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We Are Not Friends

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The Rowdy Raven looked just as he'd left it, if a little cleaner, with even a few familiar faces among the bustling patronage despite there being a much longer gap between visits this time. Malak croaked and hopped off his shoulder as he entered, automatically taking up his old post as though he'd never been at sea.

It was already occupied by a younger raven, raucously shrieking at its elder while he simply preened his feathers. 

"Why if it isn't Julian goddamn Devorak!"

That was his only warning before Julian was lifted clean off the floor in the most welcoming, crushing bear hug he'd received in his life, the bar filled with warm laughter and a few cheers from those familiar faces as Barth finally set him back down on solid ground.

"Last I heard you was dead, Devorak!" A weighty clap of his hand against his back, nearly bowling him over. "Where the hell have you been?"

Julian grinned. "We just pulled into port, restocking our supplies and checking up on old friends before heading back to Nevivon for the wedding."

"What wedding? Your wedding??”

Julian only grinned wider, straightening to his full height with pride. 

“You're getting hitched ?!"

"After years of asking, I finally said yes."

"Well I'll be damned, I never thought I'd live to see the day. C'mon, this round's on the house, you're gonna need all the help you can get." Another volley of laughter, and he decided to let the implied dig at his magician's spousal clutches slide. What was important was that he knew there was no leash -- that is, socially.

The grin on the other man's face faltered, and without warning he pulled Julian towards the bar by the shoulder in a clear bid for privacy, leaning up to whisper in his ear. 

"Unfortunately I can't secure your usual spot. A suspicious type's taken up residence in it. I don't know where he came from but I don't like it."

Barth craned his neck around Julian's shoulder to throw a suspicious glance towards the booth. The former doctor followed his gaze, perhaps a bit less discreet than he should be.

"I thought we were all suspicious types here," He said with an attempt at a grin, which also faltered.

The booth was indeed occupied, by someone who looked like they belonged in the wilds of the South more than South End. They were wearing thick furs, obscuring most of their body as they were hunched over the table, though it was easy to tell that body hardly filled the space beneath. A skull of some kind of animal he couldn't identify obscured their face, shaggy gold and silver hair that probably hadn't seen a brush in years spilling out from the braincase and settling across broad shoulders like a mangy waterfall. 

What gave him pause was the fact that the skull seemed to be fashioned into a mask in the likeness of the Devil Arcana, the same dark patterns and onyx double horns as the creature's representation on Asra's card, before they had sealed him away. There was no mistaking it. He felt a sense of unease, a certainty that it wasn't simply a bad fashion choice by the traveling magician's former client. 

"We are but he gives me the creeps, alright." The bartender sniffed. "I woulda kicked him out already except he keeps ordering drinks for everyone n' I don't know if he plans to pay for it. He probably don't even know what money is."

There was a small armada of empty plates and equally empty tankards scattered across the table in front of the stranger, and he was drinking another one as if it was the last he'd ever have, white knuckles wrapped in dirty bandages, the hint of ugly purple scarring along pale skin.

"Do you want me to handle him?" Julian kept his voice low, reaching for the sword now kept buckled to his hip and realizing he'd left it on the ship.

Barth startled, looking at him like he'd grown an extra head. "Put that backbone away, boy, I just wanted you to know you're gonna have to find a different seat. I'll figure out what to do with him."

They both nearly jumped out of their skin as the painted skull swung towards them, attention clearly attracted by the staring. He said nothing, but waved at Julian in a disjointed beckoning motion. 

It looked like he was beckoning both of them, but that same certainty said it was just him.

Against his better judgment, Julian slowly approached the corner booth, warily settling into the seat across from the stranger as he felt awkwardly hovering beside him might not be as well received. Closer to him he could see the hint of unfocused silver eyes and a crooked grin behind the mask, both of which struck him with unwanted familiarity like the markings on the skull.

"I realize I haven't been here in some time, but this is my seat." He said evenly.

The other man shrugged. "Tss, finders keepers. What was it you liked, again? Salty Bitters? Two of those, please."

That voice…

After a moment he set the tankard down, curling trembling fingers around the edge of the skull, slowly, almost reluctantly easing it off of his head, letting it rest on the table by the wall with its eye holes facing towards the bar like an eerie painted sentinel. His skin crawled, feeling as though it was watching him.

The face beneath the mask was weathered and a bit gaunt with age and malnutrition, but there was no doubt of the identity, especially given the sharp black wings drawn beneath both haggard eyes.

Lucio.

"Wh-- you ?!" Julian hissed. Distantly he heard Malak let out one short squawk in alarm. "How the hell did you get out?!"

He was supposed to be aimlessly wandering the magical realms for eternity, or something to that effect according to his spouse to be. He was definitely not supposed to be in Vesuvia, in South End, in the Rowdy Raven, in his booth, grinning like a cat that just finished off the cream. 

"Oh, Jules. Is that any way to greet an old friend?"

Something inside him snapped. 

"We are NOT friends."

The former Count looked genuinely surprised by this statement, somehow. 

"We're not? But I thought--" It took him a few seconds to reconfigure, tone much less cocksure confident. "You stayed in my house, you played games with me, you drank with me-- I thought the other stuff was water under the bridge, now. Especially now."

"Friends don't give friends the Red Plague."

It fell from his mouth like a stone, and Lucio flinched back accordingly.

"Yeah, well, friends don't abandon friends on their deathbed to go on holiday." He tried to recover with a pout.

A small pang of guilt flickered through him, easily quashed by reminding himself that this bastard had done so much worse. "Then you agree. We aren't friends."

"That's not what I--"

"I was your doctor and you were my patient, nothing more, nothing less. Anything you might have read into it is not my fault, I was simply trying to be a decent person, something you still don't understand."

Lucio opened his mouth, then closed it again, sinking back into his furs as the Bitters arrived, not noticing the sidelong glance from the bartender before he left.

Some perverse part of him enjoyed how the once confident Count was shrinking back from him, and he allowed himself to indulge in it, if only for a moment. A terrible thought of breaking taboo and calling the guards on him rose up in his mind, of throwing him to the wolves while he was weak and confused. Then again, no one else would be able to trust him in the Raven again if he did that.

Least of all himself.

"... you never liked me, did you." The older man said quietly, and that guilt came right back, unprepared for the sudden clarity. "None of you did. I saw it and I ignored it because you're supposed to like me. I never had any friends in that stupid Palace, did I?"

He pushed his glass of Salty Bitters towards Julian untouched, not looking up from the table.

"You don't know what it's like, Jules. Being alone. Not the kind of alone you get in that-- that fucking hellscape. Time is wrong. Everything wants you dead. Every one wants you gone, and they have the power to back it up."

Julian said nothing, finding his eye drawn to the scarring, realizing there was more than what was on his arm.

"And, most fun part, the whole place is designed to fuck with your head!" Lucio laughed, short and harsh, a sound that reminded him of rattling bones. "I don't remember how I got out, and there's a big possibility I never did! This could just as easily be an illusion by something that wants to tear out my soul and take my body for a skin suit!"

More broken, deranged laughter, dropping back against the booth with a harsh thump of his head on the hardwood. People were starting to look over, or at least being more open about looking. He suddenly wondered if anyone else recognized his table mate, as grizzled and greasy as he currently was, and if they'd try turning him in for whatever bounty Nadia had placed on his head. He didn’t have friends here, either.

He opened his mouth with the intent to shush him at the very least, but was distracted by both scarred flesh and weathered gold arms suddenly and very clumsily lashing out to grab his own. The grip was firm, almost painful, as if he expected him to vanish if he loosened it.

Lucio was staring at him with all the manic intensity of a man who has not been drunk in some time and now had an epiphany on the verge of blackout. "Jules, Jules, listen. I know I did some stuff. And I'm-- I didn't do some other stuff I probably should have, when I was trapped and before that."

Slight pause, gold arm slipping free of its prey to press against his temple, trying to gather what thoughts hadn’t been scattered by the liquor. He glanced towards the skull and shuddered.

"I am still mad you trapped me in a net n' took my body n’ left me to die in those realms-- but that's not the point.” Nevermind that it hadn’t been Julian himself that had done any of that, although it wasn’t clear if he remembered that right now, or cared. “Maybe-- maybe we weren't friends. But we can be friends now , can't we?"

His lips stretched into the most pathetic hopeful smile Julian had ever seen, desperation in his eyes. It physically hurt to look at him, and it only got worse when he apparently took too long to react, the trembling grip on his wrist faltering like the smile.

"... can't we?"

The former doctor took a risk by continuing to not answer, instead turning his attention back to his drink. Hopefully his expression was pensive enough that Lucio might understand he was thinking, not ignoring -- and hopefully it was more pensive than whatever inscrutable cocktail of emotion was swarming inside his skull like wasps.

Before, the burn of memory was still fresh, still bitter. He wanted him to suffer. But time had passed since he’d stared the bastard down at the Devil’s gate, and it was even longer since he’d had to deal with his mistakes firsthand. 

He’d moved on, or so he thought. He had a life now. He had a ship and a crew and an upcoming marriage.

All Lucio had was scars and memories. He had nowhere and no one and had obviously latched onto the first familiar face he’d seen in a dog’s age, likely the only one that would give him the chance to sit down and talk like this.

He felt bad for feeling bad for him. He wasn’t sure if it would be crueler to tell him there was no place for him in his life, either, or to allow him to continue hoping.

“... please tell me you didn’t break out of the magical realms specifically to ask me to be your friend.” Julian said after a long moment.

A softer, wheezier sort of chuckle. “Would it help my case if I did?”

“I’m afraid not. On this side of the gate, we call that ‘obsessive behavior’.”

The former Count finally released him to reach over for the skull, pulling it down over his face again with practiced ease, putting up a more physical barrier between their scattered emotions. “We don’t have to be friends. I can be-- what are you now? Pirate captain?”

“First mate.”

“.. is there a second mate? What do you call the person in charge of stabbing people on command? I can do that.”

“I don’t think the position of ‘Chief Stabber’ is one that exists, but I’ll have to run it by the captain.” Damn it, Devorak. Stop giving him hope. “I mean-- on the off-chance they don’t shoot down the idea of having you aboard at all. Considering the last time you met them.”

Lucio tilted his head to peer into the tankard through the skull’s eyes, and though he couldn’t see the pout he could hear it in his voice. “The thief that got my body? Excellent. Brilliant. Did Noddy manage to join up too? Or that other magician? Am I missing anybody else in the list of ‘people that want me dead’ that lines up with ‘people that know I’m not dead’?”

“Mazelinka and Pasha are there.” 

Not to mention, it wasn’t much of a secret that he wasn’t dead. He kind of made a big show of it at that Masquerade. 

“I don’t know who the hell those people are but I expected you’d add some names.” A flash of something like fear in his eyes, what he could see of them. “.... Noddy didn’t really--?” 

Despite himself, Julian laughed. “Don’t worry - last I heard, Nadia was still Countess of Vesuvia. If she’s gone and become a ruthless pirate queen in my absence, I haven’t met her at sea just yet.”

“It’d definitely suit her.”

They both shared a wistful sigh at the prospect of Nadia terrorizing the seven seas.

A brief moment of silence elapsed, in which the former doctor finally pulled the second Bitters towards himself. “... she won’t like it if she finds out you’re here, you know.” 

There was a flinch, as expected - and then another crooked, cocksure grin.

If , Jules. If she finds out.” The grin faltered, eyes slowly widening with horror behind the mask as he seemed to allow himself to look at the proverbial elephant in the room. “.. she won’t find out, will she? You aren’t going to-- you were a fugitive, too, you wouldn’t. Would you?”

“... I still don’t know, to tell you the truth. I should.”

Lucio immediately quailed from him, once again looking as if he was trying to hide in his furs.

“You should be the one with that mark, you know. The one it took me three years to clear up. Hell, some might think you also deserve the same fate I got to match.” He wasn’t entirely sure if Nadia would hang him, exactly, but it wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination. 

The former Count said nothing, only shivered, scarred hand coming up to rub at his neck. He realized he was just tormenting him at this point, and after a moment of deliberation pushed the glass of Bitters back towards him as a peace offering, feeling that much worse when he flinched away from it like he expected it to hurt him.

“You’re safe here. For now. It’s a bit of a faux pas to rat on your fellow ne’er-do-well in this part of town, after all.”

“... but you would do it otherwise.” 

His voice was quiet and hurt, clear and genuine betrayal in his eyes, not unlike being told they weren’t friends. He’d fully trusted him, he realized, or at least as much as Lucio could trust, and it was being shattered.

Julian was learning all sorts of unwanted things tonight.

"I never realized you hated me that much, Jules." The painted skull swung back towards the bar, shadows thankfully obscuring wounded eyes, flesh arm raising up in a shaky little wave. “Can I have more of that stuff I was drinking earlier? And can you make it extra strong?”

Barth grunted and nudged a larger, rougher looking fellow, likely the new bouncer, towards their booth. “I was actually hopin’ we could have some words about that, sir. You been doin’ an awful lot of drinkin’ and not much payin’.”

“Oh.” Lucio lowered his arm and tilted his head. “Put it on my tab, then.”

“You don’t have a tab.”

“... put it on Jules’ tab. I’m sure he’s got one. Don’t you, Jules?”

Julian nearly choked on his drink, throwing a half-hearted glare at his companion when his lungs had finally regained their land legs. The bouncer gazed down at the both of them, stone-faced, and for a moment he felt like he was three feet tall. 

Despite his earlier frightened deer act, the other man seemed completely unphased by this, perhaps too blitzed to realize the danger.

“Don’t bring him into this, he’s a valued customer.” Came the gruff reply from the bar. “You, on the other hand, seem to be a freeloader.”

He wasn’t wrong.

“I have money. Somewhere. Probably.”

“Somewhere ain’t gonna cut it.”

“I had an assload of money. I could buy this stupid bar out from under you.” Lucio sniffed, indignant. “Your drinks aren’t even good.”

Julian felt like he was watching a carriage wreck in slow motion, gilded wheels bouncing off a brick wall and pirouetting into oblivion, horses of good sense bounding into the woods somewhere. 

He felt himself move towards the other two men, too slow to be of any help to either of them, just as the bouncer laid one rough hand on the older man’s shoulder with all the weight and finality of a judge’s gavel, digging thick fingers into his furs in preparation for lifting him out of his seat.

In an instant Lucio’s posture changed, going completely rigid beneath the hand, a flicker of something primal in his eyes behind the mask, reminding Julian of a trapped animal. He twisted in his furs like a cat slipping in its own skin, golden arm swiftly lashing out towards the bouncer’s face, claws tearing his cheek wide open before he had a chance to react.

The taller man immediately released him and staggered back, grabbing at his own face, blood pouring between his fingers and down his neck.

Don’t fucking touch me! ” The former Count snarled, still standing, hitching up his bloodied metal arm as though he intended to strike again.

Hushed, horrified whispers rippled through the Raven around him, and Julian very clearly heard Lucio’s name among them. His face may have been obscured, but the arm was a dead giveaway. 

He must have heard them, too, because he hesitated, stepping back as if he suddenly realized what he just did. 

Other men were rising from their seats and advancing towards him, some barehanded, some bearing weapons, one bringing an empty bottle. The trapped animal look was still in his eyes, flickering across the bar and then landing on Julian, staring at him as though he was trying to judge if he was also a threat.

Lucio wasn’t angry, he was scared. He was a cornered animal.

He was also outmatched, if only in sheer numbers, and he knew it. 

Someone lunged for him and he immediately bolted, leaping up on top of the table near the window and headbutting it with his mask to break it open, hurling himself outside before anyone else managed to get close.

Against his better judgment, Julian immediately leapt to his feet and started towards the window with the intent to follow, or at least get a glimpse of where he might have gone - only to be stopped by a weighty hand on HIS shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it, Devorak,” Barth sighed. “We’ll catch him sooner or later, or the guards will. Either way, he ain’t got no friends here.”

That’s what I’m worried about , he almost said, but swallowed the words like bitter alcohol as he made his way towards the still-bleeding bouncer. Hopefully he hadn’t left all of his supplies on the ship, or he was going to have to improvise.

“Here, let me take a look at that.”

Through the corner of his eye, he saw Malak hop off his post and soar out the broken window.

Chapter Text

A single shaft of sunlight fell across his face and poured into his skull, striking his brain like a golden viper and dragging his consciousness forward in its pointy little teeth.

Lucio’s body snapped awake first, while the viper was still dragging, instinctively thrashing and swinging his golden arm out claws-first to catch any potential scavengers unaware, finding no resistance except his own momentum that sent him crashing to the ground.

He shouldn’t be out in the light. He’d learned that early on. The creatures in the dark were bad enough, but he was a bright target in the light.

His vision shifted red, his head far too heavy and yet not heavy enough, reaching up to feel for the familiar weight of his mask and finding only his own wild mane beneath his fingers. It was gone. His mask was gone and his furs were gone. He was exposed and unprotected, with only the tattered remains of his suit between him and the elements.

Something creaked - a faint noise of wood on wood, manmade, but that didn’t matter in the realms, did it? - and he immediately hunkered down, holding his breath, eyes flickering across his surroundings to find somewhere to hide. It hurt to let his eyes focus on any one thing too long, a blur of dingy brown and blinding light.

Everything hurt, like a thousand tiny knives burrowing beneath his skin and between his muscles. It was like something had tried to flay him alive in his sleep, leaving the job half done so his own clothing would hurt. There was also the clearer, more physical spread of stabbing pain indicating injury across his right shoulder and his chest, something that would have to wait until the danger had passed. He was in no condition for a fight.

His back found the hard edge of something like a cot or a rocky ledge, presumably what he’d been resting on before, and he quickly ducked down lower to scoot backwards into the darkness beneath it, squirming and thrashing until he could squirm no more, curling tightly against the back wall and falling dead still with shallow but labored breaths and his heart racing in his chest.

He didn’t know how long he’d been lying there in the open. Something would have seen him. 

Without the sunlight burning in his eyes, he could see that this was a room, not quite as exposed but only just, hardwood flooring and dusty knickknacks, clothing and papers spilled across the floor in equal measures, a place that had been thoroughly lived in but not in quite some time. 

He tried to remember which Arcana’s domain looked like this. The memories of the night before were hazy, clouded by red agony - the only clear thing was the smell of blood. Blood and liquor.

A raven’s shriek pierced further into his aching head, too close to his hiding spot, as though it was in the room with him. The Hanged Man? He couldn’t remember if the Hanged Man was one of the ones that would kill him if they found him. He covered his mouth with his flesh hand to muffle his panting just in case, hating how he could feel it shake.

There was a distant murmur of human voices, and louder creaking, heavy footsteps on hardwood heading towards him. There was only the one door, he realized, and it was soon filled by a pair of boots, blocking him in. 

Not the Hanged Man, unless the big bird had started wearing shoes, but no less of a threat.

“Now, I know the only real hangover cure is time, but I made you something that might--”

The deep voice petered off, the boots stopping somewhere in the middle of the room. They sounded distantly familiar, though he was distracted by the scent of food.

“Malak, did you chase him off?”

An indignant avian croak, followed by the thumping of heavy wings - and the raven in question landing on the floor near Lucio’s hiding spot, just barely out of reach, peering directly at him with its beady little eyes.

If it was closer he could have killed it, not that it would have made a difference. Its master was already lowering himself to the floor, his gangly frame more completely blocking his escape, setting down something vaguely edible - still out of reach - and peering beneath the bed.

Immediately he pushed himself further back against the wall, though there wasn’t anywhere to go. He recognized that concerned grey eye and those tousled auburn curls, and disjointed pieces of memory began to surface, painfully butting against each other in his mind.

Julian Devorak. Not his friend. He said so.

“How exactly did you fit under there?” The eye glanced between the floor and the edge of the bed, not a very long trip either way. “Nevermind that-- why are you under there??”

“Why’d you kidnap me?” Lucio countered in a harsh croak, not unlike the raven.

His captor blinked, clearly taken aback. “Wh-- I didn’t kidnap you. I found you passed out in an alleyway not too far from my place so I thought-- would you rather I have left you there?”

Another irritable avian croak.

“Well, okay, Malak found you.”

His gaze fell to the food, what looked like an egg sandwich, flickering warily back up at the man guarding it. He couldn’t risk moving any closer to grab it, but the too-familiar pangs of hunger were slowly whittling away at his resolve. 

It was probably drugged or poisoned. He could wait. Couldn’t he?

Julian slid the plate towards him, slowly easing it further under the bed. He tried to hold fast to his place against the wall as long as he could before his control snapped, swiftly pouncing on the sandwich and dragging it back like a fresh kill before the other man would have the chance to grab him.

It was dry and tasteless, and the egg was nearly reduced to ash, but he devoured it in an instant anyway. He had long since learned each meal could be the last.

“... what do you plan to do with me?” The former Count muttered finally, once all traces of his prey were gone. More pieces of his memory were coming back, primal fear giving way to more civilized terror. “You said-- you said you wanted to turn me in. You want me to hang .”

He was gratified to see the flash of guilt on his former doctor's face, as if he'd hoped he wouldn't remember that. “ Some people want you to hang. I didn’t say I did.”

“You want me dead, though. Like everyone else."

"That's not--"

"You're either with me or against me, Jules, and you made it abundantly clear we're not friends, so you want me dead."

"You're-- that's a vast oversimplification." Julian groaned. "I didn't have to bring you here, you know. In fact most people would think that was a terrible idea on my part, including me."

"Then why did you--"

"I don't know!"

He threw up his hands in exasperation, then without warning one of those hands was under the bed, reaching towards him. 

Lucio instinctively swiped at it with his claws before it could make contact, realizing too late it was after the plate between them instead of him, a spray of blood across the battered china and hardwood beneath. His captor hissed and pulled back empty handed, rising to his feet and stepping away from the bed. 

He found the absence was more frightening than his presence, very nearly reaching for him with the less dangerous hand to keep him from leaving. Instead he hunkered further down and waited for him to come back with whatever retribution was coming to him.

Most people don’t continue to provide for things that hurt them. It was one of the reasons he was the only one who could handle Mercedes and Melchior.

… of the two of them he supposed he was Mercedes, slow to trust and quick to bite, and she had been the one that kept hiding under his bed as a pup.

He hesitantly pushed the bloodied plate out from beneath the bed, startling as the raven apparently took offense to this and flapped away, out of sight. If it wasn’t for the distant creaking of hardwood, he’d think he was completely alone in here. Maybe he was. Maybe that was just this house settling, and Jules had abandoned him to call the guard, bearing bright red evidence across his wrist.

His unguarded wrist. He remembered skin, not leather. He’d trusted him at least that much.

Slowly Lucio allowed himself to pull away from the wall, still curled beneath the bed but no longer crammed in there. He briefly considered emerging to look for Julian, then quickly quashed the idea - he was protected here. No one would risk coming in close quarters, not if they wanted to keep all their fingers attached.

After what felt like an eternity - time still seemed wrong to him, though he knew it was flowing right, constantly expecting it to shift - the boots returned, accompanied by the scent of black coffee and something vaguely, nauseatingly medical.

“I suppose I deserved that,” Julian’s voice sighed. There was no malice in it.

The other man once again lowered himself to the floor, this time sitting instead of kneeling, moving the plate aside in order to slide a small mug under the bed with a noticeably gloved hand.

“.. I didn’t mean to.” Was all he could think to say, for the moment simply breathing in the smell. He heard sipping, indicating he’d brought one for each of them, and somehow that settled better than only giving him one. 

“I know.”

“You should be mad at me.”

Julian laughed, a deep and awkward honking that lifted several years off his shoulders. He’d missed that sound. “Surely you don’t think I’d harbor a grudge over a scratch . It’s going to take more than that to trap me in a martyr routine and you know it.”

“I thought that’s what you did.” He felt a grin twitching at the corners of his lips, knowing it wouldn't be seen. “If you hurt me you’d be inconsolable.”

“And here I thought I was supposed to kill you without remorse.”

The other mug was carefully placed on the floor a few paces away before the gangly frame collapsed against the hardwood in a dramatic heap, one hand clasped against his chest, the other slung across his brow, thankfully in no danger of coming too close.

“Alas, you’ve caught me out, I am a monster with no teeth, a villain with a weak and sensitive heart - how ever will I do my despicable deeds now?” His captor bemoaned, in classic Julian fashion.

A peal of wild but genuine laughter escaped Lucio’s throat, startling himself and piercing through his own aching skull, wrestling it down into stupid little giggles as he shook his head in disbelief. 

God, he’d missed that, too. 

Julian’s arm lowered, his head lolling towards him with an equally stupid little grin on his face. It faltered as his eye looked over him, really looking at him for the first time since the night before, and in an instant he realized how wretched and pathetic he must look to him, especially as he was coiled up beneath his bed like a frightened dog.

Just an old man in rags cowering from unseen threats. If he saw someone who looked like himself on the street, he would likely have kicked them.

“... you’re hurt.” 

Everything hurts, Jules. You’ll have to be specific.” Lucio sniffed, slowly dragging the mug of coffee closer to himself with shaking claws, his own gaze pointedly focused on his prize.

He started to lift it, then set it back down with a frown, realizing there was a distinct lack of clearance. It would be that much more pathetic if he had to lap it up, wouldn’t it? He was beginning to see some of the downsides of his hiding spot.

“There’s glass-- you know it would be easier if you--”

No .”

He didn’t want to be seen in the light for a different reason this time.

After a moment Julian sat back up, his expression pensive before it disappeared out of sight. This time he otherwise remained within view, leaning over and rummaging around in something he couldn’t see. A trunk? 

“Would this help?” 

A familiar sunbleached skull painted like the Devil was set in front of him, gazing implacably at him with hollow eyes. 

He fought down a shiver and wordlessly reached for it, then realized its horns wouldn’t be able to clear the edge of the bed either. He stubbornly tried to pull it under at least once anyway, a frustrated whine in his throat. He couldn’t remove the horns, that would destroy its power of intimidation, and likely put some kind of curse on him to boot.

His eyes flickered helplessly up towards Jules’ face. 

“... do you want me to leave the room?” 

His expression must have been utterly horrified, for the former doctor hastily added, “At least until you’re uh, situated.”

“Don’t leave me-- just. Don’t look at me. Please.”

Julian looked as though he wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the words. Finally he nodded and turned his back on him, slowly scooting away until there was at least an arm’s length between them. 

Had he still been in survival mode, the damn fool would be dead already.

Lucio shuddered and shook away the thought, focusing instead on gathering his courage. He eased the coffee out into the light, scooting it as far forward as he could, until his arm was completely exposed and sunlight fell across the end of his nose, forcing him to reel back.

Come on, you coward. The only potential threat here had already shown him his throat in submission, practically literally. And if anything else was lurking, they would find him first.

He hunkered down and crept further forward, very slowly sliding his left arm out first, pausing a moment to make sure all of his armor was clear before the right, muffling a whimper as the pain of injury made itself known again. The dark form ahead of him moved as if to turn back.

I said don’t look. ” He hissed, and the other man obediently fell still.

Flesh and gold dug into the hardwood, taking a deep breath before forcing his face and upper half into the light with a violent tug, his claws and nails scrabbling at the floor to haul his back end out before his nerves could fail him. Getting out was much more of an ordeal than getting in.

The moment he was free he grabbed for his mask like a drowning man flailing for an anchor, roughly shoving it down over his head, trying to focus on the weight and darkness of it, what it represented rather than whom - security, power, freedom.

".. you can. You can look now."

He was still a pathetic old man in rags, and he didn't want him to look, but at least now there was a barrier.

"I couldn't find the furs," Julian said apologetically as he turned back around, picking up his coffee long enough to take a sip before setting it aside. That pitying look was still in his visible eye. "I assume I got the most important part, at least."

".. y-yeah."

A slight pause as he collected his own mug, lips twisting into a pout. "Damn it, Jules, it took me ages to fell that beast. I oughta skin you for a replacement."

"That would be the saddest coat ever worn. Barely enough material to shelter a child."

As he spoke he slowly began to move closer to him, pausing when Lucio automatically flinched back. That medical smell was back, as disgusting as he remembered, and he noted clean bandaging and some kind of salve in his former doctor's grip.

Oh yeah. He said something about glass. For the first time he noticed the sheen of dried blood across his own chest, spots of it soaked through the fabric at his right shoulder, small gashes made worse by his frightened scrambling.

".. I'm going to have to touch you to treat you." Julian said softly.

"I'm aware."

"Don't be afraid."

He felt himself bristling, a flash of anger from what felt like a lifetime ago. "I fear nothing . You don't even have any teeth."

Against his better judgment he slid closer to his captor, so it would be a bit easier to reach his wounds, hesitantly tugging his right sleeve down to expose his shoulder. There were angry red marks criss crossing old purple scars, deeper than he thought, a glint of colored glass buried inside them.

His body tensed as hands reached for him, claws curling against his palm to keep from striking again.

".. last I remembered, you were dying to have my hands all over you." A halfhearted attempt at a grin, a hand hesitating a moment longer before lightly resting against his mask, gently nudging his head back. His pulse fluttered, but he forced himself to follow. "Do you want to tell me why that changed?"

"You don't let enemies handle you, Jules, it's common sense."

"And everyone is an enemy."

"It isn't too far a stretch from my policy before I was trapped in hell, I don't know why this bothers you." Lucio scoffed. "Or are you upset because I finally moved you to the proper list?"

Julian leaned a little further forward, eye focused on his shoulder. He couldn’t see his hands, one because it was on his mask and the other because it was somewhere below it. “I don’t know, you seemed a lot more upset I was on the wrong list than I was last night. I think you still don’t consider me on that list. Hold still, this is going to hurt.”

A spark of agony followed, something sharp digging into his right arm. His left arm twitched, and to his credit, the former doctor seemed to notice this before it swung for his head, ducking out of the way.

“... you were right.” He offered helplessly.

“About the pain or the list?”

“..... both.”

He was moving back in as though that hadn’t happened, although he paused and glanced towards the golden arm hastily pushed back to his side. “Tell you what, you remove the glass and I’ll treat the wounds. Sound fair?”

“I thought you liked pain,” It was his turn to attempt a rakish grin, as pathetic as it probably looked, but he nodded.

The other man had scooted back and was in the process of taking a sip of his coffee, and at his comment nearly choked, an embarrassed flush of red creeping up his face. 

“I like having a face a smidge more, thank you. For one, it’s hard to kiss without one.”

“Among other things~”

He chuckled as Julian’s ears turned bright red, burying his face in the mug. After a moment he decided to show mercy, turning his attention back to his own shoulder. His claws felt along the flesh for where it hurt the most and plunged in without hesitation, perhaps a bit deeper than he should, judging by the startled grey eye staring at him.

Something scraped against sharp gold, and he dug further, pulling out a rather sizeable chunk of colored glass. The other gashes felt less occupied, flicking tiny bloody pieces across the floor, the familiar heat of blood trickling down his right arm from angry wounds.

“You can, you can stop now, you’re making a mess of it.” Julian was at his side again, a small rag in hand, reaching up to dab at the blood. “I see it isn’t pain itself you’re scared of.”

His body stiffened under the rough texture of the cloth against his skin, chest tightening, wrestling down a whimper. His left arm twitched again, but this time remained at his side, bloodied claws curling against his palm once more.

“And yet-- you act like you expect me to hurt you. You’re scared of me. Of people. What exactly happened to you?” 

Security, power, freedom.

His left hand slowly uncurled, shakily raising up to point at the purple scarring spreading across his pale skin like ugly spiderwebs, knowing where they were without looking. Knowing all too well where they were.

“.. the Magician. Justice. The Emperor.” Gesturing to each one in turn. “The Hierophant almost got me once - he moves fast for a ponce.”

“The Arcana did this to you?” 

Lucio grunted. “What, d’you think they’re all sunshine and picnics? The minute I left the Devil’s realm - he’s still dead, by the way, I checked - they all turned on me like a pack of wild dogs. I wasn’t-- it took me a few tries to learn when to run.”

“I’m sorry- they ah.. weren’t very hostile when I was there. Inscrutable, but not hostile. I didn’t think a difference in affiliation would lead to that much violence.” He gently tapped on the mask. “And this?”

“Scared off the smaller shit. Made the bigger shit more mad at me.”

Arguably more trouble than it was worth, a thought he quickly regretted, as if it could hear him and judge him for it. It had saved his life before.

“... I still don’t know what I did. Nobody ever bothered to tell me. Eventually I stopped asking.”

Silence fell. He briefly wondered if Julian thought he deserved it. If it was anyone else, they would. Sometimes, during the darkest nights and the longest hunts, when he was really, truly, frighteningly alone, ‘anyone’ included himself. 

The cloth was at his wounds again, but this time accompanied by the sudden warmth of a hand against his chest, propping against it as if there was no risk, almost absently. It felt unguarded, skin against skin. He fell still, almost paralyzed, for the moment unable to do much more than wait to see where it was going to go. What he was going to do.

And yet it just.. sat there. Infuriatingly harmless.

"It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you-- not intentionally, not like they did." Julian murmured. "You trust me, don't you? A lot more than we both expected, I think."

He swallowed thickly, placing the coffee he couldn't remember holding on the floor so that his right hand was free to very slowly rise up, shaking fingers curling around longer ones, instincts blaring at him to twist them or push them aside, punish him for being so damn trusting - impulses at war with something older, something more compelling, slowly waking up at his touch.

It burned that much hotter inside him as he held his hand there, a prize he wasn't sure what to do with, warm and soft despite callouses brushing against his own, the shift in texture sending a slight shudder through him. He found he didn't want to let go of it.

He could see the top of Julian's face over the edge of his mask, bright red and about as flabbergasted as he was, and to his credit he didn't seem to be in any hurry to pull free.

After a moment Lucio hesitantly pulled his prize back to his body, letting it rest against his chest again, then dragging it up towards his throat, forcibly pressing it against the vulnerable flesh, almost daring him to take advantage of this, a trail of fire along his skin left in its wake. He wanted more of that sensation, but couldn't remember how to ask for it. His body ached for it, almost unbearable, like his skin itself was starving.

Without a second thought his left hand leapt up and ripped away his mask, immediately pushing his cheek into the awkwardly outstretched palm still held captive by the right, gratified to feel it slowly, gently shift to support him as he leaned further against it, his own grip slowly loosening and falling away until Julian’s hand was all that was left.

It felt like he wasn't just holding up his head, but his whole self.

"I ah-- I suppose I can treat those, too," His captor managed to squeak out, his face flushed deep crimson.

"... treat what?"

"Cuts. On your face."

The hand shifted to stroke along his face, fingertips gently running over his cheek and nose, along one lip, tiny pinpricks of pain annoyingly proving him right. He pressed into the touch regardless, following each movement as if compelled, whining and awkwardly lurching forward as the hand drew away.

"Let me get finished with the shoulder, first," Julian chided, but he was grinning, something that wasn't hampered by his patient pushing and leaning into his hands at every opportunity, hardly making it easy for him to actually treat anything.

The moment all medical apparatuses were on the floor and Julian looked to be starting to relax, the former Count practically shoved himself into his lap, nearly bowling him over, curling tightly against his chest and wrapping both arms around his waist with the same desperate veracity as grabbing his mask, heedless of his prey's startled squawk.

When he was not immediately thrown aside but in fact welcomed with the weight of arms around him, he slowly let himself relax, the first time he'd felt relaxed in years, for the moment drinking in the warmth of him, the sounds of his pulse thudding against his cheek. He felt real and alive in his grasp. If this was an illusion, it was the finest one yet.

For a long while they just sat there in silence, holding and being held. For once he wasn't waiting for time to shift, letting it slow down on its own.

His mind, however, wouldn't stop racing. 

".. you never actually answered me." Lucio murmured after a long moment. "What you plan to do with me."

He tried not to think about how easy he'd made it to turn on him like this, warm and comfortable and too stupid to let go of him if he did, if he even noticed it. The warm chest against his cheek tensed, but the gangly arms around him remained loosely hooked at his back, with no sign of releasing him.

Julian awkwardly cleared his throat, clearly trying to form the proper words. "I didn't really-- I was thinking maybe, while I'm at sea, you could stay here, in this house. I'm not using it and you're… well, I'm not using it."

"You're not gonna be here too? You want me to stay here alone??" 

His fingers curled tighter into his shirt. 

"Well-- I suppose if you put it that way, yes." He could feel him squirming a bit in his grasp, the classic Julian guilty squirm. "But you would have Vesuvia again, and--"

" Hang Vesuvia ." He hissed, the malice in it startling both of them. 

They’d abandoned him, forgotten him, now they wanted him dead. They didn't deserve him. Even in this pathetic state. 

"You caught me, you have to keep me or kill me. That's the rules."

“When have I ever abided by the rules?” 

There was a pained sound in the deep voice, a crack in the facade of normalcy he probably hoped he wouldn’t hear. He felt the arms falter, and bunted his head up into the crook of the other man’s neck, more firmly curling against him. Don’t you dare let go, Devorak.

“... I don’t want to kill you, but I can’t keep you. I couldn’t possibly-- you aren’t an animal to be kept. You do know that, right?” He sighed, breath ruffling the wild tangles of his hair. “In any case, I can’t stay here, Lucio. I’ve got to get back to the ship sometime. I’ve got a wedding to attend, plus whatever they want for the honeymoon--”

“Then-- Then take me on the ship with you. Please. I can behave.” 

There was another patented guilty squirm. “Remember I have to run it by the captain, and there’s a very good, almost one hundred percent chance they’ll say no--”

“I don’t want to be alone again, Jules.” It came out in a desperate tumble, almost a whimper, tightening his grip on the gangly frame, as though he could escape his own startling clarity by burrowing into his skin. “Please don’t leave me here alone.”

There was another silence, an awkward vacuum left by his declaration. He found he didn't care. It was the truth. He had been alone so long, too long, never actually recovered from those first three years before it was made so much worse.

But Julian had abandoned him before - on his deathbed, and then after his new body was ripped away from him. Julian could abandon him now. Would be within his rights to abandon him now. He would be powerless to stop him. It didn't matter how tightly he held him, he was once again old and weak and easy to push aside, a shadow of a shadow of the man he used to be.

Damn it, this is why he didn't want to think about it. He was shaking in his arms like a scared child. “Please don’t leave me. You’re-- you’re all I have left in this world.”

He heard a muttered curse against his hair, but the arms tightened their grip around him, pulling him that much closer to his chest, a gentle stroke across his back. The shaking soon abated, but the thoughts continued to run rampant.

“I can’t make any promises, Lucio.” His voice was quiet, halting, like he wanted to argue but couldn’t figure out what to say. “I can only run it by the captain. It’s out of my control after that.”

“... how do I make the captain like me?”

Julian sighed. “I’m afraid that’s out of both of our control.”

“I hate that.” He felt his lips twist into another pout, inspiring another warm, awkward honking from his captive. In an instant the thoughts were quiet, and his body was burning.

An old impulse, as old as the burn in his skin, rose up to the forefront of his mind, and he shifted in the long arms, leaning up in his lap so that they were face to face. This close, he could see his doctor wasn’t as immune to time as he’d originally looked, deeper bags and furrowed wrinkles, and the barest hint of silver along his bangs. 

It made him look distinguished, not pathetic. He’d aged well.

“Er-- yes? Can I help you?” That distinguished face was flushed red again, eye wide, likely knowing what he was planning but ignoring it.

Lucio only smiled before letting that impulse carry him forward, pressing his lips against Julian’s, soft to soft, so much more enthralling than hand against hand, his own hand coming up to tangle itself in auburn curls, fingers finding old handholds and digging in deep, possessive, pulling him closer, drawing him deeper in--

And then Julian was pulling away from him, keeping him at arm’s length, panting and staring as though he’d just attempted to kill him again.

“I’m going to have to run that by the captain as well.”

Despite himself, he kept smiling. “Don’t worry. We’re just friends.”

Chapter Text

Lucio was going to take a bath.

The smart thing to do would be to take a cloth and quickly scrub down as he had been doing in the realms, to have the least amount of time spent naked, vulnerable and apart from Jules.

But an old, indulgent impulse had looked upon the dinky little iron washbasin, and for a moment, saw his own master bath in its place, a luxury he hadn’t had in years. 

His other little indulgences hadn’t steered him wrong so far - beyond that perplexed look on Julian’s face - so he easily gave in, filling the tub to the brim with water that was still warm from summer sunlight against the pipes, very slowly sliding down into it until only his head was above water, reclining against the iron with a soft groan of satisfaction.

He could feel his muscles relaxing, like tightly coiled springs slowly being unwound. It almost hurt. The pain of injury in his right shoulder had faded to a dull throb, and he realized he was still wearing the bandages, now thoroughly soaked, a trickle of blood floating along the surface of the water.

Eh, he’d deal with that later. Jules would probably have to re-dress his wounds anyway.

It had been so long since he could just.. lay down and relax . He’d almost forgotten what it felt like - in fact he still couldn’t completely relax. Learned paranoia older than his banishment was perched at the back of his mind like a vulture, waiting for something to go wrong somehow.

It wouldn’t. It shouldn’t. Julian was somewhere outside, cleaning his armor, the first line of defense against any unwitting intruder. Julian killed the Devil. He was safe.

Just the below the paranoia was the much stronger pull of exhaustion, rising to the surface like blood on the water. So much easier to ignore when you’re on the defensive. Now that he was staying still, it was finally catching up to him. He could feel it in his bones, body heavy like the warm water was weighing him down, dropping his head back against the edge of the tub, unable to support itself.

His eyes refused to stay open, and after a moment he decided against forcing them, taking a deep breath and just letting those warm claws sink in, pulling him under into the comfortable darkness below, head bobbing forward into the water but only just.

A deep voice, unintelligible yet familiar, murmured something right next to his ear, close enough he could feel hot breath against his skin.

Lucio’s eyes snapped open, but his body wouldn’t move, still too far under. 

His vision was filled with the all too familiar deep crimson of blood, pooling around his naked body in the place of water, the dinky little iron basin dark like obsidian. He could feel hands, rough hands, sliding down his cheeks and his neck almost like the caress of a lover, curling beneath his jaw as though to pull his head back up.

Someone-- something-- was here. Something had him. Something had him.

Panic seized him, thrashing against the hands and the blood until it was water again, Jules’ name ripping from his lips in an almost primal yowl, echoing across the small washroom and deafening him with his own desperation.

He kept screaming until the door was thrown open and Julian rushed inside, eyes wide, one as crimson as the blood. 

“What?! What is it?!”

For the moment he simply tried to grab for the other man like a lifeline, heedless of the water splashing across the floor and soaking through his doctor’s shirt. He could distantly hear an admonishment for that, half-hearted.

“There was-- I heard--” He struggled to remember what exactly had happened. “Something spoke to me. Something bad.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t the pipes? They haven’t been used in some time.” 

It touched me, Jules.

He shuddered and slowly withdrew, running his hands along his own neck in search of some kind of evidence, finding nothing. A dull ache had started up in his head again, throbbing harder the longer he tried to think about it.

There had definitely been something here. Hadn’t there?

The bath wasn’t safe, but he was too heavy to escape it. His hair was half-matted with water and grime, another weight dragging down his aching head. 

“... could you wash my hair, while you’re here?”

Julian arched a brow. “You’re capable of doing it on your own this time.”

“Well, yeah, but you always did it better. Those gentle doctor hands.” Regardless of his answer, Lucio reluctantly slid back down into the bath, grabbing a cloth to start actually cleaning himself.

After a moment the warmth of water was poured over his head, followed by the feeling of those gentle doctor hands entangling themselves into his wild mane, massaging whatever constituted as soap here into his scalp, taking away his fears and stress with each tug of a tangle.

“Damn, you really haven’t seen a brush in years.” Julian’s voice muttered behind him.

He snorted, only feeling a glimmer of remorse for the massive undertaking he’d given him. “I’ll tell you when grooming products start growing on trees in the realms.”

“It’s magic, it could happen.”

***

“Don’t you have anything in red?”

Lucio was knee deep in what loosely constituted his host’s wardrobe, his mane clean and harnessed in a small ponytail, his body still completely naked other than fresh bandages around his right shoulder. Julian stood at the door and simply gawked at him as he threw various articles of clothing across the floor.

“Well--er-- yes, but I thought you’d switched to white?” He watched another white shirt sail across the room.

“Red doesn’t show blood.” They both said at the same time.

The former Count gave a wry chuckle. They knew this for different, and then at the end, very similar reasons. He shook his head and continued his search, finally landing on something suitably crimson, way down at the bottom as though Jules was ashamed of it.

It was smaller than Julian’s other shirts, but it still hung uncomfortably loose, practically drapery instead of clothing, drawing his attention to more than the difference in their stature. He could see his own damn ribs. No wonder nothing fit right.

He hissed and pulled it closed, buttoning up to the second to top button in the hopes it might hold itself together before turning his attention to the scattered breeches. 

“Do we still fit in the same pants?” He heard Julian sputter. “You don’t have an ass, I currently don’t have an ass, I think we might.”

“... you still have an ass.”

Lucio huffed, turning slightly to smack his own bare backside, mostly for his audience. “Yes, but it’s not a very good ass, is it? This ass used to be a thing of beauty. I could have had statues built for this ass, and people would have worshipped it.”

The other man was swiftly turning a deeper shade of red than his new shirt, his vocal ability reduced to flustered squawking. If he’d actually had to give an opinion on the state of his ass, he likely would have burst into flames.

“You’re thinking about those statues, aren’t you?” He chuckled, finding the least shabby pair of dark breeches and pulling them on, nearly losing his balance as he had to remember how pants worked. “Never made any, would’ve taken away from the ones with my face. Would’ve been glorious, though.”

These hung a little looser than anticipated, but held up around his hips, although the ends of them spilled out a good few inches away from his feet. He rolled up both pant legs and padded across the room to retrieve his old boots, somehow in some working order despite traipsing through hell. It was all he had left of the old suit, and he supposed, his old life.

When the rest of him was covered, he automatically hiked up the sleeve on the left arm above the shoulder, tying it once to hold it in place before starting to buckle on his armor, an old, comforting ritual.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Julian asked, finally recovered. “That’s how they recognized you at the Raven.”

“I need it.” He said simply, and perhaps more coldly than intended.

He wasn’t about to walk around in public without his claws to protect himself. He was honestly offended Jules felt the need to question it.

A flicker of movement drew his attention back to his doctor, who was now holding his mask in both hands, away from his body as though it was carrying some kind of infectious disease. Its energy was somehow that much more threatening after the incident in the bath.

“Do you need this, too?” He sounded like a beleaguered child being made to do one more chore than expected. “The captain’s going to hate it. To tell you the truth, I hate it. And honestly? I think you hate it too.”

“Don’t tell it that.” Lucio hissed, although he wasn’t sure if this was in its defense.

Julian frowned. “It’s also pretty recognizable in the street. People just don’t walk around Vesuvia wearing skulls on their heads, let alone ones that look like the Devil.”

He didn’t have an argument for that.

“Are you sure we can’t just dump it in the canals? Can’t you imagine how much happier a family of eels will be with this thing than you are?” He poked a finger through one of the eyeholes. “Look, there’s a baby one playing pinochle on its snout.”

A loud rapping on the front door startled him before he could snatch the skull away, and in an instant the idea of being civilized fled from him, hunkering down to either run or fight the intruder, mainly run.

“Ilya! It’s me!” A feminine voice cried.

Julian looked relieved, then alarmed, glancing towards his companion as though this was the first time he’d seen him, looking as if to say something, interrupted by the rapping growing louder, more violent. He put the skull aside and started towards the door.

Without a second thought he grabbed Jules’ arm and tried to pull him back, thankfully having the presence of mind to use the right hand.

“Don’t do it. It could be a trap.”

“It’s alright, just-- stay out of sight.” Julian gently pried his arm free and continued his journey out of the bedroom, out of sight, somewhere down the hall. 

There was a loud BANG of the front door being forced open and a startled squawk in his doctor’s voice, and immediately Lucio bolted, diving towards the bed as it was still the most protected spot in this room, squirming and thrashing--

Clunk.

He felt the pointed edge of his pauldron catch, stuck somewhere beneath the bedframe - and stuck deep. His right hand was shaking too much to try prying it free, and he didn’t have enough clearance to pull forward or finish backing up, awkwardly stuck in the middle.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.

“So Barth tells me you might’ve picked up a hobo last night, that might also be a skull-headed demon thing, that might ALSO be Lucio??” The feminine voice was saying, two sets of footsteps across the hardwood, coming closer.

Coming towards him.

Fuck.

He caught sight of the raven - Malak, was it? - perching atop some of the shelving, peering down at him with the same scrutinizing gaze as any high-class noble might cast towards him like this. There was no time to coax or cajole it, he would have to be straightforward.

“Bird. Bird .” Lucio hissed. “ Help me.

The bird tilted its head, but made no move to rise. The steps were coming closer.

Please.

It gave a sound like a chortle, its hackles smoothing out, before it finally deigned to leave its perch, fluttering down towards the bed and landing somewhere out of sight. He’d intended to send it after Jules, if nothing else; he wasn’t sure what it was planning on its own. 

If it was planning anything. It may have just wanted to watch him squirm.

Without warning his vision was suddenly filled with red and black, the weight of thick fabric falling across his exposed upper half, nearly crushing him to the floor. It smelled strongly of coffee and liquor, with a hint of old blood and herbs. 

Julian’s overcoat.

“--merely helped someone home. I help people, Pasha. Don’t believe every rumor you hear in the Raven.”

Not a moment too soon, the steps and voices were in the room with him. He fell dead still, barely breathing, hoping this Pasha character wouldn’t think twice about the coat slung across the bed like this. 

Considering the mess he’d made of the rest of the room, it probably fit right in.

“There’s a broken window that says it’s not a rumor that somebody -- or something -- unfavorable is out there, Ilya. With a skull for a head.”

He supposed it was a bit too recognizable.

“Anyway, Cap’n Arsenic is calling a council of war in case it IS Lucio on the loose, in whatever shape he is, and we have to go beat him up again.”

There was a shuffle of limbs ahead of his hiding spot, as though Julian had stepped in the other person’s way. “Are you sure that’s necessary? We already took care of the Devil, remember? I doubt a hobo would be able to bend reality or whatever without him.”

A flash of red agony snapped through his skull, and he clamped his right hand over his mouth to muffle the resulting hiss of pain. It faded as soon as it came.

“At most, I’d think, he’d just be a bit of a nuisance.”

Thanks, Jules.

“Captain’s orders, Ilya.”

There was a soft thud, and then a sudden weight on the bed above him, making it creak and sag that much closer to his back, accompanied by another startled squawk. At least Pasha wouldn’t be looking under Julian’s own ass.

“And you better be there quicker than the shake of a lamb’s tail, because you’re already in the doghouse for not letting Arsenic know you weren’t spending the night with them. They scoured the Raven for you . Top to bottom, and the alleyways.”

“... they could have at least a bit more faith in me than the alleyways .”

“You’re lucky if they don’t keelhaul you. And not in the fun way.”

“Yes, thank you , Pasha.” An awkward little chuckle. “I got the message, you can go now.”

“I better see your stupid face coming right up behind me, Ilya.”

“I’m not even wearing shoes.”

“That’s no excuse!”

Her voice was thankfully moving further away, though the weight above him hadn’t yet moved.

“The streets are made of ROCKS, Pasha!”

Distantly, from the door, “Your butt is made of rocks!”

There was a distant thud, and then, silence. The charming repertoire had worn down some of his instinctual terror, although he still didn’t dare to move.

“... speaking of your butt.” Lucio said, finally.

He heard another startled squawk, the weight shifting a bit before the darkness of the overcoat was pulled aside, just enough that he could see Julian’s face and the point of one gangly knee beside him. He simply gazed up at him, daring him to question his current position.

“You’re stuck, aren’t you.”

Damn it, he wasn’t supposed to actually question it. “... yes.”

His doctor finally got up and off of the bed, pulling the overcoat the rest of the way off him before kneeling down beside him, deft fingers feeling around his left shoulder until they found where his pauldron was stuck, gently tugging it free.

It was almost effortless. He felt like an idiot.

“Maybe this is an argument for less armor?”

“I like that the assumption is I’ll continue to wedge myself into things,” Lucio snorted as he slowly pulled himself out from under the bed, a bit easier time with only the bottom half beneath. 

Julian continued to stare knowingly down at him.

“... I’m not. By the way.” He remembered the flash of instinctual terror. “.. intentionally.”

He reluctantly began to unbuckle his armor regardless, stripping down to the hand guard and the claws, arguably the most important part. Julian watched him, and gave a small nod of approval, relief flooding him at the idea that he wouldn’t have to remove all of it.

Rolling the sleeve back down neatly hid the guard, only the clawed fingers visible. The sleeve on the right similarly hung down too damn low. He felt like a child trying on his dad’s clothes.

“Give me your eyepatch.” 

Now he was a half-blind child trying on his dad’s clothes.

Lucio pushed the thought aside and straightened to his full height, arms outstretched, giving a little twirl. “How do I look?”

“..... like Lucio moonlighting as a pirate.”

“Damn.”

Julian padded over to the bed, picking up his overcoat and then draping it over his head and shoulders like an oversized cowl. He wasn’t entirely sure how that was supposed to help, other than inspiring a chuckle from its owner.

“There. The perfect disguise. They’ll just think you’re horribly disfigured or something.”

“... I don’t want to be horribly disfigured.” He sniffed, but didn’t bother shoving it free, its weight reminding him of his lost furs. “Why am I disguised, again?”

He felt the weight of Julian’s hand on his right shoulder, a much less confident chuckle.

“You get to attend the conference about your own impending ass kicking.”

Chapter Text

As Julian stepped out of the house with Lucio in tow, hand in flesh hand to make sure he wouldn’t get separated, he couldn’t help but feel like he was leading him to the gallows.

He knew the captain wasn't quite that vicious, but they weren’t the problem. Not only did he have to convince them, he would have to convince every member of the crew, some with longer memories than others, that the lost creature practically clinging to his hip was harmless and deserved a fair judgment instead of death.

… was he really harmless, though? 

Or was he letting his current pathetic state cloud his judgment? Was he enjoying the fact that Lucio, the picture of stubborn independence, now seemed completely dependent on him? 

‘You’re all I have left in this world’ is a pretty damning statement, for both of them. And he knew for a fact he’d meant it. He was his only ally. That was far too much power to have in his hands. If he ever slipped, let him think for even a moment he could no longer trust him, he had a feeling he’d find out just how ‘harmless’ he really was. 

This was a man accustomed to violence, had once thrived in it. And he’d seen how quickly he turned to it when he thought he was backed into a corner.

Someone passed by them in the street, barely giving the becloaked older man more than a quick once-over, and he felt the hand in his grip clamp down, his right shoulder butting up closer against his side as though he intended to meld into his shirt, jangling the skull and armor inside his doctor’s bag at his hip. 

“It’s alright,” Julian murmured, feeling a bit silly for thinking about his capacity for violence.

“I’m not scared , he gave me the evil eye,” Lucio sniffed, but his grip was slowly relaxing regardless, still hovering too close.

“You should be used to that by now,” He said half-jokingly, awkwardly clearing his throat as he realized that statement probably hit too close to home. “Have you thought about what you’re going to say to them?”

The human-shaped overcoat at his side turned away. “.. I was kind of hoping you would argue for me.”

Of course he would.

“See, all I have to go on is a drunken night out and a mental breakdown under my bed,” Julian sighed. “That’s hardly evidence you’ve changed.”

There was an indignant sputter, as expected, but it was followed by a very solemn silence as Lucio seemed to realize he couldn’t argue against it. He gently steered him past a couple of street urchins on the way into Goldgrave, narrowly avoiding the path to South Market. 

That amount of people in one place - adding to that, how they would all be mobbing them to talk to Julian, considering his long absence - likely would have either paralyzed him or sent him into another feral frenzy, and he was not in the mood to chase him across Vesuvia. He didn’t know if he would be able to find him again.

“You’re going to hate this,” He continued a moment later, pausing to judge the shortest route to the docks. “But perhaps they might show mercy if you leaned harder into being… well... how do I say this…”

“.. pathetic?”

Oh, that was a tone he hoped he wouldn’t hear again.

“Not necessarily pathetic! Just-- er-- damaged? Sad? Pitiable? … none of this is making it any better, is it?”

“So you’re saying I should be more like you .” The tone was more vicious than the jab itself, and unfortunately, couldn’t completely cover the hurt. “Of course , Jules. Life is meaningless and my hair is bad.”

He snorted, unable to take offense. “The Community Theater is back that way if you want to brush up on your acting skills.”

“The Coliseum is back that way if you want to make something of it.”

Julian couldn’t help but laugh, taken off-guard by how serious he sounded about it. He had to clamp down on the urge to jokingly suggest he would win, if only due to his opponent’s age - they had both spent the past few years closer to action than before.

Maybe a little too close to action, in Lucio’s case. Yeah, that was a bad plan.

He could hear the familiar sounds of gulls and waves somewhere up ahead, the bustle of merchants offloading potentially stolen goods, salty sea air and exotic spices drifting towards them. He’d just been here yesterday, but it still felt like coming home after a long trip.

The grip around his hand was steadily growing looser, as if Lucio was picking up how relaxed he was, striding along beside him instead of crammed up against his side. He heard a shift of heavy fabric and glanced over to see his companion’s face instead of an overcoat, currently draped around his shoulders.

“What are you doing?” He hissed.

“It’s too hot in there. It was getting hard to breathe.” 

That damn cute little pout. Julian sighed and shook his head, turning his attention back to navigating the boardwalk, distantly hoping no one would recognize him before they made it to the ship. The hair may have been slightly different, but he'd made a point to reapply his signature makeup, even after he was advised against it like the armor.

“D’you think we could eat first?” Lucio asked after a moment, and he could feel him pulling against his hand, towards one of the various street vendors. “I don’t wanna get my ass kicked on an empty stomach.”

He gently pulled him back. “There’s food on the ship we don’t have to pay for.”

More to the point, if he allowed him to divert their path now, then he’d never want to resume taking him to the ship. In fact, the closer they came to the ships moored along the docks, the more he was half tempted to let go and ‘lose’ him in the crowd, just long enough to discuss things with the crew.

Even before the thought finished forming in his head, he knew he couldn’t do it. Lucio wouldn’t allow it, and he would feel awful for purposely leaving him alone.

“I thought pirates just took what they wanted without paying.” The man in question whined, oblivious to this internal dilemma, his attention still focused on the street food. “Raiding and pillaging, that sort of thing.”

He noticed the next vendor near them scooting some of the merchandise further away from the walkway, out of reach of potential grabby claws. “I’m beginning to see why you might not have been popular in the realms.”

“Food’s not even real in the realms, not really. Have you ever tried to steal the idea of grapes?”

How the hell had he survived so long in there??

The crowd began to thin around them, and he could see the familiar prow of Mazelinka’s old ship along the dock. The sight of it used to be a relief, like coming down to the docks - right now, however, there was an uneasy knot in his gut.

Julian squinted his uncovered eye to discern the humanoid shapes next to the ship as they came closer, trying to see just how much trouble he would be walking into. He couldn’t see the captain, or Portia, which was odd, because she should be just ahead of them.

“Aha!”

He recognized that whoop too late to react before the hand in his was suddenly wrenched away, followed by a sharp yelp and a louder thud of two bodies on the wooden boardwalk.

Portia had swung down from the ship and tackled Lucio to the ground, and the two of them were currently wrestling for some kind of dominance - one trying to subdue him, the other trying to escape her, a flash of gold claws and muscular arms, wild animal eyes and a vicious grin. Julian wasn’t entirely sure which one he should be more afraid for.

Right now it was Lucio, because he knew he thought he was fighting for his life.

“Pasha, Pasha wait--” Should he help him? He should probably help him. “Don’t--”

“Don’t what , Julian?”

He fell dead still as he felt an arm around his waist, reluctantly glancing downwards to find the captain staring up at him, bright green eyes cold despite the crooked grin on their dark lips. Oh, that was the look of a keelhauling if he ever saw one. 

“I--er, hello, darling,” The former doctor attempted a grin of his own. “I brought you something?”

A pained scream snapped his attention back to the fight, just in time to witness Portia pulling Lucio’s arms behind his back, crossed over each other, dark spots of blood beginning to form along the right sleeve of his shirt. He was still trying to break free, even as it obviously hurt him. He’d likely dislocate his shoulder pulling like that.

Arsenic released their captive’s hip to step towards the pair of them, slow and methodical, a judge in black leather and animal bone, coming to a stop in front of Lucio’s knees. At once the pulling stopped, wild animal eyes staring up at them instead.

“What d’you want me to do with him, Cap’n?” Portia asked.

“Keelhaul ‘em!” A voice shouted, and Julian distantly heard him whimper.

For a long moment, they simply gazed down at him, expression inscrutable. 

“Take him to the brig. We’ll deal with him after I have a little chat with my fiance.”

Fuck.

Portia got up and abruptly yanked her captive to his feet by the armholds, and was half-dragging, half-carrying him across the boardwalk, back to the lowered gangplank. Lucio wasn’t making it easy for her, squirming and thrashing in her grip, both legs wildly kicking out for something, anything to hook his heels into, to no avail, screaming like he was being murdered again.

It took a moment for Julian to realize his screaming wasn’t simply noise, but he was crying out for help. Crying out for him to help. He was terrified and he wanted Julian to save him. It hurt to hear, and it hurt that much more to know that he couldn’t. 

He shuddered and looked away from the ship until the screams faded somewhere below decks.

God, he probably thought he had abandoned him to die down there. 

Once the prisoner was stowed away, Arsenic was at his side again, their expression softening as they caught sight of his own. “I’m sorry, dear, but we can’t have him running free.”

“You could have let me take him down there instead.” Julian said quietly. “He trusts me. Trusted me. I feel like a monster.”

They frowned and took his hand in theirs, a comfort that felt hollow with echoes of those cries in his ears. He didn’t bother to pull away, allowing them to lead him toward the ship.

“You don’t understand, he’s not the man he used to be. I mean-- he is, but he isn’t. I don’t know what happened to him in the magical realms, but it’s broken him. And I know I should have turned him in last night but I just--”

“You help people.” Arsenic leaned up and kissed him, a wry smile on their lips. “It’s a good trait. Awful timing, terrible subject matter, but a good trait.”

“You can’t be the only champion of lost causes, my dear.”

He paused to collect his overcoat, that knot still twisting in his gut. 

“.. what are you intending to do with him, exactly? He-- he expects the worst. Should I be expecting the worst?”

“I haven’t got there yet. I assure you he’ll have a fair trial first, though.”

“Can I talk to him first?”

Arsenic arched a brow. “You can chat after the meeting, dear. He's not going anywhere, and you've got some explaining to do.”

***

By the time he was dragged below decks, Lucio had worn himself out trying to struggle, though he couldn't stop, had to keep trying. His screams had faded into quiet whimpers, vision blurred with tears.

He was going to die here. He was certain of it. He had escaped hell only to be put to death like a dog.

The rough grip on his arms shifted, and he was suddenly bodily thrown into a small cell, blinding white agony rippling through his head as it slammed into something, either the back wall or the dinky little cot, he couldn't tell, a sharp yelp escaping his raw throat.

"Shit, sorry about that," Pasha's voice murmured, then grew louder and clearly put on. "I- I mean, I'm not sorry, you'll be glad only your head hurts now when we're finished with you."

He remained where he'd landed on the floor, whimpering and shifting to look back up towards the bars, fully expecting her to come in after him and finish the job while he was too weak and wounded to fight back. She caught him, she was within her rights to kill him.

Something in her expression reminded him of Jules, just before she quickly looked away. "God, don't look at me like that."

She turned towards a large, vaguely humanoid shadow also standing by the bars, clapping a hand against its back and saying something along the lines of 'he's your problem now' before making her way back up the wooden steps. They promptly turned their back on him, presumably so he couldn't look at them 'like that'.

He slowly dragged himself off the floor, staggering to his feet, nervously pacing around the cell to keep himself from curling up and accepting it, tears still flowing freely down gaunt cheeks. There may have been someone here, but he felt horribly, keenly alone.

Jules wasn’t coming. Jules had abandoned him.

He let them take him. He let them trap him in this cell. He didn’t even try to stop them. He wanted them to take him. He set him up. He wasn’t his friend. He said so. He was stupid to think anything differently.

And yet, his was still the first name on his lips, yelled between the iron bars and carried somewhere up the pipes, an eternity away, stupid desperate sobs of a man on death row. 

He came before, he would come now, wouldn’t he? He had to.

"Hey, oi, knock it off," His warden rapped a hand against the bars, and he flinched back, returning to his pacing. "If I wanted to listen to that shit all night, I’d shack up next to the captain’s quarters."

If you don't like it, leave, a shred of civilization hissed, but it never made it out of his mouth, too focused on the instincts trying to devise a way out of this. Julian wasn't coming. He was on his own. It was like being in the realms all over again. 

At the thought the white agony in his head shifted red, pounding at the base of his skull like war drums, in time with his racing heart. The tears had slowed to a trickle, but his vision still blurred, a whirl of wood and iron and red and black, even after he'd stopped pacing. He felt too big for this cell, barely fitting inside it, walls crushing in.

He had to get out. He had to escape. His claws lashed out against wood and iron, a piercing clang that only increased the red in his vision, until that's all he could see.

He distantly heard his warden's voice, though he couldn't understand the words. Something dark shifted in the red and without thinking he lunged for it, brought his gold arm down on it with all the force he could muster before it could attack, and he heard a soft meaty thump as it fell out of sight, fading into the crimson fog.

He blinked, and the red was gone, and he couldn't see the dark shadow of a man near the bars anymore. 

He was alone?

Maybe the crying had convinced him to leave.

Unsure when his warden might return, he immediately turned his attention to the bars themselves, trying to figure out to get them open enough to escape. He didn’t need the whole door, just enough to get his head and shoulders through. Less now, without his pauldron. He supposed that was a good plan after all.

A bolt of agony pierced through his right shoulder as he lifted that hand, hissing softly and resting the fingertips against the bars regardless, forcing himself to search the ragged iron surface for a weak spot. 

The girl had likely broken something. He would have to worry about that later.

There. The rattling was slightly different, he thought. 

Lucio curled his claws around it, bracing a boot against its neighbor for better leverage, and after a moment the other boot as well, hunkering down and pulling back against it. The light of the magic powering his arm was glowing brighter through his sleeve, magic that burned in the same way a muscle might strain itself but without the need to take a break.

Very slowly, almost painfully slowly, the iron bar began to curve out of shape, creaking under the strain and making his head ache once more. He kept pulling until it looked like a small bowman’s string at full draw, and the bar beneath his boots had slightly bowed the other way. If he had the time he might try making that one match, just in case. He didn’t have the time.

Without a second thought he shoved his head through the opening, pushing the left shoulder through first to potentially have a weapon if he got stuck, swallowing a pained whimper as he wrenched the right through after it, squirming and thrashing against the bars until his legs were clear and the cell was empty.

There was a creaking somewhere above, along the wooden steps, a murmur of human voices. He wouldn’t be able go that way, they would be waiting for him. They were coming for him.

He bolted into the darkness shrouding the rest of the hold instead.

***

Julian didn’t know how long he’d had to sit at that long meeting table, all eyes on him, as he had to painstakingly detail everything he knew about his little charity case, save the part where he’d kissed him. He would bring that up to Arsenic in private.

He told them how he found him in the Rowdy Raven, how he’d looked at him when he told him they weren’t friends. How he’d very clearly suffered some kind of mental break before he’d fled that night, staring at him like a trapped animal. How he’d taken him back to his home and found him scared like a dog under his bed this morning, expecting him to kill him because that was apparently the custom in the magical realms. 

How he told him - and meant it - that he was all he had left in this world.

Lucio would have absolutely hated the picture he was painting of him, but there was hardly an embellishment beyond his own interpretation. He was at rock bottom. He needed someone to take care of him, at least until he was in a better mental place to answer for his crimes. 

If they tried to put him on trial now, it would just be pathetic. No one would convict him.

Considering his little performance while he was being captured, it wasn’t as hard as he’d thought to convince them of this. Portia especially looked uncomfortable.

They were ruthless pirates, not heartless pirates.

The question of whether or not it was all an act to garner sympathy was brought up, but Julian remembered the genuine fear in his eyes - if it was an act, he’d convinced himself as well. And yes, he could be a little volatile. It was still a far cry from how he was before, more like a cornered dog than a reckless hellion.

And someone needed to hold the leash. 

It was a very short vote on who that should be.

“So I have good news and bad news,” Julian was saying as he made his way down below decks, feeling like he’d just been on trial himself. Again. “Good news, we’re not going to kill you. The bad news, which I suppose isn't that much different than before, you’re stuck with m--”

His voice petered off as he stepped off the last step into the brig. 

Lucio was gone.

The man put in charge of guarding him was lying unconscious in front of an empty cell. The bars near the door were bent out of shape, the indent of clawed fingers in them, the opening smaller than he’d think would accommodate a grown man but he was smaller now, wasn’t he? 

Fuck.

Chapter Text

After making sure the unconscious man was at least semiconscious, Julian found Arsenic halfway down the gangplank, bringing up the rear to a group of straggling crew members that were beginning to disperse along the boardwalk.

Malak was perched on their shoulder, and he gave his customary shriek in greeting as he approached.

"Hello, dear," They said with a smile, which dropped as they glanced around his shoulder and at his side, as if looking for something. "Where's your prisoner?"

He could feel himself fidgeting, his face unable to settle on either a nonchalant grin or a grimace of submission, landing somewhere in between. He awkwardly cleared his throat, trying to figure out the best way to put this that wouldn't garner a keelhauling, or at the very least, another night in the proverbial doghouse.

.. at this rate he probably lived in the doghouse.

"See, funny you should mention that--"

" Pasha Devorak ." Another voice bellowed from the ship, thankfully putting a stop to his stammering.

He could see Portia frozen mid step somewhere up ahead, on her way to the street vendors, and very slowly she turned back towards the ship, looking like she was 6 years old with her hand in the cookie jar again.

".. yes, Mazelinka?"

At the first irate rumble of footsteps behind him, Julian immediately scooped up the captain and jumped the remaining distance off the gang plank onto the boardwalk, giving the older woman ample room to march towards his sister. The spoon was gripped in one gnarled hand.

He set Arsenic down and the two of them immediately followed, just as the spoon was brought down on the back of her head with a resounding thwok of judgment.

"Why didn't you secure the prisoner's arms, Pasha?" She grunted.

"It felt like I broke one, I didn't think I needed to."

" He has two arms, Pasha. "

"One of which is a bit more of a problem than the other," Julian added, without thinking. "I'll give you a hint - it's not the one you can break."

"He was just laying there looking at me like a kicked dog! I thought it would be mean!"

"... what's this about?" 

They all looked back towards Arsenic at their chilly tone, Julian feeling himself fidget again, even though their eyes were flickering between the three of them rather than resting just on him.

Mazelinka huffed. "Your prisoner's out. Bent the bars with the fancy hand, it looks like."

Now those cold green eyes were on him.

"Is that what you were trying to tell me, darling?" They said evenly.

He cleared his throat again, keeping a closer eye on the spoon. "Well, yes-- but you can't blame this one on me. I asked to talk to him before the meeting and you said no. I may have been able to prevent this."

"Or you could have let him out yourself," Portia countered, crossing her arms. "One look and you woulda crumbled like old cheese, Ilya."

"You don't know that."

"Do too."

"Do not."

Arsenic held up their hand for silence before this could continue on, the other pinching the bridge of their nose. "Nevermind that, we need to catch him before he gets into Vesuvia, or we'll never find him again."

"I say we raise anchor and trap him at sea," Mazelinka said simply.

"But we just GOT here!" Portia whined. "I mean it makes sense but I was planning to visit the Palace, and the Marketplace, and--"

Another thwok of the spoon.

"Can he swim?" The captain asked, looking towards Julian.

"I don't know, but if his arm is broken he may not be willing to try." He thought about it a moment longer with a frown. ".. although there's no telling what he'll try right now. He's probably scared out of his mind."

They gently rested a hand on his arm in lieu of reaching his shoulder, looking back towards Portia. "We don't have to leave Vesuvia, we just have to leave the docks. If we're far enough out, he won't chance a swim."

".. and if he does, I nominate Ilya to fish him out."

He supposed that was fair.

Arsenic walked back towards the ship, stepping up the gang plank but climbing the rest of the way up the outside to the main deck instead, perching on the railing like a bird of prey themself. Malak had already taken wing, and perched up on the crow's nest as was his custom once he saw they were on the ship again.

"Raise anchor!" They called, voice boosted by magic to carry across the boardwalk. "We're shipping out, lads! If you're not on board you WILL be left behind!"

There was a scattered chorus of swearing as the crew scrambled back, not all of them but enough to move the ship in any case.

Julian immediately hauled himself up onto the main deck to join his fiance as they continued to bellow orders, while Portia and Mazelinka boarded like normal people. He gazed over the crowded docks, his eye drawn to any hints of gold and red, just in case Lucio had already made it off the ship. He wondered what he would do if he spotted him. He worried he might just pretend he hadn't seen him.

A few spots of gold made his heart hurt, but there was no sign of their quarry out here.

He found himself continuing to look for him in the crowd anyway as he felt the ship come to life beneath his boots.

***

For the second time, Lucio found himself waking up from a sleep he couldn’t remember taking. This time he forced himself to remain still and quiet as he oriented himself, shrouded in unfamiliar darkness. Darkness was safe, though the whispering was different here.

His head still ached, a dull red pain joined by a more excruciating stabbing in his right arm as he slowly pulled himself into a crouch. The girl had definitely broken something. 

Maybe Jules could--

No, Jules betrayed him. He would have to find a way off this floating deathtrap, get back to Vesuvia and have a trustworthy doctor fix it.

His weight shifted to his left, pulling the right arm up near his body to keep from using it as he carefully slunk through the darkness, low to the floor to stay out of sight. He was unwillingly reminded of when he would occasionally prowl on all threes as a goat, except the arms were swapped and he would have been so much more of a target with horns and hooves.

Was he that much different now, creeping around on the floor like a wild animal?

He swiftly quashed that pang of old dignity. There wasn’t time for that. He was a survivor. He was surviving. What he learned in the realms had kept him alive for years, he saw no reason to eschew it just yet.

It had been some time since he’d been last aboard a ship of any kind, and this was not of Vesuvian Navy make, but he had a general idea of where to go, if he could figure out where the hell he was starting from. Somewhere below decks. That meant he just had to go up. But not all the way up. Above decks probably wasn’t any better.

Up until a good exit point. He could do that.

He scrambled up the wooden steps, briefly illuminated by warm orange lamplight before ducking into the nearest pocket of darkness along a long hallway, pausing to listen for any signs of human activity before slowly moving forward. There was the distant murmur of voices, but too far away from him to be of any concern just yet.

At once he was hit with the smell of cooking food, nearly dropping him to the floor like running into a warm, tantalizing wall.

The idea of ‘out’ was swiftly replaced with ‘food’, heading towards it a bit quicker as though compelled. Jules didn’t feed him when he asked, and that egg sandwich was long gone.

It was only when he'd already crept inside the galley doors that he remembered food usually came with people, and the shadows along the floor here moved and shifted accordingly, a louder hum of a sea shanty half remembered. 

He quickly ducked beneath a low table, gritting his teeth as he bumped his right shoulder in his haste to get out of the way. The scent was overwhelming here, nearly painful, but for a long moment he didn't dare to move, eyes following old worn boots and the ragged hem of a dress as they moved along the floor.

This was stupid. He should have just kept going and fed after he got out. He should be used to going hungry by now.

And yet, the moment the shadows fell too far away and the boots turned, he leaned up and blindly grabbed for whatever smelled so good with his left hand, dragging it back down to his 'den' before the boots began to move again.

A meat pasty, still warm.

Another bolt of red agony snapped through his skull, only fading after he was strangely compelled to lean up and grab another one. 

Eating here was too risky. He put them both in the crook of his wounded arm and crept out the other side of the galley after the boots has moved away, slinking into a dark and empty room at the end of the long hallway, which he realized was the sleeping quarters judging by the cot by the side wall, hardly used, clothing and papers strewn across the floor in equal measures. 

Something about that seemed familiar to him.

Lucio felt compelled to dine under the bed, just in case, half expecting Jules to swan in at any moment. He wasn't getting a pasty, in any case. Traitors don't get pasties.

… maybe half of one. If he felt generous enough.

Dim sunlight streamed along the floor of his hideaway, the crimson light of sunset pooling along the wood slats like blood, not unlike the dull pulsing of red in his head. Lying still on his belly on the floor like this, he could more keenly feel the motion of the sea, buffeting against the ship, a soft swaying.. and a bit of a lurching towards the bow he didn't like. 

It wasn't just the sea that was moving.

How did he not notice that before?

He gripped the pasty in his teeth to free up his left arm, hauling himself out from under the bed in what was becoming an unfortunately practiced motion, clambering up onto his feet and peering out the window, his heart already beginning to race before he saw it.

The ship was in motion, cutting through crimson waves and reducing his city into blurs of color and shape in the distance.

Fuck.

He immediately threw his food onto the bed, claws searching for a way to open the window before his mind had finished registering the thought to escape. There was no time to continue the journey up - if he was going to abandon ship it would have to be here and now, before he could no longer see Vesuvia. He had to abandon ship. They would kill him if they found him, and there was only so long he could hide in here.

Cold, salty air cut across his face like a knife as he managed to pry the window open, but he shoved his head out into it regardless, distantly feeling the ribbon tying back his hair rip free, half blinded by his own wild mane as he judged the distance he would need to jump.

Between gold and red, he saw a large dark shape moving alongside the ship, and in an instant he remembered the creatures that lurk in deep water. It wasn't trapped beneath the ice here, it had easy access to him. Waiting for him. He pulled his head back before it could spot him - and found only fast moving waves the next he looked.

He found himself paralyzed at the window sill, eyes focused on the waves below. The creature was gone but the water would devour him too, drown him while he was weak and wounded and so far away from his city. He could almost feel it rushing into his lungs, making it hard to breathe. He staggered back from it, vertigo twisting the room until the waves were above him and the sky below, the hardwood floor rushing up to meet him instead.

The pain of his broken arm hitting the floor jarred him into some semblance of clarity, just enough to urge him back beneath the bed, curling against the back wall while he waited for his pulse to settle and the thoughts to clear, his whole body shaking hard enough to rattle the springs above.

They were going to hear that. They probably heard him hit the floor.

He shakily picked up the other meat pasty and nibbled on it in the hopes it might calm his nerves. 

As far as last meals went, this was a pretty good one.

***

"Well, I haven't seen any drowning goats," Portia remarked as she came away from the railing, joining up with Julian and the captain at the helm. "I don't think he's gonna jump."

He better not , Julian thought.

Arsenic nodded, looking relieved. "We're far enough out now, I think. We can circle back around just in case."

They turned their attention towards the crew manning the main deck, relinquishing control of the helm to Portia. Malak once again settled on their shoulder, giving them that proper commanding air that made Julian's knees weak and heart flutter. 

Dammit, focus.

"I need a group to search the lower decks, and another for the upper decks." Several crewmen saluted and darted off. "In the meantime I can try tracking him down with magic. Darling, would you happen to have any of his personal effects? The dearer to him the better."

At once he remembered he was still wearing his doctor's bag, and at their prompting immediately pulled it off his shoulder to set it on the deck. He wouldn't have to look far, but he still rummaged around a bit longer than he should before he was forced to drag the painted skull up from the depths, followed by the rest of Lucio's golden armor. 

It was the former he didn't want them to see, and it looked like they didn't want to see it either, their brown skin nearly turning the color of the skull.

"What the actual hell is that ?"

"A, uh, souvenir from the realms? He's inordinately fond of it, or scared of it, or some combination of the two."

Arsenic's nose wrinkled like they just whiffed something rotten, taking a step back from the skull as though they expected it to attack them. He supposed that was a fair reaction, given what it represented.

"I thought you liked skulls," Portia half heartedly teased, her eyes also focused on the thing with clear trepidation.

"The energy of that thing is horrendous ." They said finally, shuddering and turning away from it. "I don't know what we'd find if I used that. Give me the armor and get that thing off my ship."

After a moment of deliberation he tucked the mask back inside his bag instead, offering his fiance the weathered gold pieces and a smile of apology. “As much as I’d love to oblige you, dear Arsenic, I feel it’s up to him whether or not it sleeps with the fishes.”

“Oh, one of those soul-searching type things,” They made a face, but didn’t press the issue. 

“I’m afraid so.”

They of all people would know what that was like, given their own history.

“Whatever, just keep it out of my sight.” 

Their attention fell to the pieces of gold in his hands, shifting them around for a bit before taking the elbow piece. He’d been kind of hoping for the pauldron, as it was the most unwieldy of the set, but beggars and choosers and all that. Their expression softened as they glanced back up to his face.

“You don’t have to take part in this if you don’t want to, Julian. I know it’s been a rough day for you, emotionally.” They leaned up and kissed him on the lips. “In fact, I insist you take a break.”

He chuckled. “Captain’s orders?”

“Captain’s orders.”

For a moment he considered disobeying those orders, start his own hunt. But the longer he looked into those big green eyes, the more his worries melted away, leaving him with a warm sense of trust they could handle this. Hopefully a bit more delicately than Portia.

Julian packed away the armor and shouldered his bag again before leaning down to press his own kiss to their lips, maybe a bit more passionate than he initially expected, something inside him pent up from Lucio’s earlier attempt. There was the heat of a blush dancing on their skin as he pulled back.

“Try not to hurt him too much, alright? He’s getting on in years, after all.” He felt like he was talking about an old dog. Lucio would absolutely hate that.

Arsenic smiled. “We’ll bring him back in one piece, promise.”

He gave them another, briefer kiss before starting towards the stairs heading down below, only to be stopped by their hand on his wrist. They didn’t even grab, they just touched him, and he was frozen in place.

“Remember, dear, your own quarters.”

“Alas, another night of separation from my love. However will I cope?”

They snorted and jabbed him in the side. “Not like that. Mine’s still taken up by that spell, remember? I don’t want you throwing it off again.”

“I still think it’s all the skulls. Sitting around, giving off their spooky skull vibes.” 

He made his way down the steps, distantly hearing something along the lines of ‘the skulls are an important part of this family, Julian’ and for a moment considered the idea of swaddling one to present to Mazelinka as a grandchild one day.

That feeling of warmth and trust quickly faded as he continued down a few more levels to the sleeping quarters, uneasy knot right back in his gut, not helped in the slightest by part of the search party passing him on the steps. The ship definitely had that frantic manhunt feel about it once you left the main deck, and he knew Lucio would be twice as aware of that. He had likely gone feral again. There was no telling what would happen when they caught him.

And when they caught him, they were supposed to hand him over to Julian, right? Would he even want to see him, let alone let him be his warden? Would he have to keep chasing after him until his second chances ran out and Arsenic gave him up to Nadia to save them all the trouble?

For the second time that day he wondered if he should have left him in the alleyway where he found him. For the second time that day he felt guilty for even thinking of it.

Lucio probably would have gotten arrested or killed if he’d left him there. No one else would have been stupid enough to take him in. He shouldn’t have been stupid enough to take him in. He wondered if he knew he’d saved his life. He wondered if he’d hate it, or if it would make him that much clingier. 

By the time he came to his quarters he’d exhausted himself pondering and worrying, letting his bag drop to the floor by the door. He knew for a fact he wouldn’t be sleeping, but he thought he’d make an attempt at it anyway.

Cold, salty air drifted through the room from the open window. He couldn't remember leaving it open.

As he moved to close it, he noticed chunks of salted beef and pastry crust strewn across his bed. He definitely knew he hadn't done that. 

Someone had been in here, but there was no other sign of them.

.. for the hell of it, he decided to kneel down next to the bed and peek under it.

Two wide silver eyes were staring straight back at him.

“... hi, Jules.”

Chapter Text

“This is beginning to become a habit for you,” Julian said after a long moment. “I suppose next time we should just sit by my bed and wait.”

“Didn't know it was yours .” Lucio mumbled.

Was he really that predictable? 

He shifted slightly beneath the bed to ease the pressure off his bad arm, eyes flickering between the gangly frame before him and the door behind. He could hear a flurry of footsteps out there, searching for him - even if he got past him, there was no way out. He was trapped. His hiding spot had sealed his fate.

“.. have you come to lock me up again?” His body tensed, waiting for Jules to grab for him. “I got out fair and square. I escaped. I won.”

Even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true. There wasn’t even anything to win.

Julian was just looking down at him, contemplatively. After a moment he got up and closed the door to his room, both securing him from the rest of them and trapping him more completely.

“You’re in luck, I’m off-duty right now. Captain’s orders.” 

There was a half-hearted attempt at a smile as he settled back down beside the bed, this time a little further away. Plenty of clearance to crawl back out if he chose. It was probably a trap. He couldn’t trust him. He’d already betrayed him.

His treacherous body was already hauling itself out from beneath the bed as he thought of this, thankfully settling away from him once free, as much as his heart yearned to curl up in his lap again as though nothing had happened. He hated that he was still shaking, hated that pitying look in his eye.

“I hate you.” Lucio said finally.

“No, you don’t.” Julian’s hand moved to brush some of the tangled strands of hair out of his face, stopping short and drawing back down to his lap when he automatically flinched back. “Do you want me to take a look at your arm? Pasha said she broke it.”

He felt his lips twitch into a snarl. “It’s fine , stop fussing over me.”

“At least let me redress your wounds.”

“Stop being such a fucking doctor .”

After a long moment, eyes still focused on Jules, he slowly tugged his right sleeve down again, the shirt loose enough he didn’t have to unbutton it. More readily exposed to the cold air in this room, his arm felt like someone was currently trying to wrench it off him. He wasn’t sure of the state of his bandaging, if it was still there.

Julian looked over it with a frown, moving closer to him. “The gashes have stopped bleeding, but the upper arm is swollen. I don’t think the tissue has necrotized yet, but be prepared to lose it.”

He stared at him, wide-eyed. “Excuse me?”

“You know. Amputation. Another one. It shouldn’t come to that, though.”

While he was stunned by the idea of only having the prosthetic, given that he wasn’t sure if he could get another one for the right, Julian’s hands were on his shoulder, the touch meant to be gentle but only sending more shocks of pain through his arm. He bit down on the resulting whimper, remembering he was still being hunted.

“Ah, it isn’t broken, just dislocated. I think I can put it back into place - but it’s going to hurt a lot .” 

“I don’t care, just fix it already,” He grunted.

There was another damnable pitying look before the hands shifted, bracing against his shoulder. The whimper swiftly became muffled screaming as searing agony tore through his arm down the rest of his body, an unsettling crunch of bone against bone. 

His left hand lashed out before he could stop it, and this time Julian wasn’t fast enough - or was too trusting - to avoid it, claws tearing deep gashes across his cheek, his head pushed back by the force of the blow.

For a long moment they were both dead silent. Those long, gentle fingers slowly reached up to press against the wounds, blood running freely down his hand, his expression inscrutable.

“... okay, I’m pretty sure I didn’t deserve that one.”

Something inside Lucio twisted, cold and unfamiliar, and as always he tried to bury it beneath the familiar guise of rage. “Y-yes you did. You betrayed me.”

“You asked to come on the ship with me. You came here willingly.” He was both gratified and unnerved by the fact that it wasn’t pity in the grey eye watching him, something closer to annoyance. “I didn’t know they were going to attack you, but you wanted to come here.”

“I-- I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to be on the ship anymore. I want to go home.”

“You’re welcome to try jumping ship.”

He looked toward the window and shuddered, remembering the last attempt. Julian didn’t know the specifics, but he knew he wouldn’t try it. Julian had probably asked them to trap him out here. He shook his head, pulling his sleeve back up and grasping for the burning ends of rage before they slipped too far away.

“I called for you and you never came. You abandoned me again, Jules. After I told you not to leave me alone. Practically fucking begged.” Damn it, he was shaking again. “I thought-- I let myself trust you, and you let them take me.”

There was the guilt he was waiting for. Although he didn’t like seeing it as much as he thought he would. He didn’t like seeing it at all. The blood didn’t help.

Julian remained quiet for a long moment, finally pulling a small rag out of his pocket to press against his bleeding cheek. His eye was focused on the floor instead of Lucio’s face, making that cold feeling worse.

“.. I’m sorry. I should have known they would have attacked you. I should have tried harder to stop her, argued to take you down there myself, something other than standing there and being useless. You’re well within your rights to hate me.”

Slowly, uncertainly, Lucio found himself crawling closer, climbing into Julian’s lap, letting his gold arm loosely hook around his waist and his head gently bunt up against his chin, part of him still waiting to be pushed away. For the moment, his companion’s arms remained at his sides, neither accepting him nor rejecting him.

“I don’t hate you.” He said quietly. “I mean, you’re right. You should have. But I don’t hate you.”

His claws flexed, still sticky from the blood.

“... you’re allowed to hate me too. You should. They do.”

“To be fair, the last they saw you, you were helping the Devil unravel all of reality. Not to mention stealing Arsenic’s body to do so.”

He clamped down on the urge to remind him that it was supposed to be his body first, old ire and part of that odd cold feeling subsiding as he felt one of those gangly arms curl around his back at last. Just as loose as his own, as though afraid to commit to this.

“I think-- I think the me that did that’s dead. He died in the realms. I’m just wearing his corpse.” He sighed. “It doesn’t even fit right.”

Lucio glanced up to see a very startled and perhaps a bit horrified expression on Jules’ face.

“I’m sorry, do you not realize how that sounds after you told me about something maybe ripping your soul out and taking your body for a skin suit at the Raven??”

Despite himself he laughed. “It’s metaphorical , Jules. I’m allowed to talk in weird allegories too sometimes.”

“Maaaaybe not like that when you’re a known bodysnatcher.” The panic was slowly draining from his face, leaving behind an expression that was like he’d bitten down on a lemon.

“Why? Scared I’ll take yours , next?”

He grinned at the flush of red creeping up that sour face, leaning up to face him once more. Though Julian would know what was coming he still didn’t stop him from kissing him, this time pressing into it, perhaps out of guilt. He devoured that undeserved morsel of attention and pressed deeper in, abruptly pushing him to the floor, pinning him there as he continued to kiss.

Oh, he had every intention of taking his body, just not like that. He’d earned it.

His claws curled into the fabric of his shirt, wrenching it open for his wounded arm to caress the skin there regardless of the pain, shoving a knee between spread thighs--

A sound by the door startled him out of the kiss, jerking his head up towards it.

The captain was standing there in the doorway, staring down at them.

He felt Julian stir beneath him, possibly wondering why he’d stopped, and abruptly tense up as he noticed who exactly was their audience.

“Ah-- I found him?” Julian supplied, weakly.

“... have I ever told you I like what you’ve done with the body? Very, uh. Avant garde.” Lucio tried, flashing what he hoped was a charming grin.

Their eyes narrowed, piercing straight into his soul.

Immediately he leapt off of Julian and bolted for the door, aiming to push past them as they didn’t take up as much space as their fiance. He made it just outside before a vice grip clamped down on his left wrist, yanking him back by the arm almost as if they intended to wrench it free, sending him on his ass on the floor at their feet.

There were more people out here in the hall, staring down at him. He was trapped and surrounded, and they had taken away his one reliable weapon. He could feel himself trembling in their grip, waiting for their judgment.

“You’re not very good at endearing yourself to me and the crew, you know,” They said, finally.

“Wait-- wait, don’t hurt him.” Jules’ voice blurted, followed by the man himself appearing at their shoulder. The claw marks were uncovered and still bleeding, his bangs slicked back against his forehead with blood and sweat. “It was a moment of weakness--”

He felt the grip tighten on his prosthetic as Arsenic seemed to notice the wounds, yanking it higher up to confirm what they already knew, matching bloody claws to bloody marks.

“Nevermind, you’re really bad at endearing yourself to me and the crew.”

“That was self defense!” Julian quickly added. “I-- I hurt him trying to fix his arm and I wasn’t fast enough to get out of the way when he tried to hurt me back. I deserved it.”

“That’s still fucked up that that’s the first reaction.” They turned their attention back to him, and he immediately dropped his gaze to the floor, trying to make himself look as small as possible. “You don’t just attack people. He could have easily ripped out your throat.”

That cold feeling was back in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he killed him. He really would be alone.

“Yes, but he didn’t. Just-- let me handle him. That’s what we agreed upon, right?”

“That’s before I saw how you handle him. Now I’m not sure.”

They pulled him to his feet, keeping a tight grip on his prosthetic. He glanced helplessly towards Julian, a pang of hurt springing through him as the other man looked away. He just got him back, and now they were going to take him away.

“Don’t blame Jules for that. I may have-- it might-- I need him. Please.”

When their eyes narrowed again, he quietly whimpered and tugged his arm towards himself, not hard enough to try to escape, clumsily tugging at the claws with the other despite the pain. He flinched as one clattered to the floor, hoping it wouldn’t roll into a hole or something.

“S-see? Completely harmless.” He flexed the blunted fingers with a desperate little smile. “Now I can’t kill anybody and you can kill me without any problem at all.”

He saw Julian startle in the corner of his eye, and his captor’s expression slowly softened to something like concern, clearly not expecting him to show his underbelly so soon. 

After a moment, they slowly, carefully released him. He didn’t dare to move. “I never intended to kill you, Lucio. Is that what you’ve been thinking this whole time?”

The barest hint of a nod.

"I'm-- that's not how we do things here."

His mind was still racing. He bent down to pick up the last claw, then immediately offered the captain the whole set in the palm of the hand they were meant to be attached to, head down. He didn’t want them to take them, but maybe it would buy him safe passage back to Vesuvia.

He felt them leave his hand, but the captain’s hands were empty when he looked up, and Julian was at his side, holding his armor instead.

“I think they get the picture,” He murmured. “You don’t have to give these up. Right, Arsenic?”

Arsenic sighed. “I suppose not. I still don’t think he should be wandering free, though. And I definitely don’t think he should be macking on my fiance without my say-so.”

“Won’kiss’em,” Lucio mumbled.

“He won’t be free, I’ll be watching him. Day and night. I promise.”

“Your word is your bond, Julian Devorak.” The captain jabbed Jules in the chest with a finger, their face deadly serious. “If he gets loose, it’s on your head.”

“Oughta put ‘em back in the brig,” Someone grunted.

“He broke the brig.”

“... put him in a crate.”

“What, like permanently? You want him to live in a crate ??” Arsenic turned towards the crowd with a perplexed look on their face. “No?? I’m pretty sure that’s considered some kind of war crime.”

“What about a barrel?” Someone else offered.

“How is that better??”

There didn’t seem to be an answer to that.

“All of you, back to your stations. I’ll deal with him. Go on, get the hell out of my sight.”

The crowd dispersed with scattered pockets of laughter, leaving him alone with Arsenic and Julian -- and arguably more than enough room to make a break for it. But Julian promised .

He was still rather glad Jules chose to wrap an arm around him, making it marginally harder to escape. And the greatest deterrent of all was that he still had his claws, tucked somewhere in his pocket out of reach.

“While you’re here-- do you think you could heal him? Pasha dislocated his arm and I’m not entirely sure I haven’t made it worse.”

Arsenic glanced back up at Julian, puzzled. “You haven’t been practicing the healing spell I showed you?” 

Even in this position, he could feel the classic guilty squirm.

“Listen, if you screw up a fire spell, nothing is burned. If you screw up a healing spell-- well, now your innards are outards.”

“It’s not that drastic, Julian.”

They focused their attention back to Lucio, and he tensed, leaning harder into the taller man’s side as their hands approached his shoulder. The last time they had touched him with any sort of magic, it had felt like his whole existence had unraveled, pinned down and torn apart and then pieced back together in ill-fitting chunks until he was old and weak and useless again.

What if they took this body as well? What would he be left with??

“It’s okay,” They murmured, though he wasn’t sure how much they remembered of this. They probably thought they’d done him a favor. “Do you want it to stay broken?”

He shook his head into Julian’s side and whined.

“Then let me heal you.”

He shook his head and whined again.

"Do you want me to help?" Julian's voice murmured, unsure.

".. are my innards gonna be outards?"

The captain laughed. "He chickened out before I could teach him anything about doing innards, I don't know where he got that idea."

"It's a reasonable assumption!"

They leaned back with a snort, taking Julian's free hand and gently resting it against Lucio's face. The moment he realized whose hand it was, he was leaning into the touch again, though he wasn't sure how this was supposed to fix his arm. Maybe it was a distraction.

"Here, you take care of the surface level stuff while I get the arm. Sound fair?"

Very slowly Julian shifted so that he was bent down next to him, Arsenic on the other side. His other hand fell across the cuts on his chest, touch light and noncommittal, ready to flicker away at any moment. He was torn between trying to kiss him again and trying to escape, luckily remaining still in the middle.

"Just close your eyes--" He knew they meant Julian, but for some reason he felt compelled to close his eyes as well. "--and let the magic flow into your hands, and your fingers. Imagine you're stitching up the wounds, sewing them closed with a fine thread. You've done this thousands of times. It's natural for you."

He heard him mumble something like 'these don't even require stitching', but the warmth of magic slowly trickled across his cheek and down his chest like blood. After a moment he felt a much greater pull of magic at his shoulder, warm and gentle and more confident, and he found himself leaning into that as well, his body slowly relaxing beneath all four hands, pain in his arm fading. It was almost intoxicating, a constant warm thrum through him, at odds with the dull pulsing ache starting up in the back of his head as though awakened by it.

The darkness behind his eyes shifted red, and he found himself wanting more of it, wanting to draw it deeper inside himself somehow. Julian's remained on the surface, a gentle caress across his skin, but Arsenic's taunted him, settling bone deep, a flicker of gold he tried to grab for in his mind, just out of reach before it faded and he felt all the hands lifting from him. 

"Do you want me to take care of these, too?" Arsenic was saying, a gentle brush of fingers along his scars sending a shudder through him. "I can't get rid of them but I can fade them down a bit."

That odd hungry part of him cried out for him to agree, almost overwhelming in its clamor. The scars ran deep, all over his body, further territory for that warm, intoxicating pull to claim. It would feel so good.

"N-no, it's a reminder," Lucio managed, shaking his head of the thought, forcing his eyes to open.

Arsenic was watching him with arched brows. Something inside him wanted him to kiss them instead, as though he could take their power that way. So much power, so much stronger than at the Devil's gate. He could still feel echoes of it beneath the skin, like aftershocks of a private kind of pleasure, and he leaned back against Julian to keep himself from sliding back down to the floor.

He tried to ground himself by flexing the right arm, tucking the hand beneath his shirt and letting its fingers drag across his skin in search of wounds he knew weren't there. Only the scars remained. After a moment he reached up to pat Jules, job well done, hesitating as he saw the claw marks again.

"... are you gonna keep that as a reminder, too?" He said quietly.

Julian blinked and touched his own cheek as though he'd forgotten the wounds were there. "Er-- no, I don't think I will. Darling, could you--?"

"I guess you've had your practice for the day," The captain chuckled, leaning up to press a kiss on that cheek, blood and wounds vanishing beneath their lips, almost effortlessly.

A flush of deep crimson spread across newly unbroken skin, and Lucio felt a brief pang of jealousy that his kisses couldn't do that.

"What, did you want one too?"

Now he was also turning the color of his shirt, caught off guard by the suggestion even if it had floated through his own mind. He supposed that was a good sign, that they weren't holding his attempted dalliance with Jules against him.

.. that was going to make it that much harder NOT to ravish him.

Their face was suddenly serious again, looking between both blushing idiots. "I don't want to leave the spell unattended, so I'll be in my own quarters tonight. Can I trust you not to fuck my fiance if you two share a room??"

"Contrary to popular belief, I do have the capability to say no, dear," Julian huffed. "If you're that worried he can sleep on the floor."

".. you sleep on the floor. You don't even sleep in a bed anyway."

They were still staring at him, expectantly.

"It's fine." An awkward little smile. "We're just friends. Aren't we, Jules?"

Chapter Text

“I’m beginning to wonder if you know what a friend actually is.”

Lucio paused in the middle of tugging off his boots, the only concession he was going to make for sleeping in civilized areas, if only because he could potentially move faster on bare feet if it came to it.

“A friend’s somebody you’re close to.” He said simply, the other boot coming off with an oddly satisfying pop . “Someone you can be alone with. Why, what did you think I meant?”

Julian frowned, slowly settling onto the bed and grimacing as he found another piece of meat pasty that escaped the earlier attempt to clear it off. “I’m not sure. Beyond the-- er, current circumstances, I would say we would be more like allies than friends.”

“No, see, an ally helps you get what you want so you’ll do what they want. You-know-who was an ally.” He felt a light shudder roll through him, realizing that probably wasn’t the best example - but it had been the last one he’d had.

“Well, we’re definitely not lovers .” 

He shrugged and lowered himself the rest of the way to the floor, preparing to crawl beneath the bed again. “I don’t know why you need to name it, Jules. I can kiss my friends.”

“You don’t actually have to sleep on the floor.” A gentle hand on his shoulder stopped him mid-crawl, concern dancing in grey eyes. He was side-stepping the unspoken question. “I trust you not to get up to any funny business.”

For a long moment he remained awkwardly hovering between up and down, somewhat taken aback by this statement. Finally he slowly, reluctantly clambered up onto the bed, suddenly unsure of how one actually positions oneself in a bed, especially one this small.

No matter how close he tried to stay by the edge, he was that much closer to Jules. Practically in his arms.

“.. that might be part of the problem. You trust me.” He said quietly.

You trust me . If I’ve got to get used to that, you’ve got to get used to the reverse.”

Julian smiled, gently curling an arm around him and pulling him closer to the middle of the bed, pressed up against his chest, surrounded by gangly limbs. Lucio didn’t bother fighting it, slowly allowing himself to entangle his own limbs in the mess.

This close, he could more clearly see the crimson stain of the Plague in his uncovered right eye. He wondered if it hurt, or if that had only been part of actively suffering from it. He wondered if he should tell him he’d done that because they were friends, desperate and scared and making sure he wouldn’t die alone.

“Do you still have those night terrors?” He asked instead, realizing he was in the epicenter of a potential disaster of flailing limbs.

Julian startled, as if he didn’t realize he’d remember that. “Er-- sometimes? Less now, with help from Arsenic. I apologize in advance if this isn’t one of those lucky nights.”

“Honestly, I haven’t had a full night of sleep in years, there’s no telling what’ll happen. Maybe I’ll have ‘em too.” A wry smile found its way on his lips, another pang of unwanted nostalgia. “I used to have ‘em quite a lot, when I was dying. Sometimes I’d wake up and think I was already dead.”

“I had no idea. You never-- you could have reached out to me.”

Even as he said it, they both knew that was impossible. He wouldn’t have allowed it. 

“Well-- now there’s thousands of all new things for me to think happened to me overnight. I’m sure you’ll figure out how to calm me down from at least one of them.” He leaned up to kiss him, he had to kiss him, they were already so close-- 

He quickly diverted the urge into nuzzling his face against his throat instead, a frustrated whine escaping his own throat. God, this was an aspect of hell he hadn’t anticipated.

“See? I can trust you.” He couldn’t see it but he knew Julian was grinning, knowing how much this was torture for him. “Such admirable restraint.”

“I changed my mind. I hate you again.”

“Would you like to swap to a different position? Maybe you’d like to be the little spoon.”

He hated that he found himself considering it, if only to make it harder to break that restraint. 

 “... no, I like this position. I can see your stupid face.”

***

That deep voice whispered into his ear again, and for a moment he nearly understood it.

Lucio's eyes opened, though he had a feeling he wasn't completely awake. His body was heavy, yet weightless, an unnatural sort of calm settling over him. There was a soft red haze over the room, giving his bedmate a more healthy complexion.

Something was calling to him. Commanding him to get up.

Slowly he began to extricate himself from the tangle of gangly limbs, careful not to disturb Julian, though he appeared to be deep asleep. He wondered if his presence had helped with that, knowing how badly he normally slept. 

As his prosthetic slipped free, he was mesmerized by the white glow of magic between the metal, watching pale tendrils twist around the gold and dissipate into the open air, like sparkling white flame. He was drawn to try to catch it with his other hand, though it slipped through his fingers.

Of course he couldn't catch it. It was already his.

This drew his attention to the rest of the room, where he could see other glimmering trails of different colors in the darkness - a deep gold swirling from Julian's half eaten soup, a familiar uneasy red wafting from the bag by the door, presumably from his mask. Dull red like old blood swirled above Jules himself, barely noticeable in the gloom. 

He experimentally raised his gold arm, and the colorful trails began to draw towards him, as though pulled in by the dancing white flame. Deep gold and crimson swirled around him, one stronger than the other, a brief wave of exhaustion dropping over him as the gold plunged into his skin. He waved the crimson away, letting it draw back to Julian.

Brighter gold threads wove through the wooden walls and along the floor, leading out into the hall where he knew there would be more. So much more. Maybe along the entire ship.

Lucio slowly slid off the bed and got to his feet, feeling the warm thrum of the bright gold threads lacing through them, fading into his body as he began to walk towards the hall, his glimmering left hand raised to brush against the wall, drawing in more of the threads and leaving a dark gap in his wake.

It was deserted now that the manhunt was over, the frantic energy replaced by the enthralling bright gold threads, growing thicker and stronger the further he went into the ship, like strong ropes holding up the walls, unraveling and fading away beneath his touch, the pulsing in his head growing stronger with each beat of his pounding heart. 

The warmth of it was beginning to overwhelm him, skin burning with it, but he knew he needed to push past that, had to find the source of this golden ambrosia and feast .

He was drawn to a large room, not as opulent as his bedroom in the Palace but as close as a sea vessel might come to it, dark shelving stacked with animal skulls and various trinkets with their own glimmering trails. He couldn’t see much more than that, half-blinded by the gold glow emitting from a large spell circle on the floor in front of the bed.

Even if he was awake, he wouldn’t be able to understand the runes. There was no telling what this was for, what would happen when he took it.

That was part of the fun of it, wasn’t it?

Slowly, almost reverently, Lucio made his way towards the edge of the circle, kneeling down next to it and resting both hands in the middle of the flow. 

Almost immediately he felt the spell starting to unravel, breaking apart beneath his hands, the outer circle losing its shape and drawing up from the floor, twining around him, surrounding him, flooding him with that intoxicating warmth he’d only had a taste of before while he was being healed. His arms ached and burned, but he held them still, willing the rest of it to come to him, taking a deep breath and inhaling it.

The next ring lifted and faded, and the next, runes and intricate designs dancing across his skin and plunging deep inside him, his vision reduced to nothing but bright gold as more and more of the spell swarmed his body, overwhelming him, suffocating him, and yet, and yet, something in him was still crying out for more. There was more. There was plenty. And it kept going.

There was just so much. Almost too much. 

By the time the last rune lifted from the floor and the wood was featureless once more, he felt as though he might combust all over again, panting and shaking like an addict coming down from a high, trying not to collapse where he was kneeling. The white flames of his arm were billowing out, as if trying to vent off the pressure, an unnerving red tinge to it. 

He could have left it there. The room was dark. The threads were gone. He’d taken all of it.

Except now he could see the bed, and the bright gold beacon of the magician themself within it, practically calling to him.

In an instant he realized that entire spell was just a fraction of the power he could have. He’d only scratched the surface. And they could replenish it. Could keep replenishing it. 

He jolted to his feet like a puppet yanked up by its strings, nearly losing his balance before making his way towards the bed, once again padding across the floor slow and reverent, perhaps a flicker of trepidation that dissolved in the crimson haze as soon as it came.

They shifted with a low groan, and he fell dead still at the foot of the bed, breath caught in his throat, until it was clear they weren’t waking up.

The former Count waited a few more seconds before carefully climbing up onto the bed, hunkering down and crawling along dark sheets with all the grace of a stalking predator, his meager weight barely shifting the springs. If done right, they wouldn’t know he had been here at all. 

He came to a stop at the head of the bed, slowly leaning over his prey. 

Bright green eyes snapped open the moment his shadow fell across their face.

There was a loud yell, followed by the sharp pain of a foot in his gut, and he found himself on his back on the floor, the captain looming over him with some kind of bladed weapon pressed against his throat. Both hands immediately raised in surrender, making sure they saw he was still unarmed.

“What the actual hell are you doing?!”

“I-- I don’t know.” 

How did he get here? 

Last he remembered, he was entangled in Jules’ arms, drifting off to a dreamless sleep. His head felt like it was being split apart, sharp red agony worse than it had ever been so far.

Arsenic continued to scowl at him, though the intensity of their gaze faltered the more they seemed to realize he was just as clueless as they were. They glanced towards a wide open spot on the floor, eyes widening in alarm before focusing on him again, the blade that much closer to his throat.

“What the-- what did you do to my protection spell?!”

Lucio whimpered and turned his head away, waiting for the feeling of the blade biting into his skin. “I don’t know! I swear! I just woke up and I was here!”

There was a frantic rumbling of footsteps coming down the hall, skidding to a halt just inside the door.

"What is it, Arsenic?? I heard-- are you alright??"

He glanced helplessly up at the door, meeting Julian's startled gaze as it flickered between him, the captain and the captain's blade, unsure of what he'd walked into and clearly horrified to find it.

"Put the sword down, you said you weren't going to kill him," The former doctor began, his own hands up in supplication as he approached them.

They snarled and pointed it at Julian instead, though very obviously without the intent to use it. "Your GOAT got OUT and was just sitting on my chest while I was SLEEPING like a fucking creeper! Not to mention, the spell's gone! It took me weeks to set that up for the whole ship!"

This was accented with a frustrated jab of the blade to the open spot.

"I didn't mean to break your spell." Was all Lucio could think to say, staying where they left him on the floor. "I-I really don't know how I got here. You have to believe me."

"And that's the worst part! I do believe you! Fuck!" 

They threw the sword aside with a muffled scream of frustration he knew all too well - the desire to blame and punish without a valid target, knowing you wouldn't find one. If anything, that brought him a little closer to them.

He waited until they were both unarmed and no longer standing over him before he allowed himself to sit up, the change in altitude driving a sharper yet less tangible blade through his skull, piercing red agony that forced a whimper out of him before he could stop it.

“Is sleepwalking also a habit you picked up in the realms?” Julian asked, now standing somewhere between the two of them, clearly torn on who needed his attention first. “Though-- that probably wouldn’t help much, would it?”

“Don’t think so. Hate not knowing.” He forced through gritted teeth. Now his own voice was grating against his nerves, making the pain that much worse.

“.. are you alright?”

Oh, that was right. Jules didn’t know about the headaches. 

.. he couldn’t remember when they started happening. It felt like he’d always had them.

“S’fine. I’m fine.”

He heard the squeaking of floorboards approaching him, and though he wanted nothing more than to press his aching head against that stupid hairy chest, he lifted a trembling hand and waved him away, towards where he heard Arsenic last. Another sign of submission, giving over first rights to his attention.

The hand didn’t make it back down before he felt a gentle but firm grip around it, and then something like rope being wound around the wrist. His eyes snapped back open, alarmed, expecting the other to follow.

Instead, the other end had been tied to Julian’s own wrist, with a couple of feet of slack.

“If this is going to become a habit of yours,” Arsenic released him and Jules in order to fold their own hands across their chest, expression stern but concerned. “Then hopefully having a leash might put a stop to it. Where you go, he goes.”

He could see a flush of red climbing up his fellow captive’s face, curiously examining the restraints. “I hardly think this is going to be necessary, darling. We don’t know for certain he’ll keep wandering at night.”

“Call it being proactive.”

“... and perhaps a little petty?”

The captain scowled. “I’m allowed to be mad he wrecked my spell, Julian. But that’s not why I’m doing this. Now go back to bed so I can set it back up.”

“Are you sure you don’t need--”

Shoo.

Lucio slowly pulled himself to his feet, partially using the rope to help support his weight. Immediately he realized this was a mistake, a hauntingly familiar weakness sweeping over him, his vision going completely red despite what felt like all of his blood rushing towards the floor, the pain in his skull and now radiating down his body excruciating, threatening to paralyze him. 

His stubborn pride commanded him to take a step forward regardless - hide the pain, don’t let them know you’re weakened, if you’re weakened you’re dead - his limbs going limp mid-step, stumbling, falling, suddenly caught by a warm weight against his back he knew was Jules’ free arm. 

He didn’t have the strength or the will to fight it as he felt both arms lifting him up, the bound arm cradling his knees, the free arm holding up his shoulders, allowing his aching head to rest back against Julian’s own shoulder. He distantly heard his doctor’s voice murmuring something about a fever.

His last thought before darkness overtook him was that at least now there was definitely no danger of funny business.

Chapter Text

“I just don’t understand it. He was-- well, I wouldn’t say healthy, exactly, but he was fine when we went to bed.”

Julian was flitting around the infirmary, a one-man bustle of activity despite the rope around his wrist still connecting him to his patient lying unconscious on the table. Arsenic stood to the side and watched, brows furrowed in concern. Their presence calmed him to a more manageable frenetic worry rather than full-blown panic.

“If he was sick, we would have noticed while we were healing him, right?” He pressed an ear against Lucio’s chest, listening to his heartbeat. His own pulse ticked up, quickly getting in the way. “What if I did the spell wrong? What if I poisoned him with it, somehow?? He was acting a little strangely--”

“If it was the healing spells, it would have been immediate,” The captain said calmly, stepping towards him and resting a hand on his arm. “I don’t think you did it wrong.”

His patient’s breathing and heart rate sounded normal enough, though his body was still too warm with fever. They had already taken care of any injuries he might have missed, and he trusted Arsenic wouldn’t have hurt him hard enough for complications to arise. 

As far as he could tell, he was fine. 

And yet he had just collapsed .

A gentle tug on the rope on his wrist startled him, for half a second wondering if it was Lucio waking up. “You don’t have to keep wearing your tether. He’s not going anywhere.”

“I think-- I think it’ll help keep me from abandoning him again. Just in case.”

Julian sighed and dropped into a chair next to the table, propping his head on his arms and frowning at the unconscious man before him. “If he was showing any other symptoms, any symptoms at all, I might be able to figure it out. But there’s nothing .”

That wasn’t completely right. He’d seemed to be in pain. But there wasn’t anything to cause that pain, not physically.

Arsenic moved towards the table, leaning over Lucio and gently placing their own hand on his chest. They immediately drew it back as though burned, eyes wide and startled. Julian’s pulse automatically ticked up again.

“What? What is it?”

“His magic. It’s mine .”

“I wasn’t aware he had magic.” He leaned back up, glancing between the two of them. “What does that mean? It’s like yours or--”

They shook their head. “No, it’s literally my own magic in there. He’s filled with it. Like he’s absorbed it.”

Their eyes were wide again.

“Shit, is that what happened to my spell??”

Julian simply gawked at them. “He ate your protection spell? How is that even possible?”

“I think Asra said something about this once - some people are more geared towards taking in magic rather than putting it out. Like a magical heat sink.” They frowned. “It’s no wonder he’s like this, then - he absorbed an entire ship’s worth of magic. That can’t be good for you.” 

“Will it kill him?” He was already on his feet, ready to do something even though this was still so far out of his depth. 

The expression on his fiance’s face answered him easily enough. 

“I’m going to go look through my books and see what they say on magic poisoning. There’s got to be a way to get it out of him. You stay here and holler if anything changes, okay?”

They leaned up on their toes and kissed him on the lips, a momentary comfort that washed away as soon as he saw the look in their eyes, as unsure as he was. That meant this wasn’t something they had encountered before, either. They were both flying blind.

“What do we do if your books aren’t helpful?” He asked, as they were halfway to the door.

They turned and gave an awkward grin that reminded him very painfully of himself. “Cry? Wing it? We’ll figure that out when we get there.”

“Darling, I have the utmost faith in you and I always will, but please don’t ‘wing’ an emergency.”

“Like you’ve never done it.”

They vanished out into the hall before he could refute or agree, leaving him alone with the unconscious former Count and his own racing thoughts. 

He felt so useless. He’d had the time to learn about magic stuff, knew more now than he ever had before, and yet still it hadn’t been enough. One step forward, ten steps behind. And there was a chance the bastard would die again because of this. Because of course there was. He was a doctor, his incompetence would always cost lives.

Damn it, think. There had to be something he could do while he waited for Arsenic to come back. He couldn’t just sit on his ass the whole time. In fact, he physically couldn’t, too driven to pace around the table like a tiger in a cage, circling back when he found the end of the rope tying them together to keep from pulling him into the floor.

Magic was not infinite. It could be changed or moved, if not destroyed. His own magic had always felt like blood, hot and liquid between his fingers. 

Magic was a liquid. Magic was the fifth humour. His humours were imbalanced.

Julian’s eyes immediately drew towards the familiar glass jars across the back of the infirmary, containing familiar brown wriggling creatures inside them, freshly restocked and likely hungry. He knew how Lucio felt about leeches, but he wasn’t awake to stop him, was he?

He made his way towards the leeches, only to realize his tether didn’t allow him that far without dragging his patient off the table. Reluctantly he slipped his wrist free, making a mental note to put it back when he was done with this, at least until the voice in the back of his mind no longer told him to run from this.

“I’m sorry about this,” He murmured to his patient as he scooped out a leech, gently placing it along his scarred skin and waiting for it to bite. 

One by one others followed, until his chest was covered in them, a few across his face and neck, wriggling and feeding. The magic would be in the blood, he thought. Less blood, less magic to poison him. He wasn’t sure how he would know if it was working.

Would it poison the leeches as well? His mind was at once filled with the vivid image of the poor little sods bloating with stolen magic and popping like tiny brown sausages.

After a long moment Julian allowed himself to drop back into the chair next to the table, and almost immediately his head dropped into his hands, feeling exhausted all over again. He tried to remember when Lucio had left the bed, if he could have stopped him. He didn’t know he’d had to.

This was a new thing. Years ago he’d only roamed consciously, stubbornly, despite being hardly capable of supporting his own weight. And he wasn’t sure he’d ever tried to suck up magic then, either.

What the hell was going on?

A soft groan from the table attracted his attention, immediately jerking his head back up.

Lucio’s eyes were open but unfocused, slowly glancing around the infirmary and then down his own body, calmly observing the leeches across his chest as though this was the first time he’d seen them. 

Not exactly the reaction he’d expected when he woke up, but maybe he wasn’t fully awake yet.

“It worked. It actually worked .” Julian breathed. “How are you feeling?”

His eyes flickered up towards him, but he said nothing. His left hand lifted, paused a moment as he seemed to realize it was tethered, letting his right hand run along the rope with that same distant curiosity before dropping back down to pluck a leech off himself, peering closely at it.

“Ah-- yes, I know, you hate those, but I thought--”

Lucio promptly popped the leech into his mouth.

Julian just sat there and stupidly gawked at him while he ate it, unable to move until he’d swallowed and was apparently going after another one, quickly grabbing his arm before it could make contact. 

“Hey, no, don’t do that, those were expensive.” He reached over and started to remove the leeches himself, to save them from the same fate. “If you’re that hungry you can just ask me to get you real food, you know.”

For a long moment he simply gazed up at him, contemplative, his own blood - hopefully only from the leech - trickling down his chin. “.. what sort of food?”

His voice came out quiet and stilted, as if it didn’t fit in his mouth. There was something in his eyes he didn’t like. A hard, predatory gleam. Julian tried to ignore it as he moved closer, wiping the blood from his lips, somewhat gratified to see his instinct was still to lean into his touch.

“Ah-- well, I’m sure we have some supper left in the galley,” He realized he couldn’t get him anything fresh, not at this hour. “If you can walk, you’re welcome to accompany me there.”

“Why wouldn’t I be able to walk?” Lucio was starting to sit up, and at this scowled down at his own legs as if expecting something to be wrong with them. “But yes. That. Wait a moment-- no. Not yet. Stay.”

He leaned forward and pressed his own kiss to his lips before he could stop him, hard, passionate, possessive, like he was trying to devour him. He tasted like blood and an odd sort of earthy flavor that was probably the leech.

Julian pulled back with some difficulty, holding him at arm’s length. “You said you wouldn’t.”

“And you accepted this?” The older man smiled, a jagged sort of grin that looked more like a snarl. “Interesting how you would bow to a knave before a king. Some things never change.”

“Arsenic isn’t a knave . Where the hell is this coming from?”

Lucio only laughed, a stilted rattling of bones, before he slowly slid off the table and directly onto the chair with Julian, straddling his thighs so that they were face to face, glancing at the rope dangling from his own wrist before suddenly wrapping it around his doctor’s throat, using it to pull him towards him for another aggressive kiss.

His right hand pulled at his shirt, tugging it open and down heedless of his attempts to push him away, sharp fingernails instead of golden claws cutting into exposed flesh, spots of darkness blossoming in his vision as the rope grew tighter and tighter around his neck. A part of him wanted this, including the straining lungs and warmth of blood, but he also knew he shouldn’t, he should stop him, Arsenic would find them again.

He felt the hand dropping lower, and he immediately arched into the touch, his own fingers curling into the loose red shirt that once belonged to him, somewhere between pushing him away and pulling him closer, feeling more of his strength bleeding out, his body singing, drowning, burning beneath him.

“You’re nothing but a distraction , Julian Devorak,” He heard Lucio growl into his ear, tone somewhere between resentment and need. “And I’ve grown tired of you.”

The makeshift noose tightened further, and he couldn't feel the touches anymore, wondering if he'd just imagined it because he wanted it, his vision going completely dark, feeling his body steadily going limp, his mind pulling away, remembering the last time-- oh, but he wouldn’t be coming back this time, would he? It was a one-way trip.

He said he needed him. Why would he kill him?

A loud, painful-sounding thwok pulled him up from the depths, the pressure around his throat suddenly gone. He could breathe again, in deep shuddering gasps, feeling the life slowly begin to trickle back into his body.

“Julian? Are you okay?” Arsenic’s voice murmured, and a jolt of panic ran through him, instinctively grabbing for his disheveled clothing as if he could possibly hide it from them.

When his vision finally cleared, he saw a suspicious lump on the floor, curled up and shaking beneath the table. Arsenic was holding a large spellbook in their hands, threads of golden hair and what he rather hoped wasn’t blood along the cover.

“Lucio--?”

There was a quiet whimper, but the lump didn’t move.

“I changed my mind. I’m putting him back in the brig.” They grunted. “You’re relieved from babysitting the fucking psychopath. We’re taking him to Nadia first thing in the morning.”

Even though his throat still ached, Julian felt his heart drop.

“He didn’t-- I mean--” Yes, he did. He meant to kill him. “There has to be some explanation for this--”

“Julian, stop. You can’t protect him. He doesn’t deserve it.”

He flinched back, obediently clamping his mouth shut to stem the tide of awkward stammering, busying his hands with making himself decent again. 

It just didn’t make any sense. He said he needed him. He said he was all he had left in this world. He cried when he left him alone. Why on earth would he want to kill him?

They set the book on the table before bending down, grabbing Lucio by the tether and yanking him up onto his feet, pulling both arms behind his back and tying them together before he had a chance to try to escape. He did pull once, towards Julian, then immediately quailed back into the captain’s arms when he saw his face, cringing away from him like he expected him to hit him too.

The odd predatory look was long gone. He was just scared and confused. Like he didn’t know what he did, but was too scared to ask.

“.. can I at least come with you, while you’re taking him to the brig?” He rubbed at his neck. “I don’t really want to go back to my quarters just yet.”

Arsenic squinted up at him for a long moment, then sighed and nodded, barely waiting for him to follow before tugging their prisoner along beside them. He paused to grab the spellbook, remembering that they still needed to get the extra magic out - he doubted the leeches had completely fixed him.

Lucio wouldn’t speak or look at him the entire trip.

Chapter Text

In the realms, he’d thought he’d gotten more used to silence. Silence was safe.

But now it hung over him like dead weight, crushing him, suffocating him. It was that special, ominous kind of silence that usually followed a big mistake. He couldn’t remember making any, not really. A flash of red he didn’t want to think about.

And yet he was here, behind bars again. The hole he’d used to escape was boarded up and inaccessible, even if his arms had been free. He was sitting on the floor, Julian and Arsenic on the other side, turned away from him, poring over some kind of spellbook in ominous silence. Beyond them he could see a pair of armed guards by the door, an extra precaution he didn’t think they needed.

“My head hurts.” Lucio said quietly.

It was the truth, if a bit of an understatement. This headache wasn’t as bad as the one that made him pass out just yet, but the book hitting him hadn’t helped.

Neither of them made any move towards his cell, or acted like they’d heard him at all.

He hesitantly slid closer to the bars, resting his face against the worn iron, finding momentary relief in cool metal. He wasn’t a ghost again, at least. 

“Jules?” He tried again, uncertainly. “Can you fix it?”

Arsenic flashed him a dirty look, but Julian shifted as if he was about to turn. 

A wave of relief washed over him, closing his eyes and sticking his face out a little further, within easier reach of gentle doctor hands, sitting there and waiting. Maybe Jules would try that spell again, as novel a thought as that was. Julian Devorak, magic user. He didn’t mind as long as he could feel those hands on his skin again.

For a long moment, all he could feel was stale cabin air. He could hear the shift of fabric and paper, no closer than it was before. That moment continued to stretch, fading into the ominous shroud of silence.

Finally he opened his eyes again, and found Julian hadn’t moved.

But he was in pain. He told him so. He’d asked nicely. 

“... Jules??”

“Don’t.” The captain grunted, directly at Julian.

Don’t what? Help him? Touch him? Acknowledge he was there? 

It felt like a smack across the face, further cementing that feeling something he didn’t know about had gone wrong. They were actively ignoring him. Jules would know how much that would hurt, especially now. Especially him. And yet Jules was going along with it.

Slowly he withdrew from the bars, a growing sense of dread in his chest, his pulse pounding in his ears. His skin burned, woken up by the suggestion that he might touch him. Might never touch him. He didn’t realize lying in bed with him would have been the last friendly human contact he’d ever have before they sent him to the gallows. He should have appreciated it more.

He should have kissed him anyway.

“... I should’ve been the little spoon.” 

It came out as a choked whimper that quickly became a sob, followed by more as everything collapsed in on him at once, cold tears at odds with the burning of his skin, unable to hide them with his arms tied behind his back.

They were sending him to die in the morning. He was going to die again. He was going to die and he didn’t even know what he did. He’d passed out, and then woke up just in time to be struck in the face by a book. There wasn’t anything in between. Jules had looked at him like he was a monster. Arsenic was treating him like a monster.

For all he knew he could have been a monster. He hated not knowing. Losing control.

Distantly he heard movement and a muttered swear before Julian was at the bars, blurred but recognizable, a hand reaching into his cage, so close and yet so far. He could vaguely make out dark rings around his neck, like a collar imprinted on his flesh. Something about them felt horribly familiar.

A flash of red and he was lying on the floor, Julian backing away from the bars. Where was he going? Why was he looking at him like that?

“Don’t-- don’t go. Please don’t leave me.”

He remembered the taste of blood. Dying grey eyes. Beauty and tragedy. 

The pain was unbearable. He couldn’t let it take him. Couldn’t risk leaving himself unattended. He didn’t want to know where he would wake up next, if he would wake up at all. His sobs sounded like they were coming from someone else, miles away.

“I think it’s worse than magic poisoning.” Arsenic’s voice was saying.

Hesitant fingers combed through his hair, gentle doctor hands, oddly stiff, as if hiding pain. He was unsure if he was allowed to arch into it, if he would scare them away. He needed this. He would fight anything that tried to stop it. Including himself. Especially himself.

“Getting the magic out would still help him, wouldn’t it?”

“It’s mine.” He heard himself saying, felt his lips twitch into a snarl. “You can’t take it.”

The fingers stopped stroking and dug into his scalp, the pain a drop in the bucket. 

It’s killing you. ” Julian’s voice snapped, the all too familiar sound of anger covering fear. 

Why would he be afraid for him? Hadn’t he done something he should be afraid of ?

“Noddy’s going to kill me, too. What’s the difference?” He felt the hand drawing away, whimpering and bunting his head up into it before it could escape. The pain was less when he was touching him. “W-wait, no-- don’t--”

Another flash of red. The hand was gone. The tears were down to a trickle. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It was like being in the realms again.

“--going to gag him in a minute.” Arsenic’s voice grunted.

“Do it.” Lucio blurted out without a second thought, startling both of his wardens. “Please.”

He couldn’t remember saying anything that would have warranted it, and the idea frightened him, but maybe it would ground him. He would focus on that and if it moved, he would know time had shifted again.

“Are you sure?” 

They sounded much less confident, clearly not expecting him to agree.

“Are you sure?” Julian’s voice echoed, and through the corner of his eye he saw one of those long pale hands lift, a jagged ring of red indents in the flesh - a bite mark. 

His bite mark?

“I don’t want to bite you.” Yes, he did. They trapped him in here. No, he didn’t, they were still trying to help him. “I-- I’ll try not to bite you.”

He hesitantly shifted closer to the bars again, body tensing a moment before he forcibly pressed his chin into an outstretched bronze hand, letting them lean his head up, a renewed flare of panic in his chest. He couldn’t trust them like Jules. He shouldn’t let them this close. They could easily slit his throat like this and he would be powerless to stop them.

Another flash of red.

He was lying at the back of his cage, some kind of fabric between his teeth. He felt drained. For a moment he could see glimmering trails of gold, ebbing away from him across the floor, unable to move to reach them before they vanished.

No. No, he needed that. He was too weak without it.

When the next wave of gold pulled away, trails of red began to follow, spilling out of him like too-bright blood on the hardwood. 

Now he couldn’t move for a different reason, paralyzed with fear, waiting for the pain that accompanied so much blood and finding it was still only in his head - and lessened, now, as the red trails barely brushed against the gold before vanishing as well, too weak to pull it back.

Behind the bars, Arsenic was staring down at the floor where the crimson trails had been with a similar sort of horror. They could see them too? Of course they could.

That was going to be a problem, wasn't it?

“I think it’s a lot worse than magic poisoning.”

“What? What is it?” Julian glanced between Arsenic, the floor and then Lucio. “How are you feeling?”

The next wave of gold left him unhindered, and the pain threatening to split his skull had dulled to a throb. Time was finally beginning to stabilize. He went to tell them as such, but all that came out was a muffled little noise, reminding him of the fabric in his mouth, too tight to try to escape. The next sound was a whimper, heralding rising panic.

Within moments his doctor was at his side, gently pulling him up onto his knees and tugging the gag off him, Arsenic standing close behind. He could see the hint of sunlight pooling down the steps behind them, his throat tightening, threatening another sob.

It was morning. His time had run out.

“Are you-- are you still sending me to the gallows??” He felt the tears starting to come back, and didn’t bother stopping them. “I’ll be good. I promise. Jules, tell them--”

His voice died in his throat as he saw the rings again, dark bruises along Julian’s neck in the shape of ropes, as if he’d already visited the hangman once today. He glanced up at his face, horrified, wondering if he knew. 

“I.. I did that. Didn’t I?” Julian nodded, and his heart dropped. “Why did I do that?”

“I don’t know.”

Despite everything, he was holding him close, comforting him. Letting him cry on his chest. He couldn’t understand it. “What’s wrong with me?”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Arsenic knelt down next to them, placing a hand on his shoulder as an awkward olive branch. “And no, we’re not sending you to the gallows. We were just going back to Vesuvia -- but I don’t think that’s a good idea, either.”

“What? Why not? I mean besides the obvious-- half the crew is still ashore.”

The captain was looking dead at Lucio, their expression grim. “I know, but staying out here is the safest option right now. We can’t risk bringing him near civilization just yet, and not just because of the magic thing.”

“What magic thing? What’s going on??” He glanced between the two of them, dread creeping back into his chest. As if he already knew what was going on.

But he didn’t. Did he?

“You’re apparently a-- what was it, darling? Magical heat sink? You absorb magic.” Julian explained, and then frowned. “Which apparently leads to… whatever happened just now. Including attempted murder. And eating one of my leeches.”

“I ate a what???

Well, that definitely distracted him from crying.

“It's not just that. There’s something inside you--”

“Yeah, a leech.”

Besides the leech. Pay attention, Lucio.” 

They rested both hands on his shoulders, and he was caught in those bright green eyes, like cat’s eyes. The throbbing was growing worse again, as though they were pulling it to the surface. “There’s something terrible in there. Powerful, or it used to be. I felt it earlier, while I was getting my magic out of you. It was trying to pull it back.”

“I think it spoke to us,” Julian added. “I’m not going to repeat what it said.”

He tore his gaze away to bury his face into that hairy chest, and the pain lessened again. He wasn’t sure that sense of relief was his. “Then-- then what are you waiting for? Get it out of me.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t know what it is yet, so I don’t know how to get it out.”

“How do you not-- just do something! Anything! I don’t want to be infested !” 

Saying it that way made it so much worse. He could feel his skin crawling, tiny red legs all over him. Inside him. He felt sick. Violated. Julian’s hand was stroking his hair again, less stiff, clearly using the one without the bite.

“It’s not that simple. Not all methods work on all-- things .” Arsenic sighed. “Doing the wrong one for the wrong thing can have huge consequences.”

“Your innards will definitely be outards.” Julian helpfully supplied.

Jules.

The fact that the actual magician was not refuting this didn’t help. He thumped his head against his doctor’s chest as penance anyway. This only made his headache worse, but at least he could trust the source of that ache, and it encouraged an awkward, likely reflexive honk of laughter.

He felt his captor turn towards his fiance, once again deadly serious. “What are we going to do about this? How do we find out what it is? Do we just wait for it to come back out and ask it?”

"I don't think it'll be that helpful. Observation and research is about the most we can do, right now-- well, that and keeping him away from too much magic. I don't know what it wants with my magic but I don't want to find out."

Lucio sniffled and shifted to look up at them as well. “Do I have to stay in here?”

“You should. Just in case.”

“... can Jules stay in here with me?” He frowned and looked up at Julian instead, catching sight of the dark bruises again. “Do you want to stay with me?”

His doctor looked startled by this, somehow, quickly covering it with a disarming smile. “Ah-- well, we’re friends, aren’t we? That’s what friends do.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Arsenic elbowed him with a snort.

“How about I stay on the outside, and you stay on the inside? A novel concept, I know. We can be spoons again after-- whatever this is has cleared up. Alright?”

“... I feel like a sausage more than a spoon.” 

He shifted against his bonds, flexing golden fingers. He could pull free, he realized, but he said he would be good. He felt Julian's arms shift down towards them, but a shake of Arsenic's head kept them bound. Damnable parasite.

They were both getting to their feet and heading towards the cell door, and for a moment he considered flinging himself at one of those gangly limbs and forcing him to stay inside his cage, with or without the parasite potentially planning to kill him again. At the same time he was almost oddly glad when the door shut with a grave finality, though the throbbing in the base of his skull worsened once more.

"Can you promise me you won't turn me in when I'm-- I'm not infected anymore?" Lucio asked after a long moment.

Julian looked straight towards Arsenic, who said nothing.

… he supposed that was fair.

Chapter Text

Once again Lucio was sitting on the floor in his cell, arms bound behind his back, Arsenic on the other side of the bars across from him, lying on their stomach with their nose in the spellbook. 

This time, however, the undercurrent of tension came from the fact that Julian had gone upstairs to fetch more books, leaving him alone with them.

He wasn’t sure what to make of them, not really. 

They reminded him of Nadia, in a way, if Nadia had grown up in similar circumstances as his own. Softness encasing steel, a certain commanding air alongside an underling’s sort of crudeness. He could definitely see why Jules would have latched onto them in his absence.

Sometimes he remembered that was his body lying there, even if he’d only had it for a night, now bearing dark skin with ghostly white bones marked into it, following their own skeleton, bright green eyes like cat’s eyes piercing through old worn pages, a shock of similarly colored hair falling across their brow unnoticed. 

They looked so young, and yet their eyes were ancient, like the Devil’s piercing gaze in green instead of crimson. It frightened him and fascinated him. 

And oh, he could still distantly feel the pull of their magic, thrumming in the air like a heartbeat. He couldn’t see it, but he could feel it. Ached for it, almost like the touch and taste of Julian’s skin, the warmth of his body against him. Brilliant gold wrapped around him like a lover’s embrace.

He shook his head to clear out that thought, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand, albeit at a loss without his own book to stare blankly at in hopes it might tell him something.

“D’you think maybe I-- came back wrong?” He said finally. “After-- you did what you did to me-- maybe something got in while I was--?”

Falling apart? Stitching back together?

Arsenic glanced up from their book and frowned, a glimmer of concern in those bright green eyes. “All I did was break the Devil’s chains and bring your old body back. It was nearly instantaneous - there wasn’t enough time for anything to mess with that.”

Is that what that was supposed to be? Breaking a few lousy chains? How tightly had they been wound around his neck??

“.. it hurt, you know. I thought I was dying again.” Lucio looked towards the wooden steps, checking to see if Jules was back yet. He wasn’t sure how much of this he wanted him to hear, even if he’d been there to witness it. “I begged you to stop and you wouldn’t. You held me down and tore me apart. I didn't even want to fight you, I just wanted to go to the Masquerade.”

Their attention was now completely on him, more obvious concern on their face.

“There was a lot of resistance, but-- I didn’t realize it hurt you, or maybe-- maybe I didn’t care at the time, because you hurt a lot of people. I’m sorry.” 

He shifted closer to the bars, uncertain. “... would you care now? I haven’t hurt anybody else.”

The dark bruises around Julian’s neck flashed through his mind.

I haven’t hurt anybody else.” 

Bright red claw marks danced across his mind right after.

“... intentionally.”

“I don’t know. Julian would, and that’s what worries me.” The captain sighed. “If that’s how this thing goes--  I hope it works out as well as it did the first time, because I’d hate to think of what he’d do if it doesn’t.”

“If-- if you kill me.”

“... yeah.”

The brig lapsed into silence once more, as he returned to watching the steps for Jules.

Arsenic may have been worried about his loyalties, but he knew Julian would stand by them, even with his blood on their hands. He was just a relic of his past, and they were his future.

The bastard was getting married , for God's sake.

He didn't need him.

“If this thing has been there since you came back-- why is it only causing problems now ?” Arsenic said after a long moment of trying and failing to focus on their book, giving him a welcome distraction from his thoughts. “If it’s after magic, wouldn’t it have been more of a problem in the realms?”

He huffed. “I was too busy trying not to get killed by the Arcana to really notice anything.”

“Have they been trying to kill you the whole time?”

“... no. I think at first they wanted to talk. But they wouldn’t listen. ” His scars ached, and he leaned against the bars in lieu of rubbing at them, letting the cold iron soothe it. “They never fucking listened.”

They frowned. “I don’t mean to invalidate your experiences, but the Arcana aren’t actively malicious. They’re not supposed to be. Even the Devil was just playing with us.”

He made a face, but said nothing.

“Maybe they weren’t trying to kill you , but-- whatever’s inside you.”

“They didn’t do a very good job of it, did they? Unfathomable magical power with all the strategic expertise of a burnt sausage.”

Damn. Now he wanted sausage.

The clatter of surprisingly heavy footsteps on hardwood interrupted the thought to ask if they could take a break from the inquisition for food, and a wave of relief swept through him as familiar gangly limbs staggered down the steps, arguably more book than man.

“I wasn’t sure which ones we needed so I grabbed, uh, all of them.” 

Julian unceremoniously let his haul drop to the floor in front of its owner, clearly unable to support them for much longer. The resulting thudding of heavy weights sounded like bodies dropping to the floor, the books thankfully sturdy enough to weather the impact with only a rippling of pages out of place.

Arsenic stared at the pile of tomes before them, then back up at their fiance. “Julian. Darling. You know I love you. But what the fuck.”

“You can’t be too thorough when you research, you know.” 

“I’m sure the one on herbs and horticulture will serve us well.”

His doctor awkwardly cleared his throat and settled down on the floor in front of the pile himself, facing towards the cell. “You don’t know. It could be some kind of evil magic plant. Thing. That’s taken up residence in there. Spores growing in dark, wet places, you know.”

“Never say that in reference to my body ever again, Jules.”

“I meant your lungs. I don’t know what you were picturing.”

Shut up and read your damn books .”

Julian gave another awkward little cough before diligently returning his attention to the fearsome pile before him, clearly sizing it up with his eyes. A hand hesitantly reached out, then drew back, looking over the options again.

Lucio could see the exact moment he realized taking the entire bookshelf was probably a bad idea.

"What if we consulted the cards about this?" He suddenly looked towards his fiance. "You didn't chuck them overboard like you were threatening earlier, did you?"

Arsenic snorted and sat up to rummage around in their pockets, pulling out a small black square of fabric, carefully bound. "I was tempted once or twice, but I feel like Asra would suddenly appear and rearrange my organs if I did."

They unwrapped the tarot deck and gently pushed the books aside in order to lay the fabric across the hardwood, starting to shuffle the cards with more care than their tone would indicate.

"I don't know how much they're actually gonna tell us, though." They sighed, setting the deck onto the fabric facedown. "Lately they haven't been telling me anything. It's almost like they're busy , too preoccupied with something to answer me."

"Lemme try." 

Without thinking Lucio slipped his arms free of the rope, reaching out towards the tarot deck through the bars. His hand fell laughably short of the cards, which did not change when he tried aimlessly slapping at the floor in their direction. 

The slapping jostled one of the cards off the top of the deck, sliding to the floor face up - revealing a grinning horse skull, upside down.

Death.

He immediately recoiled. "Nevermind, I don't want to try anymore."

"Oh, no, no, don't worry," Julian smiled, plucking up the card with a casual air, as though they were old friends. "I used to think it meant the literal, too, but it's more about-- what was it, dear? Change?"

"Yeah, endings becoming beginnings, starting new."

"Oh." He didn't trust that for a second, but at least its personification had never tried to kill him. "What's it mean upside down? Don't change?"

Arsenic gently took the card from their fiance's hand and set it next to the deck, hands idly straightening the cards in lieu of shuffling them again. "Death reversed means you're on the verge of meaningful change, but you're resisting it, either to avoid the pain of transition or just because you don't know how to move forward, what you're supposed to be losing."

"Besides the obvious." Julian chimed in.

"I don't know, it could be the obvious."

They looked at him, pensive, before carefully scooping up the deck and sliding a bit closer to his cell so that they could hold the cards out to him within arm's reach.

"Do you want to draw another one? Sometimes the next card can provide the answer to uncertainty like that."

His golden hand slid through the bars towards them as though compelled, then hesitated. He could feel an odd, warm ache in the magic of that arm - restless energy threatening to pounce. A mix of gold and violet began to dance across the surface of the deck, mesmerizing. Drawing him in with distant, frantic voices. Searching for something. Searching for him?

Julian startled, though he wasn't sure he could see or hear it. "Ah-- Arsenic, remember, the magic thing?"

"Shit, you're right, sorry." They abruptly pulled the tarot deck away from him, and though he could still see the glimmer of magic he couldn't hear the voices. "Let's try that again - do you want one of us to draw another one for you? The answer will probably be a lot muddier, unfortunately."

He found himself more frightened of potential clarity than muddiness. As if something inside him already knew the answer. 

"N-no."

"You sure?"

"I don't trust any of those creatures will give me anything favorable." He huffed, trying to ignore that feeling. "And yes I know that's not how it works. Don't look at me like that, Jules."

Arsenic frowned, but put Death back into the deck and began to shuffle it. His arm still hurt, and he wondered what would have happened if he'd touched the deck. Would he have taken just what he'd seen? Or would he have reached through the veil and stolen from the creatures themselves, making them that much angrier at him?

"You said they're busy. Are they angry, too?" His scars ached again. He rubbed at the nearest set with his left hand in hopes they would cancel each other out.

The captain paused mid shuffle. "They're more worried than anything."

He remembered the voices. It was like Nadia putting out political fires, barely able to handle the strain. Part of him took a perverse satisfaction in how scattered the mighty Arcana seemed to be. He briefly wondered how much of that feeling was his own.

"Is that bad?"

"Considering it's made them utterly useless for any kind of guidance, maybe a little bad." Arsenic shrugged, tucking the deck away. "I suppose it's a good thing I already stopped relying on them as much."

A horrible thought occurred to him. “Would-- would Death tell them I’m here? It saw me.”

“Death mostly keeps to themself, I think, in regards to the other Arcana. Your secret is safe with them.”

They looked at him again, and scowled.

"Put your damn arms back, you're supposed to be restrained."

Lucio looked down at his own arms, and then the tangle of rope on the floor, briefly considering the logistics involved. ".. I don't wanna."

The scowl intensified.

"Can you tie me up frontways instead? My arms hurt."

"We put it round the back to keep your friend from using them, remember." Julian chided, shifting towards the bars. "I would think the idea of dislocating your arms would be enough of a deterrent."

"But Juuules, my aaarms. The paaaain." He whined and flopped down on the floor, both arms outstretched. 

The odd ache had finally subsided, and for the most part he felt fine - but he made sure to act as though both shoulders were plenty tender when he felt Julian start to lift and pull his arms towards his back, whimpering and pouting up at him, eyes wide and helpless. His doctor hesitated accordingly.

Finally he sighed and shifted his grip, pulling his arms forward and binding them at the wrists in front of him instead. He had to resist the urge to grin triumphant - an urge he must not have suppressed very well, for after a moment of deliberation Julian doubled back and bound his forearms to his upper arms as well, keeping them in an awkward praying position in front of him.

Still better than the alternative.

"God, Portia was right, you do crumble like old cheese," Arsenic laughed.

An embarrassed red flush danced across Julian's face as he slid back from the bars, looking as if he was trying to hide inside his own shirt. "In my defense, he's at least eighty years old and could have any number of past injuries we don't know about."

"I'm not that old!" Lucio sputtered.

"You're right, more like eight years old."

Fully aware he was proving his point, he stuck his tongue out at him. "You can't call me a child and a geezer, Jules, you gotta pick one. Preferably the part in the middle where I'm a strong and handsome man ."

Julian waved his hand in a so-so motion with a noncommittal little noise.

"... that better be at the strong part." He scowled. "Of course it was, because you know damn well I'll pull your toes through your teeth if you try to insinuate it's the other two."

"At least buy me dinner, first."

"Girls, girls, you're both pretty." Arsenic chuckled, clapping a hand on Julian's shoulder and shaking their head. "This isn't getting us any closer to figuring out what the stowaway is, though."

"He started it." Lucio mumbled.

He was oddly gratified to see his doctor stick his own tongue out as a response to that, before heaving a deep, faux exasperated sigh and cracking open a book at random from the stack of old tomes on the floor in front of his cell. Lucio arched up slightly to see the pages better, mainly if there were any pictures, hopefully gross ones.

In the brief silence, a realization occurred to him. 

"... wait a minute-- you're not that much younger than me!"

"I suppose we should start from your, er-- symptoms, as it were." Carefully leafing through more pictureless blocks of text, very clearly ignoring that. "What all did we have, again?"

"Are you going to diagnose me with demons, Jules?"

"I’m diagnosing what kind of demons,” He said with complete sincerity.

The former Count rolled his eyes and settled back on his belly on the floor, as well as he could with his arms awkwardly pinned against his chest, propping his face on his hands. "The headaches are the most prevalent. I dunno what sets them off, they're just.. there . Like somebody is occasionally coming up behind me and stabbing me in the brain."

Flipping through more pages. "How long have you had them? Was this a thing before you died?"

"I don't know. It's definitely gotten worse on this side of the gate, though. S'why I… you know. Fell."

"Fainted?"

".. yeah, that."

He tried to remember the feeling of Julian’s arms lifting him instead of the weakness that preceded it. He tried to remember what happened before he was trapped in hell and it only came in small, foggy glimpses tinged with red and pain. He used to be able to remember everything.

“How’s your head right now?”

Lucio imitated his gesture and noise from earlier, as well as he could with his arms bound. A dull, constant throb he'd mostly ignored.

"Let me know if that changes, okay?"

He rolled his eyes again. "Of course, Doctor Devorak."

“And when it gets really bad, you black out and-- your friend takes the reins. Have you had any blackouts not related to the headaches?"

A slight pause.

"… getting stinking drunk at the Raven doesn’t count.”

“I was in full control of all my faculties there, thank you very much.”

Julian looked at him very seriously. “How did you get to the Raven, then?”

He closed his eyes and tried to remember, the throbbing in the back of his head ticking up telling him what he was pretty sure he already knew. “I.. I woke up and I was there. I swear it was me the whole time after that.”

A wry chuckle.

“After years of searching for a way out, blood, sweat, tears, everything, I just-- woke up already out. S’pose being possessed by parasite demons is good for something.”

"That is generally how the universe likes to do things, yes." Julian sighed, then frowned. "But focus, Lucio. Symptoms."

With a low grumble he rolled over onto his back instead, unfortunately no longer able to see the pages and discern if this was actually doing anything. “This is annoying. Like the Plague. ‘How are we feeling today?’ I dunno, doc, still dying, still hating it, thank you. Fuck.”

“I don’t sound like that, do I?” The other man muttered under his breath.

He decided to let it slide.

“Voices.” Lucio blurted, suddenly. “Sometimes I hear voices. In my head. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but they’re very… compelling. And no , this wasn’t a thing while I was alive the first time.”

A slight pause, wondering if he should tell them this. Then again, what would he have to lose?

“.. it was like this when I was a ghost, though. Whispers in the dark. But they’re much closer now. I didn’t want to hear them then, I don’t think that’s changed much.”

“Can you hear them right now?”

“No, I think-- it needs me to be less.. aware, I guess? Like when I fell asleep in the bath.” He shuddered, leaning his head back to look up at Jules. “I felt hands, trying to pull me up. Trying to-- stop me from drowning, maybe? But it felt like it wanted me to see it, and I resisted, like I already knew what I’d find. But I don’t. I don’t think I do.”

Arsenic sighed. “This would be a lot easier if you had seen it.”

“So that’s sensory hallucinations, problems with memory-- it can contact you, but in a limited capacity. Have you tried talking to it?”

“.. coming back to that ‘wait for it to come back out and ask it yourself’ option, there?” Lucio snorted.

Julian threw his hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know, maybe? We can wait until you fall asleep and then see if it’s willing to talk. It talked before.”

“And ate a leech.”

“And ate a leech.” He nodded somberly. “That may mean it needs to feed on blood as well as magic. So uh, let us know if that sort of craving starts up.”

His eyes immediately fell to the bandages across one long pale hand, his bite mark freshly tended. He was pretty sure it bit him out of self defense, not for bloodlust, but he made sure his expression was inappropriately wistful when Julian followed his gaze.

"Now that you mention it, I am feeling kinda hungry." A jagged grin.

Julian's eyes widened, and he shoved that arm behind his back, indicating it had the proper effect. He wondered if there were visible traces of blood on his teeth.

"Don't eat him, I need him in one piece for the wedding," Arsenic laughed, clearly not phased.

They were getting to their feet, pausing a moment before scooping up some of the books from the floor, probably the ones least likely to help with his current situation. There seemed to be a lot more than he thought, although they may have just been pickier about what counted as helpful.

"He has a point, though - we've been at this for hours, way after supper and breakfast, and you still need your regular meals." They said, pointedly jabbing their fiance's shoulder with a book on crystals. "How about we break for food after I go and put these back?"

"I can help you," Julian offered.

The captain shook their head. "Someone's gotta keep watch, and I already sent the muscle away after he finally seemed to have his head back on straight."

"Oh no, Jules, what a shame, you have to spend more time with me." Lucio sighed, dramatically dropping his head to the floor in lieu of a proper flop. " Whatever will you do??"

"It's not like that." His doctor sputtered, a soft tinge of red dancing across pale features.

It darkened to a beautifully rich crimson as Arsenic leaned down to kiss him on their way towards the steps, and he felt another pang of jealousy, missing being able to just casually drop that sort of affection himself. There was a brief flash of deliberation in their eyes, glancing towards Lucio as though considering kissing him as well, then they clearly thought better of it as they continued their journey out of sight, nearly more book than person.

Once they were gone, Julian cracked open another book, though the flush of red hadn't yet gone away. Trying to distract himself with words he wasn't sure he understood either.

"There's a problem with your plan," The former Count said after a long moment, breaking the renewed silence. "I don't want it to come back out. If sleeping makes that happen, I'm not sleeping."

Even if that bone deep exhaustion was back, draped over him like a blanket or a shroud.

"It's not worth the trouble, trust me." Grey eyes moved from the page to his face. "I don't know how well equipped you were for it in the realms, but you WILL crash, and you're not going to like it."

"I got pretty good at staying up in the realms, though I guess the stakes were higher. I've never been able to handle an internal threat."

Plague, demons, plague demons, the whole lot. You can't fight an internal threat. You can't run from it. 

After a moment Julian pushed aside the book and slid closer to his cell, looking pensive. "How close does the uh, threat feel right now? Is it any closer to coming back out?"

"Not really."

Instead of disappointment there was a flash of relief on his doctor's face, before his undamaged hand slid into his cage, gently hooking his fingers under his jaw and guiding his own face further out between the bars - mainly his mouth, which was swiftly captured in a deep and passionate kiss, as well as he could with their faces in opposite directions.

For the moment he lay there and allowed himself to be kissed, drinking in the taste and warmth of him, moaning softly into the other man's mouth. His body was burning again, aching for that hand against his throat to move further down, his own hands impotently curled into fists in their bindings. He began to arch up into it, trying to draw him deeper in--

And then Julian released him, allowing them both to breathe in soft, shuddering gasps like drowning men remembering air exists.

".. I'm sorry." 

Lucio's heart twisted, quickly smothering the pain in a wry grin. "Let me guess, that was meant for Arsenic."

With obvious shame on his face, Julian nodded.

"They know how they can rile me up. I-- I should have waited. It's not fair to you." He mumbled, drawing back from the bars, aimless pawing at the books again, not looking at him.

Slowly he rolled back onto his stomach, focusing on the awkward pressure against his ribs rather than the feeling lingering in his mouth. On his skin. He wondered if he would still be in that kiss if he hadn't tried to participate in it, reminded Jules who he was kissing.

His own eyes fell to the book in his captor's grip, the words still incomprehensible and oddly a little blurry. ".. do you think maybe that's what Death wants me to lose?"

"What is?"

"You. Us. The last part of my old life."

He glanced up at Julian's face, and was vindicated to find he seemed just as horrified by this realization as he was. 

"But I don't have a new life. There's nowhere for me to go. I don't-- I can't lose you. I can't do it."

And that was the problem, wasn't it?

The bandaged hand raked through auburn curls, brows furrowed. "Maybe it just meant your-- other friend. The bad one. There's no telling, though - I may have a few more years experience with this magic stuff now, but it's still mostly nonsense to me."

Suddenly Julian slapped both hands on his thighs.

"Food! I should get you some food. You must be starving."

"Well, yeah, but Arsenic said--"

“It’s alright, I’ll only be gone a moment.”

“I know, but-- I’m scared, Jules.” He said quietly. “I don’t know if I’ll still be me when you get back.”

Julian gave a somber little smile, a hand automatically coming up to rest against his own neck bruises as though to hide them. “I think I know how to handle it this time. It’ll be fine.”

He turned and went up the wooden steps, leaving Lucio alone once more. He had to remind himself he wasn’t abandoning him, he was just fetching food. There was no good reason for him to abandon him while he was under observation. 

Hunger was at war with that bone-deep exhaustion, the latter that much stronger without the distraction of another human being talking to him, dragging his head back down to the floor, eyelids weighted down like anchors tied to his face. 

No, he couldn’t afford to sleep, not now. He didn’t know where he would wake up. He didn’t want to give whatever it was inside him the opportunity to control him again.

His eyes closed against his will, and refused to open. 

Fine. He was giving himself ten minutes. After that he was going to get up and wait for Jules.

.. the wood beneath him was a lot more comfortable than he remembered. It felt almost like the plush blankets adorning his old four-poster bed in the Palace, complete with the squish of the mattress under his body, conforming to him, almost cradling him. It was so vivid, so life-like, he began to forget he wasn’t there. 

Despite the pressure around his arms,  keeping them pinned against his chest, he had the urge to stretch his whole body across the bed, arms and legs thrown as wide as possible, knowing he would never find the edges. A simple luxury he’d never gotten tired of, even after years of being surrounded by greater luxuries.

Instead he simply snuggled his face deeper into the pillows, the warmth of nostalgia overrunning the sense that something was wrong in the back of his mind. He missed this. In an instant he was young and stupid and comfortable again, breathing easy against red silk, a man who had fought for this and earned it and as far as he knew would never lose it.

He felt the warmth of a broad hand stroking along his shoulder, a gentle gesture and a murmured voice he couldn’t understand. He found he trusted that voice. Someone taking care of boring Count business for him while he slept.

The only acceptable way to lose control, he thought. He gave them a soft noise of assent and rolled over.

Chapter Text

Once Julian made it far enough away from the brig, he immediately smacked his head into the nearest wall with a muttered curse.

Stupid. That was stupid. 

He was stupid.

After all the trouble Lucio had clearly gone through to keep his hands off him, if only because Arsenic told him to-- he had to go and trample over that restraint the moment they were alone again. Taunting him with what he couldn't have, when he knew how badly he wanted it. Wanted him.

.. Lucio was wrong, though. The passion may have started from Arsenic, but that kiss was meant for him. He could have told him that. Should have told him that.

A vivid flash of what it could have been appeared in his mind, unbidden - Lucio's hands working free, grabbing his head and pulling him further in - or he could have untied him, let himself into the cell and--

Another thwack on the wall. Stop it.

Maybe Death was right. Maybe he was the one holding him back. He thought he was helping him, but maybe he was only making it worse.

He found he didn’t want to let him go, either.

A soft but unmistakable rumbling in his gut startled him, reminding him of why he wasn't still down there neck deep in a pile of books that amounted to little more than arcane gobbledygook in the face of whatever the hell this was. 

That's right. Food. He'd come up here to get them some food.

It wasn't fair to Lucio to kiss him like that, but it definitely wasn't fair to him to promise him food and then spend hours brooding in the hall instead, either.

Julian shook his head to clear any further brooding thoughts, making his way towards the galley. This time of day, Mazelinka should be making lunch, and right on schedule he could see her stout frame shuffling across the kitchen area as he entered, narrowly ducking out of the way of an errant pot.

"Mazelinka, I have a favor to ask, if you would be so kind and spare me your precious time." He began, gliding out of her way to the fire.

"I haven't made the sweetbreads yet, you'll have to wait with everyone else."

He gave an awkward little chuckle, peering over her shoulder in a way that must have resembled some kind of mantis. "No, it's not that -- do you have any of that special soup left from last night?"

Had it just been last night?? It felt like weeks had passed since lying in bed with Lucio.

She paused and squinted up at him. “I heard you didn’t even finish the first one. You haven’t slept a wink, have you?”

“It’s not for me, it’s for science. ” Julian winced. “I mean, it’s for the prisoner.”

Now Mazelinka’s full attention was on him, setting her pot aside to scowl up at him with enough veracity to make him feel like a child again, bracing for the lecture of his young life. “The last time you did food science, I was scrubbing cabbage and potatoes from the walls for weeks . This ol’ ship was nearly on her last legs when I gave it to you, don’t put her in Davy Jones’ locker.”

“It’s not that kind of science, I promise.” Both hands up in supplication. “I just need to see if.. how much has Arsenic told you about our little, uh, problem? Has Arsenic told you anything?”

One wrinkled brow arched.

“.. I need to put him to sleep. For reasons . Spooky, supernatural reasons.”

This was accented with an appropriately spooky wiggle of his fingers.

She continued to stare up at him, pensive, before grunting and turning back to her pot. “You know what, I don’t think I wanna know. There should be some left, heat it up over the fire but not too long or you’ll burn it. Works best warm.”

One stout hand lifted to gesture towards a different pot on the counter, not looking up at him.

“Ah, good.” He diligently made his way over to it, lifting it by the handle and carrying it across the galley with some difficulty. “.. you know, for a moment I thought you were going to suggest ‘putting him to sleep’ on a more permanent basis.”

“Don’t tempt me. I still think this is a waste of time. But then what can I expect from someone who was daft enough to think you were the marriageable sort?”

“Yes, well, we all make mistakes. Yours is that you’re being stingy with the onions again.”

Mazelinka snorted and elbowed him away from her pot, but he could tell she was smiling. He wondered what she would think of Lucio if they managed to tame him, for lack of a better word. Maybe even invite him into the family.

God, the amount of unholy wailing and gnashing of the teeth. And that was just Lucio.

While waiting for the soup to warm up, he moved across the galley on the hunt for a control - something that would be similar enough Lucio wouldn’t notice a difference, but not so similar that he was also put to sleep while waiting for the demon to come out.

“They’ve done well enough rehabilitating me , haven’t they?” He continued, snatching up a couple of cakes of veal glew and a small pan, setting both over the soup on the fire to melt while the other warmed. “I’d say they could damn well straighten him out even if he was in his prime.”

“It ain't the captain I’m worried about, boy.”

Another withering scowl across the galley, this one deadly serious. The glint of an old pirate’s steel, an unspoken threat.

“There ain’t a shovel made on this earth that can dig that bastard out of the pit he’s put himself in, n’ don’t you get any ideas about building one for him.”

If he hadn't already put down his broth, he likely would have dropped it. "I'm doing nothing of the sort. Once this supernatural mess is settled--"

"You'll beg Arsenic to keep him, like a lost pet." She grunted. "I know you, Ilya Devorak."

"I haven't forgotten what he's done. He still deserves some kind of retribution - but he also deserves some compassion . I don't think he's had that his whole life."

Mazelinka grumbled and turned away from him, not defeated but regrouping.

"That bleeding heart's gonna bleed to death one day. Try to wait til after the wedding."

***

A wave of relief swept over him as he found Lucio was right where he left him this time, sitting in his cell and pulling at his bindings with his teeth.

Thankfully he stopped that when he noticed his warden. "Welcome back, Julian."

He didn't realize how much he actually liked that stupid nickname until it wasn't there. It didn't help that there was clear venom in his voice, his name coming out like a curse.

"Still mad about that kiss, huh?" Julian gave an awkward little grin as he approached, setting one bowl down in front of the cell while the other remained in his lap.

Lucio huffed and shifted closer to the bars, eyeing the soup like a predator about to pounce. In an instant he realized there wasn't actually a way for him to pounce, with his arms tied and the bars in the way. If only Mazelinka had a more portable sleep-inducing food, something he could just toss in there with him, this would be so much easier.

He set his bowl of broth aside and got up, making quick work of the lock on the door and pulling it open to the other man's apparent surprise. Against his better judgment, he trusted he wouldn't run.

Julian sat back down and gently tugged him closer, diligently undoing the knots binding his arms. He remained still in his grip, not pulling away or towards, possibly unsure if he was allowed.

"... why are you doing this?" Was his response after a long moment of simply sitting there and watching him work.

"It would be rather difficult to eat soup otherwise, don't you think?" He chuckled, sliding the bowl towards him once his arms were free.

Lucio's attention was still focused on his own arms, flexing his fingers. "Not that. Helping me? Trusting me? Taking care of me??"

"I help people. It's what I do."

But he knew it wasn't just that.

"I hurt you." His attention was on him again. "I will hurt you."

There was no malice in it, despite the unsettling gaze that went with it. Matter of fact, like stating the nature of the weather. The story of the scorpion and the frog came to mind.

It's just his nature.

His doctor only shrugged. "I've hurt you, I don't think it would be fair for me to expect anything less at this point."

Lucio continued to scrutinize him for a long moment, before seemingly remembering his soup, pulling the bowl into his lap and giving it a curious sniff, and then a much deeper inhale. For a moment he thought he saw his pupils dilate, like an addict taking a hit. Likely a trick of the light.

"It's a special recipe, helps you sleep," Julian explained. "I know you don't want to sleep, so I got my own. We'll both sleep, how about that?"

He was pretty sure he would know it was a trick, considering there was no good reason to incapacitate himself while the demon was out. He was at least taking it much more calmly than expected, maybe too hungry to consider rejecting it.

"Ah, shit, your spoon--"

Before he could finish turning towards the spoons left closer to the other side of the bars, Lucio had already lifted the bowl to his mouth and was drinking it down. Within moments he let the bowl drop to the floor, slack empty, a croaked, mostly unintelligible curse escaping his lips, wincing and grabbing for his throat.

"Careful, it's hot," Julian supplied helplessly.

He scowled at him.

"... do you want mine? It's still hot but it would mean I don't have to put you back yet."

After a long moment of deliberation, Lucio hissed and shook his head.

Julian sighed and gently took his arms again, reluctantly winding the ropes around just his wrists this time. He'd hoped he could let him be free that much longer, that he'd do something while he was free, maybe a continuation of that last kiss, or something like it. He really was mad at him for that.

He just as gently urged him back a bit, closer to where he was originally sitting, before getting up and pushing the door closed, making sure he would see he wasn't locking it. Not for his benefit, but for his friend . Once again Lucio easily allowed himself to be moved, as if he couldn't be bothered to move himself.

Once they were settled again, Julian pulled his bowl back into his lap, spooning up some broth to keep that charade going. 

It wouldn't be long now before Lucio would be fast asleep, given how he'd chugged it like that. He'd never done that himself, but he was pretty sure whatever Mazelinka put in there operated on similar potency rules as alcohol, absorbing into the blood all at once like being hit by a carriage.

He may not even remember this later.

What the hell did he have to lose?

"To tell you the truth, my heart hurts when I see you, and I find myself drunk on the pain." 

He glanced up from his broth. 

".. I think I love you, Lucio."

Genuine stunned surprise was on the older man's face, eyes wide and questioning. 

After a moment his features fell into a strained grin, puffing up like a proud peacock with an awkward little chuckle, his voice coming out like a caricature of himself. "O-of course you do. I am a magnificent specimen."

"I'm being serious." Julian practically snapped.

The facade easily crumbled, leaving Lucio staring at him again. Confused, maybe frightened, completely uncomprehending. Almost like he wanted to run away from this, somehow. He didn't know what to do -- or maybe he didn't want it and didn't want him to know.

Of course he didn't want it. Julian wondered what kind of fantasy world had he been living in to expect anything different. 

Especially something like reciprocation.

He felt himself start to withdraw, forcing himself to keep choking down ‘soup’ like he hadn’t said anything. He wanted to apologize for it, take it back somehow. Not that it would make it stop being true. 

.. was it true? He’d only had him for three days at most, after-- ten years? Maybe ten years apart, give or take his time at the Palace. And had he loved him then, or was he simply taken in by how he seemed to treat him like they were already close? 

Was Lucio even capable of love?

He distantly heard him shift closer to the bars again, not paying much attention to it until he felt his fingers surprisingly gently grip his chin and lift his head up to face him. 

His expression had softened, eyes half lidded, lips twitched into something closer to an actual smile than a grin or a smirk, out of place and a little painful, clearly not used to doing so. He felt wrong for liking that look, like he wasn’t meant to have it.

“Why didn’t you say so sooner?” Lucio practically purred, and pulled him closer to the bars before he could stop him, trapping his lips in a passionate kiss.

Immediately Julian groaned and leaned into it, as well as he could, his heart stuttering and then soaring as he realized this was as probably as close as the bastard was going to get to actually saying the words. He was accepting it. He wanted it. 

He set his ‘soup’ aside to reach his hands through the bars, curling his fingers into his wild mane, keeping him close for as long as he could, drawing him deeper in, until his lungs burned as much as his heart. It wasn't the same as when Arsenic had accepted him, but it was close, a weight he didn't know he was burdened with lifting from his shoulders and leaving him light and giddy.

The cold of the iron pressed painfully against his cheeks offset the heat in his gut, reminding him of the barrier there. He could let him out again, or let himself in. They could do so much more than this. He felt like he owed it to him.

No, no. There was time for that after they got the demons out.

 .. besides that, there was a risk he’d fall asleep in the middle of it. He’d hate that.

Instead he reluctantly pulled back, peppering his face and what he could reach of his throat with kisses, pressing another one to his bound hands before forcing himself away from the bars, lest he keep kissing him forever. Unfocused silver eyes simply watched him, the soft smile closer to a triumphant grin.

"Don't look at me like that, you haven't won me or anything," Julian chuckled. "I conceded on my own terms."

Lucio lazily draped against the bars, grin widening in a way that made him regret leaving the door closed. “You love me.” He mused, as if rolling the word around in his mouth, tasting it. “Oh, the things I could do with you, loverboy.”

He shuddered and felt his resolve cracking further, fingers curling, preparing to yank open the door again -- thankfully interrupted by his tormentor yawning, a wide-open mouth yawn showing teeth. More like a dog than a man, complete with the brief expectation that the teeth would be pointed into fangs.

Though he felt only the usual amount of tiredness, easily ignored, Julian gave his own yawn, rubbing at his eyes as if to keep them open. 

“I’ll take a raincheck on that, I think. Maybe once we’re actually alone.”

Lucio only gave an amused huff, stretching his limbs as well as he could before slowly curling up on the floor, using his bound hands as a pillow. The soup was definitely kicking in, or it had been the whole time and he couldn’t fight it any longer. He felt a brief pang of guilt for drugging him like this.

“How’s your head?” Julian asked after a moment, as he slowly lowered himself to the floor, yawning again to make sure he looked convincing enough.

The only response was a noncommittal little noise, the other man burying his face deeper into his own hands, eyes falling shut. There was an odd sort of tension in his body, like he was forcing himself into this position as well, despite otherwise looking completely relaxed. He wondered if that was old habits commanding him to stay alert for danger.

He wondered how long it would take to break him of those habits. Maybe he’d always have them. 

Julian imitated his position and waited.

***

He hadn’t intended to actually fall asleep, but the sharp snap of a rope startled him awake, immediately clamping down on his instinct to get up and investigate. Instead he cracked one eye open, allowing just a sliver of light and shape between his eyelashes and his own hair.

Movement inside the cell indicated Lucio was getting up, his posture hunched forward, balancing himself on the balls of his feet. He stood like this for a moment, perhaps waiting to see if Julian would stir, before slowly, carefully, reaching for the door, easing it open with a surprisingly minimal amount of metallic creaking.

He padded out of his cell, heading towards the steps - and then pausing again, creeping towards his prone observer, a long shadow falling over him.

Though his hair was obscuring it, Julian closed his eye the rest of the way, forcing himself to relax. This turned out to be a good plan, as there was a shift of weight next to him, and warm hands moving along his side, insistently digging at his clothing as if searching for something.

His claws? He’d put them upstairs already.

A firm grip on his shoulder suddenly rolled him over onto his back, allowing his head to flop lifelessly to the side, apparently too drugged to stir. He could feel hot breath on his skin, so close, hunching over him like a predator. The hands moved across his chest, on the inside of his shirt, then brusquely patted down his pants, a low growl of frustration as they came up empty.

He wasn't sure what he would do if he'd still had his knife in that front pocket. Gut him like a fish, probably.

After a moment the cool metal of his golden hand was at his cheek, forcing his head up, the soft warmth of lips on his own, accented with nips from hungry teeth. It was very hard to remain ‘asleep’ like this. He wondered if that was the purpose of this, trying to catch him out. Only the thought that it wasn't Lucio kept him playing dead.

Distantly he felt an odd sort of tugging in his chest, as if his captor was pulling something out of him, something warm and liquid like blood gathering in his mouth and then disappearing as soon as it came, as if lapped up by the warm tongue brushing against his own. 

With dawning horror he remembered the magic thing - he was absorbing his magic, or trying to. He didn't think he had that much to begin with. He should stop this. He couldn't move.

Eventually the monster inside Lucio seemed to have had its fill, the hand letting his head drop and pulling back, getting back up onto his feet with another grunt. He didn’t trust himself to move or even breathe until the soft padding of feet on hardwood vanished up the steps.

Once he was sure he was gone, Julian slowly pulled himself to his feet, taking a deep breath to calm his pounding heart before creeping up the wooden steps himself, staying close to the wall where the ship had already settled to keep from making too much sound.

He could see a hint of red and gold somewhere up ahead, surprisingly fast despite that odd animal-like posture. He was periodically ducking into rooms and back out, frenetic, deliberate movement, still looking for something. 

If it was just his claws, he would have easily found them already. A glint of sharpness on that hand indicated he had.

What was he after?

Slowly he crept along the hallway, inching his way closer to the flurry of movement, ducking into a room himself when the other man suddenly stopped in the middle of the hallway, still standing on his toes, cocking his head to the side like he was listening for something, body pointed towards Arsenic's room.

Arsenic should still be in there, reorganizing their bookshelves. They would catch him. 

Don't do it, don't you dare do it, he was already in the doghouse and he wasn't sure if the creature would show mercy if it was interrupted. There would likely be a fight, considering their last encounter with it.

After standing there a few seconds longer, he made his way to the last room on that side of the hall, which Julian realized was his own. He slowly peered around the threshold, watching, wondering. Here Lucio was much less careful, practically destroying the room in clear frustration, tearing the sheets off the bed as if whatever it was would be hidden inside the mattress.

A sudden blur of black feathers and screaming startled him, and in an instant he remembered Malak. 

Malak wouldn’t know what he was doing, allowing the creature to roam free. 

The raven had already made a beeline for Lucio’s face and was tearing into it before he could think to stop him, pained yelling joining in with angry squawking. Flesh and gold lashed out, quickly grabbing the bird around the wings with both hands, immobilizing him -- but not hurting him, he could tell that much.

“Bird, stop it, stop,” The former Count hissed as Malak continued to kick his talons out at him, and oddly enough he stopped. “I don’t know what’s going on, but you saved my bacon at Jules’ house, so I’m gonna let this one slide and NOT wring your little birdy neck. Got it?”

Malak gave a quizzical little chirp, but didn’t seem to be on the attack anymore.

Without the distraction of a bird attacking his face, Lucio seemed to finally notice Julian standing just outside the room, startling and then offering him his captive with an awkward smile.

“You, um. Dropped your bird.”

He offered his arm, and the raven flapped indignantly over to him once released, climbing up onto his shoulder and shrieking once as a warning. Absently he reached up to stroke along his feathers to calm him, receiving a nip from his beak for his trouble.

The older man was wiping the blood off his face, then staring down at his free arms as if this was the first time he’d seen them, glancing uncertainly at the golden claws back in place on his left hand, his surroundings and then at Julian, a hint of the cornered animal look in his eye again. It was definitely Lucio in control now, likely broken out of his spell by the pain of angry talons.

“What do you remember last?” Julian asked, tone gentle.

Lucio looked surprised, as if this wasn’t the question he’d expected. Probably something more along the lines of ‘what are you doing out of your cell’.

“.. you went upstairs for food, and I fell asleep while I was waiting for you.”

It was his turn to be surprised. No, surprised wasn’t the word for it. Flabbergasted? Horrified? He had talked to him since then. He had been relatively normal, if a bit ornery. There hadn’t really been anything out of the ordinary until he’d left his cell.

Had there?

“Why? What did I do this time?” Immediately he was worriedly looking him over, as if he was the doctor. Julian's heart dropped directly into his toes. “I didn’t hurt you, right? You’re okay??”

“No, I’m fine--” God, how much should he tell him? It was probably listening. “Listen-- your, uh, friend. I think it’s getting smarter. We held a-- uh, important conversation and I had no idea it wasn’t you until you told me just now.”

All the color drained from Lucio’s face, eyes widening in horror, golden hand coming up to cover his mouth as though he expected it to speak through him while he was awake. A pang of guilt ran through him, both at that look and at the fact he couldn’t tell the difference. 

Especially then. Especially with what he said. It was the one that heard his confession. It knew he loved him. 

Oh, the things I could do with you, loverboy.

What was it going to do with that knowledge?

"What exactly did we-- you talk about?" Lucio asked, uncertainly. 

He shook his head and strode into the room, his mind racing. “You know what? Don't worry about that. Let’s play a game.”

“... what kind of game?” His voice was still muffled by his hand, tone apprehensive and perhaps a little hopeful, as if he wanted to be excited for the prospect but couldn’t, for obvious reasons.

“A guessing game, I suppose? Hot and cold.” Julian glanced back towards him with what he hoped was a disarming enough grin for what he was about to say. “You know how-- you knew you tried to kill me, even if you didn’t remember it?”

Lucio flinched back, now thoroughly on the apprehensive side of the field.

“Your friend was looking for something, and I was hoping you’d help me find it. Maybe it’ll give us some clues as to its nature.”

“I don’t think I want to play this game.” He was pouting, but he had a feeling it was more fear than disappointment. “Can’t we do something else?”

"I could take you back to your cell and tie you up again."

For a moment he seemed to be seriously considering it.

".. not in the kinky way. The jailbird way. Just so we're clear."

"You won't let me have any fun." Lucio sighed, deep and dramatic, before dropping on his ass by the door, arms crossed. "Fine, how do I play the dumb guessing game?"

Julian echoed his sigh, running his fingers through his hair. “Well, for starters, I’d hoped you would be a bit more helpful than this.”

He gestured at his current posture. Lucio simply stuck his tongue out at him.

“This is the best you’re gonna get, Jules. I haven’t become that obliging in my old age.”

His only solace was that acting like a stubborn brat probably meant he was finally starting to recover from his little out of body jaunt across the ship, and as such, the rising frustration was easy enough to quash. He could work with this. It was fine.

Taking a deep breath, he gazed out across the wreckage of his quarters, honestly at a loss for where to start. Lucio had moved since then, and he wasn’t sure that was any closer to where it wanted to be anyway.

Finally Julian moved towards the far west corner of the room, glancing questioningly at the door.

“Ice cold.”

Over to the right, amongst some papers?

“Cold.”

Maybe down here on the floor, under his desk.

“Colder than your stupid feet.”

“Please try to take this seriously,” He sighed.

Lucio’s voice scoffed. “I’m not the one with ice blocks for feet, and I’m certainly not the one that kept sticking them on somebody’s ass all night.”

Focus , Lucio.” 

“This is stupid! How am I supposed to remember where to find something I don’t even know I was looking for?” He groaned and flopped back against the wall, then, after a moment, “Lukewarm. Like reheated cabbage.”

“You didn’t even look.”

“Maybe it just feels like reheated cabbage over there, I don’t know. Either keep going or find something better for us to do.”

He stood awkwardly next to the bed and lifted the sheets from the floor.

“Cold again.”

He made his way towards the other side of the door, where his doctor’s bag was still lying, currently untouched. Lucio squinted at it, then back up at him for a long moment, as if really trying to think about this one.

“.. pretty warm? Warm-ish??”

Julian opened the doctor’s bag, and caught sight of horns first, dredging the painted skull up from the abyss.

“No, I don’t think it was that-- I just got distracted--”

His eyes were caught in implacable empty sockets, forcing himself not to flinch away but really look at the thing for the first time since the Raven. 

His gaze traced along the markings around its eyes, its forehead, its snout - the attention to detail in the exact shape of the onyx horns, carved and painted from some other bone - meticulously designed so that it would look the most like the Devil despite being a completely different creature.

For a moment he almost thought he saw a flicker of crimson in the sockets, gazing back at him. Daring him to say what he thought. 

Interesting how you would bow to a knave before a king, Lucio's voice sneered in his head. Off kilter, too deep, like it didn't fit in his mouth.

What if it wasn't Arsenic that was the knave?

His gut clenched.

“Lucio... “ He slowly turned the mask to face its owner. “Do you think maybe this could be your friend?”

“I made that myself, there’s nothing--” 

“Not the mask. What it represents. Or rather, whom it represents.”

Chapter Text

Whatever Lucio had been trying to say died in his throat as he was the one caught in those dark sockets, staring up at it with a mix of wonder and horror. “No, that’s impossible. You and Arsenic killed him, didn’t you?”

“The Devil is an archetype, an idea. He can’t be killed. We sealed him in his own realm, for what we thought was going to be a very long time.”

But there was no telling what had gone on after they left. 

“You said-- you said he was still dead. You checked .” He made his way towards the stunned figure crouched by the door, the skull still in hand. He couldn’t let go of it. “What did you mean by that? What exactly did you do?”

“I don’t--” 

Think , Lucio.”

By the time the former Count seemed to remember he could run, it was too late, his back was up against the wall and Julian was standing over him. He looked small and scared - and guilty, like he knew he’d done something wrong but not what.

“Look, if you don’t tell me, you’re going to have to tell Arsenic.” He sighed, hating that he had to weaponize his fiance in this way.

“Tell me what?”

At the sound of their voice, Lucio immediately ducked behind Julian’s legs, hardly hidden but he didn’t have the heart to tell him. Malak squawked and flapped over to land on their shoulder, preening himself.

“Wait, if you're here , who's watching.." The captain’s brow arched, looking between the cowering creature behind him and his face, notably not looking at the thing in his hands. “... taking your goat for a walk?”

“I suppose? He, er-- had another episode , and I let him escape to see where it would lead me. He's awake now, it's fine, situation under control." A quiet whimper sounded behind his legs. "Mostly under control."

"I don't wanna tell 'em," Lucio's voice murmured. 

After a moment Arsenic knelt down on the other side of Julian's legs, heedless of the flush climbing his face as he tried not to think about the other times they had been in a similar position. He simply stood there awkwardly holding the skull, acting as a most unconventional prison wall. Malak irritably croaked and hopped onto the floor to serve as an additional warden.

"Are you scared of me, Lucio?" They frowned. "I'm not going to kill you, remember? I want to help you."

"It's okay, we're all friends here, aren't we?" Julian added, uncertainly.

They glanced up at him, then gave his knees a gentle, disarming smile. 

"Yeah, we're friends. You can tell us anything."

He suddenly realized he probably should have informed them of what exactly he was trying to get him to tell, and equally suddenly that if he opened his big mouth now, Lucio may be knocked off track again. He could feel trembling fingers digging into the back of his knee, almost kneading his pant leg, presumably something to help ground him while he gathered his courage.

"... I asked him to help me. I was scared and alone, I didn't know what else to do." Was the response, after a long moment of silence. The fingers suddenly clamped down. "But nothing happened! The stupid statue broke and he wasn't there! He abandoned me too!"

There was a soft hiss of pain, presumably from another headache. The Devil adding in his own two cents.

"What statue? What's this about?" Arsenic was looking up at him, and their eyes finally alighted on the mask in his hands, caught there like the other two before them, a dawning of realization on their face. ".. that statue?"

"I'm afraid so, dear."

Lucio abruptly pushed past his legs, nearly knocking him to the floor, suddenly gripping Arsenic's shoulders. "Jules said-- he thinks the thing inside me is the Devil. It can't be the Devil, can it? You got rid of him. Please tell me it's not him."

Rather than answer immediately, they gently pulled him to his feet, releasing him to slowly, reluctantly rest a hand on the skull in their fiance's grip, like forcing themself to touch a half-rotten corpse that was still gooey, their eyes falling closed in familiar magical concentration. Trying to get a read on it.

After a long moment, their hand relaxed. 

"This thing's energy was throwing me off, but.. these are just echoes. Residual magic." 

The other hand then rested against Lucio's chest, and he saw them both go completely rigid. He was armed again, he wondered if he should warn them. "Yeah, it's a lot stronger here, almost overpowering. I don't know how I missed that before-- maybe because my own magic was covering it?"

"Is it the Devil's magic?" Julian asked, mainly for the other man's benefit, as he seemed paralyzed under their hand.

Arsenic opened their eyes and looked straight at Lucio, expression grim.

"There's no mistaking that presence. He might be a lot weaker than the last time we saw him, but he is absolutely in there."

The former Count immediately quailed behind Julian again, as if hiding from them would change their answer. He could feel him trembling against his back, his claws digging into his shirt like grabbing for a lifeline. He found himself wondering what the Devil thought of his vessel cowering in this way.

He quickly quashed that thought as it came with the realization that the Devil knew way too much, he didn't want to think about how he'd heard him - both of them - the whole time in the past few days. Watched him. Felt him. Violating their private moments. Somehow it was worse than some nameless entity doing these things.

Augh , he'd been kissing the Devil.

"I don't know what you did, but he's bound to you instead of his realm." The captain continued, taking the skull out of Julian's hands. "You're chained together, connected by your soul and his magic."

***

“We need to break the connection.” Arsenic said solemnly.

“We must break the connection.” The High Priestess intones.

He’s trapped. He doesn’t remember the specifics but he knows he can’t get free, no matter how much he struggles. All around him are implacable animal faces, casting judgment. 

Someone has gagged him, ‘as a precaution’. He doesn’t know why. No one listened to him before.

“But without the Fool, how will we unbind them?”

“Perhaps we could encourage him to leave on his own, by making his vessel.. uninhabitable.” The Emperor’s tone is cold, eyes focused directly on Lucio. “Force the body through so much stress that it shuts down, and he will have no choice but to abandon it.”

He’s already stressed. He doesn’t want this. He’s shaking his head and no one else is looking. A voice laughs, but the gathered council is stone-faced.

“The vessel is only mortal. That could kill him.”

The Chariot’s feline snout twists into a grim sneer. “Perhaps the bastard will follow him to the grave and find himself bound there, instead.”

He’s shaking like a scared child as the High Priestess approaches, making another pass at struggling against his bonds with a helpless, muffled whimper. He doesn’t want to die again. He won’t come back this time, he knows it.

“We’ll try what we can before we must resort to that.” The avian creature sighs, pity in her eyes. 

Her hands rise up to press against his temples, holding his head between them, and he falls still in her grasp. Her large tyrian eyes fall shut in deep concentration. He can just barely feel the brush of cold wings swooping down inside his mind, claws outstretched for something deeper in.

Before they can find their prey, blinding red agony rips through his skull and his body, threatening to tear him apart.

The pain of the memory faded into a throbbing at the base of his skull, like something was trying to crush his spine. He found himself clinging to Julian’s side, burrowing his face in his shirt to block out the light and the distant sounds of his own voice screaming.

“No, no breaking,” Lucio whimpered. “I don’t want to be broken.”

He felt an arm curl around him, casual but firm. “They’re not breaking you , they’re breaking the connection between you and the Devil. Piece of cake, right, darling?”

Bright green eyes like cat's eyes bore into his own as the captain moved closer, expression inscrutable. It was like they were staring through him, somewhere deep in his soul. He couldn't look away, even as the ache in his head grew unbearable, pounding like war drums.

"He's in there pretty good, but I think I can get him," Arsenic said finally, then frowned. "Not here, though."

"Why not?"

The eyes thankfully moved away from him to stare up at Jules, incredulous. "We're in the human realm. If I get him out now, he's going to be running rampant in our reality. You know, one of the reasons we had to seal him in the first place?"

".. ah. Of course." That was the sound of a man gargling his own foot if he ever heard one.

"Is it going to be like the last time?" He blurted out, remembering that pain. "Will it hurt less if I want him gone??"

"I don't know, maybe? You do want to do this, don't you?"

The barest hint of a nod, not quick enough to stop another bolt of red agony from twisting through his skull as a clear punishment. He wasn't going to change his answer, though.

After a moment of deliberation, Arsenic stepped back and motioned for them to follow, before turning on their heels and marching further up the hall. Julian started moving without hesitation, at a similarly brisk pace, and Lucio had to half-jog to keep up with those ridiculous limbs, his claws still tightly buried in his shirt to keep them from getting separated.

It wasn’t enough of a distraction to ignore the feeling of dread creeping into his gut, unsure of where they were going but pretty sure it was nowhere good.

If they weren’t going to do this in this realm, that only left one alternative.

They came to a stop in the captain’s bedchambers, slightly different in the daylight. Here he could see more dark shelves with more books, and the pelts and skulls of different animals across the room. 

It was the latter the captain seemed to be interested in, collecting a few off their shelves and beginning to arrange them in some specific order unknown to anyone but them on the floor by the bed. One wide circle of skulls, and then a line across the middle.

“I just want to let you know, I’m still practicing this, so the gate may not hold up for very long,” They were saying. “But it does pretty reliably lead to the magical realms.”

He knew that’s what they were going to say, that was the most logical next step -  but it still hit him like a ton of bricks, his body going cold with remembered fear. Immediately he clung to his doctor’s side, practically burying himself inside his shirt, already shaking.

“Don’t make me go back there. Please.”

“I’m sorry, Lucio, but we have to.” Julian’s voice was gentle but distant, barely feeling his arm against his back, holding him in place. Trapping him there.

He heard himself whimper, miles away. “They’ll kill me, Jules. I can’t go back.” 

“It’ll be okay, I’ll be with you the whole time.” Arsenic’s voice murmured. “The Arcana trust me, they’ll trust I know what I’m doing. And if they try to hurt you, I’ll stop them, simple as that.”

As they spoke, they gently took his right hand in theirs, and began to pull him away from Julian, towards what looked to be an open doorway made of glowing skulls. When he tried to pull back, he felt his doctor nudge him forward, pushing him towards the gate. After a moment he reluctantly followed along with them, warily watching the gate.

Eyes focused on the portal instead of where he was going, he stumbled over one of the real skulls-- a horse, of course, Death grinning up at him from the floor.

"No!" 

In an instant any glimmer of going along with this was cast aside in favor of running, jerking his hand free and bolting towards the door. He nearly made it across the threshold before long, surprisingly strong limbs hooked around him, pulling him back, instinctively thrashing in his grip to no avail.

Lucio twisted around, claws swinging, catching sight of dark bruises and managing to divert the blow into roughly grabbing for his shirt instead, using it to coil his body tightly against his chest in hopes it might stop him from pulling him towards the damn gate, not without taking him with him. He could feel its magic calling him, sharp knives under his skin.

"You can't make me go back there, you can't, I won't do it," He was practically sobbing into Julian's chest. "I don't want to go, don't make me go, Jules, please-- "

His captor had stopped moving, and when he spoke his voice was uncertain. "Are you sure we have to do this right now? He's already had quite a day."

"The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can help you heal from it." Arsenic's voice was much more convicted, addressing him directly. "I know you're scared, but I promise it won't take very long and we'll come right back, I won't leave you in there."

He could feel him shifting uneasily against him, torn between comfort and duty, his will far too easily crumbling beneath those bright green eyes. Distantly, desperately, he’d hoped he’d continue to fight.

“.. you won’t be alone again. We aren’t going to abandon you.”

Instead Julian resumed slowly, reluctantly walking him towards the gate, and he was too scared to fight it, allowing himself to be moved. The glimmering vortex inside the skulls flickered and dimmed as he was brought closer to it, almost as if it was pulling away from him like he was pulling away from it.

Good. Let it fizzle out, tumble and break. He focused on that instead, envisioning the glowing skulls bouncing across the floor - startling as one of them actually fell from its place on top of the archway.

“I’m going to need your help to keep the gate open, Julian,” Arsenic frowned. “There’s some kind of resistance, something’s interfering with it.”

Their hand gripped one of Julian’s, his other still tightly wound around him. He could feel the thrum of magic, warm and liquid like blood, and the vortex began to brighten and strengthen, another skull taking the fallen one’s place, that brief sense of control immediately stripped away from him.

“It’s okay, it’ll be okay, I’m here,” Julian was muttering into his ear like a mantra, probably realizing that he was the one affecting it. “Should I call in Pasha for backup?”

“I don’t know if there’s enough time. It may collapse before she gets here.”

He made one last attempt at struggling against the long arm curled around him, the pinpricks of tears in his eyes. "Don't-- don't do this to me, please-- I'll help you catch him, I'll do anything--"

“Relax, Lucio, it won’t take a moment. Please relax." There was a hard edge in his voice he didn't like. Distancing himself from this. That's what you did when a patient was about to die, right? "You’re only making this much harder on yourself. I promise their personal gate is quite pleasant on the other side, if you uh, don’t mind the decor.”

This close, he could feel the magic of it trying to draw him in instead of push him away, a painful grip on his insides as if it was trying to pull them out of him. He distantly felt Arsenic’s other hand gently take his right hand again, leading it towards the vortex. 

“We can test the waters, first--”

The moment it made contact, bright red agony twisted through him, starting from his arm up into his spine, threatening to tear him in half - one part moving forward, the other rearing back, two voices crying out in pain or maybe fear or maybe rage-- 

He could feel his body begin to slip away from him, and he immediately dug his metaphorical claws into it to force it to stay in place-- he couldn't afford to lose this one, it would likely remain occupied without him and he couldn't bear it, refused to let the Devil have it, pushing against the other set of hands pulling at his soul, jostling against each other--

In an instant his vision was completely red, and his left hand automatically swung for the cause of his pain, two sets of claws piercing through the veil and tearing the gate apart, the pressure against his right wrist and his body loosening enough that he could wrench himself free.

A deep voice - the Devil’s voice - growled into his ear, and this time he understood it, clear as day.

Run.

Once again he bolted, blindly charging past human shaped shadows in the red fog of his mind, body twisting out of reach of grabbing hands, his own pulse drowning out distant alarmed voices. He didn’t know where he was running other than away. 

Had to get away. Couldn’t go back. He knew they were united on that front. 

His legs moved almost independently of him, and he was forced to trust that they knew where they were going, that the monster inside him knew where they were going - he couldn’t see anything but red.

In a fit of desperation he let himself pull back, leaning into that feeling of being moved by something else - he felt his hooves slip on the hardwood, spindly limbs supporting them twisting and crumbling beneath him, threatening to pitch him across the floor - stumbling and catching himself on a wall he couldn’t see, pulling himself forward again on human feet and a human mind.

The bastard needed him. He couldn’t do this alone. Not very well, in any case.

Red agony twisted through him as penance for that thought, but he didn’t stop running. Soon the warm stale air of the cabin turned to cold salty breezes along the sea, whipping through his hair and tugging at his clothes, indicating he’d found his way above deck.

More dark shapes advanced on him, surrounding him, and this time he hunkered down and rammed headlong into them, golden shoulder first, not slowing down for a second. Clearly not expecting this, for the most part they went down like sacks of potatoes. 

One managed to remain standing, and as they grabbed for him he changed tacks and leapt on top of them, using their body as a springboard to fling himself further along the deck.

His feet met air instead of wood when he came back down. 

And down.

And down.

They were falling. He’d jumped off the ship. 

Instinctively his arms and legs lashed out, clawing and thrashing at the air as though he could slow or stop his descent, a desperate scream ripping from his lungs seconds before the cold water tore the rest of his breath out of him.

He felt himself being dragged under by the wake of the ship, fear and cold sapping his strength as he tried to fight against it. There was nothing underfoot he could catch himself on, just open ocean, fathomless depths beneath him, threatening to swallow him. His vision was still blinded with red, as if he was drowning in blood, unable to see which way was up or forward.

That wasn’t helping. He couldn’t see and he couldn’t swim. Could the Devil swim?? 

Desperate thrashing crested him above the surface of the water for a moment, gasping for breath and sucking in more water than air, his face burning from salt in his wounds, salt in his eyes, tears blended into the sea.

Distantly he heard a voice crying out, somewhere far above him.

“Man overboard!”

They would be coming for him. He should let them save him, shouldn’t he? He was going to die here if he didn't. A cry for help was rising in his throat.

There was the sudden pressure of a broad hand around his throat, silencing him, violently shoving him down, his own hands coming up to helplessly scrabble against it, thrashing and fighting and knowing he wouldn't win-- please don't do this to him, he was definitely going to die if he lost consciousness now--

The waves dragged him under again, and his vision went from red to black.

Chapter Text

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.

Thunk .

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.

“Jules?”

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. 

You’re welcome.

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?  

“N-no.” 

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.”

“He-- what?”

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.

Damn.

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.

Chapter Text

A sharp crack of thunder startled him awake. 

The storm had gotten worse, a torrent of rain pouring through the open parts of the roof in a white sheet - no, a red sheet. His vision was tinted red. He wondered if that meant the Devil had been startled as well.

It was otherwise pitch dark, he was still cold and damp and Julian hadn't moved. The night hadn't moved much either, then. 

Somewhere in it he had shifted from curling against his doctor's side to half lying on top of him, like a blanket in his own right, head nestled against his chest, gratified to hear his heart still beating in it. Maybe a little louder, maybe just because he wanted it to be.

A bright red flash of lightning illuminated his temporary shelter, painting what looked like hospital beds in blood before vanishing back into darkness. 

For a moment it looked like they were occupied. 

His left arm began to ache, restless energy beginning to stir. He could feel something tugging at it. He shuddered and tucked it further underneath him, but the tugging wouldn’t stop.

Another flash. This time he could clearly see dark humanoid forms in the rain. They remained when the darkness returned, vague outlines of bodies painted by the rain with glowing, inhuman eyes, dozens of crimson coals burning into him. He could hear distant voices, whispers in the dark.

You did this to us.

You let us die.

The dark forms were moving closer to him. Surrounding him. He climbed more fully on top of Julian’s unconscious body, in case they made a move for him. The Devil was eerily silent.

This is all your fault.

This last was echoed amongst the group in various distorted voices, filling the room with it, so many voices, thousands of them, growing louder and drowning out the storm. In the next red flash of lightning, he almost recognized some of the faces in the crowd.

“I don’t need this!” Lucio snapped, smothering fear in rage again and finding it harder to swallow. “That was a long time ago! I died too! You can’t pin this on me!”

What once resembled an older man drew closer, arms reaching out for him, intentions unclear but likely nothing good. Instinctively he lashed out with his claws, feeling it catch -- and then the man was gone, and there was blood on his hands, there was blood everywhere, oh god the pain- -

An old pain, a familiar pain, gripping his chest like crimson claws before dissipating with what was left of the ghost. He glanced down in time to see red trails disappearing into his arm.

Inside him . He was absorbing it.

“Wh-- what the hell are you doing?” This was the Devil’s doing, wasn’t it? It had to be. “These are people .”

That’s never stopped you before.

They were still coming. He was torn between protecting Jules and moving further back, a moment of indecision another set of dark hands took advantage of, grabbing for his arm as if pleading for his help, unable to get free before they were gone. 

A jolt of confused mortal terror washed over him - he was fine this morning, wasn’t he? He didn’t deserve this, please, don’t send him here, it’s a death sentence more than the disease! 

He immediately abandoned Julian to scramble away from them, trying to hide, there had to be something here that they couldn’t get through, somehow. He had been a ghost, they could get through anything, but he had to try, they wouldn’t stop coming. 

He could feel them crowding in, too close, far too close.

“Stay back. Stay back, please. I don’t--”

Burning. He was burning again. 

White-hot agony searing through him, tearing him apart, feeling his skin crumple and curl away like brittle parchment in the flames, smoke in his throat, suffocating him, burning away his screams. Burning hands, little more than bone, beating uselessly against iron doors, a crowd of bodies smoldering around him.

He was still alive, turn the furnace off, he was still alive .

The next one wasn’t much better. And the next. Tears were running down his cheeks, tears that he wasn’t sure were completely his, his body flooded with the memories of so many painful deaths, fear and pain and desperation, so much blood, he was drenched in it, choking on it, again and again and again.

They were finally staying back, they didn’t want this either - but the Devil was drawing them in, forcing him to consume them. He couldn’t stop him. Didn’t know how to stop him. He could only sit there and let it happen.

Among scattered, broken minds one thing was certain. 

It was his fault. 

It was all his fault. He’d brought this here. He’d done this. The disease was long gone but the pain was still fresh. Worse now, despite the passage of time - it may have lessened but he had lessened, he no longer had enough ego to shield himself with, driven down to the same dark place these souls occupied.

“I’m-- I’m sorry,” He heard himself whimper, and he wasn’t sure if it was for how they got here or what he was doing to them now. “I’m so sorry.”

Stop your sniveling. They’re only echoes.

He flinched and curled up, arms over his head, trying to block out that voice. He wasn’t sure why he had to be awake for this. He didn’t want to be awake for this.

“It hurts. It hurts so much. Make it stop, please.”

There was the brief incorporeal warmth of a hand on his shoulder, as if one of them was trying to comfort him, and he sobbed outright as he felt their death instead, curling tighter against the wall and shaking as he waited for the taste of blood to go away.

At this point he wasn’t sure it wasn’t his own blood he could taste. He didn't know if the beast would stop if it was.

This was nothing like the intoxicating warmth of Arsenic's magic. He could feel them writhing inside him, a sickening shifting and twisting just beneath the skin, a raw and painful strength thrumming in his bones. His vision was growing redder, blurred bloody outlines and distant glowing eyes. As much as he didn't want to be here for this, it frightened him more that the Devil might crowd him out.

"I don't want this. Please. Make it stop."

He felt himself leaning forward, grabbing for the remains of the crowd, and something inside him snapped, a jolt of explosive panic that sent him scrabbling for a way out. He didn't care that it was raining, he couldn't stay here, he couldn't take much more--

His legs twisted out from underneath him in a distinctly wrong kind of way, not broken but all wrong, almost alien. He couldn't feel his feet. What happened to his feet?

Lucio twisted around and started to grab for them, stopping cold as another flash of lightning illuminated the problem.

Hooves. He had hooves. 

The legs were different to match them, an unmistakable goatlike shape, a thin coat of fur covering the visible length of them, the sudden discomfort in his trousers indicating it started halfway down his thighs. He nearly tore the pant legs off yanking them back, desperately hoping it wasn’t true, finding more fur.

No. No, not this again. He didn't want to be a goat again. 

"Change it back," He whimpered, gingerly gripping the hooves in hopes it was just an illusion and finding they were horribly solid, horribly real . "Please change it back. I don't want to be a monster."

The Devil laughed. A bit late for that, don't you think?

***

Julian stood in an oddly familiar clearing in a dark swamp, dimly painted red by the single street lamp in the very center. 

He couldn’t remember making the trip. He wasn’t supposed to be here.

“Don’t tell me you’ve squandered your choice already, Julian Devorak.” A familiar croaking voice muttered behind him, much less calm than the last time he’d heard it. 

He turned to face its owner, and found that the birdlike creature’s hackles were raised, his energy tense and harried, as if he’d just come back empty-handed - taloned? - from a dangerous hunt. He had to resist the urge to stroke his feathers to calm him.

Something made that much easier by monstrous hands gripping him by the shoulders, head cocked in order to closely peer into his face with one sharp eye. The Hanged Man stared at him for a long, tense moment, before releasing him with a soft sigh, his hackles no lower.

“Thank the gods, only sleeping. I don’t know if I could have handled an additional complication.”

“What’s going on?” He remembered at once what was going on before he’d finished asking. “The Devil is out, isn’t he? He escaped the realms in Lucio's body.”

The Hanged Man squawked, giving him a paranoid look that very keenly reminded him of Malak. “Yes, yes that is the problem, thank you. What news do you have, Julian Devorak? Did you find him? Is he with you?”

A pang of guilt in his heart and an ache in his head at the same time, his hand coming up to hold the latter as he tried to remember. 

“I-- I don’t know. He was. We were bringing him here to unbind them, but he ran away.”

He remembered Lucio's desperate cries for him not to put him back in the realms. For the second time he’d betrayed his trust, pushed him past his limits in the name of ‘helping’ him. And now he was out there somewhere, alone. Maybe dead. God, what had he done?

“I take it he’s not here either, if you’re asking me,” Julian shook his head and winced. “If-- if Lucio does turn up here before I find him-- please don’t hurt him.”

If those feathers could puff any further, he would likely float away. “The one you call Lucio is a strong vessel and a dangerous asset. He cannot be trusted not to do something like this again. We intended to take care of this problem more permanently before he escaped.”

His heart hurt that much more. So they were trying to kill him. He’d hoped it was another misunderstanding blown out of proportion.

“Please. At least try to talk to him first. He doesn’t want this any more than you do.”

The Hanged Man drew a low, raspy growl through his throat in warning, but his hackles were lowering, as if the sound was deflating him. “I can make no promises, you understand.”

“Oh-- and if Arsenic asks, tell them I’m fine. I am fine, aren’t I?” He frowned. “This isn’t a permanent sleep, is it? That would kind of put a damper on the wedding, unless I suppose they puppeted my corpse down the aisle.”

Despite the tension in his body, the remark garnered a short squawk of laughter. “Is that the custom nowadays? I really must see this wedding for myself.”

The Hanged Man stepped c loser to him again, head tilting curiously, lifting his talons to examine them before placing one hand on his head. Barely resting there, as if he’d thought to pat him to calm him and got stopped in the middle. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Does this feel permanent?”

“No?”

The hand drew back.

“How about now?”

Before Julian could answer, his vision was a blur of black and gray as the hand swung at him in full force.

***

Augh. His aching head.

For a brief moment Julian couldn’t remember why it hurt, wondering when he’d had the time to drink enough for a hangover at a time like this. 

No, no that was an external hurt, maybe a concussion. He didn’t need a concussion at a time like this, either. Visions of murky waters and ashen stone danced through his head in a keenly painful parade.

Oh. Yeah. Rocks.

And the Hanged Man. He wondered if an Arcana could leave lasting damage like that.

The Devil was likely leaving all kinds of damage, if he hadn’t gotten his vessel killed already. He desperately hoped he’d been strong enough to find landfall before that happened - Lucio couldn’t swim, but the Devil clearly could, arcing across the water at inhuman speeds like a damn dolphin. 

He didn’t know why he thought he could catch him. He supposed he hadn’t been thinking at all. Being dashed across some rocks somewhere was probably the least of his worries. 

If he made it back alive, Arsenic was going to kill him.

His awareness was coming to him in small waves, the pain first, a strange pressure against his head, something rocky against his back, and then the warmth of summer air, the smell of dirt after rain, distant sunlight - and hard, wet crunching sounds he didn’t like, too close for comfort. As if some predatory animal was hunched over its kill next to him.

Against his better judgment, he opened his eyes.

There was indeed a dark shape next to him, too big to be an animal. Slowly, carefully, to keep from spooking it, he turned his aching head towards it to get a better look.

It wasn’t an animal at all. It was Lucio, or.. something that used to be Lucio. 

Onyx hooves were pressed tightly together next to his shoulder, leading up to white goatlike legs ha lf exposed by rolled up pant legs, relatively normal hands except that they were clutching the half-eviscerated body of some kind of bird, tearing into its flesh with too-sharp teeth, a pair of onyx horns poking through wild golden hair.

His heart hurt. What had the Devil done to him?

He couldn’t suppress his horrified gasp, garnering the creature’s attention. His eyes had changed, too - silver in a pool of solid crimson, like the stain of the Plague. 

Despite the gore streaking his face, his smile was soft, almost fond. It didn’t reach those eyes.

“Good morning, loverboy. I brought you one, too.”

Something inside him snapped. 

You--! ” 

Without thinking Julian immediately launched himself at the beast, slapping away the remains of the bird in order to grasp both arms and pin him to the ground. The Devil went down surprisingly easy, perhaps caught off-guard. Or toying with him. Not considering him a threat.

“Bastard! Monster! Why couldn’t you just stay where we put you, you wretched thing!? ” Rage rose up in his throat like bile. He’d just been beginning to tame Lucio, he thought, and this bastard had devoured him. He’d never gotten to tell him that he loved him. “We were moving on! We were living! You just had to come in and wreck everything! No one wants you here! Go back to your damn realm and leave us all in peace!”

He could have spent hours screaming obscenities at him, knowing it wouldn’t bring Lucio back. He’d come to save him and he was already gone. He was--

Tears welled up in crimson eyes, a very keenly genuine wounded expression on the monster’s face. The twisted body beneath him was starting to shake, his breath hitching in a sob, flesh and gold fingers curling into helpless fists in his grasp.

“I-I know. I know nobody wants me. I’m sorry.” The Devil whimpered.

Not the Devil. Lucio. He was still here. He was the one who had to face his rage.

All of his strength fled him at once, the rage long gone, replaced by the too-familiar queasy feeling of guilt. He let go of his arms and slid back on his knees, no longer crushing him beneath his bulk. 

“I didn’t mean-- I thought--”

“It’s true, though, isn’t it?” The other man - not a beast, a man - sniffled, slowly pulling himself up off the ground, still staring at him with hurt in his eyes. “No one wants me here. No one wanted me there, either. No one ever wanted me anywhere. I don’t think even Mama wanted me.”

“That’s not true.” But he wasn’t sure. As far as he knew, the Count had never had the best of friends, himself included.

Had he ever had anyone to be close to? 

“I fucked everything up, Jules. I did this. This is my legacy. My empire of ash.” Gesturing at their surroundings - the Lazaret, oh god they were on the Lazaret , no wonder he was broken - with his right hand, crying in earnest now. “All I’ve ever done is screw things up. I didn’t deserve to come back the first time, I sure as hell don’t deserve to be here now.”

His gaze dropped, voice quiet. 

“I should’ve died in the realms like everyone wanted me to, saved you the trouble. You could have had your white wedding and your happy life and you wouldn’t be stuck here with me .”

He spat that last out like a curse, as if the very idea was repulsive. As if he was repulsive. 

Julian found himself waiting for the part where he laughed it off and mocked him for thinking it was genuine. It never came. There was clear pain in his eyes. He felt like an asshole for thinking it was anything but genuine.

Years ago when all of this was a bit more fresh, he might have wanted to hear him eviscerate his own ego like this. Agreeing with what the world seemed to think of him. How far the mighty falls and crumbles faced with consequences of his own actions. 

But he wasn’t mighty anymore. He was alone and scared and who knows what else the Devil had done to him while Julian was unconscious. He didn’t need this too. Not now.

Julian moved towards him, a hand outstretched for a clumsy attempt at comfort. He hissed and shrank away from him as if it was poison, curling up next to the wall, as well as he could with misshapen animal legs.

“You told him you loved me. Why the hell did you do that?”

“I-- because--”

“Look at me, Jules. I’m a monster. I’ve always been a fucking monster, haven’t I? Now I just look like it all over again. Why the hell would you think of loving any of this??”

Suddenly blunted fingernails and sharp claws were buried into his skin, tightly gripping both arms, his face contorted into something between rage and pain as he leaned in close. “Admit it. Tell me I’m a monster. I want to hear you say it to me , this time.”

He knew if he said it, even if it was just to humor him, his heart would shatter into pieces. His own heart wasn’t too far behind on that front.

“I can’t do that.” He murmured.

Without warning those claws tore through his cheek again, in a more deliberate slap to the face. Not as deep as the first time because he was in control of it, but it stung. 

Say it!

For a long moment, Julian didn’t say anything, simply pressing his fingers to his wounds to stem the bleeding. He slowly looked up into those wild, hurt, crying eyes, holding his gaze, taking a deep breath to calm his racing, aching heart. 

The timing probably wasn’t much better now, but he realized it was now or never, given how the Devil seemed to be doing things.

“I love you, Lucio.” 

His arm had been poised to strike again, and at this it immediately dropped, nearly taking the rest of him with it, eyes going wide. There wasn’t the fear, this time, only that lack of comprehension - and coupled with that last bout, he could understand why. He’d felt the same way when Arsenic told him they loved him, even if he’d said it first. 

How could you love something so unloveable?

He wasn’t sure he understood it any better on this side.

“Now, now-- I don’t know if this cheapens it, but I want you to know, you’re under no obligation to love me back. I know it’s complicated. I just thought you should know. You should know.”

The former Count continued to stay silent, his eyes dropping to the ground as his hands fidgeted with his shirt, tearing off a few shreds from already torn edges. He then scooped up the uneaten bird, hesitating for a moment as though expecting him to slap it out of his hand again, before gently placing both shreds and bird into Julian’s lap. It was still warm.

He stared at his own offering for a long moment, brows furrowed in consternation, tears beginning to well up in his eyes again. “M’sorry it’s cold. He said I couldn’t use the resources.”

Before he could react, Lucio was suddenly up close and personal again, pressing a rather desperate kiss to his lips that tasted like blood and smoke, pulling away just as quickly as his breath hitched in another sob, as if trying to protect him from his own emotional overflow. 

Julian immediately tried to grab for him and keep him close, to show him it was okay, tears and blood and fangs and all-- but it was too late, he was already slinking away and curling up inside what looked to be the decrepit remains of a large furnace, his back to him, soft sobbing echoing through blackened iron.

That was alright. He would say it when he was ready. Or he’d never say it at all. But he had a feeling it was there in his heart. He hoped that wasn’t why he was crying.

His attention turned back to his ‘gifts’, gingerly setting the bird aside in order to inspect the shreds of fabric. Bandages. He was trying to bandage his wounds. His hand moved up to the pressure around his head, nearly forgotten in all the madness, and found more fabric there.

“You should go home. Let me join the rest of the relics here.” The furnace sniffled.

Oh, he recognized that tone. He’d used it before himself. A last ditch effort to push someone away, while not wanting them to leave.

“Some might consider me a relic, too, you know,” Julian said idly, a small smile playing on his lips at a sudden bout of nostalgia. He wasn’t sure if elaborating on that was best suited here, though. “We’re both a couple of bygones, aren’t we?”

As he spoke, he clambered into the furnace behind him, very slowly and carefully lowering himself to the ground until he could drape his arm over his waist, keeping his grip light and easy to escape. 

He felt him tense up against him..  and then after a moment he shifted until his back was tightly pressed against his chest, his captor taking the opportunity to more fully curl his arms around him, nestling his face in the nape of his neck, mindful of the horns. His hair still smelled like the sea.

“Do you think you’re in any shape to swim back?” 

A rattle of horns.

“Then we’ll wait here to be rescued, together. Two old men in a pit.” He made a face. “And the Devil makes three.”

“... are you calling him old?” 

“Well I’m not calling him for dinner.”

A little snort-giggle escaped his captive monster, slowly relaxing in his grip. He leaned further up to press a kiss to one of those horns, for himself as much as Lucio - if these were staying, which he rather hoped they weren’t, then he would love them too.

He started to thread a human leg between more monstrous ones, intending to show him he didn’t mind them either, but they both immediately withdrew to curl tightly against his body, giving him more of a fetal position in his arms. If he touched them in any further capacity, he would likely kick him.

“He’s not, uh, active right now, is he? I’ve noticed a distinct lack of murder attempts.” He felt him starting to tense again, but curiosity overran common sense. “How does he feel about being the little spoon?”

This time Lucio outright laughed. “He says we disgust him but he can’t be bothered to move.”

“If you roll over, we can disgust him more~”

Chapter Text

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Julian Devorak.” 

He didn’t even have to open his eyes to know that it wasn't Lucio at the helm. Clearly he couldn’t be bothered to keep up the pretense otherwise.

“If you try to strangle me again, I’m going to dunk you in the ocean for a timeout.”

There was a low chuckle like rattling bones, and the warmth once tenderly curled against his side moved, the sudden weight pressing down on him informing him he was now straddling his waist, bracing his hands on his chest. 

Against his better judgment - he wasn’t sure he wanted to see him there, he’d wanted him there before but not here, they couldn’t possibly do that here - he let his eyes open, watching Lucio's body carefully.

“Such hostility,” The Devil tsked, but he was grinning, that predatory grin that made his current position so much worse . “I have a proposition for you.”

“I’m sure I don’t want to hear it,” The former doctor grunted. 

“Are you, now?”

The beast lowered himself more fully onto Julian’s body, face inches away from his own, an achingly light brush of lips to lips, hips to hips. Lucio’s instincts, he imagined. Instinctively he leaned up towards him, only to have those lips dip down and investigate the bruises he left before on his bare throat, pressing down just hard enough to hurt.

He ran his tongue up along his neck to his jaw before drawing back, a gleam of more monstrous interest in his eyes. “You wanted to save him, didn’t you? You came all this way.”

A cold feeling began to gather in his gut.

“What if I told you that you still can?”

“The only way to ‘save’ him is to get rid of you, ” Julian snapped. 

The Devil’s grin widened. “ Exactly .”

That cold feeling was getting worse. The Devil didn’t want to go back to the realms either, he was sure of it. He’d helped Lucio escape the attempt to put them in, destroying the gate and swimming across the open ocean. 

There was something more to this than he was pretty sure he wanted to know.

“I.. I don’t follow.”

“You can free him from this." Gesturing towards himself - the horns, the eyes, the hooves. "All you have to do is take his place."

Oh, there it was.

"A bit of a downgrade, don't you think?" Julian weakly joked, nervously shifting beneath him. 

He was trying not to think too hard about it, because he knew it would be worryingly easy to find a reason to agree. If Lucio could handle the bastard in his broken state, surely he could. And he had no qualms about depositing him in the realms once the deal was struck. There was nothing saying he couldn't.

.. he supposed he wasn't trying that hard not to think about it.

“This vessel is growing weaker by the day, Julian. I don’t know how much longer he’ll last me.” The Devil sighed, examining his vessel’s claws in lieu of his own, expression contorted into a mockery of pity. “Sooner or later, he’ll fall apart. Slowly, painfully, piece by piece until nothing of him is left. Surely you don’t want to witness this?”

“N-no. No I don’t.”

It was bad enough watching him now. Desperate, broken, alone. He was already pushed to his limits, it wouldn’t take that much more to lose him. 

The Devil tilted his head, exposing scabbed up gashes down the side of his neck. “He did this, trying to escape me. There will be more. If he doesn’t break down first, he will tear himself apart. You don’t want to see that either, do you?”

Without thinking his hands were on the demon’s wounds, startling both of them, magic halfway across the gashes before he realized what he was doing. The Devil purred and leaned into his touch, and though he knew he shouldn’t be feeding him, he couldn’t very well leave the job half done, leaving his hands there until the wounds were gone.

Yet another point in favor of agreeing. As far as he knew, Lucio couldn’t heal himself. He could only make damage, not remove it.

Julian swallowed. “What would happen to him, if I were to--?” 

“That’s no concern of mine.” The Devil scoffed.

“And-- Arsenic?”

Tilting his head the other way, monstrous eyes curious. “The magician will remain unharmed as long as you do what you’re told. You’re very good at that, aren’t you?”

He hated that he liked that comment, in that voice. He hated every part of this, including how he had to bite down on his lip and clamp his eyes shut to regain some kind of sense before he said anything else he might regret.

What would Arsenic think? What would Lucio think?? If the bastard proved too strong for him -- what would happen to the wedding? Would he pretend nothing was different and go through with it anyway, forcing Arsenic to tie themselves to a demon?? Take their body on the honeymoon, maybe by giving them the same ultimatum?

What were his plans in this realm at all? Ruining Lucio's life wasn’t it, it was already ruined. He was gathering magic. He was trying to grow stronger. What was he trying to do??

Why did he need him, specifically???

“I-- I can’t--”

There was another brush of lips on lips, this time pressing down in an actual kiss, and he couldn’t move, lying still on the ground beneath him, just letting himself be kissed and waiting for the tugging sensation of stealing magic that thankfully never came.

“Now, you’re under no obligation to agree right now, ” The Devil chuckled, idly tapping his chest with a finger. “Matters of the heart are very complicated, aren’t they? I just want you to think about it.”

As he opened his eyes, he saw the change in the crimson ones above him, from hard and predatory to groggy and confused. Lucio was waking up.

He glanced down at his position atop Julian, realizing how close they were, a soft tinge of red spreading across gaunt cheeks. “Were we going to--?? I thought you said that would be too weird, considering the circumstances.”

“Yes-- I mean, no , we’re not doing that, because yes it is weird. Like doing it in a graveyard.” 

Julian abruptly sat up, a hand moving to brace against his back so he would fall into his lap rather than on the ground, the movement startling a little questioning yip out of him, his fingers automatically digging into his shirt. This position wasn’t much better, thighs wrapped around his waist, in very close quarters.

“... wait a minute. I feel smug. Not my smug. What did he say to you?” He scowled and yanked on one of his own horns like a schoolmarm grabbing the ear of a troublemaker. “What did you tell him?? Answer me, damn it!” 

He wasn’t entirely sure that was how one got in communication with their demon - and he wasn’t entirely sure shaking it like that was going to help. For lack of any better ideas, he reached up to gently free the horn from his punishing grip.

“Bastard. Ignore me, see if I care.” Lucio grunted, making no move to stop him.

“He won’t talk to you? I’d say that’s an improvement.”

He couldn’t possibly tell him about the deal. How close he was to agreeing to it.

“You-- ah, didn’t miss much. Just an intimidation tactic, I think. Don’t worry about it.” Julian gave his best disarming smile, nervously running his hand through his hair. “Would you like to explore the island with me? We can catch more birds.”

The former Count slowly slid out of his lap, that melancholic look returning. “There’s nothing here but ghosts. And birds. And you didn’t even eat the first one I gave you.”

Something dark and formless shifted in the corner of his eye, as if summoned by the mention of ghosts. He supposed of anywhere in Vesuvia, this would be the most likely to be haunted by the restless dead. He tried not to think about that.

When he turned his attention back to Lucio, he was once again curled up at the back of the furnace, a small ball with horns and hooves. He wasn’t crying again yet, at least.

“Are you sure you want to stay here alone??”

The ball curled tighter. “... I’m not alone.”

***

He was still there when Julian came back, silent as the grave.

“Lucio? I’m back,” He announced, and was gratified to see a slight twitch of sulky hooves in response, indicating he was still alive. “I ah-- couldn’t catch any birds but I found a lizard, hopefully it isn’t poisonous. You can have the front half.”

“... m’not hungry.”

It had been hours since he’d woken up to the sight of gore on his face, and he hadn’t even finished eating the bird. Even on his deathbed he hadn’t turned down food, regardless of whether or not he could actually eat it. (More often than not, he couldn’t, but it was the principle of the matter.)

Julian frowned. “You’ve got to eat something.”

“I don’t WANT your stupid lizard, or your pity. Stop caring about me.”

He realized at once he shouldn’t have left him here alone, even for a moment, even if he’d been  just outside the crematorium walls. Without the distraction of another person, he’d fallen back into those dark thoughts, and there was no telling what the Devil was doing to make it worse inside him.

The lizard was gently placed alongside the whole bird given to him earlier, somehow in somewhat good condition hours later. Even if it was rotten, he could cook the hell out of it and neither of them would notice. Not that different from sea life. 

That could wait a little longer, though. Right now, he had to rescue his dining partner.

Julian moved towards the furnace, slow and careful in case the sulk turned into another burst of violence. “You realize, of course, telling someone to stop doing a thing encourages them to do that thing harder.”

“Yeah, well, stop it. I don’t deserve it.” The hooves pulled further up until they were barely visible. “At least have the guts to hate me like a decent person.”

“Bold of you to assume I’m a decent person.” He chuckled.

His fingers curled around a weathered human skull peeking out of the ashes next to the other man’s hiding place, one of a small pile of them, bringing it inside the furnace with him - for the second time, he imagined - as he sprawled out in front of Lucio, forcing him to face him. Crimson tinted eyes narrowed, but he didn’t move away just yet.

Channeling Arsenic for a moment, he reached up and grasped its jaw, half stuck together by god knows what, jiggling it up and down as if it was speaking. “I’m just so lonely , Lucio. I don’t got no body .”

“Jules, that’s gross, put it back.” 

Lucio abruptly rolled over on his other side, away from him, but he saw a hint of a smile passing across his face before it was out of sight.

“What’s a skeleton’s favorite food?” Julian made the skull peer over his shoulder, taking care not to touch him with it. “Come on, guess.”

“Gonna be a knuckle sandwich in a minute.”

“Spare ribs!” 

He clacked the teeth in rapid succession like it was laughing.

Augh , that’s terrible.” His audience snorted, pushing the skull away with one hand on his way to roll over, now somewhere between lying on his back and on the side facing him again, trying to hide his mirth in a pout.

“Tibia honest, I’ve got thousands of ‘em. They can’t all be humerus.” 

Naknaknaknaknak.

“Aren’t you the one that’s scared of ghosts?? Cause I feel like that’s how you get ghosts.”

“Fitting, then, that I’m trying to lift your spirits,” This was said with his own mouth, without the clacking of jaws, as he began to realize what he was doing. He turned his new friend to face him, a put-on stern expression on his face. “You wouldn’t possibly be thinking of haunting me, would you? It’s a thankless job.”

The skull remained motionless in his grasp, although the positioning of its sockets made it look a little cheeky.

“Honestly though, don’t worry about ‘em. They’re too scared of me to come near us.” Lucio rolled the rest of the way over, not bothering to hide his grin. It was a little pained. “D’you want a demonstration?”

He finally began to emerge from his corner of the furnace, squinting at a patch of nothing for a moment before reaching out his left hand. Something dark and formless rippled and swiftly vanished in the opposite direction, even though there was no danger of making contact, the sound of frantic chain rattling echoing through the room.

Though he clearly intended for this to happen, he still looked a bit hurt by it, withdrawing his hand and staring at the ground. "We got acquainted , last night. A little too personally. Nobody wants that to happen again, especially me."

".. do you want to talk about it?" 

He knew that telling him it had happened at all was a feat in itself. Lucio was commonly of the opinion that if he kept something to himself, he could pretend it didn't exist.

The glimmer of tears was forming in his eyes again, immediately wiping at them and shaking his head. " Fuck no. Lemme see your lizard."

"Tsk, not on the Lazaret."

"Not that lizard, Jules," Lucio snorted and playfully shoved him aside as he crawled the rest of the way out of the furnace. 

Julian couldn’t help but notice he wasn’t putting any weight on the hooves, dragging them behind him and walking on his knees instead. He chose not to point that out right now, instead placing the skull back in its pile and following him back to the small pile of dead animals a few paces out.

He was inspecting the lizard, somewhat dry and desiccated, holding it up by the tail and sniffing it. The tail cracked and split in half, the body falling into his other hand.

“Your lizard sucks.”

“It was originally supposed to be bird bait.” Julian sighed.

“Shame on you, trying to feed me bird food,” And yet he promptly popped the remains into his mouth, calmly crunching them down like it was a particularly dry biscuit. 

Once it was gone, he picked up the bird and was sniffing that, looking very much intent on biting into it despite its questionable condition, and Julian immediately snatched it out of his grip before he could. He pouted but didn’t seem bent on taking it back.

“I was going to cook this one,” His doctor explained. “Is this how you used to live in the realms? Eating raw animals and imaginary grapes?”

The pout deepened. “I cooked ‘em too, I just didn’t always have the time. I’m not a.. barbarian ..”

Lucio’s voice drifted off as his fingers came up to pick at his newly sharpened teeth, starting to clear out lizard pieces and seemingly remembering they had changed, his other hand coming up to gingerly stroke along a horn, expression crumpling. 

Not a barbarian , he clearly wanted to say, just a monster .

“.. I swear I cooked ‘em too.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ve eaten plenty of things I shouldn’t at sea,” Julian weakly chuckled, setting the bird down in order to have both hands free to build a little makeshift fire pit out of scattered ashen stone.

Out of habit he reached into his pockets for a matchbook, finding nothing but seaweed. Oh, that was right, he was trying to rely a little more on magic for that, for Arsenic. He made a face, but set about preparing to cast the fire spell they taught him, drawing a little spell circle in the ashes inside the fire pit.

“Wait, lemme do it.” Lucio had been simply watching him, and at this he leaned forward, trying to push Julian’s hands off the circle.

“I thought you--” 

“I can do it, Jules. I’m not totally useless.”

He reluctantly began to pull back, then stopped, remembering his comment about the ‘resources’. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Not that I doubt you or anything, but--”

“Let me do this for you, damn it!” 

He took advantage of his hesitation to smack both hands off the circle, placing his own there and closing his eyes in deep, turbulent concentration. He looked like he was about to cry again. Julian busied himself with threading the bird onto something to hold it over the fire, assuming there would be one, watching him warily. 

“What Arsenic told me was to picture something burning, if you, uh, need any help.” He wasn’t about to tell him what - or rather, whom - he’d pictured before. “Do you need help?”

His lips twitched into a snarl, though his eyes remained closed. “ I know what I’m fucking doing!

As if the words themselves were a match, the fire pit was suddenly engulfed in flame, more of a bonfire than a tiny cooking fire, spilling out of the stone and lashing out towards both men with impunity. The flames themselves were black that faded into red, instead of the normal orange and red, probably from the influence of the Devil.

Julian yelped and scrambled back, bird forgotten in favor of frantically patting down his clothing, unsure of what kind of wounds such a blaze would leave and in no hurry to find out. He could hardly see the cause of it through the flames, distantly hoping it wouldn’t hurt him.

“Wait, wait! Calm down! It’s okay! You did it!”

A flash of startled red and silver, staring at the flames in sheer terror. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t control it. It was spreading all around him and he was paralyzed.

“Lucio? Lucio! Can you hear me?” God, did he picture the same thing? “You did this, you can fix this, okay? Just imagine it’s gone and it’ll go.”

“I-I can’t. Jules, help me, I’m sorry.”

Lucio curled up, hands over his head, and though he wasn’t any calmer, the flames seemed to be receding a bit. They were still surrounding him, and he clearly expected to die. Without thinking Julian jumped across the pit and promptly grabbed him, holding him tight against his chest, acting as a shield.

In an instant the fire was gone, as if put out by his body.

“I’m sorry, I fucked it up, I just-- I just wanted to help--” He was sobbing into his chest, shaking in his arms like a scared child all over again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright, I shouldn’t have doubted you,” Julian pulled him more fully into his lap, stroking his hair. “Magic is temperamental at the best of times, and you’re under a lot of stress right now. You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

A miserable sniff, burying his face in his neck. “I could’ve killed you. Over a stupid bird.”

The bird in question was a blackened mess near the circle, definitely in no condition to be eaten now. To be fair, he probably would have made a similar mess of it himself.

“You didn’t, see? I’m fine. We survived.” He gently tipped his chin up to face him, pressing a kiss to the trail of tears down one sharp cheekbone. “One mistake on its own isn’t going to immediately lead to catastrophe, you know.”

“You’re one to talk. You made the mistake of picking me up and look where it’s got you.”

“I said immediately. Immediate catastrophe is if I picked you up and my house collapsed.” He kissed him on the lips this time. “There were a few more mistakes in the middle.”

His captive grunted and leaned up to kiss him back, a bit more aggressively. “Arsenic’s made you completely insufferable, you know that, right?”

“Alas, that is generally what happens when you get a steady diet of unconditional love and support for a few years. Watch out, it’ll happen to you, next.”

Lucio looked as though he was about to say something, and then he went completely rigid, eyes widening and gaining a sort of glassy look. Julian glanced back over his own shoulder, but saw nothing there that would spook him - indicating it was coming from the inside.

The Devil was waking up. The Devil would know what he’d done. 

He pulled him into a deeper, more passionate kiss, trying to serve as a distraction while presumably the beast screamed at him for wasting resources. For the moment he stayed still in his lap and let him kiss him, whimpering softly against his lips. He could hardly imagine what exactly was going on behind those haunted eyes, but it hurt to see them.

“Please don’t hurt him,” Julian murmured, uncertain the monster would hear him. “It’s my fault. I goaded him into it. If you need more magic I can--”

Lucio abruptly pulled back, staring at him wide-eyed. “Don’t give him anything, Jules. I can handle it. It’s just-- it hurts until it doesn’t.”

“I don’t want you to be hurt at all.”

Tears were welling up in his eyes again, but he was smiling. A tired, painful smile that made him look his age - not a monster, not the provocative Count of Vesuvia, just an old man tired of suffering. He was horribly reminded of the Devil’s words earlier.

This vessel is growing weaker by the day, Julian. I don’t know how much longer he’ll last me.

“Shh,” He leaned up to press a gentler kiss to Julian’s lips, before curling up more tightly in his arms. His twisted body was tensed and trembling. “Just hold me. You can do that, can’t you?”

“I will. I promise. I won’t leave you. We’ll get through this together.”

He found himself thinking about the deal again.

Chapter Text

Contrary to what Julian must have thought, the Devil hadn't hurt him. Not physically.

All he had to do was threaten to capture another ghost to replace what he wasted and Lucio was on his knees in his own mind, crying, no , sobbing for mercy, crumbling like the bastard's stone prison in an instant. It was a pathetic display and he was glad it hadn't leaked out into the real world more than some tears and trembling. He would have preferred physical pain.

And all he had to do after that was push him away and ignore him, letting him babble half baked excuses and apologies and then promises neither of them believed until he realized he wasn't getting anywhere. He didn’t know why he thought he would. It was like dealing with his mother. 

He just felt so useless . He couldn’t do something as simple as lighting a fire without screwing it up, making it into a problem. He was a problem. A walking catastrophe with horns and hooves.

.. he supposed the Devil didn’t have to hurt him - he was doing well enough on his own. 

Through the corner of his eye, he saw Julian getting up, a brief flare of panic in his chest.

"Going out again?"

The tall dark shape paused. "I was going to see if I'd have better luck getting food for you this time."

“.. take me with you.”

“I suppose I could, if you’re quite sure. It’s really very boring out there. Just a bunch of nature and living things and fresh air.” Julian teased, offering him a hand up.

Lucio huffed, eyeing the hand for a long moment, then his hooves. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to walk on them - he’d had three years experience, or close enough without any actual weight to put on them. He just.. didn’t want to use them. 

He felt like he’d be admitting defeat if he used them, somehow. Letting the Devil win.

The Devil himself was quiet, a distinctly prickly sort of quiet that reminded him of when he’d just been in a fight with Nadia. Still giving him the cold shoulder. It hurt, but that was fine by him.

“Do you want me to carry you?”

There was that damnable pity again. Pressing down on the thin ice between him and another emotional breakdown, already cracked by the fire fiasco. He hated feeling so horribly fragile.

As much as he’d like nothing more than to be swept off his horrible, monstrous feet by his knight in pirate armor again, he shook his head, pushing the helping hand aside with his right as the left was dedicated to bearing his weight, sliding his hooves under him in order to start the slow, annoying process of getting up.

He stumbled once, catching himself on the furnace and shifting his weight until he no longer felt like he was about to fall over. He changed his mind, this was nothing like those three years in his wing, this was so much worse. He could feel the damn things shaking, as if straining under his weight. He was going to break them.

“I hate this. I hate this so much.” Another crack. Fuck. Stop focusing on it.

Again Julian offered him his hand, and this time he took it, holding onto him for physical as well as emotional stability as he slowly, carefully started to lead him out of the crematorium. “One foot - er, hoof, in front of the other. It’s okay. If you fall, I’ll catch you.”

Crack.

“I-It’s not the first time, Jules. I know what I’m doing.”

He felt his doctor’s grip faltering, as if he intended to pull free - to keep from patronizing him further, maybe - and he immediately clamped down. “You can help. It’s fine.”

They shook less when he was moving, stiff and stilted as he tried to figure out the proper rhythm again. He found himself leaning back as though he expected a long tail to be hanging behind him, to counter balance them. He wondered if he’d grow that, next.

How many changes would the Devil make by the time he was through with him?

“.. would you still love me if I was completely a goat again? A solid one, flesh and blood and fur.” His grip tightened on Julian’s hand, keeping his eyes on the ground as it changed from ash and stone to ash and twigs. “Assuming it’s still me, and not. You know.”

“If you’re anything like you were before, I don’t know how to feel about you being taller than me,” Julian’s voice mused. “But yes, I am prepared to love and care for a goat. I don’t know why you expect otherwise.”

They both knew why, and thankfully, Jules knew better than to say it.

“You won’t mind the fur? Or the snout? How do you kiss a snout?”

“I’ll brush your fur and kiss your snout, mark my words.”

“I was going to say you should just kill me if that happens,” Lucio mused, maybe too casually. He was distracted thinking about fur brushing. Was it like hair brushing? That would have made his time as a goat so much easier. “I guess your way is better.”

“Just a tad.”

They lapsed into an awkward sort of silence, not quite as the bad as the one in his head but uncomfortable no less. Julian looked as though he was about to say something, brows furrowed and lips twisted as if he knew he shouldn’t.

“Lucio, I--”

A flicker of movement in the trees startled him into looking up, eyes zeroing in on a bird, finding himself drawn to tracking it until it was out of sight. He started to chase after it, only to be gently tugged back by the grip on his hand, stumbling a bit over himself but making no further effort to stray from the ‘path’.

He gently nudged aside the worried doctor's hand making sure he was still stable on his hooves, watching him curiously. "What were you going to say?"

That odd pained look hadn't left. If anything, it had gotten more pained.

".. nevermind. It's not that important."

They started walking once more, lapsing into silence again, or as silent as distant animal calls and buzzing of insects could be.

The dark forest was much more lively than the last time he’d been through it, he realized. Various blooms of plants he’d never know the name of glittering like jewels in the warm afternoon sunlight, constant movement of sparkling wet leaves and hints of animal fur, more small flashes of life garnering equally predatory attention.

He was a predator, wasn’t he? Sharp teeth and claws and a penchant for blood. 

“Here we are,” Julian said finally, distracting him again before he could think much longer on that, coming to a stop and letting go of his hand. “I found this the first time, but I didn’t feel comfortable leaving you long enough to investigate too closely.”

His arm curled around his doctor’s side instead, sharp hip bones lower down than expected, leaning around his shoulder. “What is it?”

It appeared to be a small freshwater pond, sunlight shimmering off still waters, making it look like dark glass. It was surrounded by ashen stone, but the water itself looked relatively clean, and he could see the hint of movement beneath the surface. He couldn’t trust that part was real, given what he’d seen on the ship.

“Is it safe?”

“One way to find out.”

Julian gently extricated himself from his grip, moving towards the glassy water and rolling up one sleeve. He knelt down and promptly stuck his arm in it, up to the elbow, before he could think to stop him. 

That was such a bad idea. He found himself thinking about the creatures in deep water.

“Nothing’s biting or burning, and I’m pretty sure I’m on the same plane of existence.” He mused, sloshing his arm around for a bit. “All things considered, I’d say this is pretty--”

All of a sudden he cried out in alarm as his upper half was sucked under, as if something had grabbed him. Without thinking Lucio lurched forward and grabbed him by the hips, jerking him back to safety hard enough to nearly topple himself off his hooves. For a moment he felt the burn of onyx claws in his neck, roughly tugging back to keep him from falling in after him.

“Are you okay? What was it? What do I have to kill? I can--”

Julian was laughing.

“... you’re fucking with me.” The heat of indignation rose up in his face, hands curling into fists he had no intention of using. “You-- you fucked with me, Julian Devorak.”

Before his tormentor could react, he promptly kicked him back into the pond.

He was still laughing as he surfaced, once again sopping wet. His bandages were still in place, at least. “I’m sorry, I had to. I thought you might get disappointed if there wasn’t another crisis.”

“I’ll give you a crisis, alright.” 

A warning stomp of his hooves, which only encouraged more laughter. He realized it must look more like an angry toddler than the intimidation tool he intended, and more heat rose to his cheeks, scowling down at him instead.

“The water is fine, by the way. You should try it.” Unphased, Julian began to get up, and the water seemed to come up to his waist where he was standing. “Perhaps another bath is in order?”

“What are you implying, Jules?”

“Nothing, I’m just saying it might help you relax. Or not, as the case may be.” 

This was said with an appropriately rakish grin and a wag of eyebrows, utterly demolishing any remaining traces of his anger at him and garnering his own burst of laughter.

After a moment of deliberation he shrugged and yanked off what was left of his shirt, tossing it aside in favor of fumbling with his pants, tugging them down his hips until he came to where flesh faded into fur, rudely reminded that was an extra step he would have to deal with.

Through the thick strands of gold hanging in his face, he could see Julian’s expression had quickly changed to flustered surprise, as though he hadn’t expected this. “Do you-- uh-- do you want any-- you need help? With that??”

Vague gesturing in his general direction, eyes pointed distinctly pondwards.

“What, are you intimidated? You saw it earlier.” Lucio huffed, dropping to his ass on the ground in order to focus on the task at hand. “No, I got it. I won’t trouble your delicate sensibilities .”

“I’m just! Being considerate! Of your independence!”

God, he was so cute.

He chuckled and resumed wrestling with his pants, trying to coordinate his elongated feet with the motion of his hands and legs. Finally, somehow, by some miracle, they came off unharmed - and he found himself wondering how the hell he was supposed to put them back on.

That was a problem for Future Lucio, he supposed.

Presently he was stepping towards the edge of the pond, eyeing the water warily before gingerly lowering one hoof into it. “And you’re sure nothing’s biting? Crawling? Wiggling ?”

“I-- ah-- haven’t found anything yet.” Julian was turned away from him, wrestling himself out of his wet clothing in some semblance of privacy. “This might be a pretty good spot for leeches, though. You may want to watch out for that.”

After a moment of concerted effort, damp cloth sailed ashore past his head, catching on one horn for a second before dropping to the ground next to him with a heavy plop . He hardly noticed, immediately pulling his hoof back out - then awkwardly holding it there somewhere in the middle as realization dawned on him.

“Wait a minute. No, I refuse to be fucked with more than once. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I’m going to kick your ass.” 

“I don’t think that’s quite how the saying goes.”

He sucked in a breath and abruptly hopped in with both hooves before either his own sense or the Devil could stop him. For the moment, the ground was even, and the water was warm, and nothing was biting. It was actually kind of nice.

“That’s how I always said it. Actually, fool me once , I’ll kick your ass. That means I owe you an ass-kicking, Jules.” He began to wade out towards Julian, strides purposeful and perhaps a bit more aggressive than intended to make up for fighting against the water with these spindly limbs. 

Julian immediately started backing up, hands up in supplication. He didn’t make it very far before they were hoof to toe. “Now, now, I hope you don’t actually intend to kick my ass. It was only a harmless, if a bit tasteless joke.”

Despite his retreat, he was grinning.

“You know what, you get two ass-kickings. One for that, and one for swimming across the damn ocean by yourself to find me. That’s stupid. You’re stupid.”

"Ah, but consider this - I love you."

He scowled. "You want me to kick your ass, don't you? You'd like that."

Lucio paused a moment, squinting up at his prey. Something wasn’t right, here. 

Slowly he leaned forward, not upward, and unsure of what he was doing, Julian remained dead still, only watching him. Soon enough his lips pressed against his throat, where they would ordinarily be meeting the top of his chest, right in the middle of his collarbones.

“.. can I help you?” 

He could see his chin wagging. His eyes were even with his chin.

“Jules. Jules. ” He stepped back, raising his right hand to the top of his head, and then put it on top of Julian’s, eyeballing the gap. “I got taller.

His doctor blinked, glancing between hand and head with surprise. “... so you have. Or, well, your legs are longer, so it just looks like--”

“I’m tall.

For the hell of it, he raised his hand to the tip of his horns, finding they easily cleared Julian’s head.

“I’m taller than you. I’m taking it. How’s the weather down there, short stuff?”

“That-- that’s cheating! Those don’t count.” 

“I can’t hear you, you’re too far down.” 

Despite the flush of indignation on his face, Julian was clearly trying not to laugh. He was grinning himself, straightening his back and puffing out his chest, truly a magnificent specimen of manhood. For a brief moment, that emotional fragility was forgotten.

“Of course, I don’t need to be tall to do this .”

He promptly pounced on the (slightly) taller man, dragging him down into the water to the tune of surprised squawking and his own childish laughter. 

While they were submerged, he lunged forward for the kill, pressing his lips to Julian’s in a kiss as deep as the water would allow, immediately feeling long fingers winding into the floating mass of his hair and digging into his back to keep him close, holding tight to him as they sank deeper down, limbs hopelessly intertwined.

Down here the world around him felt unreal, almost dreamlike, the pond deeper than he thought, dark and fathomless. Something deep beneath the water was calling him, beckoning him, like the whisper of a lover. It would be so easy to answer it, as easy and natural as taking a breath, though his lungs burned and his body burned and he could feel the warm body in his arms shifting against him, torn between holding him and making his escape.

Only the thought that he didn’t know if Jules would come with him and the distant, urgent burn of claws against the base of his skull kept him from letting that odd feeling take him, instead dragging his prey back to the surface, gasping for air, reality flooding back in. 

They remained close together, too close, skin to skin, for the moment just catching their breath. He was leaning against him, practically clinging to him, letting him hold up more of his weight, the water carrying the rest of it, half-standing, half-floating there, completely naked. Somehow that made this a much better experience.

His right hand began to drift lower, down to where equally naked hips poked just above the water, for the moment simply tracing his fingers along the skin there and enjoying how Jules shivered against him.

“Do you-- uh, feel relaxed yet?” Julian managed, his face a beautiful crimson.

He smiled and leaned up to kiss him again. “I think I might be feeling something, alright. Weren’t we going to take a bath~? You can scrub me down first, if you like. Or I could wash your hair..”

As he spoke he began to trail his golden hand through soaked auburn curls, claws lightly tracing along his scalp, and he could feel him practically melting in his grasp, breathing against his lips that much quicker, leaning into his touch with a barely repressed groan. 

Suddenly he winced and grabbed that hand, tugging it off his head.

“What did I tell you? No funny business on the Lazaret.” His voice was strained, likely telling himself as much as Lucio. “I am capable of controlling myself.”

“It’s just a bath between friends.” He grinned. “I don’t know where you thought it was going.”

“No. Bad. Don’t do that. You know what you’re doing.” Julian weakly pushed at his chest, looking as if he was about to collapse.

He decided to show mercy and stepped back accordingly, still grinning. 

The grin faltered as he noticed the makeshift bandages were gone, and the other man was still holding his head, a flash of pain across his face. Clearly this wasn’t the kind of pain he enjoyed. He tentatively reached for him with his right hand, uncertain he was allowed to touch again. 

“.. did I open your wounds?” 

In an instant that feeling of warmth and comfortable companionship was gone, and the emotional fragility was back. He withdrew his hand and backed up further, debating lowering himself into the water and never coming back up.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, not really. I was just teasing.” But he wasn’t allowed to do anything for himself without ruining everything, was he? One mistake is all it took. A careless hand. He was awful. “I’m sorry.”

“I probably hit it on a rock or something down there, it’s fine.”

“... so it’s still my fault.”

You did this, you can fix this, okay?

Julian was gazing down at him with concern he should be saving for himself, maybe more than he should, clearly torn between comfort and respecting his independence. “It isn’t that bad. I probably would have hurt you as well if our positions were reversed. More so, given-- well, all of this.” 

He gestured at his long, stringy body, though those haunted grey eyes never moved from his face.

“I.. I can fix it. Can’t I? I want to fix it.” 

Lucio bit down on his lip, mind racing. He could hear Arsenic’s voice in his head, distant like a dream, raising his right hand again, and then after a moment the left as well, gently cupping them against Julian’s temples as if to bring him closer again, closing his eyes.

Close your eyes. Let the magic flow into your hands, and your fingers.

“Wait-- wait, if you’re doing what I think you’re doing--”

"I want to fix it." Was all he could think to say, putting more force behind it. 

A soft sigh, a shift of weight against his hands as though he was thinking of leaning forward to kiss him but remembered what was happening. "Alright. I trust you." 

"Don't do that."

For a long moment, nothing happened.

Frustrated tears started gathering in his eyes, clamping them shut tighter and resisting the urge to tighten his grip on Julian's head. He sucked in a shaky little breath and focused harder on Arsenic's words.

All at once searing, oppressive heat poured into his hands like molten iron, gathering in his fingertips, poised to strike, the sudden burn of pain in his arms nearly forcing him to pull back. It was like someone had dropped freshly forged lengths of chain into his grip and expected him to keep hold of them. It knew how to cause pain more than remove it, he knew that for a fact. 

Was his magic always like this? Painful and unwieldy?

Imagine you’re stitching up the wounds, sewing them closed with a fine thread. You’ve done this thousands of times. It’s natural for you.

He tried to remember how to sew, a distant memory two lifetimes past, one of those life skills a man in the wilds of the South needs. God, he was so far out of his depth. It was like asking a butcher to be a surgeon. He was going to hurt him. His hands were shaking.

There was a soft, steadying warmth of a hand against his own, Julian once again coming to his rescue. “Just relax. You don’t have to force it.”

Lucio took a deep breath and relaxed. 

As if waiting for this, the burning chains slipped from his grip and lashed out towards Julian like molten vipers. He felt his patient flinch beneath his hands, then lean up into him as the magic began to seep into his wounds - not to heal him, he realized, but to control him. 

He could feel Julian’s mind beneath his fingertips - malleable, hurting, loving, hiding something, already accepting this-- he could do whatever he wanted to him in this moment and he would be helpless to stop him, would bow to his will enthusiastically and lovingly. All it would take was a quick flick of his claws and--

“No!” He immediately clamped down on the chains and yanked them back out of him, pulling his hands off of the other man’s head before he could do any more damage.

He could hear the Devil laughing in his head.

“Are you okay? Please tell me you’re okay.” He finally opened his eyes, expecting to see blood or horrific burns down his skin, exposing bones and meat and everything else. “That’s not what I meant to do, I swear. I wanted to heal you.”

Julian looked no worse for wear, physically, though there was a dazed gleam in his eye, staring off into the distance somewhere, his body completely relaxed and still leaning forward as though expecting him to continue rooting around in his head. For a moment he thought he could still feel that connection between them, briefly considering trying to reach out to him that way. 

He couldn’t possibly do that. The worst case scenario was if it worked .

Finally, thankfully, his consciousness seemed to return, shaking his head and blinking as if waking from a dream. “.. what? Are you finished already?”

“It didn’t work.” Lucio blurted out before he could think to lie to him about it. 

“That’s alright.”

“No, it’s not. I can’t do fire or healing magic without making it into a problem . What the hell am I supposed to do, Jules?”

“You keep trying and surviving, same as always.” A playful smile was tugging at his lips, though his eyes were still a bit distant. “I wouldn’t consider it a complete failure - I rather liked the spice on that one. My scalp tingles.”

Despite himself he snorted. “You’re the worst. I could cut your damn head off and you’d thank me.” 

Julian only chuckled and leaned down to kiss him, and immediately he pressed up into it, found himself drawn to cover him in kisses, making sure he was still here, still Jules. He didn’t know what he would do if it was a mindless golem kissing him now, even if he was at the helm. He didn’t want to control him. He couldn’t.

Something else was nagging at the back of his mind, making it hard to focus on kissing. He reluctantly drew back and frowned, wondering how to approach this.

 “.... you’re keeping a secret from me, aren’t you? I felt it.”

He felt Julian tense beneath him, quickly recovering with a secretive grin.

“Alright, you caught me. The jig is up.” He glanced around furtively, conspiratorially, before slowly leaning down further, his voice barely a whisper against his ear. “The secret is: I love you.”

A sharp bark of surprised laughter escaped him, and he immediately pushed his doctor away, nearly hard enough to knock him back into the water. 

“That’s not a secret you big, dumb-- Julian!”

“It’s not? Then allow me to announce it to the heavens.” 

He stepped back and cleared his throat as if preparing for some big entrance on a stage, throwing his arms wide and his head back. 

I love you!

Another cacophony of birds answered him, taking wing from the trees around the pond in a shrieking mass, seemingly encouraging him to shout it that much louder, unperturbed by the subject of his affection shoving him again, this time into the water. One long hand grabbed his own before he could think to move out of the way, easily knocking him off his hooves and dragging him down into the water with him with another burst of laughter.

“You’re awful. I hate you.” He grinned and captured his lips in another deep and hungry kiss, his own hands coming up to grip his hair again, mindful of his wounds. Almost immediately those long hands were on his body again, digging into the skin and holding him close.

Lucio wasn't fooled by his obvious avoidance in the slightest - but he could wait a little longer for him to share that secret. He would crack, sooner or later. They always cracked.

Abruptly Julian pulled back, staring over his shoulder, toward the way they came.

“What? What is it?”

“Listen.”

He listened. “It’s just the birds.”

“No, no. It’s .. I can’t put my finger on it.” His doctor waited, then repeated the call under his breath, brows furrowed in deep concentration. “I know that sound. It’s not just any bird, it’s a specific bird.”

His eyes widened.

“Malak. That’s Malak’s alarm call, usually used for warning about guards.”

“And if your bird is here…”

“Arsenic is here!” They said in unison, scrambling towards the shore.

Julian got dressed first, but he was nice enough to wait until Lucio finished struggling with the puzzle the past version of himself had left for him, hoping he hadn’t torn something pulling his pants up his monstrous legs. As far as he knew, these were the only pants he had until they returned to civilization.

These legs were good for something, however - at a run, he easily overtook the taller man, bounding across fallen forest debris and then ash and stone as though it was smooth hardwood. As long as he didn’t think about it, he was practically flying. 

He had to perch up on top of a tall rock to wait for him to catch up.

“Crematorium,” Julian gasped as he finally made it to the rock. “He’s at the crematorium.”

“Where else would he be? The sea?”

Closer to the crematorium, he could hear that pattern, very distinct. Now that he knew what he was listening for, he couldn’t mistake it for anything else. “D’you know why it’s that call?  Why would he be warning about guards on the Lazaret ?” 

“It’s the most urgent one he has, maybe he just wants to get our adrenaline going. Go on, keep running, I’ll meet you there.”

“What, are you tired already? Where’s your legendary stamina?”

His doctor groaned, leaning down to massage at one gangly leg. “ Some of us don’t have supernatural demon goat legs that can bounce across the forest floor. Some of us may have charley horses. Entirely different animal, much less helpful.” 

Lucio hesitated, glancing between the crematorium and Julian. “I don’t wanna show up alone. I don’t want Arsenic to think I killed you or anything. Do you want me to carry you?”

As soon as the thought occurred to him, he knew he had to do it. He hopped off the rock and approached him, sizing him up. His body no longer hurt - but his legs bore weight differently now, easy to knock off balance. Possibly easy to overburden. But he didn’t weigh that much, and they were still very strong legs, weren’t they?

“I’m serious, Jules.” 

“I’m thinking about it.”

“Think faster!” 

When it didn’t look like he was about to make a move, he quickly ducked down and grabbed him by the knees and the back of his shoulders, hauling him up into a bridal carry and staggering back a few paces for his trouble. 

This wasn’t any easier than over-the-shoulder. He should have stuck with that. 

“Don’t worry, I got it. I won’t drop you. Probably. Just try not to wiggle too much.” 

Julian draped an arm over the back of his neck, holding tight to his chest and leaning his head back against his shoulder like a proper damsel in distress. “My hero~”

He wasn’t sure if he should be offended or take pride in that. His heart was still light enough to err on the side of pride, preening for a moment before hunkering down and taking off again at a full gallop, or as close as he could get to one with extra weight. At once his damsel wrapped both arms around his neck and clung on for dear life.

The bird hadn’t stopped screaming. Guards, guards, quickly, guards. 

A sense of unease was settling in his chest as he approached the stone fortress, as if he knew something was wrong but not what. He was suddenly very sure he shouldn’t go in there. 

Was this from the Devil? Why didn’t the Devil want him to go in there?

… why was he trusting his judgment? Suspicious old goat. 

A pang of red agony twisted through his skull at that, just a twinge, not enough to knock him off his hooves but enough to make a clear statement. 

He skidded to a halt in front of one of the openings, finding there was light coming from inside the crematorium. Malak was perched on the roof just above it, screaming his head off. Someone was in there. The uneasy feeling hadn’t gone away.

Slowly he let Julian back down onto solid ground, and the bird stopped screaming long enough to flap down and perch on his shoulder, giving Lucio a warning hiss. 

“Yeah, yeah, you’re ugly too.” 

“Be nice.” 

“He started it.”

Julian didn’t seem to have the same trepidation he did, confidently ducking down into the opening and disappearing out of sight, Malak squawking as he was nearly crammed into the wall. He heard a murmur of voices, but it wasn’t clear who was speaking. 

That was Arsenic’s voice, wasn’t it?

He took a deep breath and squeezed in after him, accidentally knocking his horns into the stone as he forgot he had to account for those, ducking down further with a soft curse. Once clear, he automatically made a beeline for the darkest, gangliest shadow in the light, partially using him to hide from it.

Julian wasn’t looking at him, but somewhere ahead, his body tense, an arm automatically swinging out in front of his chest as soon as he seemed to notice him, stopping him in his tracks. He followed his gaze, and his heart dropped straight into his hooves.

Arsenic was there - and so was Nadia, staring directly at him, tyrian eyes wide in horror. The light was coming from a familiar sigil on her forehead.

“So it is true.”

Chapter Text

Nadia was here. Nadia could see what had happened to him.

Don’t look at me! ” 

Lucio’s first instinct was to try to cover the horns with his arms, and then the scars with his shirt, immediately hiding further behind Julian to use him as a shield for the rest of his horrible twisted body. It was too late, she’d already seen it all, but it was the principle of the matter.

Another thought occurred to him, a flash of paranoia he wasn’t sure was his own that drove him to grab onto the gangly arm that was protecting him and nearly yank it right off pulling him closer to his level, panic rising in his chest. “How did she-- did you tell her I was here?!”

“When would I have the chance to tell her anything? I was with you the whole time!” Julian was pulling back, looking shocked and rather hurt at the implications.

“I don’t know! Maybe you sent her your bird before you came here! You said you were going to turn me in at the start--”

“Why would I do that now !?”

I don’t know!

Nadia’s voice sighed. “No one told me. I came here of my own accord.”

Through the corner of his eye he saw movement, and instinctively he lashed out with his left hand - his claws caught empty air, but two dark arms caught his and promptly slammed him into the wall, keeping him pinned there. Bright green eyes bore into his soul again, contained in an expression of barely repressed rage. Nadia was standing right behind them, still staring at him.

“Don’t you dare attack the Countess,” Arsenic hissed. 

“Please don’t crowd him,” Julian said, uncertainly, resting a hand on their shoulder. “He’s stressed out enough as it is.”

This turned out to be a mistake, as they promptly whirled on him instead. “Stressed out? He’s stressed out?? How about me, Julian? You think I’m not stressed out? I was worried my fucking FIANCE was DEAD in the water somewhere! On the trip to his homeland to fucking marry him! What was I supposed to do without you?! Did you think about that?!?”

At once the taller man cringed away as if struck, clear guilt on his face. He hadn't been thinking at all and they all knew it.

"Don't yell at Jules, it's not his fault--" He wasn't thinking either as he shifted from his place against the wall to reach for the captain, trying to keep them away from Julian.

With that same violent suddenness that reminded him of himself, they whirled back toward him, striking him across the face and shoving him back up against the wall while he was still reeling from the pain, trying to hold it together, trying not to let Nadia know just how weak he'd become. He didn't bother fighting it, staying where they put him.

"You're absolutely right! It's yours!" 

It was, wasn't it? He could hear Jules' rant in his mind, the one he thought he was directing to the Devil. Everything was fine until he came in. He'd ruined everything. Like he always had, and always will.

"I know," Lucio said quietly. "I'm sorry."

His captor's grip faltered, mouth half open as if they had been about to give him their own version of that rant, immediately derailed. "You're what now?"

"I'm sorry ." He put more force behind it this time, wincing as his voice cracked.

".. you have changed."

Nadia was approaching him again, regardless of the potential danger, that same graceful, confident stride. She had aged just as gracefully, not a trace of silver in her hair, now floor length, a few wrinkles at the corners of sharp eyes, along her brow, defined and yet barely noticeable. She didn't look like a Countess, she looked like a queen.

She came to a stop next to Arsenic, within arm's reach, and immediately he turned away from her, remembering what she would be seeing. 

"I didn't want this," He gestured at his horns, shifting on his hooves. This was meant for Arsenic as well, before they got any ideas to the contrary. "I tried to stop him but I couldn't--"

"That is not what I meant, Lucio. I believe this is the first time you have actually verbalized those words in my presence.”

".. yeah, actually." 

The captain slowly released him and stepped back, something more like guilt in the place of rage, once again clearly not expecting him to show his underbelly and unsure of how to proceed without that righteous fury to guide them. They probably had a whole speech prepared on the way over.

Lucio remained against the wall just in case, a brief flicker of disappointment he knew wasn't his passing through his mind. He wondered why the Devil was disappointed. Perhaps he’d hoped they would beat his ass. There was an edge of longing in it that didn't quite fit, though the beast remained unsettlingly quiet, content to let him try to puzzle out unfathomable intentions.

He glanced back toward Nadia just in time to watch her hands come for his face, and for a brief moment he saw avian features over her human ones, large red eyes and an owl's beak. He fell dead still, almost paralyzed, allowing the soft brush of her fingers along his temples, even as he could hear both Arsenic and Julian trying to warn her against it.

"The High Priestess. She told you." He blurted out, biting back a whimper. “But how did she --”

A flicker of lavender wings in his mind, quickly consumed by crimson fog, sudden and familiar pain left in its wake. He felt a shift of weight, tense and suspicious.

"I do not know. All I know is that I have been having dreams -- or maybe visions -- of you for years." She gently turned his head this way and that, examining him. "At first I thought it was a guilty conscience, of sorts. I did not know why, I still believe we made the right choice. We could have simply killed you."

He shuddered, but said nothing, just letting her handle him as she pleased, claws digging tightly into his palm to keep from striking. His left arm felt hot and restless, as if it was actively straining against him to strike, needed to strike, needed to push her away like she had done to him years ago. 

But he couldn’t. He didn’t dare move. 

Her eyes moved to the ugly purple scarring across his heaving chest, magic burned into the flesh, reaching to touch it and then drawing back with a frown, even before he flinched. "I did not see when these were made. They may have already been there when the visions began. But last night.."

She was looking up, past his face.

"I saw what he did to you. Vividly. I was there, I felt it, as intensely as if it was myself. I knew I had to find you before it was too late.” Clear worry was on her brow. “I had hoped you would learn to take responsibility for your mistakes in a far kinder manner."

He heard the others' frantic voices again, his only warning before Nadia abruptly stepped forward and wrapped both arms around him in a tight embrace, pulling him close and burying her beautiful, regal face into his neck.

"I am truly, deeply sorry." She sighed, and it sounded like she had been holding that in for a long time.

For a long moment, he just stood there, dumbstruck. It took him that much longer to realize what exactly she was doing. 

The idea of escape never surfaced in his mind for a moment. His mind was in disarray, feeling that barrier against another breakdown cracking, splintering, blinking back tears as he desperately tried to hold onto some shred of composure before it all broke apart. She couldn’t see him break. Not like this.

Slowly, carefully, hesitantly, unsure if he was allowed to touch her, his arms began to coil around her, holding her much less tightly in an awkward embrace of his own. She tensed but didn’t move away, and in fact seemed to tighten her grip, accepting this.

All at once his body crumpled, nearly collapsing onto her, dangerously close to dropping to his knees and begging for forgiveness, instead clinging to her and sobbing into her shoulder, his grip tightening on her fine clothing but not enough to damage it any further than his tears already were. He didn’t know when was the last time she’d held him like this. When she’d cared about him like this.

He didn’t deserve it. He couldn’t possibly push her away.

“I missed you, Noddy. I missed you so much. I missed you and the Palace and my dogs and the Masquerade and sleeping in a real bed in a real place and having somebody, anybody I could just talk to--” 

All at once it was pouring out of him like the tears, unable to stop, even if he knew there was an audience. He was drowning and she was the only anchor.

“I was alone and scared and it was so horrible in there, you don’t understand, I just-- I just wanted things to go back to how they were before I died, when people cared about me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I want to go home. Please don’t send me back.”

Don’t trust her.

The burn of claws was at the base of his skull again, as if he was trying to pull him back, out of her arms. He couldn’t understand it - she was just hugging him. She was too noble to bring a knife for his throat, let alone slit it in the midst of an emotional torrent. She wouldn’t attack him while he was defenseless.

Would she?

“Oh, I-- I should not have done this. Forgive me.” Her voice murmured against his throat, her body tensed further against him, like holding onto a steel wall dressed in finery. “I can take you home, but you are not going to like it.”

“You can?” He managed, cold dread beginning to gather in his gut all over again.

Nadia slowly began to extricate herself from his grip, her face grim. She looked as though she was on the verge of tears herself. “You are hereby under arrest for trespassing in Vesuvian territory, in direct violation of the edict I gave you at the Devil’s Gate.”

Lucio stumbled back against the wall, shaking his head. He felt as though he might collapse, spindly limbs shaking beneath him. Immediately Arsenic and Julian were flanking him, the first mate holding him steady while the captain stood between them and Nadia, serving as a shield despite being the smallest one in the room. 

She had hugged him, and now she was betraying him. The Devil was right.

“Surely the Lazaret doesn’t count as stepping foot in Vesuvia,” Arsenic quickly chimed in, with all the assertion of someone who wasn’t talking to the current Countess of Vesuvia. 

And all of her territories.” Nadia sighed. “This wretched place falls under my dominion as well.”

“There has to be some kind of legal loophole to get him out, or at least in a position that isn’t rotting in prison for life.

“He doesn’t even have feet.”

“Julian!”

One bronze hand raised, silencing any further argument. “The most I can offer is a fair and legal trial - but I cannot go back on my word as Countess, especially for .. sentimentality’s sake. I cannot allow my feelings to cloud my judgment.”

The hand outstretched towards him, albeit with a magician in the way.

“Lucio, please. Come with me willingly. I do not wish to harm you.”

The world shifted red as he stared at her hand, his own hand gripping Julian’s arm to keep himself on his trembling hooves, unconsciously pulling him closer. What would happen to Jules? Or Arsenic? They were accomplices. They had been harboring him. They would go down with him, wouldn’t they? 

Why did he care?

“Rest assured, I will have the best magicians available to work on a solution to your current affliction while you are in custody.”

If you go with her, death is assured. The Devil’s voice murmured solemnly into his ear, nearly at the same time. For you, and the rest of them.

He whimpered.

One mistake is all it takes, isn’t that right?

“I-- I can’t. I don’t want to die in prison.” He glanced towards the others, then back to her. “They-- they were taking me out of Vesuvia, before-- all of this. I was leaving. Just let me leave. I won’t come back, I promise.”

Her eyes remained hard, but her brows furrowed, for a moment looking as if she might crack.

“Noddy, please . Let us go.”

Distantly he could hear Malak’s alarm call again, a renewed flare of panic in his chest. Guards, guards, quickly, guards.

“Did you come alone?” Julian’s voice asked.

Nadia’s shoulders slumped, her hand drawing back. “Unfortunately, I did not.”

Movement drew his attention to the decrepit doorway behind her, and the openings in the walls around them - humanoid shapes, too many of them, dressed in the unmistakable colors of the Vesuvian Royal Guard, surrounding the crematorium. Pinning them in. Pinning him in. He was trapped. 

“I did not know how hostile you would be when I found you, so I took some precautions,” The Countess explained. “Do not worry, they have strict orders to bring you in alive - but they are allowed to use force if necessary. Please do not make it necessary.”

She was withdrawing, straightening to her full commanding stature and stepping back as the guards in the doorway began to file into the room, more closely surrounding them. Arsenic stepped back as well, moving from standing in front of him to standing at his other side, their hand resting on his shoulder and pulling him close while their eyes remained on the guard.

“When I give the signal, I want you to run as fast as you can.” They murmured into his ear.

Julian edged that much closer, a wry grin on his lips. “Thinking of getting rowdy?”

“Being in good standing with the Vesuvian government was nice while it lasted.”

“I-- I want to get rowdy too.” Lucio managed, glancing between them. “I can fight.”

The captain shook their head, squeezing his shoulder. “No, you have to run. My lifeboat’s moored on the shore behind the crematorium, we’ll hold them off as long as we can and then meet you there. You can leave without us, I can’t stop you, I just-- really rather you didn’t.”

That was a fair assumption to make, though it stung. He bit his lip and glanced between the two of them again, that odd cold feeling coiling in his gut. Eventually he’d have to find a word for it, if it was going to keep happening to him like this.

He looked directly at Arsenic. “I don’t understand. You-- you were going to turn me in. This is your chance to get rid of me. Why are you helping me?”

“Julian’s not the only champion of lost causes.” They snorted. “In fact, I had the title first.”

“Darling, if you’re making this into a competition of who has made the most bad choices, I’m afraid both of us have you beat.”

They muttered something along the lines of ‘it’s not my fault you had a head start, old man’ before releasing him and stepping towards the guard, straightening up to their own commanding stature, Malak puffing up his feathers on their shoulder. They were looking past the wall of bodies directly at the Countess, holding her gaze.

He immediately grabbed Julian’s arm again and hissed into his ear. “What’s the signal?” 

“You’ll know.”

“Have you come to a decision?” Nadia was saying, gazing down at them imperiously.

The captain swept forward in a deep, dramatic bow, bent too far down to actually represent anything but disrespect. It reminded him of Jules. Malak squawked and took wing, perching on the rafters and scowling down at them.

“Yes, we have, Your Excellency.”

Tyrian eyes narrowed, but she continued to watch them expectantly.

“While we appreciate the thought, I’m afraid we’ll have to decline your generous offer to take this miserable sod off our hands.” They straightened up and shrugged. “I regret to inform you that we will be taking our leave, with or without your permission.”

Lucio was about to ask if that was the signal - and then they promptly wound up their arm and punched the nearest guard full force in the face. 

Oh.

All at once the room around him descended into chaos, the rest of the guards swarming the captain en masse, Julian pulling himself free and diving into the melee, gangly arms swinging, yelling like a wild man. Limbs and bodies flying all over the place, bare-knuckle brawling like a bar fight, the scent of blood practically singing in the air.

And they expected him to stay out of it??

Over the writhing mass of bodies he could see Nadia looking dead at him, eyes wide in alarm as she must have realized they were nothing but a distraction. 

Against every fiber of his being screaming to join the fight, he turned on his monstrous heels and bolted for one of the openings in the wall, claws outstretched to catch any stragglers.

“Quickly! Seize him!”

Another wave was pouring into the room from the openings, most of them headed for him instead of the others. His claws caught on fabric and flesh, using that momentary resistance to fling his victim at their comrades, putting some distance between them and knocking them to the floor, accidentally trampling over them with his hooves in his haste to get past them. 

He could hear the pounding of steps behind him indicating part of that pack had caught wise and was coming after him from the rear, rapidly approaching, more rapidly than he could move, even on these strong legs. He hunkered down to shoulder the ones in the front out of the way, and found himself snatched back and thrown to the floor before the first man was down, unable to recover before they were piling on top of him, pinning him down with their weight.

No. No, he refused to let it end like this. 

With a frustrated cry Lucio thrashed and kicked against them, managing to twist himself over on his stomach and nearly getting his hooves beneath him before someone was grabbing his arms and roughly pulling him back.

He heard a similar cry and glanced up in time to see both Arsenic and Julian given the same treatment, undoubtedly distracted from their fight by his predicament.

They had lost. It was his fault. 

Nadia sighed and stepped towards him again, and this time he attempted a snarl in lieu of lashing out with his claws, baring sharp teeth and desperate intentions. She flinched back accordingly. He refused to feel bad for it.

“I suppose I should have expected something like that. Take him to the ship.”

“Yes, milady.” The strong arms holding him abruptly yanked him upright, beginning to drag him back towards the opening in the wall. He dug his hooves into the floor as hard as he could, to make their job that much more difficult.

“Wait a moment, Your Excellency - may I have a word with him?” Julian’s voice piped up. “It shouldn’t take very long.”

She frowned. “Are you going to behave ?”

“You have my word.”

“You expect me to trust the word of a pirate.”

“And a friend.”

After a long moment of deliberation, she reluctantly nodded, allowing the man holding his doctor prisoner to release him.

Something in his tone didn’t sit quite right, but relief still flooded him as Julian approached, leaning down towards him and gently cupping his head between both hands as if he meant to pull him in for a kiss. For the moment he stopped struggling, leaning into his touch.

Jules would save him. Wouldn’t he?

Uncertain grey eyes bore into his own, as if he was trying to stare past him. He sucked in a deep breath, leaning closer in until their foreheads touched, gathering strength in the silence. The longer there was silence, the more his relief began to fade into dread, as if he knew what he was going to say and didn’t want to hear it.

“I accept your terms.” He murmured, finally, grim determination on his face. “I can get you out of here.”

“Jules?” 

There was a shift of weight in his mind, stepping forward as if called. He realized where he was looking. Who he was talking to. 

“What the hell are you doing?!” Lucio immediately jerked his head back, trying to break that tender grip. This couldn't be happening. This couldn’t possibly be the secret he was hiding from him. His vision was steadily growing more red. “You’re not-- he’ll kill you!”

“I have to do this.” 

“No, you don’t! Arsenic, tell him!”

Somewhere behind Jules, Arsenic was just staring at the both of them, slack-jawed and paralyzed as they seemed to realize what was happening as well.

“Listen to me,” The grip against his jaw tightened, painfully, pulling him forward again. “If I don’t do this, he’ll kill you instead. I’m sure of it. The minute you’re taken out of here, he’s going to consume you. You’ll be gone. You won’t exist anymore, you understand? I can’t-- I can’t let that happen.”

“And you expect me to be fine with that happening to you ?!”

Julian was smiling, a sad sort of smile that made his heart hurt, eaten up by the crimson fog like a portrait slowly burning into ash. The last he saw of him was that distant look in his eye. 

He was compelled to do this, he realized. This wasn’t his own choice.

“It’s alright. You’ll have other doctors, other friends. You don’t need me.”

Something inside him snapped.

I love you, you fucking idiot!

Both the hands cradling his face and binding his arms faltered in the vacuous silence that followed, and just before the Devil’s weight slammed into the forefront of his mind he twisted around and kicked his captor in the gut as hard as he could, bolting outside through the brief opening in the ranks left behind. 

He didn’t know if he was going the right way, he just knew he had to go . If there was one damn thing he was good at in this world, it was running away from danger.

The red in his vision began to fade, the Devil’s influence shifting to grab onto his new legs instead, making every frantic step as heavy and painful as possible, trying to drag him back, drag him down. He could hear his voice, refused to listen, let him snarl and growl uselessly against his mind as he pushed onwards despite feeling like his hooves were about to fall apart.

Ash and stone became ash and twigs became a blur of shadow and light and foliage as tears were gathering up in his eyes, forcing him to tear blindly through the dark forest, the pain in his chest outweighing the burning in his legs. He felt like he was going to die again.

Bastard. Monster. He knew he was going to pull some kind of stunt like this. He couldn’t let him have anything for himself. He wondered if Jules would have been so quick to needlessly sacrifice himself if he hadn’t tried to heal him, hadn’t already put a bit of the bastard in his head.

… he would. It was Jules. He’d been trying to tell him, maybe even ask him for permission to do it, and he didn’t even notice. 

What did he even need Jules for? Why did he need Jules, specifically? 

 ..was he going to be alright without him? Would Arsenic know how to fix him? 

He felt the urge to double back to check on Julian, maybe bring him with him, and for a moment he almost did-- clamping down on it and running faster as he realized it was probably a ploy from the Devil. 

Julian didn’t need him. Julian would be better off without him.

It wasn’t an uncommon thought, especially here, but it hit him so much harder this time, like someone had slammed a sword through his back, slicing through his heart and dragging him to the ground in a boneless heap of limbs and emotion. 

Distantly he realized his hoof had caught on something and that was what sent him to the ground - but he couldn’t get up either way, managing to pull himself up onto hands and knees before violent sobs racked through his twisted body, sending him back down into the dirt. He curled up where he fell, drowning again without an anchor.

I love you, you fucking idiot!

He was the fucking idiot. 

He shouldn’t have said it, put a name on it. Even if it was true, and he was certain it was - Jules didn’t need to know, was fine not knowing. Told him as much. And yet he just fucking said that , in front of God, Nadia and everyone. He should have tried harder to push him away before it got that far. He should have been strong enough to push it aside, bury it, destroy it, like everything else he didn’t understand. 

And then maybe, eventually, it would just go away. 

… he wasn’t sure if he wanted it to go away. 

It wouldn’t make a difference. Julian was stubborn enough to hold onto his. Julian would keep chasing after him until one or both of them died or something worse. And if the Devil didn’t kill him now, he would have to keep fending him off him. He wasn’t strong enough to keep that vigilant, not anymore.

He didn’t want to be alone again. He’d grown used to the bastard’s companionship, having one person in two realities that he could trust. But for his safety, he couldn’t let him catch him. He had to be alone.

A raven’s shriek startled him from his reverie, too close for comfort. 

Of course. Malak was tracking him. Never trust a bird.

Lucio scrubbed at his eyes and staggered to his hooves, the burning in his legs now somewhere higher up, crushing his spine, as if the Devil was trying to lift him by the scruff or push him back to the ground and hadn’t the strength for either. Compared to the pain already twisting through his heart, it was practically nothing.

Had to keep moving. Had to outpace his thoughts. Couldn’t let himself keep thinking about it. He knew for a fact he could spend hours thinking about it, paralyzed in an emotional stupor.

He stiffened as he felt a sudden weight on his horns, falling dead still as it moved to his shoulder instead, the all too familiar points of avian claws in his skin, the less familiar tug of a beak in his hair, either trying to preen him or trying to gain his attention or some combination of the two. His throat tightened, threatening to start sobbing all over again.

“Don’t do this to me, bird.” He murmured. “Go back to Jules.”

The bird remained on his shoulder.

“I’m serious. You need to tell him I’m not coming with them. I can’t.”

He wasn’t sure if Jules even had that kind of connection with him, considering his decidedly non-magical background - but it was worth a shot, wasn’t it? 

When Malak continued to not budge, he sighed and reached up to scritch him with his flesh hand, barely feeling the nips from his beak. “Okay, you can come with me, on the condition that we part ways at the shore. Deal?”

A noncommittal croak. Stubborn, just like his master.

What the hell was he supposed to do now? Was he supposed to stick with the plan? He couldn’t face either of them now. If he found the boat, where was he supposed to go?

He didn’t have anywhere to go. He had nothing and no one. 

Right back at square one, except he was weaker and more useless than he had ever been before, even when he was dying.

A half choked sob escaped him before he could stop it, and he felt the gentle tug of a beak in his hair again, giving him something else to focus on before he could start drowning again. He resumed scritching, a wry smile playing on his lips.

"You better stop that before someone thinks you care about me. S'fine. I'm fine."

His egress was that much slower now, to account for his passenger and the lingering ache in his legs. He just had to hope he'd gotten enough of a head start before collapsing pathetically in the dirt to afford a more careful pace.

To distract himself from distant thudding that sounded like footsteps, both too close and too far away, and the gnashing of restless fangs inside his mind, he talked to Malak. 

Talked at him, really. Told him anything that came to mind - battle stories, things that had happened in the realms, how when he was very young he thought his mother’s familiar could read his mind, somehow, and would pass that onto her. He remembered trying to convince Jaeger that the moon wasn’t real, just to see Mama’s face when he told her.

“One time he caught me doing something I wasn’t supposed to, so I tried to bribe him with a rabbit. He threw its guts on me and tattled to Mama anyway.” He sighed, lips twisting into a pout. “Awful bird. You’re a good bird. You’d take a bribe, right?”

A harder, more insistent tug on his hair, almost as if he was trying to pull it from the root.

“Hey, no, ow-- it’s a reasonable assumption, I mean Jules would take a bribe--” 

The tugging didn’t stop, and in fact felt like he was yanking his head back - at the same time he felt his hoof slip on a hard edge, both hooves sliding out beneath him and aimlessly kicking at the air as he fell backwards into the dirt. He wasn't sure what sound he just made, but he was glad no one but the bird was around to hear it.

Malak fluttered onto the ground next to him, and he lurched forward with a snarl, preparing to give him an earful for knocking him on his ass. 

The words died in his throat as he caught sight of the path before him.

It was overtaken by a large, oddly round chasm surrounded by ashen stone, both natural and unnatural, a gaping void with no apparent bottom. He hadn't noticed it before, too busy running his mouth. He had almost walked straight into it.

After a moment, he numbly reached to stroke the raven's feathers. "G-good bird."

Without his own voice as a distraction, the distant thudding had grown louder, footsteps drawing that much closer, the murmur of human voices echoing throughout the dark forest. 

The pit ahead of him looked too wide to go around, not without potentially butting him back up against the search party - and like hell was he going to try walking across it. Climbing down there on its own looked like a death sentence, even if he had normal feet.

Once again he was trapped between death and the void.

What a shame. I suppose you should turn back

His hand immediately came up to slap at the side of his head, not prepared to hear that voice again yet, so focused on his predicament he’d forgotten to keep tuning him out. “Shut up. Shut up, you did this, this is your fault, I don’t have to take advice from you.” 

Lucio hissed and staggered to his hooves again, unable to keep them still, nervously pacing at the rocky edge, trying to look for a solution that wasn’t simply crawling down a steep cliff face if he wanted to keep going. It was looking more and more unlikely, and the anxious stamping wasn’t helping in the slightest.

“Bird. Bird, gimme a rock. I don’t wanna fall over.” 

Malak croaked and hopped back up onto his shoulder, depositing a small stone in his outstretched hand on the way up. He immediately chucked it at the abyss.

He could clearly see its long descent into darkness - but at the start it made a soft splish sound, as if falling into water instead. At once he closed his eyes and furiously shook his head, and when he opened them, he found there was the glassy water of the pond Julian had taken him to in the place of the abyss.

Not a pit. Not a chasm. Just a pond. 

God, the bird must have thought him an idiot, being scared of a pond.

Beneath the surface he could see movement again, small ripples of light instead of dark bodies swimming around. There was that odd calling , whispering from the water in the absence of the Devil’s trickery. Warm, almost inviting, a gentle pull of magic.

It wasn’t just a pond. It was a portal.

Oh, that wasn’t much better, was it? Given where unknown magic portals usually led. 

He began to pace again, once again weighing his options. He still couldn’t turn back or go around. It was the realms or certain death. Death or death. 

Something behind him clattered, manmade, and he whirled back to see how much closer his pursuers had come, fast enough to nearly dislodge the raven from his shoulder. He found nothing but the haze of foliage, a distant shuddering of leaves giving a clearer indication of where they were. Not distant enough.

He couldn’t be sure that wasn’t another trick from the Devil to keep him here while they caught up. He couldn’t trust his senses at all.

Turning back to the pond cemented this, as in its place now was the wide open maw of one of the creatures that lurked in deep water, the heat of its breath on his face, the acrid scent of decay nearly choking him, his chest seizing up in panic, nearly dropping him back on his ass on the shore.

It couldn’t be here. It couldn’t be real. It looked real. That was just water. It had to be.

Are you sure you want to risk it?

Inside its throat he could see the glimmer of lights from before, still calling him, a deadly lure. The one thing that he could trust was real about it, he hoped. 

The Devil was very clearly trying to keep him from going in. That meant he had to go in. No matter what it looked like, or felt like, or smelled like. He looked towards Malak, still perched on his shoulder, wondered how much he could see, if anything.

“Okay, change of plans. We part ways here.” There was an ominous hiss from the creature - pond - before him and he flinched, clamping his eyes shut and shaking his head. “You stay here and tell Jules-- tell him not to come after me. Okay? I have to do this alone. I have to set things right.”

If his escape from the realms had ruined everything, then returning to the realms would fix it.

He felt the bird’s weight move off of his shoulder without protest, the thumping of wings somewhere higher up, presumably into a tree to keep watch. He could still hear the creature in the water shifting in its tiny prison, sounding very real and alive and hungry. He pressed his right hand over his eyes to keep them from opening again, no matter how much he wanted to.

It was just water. Just water. 

The Devil’s voice was growling against his ear again, growing more frantic, but once again he refused to listen to it, backing up a few paces from the ashen stone and then launching himself directly into the creature’s mouth, just as hot and lifelike as he expected, threatening to crush him as the water pulled him under.

It was a trap. It was killing him. He shouldn’t have--

No. Focus. There was nothing there but water and magic. Magic water.

He could feel the all too familiar sensation of magic tugging at his bones, trying to draw him through the veil, time coming to a stop. Even though he knew what that feeling was now, it didn’t make it any less welcoming, so much more comfortable than the one in Arsenic’s ship. He could also feel his body beginning to slip, as well as the Devil pulling back, trying to get away from it.

Lucio mentally dug his fingers into his own body and the fur of the dark presence inside his mind before forcibly shouldering his way through.

Chapter Text

The last Lucio remembered, he was falling.

He remembered the jolt of mortal panic, clamping his eyes shut and just hoping the magic would put him somewhere safe, because he didn’t know where to go. He remembered desperately clinging onto something warm on the way down, warm and tall with long arms that curled around him as well, and he remembered wondering if it was Jules.

It couldn’t be. Jules didn’t know where he’d gone. Jules wasn’t supposed to know.

He didn’t remember the impact. It would have been a big one, considering he’d fallen for eternity. He wondered if he had died again, crushed to pieces in the dirt, reformed as some magical thing .

No, no, this was still his body. He was still him.

Consciousness was coming back to him in waves, senses slowly drawing awake. The pull of magic on his bones. The faint smell of smoke and iron. His own pounding heartbeat. Something warm and solid beneath him. An odd sort of softness against his face, like grass or fur. Another heartbeat, unnatural and yet soothing in its rhythm, strange yet as familiar to him as his own, like it had always been there. 

The Devil was eerily silent inside his mind, but he could still feel his weight - but not all of it, as if only a part of him was there. He couldn’t remember his fur slipping free during the trip. He could still feel it in his grasp, tightly wound between his fingers. He couldn’t tell if that was real, or as real as a mental projection would be.

He didn’t know what he was going to do if he lost him.

When his eyes slowly, finally opened, his vision was completely white. 

For a moment he worried he’d gone blind. But there was a texture in the white, he realized, individual strands of hair or fur, not unlike waking up to one of his dogs lying across his face. Though it was starting to hurt, he lifted his head to get a better look.

A broad goatlike face was gazing down at him imperiously, despite the creature in question lying on his back beneath him. 

“Good morning.” The Devil huffed. “You can let go now.”

Lucio sputtered, heat flooding his face as he jerked back, now sitting over him instead of lying on top of him. His fingers were still wound in his fur, and he seemed in no hurry to remove them himself, only idly watching him.

“You-- how--” Did it matter? He had him. “I-- no. I’m not gonna. You’re my prisoner.”

The beast chuckled. “Am I? This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

There was a flicker of genuine amusement in his mind, and it immediately pissed him off. He snarled and shifted his grip to one set of horns instead, yanking his head up towards him, almost eye to eye.

“Listen, you smug bastard -- I’m taking command of whatever the hell this is, understand? I’m the one in control.” Crimson eyes narrowed, and he swiftly buried his fear in rage. “You’re going to answer some questions, and then you’re going to get the hell out of my head and my life.”

"Tsk, hardly a fair bargain. There's no benefit for me, other than I suppose no longer having to endure your ridiculous emotional states."

The Devil idly reached up and plucked his hands off his horns, holding them both by the wrists with a trembling but strong grip, maintaining his gaze. “You do realize the futility of attempting to assert your will over the archetype of control , don’t you? Then again, you seem to enjoy fighting incredibly one-sided battles.”

“A-and winning. I like winning against impossible odds.” He found himself distracted by the grip around his wrists, more importantly the tremor in those broad hands. He’d thought it was his own at first, but that was different.

His hands were shaking. That was a sign of weakness. He was weakened. Arsenic had said that, hadn’t they?

The grip tightened, and suddenly he found himself on his back on the ground instead, the Devil pinning him down by his arms and his own weight, heavy and inescapable. He realized he still had horns, an odd pressure against the back of his head. The changes he made to his body had carried over to this realm. 

Did that mean he was stuck with them?? 

“I do not agree to your terms - but in the spirit of fairness, I will allow you one question,” His captor purred, though his grin looked more like a snarl, a flicker of annoyance in his mind. He wasn’t supposed to notice the hands. “Choose wisely.”

Fuck. He knew he had thousands of them. He could probably hear them swarming him. There wasn’t even a guarantee he’d get a straight answer. It was like dealing with Asra, all sideways and incomprehensible unless you were hyper-specific.

“What are you planning?” He blurted out, finally. “With me, and Jules, and-- all of this-- what are you trying to do ?”

“I believe that’s more than one question.”

That was sidestepping. He didn’t have an answer.

“Do you even HAVE a plan??”

And that was definitely more than one question, but he couldn’t help himself.

The monster’s snout twisted into more of a straightforward snarl, a glimpse of his tail lashing behind him as a not so subtle warning. “I don’t have to explain my reasoning to you.”

“You don’t! You don’t have a plan! You’re just-- you’re winging it, just like the rest of us!” A harsh bark of laughter escaped his throat before he could stop it. “After all this-- the so-called archetype of control isn’t in control of shit!

Silence.

This only encouraged harder, more bewildered laughter. He couldn't stop laughing. 

Of course the bastard didn't know what he was doing - none of this stupid journey had been sensible, why would his motives be any different? Years of doing gods knew what behind his back, guiding him, ”helping” him, and for what? 

A fat load of nothing.  

"I can't believe it, the big bad mastermind, just doing shit on impulse like me ! You ate a leech for fuck's sake--"

“Shut. Up. ” The Devil growled, shifting his grip to grab for his throat instead.

Mercifully the laughter stopped, and in its wake was sharp red pain in his skull, as if the hand was crushing that instead of his throat. But beneath it he could feel something like indignation and embarrassment, a creature caught with his metaphorical pants down. Another sign of weakness. He felt the twitch of a grin forming on his lips, letting him know he noticed that, too.

Crimson eyes narrowed, a sneer of disgust on his snout. "I don't know what you think you can do with this information, you rotten whelp. In case you've forgotten, you've put yourself right back where I found you."

The grin dropped as soon as it came, his heart following suit as he remembered where they were. What he had done. Panic rose in his chest, scrabbling at the hand around his neck in order to have something else to focus on. For a moment he thought he felt the grip falter, a glimmer of pity in his mind.

"I warned you against it," The Devil continued with an almost disappointed sigh. "I fought tooth and nail to drag you out, and you threw it in my face in some misguided notion of noble sacrifice. Was there a step two after sending me away? Did you expect my colleagues would suddenly welcome you with open arms?"

He whimpered and shook his head, as well as he could, finding he was holding onto that arm like a lifeline instead of pushing it away. He didn't have a plan either. He didn't have a plan or anyone to protect him from the Arcana's wrath. He was trapped between hell and high water.

This hadn’t fixed anything.

"I should leave you here and let them kill you. Would that 'fix' your situation, I wonder?"

"N-no, don't-- please--"

His helpless simpering was cut off by a loud whoop, and suddenly the Devil was knocked off him in a blur of pale fur and bewildered crimson, followed by an odd lurching in his chest, like his heart was trying to go with him. He glanced up to see dark skin and concerned green eyes standing over him instead.

"Are you okay?" Arsenic asked, offering him a hand.

For the moment Lucio just lay there, dumbstruck. "You-- you can't be here. You're supposed to be protecting Jules."

"Don't worry, Nadia's got him." He must have looked horrified, because they quickly added, "Not like that. He's not under arrest or anything."

He sat up, pushing their hand aside and shaking his head. The hooves were still there, too. "You don't understand, you were both supposed to leave without me. I thought maybe-- maybe if I went back, your lives would go back to normal. Jules could be happy ."

"Julian was absolutely gutted when you ran off. He would never forgive me if I let you get yourself killed in the realms."

The captain sighed.

"Honestly, I wouldn't forgive me either."

They offered their hand again, and this time he took it, staggering up onto his hooves, the spindly limbs trembling beneath him. His grip shifted to their shoulder to steady himself, feeling more unbalanced, a bit heavier than he should. His chest was tight and breathless, as if there was barely enough air to breathe.

“He also gave me a message for you, though I’m not sure it’s safe to share it right now considering--” They jerked their head towards a suspicious white lump on the floor he realized was the Devil.

He sighed. “No, better say it now in case things get worse. I’m learning that’s how the universe likes to work.”

Arsenic’s brows raised, but they didn’t speak again. Instead, they very gently reached up to grip the back of his head, beneath the horns - pausing as he automatically tensed, waiting to see if he would try to escape - and just as carefully pulled him further down to their level, pressing a rather hungry kiss to his lips.

Oh, that was from Jules, alright.

He groaned and leaned into it just as hungrily, very nearly collapsing onto them, his hand still gripping their shoulder for support, drawn in by the taste of them - no, not them, the addictive pull of their magic, bright gold and warm in his mouth, curling through his body like the drift of tides with each soft breath. 

Their other hand was at his hips, forcibly pulling him closer, the first digging into his hair, curling in at the roots and lightly tugging at it as they must have been used to doing to Julian, and oh he could see why he liked that, shuddering and pushing harder into the kiss, feeling literal sparks fly across his lips.

He heard a distant groan of interest and abruptly pulled back, his lips still buzzing. 

“I-I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have-- I’m sorry. You were right, it should’ve waited.” 

“It’s okay. I think I let you have that one.” They sighed and let him go. “I can see why Julian can’t keep his hands off you, though. Even with the magic-sucking.”

Heat flooded his cheeks, awkwardly clearing his throat and turning his attention to their surroundings instead, trying not to focus on the taste lingering in his mouth or the feeling lingering in his body, and definitely not the idea of going back in for another round.

All around them was broken obsidian spires and washed out red desert, like dried blood, a thin haze of ash in the air, scattered across the crumbling structures, turning them grey like the pieces of stone littering the floor. A pointed onyx throne sat upon the broken dais, the steps leading up to it jagged like teeth. 

The magic had chosen to drop them in the Devil’s own realm, or what was left of it. It looked like it had been abandoned for centuries.

Lucio remembered curling up on that throne like a lost dog waiting for its master to return, unwanted nostalgia threatening to drop him back to the floor. He began to move towards it as though compelled, a soft clattering between his hooves stopping him in his tracks.

He glanced down to find a long black chain protruding from his chest, a familiar nauseating red aura around it, leading across the cracked obsidian floor to the motionless white lump. He couldn't bear to touch it, simply gawking at it as if expecting it to move, a sudden shift in the corner of his eye indicating Arsenic had noticed it as well.

"H-how long has that been there?" Even as he asked, he knew. It had been there for years.

"I'm gonna say that's a physical manifestation of your connection to him. Hold still, I can take care of this--"

" Don't touch that! "

The Devil abruptly shoved himself upright, similarly shaky on his own hooves, perhaps more so, looking as if he was about to collapse. No longer in his personal space, he could see his pelt was dull and ashen, a thin grey coat of dust on his horns, the edge of bones far too visible beneath stringy, lifeless fur. 

He looked awful. A shadow of a shadow of the beast he used to be, as broken as his realm.

His end of the chain was bright, Vesuvian red.

"Why the hell not?" Arsenic retorted, their hands beginning to glow. "You've caused us enough trouble with this."

As they reached for the chain, there was a genuine, keenly human jolt of alarm in his mind, in what he could see of sunken eyes, the hunched form awkwardly lurching forward as if to advance on them but realizing he was too far away. 

The Devil was scared.

Against his better judgment, Lucio grabbed the captain's wrist before they could make contact, tugging it back. They looked at him as though he'd grown three heads.

"What will happen to him if we break this?" He asked, looking at the Devil. "I think-- I think I'm all he has. Will he stop existing??"

"Presumptuous." The beast murmured, though his eyes were still wild and paranoid, focused directly on Arsenic. He didn’t know either.

They looked between the two of them and groaned. "Damn it, not you too. Look, we can't all have a pity project. Especially that one."

"He's weak. And powerless. Like me."

"I'll pick you up a starving street dog when we get back, okay?"

He felt a low growl rise in his throat, ancient and animalistic, stamping a hoof on the floor hard enough he felt another crack form beneath it. “You didn’t ANSWER me! All I want is a straight goddamn answer from ONE of you about-- any of this!”

“Lucio--”

“He’s an archetype or whatever, what’s your excuse?”

I don’t know , okay? I don’t know what will happen to him.” They attempted to tug their hand free, and he let them, immediately stepping back to pull his end of the chain out of their reach. “Maybe he'll be fine. Maybe you’ll both cease to exist. I don’t know everything about the Arcana Realms, Lucio!”

That wasn’t the answer he wanted, although he should have expected it. But they had seemed so damn knowledgeable about other things. They had the magic training he didn’t. They had saved the world before. They were the big damn hero.

If they didn’t know and the Devil didn’t know, who the hell was he supposed to rely on??

He tried to verbalize this, but it only came out as another frustrated snarl, stamping both hooves on the floor and turning away from them, burying his face in his hands. His chain shifted, and he automatically moved to grab it, but stopped short before he could make contact. He didn’t know if he could touch it, either. 

“Look, we can figure this out together, okay? All of us. That means you , goatman.”

“Oh I would hate to interrupt,” The Devil drawled. “I was hoping it might come to blows.”

Lucio didn’t see the look they gave him, but he heard the resulting affronted scoff, and the click of larger, more confident hooves on obsidian, annoyingly unhurried. 

He glanced up in time to see the bedraggled ashen form shift to the normal sleek white, deep onyx horns and a healthy figure, head arched up and chest out in old arrogance. The floor beneath his hooves was turning back to pristine obsidian, color slowly returning to the sky.

Something in how easy it seemed to change back bothered him. And sure enough, the longer he watched, the more the vibrant appearance began to fade, the ash-strewn debris and sickly form returning just as easily - and then back to vibrant again in a sudden sickening lurch, as if he’d realized he noticed.

He shook his head and clamped his eyes shut, placing his hand on Arsenic’s shoulder again. “What does he look like to you?”

“What do you mean?” 

“Is he white or gray?”

There was a brief pause. “Uh.. white? No, gray. Sort of-- both. I want to say white.”

“What does the realm look like? Is it broken?”

“No, no the realm seems fine. Same old spooky, sort of dusty. Are you okay?”

The temptation to open his eyes was rising, but he kept them shut, tightening his grip with a whine. “I think-- I think he’s fucking with me again. He made me see things before.”

But which one was the fuckery, and which was the true form? He wanted to say the true one was the broken form - but he could also be using it to garner sympathy, given how it had already convinced him to stay their hand on breaking the chain. 

Although he had a feeling if he really wanted to garner sympathy, he would choose Julian’s form instead.

He felt the chain shift again, and once again resisted the temptation to open his eyes. “Don’t tell me he just turned into Jules.”

“.. okay, I won’t tell you.”

“No. Bad. Stop it.” Against his better judgment he opened his eyes, and immediately closed them again when he saw pale skin and auburn curls. “I don’t care what you look like, just don’t do that.”

There was a deep, otherworldly chuckle that definitely would have been out of place in Jules’ mouth, but when he went to push him away, it was fur beneath his palm. “You gave me an opening and yet you expected me not to take it?”

“You know what, screw it, give me the chain.” 

Lucio’s eyes snapped open, preparing to dodge away from their hands again - only to find that they hadn’t moved, and the Devil’s own hands were raised in mocking supplication. “Calm yourself, dear Arsenic. I’ve had my fun.”

The captain scowled up at him. “Are you going to behave?”

“I shall be a perfect gentleman.” 

“No you won’t.” The former Count huffed. “He’s not going to answer any questions you have, either.” 

There was a flicker of annoyance in his mind, but the beast didn’t refute it.

"I'll start easy - what's stopping me from sealing you away again right now?"

There was another deep chuckle, and the all too familiar weight of a broad hand on his shoulder, surprisingly gently squeezing it. He didn't feel the need to pull away, too focused on the cues inside his head.

"If you don't mind an extra occupant in your statuary, be my guest." The Devil said, almost casually, and he shuddered.

Arsenic glanced toward Lucio, expectantly. "Is he lying?"

".. n-no. You'll seal me too."

Gods, he hoped it wouldn't come to that. He didn't need that tinge of wariness that wasn't his to know that would be a terrible fate.

“An archetype does not lie , merely obfuscate,” The Devil huffed. “You of all people should know better.”

“Yes, well, I’m not in the mood for obfuscating either.” Arsenic cleared their throat, reassuming their commanding stance, despite once again being the smallest one here. “What will happen if we break the chain? Why don’t you want it to be broken?”

“He doesn’t know,” Lucio blurted out, garnering a withering scowl and a twinge of pain. “He’s scared to break it because he doesn’t know.”

“He’s.. scared ?” 

The Devil’s snout twisted into a snarl, rising to his own commanding stature. “I feel nothing of the sort. Either get to the point or be done with this charade.”

The hand on his shoulder tightened its grip, unconsciously pulling him closer as though using him as a shield. A shield from what? Arsenic? The truth? This time he did tug his arm away, stepping back from both of them.

Arsenic stepped forward in his stead. “Why were you after my magic?”

“I know this one, too -- I’m too weak without it. I mean. He’s too weak.” He turned his attention to the Devil, who looked absolutely livid, a coiling spring in his mind, waiting to snap. “You didn’t want Jules, did you? You wanted to be close to Arsenic, so you could take their body instead, and the power they have.”

“What were you going to do then, if you had my body?” Arsenic continued, before the beast could respond. “What were you going to do with Lucio’s body, for that matter? Besides redecorating it.”

“Yeah, actually - am I stuck like this? Can it be fixed??”

Enough .”

The realm echoed with his voice, rumbling across the desert like a clap of thunder - but the spring inside his mind hadn’t yet snapped, twisted up in something that felt almost like frustration . Like he was overwhelmed. Surely two mortal voices nattering at him like this wasn’t enough to overwhelm him.

He could feel the magic of the realm prickling against his skin like the beginning of a thunderstorm, making his hair stand on end. The sky was growing darker, red clouds gathering above them like blood coagulating on a blade. Cold dread fell in the pit of his stomach - but it wasn’t the Devil’s doing, this time, or regarding the Devil at all.

Something wasn’t right.

Distantly he could hear Arsenic’s voice, saying something, and the Devil’s growls and snarls, but the words were lost to the buzzing of magic, growing in pitch until it was nearly deafening, shrieking against his ear. 

He caught sight of concern in bright green eyes - and perhaps crimson - before his vision went white and he was on the ground again, held against warmth and fur, a scorch mark and a trail of smoke where his own hooves once stood.

“I am not weak ,” The Devil growled against his ear.

That could have been him. He’d saved him.

“Damn, I missed!”

“You nearly hit Arsenic!”

Even before he’d fully recognized the voices, Lucio immediately curled tighter against the Devil, burying his face in his fur, body shaking, paralyzed with old fear. “They found me. They’re going to kill me.”

“No, they’re not. I won’t let them.” Arsenic’s voice murmured.

He felt the body against his move, but not the arms, his hooves lifting from the floor, being carried over towards a blur of dark skin and bright green hair. He didn’t think to fight it, just digging his fingers into his fur and waiting for the bastard to either drop him or take him away from here. 

Past Arsenic he could see animal shapes approaching, quite a few of them, led by the owl-faced High Priestess. 

He could hardly see her eyes, but he knew there was murder in them.

Chapter Text

"Ah, Priestess, I see you've spared no expense for my welcome home party." The Devil's voice sneered. 

He didn't have to look to know they were surrounded. He could feel the edges of their different magics butting up against his consciousness, a susurrus of too many tense and threatening voices, so much louder this time in the realms. All he could do was keep hold of the Devil and wait for it to go away.

"Silence, you," The High Priestess intoned. "Arsenic, please step aside. This is an internal matter, it does not concern you."

"Someone trying to take my face off aiming at my friend concerns me." Their voice retorted, sounding like they were somewhere in front of him.

In front of them. Protecting both of them.

".. I do hope you're referring to the mortal as your friend."

Lucio whimpered and tightened his grip on the fur, trying to escape her notice.

"I don't know, I'm open for another pity project. Give me a good reason why I should let you at 'em - because from what I heard about what goes on in here, I might have to kick your ass. Asses. Collective ass."

"What nonsense has he told you?" The Hierophant's voice scoffed. "He has been a menace since the beginning."

"Nevermind that." The High Priestess again, tone cold. "Is righting the balance of the Arcana itself a good enough reason?"

"You want to kill Lucio to restore the balance of the Arcana??"

His body went cold, renewed panic in his chest. "No! I didn't break the Arcana, I swear!"

"No, but you have changed him."

Without warning the arms around him went slack, abruptly dropping him onto the floor, as though their owner realized what he was doing. He made no move to scramble back to safety, especially as he caught sight of the barely repressed horror on the Devil's goatlike face, onyx hooves stepping away from him like he had some contagious disease.

“Preposterous.” The Devil growled, once again rising to his commanding stature, in spite of the bright red chain pierced through his chest. “This condition has merely lasted the span of a gnat’s wing compared to my lifetime. I am unchangeable. Immutable.”

“You are also nervous .” The High Priestess said with a knowing look. 

“You’re frightening my vessel. He has an annoying tendency to feel very deeply.”

He only whimpered, likely proving his point.

The feeling of the floor beneath him and the sudden lack of a buffer between him and the Arcana’s magic reminded him, very keenly, almost overwhelmingly, that he needed to run. Old instincts overtaking him, heart pounding like a war drum. He couldn’t stay here. Whatever she had to say was not going to end well for him, he just knew it.

Why would she bring an army to a civil discussion? Why did they all have to be here? Was this the Devil’s realm, or only an illusion of it? Had they trapped him again? How was he supposed to tell??

She was moving closer, too close, a sudden memory of talons against his head - and instinctively he lashed out with his left arm, molten chains bursting forth from his claws, striking aimlessly towards the gathered group, somehow missing the captain standing in front of him as they cut a wide swath of flame between them and the Arcana.

The Priestess jerked back, but not in time, the edges of her fine robes catching fire. 

If murder was not in her eyes before, it was definitely there now.

Lucio immediately bleated in terror and bolted.

“Quickly! Contain him!”

The magic in the air began to shriek again, and this time he knew it wasn’t the realm. 

His eyes squinched shut, covering his head with both arms as he ran, using the shrieking as a judge to know when to move out of the way, feeling magic sizzle against his hocks, his mind reeling with vivid memory.

He remembers running full tilt through the Hierophant’s vineyard, clutching stolen goods in his claws, screaming for mercy, please, he’s just hungry. He doesn’t know if he’s screaming for mercy now, his throat has sealed shut in fear.

He remembers the sound of the Chariot coming to run him down, and the Emperor’s own proud hooves, and Judgment’s trumpets blaring on all sides, unable to tell if they’re blaring now or if it’s just in his head.

He doesn’t know where the hell he’s going, because all he can see is the past. He’s scared and alone and if he stops moving he’s dead.

He is both in the Devil’s realm and in all the other realms at once, and he is welcome in neither.

The unwanted reverie was broken as he slammed full force into nothing, collapsing onto the ground in a haze of pain and limbs before he’d finished registering the impact.

“Fuck, sorry about that.” Arsenic’s voice called.

A flash of gold in the shape of a dome rippled above him, deflecting the next burst of magic, indicating it was a shield spell. They were trying to protect him, not trap him. The thought allowed him to remain still as they approached, snorting blood at them as they climbed into the domed shield with him, the Devil in tow.

“Gross, don’t do that.” They made a face before turning around and resuming their earlier position of standing guard between him and the approaching Arcana. “I said I was sorry, okay?”

“S’my face, I can do what I want with it.” He sniffed, dragging himself onto his knees.

An elegant but cold voice cut in, sending him back on alert.

“You cannot run from this, Lucio. You have upset the balance. Your influence has corrupted him.” 

The High Priestess was standing over him, only partly blocked by Arsenic's body, her expression inscrutable. "Due to your connection , he is no longer wholly an archetype, as you are no longer wholly human. He cannot continue his duties in this limbo state, leaving the place of the Devil Arcana vacant."

“None of us want to take his place, given that another would have to take our place, and so on and so forth - never actually solving the gap, merely shifting it around. Disordered nonsense. ” The Hierophant added with a disgusted sigh.

Despite the tension in his mind, the Devil chuckled. “A pity, you would have looked so charming with another set of horns.”

The Hierophant’s only response was another, deeper disgusted sigh.

His left hand slowly curled around Arsenic's nearest leg, using the feeling of leather under his claws to ground him. He didn't look up from that leg, however, knowing even a glance shared with the Priestess would undo him all over again. His body was still shaking.

Of all the things he could have fucked up, he never imagined the Devil Arcana himself would be one of them. That odd cold feeling was coiling in his gut again, making it hard to look toward him, either.

I believe the word for that feeling is ‘guilt’. The Devil’s voice intoned in his mind, startling him. You are feeling guilty. In case you were still pondering its nature.

Oh, that was so much worse.

He nearly questioned why he knew what that was, but swallowed the words as soon as they came, realizing there was probably a reason for him to keep it within the connection. Probably trying not to further incriminate himself by feeling.

"A-and-- you plan to kill me to fix this--?” He said instead, wincing as his voice cracked. “I don't want to die. Was that ever figured in your plan??"

Her voice softened. "We were informed to try to talk to you before doing anything quite so drastic."

"You tried that." His right hand settled on his scars, hopefully drawing her attention to them. "You wouldn't listen."

“If I recall correctly, it was you who refused to listen until we were forced to resort to violence. A shame that seems to hold true even now.”

There was a shift of slightly singed fine fabrics, and suddenly the High Priestess was kneeling down on the other side of Arsenic’s leg, not unlike Arsenic kneeling in front of Julian’s before, though with the added distance of the shield. He immediately stared at the cracks in the floor to avoid meeting her gaze.

“Death is not the first option, Lucio. Merely one of many.” She sighed. “Our primary solution is to finish the process you’ve already started by taking his power, combining the two of you into a new Devil Arcana.”

“Already started..?” No wonder it was so easy to fall into his hoofprints.

“If your personality was weaker, this likely would have already occurred during your stay in our Realms, over time. You may not have even realized it was happening until you took the throne.”

He gazed towards the broken throne in question, for a moment envisioning himself sitting on it with more developed horns and hooves and deep crimson eyes, the realm restored and anything he wanted at his monstrous fingertips. Julian and Arsenic at each side, attending to him, helping him conquer the realms.

Security. Power. Freedom. A place to stay. A purpose . It was too good to be true.

“.. would I still be me?”

She shook her head. “The creature created from this union would be an all new personality, with memories from both of you, which would likely fade in time.”

It was too good to be true.

“Then I’m not doing that.” He said simply, startling a laugh from one of the gathered Major Arcana behind her.

“Lucio..”

“You can’t make me do it. Being me is all I’ve got left.”

The High Priestess breathed another deep, weary sigh. “Very well, our other option is to break the connection between you, which may reset the Devil Arcana back to how he was before Arsenic sealed him.”

There was a flicker of cautious interest in his mind, worsening his guilt. 

“What happens to me if you do that one? What if we both just stop existing??”

“We.. I don't know the exact outcome. We couldn’t break the connection on our own. You’ve anchored yourself very closely to him, there are many ways it could go wrong.” She clicked her beak, pensive. “However I must tell you, the person you were is already gone. There is nothing to preserve.”

“That’s not true, he’s right here. There’s plenty of him left to save.” Arsenic’s voice chimed in, almost desperate.

“Physically, yes. Spiritually..”

"What if I just-- don't do any of that?" He said suddenly. "What if we just continue on like we are? We could take turns--"

The High Priestess narrowed her eyes, tone cold again. "Then you will remain in this realm until one of you succumbs to the other, or your human lifespan comes to an end. Naturally or otherwise."

“Certainly you have no means to enforce that.” The Devil scoffed, but it sounded unsure.

Lucio’s heart dropped into his hooves, tears beading at the corners of his eyes.

“So.. so I die. Or I stop existing. Death or death. That’s what you’re telling me.”

The sky was darkening further, an ominous rumble of thunder overhead. Arsenic’s hand was on his shoulder, heavy and inescapable, not at all the comfort they probably intended. He felt sick. He felt angry. 

One mistake is all it takes - but he refused to take the blame for this one. He refused to be judged based only on his darkest moment, his most desperate impulse, not again. He’d just scrabbled out of the last one. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

It wasn’t fair.

“I have to die again because I didn’t want to be alone in this fucking hellscape. I have to die because I was scared and alone and didn’t have anywhere else to go and none of you pieces of magical dogshit ever tried to help me - is that what you’re saying??”

He shoved himself up onto his hooves, staggering once and nearly falling back to the floor trying to push both Arsenic and the Devil away, the rattling of that damned chain nearly deafening.

“That was not my intention--”

“That’s what it fucking sounds like to me!”

This time it was his voice that echoed through the realm, startling himself. Searing, painful heat began to gather in his hands, his body, like molten chains coiled around his bones, powerful, ancient magic that wasn’t meant to be his. This time the pain was welcome, almost natural, like it was meant to be here.

His tears burned like molten metal, searing down his face and dripping into the cracks on the floor, filling them with gold instead of red. His horns burned, a glimpse of gold there reflected in the floor below, red agony splitting down his spine and nearly dropping him to his knees, something brushing against his thigh he realized was a tail. 

His left arm burned, the magic billowing out of the gaps between the gold white hot with red at the edges, spilling out and beginning to create a crude approximation of his armor along the length, claws glowing like molten iron, threatening to melt them, unconsciously preparing himself for a long and grueling battle ahead.

His heart burned, knowing he would never see Jules again. Not like this.

“I was trapped here for YEARS and you didn’t do SHIT until I made the mistake of seeing him again.” 

It all came out in a flood like the tears, burning his throat, unable to stop, even as the realm began to rumble around him, as if it was cowering from him. 

“You could have helped me. Taken care of me. Done anything but treated me like an annoying vermin on the edges of your notice, a pest to be killed because-- because what, I was me? I never knew he was there! You could have just told me!

His scars were burning, turning gold. He gestured towards the Devil - standing stock still, eyes distant, as if he wasn’t all there - with his right hand. “He made me EAT SOULS and he still did more for me than you!”

“Arsenic! Break the chain! Now!” The High Priestess commanded. She sounded scared.

They were just standing there, staring at him, eyes wide and dumbstruck. “But I--”

“Do it! Break the connection before it’s too late!”

Don’t you fucking touch me!” Lucio snarled, and as if on cue a red bolt of lightning slammed into the obsidian floor in front of them, shattering their shield, closer to the Priestess than hitting them. 

He couldn’t hit them, Jules would never forgive him.

No, don’t think about Jules. 

He could feel the edges of rage beginning to slip from his grasp, new tail coiling up around his leg in lieu of the safety of long arms and gentle hands around his twisted body, breath hitching in another sob. Another thunderclap shook the realm, the crimson clouds growing darker but somehow less ominous, and he wasn’t sure what kind of rain it would produce.

After a moment the captain slowly stepped towards him, arms up in supplication, looking as though they were approaching a wild animal. “Look, hey, it’s okay. I’m not gonna touch you. I know you’re angry, and scared, and hurt. You’ve been through a lot.”

“I-I don’t need your pity .” He sniffed, wiping molten gold from his eyes.

“I’m not pitying you. I want to help you. Whatever’s going on right now - it’s not good for you. You need to calm down before it gets worse.”

Another sob wracked through him before he could stop it, feeling horribly vulnerable. 

“.. I can’t. It hurts. It hurts so much.”

They managed to get within arm’s reach - and for a moment, he considered letting them closer, letting them hold him until the storm inside him passed and he could go home - before he saw the glow spreading across their hands.

“Who’s side are you on?!” At once the rage was back in full force, burning again, and he abruptly stepped back from them, feeling the ground rumble and the floor crack beneath his hooves. “You said you were my friend! Why are you helping them?!”

“I’m not--”

They made the mistake of continuing to advance, and he leapt back with a snarl, finding his hooves remained aloft instead of landing, floating there like a vengeful cloud in his own right, the magic of the realm shrieking against him, singing harsh melodies in the acrid desert air. 

Burning chains rose up around him, hovering at each side like odd metallic wings. He raised his arms, and they lashed out across the floor like obsidian vipers, some snatching up pieces of debris and hurling them at the gathered Arcana, others striking out toward them in lieu of his claws, setting fires in their wake.

Rather than face him, the Arcana scattered, save the Priestess, the Devil and Arsenic, the Hierophant quickly tossing an empty wine glass at him before escaping through a gate.

“He’s drawing more of the Devil’s power,” The High Priestess hissed.

Arsenic spun around towards her, leaving their back unguarded. “Isn’t that what you wanted? For him to go full Devil?”

“He’s unstable. The realm is unstable. If he becomes the Devil in this state, there’s no telling what might happen.”

He couldn’t hear any more over the screaming of the magic, though he could see them. Talking about him. Conspiring against him. 

“Don’t ignore me! You did this to me! Now you get to deal with your big screw-up!” He snarled and lashed out another set of chains from his claws, aiming for the High Priestess’ throat - and she was snared in them, letting him yank her to the floor without a fight. As if she expected this. “Not so fun on the other side, is it?!”

She didn’t even have the decency to be scared, or angry. She was just staring at him with those big red pitying eyes. Arsenic moved to free her and another set of chains burst from the floor to grab their arms, yanking them to their knees. They could easily break them, but instead they also stared up at him with wide, betrayed eyes.

Waiting for his judgment. Expecting him to kill them too.

Guilt twisted through him like a knife, and he fought against it, fought to hold onto his rage, renewed molten tears spilling free against his will. Tears for whom, he wasn’t sure. The realm rumbled again, hard enough to nearly topple his prey, and this time he thought he saw cracks in the sky itself.

Idiot! You’re destroying it!

The Devil’s voice cut cleanly through the screams and his own burning thoughts, unable to tell if it was inside his mind or outside, startling him from staring at the sky. 

They were there. There were cracks in the sky, steadily widening like the cracks in the floor. 

“I just want her to pay!” He yelled back, but he could feel his conviction slipping. “I had to pay for my mistakes, why can’t she?!”

“Killing her won’t fix anything and you know it!” Arsenic cut in. “What’s happened has happened and you can’t change that!”

The Priestess remained eerily silent.

“I’m finally strong enough to do this-- why won’t you let me do this--? Why do I have to just accept that? It’s not fair.

They gave a pained smile. “I know. It’s not.”

One of the obsidian spires crashed into the floor behind him, a deafening boom upon impact, forcing him to realize more fully what was happening. The realm was breaking. The realm was breaking and it was his fault. He did this.

At once the chains clattered to the floor and disappeared into red mist, freeing them both. His body was no longer burning - but he was still floating there, several feet up. He whimpered and aimlessly paddled his hooves in the air, coming no closer to the ground.

“How do I get down? Arsenic-- someone-- help me-- I’m sorry--”

He fell dead still and tensed up as the warmth of magic that wasn’t Arsenic’s or the Devil’s coiled around him, tugging him back down onto what was left of the floor. His scars ached, remembering that was one of the magics that created them.

“No, I am sorry.” The High Priestess sighed as she released him. “You are right. We failed you. When you needed our guidance most, we punished you instead. We drove you to this.”

Lucio sniffled and scowled up at her for a long moment, tail twitching behind him.

“... I hate you.” He said, finally.

It came out as a pathetic little croak, garnering a chuckle.

“That is fair. In the future I advise orienting your hatred into something more productive , however.”

Another tremor shook the realm, larger chunks of flooring falling into some unseen abyss. The storm had died down, but the cracks in the sky were still growing, an infinite darkness beginning to overtake crimson. He felt his tail coil around his leg again, steadily edging closer to Arsenic, somewhere between wanting to hide behind them and wanting to run.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be a future at this rate,” They murmured. 

“I calmed down. Didn’t I?” In fairness, he didn’t exactly have a measure of calm to compare himself to. “It should be fine. Why is it still breaking??”

The High Priestess tilted her regal head skywards, the jagged cracks of darkness reflected in her headdress. “I do not know. This realm is attuned to you. Perhaps it doesn’t know what to make of itself, either.”

She gazed down towards Arsenic, expression grim, before there was a ripple of magic and an elegant doorway at her side. Through the gate he could see the calm waters and regal observation tower of her realm, soft lavender threads of magic coiling around the gateway, beckoning to him.

“I believe the safest option would be to leave this place while you still can.” A pause, head tilting towards Lucio instead. “Both of you.”

“What about the Devil?”

In an instant he realized he could barely feel his weight in his mind, or anything from him at all. If it wasn’t for the pressure against his chest indicating the chain was still there--

There was a wheezy chuckle from the broken dais, the Devil’s ashen form languidly draped in what was left of his throne, looking inappropriately relaxed given the obsidian spire collapsing and crashing into the abyss behind him. 

“Wake me up when it’s over, won’t you?” He drawled, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.

Lucio sputtered. “Wh-- get up! We’re leaving!” 

One broad hand simply lifted and waved him off.

“Damn it--”

“Do you want me to break the connection?” Arsenic asked.

He knew he should agree. The connection was killing the bastard and his realm. He was watching it happen. He could feel tears beading up in his eyes again, hoping they were only water and not gold.

“I-- no-- I don’t want to leave him like this. If it doesn’t work.” He glanced toward the captain, then back to the broken throne. “You go on ahead without me. I wanna fix this by myself.”

“Are you sure?”

“... no.”

Without thinking, he lunged for them, pressing a desperate kiss to their lips, hoping the magic drawing into his bones would postpone the inevitable. He drew back before he could get too carried away, wiping at his eyes. “Tell Jules that. And.. tell him I love him. And I’m sorry for leaving him alone. I’m sorry for everything.”

They gave a weak chuckle of their own. “Okay - but you better come back and say that to him yourself.”

“Oh-- and don’t forget to tell him how cool I was just now.” An attempt at a grin. “He’ll be sorry he missed it.”

Priorities , Lucio.” They gently shoved him.

As the captain turned away to head to the gate, his attention turned to the High Priestess, feeling his grin twist into a snarl, body tensed all over again, tail lashing behind him. She merely stared down at him as though he was beneath her notice.

There was a brief flare of panic, but he managed to hold her gaze. 

“If you hurt them, I will kill you. Understand?”

Her beak opened as if she was about to say something - probably something along the lines of ‘an archetype cannot be killed’ - then closed again, gently nodding before taking her leave.

The moment both figures vanished and the gateway closed, a chunk of obsidian fell across where it once stood, making it that much clearer how he wouldn’t be able to leave with them. He’d trapped himself here. A prison of his own making. He felt too big for this realm, like it was squeezing in around him.

Lucio shook his head and made his way towards the broken dais, hooves nimbly navigating fallen debris and avoiding the places in the floor that crumbled beneath them. There was barely any red left in the sky or stone left on the floor, the desert surrounding the dark Palace long gone. 

There was hardly anything left at all, only the throne room and a black, silent vacuum closing in.

The Devil hadn’t moved, lying there in his throne unnaturally still, furred chest moving with soft breaths as if he was sleeping. He wasn’t sure he was supposed to be able to sleep. 

“Take your power back. Please.” He said finally. “I don’t want it. I don’t want any of this.”

Hazy crimson eyes blinked open, staring at him for a moment as if trying to remember who he was. “You once clamored for my power, and now you want to give it back?”

“I-I’m not that person anymore.”

He wasn’t sure he was a person at all.

“Tell me how to give it back. I want to fix this.”

“Alas, I am - what did you say before? Not in control of shit ?” The Devil chuckled. “It isn’t up to me, anymore. You’re the one in control. You can figure it out yourself.”

One shaking broad hand lifted, curling against his cheek, and he felt compelled to lean into it.

“I do wonder what kind of Devil you'll become. You have.. a way with people, that I did not. Mortals are inexplicably, inexorably drawn to you. If you were not so insufferable, you would be unstoppable. A pity I won’t be there to see it.”

He sniffed. “I don’t want to be the Devil. I want to go home.”

The ashen form leaned back again, eyes closed, breathing a soft sigh that almost sounded disappointed.

“.. you’ve been able to break our connection this entire time. Even before you knew of it. Perhaps it was too easy an option for you. Perhaps you don’t want to let go.”

“I don’t want to be alone.” He blurted out, startling himself. “If I let go - I'll be alone. Won’t I?”

“You’ve been alone your entire existence, this shouldn't be new to you. There is strength in that distance, Lucio, and you are very strong.”

The tears were back. “Stop talking like that. Like you care about me.”

An ominous creaking above them attracted his attention, the pointed pillars loosening from their place towards the ceiling, the dome above them beginning to sag. He realized it would crush the Devil, who seemed to have fallen back asleep. He whined and grabbed for his hands, attempting to pull him out of the throne.

“Please, don’t leave me like this.” 

He wouldn’t budge, surprisingly heavy for a creature on his last legs.

“Do you miss him?” The deep voice murmured, suddenly. “Your distraction .”

His heart sank into his hooves all over again, grip faltering on his hands. “.. more than anything in the world.”

He knew what he’d find when he looked at the Devil again, but it still hurt to see pale skin and auburn curls, unfocused grey eyes and a wan little smile on his lips. The illusion wasn’t completely solid, the skin bone white, onyx markings drawn down that beautiful face - but it was Julian enough.

“This isn’t fair.” Lucio murmured, finding his hands drawn to caress him regardless, heart twisting further as he did a very good imitation of desperately pushing into his touch. “You’re awful. I hate you.”

“You’ll lament his mortality, if you keep him.” ‘Julian’ sighed. “You would either find yourself in despair when he is gone, or bind him to you so closely he couldn’t breathe.”

“.. it sounds like you’re speaking from experience.”

“I have lived through countless lifetimes of experiences, you’ll have to be specific.” He chuckled. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened - though I suppose it’s the first time I’ve been on the losing side. It’s very interesting.”

A louder creak, the dome sagging further, held up only by a few pillars now.

“Thank you.”

‘Julian’ leaned forward to capture his lips in a deep and possessive kiss, and against his better judgment he leaned into lips he knew was a snout, breathing in breath he knew was the remnants of red magic, hands curling in hair he knew was fur and pulling him closer, drawing him in, burning, drowning against him.

This was so much worse. His instinct was to devour him. He wanted him to devour him.

Something above them snapped, and with a cry he shoved the Devil off the throne as hard as he could, taking his place just as the dome fell.

The last he heard was another, deeper snap, then silence.

Chapter Text

Lucio jolted awake in his bedroom in the Palace - but this time he knew that’s not where he was.

He remembered everything.

This time the room appeared as it was those three years alone, gray and dead and covered in ash, evidence of increasingly desperate animal tantrums along the furniture and the walls. He knew it no longer looked like this, had been present when Nadia had it cleaned. 

He saw his hooves and tail first, after the ruined bed sheets they were lying across, and immediately slapped at his left arm as hard as possible to make sure it was still the golden one, not the bare stump, that he hadn’t become a goat ghost all over again.

He had died, though. Hadn’t he? He could taste blood in his throat.

His hand bounced off metal, very human fingers stinging from the impact. He had brought his prosthetic into whatever sort of underworld this was, this time.

The pressure against his chest was gone, no sign of the dark chain wrapped around his soul or the dark presence in his mind. The whispers in the dark were silent for the first time in a long time. Everything was unsettlingly still and silent and empty. 

He hadn’t realized just how much noise was in his head until it was quiet. He didn't like it. It was too quiet.

He was completely alone, now.

Did this mean he made the wrong choice again? Of course it did. It wouldn't matter what choice he made, it would always be the wrong one. In his first life, in the next brief life, in this life, in this universe, in all the universes - he was destined to fuck it all up, every time.

His eyes burned, but no tears came. He was tired of crying.

Tired of failing.

Just damn tired.

Slowly he pushed himself up off the bed, gingerly setting his hooves on the floor to make sure it was real enough to hold his weight. There wasn’t even a creak of the floorboards, just more endless, maddening silence .

Lucio once again felt himself drawn to one of his full-length mirrors, now shattered, a large fist-sized crater in the center he didn’t remember making, splitting up his face into hundreds of jagged forms. 

He could see the beautiful Count that once was, and the old vagabond that currently was, horns and all. In one of them he saw the young man that started it all, desperate and stupid; from another haggard eyes with the crimson tinge of the Red Plague gazed balefully out at him, arguably the most desperate and stupid, a cornered animal afraid for his life. He wanted to tell him that that hadn’t changed much.

There was a lot he wanted to tell him. All of them. They would hate to see what he'd become.

Among them he saw ancient crimson eyes in an elegant goatlike face, onyx horns and markings drawn down his snout, lining up directly with his current face. Two halves of a whole.

You owe me your miserable life. 

The deep voice was almost too loud in the silence, echoing against his ear as if it was right behind him, and he immediately whirled around to find the source, something between relief and anger boiling inside his gut.

The Devil wasn’t there.

Of course he wasn’t. He’d killed him, hadn’t he?

He’d killed them both.

A sharp bark of laughter escaped him, just as deafening in the silence. He supposed that was one way to pay off a debt.

In the corner of his eye he caught a faint glimpse of movement somewhere beyond the foot of his bed, by the back wall. It was an unnatural and almost alien movement, but it was very clearly alive , which meant he was no longer alone in this room, that same odd sense of macabre relief as expecting to find the Devil washing over him as he turned towards it.

His portrait was dull with ash but unchanged, this time, his younger self's boot resting on a horse skull. The same as the one peering out at him from inside a hooded robe covering a lanky figure standing by the painting, scythe clutched in an unsettlingly human hand.

Death.

Despite the cold grip of fear, he laughed again. "So I guess this means I really AM dead."

Death didn't speak, only shook their head.

"What do you mean, no? I distinctly remember being squashed like a bug."

They remained silent as he approached, gazing down at him through implacable empty sockets. He vaguely remembered the one depicted on Asra's card had eyes, or something like them.

"Why are you here, then?" Lucio huffed, tail twitching from its place curled around one leg, belying his fear. That was something he'd have to learn to control. "Your role is change or some shit, right? You wanted me to lose something? I lost everything , is that good enough for you?"

Once again they didn't speak. He felt like they could, they just wouldn't.

“Am I ever going to be good enough for you?? I-- I tried . I tried and I survived and I died. I can’t change anymore, it’s over. I lost.” 

Damn it, the tears were back. 

Without thinking he lunged for the shadowy robe, grabbing their arms, the give in the fabric telling him that’s all that was there. “Answer me, damn it! What the hell am I supposed to do now?! I can’t-- I need your help. Please .”

He tried not to remember saying those same words to the stone statue imprisoning the Devil. Desperate, stupid, alone. Reaching out to the only ally he’d had left.

I can’t do this anymore. I need your help. Please.

Death drew in a rasping breath he realized was a sigh, turning their attention to the painting. The scythe disappeared from their grasp, one hand reaching to open the secret door hidden in the frame - the other held out to him, palm up , as the door swung open.

In the place of the stone steps leading to the ritual room, there was nothing. Another empty void.

“... what happens if I go in there?”

They merely stared at him expectantly, hand still out. 

His right hand lifted as if compelled, lightly resting in their outstretched palm, warm to cold. The dark fingers curled very loosely around his hand, gentle, easy to escape. He could feel his pulse pounding in their grip.

They stepped towards the void, gently pulling him along, their skull facing him instead of the doorway as though watching for his reaction. Beyond them he could hear the echoes of voices, whispers in the dark, not quite the same as before. Calming, almost welcoming, calling out to him - you’ll be safe here. You won’t have to worry about anything.

Just close your eyes and rest.

His hoof had barely grazed the threshold before he was pulling back against their hand, shaking his head, the clamor of fear too loud to ignore. 

“I can’t. I can’t do it.” Lucio whimpered. “I-- I won’t come back if I go in there, will I?”

Death shook their head.

To their credit they didn’t seem to push the issue, letting go of him and closing the door, silencing the voices. He wondered if he’d made the wrong choice again, if he was meant to go into -- whatever the hell that was. 

Maybe it was supposed to be the afterlife?

“I’m sorry. I’m not ready.”

One dark hand simply gestured towards the doors leading out into the hall, now standing wide open, the dim hint of the wing beyond - and in it, the vague outline of humanoid shapes with dimly glowing ember eyes. His heart twisted, quickly looking away from them.

“I already faced that. Please don’t tell me I’m going to have to spend eternity looking after them.” He chanced a glance back towards the hall, that cold feeling he now knew was guilt coiling in his gut. “I'm not strong enough. I already failed them once. They don’t deserve that happening again. Not like this.”

Death said nothing. The gathered souls merely watched him, no malice in their gaze. There may have even been a hint of adoration , as though he was still their Count.

“.. tell me what I need to do.” He wasn’t sure if he was addressing Death or his subjects.

He felt the cold fingers curl around his flesh hand again, turning his attention back to the specter as they gently lifted it up to their own skull, pressing it against their ‘cheek’ and resting the skull in his palm, not unlike he’d done with Julian before, when he was remembering how much he craved human touch.

It was heavy in his hand, heavier than expected, like he wasn’t just holding up the skull, but the whole world. He moved to support it with his other hand, practically cradling it, and if they had eyes he felt they would be closed in simple bliss. There was a sense of warmth and trust he remembered was his own.

They trusted him to make his own choice.

Endings becoming beginnings, starting new.

There wasn’t much more of an ending than dying again. He’d already hit rock bottom, and the rock bottom under that. There was nowhere left to go but up.

“I trust you.” He said, finally. “I wanna try again, if I can.”

A slight pause.

“... and I promise to move on, if I can’t. I know when I’m beat.”

The robe collapsed into a pile of dark fabric on the floor that soon vanished, leaving only the skull in his grasp. Its weight shifted, becoming his mask instead, a hint of a familiar red presence wafting off it before it vanished like the robe. 

He wasn’t sure if that was who it was, but it wasn’t Death. He realized that now.

“Tsk, sticking your claws into other people's archetypes. Awful. Terrible.”

Lucio straightened up to his full height, higher now with the hooves, taking a deep breath before approaching his waiting subjects in the hallway. 

They were so close, crowding him - but he held fast, trying to force himself to relax. Letting them circle him, examining his horns and hooves and tail with that same odd adoration, shuddering at the brush of inquiring, reverent fingers in his mane. He would never have let them this close as their Count.

He didn’t know what the hell to say to them. Apologies meant nothing. He’d put them here.

Slowly, awkwardly, he offered them his right hand, visibly trembling, palm up. Asking to be led. Relinquishing control. 

He instinctively tensed as one of them took it, but he didn’t feel the urge to strike, and in fact allowed another to take his left, his own grip gentle to keep from pressing claws or armor into skin they no longer had.

Further down the hall, there was light instead of darkness, blotting out the rest of the wing. He wondered if that was the afterlife instead, ‘going into the light’ - but he felt more sure it was the way out.

He was suddenly very sure he could have just left the whole time.

“Take me home.”

***

Distantly he could hear the murmur of human voices, tense and worried and familiar, though he couldn't understand the words.

One of them sounded like Jules.

Lucio snapped awake with a sharp gasp, lungs burning as if this was the first time he'd taken a breath in an unknown length of time. His body ached and was numb at the same time, barely able to feel the warmth of hands against his back and under his legs, another body pressed tightly against his own. 

Holding him. He was being held.

"He's-- he's alive-- " Julian's voice murmured in disbelief, sounding a bit strained and hoarse. "Did you--"

"Wh-- no! Asra told me not to fuck with that kind of magic with people!" Arsenic's voice exclaimed.

" What do you mean 'with people'-- "

Slowly his eyes managed to open, blinking blearily up at Julian, the small motion easily derailing whatever he meant to say.

His doctor’s left eye nearly matched the crimson tinge of the right, clear evidence of tears still hanging onto similarly red, puffy cheeks. Worry and grief was written into every line of his face, the lanky arms around him tightening their grip as though he expected him to vanish.

Part of him wanted to ask how long he’d been there. Part of him didn’t want to know.

He raised his right hand, gently pressing it against the side of his face, and Julian immediately leaned into it with all the desperation of a man who had been abandoned for years, the hand at his legs moving up to grip it with the same veracity. He felt solid and real, his pulse frantically pounding against his palm. If this was another illusion, it was the finest one yet.

“I thought I lost you. You were just laying here , without moving, without breathing -- I couldn’t bring myself to check, I’m so sorry--” 

“I love you.” Was all he could think to say.

Julian sputtered and stared, and he could see fresh tears beginning to bead in his eyes, wide with disbelief, as if he could hardly comprehend what he’d said.  “I-- really? Are you sure--? You really--??”

“Damn it, Julian, I thought I trained you out of that.” Arsenic’s voice sighed.

“You don’t understand, this is different!”

“I love you, Jules.” He said again, but firmer this time, less room for argument. “ You love me . If I’ve got to get used to that, you’ve got to get used to the reverse.”

Now he was definitely crying. “I don’t know if it’s supposed to work like that.”

Lucio felt a soft smile playing along his lips, very slowly sitting up in his doctor’s lap, still holding onto his jaw with his right hand, the left soon coming up to join it on the other side, cradling his face. “Hold still, I want to make sure you’re real.”

Before the other man could question it, if he was going to question it, he leaned forward and pressed a deep and possessive kiss to his lips, allowing himself to devour him this time, not letting go until they were both straining for breath.

“Did-- did I pass the test?” Julian weakly chuckled, face red for a different reason. 

“I’m not sure, I may need to check again. More thoroughly.” 

He moved in for another, but stopped cold as he felt long doctor fingers bumping into an unfortunately familiar extra set of weight against his scalp. He glanced down at his legs outstretched across his thigh, finding they ended in white fur and onyx hooves, a long thin tail with a thicker tuft of fur at the end lying across the floor beside it.

The changes the Devil’s magic had made to his body had crossed over. He was stuck with them.

Immediately he withdrew, feeling his face crumpling.

“Hey, it’s okay, I don’t mind some extra features,” His doctor quickly assuaged him, pressing his own kiss to his lips as a distraction. “The important part is that you’re alive.”

“I know, but I hoped it would’ve gone away since I-- we’re not--” His left hand absently rubbed at his chest, where the chain once was. He was abruptly reminded just how empty it was inside his head now, as if he no longer took up enough space in it by himself.

He wondered when that feeling would fade, or if he was going to be stuck with that, too.

A sudden flare of panic rose in his chest, quickly yanking his shirt further open and glancing down at said chest to verify what he already knew. If he wasn’t connected to him anymore-- “Wait-- what happened to the Devil? Did he-- am I--”

“Ah, so good of you to finally join us.” 

Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, as they say. In this case, the goatlike creature was striding towards them from his throne, pelt healthy and white, eyes cold, as if nothing had happened. 

He realized they were still in his realm, only the dark replica of his Palace was pristine again, smartly polished floors and gleaming wrought ironwork, the sky bright red and untouched by the void. He never thought a place so ominous could look so beautiful.

“These two were behaving so disrespectfully while you were splayed across my floor.” The Devil huffed, coming to a halt just outside of arm’s reach, glowering imperiously down at him. “I would suggest talking some sense into them, if you had any of the sort.”

“I missed you too,” Lucio grunted as he slowly pushed himself onto his hooves, letting Julian tug him the rest of the way upwards with him, leaning against his side for stability.

“I’m still heavily considering binding you again, as a precaution.” Arsenic muttered.

“See? Absolutely rude, threatening me in my own realm.”

“Are you sure you’re not connected to him anymore? Because he looks like he’s about to throw a tantrum.”

He snorted and eased his way off of Jules in order to stride towards the Devil, until he stood hoof to larger hoof, for the moment peering up at him. He didn’t know what the hell to say to him, either.

It was so much harder when he couldn’t just feel at him and expect him to understand, let alone the reverse. There was a distance he hadn’t anticipated.

Fascination flickered through the taller monster’s eyes as they gazed over him, as if this was the first time he’d actually looked at him since the realm collapsed. He looked him up and down, slowly beginning to circle him with an expression not unlike a man appraising livestock, and once again he forced himself to hold fast and accept it.

A sudden jolt of agony rippled through his spine as a broad hand suddenly yanked on his tail, hard enough he felt his hooves lift from the floor for a moment, something between a yelp and a bleat escaping his throat, nearly collapsing to the floor when he let him go.

He whirled around so that his back was no longer facing him, both hands clutching his aching ass. “What the hell was THAT for?! I never pulled yours !” 

“I wanted to see if it was attached.”

“Of course it’s attached! Fuck!” Massaging his lower back only helped to take care of some of the pain, distantly hoping he hadn’t dislocated something. “I oughta make you kiss it and make it better.”

“... did you just tell him to kiss your ass??” Julian piped up, sounding like he was trying to stifle laughter.

The Devil was simply observing him with that same distant curiosity, either not hearing or not caring about this remark. “You have my traits, without my usual methods. Interesting.”

“You don’t remember doing this to me?”

His ire faltered as the elegant goat-like head simply tilted to the side, onyx markings in the facsimile of brows slightly raised. He vaguely remembered the High Priestess said he would be reset back to how he was before all this.

“... how much do you remember of our-- uh, time together?” 

“Oh, I remember everything. I just choose not to dwell on it.” His snout twisted in disgust. “The sooner it fades from my consciousness, the better.”

Lucio wasn’t entirely sure why that hurt quite so much. For the most part, he’d been nothing but a problem - it was only at the end.. he almost seemed proud of him. Like he’d cared about what happened to him. Maybe he thought he’d leave a more lasting impression.

The sneer deepened, though he thought he saw something like pity in his eyes.

“What, did you expect we would become friends?

He flinched away from him as if struck, feeling his tail coil around his leg despite the ache lingering in its base. Distantly he felt Julian’s hand on his shoulder, attempting a measure of comfort despite probably not understanding what was going on.

“Well… why not?” He forced himself to look him in the eye again, offering him his right hand, palm up. “You don’t have any friends, do you?”

“My role is to be an obstacle in your path, nothing more, nothing less. Anything else you may have read into it is nothing but sentimental nonsense .” The Devil snorted, staring at his hand as if he expected it to attack him.

“.. some might say the same of me, I think.” 

He kept his hand out regardless.

“Are you attempting to strike a deal?”

“If that’s what you want it to be, I guess.”

He heard a sound of alarm from both humans flanking him, but raised his left hand in a shush gesture before they could intervene. Hopefully they would try to trust him on this, although it was completely fair if they didn’t.

Crimson eyes narrowed, but he seemed intrigued. “Name your terms.”

“I want you to stay in your realm, or at least away from Vesuvia, until all three of us are dead.” Lucio began, keeping his tone relatively calm, almost diplomatic. Nadia would be proud. “Not if just one of us is dead, not if me and Jules are dead, all of us . At the same time. After that, I don’t care what the hell you do.”

Arsenic’s hand abruptly slapped down on his other shoulder, yanking him towards them before he had the chance to fight it, hissing into his ear. “You may want to be a bit more specific on where he goes, before he takes that as license to come to the human realm .”

Oh. He hadn’t thought about that. 

“A-and-- stop trying to do the ritual in Vesuvia. Or anywhere. Stop doing the ritual. Stay home.”

The Devil laughed. “And what do I get in return for such a generous proposition?” 

He hesitated for a moment, knowing it would be a hard sell, given their history.

“Companionship, if you’ll accept it. I’ll come visit you. Keep you entertained, so you don’t have to break our deal.”

“What if I refuse?”

He jerked his head towards Arsenic. “I can always have them bind you for eternity again.”

The beast’s face soured all over again, looking as if he’d bitten down an entire barrel of lemons. He only felt a glimmer of remorse for such a reaction, as either way Vesuvia should be safe. And a friend made through threats and coercion still counted as a friend, in his opinion. 

For once, he had the winning hand. It felt good.

Lucio twitched the flesh hand still outstretched to draw the Devil’s attention back to it, looking up at him expectantly. 

“Well? What’s it gonna be? Do you hate me, a mere mortal whose lifespan will blink out before you even know it, more than you want to remain free? How bad do you want to escape me?”

He may have been grinning, a horribly smug, crooked thing that reminded him of his younger days.

After a long moment of very clear deliberation accented with increasingly violent thrashes of his own tail, the Devil growled and took the offered hand as roughly and painfully as he could, his grip threatening to crush the bones inside it. 

“There are not enough words in your language to describe how much I hate you.” He grunted through gritted fangs. “We have a deal.” 

Despite the pain that lasted even after he released his hand, Lucio laughed and hooted in triumph. His tail was wagging up a storm, little pinpricks of pain shooting up his back with each wag.

“Eat that, goatman! I’m insufferable AND unstoppable!”

The Devil only groaned and buried his snout in his hands. For a brief moment, he thought he saw the edges of a proud smile playing at his animal lips.

“I can't believe you weaponized friendship ,” Julian laughed, and then snorted. “No, wait, actually I can. You’re the worst.”

Lucio leaned up to kiss his nose before returning to something of a celebratory dance, or as much of one as he could with twisted animal legs. “Don’t forget, you chose this~”

“And I don’t regret it for a moment.”

One gentle doctor’s hand took his flesh hand in its grip, joining him in his dance, just as awkward and uncoordinated despite having his own legs. Arsenic laughed and took his other hand, adding to the flailing whirlwind of limbs.

“You do realize you could have asked about fixing your body.” The Devil huffed, folding his arms instead, sounding somewhat petulant. “Too late now, of course. The deal is done.”

He stopped dancing at once, nearly being bowled to the floor for his trouble, painfully aware of his hooves and horns all over again. 

After a moment, he shook his head, forcing a chuckle to hide that weakness.

“I was waiting for you to offer that while I was giving my terms, but you never did.” He wasn’t. He hadn’t thought of it. In the moment, all he thought of was keeping his city safe. “Missed chance, master manipulator. I guess somebody else will have to take advantage of that one.”

As he spoke, he draped an arm across Arsenic’s shoulders, pointedly leaning against them with an even bigger grin. Reminding him of who his allies were, how powerful they were. If he could weaponize Jules as well, he would.

The beast breathed a deep, annoyed sigh, one broad hand coming up to pinch at the space between his brows, very clearly attempting to regain some kind of composure. 

“I believe it’s time for the lot of you to leave this realm.” He said, finally.

“I’ll be back~”

Out.