a little out of breath. "There's not a lot of vegetation around here, so I've got my work cut out for me. Nath, you look like you're gonna fall over if you don't get something in your stomach, take this." She handed the demon a flask of water.

"Thanks," Nath said, taking it gratefully.

"Pace yourself," Rose said with a stern look as he made a move to down it all.

"Right."

The water was like liquid pleasure to his cracked, dry throat. Nath eagerly-but carefully-drank what Rose had offered as they made their way up the steps that the half-goblin had been guarding. Hopefully the doors at the end led to the surface.

"There's seems to be no Miracle Wasp activity," Markov commented, still disguised with his wasp illusion.

Nathaniel winced, shoulders tensing.

"What's wrong?" Rose asked, reaching out a hand to him.

"I..." The demon shrunk in on himself. "The queen's dead. Chloe killed her."

Max stopped, turning to look at him. "And the nest?"

"The wasps have probably returned to it to prepare for a new queen," Nath said. "But that's going to take a few months." He looked up at his boss, hugging one arm to his side. "I'm sorry. I understand if you want to remove the contract."

Max's expression didn't change. "As long as you recover the nest, our agreement has not changed," he said. "Given the work you and Mr. Anciel have already put into locating the nest, if you decide to end the contract, we can still arrange a partial fee."

"Th-thank you, sir."

Rose put a hand on his shoulder, leaning into his side. Long, drooping leaves sprouted from her skin. "The queen was important to you, wasn't she?"

Hot tears prickled the corner of his eyes. "Yeah."

"I'm so sorry, Nath."

He had to keep himself together, or he might start crying then and there. So he swallowed, nodded, and bit his lip, furiously wiping his eyes with a dirt-stained sleeve.

"I did a little bit of scouting beforehand," Markov said. "It looks like they've transferred Kim to their pit cell."

"Why do they only have one pit cell while the rest of them are normal?" Rose asked.

"Different races require different accommodations," Markov replied. "I theorize this pit cell was made for a dragon to prevent shapeshifting. Of course, this would only work for a younger dragon. One like Tsuguri would require a cell several miles underground in order for the earth to restrict her mass."

Max waved a hand and the doors opened for him, leading up to the surface. Nathaniel winced at the bright light. It was well into the afternoon, but he suspected it probably wasn't the afternoon of the same day they'd been captured.

"We have three objectives," Max said. "Evacuate Kim, find Blanc, and take the wasp nest. You and Miss-get back!"

The ground shifted under their feet, and a stone pillar shot up from the ground right in front of Nath just as something invisible slammed into it, leaving a large impact in the rock inches from his face.

"Very kind of you to tell me everything you're planning," Sabrina's voice said. Nathaniel hissed a curse, stepping back. Normally he was the one surprising people by being invisible, he didn't like having the tables turned on him.

Markov flew high into the air. "She has Blanc in a scabbard on her left side and is holding a baton in her right hand," he said. "Her glasses carry a magical aura, most likely-Boss, 2:00!"

Max snapped his fingers, and another pillar rose up to block Sabrina's swing. He heard the grunt of frustration from the woman.

Nath stepped back, trying to get cover near the stairs. "Yeah, her glasses are enchanted with invisibility-ah!"

Something slammed into his gut, knocking him off his feet. He flapped his wings, steadying himself before he could tumble down the stairs.

"Boss, the baton transformed," Markov said. "It appears to also be enchanted, now it's turned into a whip-"

There was a cracking sound, and Markov jerked sharply to the side, still hovering in his wasp form. "It appears she has seen through my disguise," he said.

"Stay," Max ordered. "We need you to document her movements."

"Affirmative. The baton is now a sword."

Nath turned to Rose, who was hurriedly backing away from the fight. "Spread out!" she yelled. "Don't clump together!"

Nathaniel leapt into the air, flapping his wings to gain a little boost as he scaled the building they'd just emerged from. There wasn't enough wind to make it to the roof, but he scrambled onto the stone awning above the doorway.

From this perspective, he could see Max steadily backing away from a dancing, whirling invisible blade, summoning pillar after pillar to block her attacks. He could sort of get an idea of where she was, and from this perspective, Blanc would be on her other side so the chances of him hitting the sword were low.

He looked to Rose. She nodded.

Focusing, Nathaniel summoned a firebolt, hoped for the best, and threw it just as Max lifted another pillar.

"Gh!"

He hit something. The fire scattered across her form, highlighting her side for just a moment, long enough for Rose to see. She raised her hand, and a vine shot from the ground, entangling Sabrina's legs and waist, one tendril crawling up her chest and neck. With a swift, deft flick, the vine caught the rim of Sabrina's glasses and flung them off her face, where the ground swallowed them up.

Sabrina flickered into view, teeth grit. Nath was about to celebrate their victory before he heard the sounds of commotion nearby. They hadn't been quiet, that's for sure, and from this height he could see other people starting to swarm towards their location.

"The sword!" He yelled, leaping from the awning. Rose moved the tendrils with a dexterity that Nath's tail could only dream of having, deftly unbuckling the sword and tossing it to Max, who caught it in one hand.

"We got it! Let's go!" Max ordered.

"Intruders!" Sabrina yelled, pounding her baton on the ground. The stick end vanished, turning into a familiar-looking fireball.

Nath didn't have to examine it that hard to realize it was Infernal magic. He stared. That wasn't just Infernal fire, that was his fireball.

"Nath, run!" Rose yelled as Sabrina chucked it towards Rose. She raised her arms in defense, but Nath grabbed her, pulling his wings over her like an umbrella as the fireball hit him squarely in the back.

"Fuck!" He hissed, fighting back the sting of flames licking across his skin. He was fine. Fire didn't hurt him that much. Still hurt like a motherfuck. "Let's go."

The plants blooming on Rose's body shivered with her shaky breaths. "Thanks," the dryad said, clutching his arm.

There was a rumble as the stones under Max's feet rose, carrying him over the ground like some kind of hoverboard. Handing the sword to Rose as he glided by, Max looked back at the group behind them. "We won't have long until they free Miss Raincomprix," he said, grabbing Markov from the air as the robot struggled to keep up with them. "We may not have time to grab the nest this time around. Kim takes priority."

"She made my fireball," Nath said, trying to keep pace. "Does her baton have some kind of copying magic?"

"No time to dwell on that now," Rose said. "Markov, lead the way!"

"Continue forward for 60 meters, then turn left," Markov instructed.

"I don't know how long 60 meters is," Nath called back. "I'm not a measuring stick."

Max waved a hand. "Follow my lead."

The dryad and demon ran after him as he made a sharp turn into an old street. There was a large stone structure in front of them with large, open gates.

"Kim has been located in the center of that structure," Markov said.

From what he could see, the interior looked to be an open courtyard with a watchtower near the back, and in the center of it sat a large chunk of stone.

"Shut the doors when we get in!" Max commanded. Rose gave a nod, pulling two small orbs from her pocket and throwing them on either side of the door. With a wave of her hand, the orbs began to sprout and grow, and Nath soon realized they weren't orbs at all, but seeds, and two large trees were beginning to grow and push the doors closed at a very rapid pace.

"Inside, inside!" Rose called, and they dashed through the iron gates just before they closed with a thud behind them.

Nath looked back. "How are we getting back to Juleka?"

"We can go over the walls," Rose said, cracking her neck. "For now let's...oh, cheese and crackers."

There was a shifting sound, and Nathaniel turned from the walls to see the mass of stone in the center of the courtyard shift, boulders assembling and connecting as the structure rose higher, higher, until it seemed to form limbs, a body, and a head with two glowing yellow eyes staring at them.

"That's a stone golem," Rose said, despite everyone else knowing that already.

"That's what the feather's being used for," Nathaniel said.

The golem turned to him at the sound of his voice, and started to run at him in a terrifying, earth-shaking sprint.

"SHIT!" Nathaniel screamed, darting out of the way as a giant arm came down and slammed into the earth just behind him, spraying the area in a shower of dust and grit.

"Why do you keep selling powerful items to bad people?" Rose yelled, sprinting to the other side of the golem.

"The feather's only as strong as the person who holds it! If they're good with magic they can make stronger-fuck fuck fuck-" Nath ducked as the arm swung at him like a baseball bat, and he hit the ground just as several hundred pounds of rock whizzed over his head. "Boss! Can you do your weird stone thing with the golem?"

"Negative," Max responded, raising one hand. A stone pillar shot from the ground and hit the golem in an uppercut, rock crushing against rock in a brilliant display of power before Max's pillar crumbled and the golem continued its relentless pursuit after Nathaniel. "The magic surrounding this golem enhances the stone's durability and blocks my magic from taking control. It may as well be a different material entirely."

"Can someone get him off me?" Nath made the mistake of looking back to see the giant stone golem rapidly closing the distance behind him, raising one arm to strike.

The ground beneath the golem shifted and collapsed, and the golem fell to earth with a crash.

"Thanks, Max!" Nath said, pausing to catch his breath.

"You will refer to me as Boss during missions," the gnome responded, voice curt and reprimanding.

Vines rose from the ground, wrapping around each of the golem's limbs. "Okay!" Rose said, stepping back. "Do your disenchanting thing, Nath!"

Markov flew over to the demon, carrying a piece of chalk in his claws-although with the wasp illusion still up, the chalk looked like it was floating a few inches below him.

"Thanks," Nath said, taking it from Markov. And against all better judgment, he ran towards the golem, flapping to gain a bit of momentum, jumping, and landing on its back. One of the vines snapped as the golem struggled, but another bunch of vines sprouted from the ground and pulled the freed limb back down.

"Okay," he said, stepping back as the golem's head twisted a full 180 degrees to glare at him. "Hopefully this works," Nath said, placing the chalk on the golem's back and beginning to draw the first of the two runic circles for his minor dispelling spell. He drew quickly, muttering the incantation as fast as he could while still trying to keep in beat with the timings of the runes.

The golem shook a little. Nath felt one of his legs starting to slip.

The first ring was completed and turned blue.

"I can't keep this up!" Rose yelled, sounding out of breath. "Nath, hurry!"
Nathaniel was sweating, drawing the second circle, trying to tune everything else out, trying to focus-

-the golem lurched under him, and he lost his concentration. The circles vanished.

"Fuck!" Nathaniel wrapped his arms around the golem's neck area as it started to get to its feet.

"What do we do?" Rose called. "Do I use this sword? I've never used one-hold on, Nath!"

Nathaniel scrambled higher as the golem's head twisted back to its original position. He was now clutching the top of the golem's head, scared for his life. How were they going to kill this? Its body resisted everything they threw at him, and the feather tuft was probably buried deep into its center, where they couldn't reach it-

"The feather!" He yelled, looking around frantically. "Someone's controlling it!"

"The watchtower!" Rose yelled, not moments later. "They're probably watching us!"

"Markov," Max ordered.

"Person located, top window," Markov responded. "Appears to be a devil, mid-60s."

"That's our target!" Nathaniel gasped, his lungs and stomach currently pressed painfully against the stone as the golem spun and spun, limbs raising to try and paw at him but not quite reaching-yet. "Fucking-someone get him already! I'm slipping!"

"I've got him," Max said, pulling something from his jacket. Nathaniel turned his attention to the golem as a hand came up stone fingers reaching for him-

-there was a sound like a crack of thunder, and the stone hand froze, a flash of blue light shimmering across the entire body and vanishing.

Nathaniel had enough sense to let go and spread his wings as the golem collapsed, individual boulders disconnecting and falling to the ground while the demon floated safely down.

"That was scary," Nath said, turning to Max. "How did you-is that a gun?"

Max tucked the item back in his suit jacket before Nath could get a better look at it, but it was definitely a gun. "Let's retrieve Kim," he said, briskly walking towards the hole that the stone golem had originally been covering. "We don't have long before the group catches up with us."

Nathaniel glanced up at the watchtower on the other side of the courtyard. He could see a body slumped over the open window, long horns and clawed hands and blood dripping from its vaguely-human face.

So the group had been traveling with a devil...hopefully he was the only one with Infernal blood in their group. If Marc had used Blanc against him, they'd be in more trouble than they were now. Although, given how exhausted and weak he felt right now, with Marc dying, it didn't seem possible that things could be much worse.

"Kim!" Max called, looking down into the hole. There was an iron grate covering it. "Kim! Can you hear me?"

There was no response.

Max waved his hand, and the hole began to open wider, the iron grate falling as its supports were pulled away. Stairs began to form down, and for the first time since they'd met, Nath saw the gnome truly running, rushing down the stairs to the human lying at the bottom of the pit.

"Markov, diagnosis," Max said, dropping to his knees next to Kim.

"He appears to be sleeping," Markov responded. "He has also sustained multiple severe injuries, some of which may become infected if we do not administer medical treatment soon. Further examination is recommended before we attempt to move him."

A loud clang from the gates startled Nath, and he whirled around. The gates were shifting slightly with every thump, shaking the gate.

"They're trying to break through," Rose said, holding her side. "It won't be long before they start trying to climb the walls. I don't have a lot of energy left-Nath, can you throw this over the wall? That might dissuade them."

Nath looked down curiously at the green vial that Rose handed him. "Oh, sure."

"Don't get any on yourself," Rose said. "I'm going to try and help your gnome friend."

Nath jogged over to the gate. He'd never seen Max look so worried. To be fair, he'd never seen Max look anything other than professionally distasteful, so seeing him look so...scared was almost enough to make his own fears reignite.

Throwing the vial over the wall, he hoped for the best. The sudden sounds of pained screaming from the other side meant that...whatever it was worked, probably.

Heading quickly back to Rose in case whatever he'd thrown was a quick-spreading gas or something, he knelt down next to where the dryad was sitting on the ground, catching her breath and keeping a secure hold on Blanc's scabbard with one hand.

"What kind of potion did I throw?" He asked, sitting down next to her.

"Oh, that wasn't technically a potion," Rose said. "Just some high-grade acid that Juleka enchanted to make it extra corrosive...I guess if she enchanted it then it is a potion after all. Huh."

"Yeesh. I would not want to be whoever that landed on," Nath said, making a face.

"Can you go check on the guys in the pit and let them know that we're running short on time?" Rose asked. "I know you're probably not doing much better than me, but..."

"You rest," Nath said, getting back up and dusting the dirt off his pants.

"Thank you."

Nathaniel slowly made his way down the steps and into the chamber. Max had Kim's head in his lap, and the human was awake but eerily silent, stirring slightly. The gnome was holding his hand.

"Hey," he said, quietly. "They're trying to break through the gate, we should leave soon..." he trailed off, shifting awkwardly as Max made no move to get up.

"Kim is starting to come to," Markov said, coming to rest on his shoulder. The wasp illusion flickered and vanished.

"What's going on?" Nathaniel asked, trying to look over to Kim. His face was turned away from Nath. The hand holding Max's was shaking.

"It's taking them a while to adjust to this new information," Markov said.

"Why? What happened?"

"They cut out his tongue," Max said. He was turned away from them, shoulders hunched.

Nath stilled.

So that was why Sabrina was upset and said they couldn't interrogate him. That was why they were waiting to use the brooch for telepathic communication.

He let out a low, trembling breath. Fuck.

"Guys," Rose called from above. "We have to go. Now!"

Nath steeled his courage, walking the few steps down to where Kim and Max were. "We'll have time for all this later. For now we have to focus on getting everyone out alive."

Max looked up at him. The illusory blur around him was still in effect, but Nath almost swore he saw tears on the gnome's face. "Of course," the gnome said, helping Kim to his feet, grunting at the weight of the larger human.

"Rose!" Nath called up. "We need a way out!"

Rose rushed down, tossing a seed to the ground. An oak tree sprouted from it moments later, the bark splitting in half to reveal the tunnels. Juleka stepped back from the sudden portal with a shriek, pulling a bone knife from the folds of her cloak.

"Jules, it's me!" Rose said, as the siren opened her mouth. She tossed Blanc through the portal, where it clattered next to Marc's body.

There was a sound from above, something splintering and crashing to the ground. They'd broken the gate.

"Get in," Nath commanded, grabbing Kim as he swayed unsteadily on his feet and helped him into the tree portal. He could hear footsteps above, getting closer. Markov flew through, then Nath.

"Corner them!" A familiar voice yelled.

Rose dashed in just as a figure appeared above them. Nath caught a glimpse of orange hair, glasses-less face, and a furious expression.

The portal closed behind them and they were gone.

Chapter Text

Marc groaned, blinking awake. He felt sore from head to toe. There was a weight on his chest still, but it wasn't...painful.

"There, there," a voice said. Familiar, but he couldn't remember who. "Just take it easy. You've had it rough for a while."

"Gfphhuh?" Marc groaned, eyes fluttering open and immediately meeting a very bright light. "Ow."

"Sorry, hon," the voice said, and the light dimmed. He blinked the spots from his eyes, lifting a hand to rub his eyes only to find that one arm was secured to the table.

He tensed. Was he still being held by the goblins? Why only one hand? There was something touching the fingertips where he was secured. He made a move to sit up and look, but a firm hand pushed him back down.

"You're not ready to get up yet," the voice scolded, and Marc recognized it this time-Rose. His vision was clearer now, and he could see her busying around wherever he was sitting.

It seemed like he was in a tent-like structure made of trees, branches and leaves tightly linked above his head to form some kind of shelter. A quick glance around showed him that he was lying on a mattress made of soft moss, and one hand was resting on the hilt of Blanc, a root securing his wrist to the ground. Cupcake was sprawled on his chest, dozing off-or so he assumed, the empty eye sockets didn't really show if the bone cat was awake or not. At his shifting, Cupcake's head lifted, and he started purring, skeletal paws slowly making biscuits into Marc's shirt.

He turned to look at his other side. There was another bed next to his, as well as an array of chairs and tables. Kim was lying on the other bed, sleeping soundly, while Max was sitting next to him, fiddling with a second pair of glasses in his hands.

"Where-" Marc started, then winced. His throat sounded like it was thoroughly destroyed. Possible, since he's sobbed his lungs out from the pain when he was in the pit. Judging by the fact that Blanc was at his fingertips, someone had managed to take it from Sabrina and bring it to him before he'd had the chance to croak his last.

Rose patted his shoulder. "Nathaniel and Juleka are cooking supper," she said. "Here, now that you're awake." She placed a small pink vial in his free hand. "I'll help you sit up, this should help you feel better."

Marc let the dryad prop him up. Cupcake meowed in protest and hopped off to head outside, the long, leafy vine curtains parting as he walked through. Marc closed his eyes, drinking the liquid that she'd offered him. There was an odd, cold sensation as it went down his throat, then a chill across his entire body, and the soreness in his limbs began to soothe. Marc opened his eyes again, letting a sigh escape his lips. His throat was feeling better.

"I try to stick with healing spells, especially for unconscious people," Rose said. "But I've already been shoving healing spell after healing spell into you, and I'm a little healing spelled-out at the moment. So hopefully a little potion will give you that extra pick-me-up that you need."

"Thank you," Marc said. He looked over to his bound wrist. "Uh, can you...?"

"Oh! Right." With a flourish, the root sank back into the ground, and Marc pulled away from the sword, stretching his fingers experimentally.

The tight-knit canopy of leaves around them shifted like a curtain, and a redheaded half-dragon stepped in. "We're just about done," he said. "Max, if you want me to bring your food to you then we can-Marc!"

Nathaniel's eyes connected with his and he rushed to the swordsman's side, grabbing his hand. "You're awake, oh my gods, you're okay-"

"Hey," Marc said, giving Nath's hand a squeeze. "I'm glad to see you're okay too."

"He almost wasn't," Rose said. "Took a boot to the face, gave him a nasty concussion. If not for his thick skull and some medical attention, he might have gotten permanent damage from the impact. Not the first time that's saved him."

"Well that's mean," Nath said, sticking her tongue out. "My skull's only thick cuz it needs to support my horns and my absolutely massive hubris."

Marc chuckled, leaning his head to rest against Nath's chest. He felt a hand run through his hair, then retract.

"Ew, you need a bath," Nath said, wiping his fingers on his shirt. "There's dirt and grease, like, all in your hair."

"How are you holding up?" Marc asked.

"Well," Nathaniel shrugged. "All things considered, I'm not dead, you're not dead, so...yeah."

"Fair."

Cupcake jumped up onto Kim's bed, purring as he butted the man's palm with his skull. Kim made a little noise, and Max's head snapped up instantly.

"Hey," Rose said, crossing over to Max. "You should get some sleep."

"I am functioning optimally," Max replied stiffly.

Rose put her hands on her hips. "The only 'functioning' you should be doing is laying down and resting. You've been looking after him all night!"

Max glared at her, but the dryad only glared back. They stared at each other for a long, moment, then Rose sighed and turned away. "I get that you want to make sure he's okay," she said, reaching out to pat his shoulder. Max flinched away, and she pulled back, noticing his discomfort. "I'll bring you some coffee."

"Thanks," Max said, voice quiet.

"Don't worry," Rose said. "We're working on making the regeneration potion for him now, it shouldn't be much longer until it's complete."

The gnome looked back up at her then. "How much money do I owe you? Or do you take some other form of compensation?"

Rose shook her head, smiling. "No money. Just keep him safe, okay?"

"I've been trying." The corner of Max's lip quirked up. Marc didn't think he'd ever seen the gnome so...expressive before.

"He does seem to get himself into trouble, doesn't he?" Rose patted Kim's hand affectionately. "Well, don't overwork yourself. I'll be back with food."

Max nodded, watching as Rose left.

Marc patted his pockets. "Where's all my stuff?"

"The Akumas probably took it," Nath said, frowning. "One of the goblins tried to threaten me with your knife. Hopefully there's isn't some goblin out there who has your phone."

"Huh," Marc said, leaning back. "No, my phone's back at Hidden Treasures. But there's some goblin out there who now has my knife. And a pack of condoms."

Nath snorted. "Good for them, I guess."

"So, did we get the wasp nest? Or at least figure out what's going on?"

Nath paused, looking down. "They're not just trying to evacuate Dupont. They're going to attack it."

Marc sighed. "Yeah, Sabrina pretty much gave me the gist of it too."

"So that Chloe Bourgeois can build a new hotel over the rubble."

"Oh." Marc raised an eyebrow. "I did not know that. Are you...how do you feel about that?"

"It pisses me off!" Nath grit his teeth, fingers clenching into the moss bed. "Just because some rich, naive motherfucker wants another hotel, she's...ugh!" With a seething frustration, Nath leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.

"I'm guessing you don't like her that much," Marc commented in a deadpan voice.

The half-dragon scoffed, tail flicking. "Really, what was your first clue?"

"Well," Marc waved a hand. "There's these vibes of loathing that I'm getting from you right now."

The corner of Nath's mouth twitched upward. "Would you be mad if I killed her?"

"Huh?" Marc looked over to Nath. "Are we still joking...or...?"

"I'm serious," Nath said. "I kind of want her dead."

"Uh...gosh, I don't know. I mean, she's doing really bad things, but also, you'd get in a lot more trouble for killing someone than me, so maybe...don't?"

"Okay."

"Food's just about ready!" Rose called, pushing open the leaf canopy and stepping through with a tray in her hands. "Marc, you should be healed enough to join us for dinner in the house. Max, let me know when Kim wakes up. It's going to be hard for him to swallow, so you'll need to help him with food for the next few days until he recovers."

Max nodded, taking the tray from her hands. "I've already sent Markov to take care of matters in my stead until Kim is healed."

"You're free to stay in this tent for as long as that takes," Rose said. "Marc, I am going to have to insist that you take a bath before you step anywhere near my house."

Whatever was on Max's tray smelled delicious, and Marc's stomach growled loudly. "Sorry," he muttered sheepishly as Rose and Max both turned to him.

"Here," Nath said, grabbing Marc's arm. "Up you get."

Slowly, the half-dragon helped him to his feet. Marc stepped back, leaning against the bed for support.

"Hold on," he said. "Let me get my sword on first. Then we can...we'll go eat."

"I'll help you," Nath said, grabbing Marc's scabbard and handing it to him. Marc quickly buckled it around his waist and sheathed Blanc.

"Bath first," Rose said, pointing to them. "Then dinner."

Marc looked up at Nath, raising an eyebrow. "Can you help me with bath, too? I'm not saying this to be horny, I legitimately don't know how long my legs can support me."

"Healing spells and potions take a lot of energy out of you," Rose said, smiling apologetically. "You'll feel better after a good sleep."

"Is that why Kim's not up yet?" Marc asked. "What happened to him?"

Nath took his arm. "We'll talk on the way to the hot springs," he said, wrapping a wing around his shoulders and turning him away from where Kim was sleeping.

Rose watched them go. "Just past the-"

"-I know the way," Nath said.

"Bring me his clothes, I'm gonna wash them."

Marc nestled into the warmth of Nath's wing, sighing. The leaf curtains parted as they exited into the familiar clearing of Juleka and Rose's home, most of their clearing now taken up by the new addition of the tent.

Nath took Marc's hand, slowly guiding them into the forest through a small dirt path. Dusk was well on it's way to night, giving the forest a whole new feeling of tranquility and peace that he desperately needed.

"You know," Marc said. "When you said we'd celebrate by visiting Rose and Juleka, this wasn't really what I had in mind."

Nath chuckled. "I know."

There was something in his voice that Marc couldn't place, some kind of emptiness that made him frown in concern.

"How are you doing?"

"Me?" Nath turned to look at him, smile falling in an instant. "You were the one that wasn't waking up!"

"Nath-"

Nathaniel pulled Marc into a hug, burying his face in the swordsman's shoulder. "Rose said she didn't know if you were going to wake up at all," he choked. "I was so scared, Marc."

Marc held Nath close, the half-dragon's wings and tail securing them together like he was afraid if he'd let go Marc would be lost forever. So he moved back to press his forehead against Nath's, leaning down a bit to do so.

Tears were running down Nath's face, sobs mingling between his words.. "I was so scared."

"You're not going to lose me," Marc said.

It was almost a confession, the barest hint to all the words he wanted to say. His affections for Nathaniel were so overwhelmingly strong, the half-dragon didn't even know how much he meant to the swordsman. He'd face hell in all its demonic glory to stay with him. "You won't lose me," he repeated. "I'm not leaving."

Nathaniel's breath was shaky against his ear. "Do you promise?" He whispered, voice cracking.

A wind rustled through the leaves, making Marc shiver. Nath's hands moved to hold his, and the back of his neck prickled with the slightest hint of something magical in the air. It felt like there was electricity buzzing between their connected fingertips, or maybe that was his lovestruck mind playing tricks on him.

"I-"

Nathaniel jerked back as suddenly as though he'd been shocked. "I'm sorry," he said, backing away quickly. He stared down at his hands, staring in horror at them as though they were evil. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that, I wasn't thinking right, I'm sorry-"

"Nath!" Marc grabbed his shoulders. "It's okay, it's okay,"

"It's not," Nath gulped, tears running down his face again. "I-I'm so sorry-I shouldn't have tried to make a c-I didn't, I-"

He turned to run, but Marc grabbed his wrist and held it tight, stumbling off balance a little at the pull.

"Look," Marc said, as Nath paused to stare at him. "I don't know what they did to you in that prison, but when I say I'm not leaving that works both ways."

"I didn't-" Nath broke free, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes with his sleeve. "I-I panicked."

"We're safe now," Marc pushed a stray hair behind Nath's ear. "Well, as safe as we ever are."

The half-dragon nodded. Slowly, the tension in his body relaxed.

"So." Marc swung their connected hands together. "You said something about hot springs?"

A smile lifted Nath's lips. "I did."

"Perfect."

The hot springs were everything Marc could have hoped for and more, beautiful, soothing warm water and a scenic view, illuminated by beautiful glassmoon flowers in all kinds of gentle colors. While Nath took his clothes back to Rose to get them washed, Marc took a deep breath, enjoying the release in his chest, a relief from the torturous curse he'd been suffering through.

Once the half-dragon returned, it only took a little prompting to convince Nath to shuck off his clothes and join him, relaxing as the water slowly swirled and bubbled around them.

Marc sighed, leaning into Nath's shoulder. He could feel the half-dragon's tail slowly curl and uncurl around his ankle underwater.

"You keep doing that," he mumbled, wiggling his toes lazily. "You got a foot fetish or something?"

"I got a you fetish," Nath answered, earning a snicker from Marc.

The shadows lengthened, bringing with it a nip of cold air. Marc nestled closer to Nath's warm body, forgetting about everything else for just a moment to be happy that he was here with Nath, that they were both alive and safe when things could have been much worse.

At least they had each other.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel and Marc left early the next morning.

"I've still got a shop to run," Nath said. "And Marc has school. You sure you guys will be alright here?"

Kim was sitting upright, sleepy but now awake. He gave a thumbs up.

"I'm hoping to arrange a business deal with Miss Lavillant and Couffaine during our time here," Max said, standing next to Rose. He was still holding a familiar pair of enchanted glasses in his hands. "And I'm not returning back to the city until Kim has recovered."

"How's the work on Sabrina's glasses? Are they broken?" Marc asked.

"They function optimally," Max said. "However, her prescription is different than mine. I'll have to order the correct lenses before they can be of use to me."

"We'll see you later," Nath said. He stepped up to Kim, patting the human on the shoulder and leaning in. "I'm pretty damn sure he likes you," he whispered, then stepped back, turning to link arms with Marc again. Kim beamed, making a little happy sound in the back of his throat.

"Come back soon," Rose said, grinning. "Or heck, I might come visit Dupont instead! Expect to see me around when you're least prepared for it."

Juleka patted Marc on the shoulder, nodding. Marc nodded back.

"Hey, uh...I'm scared to ask, but what day is today?"

"It's Wednesday," Rose said.

Nathaniel turned to look at Marc. "We left on Saturday. Fuck."

"Oh, god," Marc looked down at the ground. "I'm going to have so many emails from my professors. So many missed classes."

"I mean, you can just go 'sorry I didn't turn this paper in, I was literally kidnapped and tortured by a gang of criminals'," Nath said. "Alix is gonna...shit, Alix is gonna kill me once she finds out I'm not dead."

"Say hi to her for me before you die," Rose said.

"Will do. Boss, mind sending us home?"

Max raised his hand, and a portal materialized in the air. "We'll reconvene after Kim has healed to discuss our next steps," he said. "According to Mr. Anciel, Sabrina Raincomprix was scheduled for a two-week mission in Bon Mot, so she should not be returning until at least a week. If that's the case, we only have a few days to formulate a plan and counterattack."

"At least they can't use the wasp nest anymore," Rose said. "So they're probably not even going to act out their plan until a new queen is born. That gives me some comfort for you guys."

"See you later," Marc said.

"A oosh oke guh," Kim said, then frowned, made a grunt, and pointed to Blanc. "Guh."

Nath frowned. "Don't...lose the sword?"

Kim nodded enthusiastically.

"Oh hey I actually guessed that." Nath turned to Marc with a grin. "Yay me. I'm a genius."

Marc rolled his eyes, smiling. "I will try my best not to lose the sword, Kim. Get better soon."

"Aa." Kim gave two thumbs up.

Taking Marc's hand, Nathaniel stepped through the portal, feet hitting the familiar floor of their home.

Or, it should have been familiar. Everything looked haphazardly strewn around, cupboard doors open and drawers pulled out in a frenzy.

"Shit, were we robbed?" Marc dashed to his room, calling out a few seconds later. "I still have my textbooks and laptop! And my phone! Fuck, that's a lot of emails."

Nath opened the fridge. "No one stole any food," he called back. "But I think the milk's gone bad."

The bell chime on the door opened and Nathaniel froze, turning to Marc who was just as frozen in the doorway to his room.

"Didn't you lock the door?" Marc whispered. One hand shifted to Blanc.

"With wards, too," Nath said. Someone magically competent had to have removed the wards on his door in order to get in.

Maybe whoever was down there would just bustle around the store for a bit and then leave. Were they a police officer? A burglar?

He heard footsteps on the stairs, steadily getting closer.

Nath hesitated. He didn't want to start a fight in his own house. But as Marc crept closer to the door, he decided that there wasn't really a point in hiding in such a small house. It seemed like a fight might be inevitable after all, depending on who was behind that door. He whispered an incantation, formed a fireball in his hand, and waited.

The door opened, and Nath's eyes met pink hair.

The fire dissipated in his hand. "Alix?"

Alix stared at him, then at Marc, who was re-sheathing his sword. "Guys?"

Oh no. This was the part where she was going to kill him.

Alix rushed towards Nathaniel, tackling him. His back slammed against the counter, wings folding painfully against his spine. "Ow!"

"You asshole!" Alix yanked him back to his feet by the collar of his shirt. "Where the fuck were you guys?"

"Hey, speak of the deus and they'll appear." Marc straightened. "We were just talking about how you were gonna kill Nath."

Alix turned to look back at the demon, smiling in the most non-happy way possible. "Oh? And why is that?"

Nathaniel started sweating. "We...uh...we should probably talk somewhere else."

"You two have fun," Marc said, grabbing his backpack from his room. "I have classes to get to."

"Marc Marc Marc wait," Nath waved at him. "Don't leave me, I'm afraid, Marc, no-"

Alix's fist clenched harder into his shirt, doing the exact opposite of easing any of those fears.

"Bye," Marc sang, waving as he went down the stairs.

Nath looked down at Alix, still glaring at him. She wasn't quite as terrifying as some of the moments he'd faced in Haut Monde, but she was starting to get very close to those levels of fear.

"So," He said.

Alix let him go, stepping back. "Come on. Let's take a walk."

 

~oOo~

 

There was a roller skating rink not too far from the museum. Alix was fond of it, but Nathaniel had gotten his tail rolled over thirty-three-too-many times to think fondly of that activity. But it was a good place to talk after hours, since Alix and Nath knew the owner, who often let them in after hours so Alix could practice some of her tricks.

He liked the owner, though, an old devil named Jean-Pierre Monlataing with a kind heart and curly white hair that hid the horns he'd so carefully filed down. He was the only Infernal that Nathaniel knew while growing up in Gallia, and even though Nath didn't have good memories of the Nine Hells, having someone who was like him offered a small touch of comfort and nostalgic familiarity.

Besides, the old devil was the person who had taught him how to paint and draw when he was a kid. He could recall hundreds of lessons with the old man while waiting for Alix to be done practicing for her high school roller derby. Despite his gnarled hands and admittedly off-putting face, he was one of the kindest souls around.

"Hello, kids," the old man said, flashing a grin. His fangs were starting to grow back in since the last time he'd cut them, but they were still small enough to be mistaken for normal human canines.

"Hey, Mr. Monlataing," Alix waved. "Nath and I need to have a chat, if that's alright."

"Of course, Alix. Just be out before 9 am, once the rink opens. Otherwise, you'll welcome to stay later and pay, like the rest of my customers."

"Thanks!" Alix grabbed Nath's hand, leading them towards the rink and jumping on the half-wall that enclosed it. "So," she said, crossing her arms. "What the fuck happened to you?"

Her anger echoed in the large, empty room, and Nath winced. "I'm sorry," he said.

"I called you yesterday and you didn't pick up! I went to your house and knocked and couldn't get an answer! I had Marinette break the wards on your door because I was afraid you'd died in your sleep or some shit-where did you go?"

Nath pulled one of the folding chairs nearby next to him, sitting down across from Alix and pulling his knees to his chest. The room was large, empty, and he and Alix were the only ones in a dark cold room. It was eerie, strikingly different to all the times he could recall when the rink was open, the disco ball at the top making colorful patterns on the floor and the music filling the whole room with bouncy, trendy music.

Now it was just him and Alix, sitting in dark silence.

"You were right," he said, voice cracking. "I-I was too reckless. You warned me, I didn't listen-"

"Nath."

He looked up at her then. There were few times when Alix let her spiky shell of a persona fade, but there was no judgment in her eyes this time, only concern, a look on her face that was so unlike her Nath had to look away or he'd start crying.

"What happened to you?"

And he told her everything-the call from Kim, the trip to Haut Monde, the plan-he briefly mentioned having sex with Marc but saw the way her face wrinkled in disgust and quickly moved past that. He told her of his time in the prison, the queen's death, and the plans that Chloe and Sabrina were going to enact on Dupont.

Alix didn't say a word as he talked, looking at him with that same, hawk-like stare. Nath, however, found his breath shaking and bottom lip trembling as he recalled event after event, moments that were still all too clear in his mind.

"I'm sorry," he finished, looking back up at her. "I should have been more careful."

"Nath, you almost died so many times," Alix said. "What the fuck?"

The demon hunched his shoulders, looking down at his shoes. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

Alix ran a hand through her hair. "I don't believe this," she said. "You were in prison, Nath. The fact that you're here right now is nothing short of a fucking miracle."

"I..." Nath sighed, let his head drop, arms resting on his knees. "You were right," he said. "I was so caught up in finally having something...new and exciting in my life that I let it get out of control. I should have been more careful, I should have refused to go or, or something, and instead all this happened."

"I don't think you could have done anything differently at this point," Alix said.

"How can you say that? Kim got his tongue cut out! Marc got really hurt!"

Alix leaned forward. "And what could you have done differently to stop that?"

"I could have not gotten us caught in the first place," Nath said, looking up at Alix. "I could have stuck with Marc when he got stung, or run away when Sabrina found me, or...if we'd waited a little longer to get more people or items, do a bit more planning before this mission started, maybe none of this would have happened."

"Nath." Alix hopped off the wall, standing in front of him. "There's always gonna be things that you could have done better. But you were lucky this time." She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Just don't try to be lucky twice in a row."

Nathaniel nodded. "Okay."

The pink-haired girl's expression became more stern. "And try to stay out of trouble, for fuck's sake! Gods, you attract it like flies to dog shit."

Nath shrugged. "I live with a trouble magnet, and he attracts it like flies to honey, if I'm honest."

"Oh, spare the mushy-gushy," Alix rolled her eyes dramatically, but kept her voice light, not pressing the joke as hard as she normally would. "Marc...yeah, he's sweet and all, but..." she paused, looking back at him.

"I can't leave him," Nath answered the question she was hesitating to ask. "I'll be as careful as I can around him, but I can't leave him now."

"Because you have feelings for him?"

Nathaniel looked up at Alix. "What?"

"Yeah, I've known all along, motherfucker," Alix said.

"That's not...I don't...do I have feelings for him?" Nath stared up at Alix.

His friend shrugged in response. "You tell me. I'm not the one playing nude twister with him."

Something clicked into place, like the last puzzle piece in a puzzle he'd been working on for months but had somehow never understood the whole picture until the final piece connected in his mind.

"Oh shit," Nath dropped his head in his hands. "Alix, I got really reckless. I think I have feelings for him."

Alix gave him a long stare. "You just figured that out now?"

"Alix," Nath whined, looking at her. "Alix, I have feelings for Marc."

"Congratulations." Alix clapped him on the shoulder. "You're officially the last fucking person to realize that."

"Oh, gods." Nathaniel stared at the floor. "Oh gods, what do I do?"

"I mean, liking him romantically has been the least worrisome thing you've told me so far, so," Alix shrugged. "I don't get what you're panicking about."

"He doesn't even know I'm a demon," Nath said. "I'm pretty sure he hates demons cuz of that whole Blanc contract thing. I don't want him to hate me, Alix!"

"I can't believe I'm the one saying this right now, but calm down," his friend said, grabbing his face and kneeling to his eye level. "We're not taking risks right now, right?"

The demon nodded.

"Take some time. Think things over. You're okay."

"Okay."

"You're good?"

"Yeah, I'm good."

Alix grabbed one horn and pulled him close, pressing a light kiss to his forehead. "Stay safe," she said. "I gotta get to work." She turned without another word, leaving the rink.

Nathaniel stayed there for a moment, sitting alone on the chair in the empty skating rink.

He should get going too. The shop wasn't going to open itself, after all, and he'd have to deal with all the late delivery complaints that were no doubt waiting for him in his emails.

The demon ran a hand through his hair, sighing.

After everything he'd gone through, playing it safe sounded like the best idea in the world.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc's heart thudded anxiously in his chest as he looked down at his phone, ringing on the lunch table as he ate in the university's cafeteria.

Mr. Raincomprix was calling him.

He set down his half-eaten sandwich, appetite completely vanished. Should he just let it ring? He'd missed a few calls from his boss while he was...you know...dying, but Mr. Raincomprix was calling him now.

Did he know about what Sabrina was doing?

Wait, he knew Marc didn't bring his normal phone on most missions. He had an emergency one attached to his motorcycle. Mr. Raincomprix wouldn't have called Marc if he knew Sabrina had captured him.

Unless he didn't have a way of communicating with Sabrina while she was in Haut Monde but still knew what her plan was.

But that wouldn't incriminate him, right? He didn't know Marc was involved with Sabrina's plan, a plan that Mr. Raincomprix himself may or may not know of.

The phone kept ringing. People were staring at him, fuck. They looked annoyed. Probably because his ringtone was so loud. Oh gods, was he gonna be eternally known as "that" asshole who kept his phone ringing in the cafeteria?

In the end, his social anxiety won over his instincts to not answer a potential enemy's call, and he picked up the phone, starting to pack his lunch away so he could find a more secluded place to talk. "Hello?"

"Marc, are you okay? I've been trying to get in contact with you for two days now." Mr. Raincomprix sounded relieved. Was he faking it? Something in his gut told him that his boss had been genuinely concerned.

"I'm fine," Marc said, slinging his backpack and plastic bag of half-eaten food over his shoulder, making his way towards the nearest exit. "What did you need me for?"

"Well, Mylene wanted to extend an offer for a new mission, but you weren't picking up. I was going to come visit you this afternoon after work, you were starting to make me worried. No one in the office has heard from you since last week-are you sure everything's alright?"

Should he tell Mr. Raincomprix everything? Would his boss believe him if Marc told him his own daughter was planning to wipe out an entire section of the city? Marc stepped outside, quickly making his way towards an outside table on the far side of the building.

"Marc, the fact that you're not saying anything is worrying me," Mr. Raincomprix said, voice dropping low. "I know being a bounty hunter can get you in tricky situations, so I understand if it's not safe for you to talk right now."

"No, I'm okay!" Marc said, a little more panicky than he would have liked. "It's just, um...not something I can talk about right now."

He'd have to talk with Max about this before he risked giving information to Mr. Raincomprix. Maybe the gnome would be able to do some...techy...hacker stuff, and figure out how much information they could give him.

"Okay," his boss said. "But be careful, Marc. I've known many a good hunter who disappeared because of a Monster with a grudge. If you ever feel like you're in danger, please, don't hesitate to call me."

"Y-yes sir," Marc said, taking a seat at the outside table. "Thanks."

"Stay safe," Mr. Raincomprix said. "Talk to you soon."

Marc sighed, placing his phone down on the table. He really didn't have time to be thinking about 4-D chess strategy tactics when he had to talk to almost all of his professors some time in the next few days to explain "no, I'm not lazy, I'm just dealing with a lot of unexpected things this semester no please don't take away my scholarship I'm a good boy I swear".

Marc fished out the rest of his lunch, already feeling the stress of today's lectures weighing down on him.

At least after this, things would be relatively normal for a few weeks.

Chapter Text

Marc came home to find a woman he'd never met before talking animatedly to Nathaniel, red fairy wings flaring behind her as she leaned on the counter. Another woman with a red horn on her forehead stood next to her, arms crossed. The silent lady locked eyes with him as the doors opened, then continued observing as Nath and the other woman continued chatting.

"-sweetheart, I thought you'd disappeared because of the police!"

"Is that why you dispelled the wards on my shop?"

"First off, I taught you how to make those wards, don't give me sass. Second, I thought something was off because the police have been very vocal about all the "criminals" they've rooted out so far. You just...vanished. So I called Alix, we had a look around-sorry if we stumbled across anything private, but we already know you can be a bit of a freak sometimes-and we were debating whether to call you in as a missing person when you showed up again."

Nathaniel crossed his arms. "Well it's a good thing you didn't, do you know how much trouble I'd be in if the police did a full search in here?" His eyes flit up to the doorway, finally acknowledging his entrance. "Marc, I don't think I've ever got the chance to introduce you to my friend."

The fairy's wings perked up, and she turned around to look at him. "Oh, hi there!"

Marc instantly tensed. She looked friendly enough, pink handbag and fun buns and a friendly smile, but it all seemed...off. Like she wasn't supposed to be this way, even though he'd never met her before. There was the familiar hiss of hostility from Blanc in his head, but she wasn't a Monster, so why was it acting up now?

"H-hi," he said, waving a hand awkwardly. "I'm Marc."

"I'm Marinette," the fairy said, shaking his hand. "It's so great to meet you!"

"Yeah, uh, likewise," Marc said. Admittedly, he really only knew three things about her: she was a seamstress, she could cook, and she liked to fuck, and the latter didn't seem like a great conversation starter. "So, Marinette, you're a seamstress?"

Marinette giggled. "I am! I've been running that old tailoring shop for over 300 years. I only moved to the Dupont neighborhood in the last century, though."

"Oh, wow." Marc blinked. "300 years?"

Marinette shrugged. "It's nothing special. Textiles and sewing patterns change all the time, so I still have a lot to learn."

"That's cool," Marc said. Like a dumbass.

By all accounts, with her easygoing aura and the way she was obviously trying to make Marc feel more comfortable, he should be more relaxed with her. But the sword was like a needle digging into the back of his head, setting his nerves off with anxiety. He didn't even know what was setting the sword off, did it know something he didn't?

Maybe he was jealous? I mean, he didn't really mind if Nath had sex with other people, after all, he'd slept with Luka on several occasions. Marinette had also slept with Luka. That wasn't important. Was he secretly jealous after all and his mind didn't know it yet? Gods, it was hard to concentrate with that fucking sword jabbing in the back of his head.

He saw her eyes dart down to the sword, smile vanishing for just a moment. Fuck, did she know?

"Marinette," the other woman spoke. Now that his attention was turned more fully to her, he could see the dull-colored scales patterned across her skin in an imitation of freckles. Like him, she carried a sword around her waist, a decorated rapier that looked ridiculously expensive.

"Right." Marinette clapped her hands, all nice and peppy again when she gestured to the lady. "This is Kagami, she's a really good friend of mine!"

Marc didn't miss Nath rolling his eyes behind them and mouthing "yeah, I bet" as he turned to organize a few books spread around his counter.

"An honor to meet you," Kagami said, dipping her head respectfully.

"You too." Marc repeated the gesture. Maybe she wasn't into hand shaking. He could respect that.

"That reminds me," Marinette turned to Nath, opening her handbag and pulling out a neatly folded gray jacket. "Tada!"

The half-dragon's face instantly brightened. "You got the thread?"

"Finished it as soon as I could! Of course, you weren't here to pick it up yesterday, but now we can do a proper fitting and then it's yours again! Kagami, dear, why don't you go look at the jewelry on that rack and see if there's anything that you'd wear to match with your new dress? I'm going to take Nath upstairs to see if I need to do any last-minute changes."

Nath beamed, turning to the swordsman. "Marc, can you man the counter for a few minutes? Call up if I'm needed."

"Sure thing," Marc said, moving to sit behind the counter, slinging off his backpack. Marinette and Nathaniel went upstairs, already back into a conversation.

The door closed, and the prickling of Blanc's feeling vanished. Marc let out a sigh of relief.

"You seemed tense," Kagami noted, and just like that, Marc's relief was gone again. Conversations with strangers weren't really up on his relaxation list, among "warm baths" and "scented candles". No, that would be much further down, somewhere around "getting kicked out of a store for carrying a sword" and "lost phone".

"I, well," Marc shrugged. "It's nothing about her, it's just...cursed sword, long story."

The woman nodded. "I am also learning not to kill everyone who might be a potential threat. Marinette has been an excellent teacher in that regard."

Marc felt every hair on his body stand on end. "Oh."

Kagami looked unbothered by implications of what she had just said, turning the earring rack to examine its contents. "Most of my training here has been learning not to shift into my dragon form while in cities. It's been a...restrictive but very insightful process."

"Yeah-that's uh...not a good thing to do." Marc blinked. "You're a dragon?"

"From the Tsuguri family," Kagami responded. "You may have heard of my mother, she does live around these parts."

"I have, yes." Marc kept his hands folded calmly in his lap, deciding against telling the dragon he knew her mother because of her bounty. Maybe it was best not to let her know he was a bounty hunter at all, just in case she saw him as a threat and tried to stab his heart out, or shapeshift into a dragon and turn the surrounding buildings to instant rubble.

"I always wondered why she chose to move to the Mortal Planes," the dragon continued, picking up a pair of bright red earrings and watching them catch the light. "But I think I understand now. There are all sorts of interesting people that I never would have met in the Fire Realm."

Marc nodded. "Yeah. I traveled a lot as a kid, but I've never met so many different people living in one place until I came here."

Kagami seemed to agree with that. "I'm continually surprised by the people I see in this city. Especially your friend," she said, jerking her head up to the upstairs room. "People like him aren't generally welcome in many realms."

Marc paused, tilting his head. "People like him...you mean half-dragons?"

Kagami looked back at him, eyebrows furrowed. "Half-dragons?"

The confusion on Kagami's face made his heart grow cold as ice in an instant.

"Y-yeah," he said, trying to push down the sudden unease in his chest. "Nath's a half-dragon-"

"He isn't."

The bluntness, the way she seemed so assured in her answer...Marc felt blood pounding in his ears and he wasn't really sure why.

He gave a small laugh, standing up. "There must be some mistake," he said, looking back upstairs, then to Kagami. "He's..."

"Dragon horns are always covered in heavy plating," Kagami said, tapping her own horn. "Not smooth, like his. And dragon tails-on the rare chance our humanoid forms have one-always have some sort of barb or flail at the end. Besides, I can smell his Infernal blood from a mile off. Whatever he is, it's not a half-dragon, but I can understand how Humans like you would be fooled so easily." She placed the earrings back on the rack, turning away.

Marc sat back down, staring at her. She was lying. She had to be.

But it made sense.

How fearful Nathaniel was around the sword, never getting near it if he could. How he rarely spoke about his past, about where he was from. He was an Infernal.

"Tell Marinette that I've headed back to her place," Kagami said. "I won't be buying any of your accessories today."

Marc barely acknowledged her leaving, staring around the shop as though it were somewhere completely new and unfamiliar now.

What was he?

Marc grabbed his phone. He should have double-checked from the very beginning, but he never would have thought the half-dr...whatever he was...Nath, would have lied to him for so long.

Infernal races...wings...horns...tail...darkvision...

He typed the keywords in his phone, feeling his heart hammering in his chest. There were so many conflicting voices in his head, not from the sword, but from his own mind as the search page loaded all too slowly-why did the internet have to be fuck ass as all balls now?

Was Nath evil? No, he couldn't be. Just because he was Infernal didn't mean he was evil, fuck, he should know better than to think that.

Did it really matter what Nath was? Maybe not, but maybe it did.

Maybe it mattered to him.

Demon.

The word stood out to him at the very top of the page, alongside the image of a man, wearing tight, strange-looking robes, grinning at the camera in a perfect example of threatening, long red wings extending from his back and a tail adorned with gold bracelets and chains behind him, and a large pair of smooth, red antler-like horns curving around his ears.

The man's face didn't look like Nath at all, and the horns looked much larger and differently-shaped than Nath's, but the resemblance was unmistakable.

A chill ran down his body.

The sword at his side began to pulse against his mind, an almost burning heat.

Nathaniel Kurtzberg was a demon.

Chapter Text

Marinette spun him around, clapping her hands. "Look at you! You're a handsome boy!"

Nathaniel looked down at the suit. There wasn't a big mirror in here to look at himself with, but the suit felt like it hugged his body well, and it had that pleasant "fresh clothes from Marinette" smell, too.

"I feel like a handsome boy," he said, stretching his wings. The fairy, ever observant, had added some extra padding where the base of his wings rubbed against the slits in the back.

"Gosh, if I were back at the shop, I'd try a whole outfit with you," Marinette said, stepping closer to fiddle with the back of his collar. "Of course, I'd do a lot of other things with you, too," she whispered.

Nath shivered at her touch.

"But...I've already got Kagami with me, so," Marinette pulled away. "If it was Luka, I'd invite you to join in, but Kagami isn't keen on sharing."

"She doesn't look the type," Nath agreed.

"Oh, she's a lovely challenge," Marinette said, laughing lightly. "Now go on, give it a try."

Nath snapped his fingers and felt the magic hum across his entire body. Marinette gave an approving nod.

"How do I look now?" Nathaniel joked, swinging his hips from side to side.

"Stunningly translucent," Marinette, said, reaching out to find his invisible form. "I'm sure you could give someone a nice surprise like this," she murmured, hands trailing up to find his shoulders. "Imagine being touched by an invisible lover, that'd be hot for some people, don't you think? Nerves on edge, never knowing where they're going to be touched next..."

It was a little unfair of Marinette to tease him like this when she already had her own plans this evening. "By a 'someone', do you mean yourself or Marc?" He asked, raising an eyebrow that he knew she couldn't see.

Marinette's lips twitched upward. "Well, I'm preoccupied this evening," she said. "But your little boy toy might appreciate it."

Nathaniel ignored the tightness in his jeans. "I'll talk to him about it sometime," he said, willing the enchantment away and turning visible again. "Kinda weird that you're trying to get me laid, though."

The fairy gave him a wink and a pat on the cheek. "Is it? I introduced you to Luka, after all. I like to think introducing people to good sex is one of my many talents."

"You're weird."

The fairy grinned. "That's why you like me. Now I should probably get out of here, Kagami only has so much patience and being that close to Blanc again for the first time in 500 years is a memory that I want to fuck out of my head as soon as possible."

"Valid," Nath said, following Marinette downstairs.

Marc was sitting at the counter, head down. Kagami was nowhere to be seen.

"Hey, Marc," Marinette said, waving to him. "Did Kagami leave already?"

Marc nodded, still looking down at his folded hands.

Nathaniel watched Marc with a curious eye. Something was up. Blanc was nowhere to be seen.

Marinette seemed to catch the tense atmosphere and turned back to Nath.

Nath shook his head, waving her along. He'd deal with it.

"Well, I'd better catch up with her," Marinette said, back to her cheery voice again. "See you later, boys!"

"Don't die," Nath said, walking over to start locking up the doors as she left.

"Same to you," Marinette answered, closing the door behind her and walking back to her shop.

The quiet of the store once the door closed set Nath on edge. He glanced back at Marc, still sitting, not moving. He could see the sword now, sheathed and lying haphazardly on the floor on the other side of the desk, partially hidden behind one of the shelf racks.

Had Marc thrown his sword?

"I'm gonna set the cleaning supplies free in a minute," Nath said, clearing his throat. "So...uh...probably best not to leave Blanc lying down here. The broom might try to throw it away, it's done that with some of my items before."

"...okay."

The swordsman's voice was quiet. Nath paused, letting one of his lock wards vanish mid-incantation. "Marc, is everything okay?"

Marc looked up. He tended to be expressively honest, but the demon couldn't make heads or tails of what was going on behind his eyes. "I...I'm not sure," he said. "Can I talk with you?"

"Oh." Nath paused. "Right now?"

"Well, once you're, um...done closing things up," Marc said, standing up and picking up Blanc. Nathaniel didn't miss that he picked Blanc up by the belt loop, rather than holding the hilt of the sword. "I'll be upstairs."

Hurriedly finishing up the wards, Nath followed Marc up to their home, snapping his fingers as he went up to let the cleaning supplies loose.

Marc was sitting on the edge of his bed, door open. Blanc was in the kitchen, as far away from his room as possible.

Did he have a fight or something with the sword? Could he have a fight with a sword? Was that even possible?

"Knock knock," Nath said, stepping into Marc's room. He'd been in a few times, noted the few colorful posters on the walls and the standing mirror across the bed-bit of a weird thing to wake up and the first thing you see is yourself, in Nath's opinion, but this wasn't his room. "Mind if I have a seat?"

Marc looked to the side of the bed next to him. "Sure."

Nath sat down, looking over at Marc all the while. It wasn't like him to suddenly get quiet like this.

Marc fiddled with his thumbs, bit his lip, did every small movement except talking or looking at him. Whatever it was, it was really troubling the swordsman.

"Hey," Nath said, reaching to put a hand on his shoulder. Marc flinched away, then immediately looked like he regretted it and grabbed Nath's hand.

"I-I know you're a demon."

The words hit Nath like a bullet to the gut. Every muscle in his body tensed. Marc still wasn't looking at him, hand clutching his.

"Please don't be mad at me," Marc said, looking like he was on the verge of crying. "I didn't mean to find out, and it's not-I know why you didn't tell me, but it still hurts, you know? Because, I, I've been trying so hard to be honest about...about my feelings with you and I thought you were being distant because you didn't-it's stupid, it's not your fault-"

So that's why he was keeping the sword so far away.

Nath didn't know what to do. He stayed there, hand frozen in Marc's grasp like he'd been stung by a Miracle Wasp while Marc kept rambling, tears falling even as he wiped his eyes with one sleeve and tried to blink them away.

"-I didn't want to keep it a secret from you once I knew, because that didn't feel like the right thing to do, I don't want us to keep secrets, I want to trust you, but I-I don't know how much you trust me, and it's not your fault, I don't blame you, just please don't be mad, or, or, kick me out, I guess..."

Finally finding his voice, Nathaniel waited until Marc trailed off. His voice was quiet. "So you don't hate me?"

"I-what?" Marc's eyes connected with Nath's. "No, I don't-you don't hate me?"

The demon let out a little chuckle, reaching up to wipe away a stray tear from Marc's cheek with the sleeve of his jacket. "Why would I hate you?"

"I mean, you've been keeping that big a secret for a long time," Marc sniffed. "And then I just...learn about it by accident and I feel like I've somehow ruined everything-"

"Marc, I'm not mad at you." Nath said. "If anything, I'm surprised you're not mad at me. You know, with the whole Blanc, and the...demon that cursed you thing."

Marc blinked. "Yeah, but that wasn't your fault, so..."

"Well...I thought you might have a grudge, that's all." Nath shrugged, finding himself shrinking under the stare Marc was giving him.

"Nathaniel," Marc said, shaking his head in disbelief. "No."

They stared at each other, a little disoriented and a lot of awkward.

Marc knew. Marc knew and he wasn't screaming, or trying to kill him, or all the other negative scenarios that had been running through the demon's head since day one.

"So..." Nath paused. "You don't mind?"

Marc grabbed his face and kissed him.

That was the best "yes" Nath could have asked for.

Marc wasted no time trying to kiss him senseless, pulling him closer. Nath responded in turn, a quiet euphoria shared between each kiss, sweeter than honey and tingling like electricity.

"I'm glad," the demon breathed through a stray moment before Marc silenced him with a kiss once more. His tail curled around the other's waist, and Marc pulled away to grab it, watching it twist and coil around his wrist and fingers.

"I'm still curious," the swordsman murmured, shifting to sit nearer to Nath, one knee half-slung over his lap as his hands came up to idly brush through the red strands of hair at the nape of Nath's neck. "I know what demons are capable of. You can do some pretty powerful shit, so...why settle for a little thrift shop? Do you have some kind of master plan for the future?"

"No plans," Nath said. "Nothing for the big future, anyway."

"So you...just wanted to live here in the city? That's all?"

"Not everyone wants greatness, Marc." The demon's hands moved to link around the other's waist. "Some people aren't cut out for that life."

Marc moved closer, seating himself fully on top of Nath.

Nathaniel continued, a soft smile on his face, eyes distant. "Some people just want to be safe, with a roof over their heads, a job that they like, some time to do the things they love," he looked up to Marc. "And maybe somebody to share it all with."

He heard the small intake of breath, saw the part of Marc's lips, the way his expression changed ever-so-slightly before he was being kissed again and again and again.

There was a secret, shared laughter passed between their lips, a shared joy in some final, hidden part of Nath's heart being exposed, like tearing off a bandage to a wound that may have never been there.

Marc kissed Nath flat against the mattress, gentle lips and playful teeth and hungry tongue kissing every inch of the demon's mouth, inside and out.

Nath let his mouth open, let Marc explore every part of him, hands trailing across his horns and down his neck, smoothing across the muscles in his wings and running down to rest on his beating heart, thudding into the swordsman's open palm. He met Marc's fervency with reverence, indulging in their holy sin.

Nath's legs were still hanging off the side of the bed, so Marc was practically sitting on his stomach, a bit of an awkward angle for the both of them but no less tender in the moment. Nath's tail was still coiling around Marc's arm, and he brought his hands up to rest against the inside of the other's thighs.

"Here," Marc said, climbing off so Nath could position himself properly on the bed.

Nathaniel moved to lay back again, but to his surprise, Marc grabbed his arm and flipped them both over, pulling the demon on top of him into another kiss.

He'd kissed Marc plenty of times, in the heat of the moment and outside of sex, as a comfort and as a teasing for what was to come. This was different from all the other kisses.

Marc's eyes were half-lidded and staring right into his, that beautiful ring of green just visible around the outside of the pupils, like the eclipse of an emerald sun. Nath was almost afraid to stare for too long and be blinded. "You top this time," the swordsman whispered.

The demon paused. "Are you sure?"

Marc's hands clasped Nath's hips, fingers toying with the fold of his jacket. For a moment Nath was tempted to take Marinette's advice with invisible sex, but that didn't seem very fitting for the mood of the current moment. He took it off, tossing it off the bed. Marinette would throw a fit for wrinkling a just-ironed suit, but he had other things to pay attention to at the moment, like Marc's hands on his hip, one knee coming up to press against Nath's cock.

Marc seemed pretty fucking sure about this.

Nath pressed down, letting out a huff of breath and biting down the noise that bubbled in his throat. Marc gasped at the contact, unrestrained and wanting, and the sound made Nath pause as he remembered that Marinette lived next door, and she'd be pissed if their sounds interrupted her moment with Kagami.

"Wait. Soundproof ward first," he said, moving back to walk to the doorway. As he closed the door, he trailed a few sigils in the air, letting them go and float to their designated places.

Marc was already halfway in the process of undressing, pausing to watch the magic dancing around his room with an amused expression. "Do spells for sex stuff exist?" he asked, eyes wandering to the glyphs as they floated away to situate themselves around the walls and ceiling.

"Oh, probably," Nath said. "But I can do plenty of sex magic with my body alone."

The swordsman gave a snort, tossing his pants away and leaning back, letting the demon see all of his body, beautiful muscles rippling under his skin, legs spread invitingly and a hint of red dusting his cheeks with pleasure.

Nath was quick to undress as Marc pulled the lube from his bedside drawer-no condoms, Nathaniel noted. Well, if that was how Marc wanted it, he was happy to oblige.

"It's been a rough few days," the demon said, crawling back over to Marc and gently pushing him back against the bed. "I hope you don't mind if I take things a little slow at first."

Marc grinned. "You mean 'teasing me to my limits', don't you?"

"You know me too well," Nath purred, pressing his nose to the crook of Marc's neck, lips barely brushing against the swordsman's skin.

Slowly, he kissed along the expanse between the chin and clavicle, pressing himself to Marc, shifting above the swordsman to trap the man's legs open with his own, tail flicking between them to trail along the tender insides of Marc's thighs. Marc shuddered, hips jerking up against empty air. Nath brought a hand down to the swordsman's hip, pinning him back to the mattress.

"That-that's mean," Marc gasped, fingers digging against Nath's ass, as though trying to pull him down to grant some friction between them. Nathaniel chuckled, refused to move, even as his own cock ached for the sweet drag of Marc's hips against his own.

"You love it," Nath murmured. He inched lower, taking one of the swordsman's nipples between his lips, enjoying the shudder he elicited from the other with a swipe of his tongue and a nip of his teeth.

Marc was letting a bit of his stubborn side show, lips clamped together and trying to stifle any sound that rose to his throat, which only made Nath equally determined to bring those sounds out.

He sat back, looking over Marc once more. "What should I do with you?" He murmured, partly to himself and partly to let Marc's imagination unravel the swordsman for him. "I could tell you to hold yourself still for me, take my time giving attention to every bit of you while you squirm and beg for me. Would you like that, Marc?"

Marc bit his lip, squeezing his eyes shut.

"I could pin your wrists above your head," Nath took Marc's wrists like so, using his wings to support himself on either side of Marc's body while he trailed a hand down Marc's chest, playing with the nipple he'd ignored before.

A small whine crept from Marc's throat.

"Would you like that? If I fucked you like this? Hell, you're such a pretty and sweet thing when you let me take charge." He looked down to Marc's dick, hard and leaking. "I know you've got all sorts of ideas swimming around in that head of yours."

Marc opened his eyes, eyes bright but unfocused, already a thousand miles ahead of whatever Nath was planning.

"Come on, gorgeous," Nath whispered, leaning close to Marc's ear. "Tell me what you're thinking."

"F-fuck," Marc stuttered, and the moment his lips parted, Nath pressed his hips down, grinding deep against the swordsman's cock. "Fuck! Ah!"

There it was, those lovely sounds wrenching free from Marc's lips as he threw his head back and jerked his hips up to meet Nath in ecstasy. Nath ducked low again, seizing Marc's neck in his teeth and then soothing the skin with his tongue, turning the other's throat into a canvas of purple bruises on flushed red skin.

"Nath-hah, Nath," Marc struggled under him. "Nath, just fuck me already-"

Nath pressed a messy kiss to Marc's lips, pausing from grinding against the swordsman to let the other catch his breath before he pulled back, looking him in the eyes. "Patience," he cooed.

Marc whined, turning redder than he already was. "Nathaniel," he hissed, horny and frustrated and so goddamn attractive.

"You're so cute when you beg for my dick," Nath teased.

"You're a b-bastard man," Marc responded, choking off into a whine as the demon's tail brushed against the head of his cock.

Nath leaned into Marc's ear, all of his fondness and tender feelings for the swordsman spilling into his voice as he whispered sin and divinity to him in the same breath.

"I'm going to make you cum so hard you'll be seeing stars for a week."

"Fuck," The swordsman moaned, low and heavy, and Nath let his hands go.

Marc tangled one hand in Nath's hair, the other grabbing a horn, pressing them together, tongues intertwining before Nath pulled away and continued kissing a path down his neck, his chest, his stomach, pulling back just before his lips brushed against Marc's cock and looking back to the wide eyes of his partner.

"Tell me when you're close," he said, spreading Marc's legs further apart. "I don't want you to cum just yet."

Marc nodded, taking a deep breath to recollect himself. "O-okay."

It was almost unfair how much Marc could captivate him with just a glance and a blush on his face. Almost, but considering that he was currently seated between Marc's legs and very, very obviously affecting the swordsman, some payback was to be expected.

The first gasp when he swiped the first few drops of precum from the tip with his tongue sent a thrill through Nath's body. He wrapped his lips around Marc's cock and began to move, slowly, leisurely working his way down the shaft while Marc's fingers dug into his scalp, knuckles scraping against his horns as the swordsman tried to find his grip.

"Nath-" Marc's fingers clutched at his neck and shoulders, nails sharp against his skin. "Fuck, yes, it feels-gods, it feels good."

Nath would have teased Marc with compliments until he dissolved, but his mouth was currently too full of dick to do that, so he gave a pleased hum, steadily continuing to press further until he was taking the swordsman's cock all the way down to the base and feeling a hum of satisfaction as Marc's hands clenched into his back.

"Nath, Nath, wait," Marc gasped. "I'm close."

Nath pulled back, sliding off his member with a wet "pop". The swordsman made a small noise at the loss, quickly soothed by Nathaniel's mouth on his. "I know," he said, murmuring comforts between spit-slick lips. "I know, I'd love to suck you off, but will you patient with me for just a little longer?"

Marc pulled him back against the mattress, chest rising and falling under the demon's body as he struggled to regain his words. "Don't know how much longer I got," he gasped, rubbing his thighs together with a whine. "Nath, please, please fuck me, you teasing asshole-"

Nath laughed, crawling off of Marc to grab the lube. "I can tease your asshole all night, gorgeous. You've gotten so good at this since the first time we had sex, Marc." He leaned down to cherish the swordsman with a gentler kiss. "You've been holding yourself together so well."

"Not for long," Marc said, voice strained. "Nath, this is sweet, but please, I need your dick in me right now."

"So bossy," Nath crooned, brushing hair out of Marc's face with his free hand. "Flip over."

Marc did so, positioning himself on trembling hands and knees as Nath squirted the lube on his fingers.

He could see Marc's face in the mirror, watching him when he leaned forward to press a kiss against the base of the swordsman's spine, fingers trailing down to circle the rim of his entrance.

"Gh-Nath," Marc gasped, fingers clenching into the bedsheets.

"I love the way you say my name," Nathaniel started conversationally, slowly pushing the first finger into his warm hole.

Marc groaned, pressed back against him, the tip of his spit-slicked cock starting to leak precum once again.

"Some demons only use their real name when signing a contract on someone's soul," Nath continued. "So no one can find them if they read the contract." Slowly, he pumped his finger in and out of Marc's ass, feeling the muscles clench around the digit.

Marc pressed back against him, panting, willing the finger deeper.

Nath pressed a second finger into him, still as slow and methodical as ever. "Hearing you say my name, so wanting and so incredibly desperate," he crooked his fingers, pulling a gasp from Marc. "It makes me glad I left my fake name in the Nine Hells, if only so I can hear my name spoken by your pretty lips."

"F-fuck," Marc stuttered, reaching a hand under to palm at his own dick.

Nath grabbed Marc's wrist, grinning. "Not just yet, gorgeous. I'm going to take you from behind, and I'm going to give you the best orgasm in your life."

Marc looked like he was bound to fall apart at any second, beautifully filthy, unfiltered moans and half-formed begs spilling from his mouth, doubling in intensity as Nath pressed in a third finger.

"Nath," he cried, "Nath, Nath, please, hn-"

Nath was barely keeping himself together, too, cock hard and needy. Every call of his name by the swordsman made his dick twitch with arousal but he willed himself to stay patient, keeping his breath even until Marc was stretched and ready for him and he'd slathered a generous amount of lube over his own leaking cock.

"All ready now," he whispered, positioning himself over Marc, running his lube-free hand through the other's dark hair. He saw Marc nod, steel himself-

-and fall apart as Nath pressed in, filling him, pressing in until his hips met Marc's ass and he was flush against the other, wings spread to keep his balance.

What a sight they looked in the mirror, Marc on his hands and knees, expression bliss with pleasure, and Nath, wings spread over him, oddly similar to the many depictions he'd seen of demons in his lifetime, looming over the pure, unsuspecting souls they were often depicted with, usually humans clothed in white.

But here, there was no innocent soul to be stolen, no evil Monster and pure human, just him and Marc, naked and complicated and burning with arousal.

"Fuck me," Marc panted, more of a demand than anything else.

Nathaniel met his eyes in the mirror and snapped his hips forward.

"Ah!"

Gone was the teasing, the slow, gentle movements and carefully practiced strokes. He fucked Marc, and fucked him hard, skin slapping against skin, tail writhing and thrashing with every burst of pleasure that shot through his body.

A cry tore its way from Marc's chest, spine arching, jerking back to meet Nath in a deep, passioned thrust.

"Say my name," Nath grunted, fucking into Marc's tight, needy hole. "I want to hear you scream it."

"Nath!" Marc yelled, voice trembling. "Nath-fuck me, Nath, ah-"

Nath felt the bed beneath them creak with every slap of balls to ass, every pierce of his cock against Marc's prostate, and he leaned forward, clumsily taking Marc's cock in his hand and pumping, giving it the attention the swordsman needed while he pistoned his hips furiously into Marc.

"Fuck! Nath-I'm-Nath, Nath, NATH!"

Marc came, screaming Nathaniel's name at the top of his lungs. The demon rode Marc through his orgasm, moaning as the swordsman's hole clenched around his cock, overwhelming him with the feeling, and his hips jerked, stuttered, and he clenched Marc's hips, rammed his dick into the swordsman's ass and came, smearing the inside of Marc with his cum.

Nath almost fell over as his knees started to give. Marc had already gone limp, relying on the support of Nath's grip to keep him upright. Carefully, Nath maneuvered them both until they were laying down, burying his face in Marc's hair as the burning heat faded and settled into quiet, comfortable warmth.

After a few minutes, Marc began to squirm in his grip, muttering something under his breath. "Get...fuckin...cock out of my ass."

"Sorry," Nath said, carefully pulling out. Marc turned around so he was facing Nath, pulling himself back to the demon's chest.

"S'better like this," he mumbled, finally relaxing.

Nathaniel gave a pleased hum, wrapping his tail around Marc's waist. "Did you like it?" He asked.

"Mhm." Marc chuckled, stifling a yawn. "Didn't just see stars, I think I saw a few whole galaxies too. Was this payback for when I fucked you in Haut Monde?"

"Maybe," Nath said. "Maybe I just like seeing you beg for me."

"Oh, that's comin' back at you full force, just you wait," Marc's voice was slurred, speaking into Nath's chest.

Nath grinned. "Looking forward to it. But hey."

"Hm?"

"Tomorrow, I'll read your contract with Blanc, okay? We'll see if we can find a loophole."

Marc looked up at him. "You can do that?"

Nath smiled. "Any demon can read a contract that's bound to a soul. It's the least I can do for you."

Marc's already-soft features seemed to soften more at that. "Thank you." Marc smiled, burying his face back into Nathaniel's chest.

The demon and the swordsman found rest in each other, sharing trust between their mingled breaths. Not all contracts were forged by magic. Some were unspoken, as binding as time and as freeing as the expanse of the universe.

Nathaniel sighed deeply, a long, heavy worry lifted off his shoulders for the first time since Marc had come to live here.

Chapter Text

Marc and Nathaniel waited at the dinner table the following afternoon. Marc had Blanc in his lap. After yesterday's freak out with learning Nath's identity was over and done with, Blanc had become more manageable once again, to their immense relief. Nath was drumming his fingers on the table, looking down at the ringing phone on the table, then back up at Marc.

"You gotta tell her," Marc said.

"I just made a promise with her not to take any risks," he hissed. "She's gonna slit my throat when she finds out."

"Look, she's the one who texted us to call back if we were up for eating dinner together on Saturday," Marc said, raising his hands. "If you don't want to tell her that I know, then that's on you, but I really think she'll find out anyway. Or you could turn her down, say you're busy."

"I can't do that, she called me 'emo boy' in the texts," Nath said, bringing his knees to his chest and perching on the edge of his chair. "That means it's important."

The phone stopped mid-ring as Alix picked up. "Hello?"

"Hey, Alix," Nath said, staring at Marc from across the table. "Uh...got your text. You still up for having dinner with us this weekend?"

"Yeah," Alix responded. "Dad and Jalil are going out on a trip for the next week, so I've got the house to myself for once. Stop by around seven on Saturday, I'll show you some of dad's old recipes."

"Sweet. We'll be there."

Marc watched Nathaniel hang up and immediately mime wiping sweat from his forehead. "You really think she's gonna kill you?"

Nathaniel gave a scared laugh. "It's certainly a possibility! Fuck! I'm actually nervous!"

"Well now I'm starting to get nervous too," Marc said. "And then she'll definitely figure out that I know your secret."

"And then we're both dead," Nath concluded. "Welp. It was fun while it lasted. Sorry, Marc."

Marc looked back at the kitchen. "We should take the rest of Rose's wine with us. Maybe that can convince Alix not to ruthlessly tear our limbs apart."

Nath snapped his fingers. "That's a genius idea. I love it."

"That's why you keep me around," Marc said, sticking out his tongue playfully. "Among other things."

Nath raised an eyebrow. "Anyway," he waved the topic aside, resting his elbows on the table. "I did promise to read your contract."

"You did," Marc said, placing Blanc on the table. "You didn't say that you'd make me sit with you beforehand so you could work up the courage to talk to Alix."

"Eh, potatoes, patitties," Nath waved that aside as well. "Have you ever seen a demon read a contract on someone's soul before?"

Marc shook his head. "Do you have to rip out my heart or something?"

"Uh...well..."

Marc's easy smiled vanished. "Nathaniel Kurtzberg."

"Look, I've only done this a few times," Nathaniel admitted. "I don't know what happens if I get this wrong."

"Oh, gods," Marc looked down at Blanc. "That just fills me up with confidence."

"If it's too big of a risk, we don't have to do this." Nathaniel reached across the sword to put a hand on his.

Marc closed his eyes. With his hands on Blanc's hilt like this, he could feel the slight tingle of Blanc's mind and the voices, a consistent pressure that tried to twist and affect his mind. Even now, he could feel it focusing on Nath, urging him to raise his blade against the demon.

It wasn't powerfully effective by any means, but it was certainly annoying.

"I'm worried," he said, tapping his fingers against the black scabbard. "What if I have to fight again, and you're there with me? I don't know if my...attraction to you...will be enough to keep Blanc away, now that...we know."

Nathaniel looked down at the blade. "So no more 'scary intense hot fucking' after battles?"

Marc shook his head. "I don't think it's safe anymore."

"Okay," Nath said. "That's probably for the best."

He couldn't keep putting Nath in danger like this. Fuck, knowing that Nath was a demon scared him, more so for what he could do to Nath than what Nath could do to him. It was nerve-wracking, thinking back to how thoughtless they'd both been.

Marc looked up at Nath. "I want Blanc gone," he said. "And that starts with breaking my contract."

"I won't be able to break your contract," Nath said. "Only the person who made it can do that. But I'll see if we can bend it somehow. Most demons count on their contractors not being able to read the exact wording, so if we're lucky, we can find a few loopholes."

"I hope so." Marc put his hands in his lap, trying to mentally prepare himself for whatever was going to happen to him.

Nathaniel stood up. "So what I want you to do right now is just focus on breathing," he said, walking around the table until he was standing in front of the swordsman.

"Ah, that makes me feel nervous," Marc said, squeezing his eyes shut. He felt a warm hand over his.

"Don't worry, it's not going to hurt. It'll just feel a bit...weird. Lean back, try to relax."

Apparently 'weird' by Nath's standards was a sudden warmth blooming in his chest. Marc's breath shook, but he leaned back against the chair, kept his eyes firmly shut, and focused on breathing in, out-

-Nath put a hand on his knee, causing him to jerk reflexively.

"Don't move!" Nath hissed.

"Sorry," Marc squeaked.

Maybe it was worse to keep his eyes closed, feeling every thrum of his heartbeat and how the warmth spread through his body with every pulse, like his heart was pumping the magic through his bloodstream, down to the tips of his fingers and toes with warmth. Marc could feel sweat gathering on his forehead.

"The contract is like a memory, stored deep inside you," Nath said. "Even if you couldn't understand it, so long as you perceived it, the contract is there."

"That's unfair," Marc said, feeling the first bead of sweat trail down his face.

"Yeah, well," Nath made an "eh" noise. "Demons didn't get all that nasty reputation from abiding their contracts by 'lawful' standards."

Marc appreciated that Nathaniel was trying to explain the process even if it didn't change how nervous he was getting at the continuous heat spreading through his whole body.

"Almost done," Nath said. "Once I find your "memory", the wording will be imprinted into my mind in perfect recollection for about an hour."

"My everything feels tingly."

"That's to be expected. I'm pulling a part of you out and then shoving it back in."

"I don't like that mental image."

"Hey, Marc, open your eyes for a sec."

Marc cracked one eye open, even though the instincts in his body were pressuring him to keep them tightly shut and focus on willing the strange feelings away. Nath was a lot closer than he realized, one hand drawing sigils in the air inches from his chest.

He caught a glimpse of something in the corner of his eye. His hand was glowing. No, not just his hand. Every part of him was glowing a bright orange, he could see the light in the veins of his hand, and could only suspect magic was filling his bloodstream with a heat that quickly coming close to burning.

"Marc, look at me, look back and me, and please don't-"

Marc started to panic.

"-do that."

"Shit," Marc gasped, voicing hitching on the edge of hysteria. This all felt wrong, like there was some kind of parasite crawling around under his skin that he wanted out right now.

"Marc, please look back at me, I'm almost done."

Marc tore his eyes away from his hand, staring at Nath. "I don't like this," he said, sweating and scared.

"You're gonna be feeling a lot of subconscious feelings from when the contract was made," Nath said. "This is normal, it's okay to be scared."

It was a fucking grace that Nath looked so calm right now, his composed confidence the only string holding Marc together from officially losing his mind.

"Trust me," Nath said.

"Please help me."

Nath pressed a hand to his chest, and Marc's heart beat against the burning feeling in his nerves, like trying to blow out a flame and instead stoking the fire hotter.

And then it was gone, the glow vanished and Nath pulled back, letting Marc breathe. "It's done," he said, smiling. "You did good."

"I want a cold shower," Marc responded, wiping the sweat off his face with one sleeve. "That was terrible."

"There's apple juice in the fridge," Nath said. "Grab yourself a cup while I work on getting all this stuff in my head onto paper."

"Oh, smart. Get it down in writing so you don't have to do that to me ever again."

"Yeah, and also so I can translate the whole thing. Some of it was Common, some of it in Inferni. Hell, I haven't had to write something in Inferni since forever."

Marc went to grab a cold drink while Nath started typing on his phone. He was shaking all over. Contract reading was really sucky. Couldn't even enjoy the fact that Nath was really close, and he'd gotten all hot and bothered in all the wrong ways.

Well, things were different between them now. They'd have plenty of time to be hot and bothered in better ways later. He could afford to be patient. Maybe. Things kept happening every time he thought he could catch a fucking break.

"One contract, complete," Nath said, a few minutes later. "There's no 'ultra-secret-insta-death' stuff in your contract, you'll be happy to know."

"That sounds good." Marc sat back down, folding his arms. "Let's hear it."

"Okay, so first I'm gonna read you the parts in Common," Nath said. "This would be what you were told when the contract was made."

Marc watched as Nath cleared his throat.

"You will claim the sword. You will always take care to keep the sword near to you. In exchange, your birth mother and birth father will utilize their abilities to the will and benefit of the contractor...hold on there's some Inferni right in the middle of this sentence that I have to scroll past which is annoying...until an agreement is reached between them." He looked up at Marc. "Sound familiar?"

Marc shrugged. "I honestly can't remember much," he admitted.

"All the technical contract stuff was spoken in Inferni," Nath said. "She didn't want you or your parents to know a contract was being made. Now this is the whole contract." He cleared his throat.

"You will claim the sword that was presented when the deal was struck and the sword will thereafter belong to you for the remainder of your life. You will always take care to keep the sword near to you at a limit of 10 meters on the same plane of reality or risk consequences determined by the contractor. In exchange, your birth mother and birth father will utilize their abilities to the will and benefit of the contractor. If your birth mother and/or birth father refuse to keep their end of the bargain, they will both risk consequences determined by the contractor until an agreement is reached between them and the contractor. Contractor: Mayura."

Marc blinked.

"You catch all that?"

"I did not," Marc said. "That's a lot to unpack."

"I've seen much longer contracts. Some demons get so hyper-specific their contractees get bored trying to read through or listen to the contract, so they skim through, zone out, and boom, you're stuck picking mushrooms for life."

"Can you...can we take this a section at a time?"

Nath scooted his chair over to Marc so he could share his phone. "Claim the sword that was presented, for the remainder of your life..."

"What if I hypothetically died? For like, a minute?"

"If you came back, that death wouldn't count as the end of your life. But hey, 10 meters! Now we know exactly how far away you can be from that."

"That's less than I was hoping for. What does it mean by 'consequences determined by the contractor'?"

"That's an asshole move," Nath answered. "It's adding a subjective into the deal that the contractor can control at any time. That means your contract can change whenever she wants it to. At the moment I guess she decided the 'consequence' is your chest pains and slow dying when you're away from the sword."

Marc's stomach lurched uncomfortably. "I don't like that she can just change it whenever."

"Means she's powerful. Stuff like affecting people who are not directly signing the contract, punishment/reward imbalance, contracts lasting after death, and contract-changing subjectives within the original deal are all signs of a very powerful demon."

"So I wouldn't even be able to kill her and break the contract either."

"Especially not with Blanc. There's also stuff about your parents, which I really don't give two fucks about, but how did they let this shit fly? Even with the stuff she said in Common, it sounds super shifty. Are your parents dumb?"

"They weren't in the room when she made the contract with me," Marc said. "I think. But that day was really weird as a whole, there was stuff going on, I don't know why my parents trusted her so much."

"I'm going to take a wild guess and say she used some kind of charm magic," Nath answered. "Common tactic for unwilling contractees."

"Huh. Contractor: Mayura." Marc squinted. "You think she uses a fake name?"

"Oh, definitely."

"Fuck."

"So, uh..." Nathaniel tapped his fingers on the table. "Any ideas? I'm gonna be honest, this is a pretty tight contract."

"I mean, uh...contracts by minors aren't legally binding or something?"

Nath shook his head. "They are for demon contracts."

"Shit. I'm still kinda frazzled from having the contract ripped out of me." Marc ran a hand through his hair. "Text me the wording, we'll show this to Alix on Saturday and maybe she can do something about it." He looked down at the contract again, trying to find something. There was a headache in his skull, the words felt like they were blurring together, he'd been so hopeful but this felt like an impossible puzzle to solve. He'd been an idiot for thinking it'd be that easy to escape his curse. All the hope that he'd been building up since yesterday was crumbling.

"Are you okay?" Nath looked up to Marc.

Marc blinked. "Yeah, I'm-well...no. No, I'm not okay at all. I'm scared, and frustrated, and stressed, and...and a lot of other things." He hugged his arms to his chest, feeling tears prick the corners of his eyes.

"Do you need some time alone?"

Marc moved his chair closer, leaning into Nath's shoulder. "No."

"Okay." Nath wrapped a wing around him.

"It sucks," Marc whispered. "I feel like every time something bad happens you're always the one comforting me."

"You're hurting," Nath said. "Don't feel bad about needing someone."

"But what about you?"

Nath pulled Marc closer. "I've got Alix and Marinette," he said. "And a lot of other people that I met when growing up here. You haven't found that yet, it makes sense you're always stressed cuz you keep trying to support yourself alone. So shut up and let me comfort you."

"Don't call me out like that," Marc huffed.

"Whatever you say, Marc," Nath answered, kissing the swordsman's cheek.

Marc felt his heart warming in all the right ways again.

Chapter Text

Alix was inviting them for dinner on Saturday.

That meant Nath had one full day to figure out how to explain to Alix that "no, I wasn't being reckless, Marc just figured it out on his own because I let him alone with an actual fucking dragon and he predictably connected the dots".

That was fine. It was a full 24 hours. He was a creative man. He knew how to think outside the box. He could come up with something, easy.

"So, did you figure out how you're going to explain this whole thing to Alix?" Marc asked on Saturday evening.

Fuck.

"I forgot," Nathaniel answered honestly, grabbing the wine Rose got them and holding it to his chest. "This is my last hope, I guess."

"Real talk, I don't think she's going to kill you," Marc said.

"I just really don't like making her pissed," Nath said. "It makes me feel bad."

"I mean, from what I've seen, she's generally been getting pissed at you for absolutely valid reasons," Marc said. "You have been putting yourself in danger, like...a lot. She's mad at you because she cares."

"I know," Nath grumbled. "Still, I'm kinda disappointed in myself. I remembered to text Alix and say we'd bring wine, but I forgot to think about how to explain everything that's happened to Alix without looking like the world's worst promise-keeper."

"Well, you can think on the ride there," Marc said, patting his shoulder.

 

~oOo~

 

Alix's house was close by to the museum her family worked at, a small little apartment that was always cluttered to the brim with papers and reports and Jalil's projects and Alix's workout equipment. Nathaniel felt his skin crawl just looking at the clutter surrounding them.

"Sorry for the mess," Alix said, like she always did when he came to visit. "Come on in, don't mind the...whatever that is."

Nathaniel tiptoed his way around the giant ceramic vase that took up the entire center of the main room, Marc following close behind.

"We brought wine," Nath said, holding out the bottle. "Rose made it."

"Rose made it? Oh, hell yeah, let me get some glasses," Alix said, stepping over a knee-high barricade of folders to get to the kitchen. "Man, I need to convince dad to give me a break so I can go out and spend an evening with the lesbians."

"What are you cooking? It smells great," Marc said.

Nath sniffed the air. "That smells different than what your dad usually makes."

"Yeah, so..." Alix winced. "Jalil was messing with the stove again and so what I was cooking burst into flames and is charred beyond edibility, but I ordered some Elemental takeout so we're good."

"Don't blame Jalil for your bad cooking," Nath said. "Wait, from which realm?"

"Well, since you insulted my cooking, that's gonna be a surprise now," Alix said, turning away from him.

"Either way, it's takeout that I didn't have to buy, so I'm happy," Marc said, somehow managing to navigate his way to the table and sitting down.

"What's the important thing that you wanted to call us here to talk about?" Nathaniel asked, taking a seat next to Marc. "Or do you want to eat first then talk?"

"We've also got some important things to talk about, too," Marc said.

"I'm fine with eating first," Alix said, balancing three plates between her two hands. "But if your stuff is a big deal then you can talk now."

The growling in Nathaniel's stomach and his innate curiosity for knowledge were both conflictingly tempting.

"Let's start with our stuff...?" Marc said, looking to Nath for a go-ahead.

"Yeah, our stuff." Nath sat down, pulling a plate to him. As far as a last meal went, Elemental takeout was a pretty good one. "I see a lot of greens in this-it's Stone realm takeout, isn't it?"

Marc poked the noodles in his dish with a fork. "I think it's a mix," he said.

"Fancy."

"Only the discount best for my friends," Alix said, setting out the wine glasses and pouring out drinks. "So, what's your big thing?"

Nathaniel looked to Marc. "You want to tell her?"

"No one's listening in, right?"

Alix scoffed. "You think I'd bring you here to talk about important shit if I knew people were eavesdropping? Come on, spill it."

Marc gave an "are you sure?" look to the demon. Nathaniel urged him on, nodding encouragingly. "Well...uh..." he started, looking between Nath and Alix with unsure glances. "...Nath can tell you about it."

Alix turned her attention to Nathaniel. "What did you fuck up this time?"

"Hey!"

"Either you screwed something up or the two of you are getting hitched, it's one or the other." Alix took a sip of her wine.

"I mean...things are kind of...neither of those?" Marc said. "We just wanted you to look over a contract."

The way Alix's head turned to look at him could not have been more unnerving and chill-inducing. Nathaniel unwillingly let out an audible squeak.

"A contract?" Alix leaned forward, elbows on the table, attention fully focused on him. "Really? Tell me more about this...contract that you made."

"Oh, uh...I didn't make it," Nath said, leaning back from Alix as though she were exuding death in a radius. "You know what, I know this is coming, so I'm just gonna rip the bandaid off-Marc accidentally found out I'm a demon okay so I read the contract on his soul and that was a whole thing but he's cool with it but I'm starting to think that you're not as cool with it because of-" he gestured to her general face area, half covering his own face with a raised arm. "-you. Being you."

"What he's trying to say is we're sorry and please don't kill us," Marc said.

Alix turned to look at Marc for a very long time. Nathaniel ducked down closer to the table. Marc was sitting ramrod-straight in his chair and looking rapidly back between him and Alix.

"Nathaniel?" Alix said.

Nath peeked his head up. "Yeah?"

The woman leaned forward and flicked his forehead. "You overreact too much."

"Ow."

Alix turned to the swordsman, letting out a long sigh. "Marc, I just want to let you know that Nath tells everyone that he thinks I'll kill him if he does anything wrong, don't worry, it's a whole inside joke."

"Oh. Um," Marc blinked. "Yeah. I assumed that, but that's good to know. You aren't gonna, like...beat the shit out of us or anything?"

"Look at that, you asshole," Alix turned back to Nathaniel. "You made him worried."

"I'm sorry," Nath said.

"I've only ever really kicked his ass consensually," Alix said, reaching over the table and tugging one of Nath's horns. "Except for when we were kids, but I've sworn off the path of needless violence now."

Nathaniel swatted Alix's hand away. "Glad to hear you're okay with all this."

"If I hadn't sworn off the path of needless violence I would have punted you into a ditch." Alix pulled back. "Anyway, kitsune dropped the mirage, everything's good between you two?"

"I think so." Nath looked to Marc. "Right?"

"Yeah, it's good." Marc shrugged, digging into his food without further comment.

"And there you were being all scared he was gonna slit your throat," Alix smirked. "All this time you were worried for nothing."

Nathaniel waved a hand. "Well, that's over and done with. This takeout is fucking delicious by the way."

"Works great with the wine, too." Now that the initial nervousness was gone, Alix seemed more relaxed now. They all did, really. Just a group of friends eating food, not worrying about the fact that they all could die in the unknown, but very near future.

"Check this out," Marc said, sliding his phone over to Alix. "It's the contract that's on my soul. Nath translated it."

"Sweet," Alix pulled the phone closer. "What do I do with this?"

"Check it for loopholes," Nath said between bites.

"Hmm." Alix frowned, looking at Marc's phone. "This is a complete translation, right? I know there can be some disconnect when translating in a different language."

"It's as accurate as I can make it," Nath said. "Do you want the untranslated version? I have a screenshot of that on my phone."

"Gimme."

Marc took his phone back, Nath trading out with his version of the contract.

"Any better?" Marc asked.

"No, not really." Alix sighed. "So the sword always has to be within 10 meters or you end up with...'consequences'. I guess there's not really a better word for it in Common."

Marc looked up. "Oh? What does it mean in Inferni?"

"It generally means a consequence that's exclusively harmful physically."

"So if I lost the sword and got mentally hurt because of it somehow, would that break the contract?"

"No, because the contractor didn't choose that."

Nath squinted. "What were you planning to do? Lose the sword and then have a 'big sad' or something?"

The swordsman pouted. "Well when you say it like that it sounds stupid."

"Here." Alix tapped the screen with a knuckle, accidentally swiping to a different photo of a cute dog he'd seen wandering outside his shop. "Shit, wait. Here. The sword has to be within 10 meters of you at all times on the same Plane of reality. What if you had a teleportation circle?"

Nathaniel leaned forward, considering. "You mean like one of the boss's?"

"Yeah, your weird shady boss and the teleporting shit he can do. If your sword is on one side of the portal and you're on the other side, you'd technically be within 10 meters but still be on the same Plane."

"That would work," Nath said, rubbing his chin. "I think. Or maybe Rose's thing, where she teleports through trees and stuff. That could also be a thing."

"The only problem is fixing a teleportation circle thing to Blanc and one to me that stays open for an extended period of time," Marc said, resting his head in one hand. "But we could ask the boss when he...how much does Alix know?"

"Everything."

"Oh okay. When Max comes back we can ask him."

"That might be your best bet," Alix said. "The contract's really clear about this sword specifically, so switching it out with a different weapon won't work, or trying to revoke ownership, since you essentially agreed to keep this sword with you for your whole life."

Marc let his head fall to the table. "What if I went back in time and slapped child me and told him 'hey don't make deals with creepy strangers'?"

"Paradox," Alix replied. "And good luck finding a magic item that can do time travel. As far as I know, one hasn't been invented yet."

Nathaniel snickered. "Yeah, and you would know real well, wouldn't you?"

"I'm going to vasectomize you and feed your balls to the hellhounds."

"Marc, you want to hear a great story?" Nathaniel turned to the swordsman with a grin. "Alix once found an ancient artifact that was rumored to allow time travel, so she went to stick it in that big identifier in the museum, but ended up turning it on by accident."

Alix was staring daggers at him from across the table. "Nath," she said, warningly.

"Payback's a bitch," Nath sang back. "Turns out the artifact just makes you 'feel' like you're time traveling. It's essentially a very strong, magically induced hallucination."

Marc looked over to Alix, who sighed and set down the fork she'd been holding in a death grip, accepting what was coming next.

"I found her four and a half hours later," Nath said. "Collapsed on the floor and absolutely tripping balls."

"You were terrified." Alix shot back.

"I mean, in the moment, yeah, I thought you were going to die, but now it's hilarious."

"Jalil said you were sobbing."

Nath crossed his arms. "You can't prove shit."

"You want me to pull up security footage from six years ago? I'll do it, I'm that petty."

"The museum's security cameras do not hold footage for that long, I'm willing to bet money on it."

"Bleh," Alix stuck out her tongue. "You cried like a baby and we both know it."

"And your dad had to get you tested for drugs, so 'bleh' yourself."

"You're both 'bleh'," Marc cut in. He was finishing off the remains of his food. "Anyway, if we're done talking about my contract and...whatever the fuck that was, Alix, mind telling us why you called us in the first place?"

Alix took a sip of her wine. "Oh, right. I called you guys here for a reason."

"Pfft." Nath made a face. "Yeah, I can tell that you called us here for something important. The fact that you up and forgot it just accentuates how important this is."

"You really want me to go back to the path of needless violence, don't you, Nath?" Alix's smile was as wide as her eyes, a threatening display of teeth and a "don't fucking test me" glare. "I called you here because I've got contacts of my own, and those contacts are telling me that the police are starting to pull out of the Dupont district."

"Well, that's good news," Nath said, shrugging. "Guess they couldn't stay here forever."

Marc turned to him. "No. This is bad news."

Alix snapped her fingers, pointing to Marc. "You get it."

Apparently seeing the confusion still on Nath's face, Marc turned and addressed him directly. "Sabrina said she was using the wasps to clear their path to Dupont. It wouldn't make sense for her to keep extra police in the neighborhood if she's going to invade it."

Nath felt his heart sink. "You mean she's back?"

"It's possible. But she could have also planned this in advance, made sure the police got moved out at a specific time. Or...this could mean nothing after all. We could be overthinking all of it." Marc sighed. "I don't know exactly when she's coming back, but it's going to be soon, and I'm worried about what that means for me."

"Right, she could try and get you fired," Nath said.

"I was thinking more along the lines of 'me getting assassinated' or 'framed for murder', but getting fired is also a thing that could happen." The swordsman looked down at Blanc. "I just hope Max contacts us before then so we can make some kind of plan."

"Well." Nath looked up at Alix and Marc. "If you want me to put my two silver pieces in, I think the police were scheduled to pull out. I don't think Sabrina and Chloe and the rest of them are ready to attack. Well, I hope, anyway."

Alix sat back, looking him over. "Do you have a reason to think that, or is it just that you're getting vibes of that?"

Nath put his hand on the table. "The group needed the Miracle Wasps to get in," he said. "They specifically targeted the wasps when they attacked Max's shipment, the first time he came to contact us. They were counting on using the wasps to break into Gallia. But now that the queen is...now that the queen is dead, they can't use the colony. It'll take a few months before a new queen shows up."

Marc nodded. "Okay. That makes sense. But do you really think Chloe would kill the queen if she was so important to her plan? She doesn't seem like the kind of person to wait around for a new queen."

Nathaniel hesitated. That was true, she'd been irritated when he told her about how long it took for the Feather of Sentience to be reused. Maybe because she assumed it was a 24-hour wait time after the conjured creation was dispelled, rather than once the original tuft was taken off. Still, he had to admit, patience seemed to be one of the many virtues she had abandoned.

"Maybe she found another Miracle Wasp nest," Alix suggested. "Made a deal with someone from the Feywild to smuggle another nest in or some shit. She's rich, rich people can do all sorts of things."

"I really hope not." Nathaniel folded his arms. He hoped the police moving out was just a failed plan from Sabrina before she left. He didn't want to think about what the alternatives would be. What if they tried to invade by brute force?

It was only when he felt something grab the base of his tail that he realized he'd been whipping it around like an angry cat, wings raised over his body in a feral stance. Marc had grabbed the end of his tail and was looking at him.

"It's going to be okay," he assured the demon.

Nathaniel retracted his wings back, feelings some of the anxiety in his body slip away under Marc's eyes.

"Max and Kim will be back soon," Marc said. "We can make a plan once he gets back, we have time to think this through."

Alix grabbed his hand. "But hey, real talk, if they do show up," she looked him in the eyes. "I want you and Marc to run, okay?"

Nathaniel gave a nod. "Of course-"

"I can't do that."

Nath and Alix turned to the swordsman.

Marc let go of Nathaniel's tail, folding his hands in his lap. "If they show up I'm going to fight," he said. "I don't want anything to happen to this neighborhood," he turned to Nath. "Especially not to you."

Nath blinked, momentarily at a loss for words.

Alix stared at Marc with a firm expression. "Look, I don't know how many people they're going to bring in. I don't know if you can fight them all by yourself."

"If I have to fight them all alone then I will," Marc said, a stubborn set in his jaw. "But I have faith in my abilities-or Blanc's abilities, anyway. If it comes down to it then I'm going to protect you guys."

Alix's eyebrows were raised practically to her hairline. "Huh." She looked at Nath, then back to the swordsman. "Well shit. I think you might need a bigger pair of pants to accommodate the sheer balls you just grew."

"Marc, that's sweet and all," Nath started. "But also don't throw yourself into dangerous situations for our sake, really."

"Why not?"

Nath looked to Alix for support, but Alix was drinking wine and ignoring him. "Because we don't want you to get hurt? Because we care about you?"

"Nathaniel, it's my job," Marc said. "I became a bounty hunter so that I could protect people from dangerous criminals. Running away when Dupont needs my help goes against everything I stand for."

"You became a bounty hunter so you could pay bills until you could get a job as a writer," Nath shot back. "Don't kid yourself. You don't want to die here."

Marc crossed his arms. "Then I'm not going to."

Nathaniel stared at him. He looked completely serious, a thought that both scared the demon and warmed his heart in a contradiction of feelings. "Let's talk to Max first before we make any big decisions. Can you promise me that?"

Marc smiled, expression softening. "Of course."

"Wow," Alix said, raising her glass. "Well, that was a riveting conversation and we all learned a lot but if you overstay your welcome I'm going to drink the rest of your wine."

"May I go to the bathroom first?" Marc asked.

"Yeah, down that hallway." Alix pointed off in the direction. "You kind of have to shuffle around that sarcophagus, but it's just to the left past it."

"Thanks," Marc said, standing up to carefully tiptoe his way through the junk towards the bathroom.

The moment Marc had disappeared from sight behind the giant sarcophagus, Alix leaned in close to Nath and switched to Inferni. [What the fuck is going on between you two?]

[Eh?]

[I see the way you're looking at each other, something's up. Are you two an item or what?]

Nathaniel felt a little panicky. [I don't know?]

[You don't know?]

[I think I like him? I do like him. Yes. I don't know if he likes me back. I think he might like me back.]

Alix shrugged. [Romance isn't my area of expertise.]

[You're the one who asked!] Nathaniel brushed his bangs out of his face, staring down at the table. [Whatever. I don't know. I've been trying not to think about it too much.]

[Fine.] Alix started grabbing the plates. [You do what you think is best.]

A few minutes later, Marc came back into view, shuffling his way past the sarcophagus.

"Ready to go?" Nath asked.

"Yeah. Who's driving?"

"Me."

Marc peered at him. "Do you feel like it's safe for you to drive?"

"I'm good, I'm not even tipsy," Nath assured.

Alix-with a great show of regret-handed the wine bottle back to Nath. "If Rose ever decides to do delivery services let me know so I can get more of this."

"I'll talk to her the next time I see her," Nathaniel said. His phone started to buzz in his pocket. "Oh. Marc, can you hold this for a sec?"

"Sure." Marc took the bottle.

Nath checked his phone. "Oh shit."

"What?"

"It's Markov." Nath looked up at Marc, a grin on his face.

"Markov can text?"

"He says to come back home as soon as possible. I think that means Max and Kim are back."

"Alright." Marc hoisted the bottle on one hip, patting Blanc with the other. "Let's go make a plan."

Chapter Text

Kim wasn't waiting for them when they got back to the shop. Nor was Max.

It was Luka, standing in front of the door, phone to his ear, looking more panicked than Nath or Marc had ever seen him. Given how mild Luka's facial expressions were normally, the fear on his face spoke of nothing trivial.

"What's going on?" Marc stepped out of the car.

Luka turned to him, face pale, eyes wide. Just seeing the expression on Luka's face made the swordsman's gut wrench with anxiety.

"Juleka called me," he said, tapping the mirror on his wrist. "Something happened, we have to go, now. Call everyone you know in the neighborhood, tell them to run."

Nathaniel fumbled for his phone. "What's going on? What happened?"

"Nathaniel Kurtzberg, Marc Anciel."

Markov floated out from behind Luka's head. "The Akumas have started their attack on Dupont. Evacuation is advised."

"What?"

"How did they get in? I thought we had time!" Nath ran to the shop door, starting to unlock it with shaking hands. "Where are they coming from?"

"Nightingale Park," Markov answered. "How they got there is unknown, but the Akumas recently attacked the Couffaine-Lavillant residence. Max is escorting Juleka and Kim to safety."

"What about Rose?" Nath froze, turning to Markov.

"Her situation is currently unknown."

"Fuck!" Luka slammed his fist against the glass of the store. The defense ward flashed green across the glass where he'd hit the surface.

Marc felt like he might throw up. Everything they'd been worried about was happening right now. They should have had a few weeks at the least, some time before Sabrina came back, some time to plan, to do something-

He could hear noises now, sirens in the distance.

Nath threw the door open, rushing inside and grabbing his invisibility jacket from behind the counter. "Grab what you need," he called to Marc. "Luka, have you called Marinette?"

"She's not picking up," Luka answered. "I've tried calling her three times already."

"Marc, can you-" Nathaniel looked up to him. "Marc?"

The swordsman took a deep breath, looking out down the road.

"No. No, no, no." Nathaniel ran out from behind the counter, grabbing his shoulders. "You're not going out there."

"I have to get Rose back."

"I'm not losing you!" Nath's fingers were tight against his jacket, digging past the leather and into the skin beneath.

Marc grabbed his hands. "Don't you want to save Rose? Don't you want to save this city?"

Nathaniel bit his lip, looking back at Luka (who was running to Marinette's house), looking back at his shop.

"I have to," Marc leaned forward, letting go of Nath's hands to cup the demon's face, turn him so they were looking at each other.

Nath stared at him, pleading silently. There were tears starting to glisten in the corners of his eyes.

Marc's heart was pounding as he leaned forward, pressed his lips to Nath's and kissed him like the world was ending.

"Fuck," Nath sobbed, wrapping his arms around Marc's neck and kissing him back. The swordsman could taste salty tears between fervent kisses, a messy, broken exchange.

When they parted for air, Marc pulled Nath into a tight hug and buried his face into the demon's hair. "Find somewhere safe," he whispered into Nath's ear. "Go."

"I won't."

Marc looked at Nath in confusion as the demon pulled away, hands still linked around his neck.

"If you're going to fight then I'm coming with you," he said, tears still flowing down his cheeks. "Don't try and talk me out of this."

"Nath, you're not a fighter."

"I know magic." Nath's face was set. "However they got here, it wasn't through mundane means."

"But the sword-"

"I'll stay away from you when you're fighting, but I'm not sending you out there alone."

"But you told Alix-"

"That was before. That was when I thought we had time. Besides, you need me to get rid of any Infernals that might be fighting with them. I'm going."

"Gods," Marc whispered, feeling a lump rise to his throat.

Nathaniel nodded, grabbing his hand and leading them back to the car. "You better stay alive or I'm going to be super pissed at you, okay?"

"Likewise." Marc looked back. Markov was following behind them silently. He could feel an energy in the air, some people were starting to come out of their homes, most of them on their phones, talking in low voices that bordered on the edge of fear.

The sirens were starting to sound louder, spreading through the city. Two police cars sped down the road past them.

They had a job to do.

"We're taking the car. Nathaniel, get us to Nightingale Park," he ordered. "I'll call Alix and tell her what's happened. Markov, you get in contact with everyone you know in this neighborhood, get them out of here, get help, do something."

"Acknowledged," Markov said.

Marc put his hand on Blanc's hilt, feeling the energy thrum under his fingers, his nervousness mingling with the sword's sickeningly excited energy.

He could only hope they'd all make it through the night.

 

~oOo~

 

The closer they got to Nightingale Park, the more evidence Nath could see of something being very wrong.

He could see people outside, crowding the sidewalks with a nervous energy. Some people had taken charge, ushering groups further away from the park, from whatever was going on there. Others were frozen in place, looking around, not sure what was going on or what to do. Several people were crying, holding their loved ones close as they stumbled further into the city.

The roads and sidewalks were closed off by cars, bikes, bodies. Nath clenched the driver's wheel, growling in frustration.

"I do not see an optimal path," Markov said, perched on the driver's wheel.

"Leave the car," Marc ordered, looking at the crowd in their way. "It'll be faster on foot."

"Right." Nath stepped out, and they pushed their way forward, into the mass.

He knew a lot of these people, just at a glance, he could see familiar faces in the crowd-the small baby that had once wandered into his store, now securely in the arms of his mother as he wailed, his mother whispering assurances as she tried to blink away her own tears. The two photographers, both named Vincent, both with cameras out and filming. The pigeon man, perched on top of a roof with a flock surrounding him.

And then he heard the screaming.

He couldn't see what was happening at first, it was impossible to tell among the sea of moving people, but the anxiety rippled through the crowd and people started moving back, pushing, more frantic as fear lit a fuse and panic exploded, ignited by the shockingly close sounds of fighting, yelling, war cries and shrieks.

He watched as one of the Vincents fell from the rush of the stampede, the other one immediately dropping his camera to rush to him. The woman cradled her baby to her chest and flattened herself against the wall, shielding the child from the people running by.

Marc grabbed Nath's tail. "Stay close to me," he said. "Markov, what's the situation?"

"I will have to gain a higher vantage point," Markov said, floating up above the crowd. Nath tried to follow his ascent, but the setting sun was right in his eyes and masked the small robot from view.

He could see distant shapes, the glint of steel in sunlight, an indistinct mass in the distance but a very real danger coming for them.

There was no way to sugar coat it-Nath was scared. Every instinct in his body wanted him to run with the rest of the group. But as Marc started to push his way through the crowd, he followed behind, heart hammering but set in its path.

They forced their way down street after street, block after block, gaining speed as the crowd began to thin until they were sprinting down the road, towards the park. Nathaniel picked up speed, now guiding Marc down the street, looking for any glimpse of Rose.

The first thing he saw was the weapons, and the people carrying them. Hundreds of people, most of them Monsters or half-breeds, more of them than he'd ever seen before, spreading out across the city, yelling, breaking glass and rushing into the nearest buildings. He could see wagons, trucks, all kinds of vehicles being piled high with everything-food, furniture, whatever they could get their hands on.

How many people did they have? He didn't remember seeing this many in Haut Monde!

The back of his neck prickled as he picked up a droning sound.

No. Not droning. Buzzing. A single look overhead confirmed his fears.

There were wasps circling above, not attacking. Miracle Wasps.

"Who's controlling them?" Marc asked, following the demon's line of sight.

"I don't know," Nath said. "It should be impossible for them to have a new queen this soon!"

He heard the whirring first before he saw the news helicopter, flying overhead. The moment it came into view the wasps sped towards it like a missile to its target, a dark swarm climbing higher, higher-

"Fuck," Marc spat. "We have to run. If that thing falls we don't want to be anywhere near it."

Nath tore his eyes away. "Whoever is in control would have to be nearby to command the queen," he said, running towards the park. "And it looks like they don't want the news to know they were here."

"Sounds like it could be either Chloe or Sabrina."

"If we can find them, we can-" Nath rounded the corner, and his eyes fell on a single dryad in the park. The words died in his throat.

Standing next to the giant oak tree was Rose, eyes glazed over, a pink gemstone embedded in her chest, like the gem that had appeared on the queen when the Akumas had used the brooch on her.

The dryad's arms were spread wide, fingers splayed across the bark, splitting it open to an impossibly wide portal. There were people streaming through, armed, an endless sea of Akumas.

Nath felt his body shaking, tail stiffening with the cold realization.

They were using the Brooch of Transmission to control her.

Most of the park was littered with stolen objects, piled high into shapeless forms, ready to be transported back into the tree. Rose was barely visible, but her bright pink clothes and the glowing tree helped to draw attention to her.

Then his eyes fell to the person standing next to her and his blood began to boil.

"Chloe," he hissed.

Marc grabbed Nath's hand, yanking him into an alleyway before she could catch sight of them. The Akumas just rushed by, barely taking notice. Apparently holding weapons and/or not looking human was working in their favor this one time.

"We need a plan," Marc said, "Nath, can you-Nath?"

Nath swallowed, bracing himself against the wall. "They're controlling Rose with the brooch," he choked, feeling pressure rise to his chest and throat.

Marc grabbed his shoulders. "Nath, I can't have you panicking on me right now. Look at me."

"I'm not panicking," Nath lied as he pushed Marc's hands away. "I'm-I'm fine."

"We need to save Rose and get her away from here," Marc said. "I can't use Blanc until you get her to safety, okay?"

Nath blinked, trying to calm his racing thoughts. "I don't even know if Chloe has the brooch," he said. "I can't steal it from her if I don't know where it is."

"Can you fight her? Do you have anything that could knock her out? Do you know anything about the brooch that could be used to disable it?"

"I don't know a lot about the brooch," Nath said. "I've never used it, it's Celestial so...so I couldn't..."

Marc's eyes connected with his in a simultaneous realization. "The gem on Rose's chest," he said. "That was made by the brooch, right?"

"Yeah."

"So it would be Celestial."

Nath nodded. "A-and I'm Infernal."

Marc let out a shaky breath. "Well. Looks like we have a plan. I'll see if I can grab a sword off one of these guys," he gestured to the outside street. "And try to work my way to Chloe. Once you get Rose, break that gem and get her out of here as fast as you can. I'll handle the rest."

"Handle the rest? Marc, there are hundreds of them! I don't think even Blanc can help you fight that many!"

"There aren't hundreds," Marc assured. "I'm estimating about seventy so far, maybe more. And yeah, there are still Akumas coming out of the tree, but I can handle them."

"That's still a lot."

"Nath, I'm more worried for you," Marc said, chuckling a little. "Are you going to be able to make it to Rose?"

"I've got my invisibility jacket," Nath said. "But it would help if you could get Chloe away from her. I don't trust her being so close to Rose."

"Can do. Just, uh...grab me a sword before you go, please?"

"Of course." Nath grabbed Marc's hand, squeezing it. "Don't die."

He never meant those words more than when he'd said it now. Marc knew this and squeezed his hand in return.

With a will of his mind, Nath disappeared, slipping his hand out of Marc's.

Grabbing a sword wasn't too hard. They waited until a half-kobold passed by them, then grabbed him from behind and pulled him into the shadows of the alleyway. The man struggled, screamed against the hand Marc had placed around his snout, fumbled for his sword, but Nath brought his wings up, aiming for the half-kobold's temples. A few quick blows and he went limp.

"Is it the right weight, or..." Nath watched as Marc pried the blade from the half-kobold's scabbard.

"It'll have to do." Marc looked up at him, missing where he was actually standing by a few inches but Nath appreciated the sentiment. "Nath..."

"Yeah?"

"Nevermind." Marc shook his head, standing up. "I'll tell you when we're done with this."

Nath groaned. "That's an asshole move. You know I get curious."

"Well, now you have an incentive not to die."

The demon crossed his arms in a mock of irritation, even though Marc couldn't see the gesture. "Fine. I'm heading out now. Give me a few minutes to get close to Rose before you start raising hell."

Marc nodded. "Don't be too reckless."

Nath allowed himself a small laugh. "Never am."

He turned and ran out of the alleyway.

It was harder to navigate the streets this way. Blending in was one thing, being completely invisible was another. It didn't help that every person crawling out of the oak tree was armed with some kind of weapon, and wasn't looking out for unsuspecting invisible people while having said weapons drawn.

Nathaniel flattened himself flush against the wall, slowly making his way towards Rose. She looked to be in a trance, eyes a bright, pupilless purple glow, unblinking as she watched a group drive another large and seemingly stolen truck through the open portal in the tree, the oak wood shifting at an impossible angle to accommodate the vehicle's width.

Overhead, he saw the news helicopter arcing away from the scene. The wasps were nowhere in sight, though it was likely they just weren't visible anymore from how high they'd flown.

Well. There went their chances of relying on news coverage to condemn Chloe or Sabrina. On the bright side, at least that meant they wouldn't have to deal with a helicopter-sized crater in Dupont for the near future.

He could see Chloe more clearly now, partially hidden behind two large wooden carts and watching the whole scene with an obvious air of disgust.

What if he killed her?

It wouldn't be hard, he could just sneak up and punt a fireball into her skull. No one would know it was him.

No. Marc was the one who killed people. If Marc wanted to cut her throat Nath wouldn't care, but his job wasn't to fight. Saving Rose came first.

Now he just had to figure out how to dash across the street through a sea of Monsters and come out on the other side alive and unscathed.

Looking around, he could see one of the buildings a ways back, with an uneven stone architecture that could be scaled with a bit of difficulty and a lot of wing flapping. After that, gliding from the top of a building down to the oak tree wouldn't be too difficult.

Gods, he was not built for parkour.

Slowly shimmying his way back the way he'd come, Nath kept his focus on the building and on keeping his breath steady.

So focused that he didn't notice Marc leaving the alleyway until it was too late.

The swordsman pushed his way through the crowd. None of them tried to attack him, maybe because they would rather loot than pick a fight, maybe because Marc was giving off serious "I'll fuck you up if you get in my way" vibes.

"No, no, fuck," Nath hissed. He wasn't in position yet. Should he chase after Marc? Get him to move back before Chloe saw him?

Fuck. She saw Marc. He saw the moment her eyes connected with the swordsman, the way her demeanor instantly changed and she straightened her back and addressed him fully.

Nath dashed for the building, knocking into a half-dwarf, who looked around in confusion, but by then he was long gone. He grabbed the first handhold on the building and started to climb, dividing his attention frantically between scaling the building and watching as Marc kept walking forward.

The elven woman frowned, looking up at the helicopter, then back down at Marc. She said something, he saw her lips moving, and Marc stopped. The war cries of the crowd around them drowned out their conversation long before it could reach the demon's ears.

Maybe they'd still get out of this okay. Even if Marc had to fight, he might be able to get to Rose and they could teleport away once he broke the spell on her. He clung to that hope as tightly as his fingers clung to the stone.

Cursing under his breath, Nath turned to pay full attention to the building he was trying to climb, scaling it with an awkward attempt at nimbleness that devolved into a form of frantic scrabbling until his fingers caught the top and he lifted himself onto the flat roof.

Where was Marc? Where was Chloe? Where was Rose?

A quick check confirmed they were all in the same relative space, but Chloe was quickly backing away from Marc, who had the not-Blanc sword extended and pointed towards her.

He could barely catch a glimpse of the Miracle Wasp swarm, a greyish cloud against the sky, still chasing after the helicopter. How were they being controlled? Who had the brooch? Who had the Feather of Sentience?

Gods, things were going downhill faster than he was ready for.

And just as the thought came to his mind, things got worse.

The tree shimmered once more as two other creatures stepped from it.

The first was a human with red hair and a new pair of glasses.

Sabrina.

The second was a creature larger than the stone golem they'd fought in Haut Monde. A creature that set off his greatest fears.

Nath froze, taking in the sight of a giant, bulbous wasp with a crown of blue peacock feathers spiking from its head. The body was misshapen and deformed, like a broken balloon that had somehow swelled back to life, jagged legs pulling its body through the tree in jerky, irregular movements.

He stared, mouth dry and legs shaking, at the reanimated, mutated corpse of the Miracle Wasp queen, mandibles twitching as it faced Marc.

Nathaniel started to run.

Chapter Text

Chloe Bourgeois gave Marc a once-over with her eyes, folding her arms as he approached. "If you know what's best for you, then you won't get in my way," she said, raising her voice a little over the din and clatter of the surrounding Akumas.

There was a small, semi-translucent shield floating lazily around her, some kind of magic protection. It wouldn't be that difficult to get around, he'd killed people with much more magic protection than that.

"Chloe Bourgeois." Marc placed a hand on his new sword. "I suggest you order these Akumas to leave or surrender. I also demand that you release Rose from the enchantment of the Brooch."

Chloe glanced up. "Do you really think you'll stand a chance? All I need to do is call one Miracle Wasp back and you're done for."

Marc studied her face for any signs of bluffing. A smart person wouldn't have sent all the Miracle Wasps so far away, leaving themselves defenseless. Which either meant A: She was stupid. B: She didn't have as much control over the wasps as she was pretending to have. Or C: She wasn't actually defenseless and had something else up her yellow designer jacket sleeves.

Judging by what he knew of her, it was really hard to tell which option was the right one.

"I could just kill you now," Marc said, shrugging. "That would free Rose and your whole plan would be over, so I suggest you cooperate."

The smirk on the elf's face vanished into a scowl. "Are you threatening me?"

"Well I'm not inviting you over for tea," Marc snarked back.

"Hmph." Chloe crossed her arms. "There's no point. I'm not the one controlling your friend. And I'm not going to tell these goblins to surrender. Besides, I haven't actually hurt anybody, so..." Chloe pursed her lips. "I'm completely innocent. You wouldn't hurt an innocent civilian now, would you?"

Something in the swordsman's blood started to flare.

"Don't give me that crap!" Marc unsheathed the sword, pointing it at her. "You planned this entire invasion. You brought thieves and killers into this city! You're responsible for the people they're going to hurt!"

"You can't prove anything." Chloe looked back to Rose, quickly backing up as Marc stepped forward. The magic shield wavered in front of her, a flimsy barrier between the two of them.

Some of the people exiting the tree gave him a passing glance, but they continued on further into the city without getting in his way. It figured that none of the Akumas had any loyalty to her.

"Chasing the news station away was a poor decision on your part," Marc said, stepping forward. Now that Chloe was away from Rose, Nath should be able to move in. "Send them back or I'll be forced to take physical measures against you."

"That's enough, Marc."

Marc turned as Sabrina stepped out of the tree, pointing her baton at him. A purple brooch was affixed to her chest. At least that answered who was controlling Rose.

He switched the sword to his left hand and unsheathed Blanc, now pointing the cursed sword at Chloe. "I was wondering where you were hiding," he said, backing further away from the tree. "This makes things easier for me. I won't have to hunt you down after I deal with her."

"You won't be doing anything of the sort," Sabrina responded. "Chloe, bring out the queen."

"I don't take orders from you," Chloe snapped, but waved her hand anyway.

Something else emerged from the tree, bigger than the trucks surrounding Central Park. A giant fucking wasp.

"Fuck," Marc hissed. Nath hadn't told him anything about giant fucking wasps. The creature's body was cracked in some places, oozing a fleshy, blueish bruise-colored pus from underneath its exoskeleton.

So this was the queen.

Were they using necromancy or the Feather of Sentience? The feather crown seemed to suggest the latter, as well as a few...unnatural additions to its body, namely the large barbs at the end of its six legs, three of them curled up into its deformed body, the other three slowly dragging it forward.

The wasp queen's head turned, neck snapping as its singular eye turned to face him in a janky, puppet-like movement. Its mandibles opened, exposing rows and rows of jagged black teeth opening into a pulsing, endless maw.

Oh, fuck that. Marc started backing up faster. The surrounding Akumas also kept a wide berth from him, not keen on getting in the path of the horrifying monstrosity that was focusing on him.

Dammit, where was Nath?

"It's a shame you came alone," Sabrina noted idly, and her baton shimmered, morphing into an exact replica of Blanc. She pointed the sword at Marc. "But it doesn't matter. Once this is over, I have to tie up a few loose ends anyway. Your friends will be quick to follow you to the afterlife."

Chloe snapped her fingers, looking to the wasp queen. "Kill him."

The queen leapt forward.

Marc rolled out of the way as the giant insect mass barreled past him with a speed that far exceeded its size and deteriorating figure. His shoulder hit the street as he dove to the ground and sprang to his feet again in a practiced motion-as though he was diving out of the way of an oncoming truck but the truck was a giant, deadly, reanimated wasp queen that probably twice as strong and five times more bloodthirsty.

The three legs that had been curled into its body were now spread, barbed ends scraping deep grooves into the street as it slowly turned itself around to face him. Its wings beat once, twice, faster, filling the air with a gust of wind and sound like a thousand war horns.

Marc winced as the sound assaulted his ears with sheer force, bracing himself against the wind. He couldn't see, not with the gusts blowing dirt and grass directly into his face. He heard Chloe shriek, caught a glimpse of her flailing her arms as she lost her balance from the force and fell backwards into a bush.

He was an easy target for the queen and Sabrina like this. Marc turned and ran. Hopefully he'd bought Nathaniel enough time. The Akumas watched as he ran down the street, making a wide berth for him and the gigantic abomination on his heels.

He could see the shadow of the queen looming over his head as she flew above him, giving chase. Marc glanced back to see Sabrina following close behind, ready to strike him if he doubled back.

He was running out of time. There wasn't anywhere to hide. His sword couldn't cut through something that big, the moment the queen fell it was over.

And she did. Her wings stopped and she dove for him, a cannonball the size of an eighteen-wheeler crashing towards earth.

Marc saw the massive shadow cast over his body, could almost sense the queen looming over his head.

Shit.

The blood was pounding in his ears, but all the adrenaline in the world couldn't make his legs move faster now. The Akumas around him were screaming, rapidly backing away, filling the edges of the street with their bodies, funneling him to his death.

Sorry, Nath. Hopefully he could get everyone out.

There was a flash of blue light, and his ground under his feet disappeared.

Marc screamed as he lost his footing, fell three feet, and collapsed on stable ground that was definitely not the street he'd been running down a second ago.

There was a crash to his right, shaking everything with the force.

"What?" Marc blinked, trying to reorient himself. He looked back to see a blue portal vanish behind him.

He was on a roof. To the right of him and far below, the queen's body was skidding down the street, Sabrina close behind.

"You're too useful to die now," a reedy voice said.

Marc started, turning to see Max standing over him with an expressionless face. Markov was perched on his shoulder. Kim was standing behind him, bo staff in hand.

"You're okay!" Marc gasped. "Where's Juleka?"

"With her brother," Kim said, stepping forward and extending a hand to Marc. "They're getting as many fighters as they can. We're not abandoning our home."

Marc accepted Kim's hand, letting the other man help him to his feet. "I didn't think I'd be happy to hear your voice again," he said.

Kim grinned, sticking out his newly-regenerated tongue. "I'll take compliments where I can get them."

Max cleared his throat, drawing their attention back to him. "We still have a goal to accomplish," he said. "Where is Kurtzberg?"

"Invisible," Marc said. "He was supposed to break the spell on Rose, but I don't know what's happened to him."

"Markov, heat scan," Max instructed. "Find him and report back post-haste."

"Affirmative." Markov flew up into the air once again.

Marc brushed the dirt off his pants. "Do we have a plan?"

The gnome rubbed his chin, looking down at the queen as it righted itself and moved back so Sabrina could examine the crater it had left. "Mr. Anciel, Blanc is activated when it absorbs a soul, correct?"

"I-I think so."

"So you are still capable of resisting Blanc's powers if you avoid dealing a killing blow."

"Yeah."

"Would you be capable of engaging Miss Raincomprix in combat without killing her?"

Marc looked down at her. "I don't think so. Just by pure skill, she's stronger than I am. Without Blanc's enhancement I'm at a big disadvantage. Not to mention I'm not entirely sure what her baton is capable of."

"It's a mimicry baton," Max answered. "Markov was able to track down that information while I was away. The baton can copy the physicality of any weapon, including magical ones, within a certain radius. There is a limit to the magic her baton is capable of mimicking, however, so I doubt she can copy Blanc's powers. Regardless," the gnome pulled a gun from the inside of his jacket, checking it over. "I think I should keep my distance from her in this instance."

Marc stared at him, mouth partly open. "That's a gun," he said, providing very insightful remarks to their current situation.

"It is."

Marc raised his eyebrows and looked away. "You know what? I'm not going to ask."

"That would be a wise decision on your part."

Holy fuck. Max had a gun. Usually the only place someone might find a gun would be in the hands of a high-ranking officer, a notable, Independent bounty hunter, or a very lucky criminal.

Just what kind of connections did this gnome have?

Wiping away the sweat that had accumulated on his forehead during his reckless sprinting from the Miracle Wasp queen, Marc dared a glimpse back down at Sabrina. She was looking around the area, while the queen was shambling its way back to Chloe's side.

"Our priority is taking down Miss Bourgeois and Miss Raincomprix, as it appears Miss Raincomprix holds the brooch and Miss Bourgeois has the feather," Max said. "Kim, how do you feel about serving the role of distraction again?"

"It's what I'm good at," Kim said, stretching.

"You got caught last time you played distraction, if I recall," Marc said.

Kim shrugged. "So I just gotta be faster this time. Easy."

Markov returned, clasping himself onto Max's suit like a brooch. "Nathaniel is safe and near Miss Lavillant," the robot said. "He is waiting for an opening."

"Then it's settled." Max put his arms behind his back. "Kim will distract the queen while Marc distracts Miss Raincomprix. I will deal with Miss Bourgeois."

Marc looked to where Rose was still standing. She hadn't moved, but the queen was next to her, shielding Chloe with its body.

If Nath was close to that thing...hopefully he wouldn't draw its attention.

"Mr. Anciel," Max said, snapping the swordsman out of his thoughts. "We have a plan that I'd like to discuss with you."

 

~oOo~

 

Nathaniel clung to the branches of the oak tree in a knuckle-white grip.

He'd nearly been blown away when the queen had flown up to chase Marc. Was Marc okay? Judging by how pissed Sabrina looked as she came to stand next to Chloe, his swordsman friend wasn't dead yet.

But how the fuck was he supposed to get to Rose now?

He'd only have one chance. Drop down next to Rose, break the Celestial magic-

-and then Sabrina and the queen would cut them down where they stood. Yeah, that wasn't a great plan.

It hurt to even think of that creature as the Miracle Wasp queen that he'd known and befriended. He couldn't feel her presence in the back of his mind at all. The thing in front of him might have her body, but it wasn't alive, it wasn't her, a magical imitation of sentience that was puppeteering her body.

He felt numb, looking at her.

Killing her was bad enough, but this? She didn't deserve any of this.

His eyes caught a familiar face. Marc again.

"Sabrina!" the swordsman called, pointing the not-Blanc sword at her. "Your fight is with me."

"It would have been if you hadn't run away," Sabrina challenged. "What are you planning, Marc?"

"My grudge isn't with Chloe, or these people," Marc said, eyes narrowing. "It's with you."

"Hm." Sabrina crossed her arms, examining him for a long moment. "You're a bad liar, Marc. This isn't worth my time. Akumas! Dispose of him."

Chloe may not have had an effect with the criminal group, but Sabrina's voice carried an aura of command. The nearby Akumas stopped, looking between her and Marc in uncertainty.

"He aims to stop you from achieving your goal," Sabrina continued, addressing the group. "You have strength in numbers. You know what he's done to your friends and family. I'm offering you a chance for revenge."

That seemed to convince them. Several of the more heavily armed Monsters moved to surround Marc, weapons drawn and pointed at him.

Nath would have cursed if he wasn't so afraid of the queen hearing him.

Something landed in the branches next to the demon. Nathaniel tried not to jump, glancing over to see a single wasp on the branch next to him.

"It is me, Markov," the wasp responded. "Do not be alarmed."

"What are you doing here?" Nath hissed under his breath, looking back at the queen. She still seemed unaware of their presence, thankfully. Fucking hell, her eye was as big as his whole body.

"We are attempting a plan," Markov said. "As expected, Miss Raincomprix is currently on guard. Marc volunteered to put himself in a dangerous situation in order for us to catch them unaware."

"Unaware of what?"

A whistle split the air, loud and inhumanly distinct over the din of the surrounding crowd. Marc instantly dropped his sword and crouched low to the ground, hands over his head.

"I suggest you cover your ears," Markov said.

Nath barely had time to clap his hands over his ears before a screeching cry tore through the city, a high-pitched, painful wail that drilled into his skull with white-hot pain. He grit his teeth, bracing himself against the branches with his wings and tail, eyes tightly shut as it felt like his entire body was being shaken from the sound.

Ten seconds, twenty seconds, the noise kept going, pounding against his head, and Nath felt like his brain might melt out from his ears if he wasn't plugging them up with his fingers.

And then it was over. Nath blinked the tears out of his eyes and looked up. Most of the surrounding Akumas had collapsed to the ground, groaning, sobbing, some of them with blood trickling from their ears, some of them not moving at all. Marc was getting to his feet, glaring at Sabrina.

Below him, Rose had fallen to her knees, one hand still on the tree, keeping the enchantment up, the other hand clutching her head.

Sabrina and Chloe were also getting to their feet, apparently noticing Marc's behavior and copying it before it was too late. The queen was shaking, getting back on her three feet with quivering legs.

"ROSE!" A voice called through the street. Nath shook the ringing from his ears and stared.

Juleka was running down the street, stepping over the collapsed bodies with reckless abandon. Following her was Luka. Following him, a pink-haired woman with a scowl on her face. With her, an old devil who owned the skating rink. Beside him, a kitsune lady, hands intertwined with a tortle man wearing glasses. There were other people, too. People Nath didn't know, people he'd only met a few times in his life, Mythics and Monsters and Humans and all kinds of in-between barricading the street.

"This is our city!" Luka yelled, coming to stand beside Marc. "We're not giving it up without a fight!"

Many of the Akumas were starting to get back to their feet, dazed. There were still some pouring out of the tree, pausing in confusion to take in the environment.

Sabrina glared at the citizens of Dupont. "Chloe. Set the queen on them."

There was a cracking sound, and the queen fell to her knees. A human with a dumb grin leapt up from under her and grabbed one of her antennae. "Yeah, that's not happening," Kim said, resting his bo staff in the center of the queen's head, like a hunter posing with his kill.

Of course, the queen was still very much not-killed, and rose back to her feet, shaking her head and trying to rid herself of the new rider. Kim only laughed and clung on tight. "Hey!" He called down to Sabrina and Chloe. "Miss me?"

Neither one looked like they missed Kim by any stretch of the imagination. Nath started to crawl down, closer to Rose.

"Kill them!" Sabrina yelled, just before Marc rushed forward, swinging Blanc down in a wide arc. She brought up her baton, blocking the strike, and the world erupted into chaos.

The queen beat her wings again, flying higher, up in the sky, twisting and turning and trying to shake Kim off, but the human was agile, keeping his grip on her antennae like he'd trained his whole life for this.

Nath forced himself to turn away as his closest friends rushed into harm's way with screams of fury. Juleka rushed towards the park, towards Rose.

Sabrina gave a glance in their directions and Rose's head snapped up, hand raising towards Juleka like a puppet's arm on a string.

Vines burst from the ground around her, swirling around the siren in an organically-grown cage. Juleka didn't even flinch, waving her hand with a quick, curt incantation. The vines withered and crumbled to dust around her, barely faltering her pace as she moved.

The branches of the oak tree began to elongate into unnaturally long limbs. Nath bit down a squeak as the limb he was clutching grew, curling down over Rose in a protective barrier, blocking her from the siren.

Well. At least he was much closer to Rose. And by "much closer" he meant just hanging over her head, able to see every tear dripping down her face.

"Rose, it's me," Juleka said, voice dripping with siren magic and desperation. "Please, don't fight."

Rose twitched, struggling against the words her wife was speaking.

"Don't listen to her!" Sabrina ordered. "Keep the portal open!"

"Look at me, love," Juleka pleaded.

Rose sobbed, eyes still wide and pupilless with a purple glow. Thorns grew from her body, breaking and splintering past the skin in a physical imitation of her agony.

"Run," she croaked, staring at Juleka through the slits in her self-made prison of wood.

Sabrina kicked Marc in the chest, sending him flying back a few feet. "There's no point, siren," she yelled to Juleka. "She can't be saved."

Curling his tail around the branch like a possum, Nath swung down. "If I may differ," he said, snapping his fingers and lighting them with a red glow that broke past his invisibility. He grabbed the gem on Rose's chest. "Let's make a contract."

And the world erupted around him.

Chapter Text

Marc felt the magic wipeout more than he heard it, a shockwave that rushed through the ground.

He jumped back quickly, watching as the grass rippled from the effect of Nath's power, Sabrina's weapon flickering back into a baton before returning to its copy of Blanc's shape. She paused, looking down at her weapon, then back to Nath, who had fallen from the tree and was getting back to his feet.

The entire area surrounding Nath was rippling with energy, visible as the wind but sensed by a part of his brain that Marc didn't know could sense things at all. The newly grown branches from the oak tree were sucked back into their original forms, and the portal in the tree closed as Rose pulled away from it and dropped to her knees with a scream of anguish.

Juleka rushed to her wife, wrapping her arms around the dryad. Nath stepped back, looking around with a breathless expression, windswept hair and messy bangs and a shocked, triumphant look, like he couldn't believe what he'd just done.

"An Infernal," Sabrina whispered, staring at Nath.

Oh no.

Marc's blood ran cold. He lunged for Sabrina.

She blocked his strike with a practiced twist of her wrist, bringing their swords up and over where they crossed. Marc withdrew to avoid twisting his wrist and dropping the sword.

"What do you think of that?" Marc spat, feeling adrenaline light in his limbs. "We've cut off your escape route. It's over."

He expected Sabrina to scowl at him, to look angry, to lunge at him in fury.

He didn't expect her to step back, a calm smile on her face.

"Oh, Marc," she said, her voice sadistically gentle. "You don't realize how much you've helped us."

The Miracle Queen dove down from the sky, landing in the park with a crash. Kim gave a yell of surprise as he nearly lost his footing, but the queen paid him no mind, turning to face Nath and opening its mandibles wide.

"Shit!" Nath sped back, slapping at his jacket. It flickered once, twice. He wasn't turning invisible.

"Fuck," Marc hissed. No wonder Nath took magic wipeouts so seriously.

There was a hissing sound behind him. Marc turned, swinging his sword on impulse-

-and connected with a crossbow bolt inches from his face.

He just managed to catch sight of the old goblin woman who had pointed it at him before he turned and deflected Sabrina's blow, stumbling back.

"Here's where you went wrong," Sabrina said, striking against him with a heavy blow that made Marc's arms go numb from the shock. She pointed to the crowd fighting behind them, grinning. "The soldiers that fight the hardest are the ones that can't retreat."

A dwarf with one arm rushed at him, screaming a war cry with a dagger in his hand. Marc easily dodged, parried Sabrina's blow, ducked as another crossbow bolt whizzed over his head.

His line of sight to Nath was starting to be obscured by a mass of bodies as the Akumas began to converge on him. Marc could barely see the demon, slowly backing away from the queen as it advanced towards him like a beast cornering its prey.

Now that the Akumas couldn't retreat, they'd stopped looting the surrounding areas and had fully turned their attention to fighting him.

He couldn't keep dodging forever.

There was only one thing he could do.

Hopefully the people of Dupont could get out before it was too late.

Marc sent a quick prayer to whatever gods might be listening, switched the sword to his left hand, and unsheathed Blanc.

No time for regrets now. He'd surely have plenty once this was over.

Marc turned, gave a wide swing, and beheaded the one-armed dwarf.

Energy rushed to his body, electrifying, a hunger and satiation, as Blanc's voice crept into the crevasses of his mind and took hold.

Sabrina quickly stepped back, letting others take her place. Fine by him. He'd be plenty strong enough to kill her once he'd finished enough people here.

Feel that satisfying weight as we cleave through blood and bone, Blanc whispered in his mind. Embrace it.

"Chloe!" Sabrina called, looked back at the elf. She was on top of one of the trucks, looking around with disgust. "Immobilize them!"

Chloe raised her hand in the air. "The game's over!" She declared, bringing it down to point at the fighting crowd.

There was a buzz in the air. Marc looked up.

Miracle Wasps, hundreds of them, descended from the sky like ash. Whatever media helicopters might have tried to converge on them were now sufficiently chased off.

Marc looked around in panic, split between Blanc's desire for blood and his instincts to find an escape and run. Grappled with indecision, he braced, waiting for the wasps to swarm him and hoping Blanc's bloodlust was just as effective at fighting wasps as it was with fighting people.

There was a crackle of thunder, a rush of red and black dots through the sky, and the Miracle wasps froze in midair.

"What?" Chloe looked to the queen, currently fighting Kim and Nath, then to Sabrina.

"A bit early to call the game!" Someone yelled from above.

Marinette was standing on the roof of a building, wings flared, her striking red combat suit vaguely familiar in a way Marc couldn't place. Next to her, Kagami was pointing her rapier at the sky. Clouds seemed to converge at her command, blotting out the last traces of the setting sun and filling the area with a blustering wind, spattering a sudden hint of rain across the ground as lightning flashed.

The swordsman flinched as cold rain hit his face. Marinette took Kagami's rapier, jumping down and landing next to Marc like a superhero making her epic entrance.

"Hello," she said, facing Sabrina. "I don't believe we've met."

"We haven't." Sabrina readied her sword. "And we won't meet again."

The fairy rolled her eyes. "Oh, get new cliche action-movie responses, sweetheart. It'll at least make you interesting."

Marc winced, feeling his sword arm twitch with unreleased power. "Marinette, It's not safe to be near me right now-"

"Then shut up and go fight someone else," Marinette said, pulling a red spool of thread from her pocket and twirling it around her fingers. "Kagami and Nath's pink-haired friend are working on getting those that can't fight to safety. We need someone to fight the Monsters that got further into the city. Go!"

Marc looking around, searching for Nath. It didn't take long to find him, Blanc was hyper-attuned to the demon's presence and he wasn't hard to find, clutching one of the queen's antennae while the creature writhed and jerked, flinging him to and fro, kicking mud everywhere.

Kim was currently on the ground, switching between dodging the spear-like legs of the queen as she chased him and pushing back the Akumas that were starting to rush towards Rose and Juleka, still holding each other at the base of the tree.

He ran, catching a flash of Sabrina's blade in his peripheral before a red thread caught around her imitation of Blanc's sword, tangling with the barbs and catching the weapon in place before it could strike him.

Sabrina made an annoyed sound and turned the sword back into a baton, freeing her weapon as she gave her full attention to the old fairy.

He couldn't get too close to Nathaniel. But he could keep the criminals from overwhelming them.

"Hang on!" Marc yelled, cutting down the goblin that tried to stop him as he darted past.

"Hey!" Kim cheered as the group surrounding Kim began to take notice of the swordsman. Marc forced himself to turn away from Kim, bringing his sword down across the skull of a goblin with an underbite.

"Go help Nath!" Marc ordered. "You're not safe around me!"

"Okay!" Kim turned and ran towards Nath, cracking his bo staff against two of the queen's legs and darting out of the way with the agility of a monkey as its joints buckled from the blow, causing the giant wasp to teeter dangerously out of balance for a moment.

Marc cast a quick glance to Chloe, who had moved from the truck and was now taking refuge on top of a very tall wooden cart, bracing herself against the rain and watching the queen with furious eyes.

Max better get to her soon or Marc was gonna lose his patience and go after her himself.

He forced himself to look away from Nathaniel, to set himself between the park and the Akumas trying to get to Rose and Juleka.

Kill them all, the sword whispered in his mind. The sword didn't see people, it saw a purpose, a single goal.

Marc let his goals align with the sword, let himself get lost in the mindless swing of blade and bone.

The rain fell harder, the lighting flashed in intervals, and every time it flashed, Marc saw red in front of him and around him, spattering the asphalt in a ferocity that rivaled the rainfall.

Kill, slice, stab and gut.

The swordsman severed the leg of a half-goliath, bringing his heel down on the criminal's head and feeling bone splinter as it connected against his boot and the curb. Another stroke, and a human who had been rushing him with an axe in hand choked as her lungs were cut open and filled with blood.

Perfect agony. Feed the blade. Relish my power.

A smile widened across Marc's lips as he danced from foe to foe, a gruesome, efficient display of swordsmanship that bordered on the edge of beauty in its fluidity. The smile on his lips wasn't his. He moved in tandem with the sword's greed, a partnered dance between two separate personalities battling for control even as they worked in perfect harmony, Marc's body and Blanc's skill creating a perfect killing machine.

Normally, Marc would let himself get lost in Blanc's power, let the sword command him like a puppet on a string until the fight was over and Blanc eventually retreated back into its mindless sea of feelings, or, more recently after Luka had enchanted Blanc's scattered souls together, a single voice that clawed at the edges of his mind.

He couldn't do that today. While Blanc guided his hands, weaving and thrusting the sword's blade through every defense, Marc kept his feet light, always moving, and always, carefully, guiding them away from his friends.

Blanc wouldn't hesitate to cut them down. Marc knew he only had so much control. But as long as he could keep killing Akumas-and there were a lot of Akumas-he could at least direct the sword's path of destruction.

At least, he thought so.

Until he heard Nath scream.

Marc turned to see Kim, struggling in the large mandibles of the queen as it lifted him higher into the air, the jagged proboscis pulling him in while he tried to kick free, like trying to kick the blades of a woodchipper as the queen's teeth shredded long, red lines up his legs and the mandibles dug into his sides. Nath was pinned to the ground by a massive, barbed leg embedded in his wing. The demon grabbed the queen's leg in both hands, trying to free himself and failing. His free wing flapped uselessly against the ground.

There was a flash of blue light and Kim vanished, reappearing behind the queen. He collapsed to the ground, grabbing his side as he fell.

The queen looked down at Nath, struggling weakly in the mud.

And Marc ran.

In this instance, Blanc was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his normal legs would never cross the distance in the speed that Blanc did, and a curse because he could still feel the bloodlust pounding at his brain like a dog desperate to grab a mouse before the other dog could kill it first.

The queen uncurled two legs. Nath threw a fireball at its stomach, the flames glancing off the exoskeleton with no effect. He could see every drop of rain freckling across the demon's fear-stricken face.

Kill the demon.

He wouldn't. He wouldn't!

Marc slammed his boot into the ground, spraying mud up as he swung and cleaved the leg pinning Nath down clear from the queen's body.

The queen screamed, rearing back from the pain. Marc planted his other foot down, standing over Nath's body, feeling the blood pounding in his ears.

He looked back at the demon. "You okay?"

Nath swallowed hard, staring up at him.

That was the last thing Marc saw before his vision went blinding white with pain.

"MARC!"

Marc grunted, keeling over as Blanc fell from his grip and he brought his hands up to grab the two barbed insect legs that had speared through his stomach.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening.

Nath grabbed the part of the queen's leg that was still embedded in his wing and ripped it out, scrambling back from Marc as the swordsman lost his balance and fell.

He didn't mean for this to happen. He'd tried to pry Kim from the queen's jaws and the queen had knocked him to the ground and stabbed his wing. He didn't think Marc would come save him, much less...this. Oh gods, not this.

The queen retracted her legs, slick and red with Marc's blood. Marc convulsed, hands flying to the two gaping wounds in his stomach, letting out a choked cry.

Nath couldn't even feel the pain in his wing anymore, not with the way his head was reeling. He dashed to Marc's side, skidding to his knees next to the swordsman.

"Marc!" Nath propped the swordsman's head up on his knees. Marc was shaking, curling in against his stomach. He could see tears pricking the corners of the swordman's eyes.

The demon looked around. The rain had picked up into a heavy thunderstorm, nearly impossible to see through. He heard shouts over the claps of thunder, an endless whirl of confusion that made his head spin from the sheer helplessness. It was impossible to distinguish the bodies of the Akumas from the people of Dupont, they both littered the street with unmoving corpses.

"Kim!" Nath yelled. "Rose! Juleka! Help!"

His throat ached with his screams, but nothing seemed to cut past the roaring of the wind and the cries around him.

There was a clicking sound above him, low and guttural. Nath looked up and stared into the face of the queen's corpse as it knelt down and opened its jaws wide.

"Stay away!" Nath wrapped his arms around Marc, feeling a sob wrench up into his throat.

He didn't want to die here. He wanted to grab Marc and run, but his legs wouldn't move and his arms were shaking.

There was a hint of white on the ground beside him. A sword stuck in the mud.

Blanc, currently active with power.

The demon paused. Was it worth the risk?

He could see the rows of jagged black teeth lining the inside of the queen's mouth as she leaned over them, slowly, almost like she knew that she didn't need to rush in dealing with them anymore, knew that they couldn't run.

If he didn't pick up Blanc, they'd be dead anyway.

With shaking fingers, he reached for the hilt.

The ground burst open and vines shot up around Marc and Nathaniel, slamming into the queen and knocking her clear off the ground. Nath turned to see Rose and Juleka running towards him, the dryad hastily wiping tears away with one arm.

"Nath!" She called, skidding down next to him. "I heard you scream-"

"Can you heal him?"

Rose pulled up the hem of Marc's shirt past his injury, looking over Marc's wounds with a critical eye. "Something like this would drain me completely," she said. "Once I heal him, I'll be dead weight."

Marc's eyes were open but unfocused. He gave a shallow gasp, trying to curl up in a fetal position.

Nath felt like he was going to throw up from panic. "Rose, he's going to die!"

"Nath, calm down," Rose turned to Juleka. "I have healing potions at my house, you just stay with Marc. Here," she grabbed Nath's hands, growing a large leaf between her hands and placing it over Marc's stomach. "Use pressure to slow the bleeding," she said, placing Nath's palms over the leaf. "I'll keep the queen away while Juleka takes the portal back home."

Juleka nodded, getting to her feet.

"Hurry," Nath pleaded. "Please."

Rose started sprinting back to the tree, Juleka close behind.

Nath looked down at Marc. His face was too pale, a hint of bluish tinge to his lips. The demon watched every shallow breath that escaped his lips, halting, gasping, but still breathing, still breathing-but he wouldn't stay breathing for long.

The queen was struggling to his right, trying to shake off the vines that kept sprouting from the ground and wrapping around her. Each vine seemed thinner and weaker than the last.

Kim was leaning against the side of one of the trucks, holding his ribs, the entire upper torso stained with blood. His bo staff had splintered when the queen had grabbed him, and now lay in two pieces at the human's feet.

There were still people fighting, but the battle was starting to lean heavily in the Akuma's favor. Many of the people he'd seen arrive to fight were gone, having fled or joined the fallen bodies on the ground. Even Marinette in all her skill was starting to find herself overpowered by the sheer number of people attacking her.

Lighting flashed, illuminating familiar faces, some of them still fighting, some of them...not. Luka, slumped against a wall as he raised a hand towards a goblin with elf-like ears, saying something. The goblin stood to attention, instantly moving to defend Luka as the siren gasped for breath.

The child who had visited his shop with her mother, the one that had thrown a fit about wanting the doll in his store, now stepped around bodies, crying out for her mom with tears running down her face. A thin-lipped Kobold watched her, raising their bow for a moment before deciding it wasn't worth it and moving past to shoot at Marinette.

Mr. Monlataing, the devil who owned the skating rink, the one who had taught him how to draw, had always been willing to give him advice or encouragement, was lying still in the middle of the street. His eyes were wide and glassy, a pale hand lightly covering where a spear was embedded in his gut, staining the entire lower half of his once-white shirt with splatters of red. The look in his eyes still carried the fear from when he was alive, immortalized on his face.

This couldn't be real.

Even after all this, they were still going to lose?

It was his fault. He didn't get to Rose fast enough. If he had closed the portal sooner, there wouldn't be so many Akumas in the city.

"Nath..." Marc grimaced, turning his head towards the demon. Nath leaned over him, using his wings to shield him from the rain and the rest of the world.

"Rose and Juleka are getting help," Nath said, brushing the hair out of Marc's face with his tail. The blood was starting to seep through the leaf that Rose had given him and onto his hands, but Nath kept applying pressure anyway.

Marc shivered, bit his lip, and blinked away tears. He didn't speak, but let out a barely repressed whine as something made the ground shake and disturbed his wounds.

Nath could hear bark splintering as the oak tree opened once more, the screams of the queen as one branch elongated and slammed into her side, knocking her off balance. The queen dug all five limbs into the mud, crawling towards Rose at a rapid pace while the dryad desperately tried to fend her off.

A portal started to appear in front of them, and Nathaniel nearly cried tears of joy as he saw footsteps sink into the mud from an invisible gnome, followed by Kim, stumbling towards them.

"Where's Chloe?" He asked. "And the feather?"

"Miss Bourgeois required a bit of...special encouragement," Max's voice said, and Nath blinked as a blue peacock feather appeared out of thin air, landing on Marc's chest. "The queen was not revoked after she lost consciousness, like I had incorrectly assumed. I apologize for not coming here sooner."

"I would have come sooner, but I think the queen broke a few of my ribs," Kim said, dropping down next to Marc. "Is he...gonna be okay?"

"Here, take my place," Nath ordered, gesturing with his head to where his hands were still applying pressure to Marc's wounds. Kim did as he was told, and Nathaniel grabbed the feather.

"I have to disenchant it," he said, looking around for a place to draw runes. "It should be possible if she's not conscious, but I don't have anything to make runes with, or a place to draw..."

Kim removed a hand from applying pressure to push Marc's shirt up higher, exposing the skin on the swordsman's chest. "You can use his chest and my blood," he offered, pointing to one of the puncture wounds from the queen that was leaking from his arm. "Since we're trying to keep Marc's blood in his body."

Marc grit his teeth, closing his eyes tightly. Nath swore the man was looking paler by the second, the color draining out of his face and replaced with a colder, bluish tint, but it was getting hard to tell with the stormy clouds blocking out most of what was left of the sun. Darkvision wasn't super reliable when it came to distinguishing colors.

"Okay," he said. "Hold still, Marc."

As if the swordsman could do anything in his current state. Nath raised his wings above Marc like a giant umbrella, leaned forward to slick his fingers with the blood running down Kim's arm, and got to work drawing the runes for his disenchantment spell.

His hands and voice were shaking, but he forced himself to focus, to block out the screams and the sound of thunder and the too-faint, shallows gasps from Marc as he struggled to breathe.

The moment the first rune circle was complete, flashing blue, Nathaniel heard a guttural scream from the Miracle Wasp queen and knew she was coming for him.

No time for running now.

Heart pounding, he kept his eyes fixed on the second circle, chanting the incantations, trying to keep his tempo consistent even as his heartrate skyrocketed and he heard the sound of mud and grass being kicked up by pointed legs, heard Max yell "get back!", saw Kim remove one hand from Marc's stomach to grab the remains of his bo staff-

The runes flashed and disappeared, and the feather shuddered as its current enchantment broke.

The world went still.

Slowly, Nath turned, looking up at the corpse of the wasp above him, frozen in place like a giant statue, a barbed, blood-soaked leg inches from his face.

"Goodbye, friend," he whispered, as her body began to crumble and wither to dust, carried away by the wind.

And then she was gone.

Chapter Text

The storm was beginning to subside. Whether that was a good thing or bad thing, Nath didn't know, but the heavy winds and pounding rain had become a gentle sprinkling, though the clouds were still dark and heavy above them. Despite the storm of fighting and the distant rumbles of thunder, in their little space it was quiet, unnervingly so.

Nath let out a long breath, turning to look at Max and Kim-or rather, look at Kim and wherever he guessed Max's invisible form was. He picked up the feather, looking it over. It had already regrown a new tuft, which meant Chloe had been using the queen for at least more than a day.

"Do you think they found Rose because of us?" He whispered, turning it over in his fingers. Despite its delicate appearance, the feather looked in perfect condition.

"Miss Raincomprix did see us teleport away with Miss Lavillant's powers after our rescue mission at Haut Monde," Max said. "But they also passed by their forest once before, according to the first report you and Kim brought back. It's possible they planned this from the very start."

"There's no time worrying about that now," Rose said, leaning heavily on Juleka's shoulder as they approached. Juleka had a handful of potions swaddled in the long folds of her cloak.

"Oh, thank heaven and hell alike," Nath breathed, ushering for the two to sit down. Rose flopped to the earth with an exhausted sigh, while Juleka pulled out a deep red vial and knelt down next to Marc's head. "Is he going to be okay?"

"We can stabilize him," Rose said, as Juleka slowly poured the vial into Marc's mouth. The swordsman swallowed and gave a weak cough-instantly followed by a grunt of pain as the movement jostled his wound.

"He needs more," Nath insisted.

"It'll just exhaust him further," Rose said. "Besides, we have a limited supply of health potions. I want to save them for the people who are in critical condition once we get out of this fight." She looked up to the battle still going on, shoulders slumping wearily. "If we get out of this fight."

Nath didn't want to look at how many bodies were on the streets, afraid that if he looked too closely he'd start to see familiar faces again. So he looked back down at Marc's stomach, cautiously lifting the edge of the leaf bandage to see scarred, vulnerable flesh, but the heavy bleeding was gone. His stomach lurched at the sight.

"We need to help them," he said, turning to the group.

Rose grimaced. "I'm almost out of energy, I'm afraid I've got very little left. Juleka's siren abilities aren't as honed as Lukas, but with her necromancy...Jules, sweetie, can you use your magic and make a few soldiers to defend Marc and fight for us?"

Juleka nodded. "Mhm." She got up and moved to the nearest body, making runes on the ground with the corpse's entrails and muttering something under her breath.

"My ribs are super broken," Kim said. "And my staff. I might be able to throw a punch, but..."

Max's form flickered back to visibility. "My combat skills are regrettably lacking, and my invisibility has a time limit-which as you can see, has just expired. And considering my current physicality, any portals will come with a risk factor if my exhaustion takes the better of me."

Nath glanced at the tear in his wing. He might be able to hold out for a little longer, but he didn't want to leave-

"I'll fight," Marc croaked, startling the group. The potion seemed to have brought him back to some form of coherency. The swordsman's eyes were still unfocused, and his voice was weak as he blindly stretched out a hand. "Where's Blanc?"

Nath grabbed his hand. "Oh, you'll do no such thing," he scolded. "Don't be a dumbass."

"The last thing we need is you opening your wound again," Rose added. "You need to stay here and rest."

Marc let out a long sigh, hand going limp in Nath's once more.

Nathaniel blinked. "Marc?"

"Mr. Anciel has lost consciousness," Max noted.

"Is that good or bad?" Nath looked to Rose.

"He's exhausted," the dryad replied. "We should get him somewhere safe."

Three of the Akumas that had fallen twitched and began to stand at Juleka's command, picking up their fallen weapons and turning to shield the group with their bodies as a few Akumas began to take notice of their little group. The jerky, unnatural movements and the dead eyes of what had probably been their friends or family were at least a good enough deterrent to buy them some more time.

"Kim," Max said, resting his hand on the human's arm. "Markov took shelter in the oak tree when the storm arrived. Would you go retrieve him?"

"He can't fly to us?" Kim was already getting back to his feet.

"He is..." Max coughed awkwardly. "His fear-response program has overridden his normal functions. I believe assurance from you will be enough to reboot his emotional state."

"Got it." Kim took off at a light, slightly limping jog towards the tree.

"You made a robot with actual emotions?" Nath asked, raising an eyebrow.

The mob boss gave him a cold look. "I did. What of it?"

"I, well...why?"

"Markov requested them." Max examined his fingernails, signifying the end of their discussion.

There was a yell of fury as a human with a spiked bat ran towards Kim, only to be tackled by one of the undead. Kim cradled Markov protectively in his hands, avoiding the scuffle as he returned to the group. Their moment of peace wouldn't last forever.

As if on cue, Nathaniel's phone began to ring.

"I swear if it's a fucking telemarketer I'm going to have a mental breakdown," Nath muttered, fishing his phone out of his jeans. "It's Alix!" He pressed the phone to his ear. "Alix, how are evacuations going?"

"Not good." Alix's voice was strained and broken by gasps of air, like she'd been running for miles. He could hear distant voices, shouting, panicked. "We can't get out. Kagami's trying to talk with the police, but-"

"The police?" Nath saw Max's head snap up at that. "Alix, what's happening?"

"The police, they've, they've barricaded the district!" Alix sounded desperate. "They're not letting anyone out!"

Shit. Nath looked up at Max and Kim, their shock mirroring his own.

"Alix, you have to get them out," Nath pleaded. "We're losing numbers fast over here."

"I know! We're trying to talk with them but they're not budging! The people over here are starting to get panicked and if we don't do something soon we're going to have a riot on our hands." Alix gave a choked laugh. "Apparently the cops 'aren't risking letting Akumas into the city', but they also won't move in 'until evacuations are complete'."

Nath felt a chill run down his spine.

"It's fucked up, isn't it?" Alix's voice bordered on hysteria. "It's so fucked up it's almost funny. They're gonna wait for us to die. They've turned this neighborhood into a slaughterhouse."

"Alix-"

"-I don't want Dad and Jalil to come back to a corpse." Alix's breath shook. "Dad can't, he always forgets to buy groceries and Jalil never calls his professors unless I'm standing next to him cuz he always gets nervous...I can't die here, Nath."

"You've got to find a way out," Nath said, feeling anxiety rise to his throat.

"I can't-" Alix let out a sob. "But you-"

"Alix, you can't give up!" Nath blinked back tears. "Get out of there! I'm not going to let you give up and die on me!"

He could hear the sound of police sirens from Alix's side of the phone, fear and fury and desperation in the voices of the crowd she was near.

As if on cue, he caught a glimpse of Sabrina as she turned and locked eyes with him. There was blood trickling down the side of her face. Marinette was nowhere to be seen.

"Shit," Nath breathed, watching as she turned and started walking towards them. "Alix, I don't know if I'm going to make it out of here alive-"

"Nath?"

"-just get out of there, okay? You gotta live."

"Nath, don't give me those 'sentimental last words' crap." Alix's voice shook. "Don't you fucking dare."

"If I don't come back, you can have that old book of legends back," Nath said. "Free of charge."

"Asshole," Alix choked. "I'm going to steal all of your shit."

Nath smiled. "Good."

He hung up, facing Sabrina as she approached with a cold stare. The three undead Akumas rushed for her, but she didn't even falter, sword striking like flashes of light, dismembering them with practiced ease. Kim stepped in front of Max, crouching lower to the ground.

Carefully sliding Marc's head from his lap, the demon got to his feet.

"It was a good plan," Sabrina called, twirling her baton, catching it by the hilt as it morphed into a sickeningly familiar Celestial sword. She was limping slightly, a scowl on her face. "Your friends are certainly tenacious."

Rose clenched Juleka's arm. "It's her," she hissed. "She's the one that used the brooch on me."

Juleka stepped protectively in front of her wife, baring her teeth like a feral shark.

"Don't think I'm planning to just let you kill us," Nath snarled, raising his fists.

Sabrina frowned. "I'm here to offer a deal," she said, setting her blade point down on the ground. "Are you interested?"

"What deal?"

"Heh. I thought you'd listen." A wicked little smile flit across the bounty hunter's face. "A deal seemed fitting for a demon."

Nath stiffened, wings rising in alarm.

Sabrina only hummed, tapping her fingers on the sword hilt of Blanc's replica. "A Celestial enchantment dispelled by a magic wipeout, and given your physicality and your file, a demon seemed to make the most sense. Secretly making contracts with your customers, slowly gaining power...all it would take is a blood sample from your body and this city will have a news story that would shut Beast Town down for good."

"Quit fucking with me," Nathaniel spat.

"I'm being completely serious," Sabrina said. "you're the last bit of proof we need to completely damn this place. Which is why I'm offering you a deal."

Nathaniel looked back at Rose and Juleka. Rose was hiding behind Juleka with a look of pure terror. Max was still turned away from her, face impassive. Kim shielded Markov and Max from view, watching Sabrina with a wary eye.

"You want to form a contract?" Nathaniel asked.

"No. I don't trust that your contracts are strong enough to last past the end of your life," Sabrina said. "Surrender to me, and I'll let your friends live and ensure your death is quick. Deny my offer, and I'll kill you all where you stand."

Rose gave a sharp intake of breath.

"Not happening," Juleka snapped.

Nath crossed his arms. "Call the police off, too."

Sabrina cocked her head. "I can't do that. Barricading the city was a choice they made all on their own. However, if your friend here wants to open the portal again, I may be able to convince the Akumas to finish what they originally came her for and return back home. What's a few possessions and a single life when faced with your people's survival?" She brought the replica of Blanc back up, pointing it at him. It probably wouldn't carry Blanc's Celestial magic, but it was still a sword, and still threatening enough to send fear icing through his wings and chest.

The demon paused. He glanced to Marc, still unconscious at his feet.

"He's not going to," Max said, still facing away from her.

Juleka gave a curt nod.

"I don't have enough energy to keep the tree open anyways," Rose admitted.

"Hmph." Sabrina frowned. "You're all idiots."

"We're idiots who don't abandon our friend," Kim said. "Markov, lasers!"

He opened his hands and a beam of red light shot towards Sabrina, who deflected it easily with her sword.

"My combat capabilities have now been expired," Markov replied. "I cannot shoot any more lasers for risk of overheating."

"It's okay, buddy," Kim said, letting Markov hover out of his hands and assuming a fighting stance. "I'm still proud of you."

Nath gave a small sigh and a fond look to his friends, stepping over Marc's body. Any doubts he'd had were now gone. "Alright then," he said, dashing forward and closing the distance between him and Sabrina before the bounty hunter had time to react.

Credit where credit was due but not wanted, Sabrina's reflexes were sharper than a needle. She swung her sword for his middle, but Nath whispered something under his breath and a firebolt appeared in his palm, the sheer power of the fireball connecting with the blade at such close range forcing Sabrina's swing back and allowing Nath to grab both her wrists and bash his wings soundly against her skull.

"Gah!" Sabrina gave him a solid kick in the knee, sending him sprawling back and falling into the dirt. She raised her sword, and Nath raised his arms to defend himself-

-a gunshot resounded in the air and Sabrina collapsed.

Nath scrambled to his feet, but Sabrina didn't get up, unmoving in the mud. A bullet hole was nestled neatly between her eyes, splintering the frame of her glasses in two. Her eyes were wide open, shock and anger a shallow, lifeless remnant on her face.

Max lowered his gun, glaring at Nath. "I would appreciate if you wouldn't throw yourself into danger like that," he said, voice stern and commanding.

"Sorry," Nath squeaked.

Rose snapped her fingers, spearing a goblin that was running towards them with a long vine. "We're not out of danger yet," she said, leaning heavily into Juleka's side. "Unless your gun has enough bullets to kill the rest of the Akumas."

"Unfortunately, no," Max said. "I will admit our chances of survival are still very low."

"We can't die here." Nath looked up at the group around him.

Kim nodded. "Well, if you've got some super-cool magic secret to get us out of this shit now would be the time."

Nath clutched the feather of Sentience tightly in his hand. "I've got an idea. Of course, if this goes wrong then we're all dead, just so you know."

"If this involves you sacrificing yourself then I'm not agreeing with it," Rose said.

"I'm going to use Blanc."

"Absolutely not," Max responded. "The sword would likely overpower you once you touched it, willing you to turn the blade upon yourself."

"That's why I'm not going to touch it." Nathaniel pulled the tuft at the base of the feather free, pinching it between his fingertips. He saw the moment Max's eyes widened as understanding crossed the gnome's face. "Can I trust you all to look after Marc? Get him somewhere safe."

"Using magic against another magical item carries a lot of risk with it," Max said. "But it could be more beneficial than one of us trying to wield it. Miss Lavillant and Couffaine, if you would be willing to assist Kim and I in moving Marc and Sabrina?"

"I'll take Marc," Rose said, easily scooping up the swordsman in her arms. For such a small woman, she had quite a bit of developed muscle under her bright pink sleeves.

Marc stirred, but didn't wake. Nath watched as Rose carried him away with slow and weary-but-careful steps.

He looked peaceful like this.

Nathaniel waited until they were out of sight, keeping a careful eye on the fighting nearby. Most of the Akumas were busy fighting against people who were actively attacking them, but it wouldn't be long before someone took notice of him and decided not to risk keeping him alive.

The sword was apparently full of wandering souls, and thanks to the rib from Juleka's cat, those souls had somehow coalesced into one 'mind'. Giving that 'mind' sentience didn't seem too out of the realm of possibility.

Nath let the feather go, willing it towards the sword stuck in the mud. Backing away several feet, he closed his eyes and concentrated.

The tuft touched the hilt of the sword and vanished.

This was it.

Nath felt the magic energy of Blanc, kept just barely at bay by the feather's Elemental magic. "Blanc," he said. "I'm giving you a new form, freeing you from your sword. From now on you are under my control. Use your powers to protect the people of this city."

He could feel the shift of Blanc's essence, as he carefully molded and shifted its being to fit his purpose. One soul, connected by a single cat rib, given sentience. It was a risk that he had to take.

Heart hammering, he opened his eyes and felt a spike of both thrill and fear run down his spine as his eyes met a white-haired man with cat ears and a terrifying look in his eyes standing up out of the mud to face him.

"Hello, demon," Blanc said.

Chapter Text

There were several things he should have said to Blanc at that moment.

'My name is Nathaniel Kurtzberg and you're not allowed to attack me' might have been a good one. 'No time for chatting, go kill those specific people' was also a strong contender.

"Why do you have cat ears?" Nath blurted out, rather than saying something intelligent and well-thought-out.

Blanc paused, cold blue eyes examining him for a long moment. "You gave me this form," it (He? They?) replied.

"Oh." Nathaniel snapped his fingers. "I thought about Cupcake for like three seconds, that's probably why."

He was rambling. His brain was a mix of fear and suspicion and a inner battle between optimism and panic as he took in everything about the new creation and hoped whatever happened next wouldn't be something he regretted.

Blanc's tail swished behind him. Nath didn't even realize he'd given Blanc a tail until he saw it move. The former-sword's fingers twitched, and Nath noted with apprehension that the ends of Blanc's nails were shifting from normal human nails to long, knife-like appendages. Freaky.

"So." Nath cleared his throat. "Uh...do not kill any citizens. Just the Akumas."

"Fine."

"You know which ones the Akumas are?"

"We share a mental link now, of course I know which ones they are," Blanc snapped back. His hands were twitching restlessly, a mild indication of the sheer violence Nath could feel resonating from his mind. Some of the Akumas were taking notice of his aggressive stance and were heading towards them, five in total.

"Good," Nath said, trying to ignore how Blanc was staring at him like a hungry cat staring at a baby lizard. "Those five. Let's start with them."

Nath didn't even have time to blink. One moment Blanc was there, the next moment, five Akumas were dead, Blanc standing over their bodies.

Oh fuck. He'd made a bad choice.

Blanc looked down at his hands, then back at Nath. He grinned with a wide, feral smile. "Thank you for this freedom."

The demon felt his heartrate spike very suddenly and anxiously. He blinked again and Blanc was running for the main group of Akumas fighting further up the street, screams following his path almost too easily.

Kill. Kill. Tear off their limbs and devour their souls.

There was a pounding force in the back of his skull. Nath grunted, clutching his head. What was happening?

I am Blanc. I cannot be contained. You and I are one mind.

Another pulse, and his vision blurred.

Fuck. He'd fucked up. Blanc was in his head.

He dropped to his knees, barely registering footsteps until a pair of hands were on his shoulders, shaking him.

"Nath!" Marinette's voice sounded in his ear. "Nath, what did you do?"

He flinched at the fear, the fury in her voice, but forced himself to look up at her. There were cuts and bruises all across her face and tears in her wings. She looked on the verge of collapsing.

"I used the Feather of Sentience on Blanc," he gasped. His eyes were unfocused, swimming with tears.

"Oh, you reckless fuck," Marinette said, grabbing his shoulders. "Nath, you can't control him. If he has enough souls stored up, he can resist magic."

Do not try to stop us.

"I know," Nath said, wincing. His brain felt like soup, words falling out of his mouth in a haphazard stream of thought. "That's why Marc was able to cut my fireball in half and dispel it that one time. That's why Sabrina didn't use the Miracle Wasps on Marc while we were in Haut Monde. I know that, but...I didn't think he could attack me in my own mind, though. I was planning to revoke the feather once he cleared out most of the Akumas. I had...I had a plan and everything."

Marinette hesitated.

"Is this because of Cupcake?" Nath's fingers dug into the sides of his temples. "Luka said it melded all the minds into one, but I didn't think I was-is this what Marc feels every time?"

"Maybe Marc can help you," Marinette said. "Where is he?"

Nath whined, pressing his head against the dirt.

Marc, Blanc hissed in his mind. Nath didn't think a name could carry as much fury as his name did now.

"Nath! Focus!"

"He-he's unconscious," Nath gasped, feeling spit gather and froth at the edges of his mouth. "Rose carried him away."

"Hang on," Marinette said, jumping to her feet and running.

His throat was closing, like his neck was being squeezed by a terrible, invisible force. He couldn't even lift his head to see Blanc, but he could feel every strike and blow delivered by the newly-formed creature as he took life after life as easily as plucking grass from a meadow of gore. Nausea mixed with horror in the pit of his stomach.

You made me. You wanted this.

"I didn't," Nath choked.

You can't hold me forever. Blanc's voice was teasing in his mind, a sadistic contrast to the waves of pain that wracked his body. Once I've finished what you wanted me to do, I'll be back for you, demon.

His heart felt like it was encased in ice. "You can't. If you do that you'll turn back into..."

A small price to pay for my true freedom. Just shows how little you know of my full capabilities.

"Ngh."

He looked up at the street. He could see blurred shapes, falling like dominos as a single white blur danced from body to body. The screams felt muted by the single chanting voice in his mind, filling his senses.

"Get up! He needs you!" Marinette's voice, almost inaudible, somewhere behind him. He was barely able to make out the words.

Forty Akumas left.

"What?"

Thirty-Nine.

"Stop. Stop this," Nath pleaded. His fingers scrambled for the feather that he'd dropped. If he could just revoke Blanc-

You can't. Your brain's too unfocused to do any kind of magic now.

Nath could taste blood. He'd bit the inside of his cheek. "Get out of my head."

Thirty-Eight.

Another pair of hands on his shoulder. Nath jerked, tried to sit up, but another wave of pain sent him keeling over again.

"Nathaniel?"

Marc's voice. Scared. How was he awake?

"Marc, can you help him?" Marinette's voice.

"I don't know what this is. Blanc's sentience might have made him capable of using his power to hurt the people he's connected to, or maybe something about Blanc being Celestial and Nath's Infernal, that's my best guess-Nath, can you hear me?"

Thirty-Seven. Time's running out for you.

"Marc." Nath's tail writhed, eventually finding the swordsman's arm and curling around it. "Marc, he's coming for me."

"Right now?" Marinette jumped to her feet, alarm clear in her words.

"Soon."

"Marinette," Marc said. "Max found the brooch that Sabrina used. I need you to grab it."

Marinette started running.

"Come on, Nath," Marc said, rubbing the demon's back. "You can fight it."

Nath buried his head in Marc's side, flinching back as Marc gave a hiss of pain and clapped a hand over his barely-healed wound.

Blanc's voice was sickeningly giddy as he counted off every Akuma he killed. If he closed his eyes tightly enough, he could almost see through Blanc's eyes, visualize the Akumas that were no longer fighting-the ones that were left were running in terror, and Blanc hunted them, chased them down while the citizens clung to the sides of the buildings and stayed well out of his way.

Twenty.

More footsteps. Marinette was back, kneeling down next to Marc. "I've got the brooch," she said.

"Is he okay?" Rose sounded alarmed.

"I don't know." Marc held Nath's shoulder. "Nath, can you hear me? I need you to bring Blanc to us. Can you do that?"

Nineteen.

Nath grit his teeth. "He's set to track down Akumas," he said. "I can't do anything else."

"Miss Couffaine," Max said. "Can you do another reincarnation?"

"On it."

Eighteen.

"Marinette, if this doesn't work, I want you to destroy the feather before he can get to Nath," Marc said.

Nath felt someone helping him sit up. He rubbed his eyes, looking up at Kim, unable to focus on his face, unable to focus on anything at all. "We're not letting you die," the human said, as he saw Juleka step back and a corpse rise from the street.

...Nineteen?

"Nath, I need you to make him willing," Marc said. "Use whatever power the feather has, try to make him listen."

He saw a blur of light, and then Blanc was there, hand plunged into the newly reincarnated body's chest, the bladed fingers piercing through the body, pure white under the blood.

Blanc froze, staring at them all with wide eyes.

Marinette's breath caught. "Adrien?"

"Now!"

Marc pointed to Blanc, clutching the brooch in his hand. "You're under my control now!"

Nath glared at the white-haired man. "Don't resist," he ordered.

"Don't resist," Juleka commanded, her voice laced with siren magic.

"You better not fucking resist," Marinette commanded. It didn't seem like she was using magic but the recognition that crossed Blanc's eyes seemed to have some effect on him.

Blanc paused, frozen in place.

A purple gem flashed into existence and formed on his neck.

Just like that, the vice-like grip on Nath's brain vanished. He collapsed into Kim's arms, then was quickly pulled into Marc's embrace.

"I can't believe it," Marinette whispered. "He's stopped."

Nath got to his feet, trying to shake the last of his headache away. "Thank fuck." He stared at Blanc with a stern face. "Don't try to kill me, asshole."

"Don't be so killable," Blanc shot back. His body was perfectly still but his eyes flit from person to person, disdain obvious on his face.

"Oh, okay," Nath crossed his arms, raising his eyebrows. "I didn't realize your sword had sass, Marc."

"I'm learning new things every day," Marc said, one hand still clasped protectively around Nath's shoulders, the other clutching his stomach as he swayed unsteadily on his feet. "Marinette, you good?"

"I...yeah," Marinette's eyes were fixed on Blanc.

"Good. I need you to go find Alix and let her know that we've dealt with most of the Akumas. Max, Kim, can you two round up the ones that are still alive? The police will want to question them. Rose, Juleka, I need you to get to the people that are injured, make sure no one's gonna die before medics arrive." Marc tucked the brooch into the inside of his jacket. "Nath, we need to figure out what we're gonna do with Blanc."

"I actually have something I need to do first," Nathaniel said. "Why don't you take Blanc and go with Marinette to meet up with Alix? Give her a call first to let her know it's okay."

Marc grabbed his hand. "You'll be okay alone?"

Nathaniel gave a nod. "I'll join up with you soon. Max, Kim, let me know when you've rounded them up. There's something I want to do with them before the police get here."

Max gave a curt nod.

"Great." Nath took off at a jog, keeping a wide berth around Blanc. It didn't help that Blanc kept turning in his spot to watch him as the demon made his way further into the park.

The night had now completely set, a mercy to those who didn't want to see just how many people they'd lost. Nath wished he couldn't see in the dark at this one moment. He could see Rose and Juleka rushing over to where Luka was slumped against the wall, a deep cut across the side of his face but still breathing, reaching out to pull his sister into a hug once she neared.

A little further into the park and he caught a glimpse of Mr. Ramier, the pigeon man, curled up on a bench and quietly sobbing as he held a pigeon with a crossbow bolt in its feathery chest.

"Are you okay?" He asked, nearing.

The bird man looked up. "She took the bolt for me," he muttered, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"I'm sorry," Nath said. It was all he really could say now. "Do you know where Chloe Bourgeois is?"

Mr. Ramier sniffed, pulling his painted bird whistle from where it was tucked inside his jacket. At his call, a small pigeon flew from the air and rested on his knee. "Bon Bon says she's lying behind that cart." He pointed to one of the wagons the Akumas had brought with them.

"Thank you."

True to his directions, Chloe was sprawled out on the ground, unconscious. Nath squatted down next to her.

"Hey," he said, lightly slapping her face. "Wake up."

Chloe grimaced, eyes slowly fluttering open. "Ugh," she said.

"You lost," Nath stated, looking down at her. "The fight's over, Sabrina's dead, and the police are going to be here any minute."

"Sabrina's dead?" Chloe blinked, still sounding groggy. She sat up, rubbing the back of her head and making a face as her hand met mud and leaves mixed in her hair, soaking wet from the sudden thunderstorm that Kagami had made.

"You're the only one that knows my identity," Nath said. "Well, you and eighteen other Akumas, but I'll deal with them soon."

At this, Chloe finally seemed to get a hold of herself. She scowled at Nathaniel, that predictably snobby demeanor coming to light. "So what are you going to do? Kill me? I'll have you know my daddy will have your head on a pike and bring this whole Beast Town down anyways if you so much as try anything."

Nathaniel's tail thrashed like an angry snake behind him. He'd nearly died more times than he could count in the span of a few hours. Marc had almost died. People he knew were fucking dead. His emotions were barely held together by a thin wire and just interacting with Chloe was enough to make him snap.

"Listen to me you self-entitled bitch," the demon hissed, staring her down. "I don't care how much money or influence you have. I don't give a shit about who your daddy is, but know this: I will rip those fake tits off your chest and shove them down your throat if you try to start shit with this neighborhood. If you want to pick a fight with me, that's fine, but-" the wide, toothy, furious grin Nath gave was practically animalistic. "I will drag your ass to the Nine Hells and back just to watch your skin scrape against the burning asphalt before you can so much as snap your fingers."

The woman's face was a dictionary definition of shock, eyebrows raised and mouth open.

"Are you listening now?"

Wordlessly, Chloe nodded.

"Good." Nathaniel extended his hand. "Let's make a contract. If you expose the identities of anyone in the neighborhood of Dupont, if you intentionally try to make trouble for this neighborhood and/or the people who live or have lived in it, you will suffer consequences determined by the contractor."

"The who?"

"Me, bitch."

The elven woman narrowed her eyes. "And what do I get in return?"
Nath smiled. "If you accept this contract, the enchantment on your glass dildo will be broken, along with its curse."

Chloe's mouth opened in a perfect 'o', realization crossing her eyes. "It was cursed," she gasped.

"It was. But you can make a contract with me and..." Nath wiggled his fingers. "Your pent- up frustrations will all go away."

He knew even before Chloe grit her teeth and took his hand that she wasn't going to turn it down. Naïve rich kids were just like that.

"Fine. I accept."

There was a flash of red light as the contract was sealed, and Chloe instantly jerked her hand back and got to her feet, making a show of wiping her hand on her pants.

Nath felt a level of exhaustion that he hadn't felt before. It wasn't a physical exhaustion, nor mental, but something deep down, and with it came a sense of satisfaction. He'd just disenchanted a Celestial magical item by using his contract magic on someone. That was...pretty cool, actually.

"I hope your daddy taught you how important it is not to break a demon's contract," Nathaniel said, turning and walking away. "Wouldn't want you to die at the ripe young age of 105 now."

"Wait-die?" Chloe squawked.

"Bye-bye," Nathaniel waved his hand, quickly walking away from the conversation.

A thought crossed his mind briefly-he didn't know where Max and Kim were rounding up the rest of the Akumas. That thought was quickly discarded as he made his way back to find Kim tying an old goblin woman's hands behind her back and leading her to the rest of the group sitting a few feet from the oak tree. Max was observing from a distance while Markov scanned the items that the Akumas had gathered in the park.

"Alright, don't get too close to the Piss tree," Kim warned. "It's named that for a reason."

"You know, Rose hates when people call it that," Nathaniel said, coming up next to him. "So maybe don't call it Piss tree when she's around."

"Oh hey!" Kim smiled at him. "You did your thing?"

"Yeah. Where'd you get enough rope to tie them up?"

"Markov found it in one of these trucks the Akumas were filling to send back through Pi...the completely normal oak tree."

"Huh. Convenient." Nathaniel scanned the Akumas, seventeen in total. "I thought there were supposed to be eighteen left. That's what Blanc said, anyway."

"There were, but once of them tried to attack Max so..." Kim shrugged. "We have seventeen left now."

"Oh." Nathaniel's eyes fell on the old goblin woman, and even in the dark, he caught a glimpse of her face and recognition sparked. "Hey, weren't you the one that I talked with in that cell?"

The old goblin lady looked away, jaw set firmly.

Nathaniel sighed. "Are you proud of this outcome?"

"We didn't have a choice," she responded, still facing away. "It was this or starving to death."

"Look, you hurt my friends," Nath said, kneeling down to her eye level. "You brought this on yourself."

The old goblin woman looked at him then, eyes sharp and challenging. "Tell me demon, what would you have done differently? If a bounty hunter threatened to kill your family and friends if you didn't comply? I didn't want this, but I want to die even less." She looked him in the eye, a cold glare replacing her fury. "And now you've killed us all. I hope the taste of the boots you lick sits well on your tongue."

Nath felt anger flare. "You're one to talk," he growled. "You're the ones that followed Sabrina's orders and tried to tear my home to the ground. We're trying to survive too, you know."

"And now we're both damned," the goblin lady mused.

"No. I'm still fighting." Nathaniel extended his hand. "And if you're still planning on not dying, you'll make a contract with me. If you expose the identities of anyone in the neighborhood of Dupont, if you intentionally try to make trouble for this neighborhood and/or the people who live or have lived in it, you will suffer consequences determined by the contractor. In exchange...uh..." Nath turned to Max and Kim.

"In exchange they get to live," Max suggested.

"Fair enough. In exchange, I won't kill you. Shit, wish I'd done that with Chloe. Would have saved me the energy."

The woman glared at him. "I don't trust your contracts, demon," she spat.

"I'm willing to do everything I can to keep my friends and family safe," Nathaniel said. "So it's either this or death. And you better choose quick because I'd rather get this finished before the police get here."

Hissing at him through gritted teeth, the goblin lady turned around so Nath was facing her hands, tied behind her back.

Nath shook her hand as best he could, blinking away the dizziness as more of his magic was pulled from his body.

"Well that's certainly useful," Max commented.

"Right." Nath got to his feet. "Sixteen more contracts to go."

Fifteen contracts and a dead man later, Nathaniel slumped to the ground, exhausted in ways he didn't even think exhausted could affect.

"Go on home," Max said. "I'll talk with the police. I'm sure we'll all have some very busy days ahead of us."

Nath looked up at Max. "I thought you tried to avoid the police."

"In most cases, yes. But it would look suspicious to have fifteen surviving Akumas and no one to guard them. Of all of us here, I have the best chance of turning the police encounter to our favor. No offense, Kim."

"Nah, I get it." Kim smiled at the gnome. "My incredible charm isn't for every situation."

Max gave a fond look back. "Certainly."

Nath didn't stick around long enough for Max to change his mind and try to keep him close, only long enough to stop and wonder "where did I park my car?" and then slowly trudge his way back to where they'd left it, where he found the windshield smashed in and the driver's seat wide open.

It looked like someone had tried to steal his car but, thankfully, the anti-theft ward on the engine had done its job. The bottle of Rose's wine was gone, though. Eh, better a single nearly-empty wine bottle and a broken window than the whole car. Nath was just glad to not be dead at this point. He made a mental note to redo the enchantments on his car (and Marc's motorcycle too, just for good measure) sometime soon.

When he got back to Hidden Treasures, the door was open and the shop was a mess.

Nath cursed. He'd been so busy panicking that he'd forgotten to redo the wards and the locks before he left with Marc. A quick glance showed the locked shelf behind the counter was untouched, thankfully. All the magic items were still safe behind their wards.

To his surprise, the cleaning supplies were already hard at work, righting a shelf that fallen over and mopping up a mess of spilled drinks where the mini-fridge had gotten overturned. The mop bucket was contentedly chewing on a bag of chips that had scattered across the floor, a long tongue protruding from who-knows where to clean the floor of crumbs.

"Who activated you guys?" Nath asked, kicking a stray chip from under one of the shelves in the mop bucket's direction."

"Not me," a voice said. "Because apparently I'm not allowed to touch them."

Nath looked up and froze. Blanc was leaning against the stairwell inside the open "Employees Only" door, arms crossed.

"Is Nath back?" Marc's voice yelled from the top of the stairs.

"Yeah," Blanc called back.

"I'll be down in a second!" Marc called.

Blanc's ears twitched in annoyance as he walked back up the stairs. Nath kept one eye on the broom as it made its way busily around the shop.

Marc was down soon, leaning against Blanc as the former sword made a show of very much not wanting to help but doing it anyway.

"Hey," Marc said, holding his side with one hand. "We got things figured out with the cops, so Alix and Kagami are doing fine. Rose and Juleka already left for home before they could be questioned by the police, but they left me a few healing potions. Rose says I should take one every day until my stomach fully heals. Oh, she also activated the cleaning supplies for you."

"That's great!" Nath looked over at Blanc. "Do you want me to...uh...revoke him?"

"Well fuck you too," Blanc replied.

"Do we need him anymore?" Marc asked. "I feel like having a whole angry man is more troublesome than a sword."

"Well, I have an idea," Nath said. "Let's keep him around for a while longer."

"Fair enough. Blanc-wait, do magic items even sleep?"

Nath shrugged. "They don't need to, I don't think. But they still can."

"Alright. Blanc, you can sleep in the armchair."

"Fine."

"I still don't trust him," Nath said, side-eyeing Blanc as Marc stepped forward and grabbed his hand.

"I can hear his thoughts with the brooch, it's not that different from when he was a sword. Trust me, if he was going to try anything, I'd know." Marc pulled Nath into a slow, careful hug. "But hey, I'm glad you're alright."

Nath felt a little choked up as the afternoon's events began to weigh down on him. "Me too."

"Come on." Marc pulled Nath upstairs, to his room. "Stay with me for the night."

Nath hesitated at the doorway. "Are you still under the...uh...horny effects of the sword?"

Marc let out a tired laugh. "With my injuries? I'm in no condition to bounce on your dick."

"Yeah, same." Nath shucked off his shoes and let himself be pulled into Marc's bed and into the swordsman's embrace.

Nath didn't realize how tired he was until he was laying down. His bones felt like they'd been transmuted to lead, and he relaxed with a sigh, already feeling sleep begging to creep into the corners of his mind.

"What are we going to do?" Marc whispered.

It was a question that carried several other questions with it. The uncertainty about the police, about Blanc, about their relationship, all of it compacted in a single question with no definite answer.

"We'll figure it out," Nath said, a final promise in the night before sleep overtook them both.

Chapter Text

Marc's phone was ringing in his pocket.

He wrinkled his nose, burying his face into the very warm covers until the ringing stopped.

He hadn't felt this sore since...he couldn't even remember when. He didn't want to try and think of anything to compare it to, he just wanted to cuddle into the warmth of his bed and fall back asleep.

His phone started ringing again.

"Motherfucker," a voice mumbled, and Marc had the dawning realization that his bed was warm because there was someone else in it. Nathaniel yawned, stretching his wings before flopping back down, one of his wings smacking Marc in the face as he did so.

Well, he was awake now. Marc shuffled under the covers, trying to wiggle his phone out of his pocket while struggling against blankets and Nathaniel's arms linked around his waist. Nathaniel unhelpfully grumbled and pulled him closer, burying his face in Marc's hair.

Carefully, Marc maneuvered the phone up to his face and blinked. Mylene was calling him.

"Ya?" He said, holding the phone to his ear.

"OH MY GOSH ARE YOU OKAY?!!" Mylene's voice was uncharacteristically loud.

Nath pulled back with a grumble of distaste and flipped over, back facing Marc as he stubbornly tried to continue sleeping.

"Sorry," Marc whispered to the demon.

"Hm?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Marc told Mylene, slipping out from under the covers and making his way to the main room. Blanc opened one eye as he stepped in, the former sword curled up like a very large cat on the armchair.

"We just got back from our mission and saw the news," Mylene said. "I'm so sorry we weren't there to help, if we'd known we'd have come right away-is Nath hurt? Are you hurt?"

"Nath's tired, but he's doing well." Marc opened the fridge, looking for some kind of breakfast food that he wouldn't have to cook. "I got stabbed, but I have healing potions, so I'm fine."

"You got stabbed?"

Marc reached up to grab the bagels on the top of the fridge, instantly wincing as his wound sent a flash of pain across his middle. Guess he wasn't having bagels and cream cheese today. "I got stabbed by a giant wasp," he said. "But I'm okay now."

"If you say so...I uh, actually called you for one other reason."

"Yeah?"

"Mr. Raincomprix wants to see you in his office as soon as you can get here."

Marc froze, feeling his blood run cold.

"Apparently the police are working on gathering testimonies from the neighborhood, but Mr. Raincomprix said he wanted to talk to you personally."

Did Mr. Raincomprix know? Had he been working with Sabrina from the beginning? When Marinette had woken him up he'd caught a glimpse of her dead body laying next to him so he knew she was dead and at least he didn't have to worry about that, but...oh god, Sabrina was dead and Mr. Raincomprix probably knew that.

Marc swallowed the dry feeling in his throat. "Mylene," he said. "Is Mr. Raincomprix with you right now?"

"Yeah," Mylene said. "Ivan and I were checking in at the mission board when we got the news."

"Okay, um..." Marc looked over at Blanc, watching him, unblinking, from across the room. "Tell Mr. Raincomprix that I want you two to be there with me, if that's okay."

There was a pause, a few words exchanged to someone else. "He says that's fine," Mylene said. "When are you gonna be here?"

"Let me just get ready and I can leave right away." Marc glanced at the clock. 10:30 am.

"Ok, see you there." Mylene hung up.

"Uh..." Marc looked around the room, a little under-prepared and a lot panicked. "Blanc?"
"What?"

"Can you make me a bagel?"

Blanc looked offended that Marc would even suggest that, but got up from the armchair anyway. "I'm literally destruction incarnate," he muttered, grabbing the bagels from the top of the fridge. "And he asks me to make breakfast. Fucking asshole."

"Thank you," Marc said. "And I can hear your thoughts, you know. No putting glass in my bagel."

"You don't let me have any fun," Blanc complained. He was almost a head taller than Marc but the whine in his throat reminded the swordsman of an angsty teenager.

Marc looked down at the brooch attached to his shirt. Being connected to Blanc like this wasn't as different as when he was a sword, but Blanc's thoughts felt clearer, more concise and varied than the usual kill stab die die thoughts that the sword usually carried. Of course, there was still plenty of that, but it also mixed with thoughts like 'why do I know what a microwave is?' and 'what if I put glass in his bagel?'.

Nath was sitting up in bed when Marc returned to grab his shoes.

"I have to go to the office," Marc said. "Are you going to be okay with Blanc?"

"Well, it looks like he's calmed down now, so the feather should work on him again." Nath stretched. "Something came up?"

"My boss wants to talk with me."

"Yikes. You got everything you need?"
Marc patted his pockets. "Keys, wallet, phone, sword," he muttered, then paused, looking at his empty scabbard. "Um. I didn't think about that."

Nath smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "You don't need to take Blanc with you."

"But my curse-"

"You don't have to worry about the curse," Nath insisted. "Trust me on this."

Marc stared at him. "What did you do?"

"Well..." Nath paused. "First let's see if it works. If you start having chest pains then come right back and I'll try revoking Blanc."

"You're going to be okay with him?"

"As long as he doesn't touch me I'll be fine. If anything goes bad I can and will revoke his ass." Nath yawned. "If you're okay with that."

"Okay." Marc hesitantly removed his scabbard, placing it on the edge of the bed. "Well, uh...see you later, assuming I don't get arrested or Mr. Raincomprix murders me."

"Please don't joke about that," Nath said, frowning. "Not right now."

"You're right, sorry." Marc reached across the bed to pat Nath's leg. "I'll see you when I get back."

"Don't die."

 

~oOo~

 

Marc hadn't been in Mr. Raincomprix's office too many times. Usually, he just wrote down his reports, submitted them to the front desk, and took another mission. He was only ever called up if something needed clarifying.

This was something different, and Marc knew that the moment he stepped into the room with Mylene and Ivan close behind. Mr. Raincomprix was sitting at his desk, head in his hands. In front of him was a familiar baton.

So this was about Sabrina.

"Marc," Mr. Raincomprix said, not bothering to look up as the door opened. "Have a seat."

Slowly, Marc sat down in the single chair opposite to Mr. Raincomprix. The lack of a weapon at his hip where he could usually rely on one made him feel more helpless and anxious than normal. Ivan and Mylene stood on either side of him, a feeling that was somehow both welcome and made him feel like he was trapped.

Mr. Raincomprix laced his fingers together. "You knew Sabrina was commanding the Akumas, didn't you?"

Marc froze.

"The testimonies we've gotten so far have at least proved that much. It would explain why you were insistent on following them after they were taken off the mission board."

"Do you know...why she did it?" Marc asked. It wasn't something he was completely sure of himself.

"I know she was close to Chloe," Mr. Raincomprix said. "Enamored with her, in fact. And we've been aware of Mayor Bourgeoise's prompting to have Beast To-I apologize, to have the Dupont district cleared out at his daughter's request. It's possible there's a link between Chloe and Sabrina's relationship and the Mayor's plans."

Marc nodded.

"Marc," Mr. Raincomprix leaned forward. Marc could see the bags under his eyes, testament to the time he'd spent awake between the Akuma's battle yesterday and their meeting now. "How long did you know Sabrina was doing this?"

"I wasn't sure until...a little over a week ago," Marc said, talking slowly, carefully, while his boss watched him with expressionless eyes that were somehow more terrifying than if he'd been angry or sad or...anything, really. "I did some investigating in Haut Monde, and found that she'd been gathering Akumas there."

"Haut Monde?" Mr. Raincomprix wrote something down on the notepad next to him. "She would have been at Bon Mot at that point."

"Maybe the mission was falsified," Ivan suggested, but a look from Mr. Raincomprix quickly stifled him. This wasn't a conversation he was supposed to be involved in.

"I'll have to look further into this," the old bounty hunter said. He looked up at Marc. "I have one more question for you." He leaned forward. "They looked over her..." he paused. "...body. She died by a strong force that hit her between the eyes and penetrated into her skull, which also resulted in burn scars across the entirety of her face, likely fire magic."

Marc blinked. "Fire magic?"

Mr. Raincomprix nodded. "Marc...do you know who killed her?"

Marc paused. He'd been unconscious at that point. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I was injured, so I didn't see who."

The man let out a heavy sigh, resting his forehead on his connected hands. "I'm sorry. Knowing that she did this, it's...I don't know what to think. I don't blame you for being mistrusting of me. The police will give you a more detailed questioning later."

"Is that all, sir?"

Mr. Raincomprix shook his head. "Not yet, Marc. There's something I want to discuss with you." He pulled a file from the side of his desk. "I've been doing some looking around in Sabrina's documents, and I found a lot of reports on you-claims of stolen goods, accounts of working with the Akumas, as well as other reports regarding your half-dragon partner. Given what's happened these past few days, I have reason to believe these reports were falsified."

A cold feeling settled in Marc's gut. "She was intending for us to take the fall for her crimes?"

If possible, the bags under his boss's eyes seemed to grow longer and darker and he stared dully down at the papers. "I don't know. What I do know is that the news is going to want stories about the people who were directly fighting against Akumas, and a bounty hunter is as good a place to start as any. There are already going to be several investigations on our corporation because of Sabrina's actions, and if they find these..." Mr. Raincomprix shook his head. "I know enough about this city's legal forces to know you wouldn't want yourself or Mr. Kurtzberg to face charges like this, falsified or not."

Marc felt an anxious lump form in his throat.

"Of course, I'm willing to burn these," The man said, tapping the file with one finger. "On one condition." He pulled another form out from his desk, setting it in front of Marc.

Marc looked down at it. "A request form for an Independent Bounty Hunter license?"

"Raincomprix Hunters has acknowledged that your skills, both physically and ethically, follow with the guidelines of a...a model bounty hunter. If you choose to accept this form, you'll be able to take any mission you choose, regardless of difficulty or reach. You'll also be granted cross-realm travel, and your reports will not longer be with us, but will go directly to the Mortal Planes Department of Security."

Mylene let out an awed breath.

Marc's mind was reeling. Independent Bounty Hunters were supposed to be the best of the best. Many bounty hunters had to either be rich or really fucking powerful to end up with a license like this. The fact that Mr. Raincomprix was just giving one to him was beyond anything he'd ever thought to dream of, and a dream he'd never wanted and never strived for.

Marc stuttered. "I...sir, this is...I'm barely in my early twenties, I'm, I'm still in college, I don't know if I'm ready-"

"I've seen your reports," Mr. Raincomprix said. "You'll still be on the lower end of the power scale, but you qualify. Trust me, Marc." He gave a pointed glance to the false reports. "I highly encourage you to accept this."

Marc looked at him for a long, confused moment before it clicked into place. This was more than just a strange act of kindness. This was Mr. Raincomprix wanting him gone. This was a decision founded on grief.

Marc sighed. "Do you have a pen?"

Mr. Raincomprix picked up Sabrina's baton, and it instantly shrunk into a small black pen. He slid it across the desk towards Marc.

Huh. So the baton could copy more than just weapons. That was interesting.

Trying to ignore the three sets of eyes that were boring into his skull, Marc started filling out the form. Normally he would triple-check every question, but it felt stiflingly awkward with everyone staring at him, so he filled it out as best he could, hoped he hadn't fucked it up somehow, and slid the paper back to Mr. Raincomprix, who tucked it into a folder.

"I'll let you know when your license is delivered," he said. "Until then, keep out of trouble. No missions, no rule-breaking, none of that. Now go home."

"Thank you, sir," Marc said, standing up. Ivan and Mylene looked at each other, back at Marc, and silently followed him out of the office.

Marc felt like every inch of his body was shaking. He paused in their walk down the hallway to lean against the wall.

"That was...certainly something," Mylene said.

"He fired you in the most polite but threatening way possible," Ivan added.

The dryad put a hand on his arm. "How do you feel?"

The swordsman stared down the long hallway. "Like I was preparing for a boxing match and got blindsided by a train," He said.

Ivan nodded. "Well, congratulations on the promotion. Hopefully we can still do joint missions, if you're on board."

"Holy fuck." Marc blinked. "I'm Independent now. I don't-what do I do?"

Mylene went to grab his hand, then stopped. "I think the first thing you should do is go back to Mr. Raincomprix and return the pen you just took."

Marc quickly glanced down. Sure enough, Sabrina's baton, still transformed into a pen, was in his hand. "Crap! Be back in a sec!" He ran back down the hallway, stopping in front of Mr. Raincomprix's office.

Should he do this? Mr. Raincomprix obviously wanted nothing else to do with him. But if he didn't return it, that was basically stealing-no, that was literally stealing, he'd go to jail-

The door opened and Marc jumped, staring with surprise into Mr. Raincomprix's face. The man's shoulders were slumped, his aura of command gone, leaving a hollow semblance of what his boss used to be. He towered over Marc by sheer height, an imposing figure no matter how tired he looked.

"Why are you back?" Mr. Raincomprix asked, a little too curtly.

"I-uh, your pen," Marc stammered, holding out the object.

Mr. Raincomprix looked down at it with an empty stare, then pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, sighing. "Keep it," he said. "I don't want it."

Before Marc could respond, he stepped back in and shut the door.

 

~oOo~

 

Marc paused at the door to Hidden Treasures, staring down at the pen in his hand and still wondering what the fuck had just happened.

His side hurt like a bitch. Driving a motorcycle with a wound in his stomach hadn't been the best idea, but at least the pain was keeping him somewhat grounded to reality.

The door opened, and he looked up to see Blanc leaning out and staring at him.

"What are you doing?" Marc asked, quickly pocketing the pen.

"Your fuck buddy told me to open the door for you," Blanc said. "So you'd stop standing around like a creep."

"That's not what I said!" Nath called from inside the store.

Marc stepped in, allowing a moment for his eyes to adjust to the change in light.

"Sorry about that," Nath said, in the process of tying his hair back. "I'm trying to teach him not to be rude around customers but he's taking it as a personal challenge. So, how did the meeting go?"

Marc shrugged. "I got fired and promoted at the same time."

"Huh." Nath looked up. "I'll be honest, I was expecting getting fired but-Blanc, what did I say? Stay away from the Infernal items!"

"You're the worst," Blanc called back, closing the door to the janitor's closet with a huff.

"How have you been with him?" Marc asked. "He hasn't been getting into trouble?"
"He's a cactus in my ass but he's manageable," Nath said. "Marinette came by earlier and helped me look after him. He's just so bitchy all the time, and I know he likes pushing my buttons-" he glared at Blanc as he said that. "But he's not done anything dangerous that I'm aware of. He's tried, but hasn't succeeded."

Marc didn't think he was the type of person to act like a stern parent, but Blanc was really acting childish, so he found himself playing the part. "Blanc, what did you do?"

"I tried to put gasoline in his coffee," Blanc said, examining his fingernails. "And I broke the clockwork hummingbird."

Nath gave a long groan, rubbing his forehead with his fingers. "It's fine. I'm fine. How are you?"

"I'm kind of spaced out at the moment," Marc said. "None of what's been happening today feels real."

"Okay," Nath said. "How about the contract? Did you have any chest pains? Any of that other stuff?"

Marc paused, thinking back. "No, I...I didn't," he said. "I was so caught up with Mr. Raincomprix's stuff that I forgot...it worked?"

A smile widened across Nath's face. "Looks like it."

Marc blinked, pressing a hand to his head. "Whatever you did worked. What the fuck." He leaned against the counter, staring at the place where his sword would normally be. "I can't believe it."

"You better," Nath said. "I did not volunteer to spend hours with annoyance incarnate if I didn't think it would work."

"But-but how?" Marc stared at the demon, heart racing, mind moving faster and still going nowhere.

"Well, the contract specified the sword," Nath said. "But since Blanc isn't a sword anymore," he wiggled his fingers. "It's the same reason you don't specify the contractee's name, because if they change their name then the contract is void. It was a dumb idea but I figured it could work, and hey, it did!"

"And now we have to deal with this," Marc said, gesturing to Blanc, who bared his teeth at him in response. There was a lightness in his chest that he couldn't describe.

"Eh, baby steps." Nath grabbed Marc's hand.

Marc felt hot tears prickling the corners of his eyes. He was free. A large part of him still wasn't coming to terms with it, but something in him was able to recognize it as the undeniable truth. He leaned down and pressed his forehead against Nath's.

No words. Nothing profound. Just a small, tender moment that Marc put all of his gratefulness into, held Nath close and hoped the demon knew how glad the swordsman was to have met him.

"I hope you don't mind that I got rid of your main weapon," Nath said.

Marc blinked. "Oh, actually." He fished the pen out of his pocket, slamming it down in front of Nath a bit too enthusiastically and startling the demon. "It's Sabrina's baton. Mr. Raincomprix gave it to me, I was hoping Alix would let us use that identifier in the museum so I could figure out how to actually use it."

"Oh." Nath looked down at it. "Well that's convenient as fuck."

"I know. I feel like anything could happen at this point."

"Things will calm down," the demon assured. "We'll have time to sort things out. You should focus on healing."

"Same to you," Marc said, gesturing to the scar in Nath's wing, the translucent membrane a deeper shade of red where it was stitching back together.

"But hey." Nath squeezed Marc's hand. "We made it."

"We're lucky to have such good friends," Marc said. "I don't think we could have made it out without them."

"Yeah, but the two of us did pretty good too." Nath pressed his lips to the back of Marc's hand.

"You're all fucking saps," Blanc interrupted, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Marc couldn't help it. He giggled a little, ducking forward to place a kiss on Nath's cheek.

"Things will get better," Nath promised. "We'll make sure of it."

Chapter Text

A part of Marc still didn't believe any of his interactions at the office had happened until the license was given to him a few days later.

The Dupont neighborhood was somehow the busiest and the quietest it had ever been. Legal teams and police officers were rampant in the streets, trying to track down missing inventory that the Akumas had taken, working on rebuilding broken windows and the multiple bouts of arson, gathering testimonies from the surrounding residents and discussing how to avoid another disaster like this happening in the future.

But underneath the hustle and bustle of people trying to fit things together, there was an eerie stillness in the air. Not everyone had made it out alive. Many of the houses held grieving families, if they held anyone at all. It felt like everyone had lost something, whether in possessions or in people they cared about.

Nathaniel had made a point of trying to avoid people who came to question him, but nearly every afternoon since that day, he and Alix would make their way to an old skating rink at the edge of the neighborhood, now closed for an indefinite period of time. Marc went with them once, after they got Sabrina's baton identified, and sat with them in the large, empty chairs while the two told him stories of an old devil he'd never met.

The remaining Akumas were still being held by the police. No one knew what was going to happen to them, there were rumors of death penalty, of being delivered to another Realm's detainment facility, or serving the rest of their years in the cells of Gallia. Chloe and her family were also still under questioning, something the media was quick to focus on. After all, even if their attack hadn't succeeded, it had still managed to gouge a deep wound in the life of the Dupont community.

But they healed. Nathaniel slowly grew more relaxed around Blanc once he realized Blanc couldn't really do anything since both he and Marc were using magic items to keep him contained. Marinette visited as often as she could to help with his behavioral problems, after all, Blanc was a tried and true little shit, but was slowly growing used to having a human-like body, and he actually listened to Marinette without insulting her every second sentence.

"Who knows," Nath had said, looking Blanc up and down. "Maybe I can even have you help around the shop, if you're willing to learn. It would help pass the time for you until you find a hobby that's not inherently...murdery."

Blanc had given him a disgusted look. "I think you should eat shit and choke on it," he'd said.

The day after he'd received his Independent license, Marc finished his classes for the day (because apparently he still needed a goddamn doctor's note to skip class even though he'd basically almost died, what the fuck), made his way to where his motorcycle was parked, and instantly paused when he saw a familiar human sitting on one of the nearby benches.

"Since when did you go to my school?" Marc asked Kim. He reached for the pencil in his pocket-Sabrina's baton, but it was easier to carry when transformed as a writing utensil. And it was more his style, anyway. The brooch was also in his pocket, an accessory that wasn't his style at all