Count Lucio jolted awake in his bed, dry and warm and shaken by a sense that something was very wrong, a cry for help poised on his tongue.
Why would he need help?
Just a nightmare.
He could hardly remember the details now but the claws of fear lingered, very vivid, very real mortal terror, soaking into his bones like it belonged there. His chest felt tight, as if air was a luxury instead of a necessity, unable to take a full breath without the pressure growing worse. It was horrifically familiar in a way.
His attention drifted, catching sight of himself in his own freshly-polished golden arm - dearmored for the night, but no less beautiful, the glimpse of an equally beautiful creature in the metal twisting his heart for reasons unknown to him.
He felt compelled to run his fingers along the surface of it, and then the soft silk beneath him, idly crushing a fistful of it in his own soft, well-manicured hand, not a blemish or a scar along pale fingers as he raised it to inspect.
He wondered why he expected to find them.
That odd compulsion led him to rise to his feet, stretching bones that didn’t need stretching before padding towards one of his mirrors, finding himself transfixed by the reflection here as well, though he’d seen it countless times before.
A beautiful man dressed in a fine red sleep robe gazed out at him, short golden hair gently tousled from a good night’s sleep, not a trace of silver among luminous locks, his face suffering only the usual amount of weathering of skin not yet made up for the day, otherwise perfect. His eyes were bright and sharp, his body lean but muscular, healthy and strong, skin soft yet firm as he ran his right hand down that majestic chest, shuddering beneath his own touch in a keenly hungry way, as if he hadn’t been touched in years .
The impulse to run that hand all over that beautiful body, keep touching himself - not even in a sexual way, just to touch, a slow and sensual exploration - was tempered by the sudden, strange thought that too much would make the majestic creature vanish.
He felt like he was gazing upon a lost love, adoration and something like pain on that beautiful face. His heart hurt fit to burst.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” He mused, and he found his voice was smooth and young and almost musical. “Who’s the fairest of them all?”
For a moment his reflection shifted and disappeared into darkness, accompanied by muffled, worried voices.
“ --fetch me a goddamn lifeboat before my IDIOT FIANCE kills himself playing HERO-- ”
He shook his head, and his handsome visage was standing right where he left it.
That sense of wrongness was creeping back in, as if there was something missing. Something he should know about. As if he wasn’t supposed to be here.
His chest still felt tight and breathless, and the room around him seemed.. slightly off. Stately structures a little crooked, red a little too dark. Something darker beneath the wallpaper, moving, shifting, as if it was alive.
To ground himself, he gazed towards the Painting on the back wall, his first commission-- and found it was a white goat monster with red eyes posed in triumph, an onyx hoof propped atop a human skull, the same as it had always been.
.. no, no it wasn’t. He was supposed to be there. Unless the goat was meant to be him? He couldn’t remember commissioning that many portraits of himself as a goat.
He blinked, and it was his human face, standing proudly atop a goat skull instead.
It was supposed to be Death. A horse.
But there was the distinct sense that if he pushed it any further, the whole thing would unravel before him, and he wasn’t sure he was prepared to witness that - or what potentially would be left standing. If the painting itself was wrong, he couldn’t imagine what lurked on the other side.
Lucio was suddenly very sure this wasn’t his room, or his Palace. He wasn’t actually sure where he was.
He thought he saw a flicker of lavender wings, something like Chandra’s form at the window -- but when he looked, there was nothing there but an unsettling red glow, blotting out any shapes or forms he knew would be outside his chambers, like crimson fog gathered around the Palace.
The Count swallowed thickly and made his way towards the doors instead, wondering what he would find the rest of the wing looked like. If the wing existed at all.
That can’t be right. The doors were locked.
He pulled at them, experimentally, then pushed at them, finding they wouldn’t move either way. They were locked from the outside, not the inside. Had he always had a lock on the outside?? Certainly not. That implied trust.
The fact of the matter was, though, that he was trapped inside his own room, something else that was horribly familiar. He pushed that thought away and tugged harder, to no avail.
“Open this door,” He commanded, not knowing if there was anyone there to hear it.
There had to be, someone must have locked it.
The nickname startled him, for a moment unsure of who that was, nevermind why he would think to call for them by name before any of his other staff members and his own damn wife. Though he was suddenly certain neither his staff nor his wife would come for him if they were there, even if the room was ablaze.
Did Jules lock him in here? No, no he wouldn’t. He would know better.
Something cold and wet brushed against his bare feet, and he immediately yelled and jumped like a cat with burned paws, nose burning with the sudden acrid smell of eels and salt.
Water was gathering around his feet, unsettlingly red like blood, trickling from beneath the closed doors, slowly spreading out along the floor and soaking into the carpet, with no sign of stopping. For a long moment he just dumbly stood there and watched it flow, only realizing the danger when it curled around his bed.
His room was flooding.
His room was flooding while he was locked in it.
Lucio started frantically pounding at the doors as he felt the water level crest his ankles and rising, rising faster. “Open these doors, damn it! Let me out!”
The doors didn’t move. All he could hear was the sound of burbling seawater.
No one was coming. No one cared. They wanted him to die.
“Let me out of here, please--!”
The trickle beneath the door was more of a gush, now, as if encouraged by his panic. He was trapped and alone and it was flooding faster and he definitely couldn’t breathe, now, the pressure in his chest threatening to crush him.
There was no way out. The odd crimson glow had consumed his other escape routes, he just knew it. He was trapped between death and the void.
He bodily flung himself at the doors, ramming into them golden shoulder first, but they still wouldn’t budge, pushing, shoving-- fear and pain soon driving him to scrabble at the doors as though he intended to climb them, thrashing against the cold water climbing up his hips, his waist, his chest.
Breath he couldn’t spare was expended on another helpless plea -- he doesn’t want to die, Jules, save him -- before the water gripped his throat like an icy hand, pulling him under, down into a red abyss so much deeper than even the vaulted ceilings of his room, fathomless, infinite--
All at once the pressure in his chest broke, a sharp gasp of air followed by painful coughing and gagging as a flood of seawater escaped his lips, his fingers buried tightly into ashen sand, shaking arms holding up a body that was old and cold and ached , his vision mostly obscured by his own wild mane soaked through and sticking to his face in ragged gold chunks.
He was awake. He was alive. He was… he was old.
He’d thought he’d come to terms with that, well enough - but with the memory of his youthful strength fading, it hurt all over again. The man in the mirror was long gone.
Slowly he slid back onto his knees, the pain of his muscles a welcome distraction from the lingering claws of fear and that renewed grief. Everything was sore, felt fit to fall apart. Like he’d been doing some strenuous activity for far too long before waking up.
There was a brief flare of annoyance that wasn’t his, but familiar to him all the same - that feeling when you’ve been forced to do more than you should.
In an instant he remembered his current situation, and who, exactly was annoyed.
.. he should be afraid. All he found was his own annoyance. He was cold and wet and miserable, with a four-horned self-righteous jackass hitching a ride in his skull. Clearly intelligible, now - either nearly being torn apart by the portal or just knowing who the bastard was had pushed back the veil on communication.
“I had it under control,” Lucio croaked indignantly, pushing back the wet hair from his eyes to finally look at something besides the dirt under his claws. “Didn’t ask you to take the helm.”
All around him was ashen sand, leading up into a knot of dark trees and an ominous, almost familiar structure beyond, crumbled to ruins but no less dangerous. He tried to remember why he knew this place. It was hard to focus with the rumble of annoyed Arcana in his ear.
You asked for my help, you ungrateful cretin. You never specified how. A low growl in his mind, a lash of a tail he didn’t have. I suppose that’s one redeeming quality of yours - a penchant for open-ended contracts.
A short bark of laughter escaped him, unbidden. “Oh, you’re helping me? The goddamn charitable sort, are we?”
He hauled himself to his aching feet, stumbling and nearly collapsing back to the shore from the pain and the weight of the water in his clothes. His right hand had moved to trace along one set of purple scars, tight and painful in the cold.
“Where the hell were you when they did this, hm? You could have stopped them. Protected me.”
I have been protecting you. You think you would be standing here alive to complain about it if I hadn’t?
That cold feeling was in his gut again. What all had he done in the name of ‘protecting’ him? How long had the Devil been in control before he’d woken up at the Rowdy Raven?
There were a thousand things he wanted to say, and he was sure he heard all of them.
“I’ve survived long enough without you. I could have made it out. Maybe I could’ve taken over someone else’s realm, become a better Arcana. What about that?” His head was starting to hurt. Maybe he’d struck a nerve. “Besides that-- they were after you. They were trying to kill you, not me. Maybe I’d have gotten out a long time ago if you weren’t there.”
You are nothing without me, and you know it.
The pain in his skull became excruciating, onyx claws digging into his spine, forcibly pushing him back down onto his knees in the sand. He bit back a whimper, even if he knew he would hear it anyway.
You owe me your miserable life.
He didn’t bother fighting back, head down, staying where he put him. Despite himself, a wry grin twitched onto his lips.
“.. y’know I liked it better when I didn’t know what you were saying.”
An annoyed huff, but after a moment the red pressure lifted, appeased by his submission. I liked it better when you did what you were told without question, but that’s not how the universe tends to work, is it?
Cold wetness brushed across the soles of his feet, and he was instantly upright with a sharp yelp, whirling on the sea with full intention to fight it before it could take him this time. He heard a deep chuckle in the back of his mind, sending a shudder down his spine, grounding him.
Tides. Tides were coming in. He would have to move.
Facing the ocean, he could see the distant brown spot that was once the ship that held him prisoner - or at least he thought so, given that there weren’t many others bobbing about on the dark waves.
He’d swam that far?
No wonder it felt like his muscles were about to drop straight off his bones.
He allowed himself a brief concession of wonder for the Devil’s stamina, hopefully assuaging the beast, before turning back up towards the shore and heading in a direction at random. Not towards the weird structure yet, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go there.
His steps were painful, and yet if he focused hard enough they were painless, long strides of elegant hooves gliding across the sand. He found himself arching forward, standing up on the balls of his feet, temporarily relieving the heel at the cost of everything else. The heels were too low, still too close to the ground. These legs were all wrong.
No, they weren't. He shook his head and focused on the pain instead, in case doing that was melding them that much closer together.
.. those hooves would be rather helpful now that the sand was becoming rockier, jagged edges waiting to tear open his unprotected feet. For a brief moment he thought he heard the clack of them on the rocks.
He found it was all too easy to fall into the Devil’s hoofprints. Comfortable, in a way.
That’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? Full control of him, of this body, broken old piece of shit that it was. He was going to have to fight him for it.
Though the incident after he’d jumped ship painted a worryingly one-sided picture of that fight.
“If you’re considering this a contract-- then all I have to do is name my price, pay it and you’re gone, right?” Lucio began, settling on one of the larger rocks to rest. “What do you want? Animal, vegetable, mineral, just name it, I can get it for you.”
He nearly toppled from the rock at the sudden burst of deep, unsettling laughter directly in his ear.
You expect me to fall for that again? You never paid your previous debts. He felt a sneer in the back of his mind, and on his own lips. I know exactly what you’re trying to do.
He swiftly turned the sneer into a helpless little grin - harmless, obedient, completely trustworthy, perhaps a bit desperate. “I’m a new man, sort of, I could surprise you.”
As far as I’m concerned, your debts have continued to accrue during your little jaunt in the Arcana Realms. Every time I’ve had to intervene, you’ve dipped further in the red. Oh, you have dug yourself quite the pit, Lucio.
“.. y-you never answered me. What do you want?”
I already told you.
He shuddered, feeling his pulse begin to race. He knew the answer when he asked, but he’d hoped putting it on the table would have encouraged the beast to think of some potential alternative. He’d even been intending to actually pay up this time.
But he couldn’t pay that. He refused to go through hell only to surrender himself a week into freedom.
“Can’t we figure out something more, I don’t know, harmonious --”
The sudden scent of blood caught his attention, as strong as if he was the one bleeding, the rocks below painted bright red like a target before subsiding into their natural color, the smell drifting away accordingly.
A glimpse into the Devil’s monstrous instincts, he supposed. He realized at once he was hungry, perhaps a shared feeling.
Blood meant something injured meant something edible. He wasn’t sure what lived on this island, if anything, but immediately he slid down the rocks into the shallow waters to find it. There was the hint of a crimson trail, a real one, resting along the surface of the water.
He slowly, carefully followed it along, keeping quiet in case the bleeder was still alive and was preparing to flee or fight, peering around a rock.
.. I suppose you could still eat that.
Julian. Julian was lying there, facedown in the water, a stream of crimson amidst floating auburn curls.
“Oh, God, Jules, no,” Without hesitation he grabbed the limp form by the shoulders and turned him over on his back, dragging him up onto the rocks and planting his ear against his chest to listen for any sign of life. “Don’t you fucking do this to me.”
Shallow breaths. A faint heartbeat. He wasn’t dead, just unconscious.
“You idiot. You complete and utter-- Julian !”
Lucio hissed and thwacked the ashen face across the cheek with his right hand, hard enough to leave an angry red imprint in his skin. It startled him into coughing up water, a promising jolt of life before his head limply lolled to the side.
That’s not how you treat head wounds. That’s the opposite of how you treat head wounds. He didn't know how to treat head wounds. Don’t you dare die on him, Devorak.
He seemed to be breathing better, now. It wouldn’t be the sea that took him.
Perhaps I could take him.
In the process of hauling Julian further up onto the rocks, his grip slipped and he nearly dropped him, cold dread gathering inside him. He felt his lips twitch into a grin, a shift of incorporeal weight inside his mind, leaning forward in predatory interest.
How serendipitous you should find an alternative after all your pathetic mewling. A life for a life, don’t you think?
But for a brief, frightening moment, he found himself considering it. The Devil would have a vessel, and he would have his freedom. For the first time, he would legitimately be debt-free.
.. but Julian would be gone.
He wasn’t sure why that was so unthinkable. He could get a different doctor. He could make different friends, somewhere, maybe not in Vesuvia, somewhere they didn’t know his name.
He was replaceable, wasn’t he? Everyone was replaceable.
His right hand kept a firm grip on his prey’s collar while his left shot up to press sharp claws against his own throat, points pushing very slightly into the skin, just enough that he would know it wasn’t a bluff - a sudden impulse that startled both of them.
“If you-- if you try to take him. I’m taking you straight to hell.” Lucio growled, trying to bury his fear in rage. “I’ll do it. I swear I’ll do it. One wrong move and I’ll cut me to ribbons.”
You’re bluffing. You’re too desperate to live.
He felt the weight shifting again, and though he wasn’t sure what he intended to do, he immediately jabbed more of his claws into his own neck, not bothering to stifle the resulting whimper. The sudden warmth of blood was almost as painful as the trembling gold buried in his skin.
“I’ll fucking do it. You can’t stop me.”
But he could. He could easily wrest control from him. Take his claws away or drive them further in. This was such a bad plan. He didn’t want to die.
His heart was pounding in his chest, blood trickling down his neck. He had to fight down the urge to withdraw his weapon, holding his hand steady. He was a panicked jerk away from tearing himself apart and they both knew it.
The tail he didn’t have lashed curiously in the back of his mind, the weight holding steady for a moment longer before slowly, finally drawing back.
Very well. I can find another use for him.
He finally allowed his claws to drop, heaving a deep, shuddering sigh of relief, nearly collapsing on top of Julian’s prone form, horribly glad it was still prone. He wasn’t sure what he would have done if he’d woken up during that.
It shouldn’t be too hard. He makes himself so easy to use, especially given his .. emotional attachment to you.
“Yeah, Jules likes me.'' Lucio went back to work hauling the man in question ashore, gripping him under both armpits and pulling him towards less rocky ground. “He’s the only one on this stupid continent that does.”
He wasn’t about to refute how easy it was to use him. Sorry, Jules.
There was a low, knowing chuckle, reminding him of a gossiping courtier. Oh, you weren’t there for that. Would you like to know what he said to me?
A sudden flash of memory tinged with red nearly forced him to drop him again.
He’s sitting in his cell, his arms loosely bound at the wrists, almost as if it was an afterthought. Julian is sitting across from him, pensive.
The door isn’t locked. He can leave at any time and the man likely wouldn’t stop him.
“To tell you the truth, my heart hurts when I see you, and I find myself drunk on the pain.” A classic Julian sort of line, though he says it very genuinely.
Uncertain grey eyes lift from a bowl of something in his hands, and a desperate kind of determination is on his face. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say, but he knows he shouldn’t.
“I think I love you, Lucio.”
Disgusting, isn’t it? But useful. A man can be made to do such foolish things for love.
“You made that up. You’re just-- you’re fucking with me now.” Was all he could think to say, staring at the prone form in his hands as if he’d never seen him before in his life. “We’re just friends. That’s all he wants me to be.”
… wasn’t it?
He used to be so good at knowing who he was supposed to be, which mask to wear. The ruthless warrior, the charming politician, the passionate lover, the fawning underling, the tearful martyr, the pragmatic survivor, the harmless victim.
He didn’t know what Jules wanted. He hadn’t been sure Jules wanted him at all.
Do you want to see it again~?
“No. No, I’m just-- shut up a minute and let me handle this.”
Lucio turned his attention back to moving Julian, teeth gritted in anticipation of a bolt of red agony through his skull. Oddly enough, pain never came, the Devil apparently too amused by this to punish him, musical laughter in his ear.
After a moment of deliberation, he shifted his grip in order to heave the taller man over his shoulder, gratified to find that even if he'd put on some weight in the years apart, it wasn't enough that he was completely immovable.
He almost weighed as much as a normal person, now. Lucio was almost proud.
Most of his strength was in his aching legs, however, so this method of transport wasn't that much faster. The idea of leaving him behind never once crossed his mind.
His prisoner secured, he once again looked out over the craggy shore, finding his eyes drawn back to that dark structure on the horizon. Just looking at it gave him chills - but as a soft rumble of thunder broke overhead, he realized it was probably his best bet for shelter, unless a cave or some unlucky hermit’s hut cropped up before he got there.
Something incorporeal and red slithered through the trees, gone before he could identify it. There was the distant sound of mournful howling, like wounded wolves stuck in traps. Yeah, wolves. He was sticking with wolves.
To his credit, the Devil remained blessedly silent as he trudged through the dark forest, at the cost of leaving him alone with his labored breathing and his buzzing thoughts.
I love you, Lucio.
Julian couldn’t possibly have told him that. It had to be a trick.
He wasn’t sure what the bastard gained from tricking him into thinking he loved him, exactly, but it sure as hell couldn’t be true. Not in this life, definitely not in his past life. He tolerated him, maybe even trusted him, maybe more than he should. But loved him?
… he had swum out here to save him. Maybe even the moment someone said he was overboard.
A man can be made to do foolish things for love.
“I don’t NEED this, Jules!”
He knew he couldn’t hear him, but the sound of his own voice soothed him, in a way. Distracted him from the howls, or maybe screams.
“You could’ve at least waited until I was there to hear it! I could have-- I might--”
What had the Devil told him, in response? Did he want to know? (No, he realized as he felt the beast’s weight shift, no he didn’t.) Julian may still have come to save him if it was negative, in the hopes it might change his mind. Did he have a mind to be changed?
What would he have told him, if he was there?? He didn’t know, and he hated that. He couldn’t imagine it. It had never been a possibility. And yet it was.
He paused mid-step, took a deep breath, and yelled as loud as he could.
“ I don’t need this!!”
The force of his yell startled a cacophony of scavenging birds from the trees, crows or ravens or something else entirely shuddering the forest with an army of scattered wings and annoyed shrieking, a few nearly slamming into him on their way out.
Julian remained motionless in his grasp, undisturbed. He was half-tempted to shake him.
Are you done?
“Shut up.” It came out a lot weaker that he would have liked, but he supposed he was, for a moment just standing there and listening to his own frustrated echoes.
By the time he made it to the ominous structure, it had begun to rain. He didn’t need that either. He hated being cold and wet. His clothing hadn’t even started drying out yet, likely due to the additional water dripping down his shoulder from his captive.
This must have been the back of the structure, considering it was mostly featureless besides wide cracks and crumbled open spots in dark stone. He shifted his grip on Julian in order to ignobly thread him through one of these openings, crawling in close behind.
It was dark, but slightly drier and warmer in here. He had managed to find a room with at least part of a roof on it, it seemed.
The only illumination was the glow of magic from his arm, and he found he was thankful for that. He didn’t want to know what this place looked like on the inside, if the outside was anything to go by.
It felt wrong in here. Like he was hiding in something’s mouth. He settled on the hard, rocky-feeling ground that hopefully wasn’t teeth, taking a moment to catch his breath before running his golden arm’s glow over Julian’s body. He wasn’t actively bleeding anymore, but he could still smell it.
‘Doctor’ had never been one of his roles. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He’d gotten by well enough in the realms, but he’d still never done much more than a little field dressing.
Both hands moved to squeeze some of the seawater out of his shirt, getting it as dry as he could before tearing off a few crimson shreds with his claws. It was Julian’s shirt, he would understand. He tangled trembling fingers in soaked auburn curls, slowly guiding them away from his face to better find the source of the blood.
His skin was so cold. If it wasn’t for the soft breaths against his arm, he would think he’d already left him behind.
There. A spot of uncomfortable heat.
He kept his fingers pressed against it to keep track of it as he clumsily wrapped the shirt shreds around his head, tying them as tight as he could for fear of them falling off him, maybe too tight. He wouldn’t know until Jules was awake to chastise him. Please wake up to chastise him.
“D’you know any healing spells?” He asked, uncertainly.
The Devil didn’t answer.
Even if he did, he realized, he wouldn’t bother to tell him how to do it, let alone do it for him. Not for Jules, and definitely not for the claw marks of insubordination in his own throat.
Lucio shifted slightly away from his ‘patient’, instead resting his hands on the dirt and focusing on what he could remember of a fire spell. He didn’t want the light, just the warmth, and it was the only spell that had ever reliably worked for him.
Onyx claws buried into his spine before there could be a spark, jerking him backwards as if trying to pull him away from his own spell.
Don’t you dare use my magic.
“I’m cold,” He whined, fingers curling into the dirt. “You don’t like being cold either.”
I refuse to waste resources on temporary mortal comfort.
“I didn’t realize I was being possessed by the Budgeting Committee . Well you know what? Your budgeting sucks. I almost died.”
There was an affronted sniff. A simple oversight. I overestimated your capacity.
His capacity . As if all he was useful for was storage .
The outrage at this silenced any intelligible retort, reducing him to indignant sputtering and then repeating the beast’s words in a stupid voice as he curled up against Julian’s prone form for warmth. It was worse than the goddamn Budgeting Committee.
“M’still cold.” He mumbled into his neck. “What are you gonna do if I freeze to death, huh? You gonna join me as a goatsicle?”
The Devil simply scoffed, unmoved. It was worth a shot.
Though it probably would have helped if he didn’t know that Vesuvia wouldn’t get that cold, even in the winter. It was one of its better qualities. Not that that mattered much now, shivering against a sopping wet potentially dead man on an island somewhere in her waters. He snuggled closer, draping an arm across his chest, forcibly ignoring the realization there was only one island in her waters, an island he didn’t want to think about.
It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t need this. He didn’t need any of this.
Against his better judgment, he mentally reached for the dark presence in his skull like a child grabbing for a blanket, trying to tug his warmth closer - unsurprised and yet a little disappointed to find it immediately recoiled from him in disgust.
Lucio curled tighter against Julian’s side instead and tried to go to sleep, distantly hoping he wouldn’t be quite so alone when he awoke.
Assuming, of course, he was the one who woke up.