A Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

“Son of a god-damned, motherfucking bitch,” came the call from the fountain of immortality as it sparkled with rejuvenating power, and a few heads at the bar actually turned to look this time. One of those heads belonged to Obsidian, gentleman magus, and while he was no stranger to either swearing or people stepping from the fountain, he happened to know the voice. 

The man who strode from the healing waters in a burst of profanity was big in every way: tall, broad, round belly, loud clothing. It was highly unlikely the bejeweled codpiece had any tactical merit. His long, pointed ears poked out from a cloud of auburn hair—which itself was going foxily silver at the temples, Obsidian noted with approval, even as he kicked himself for thinking so—and gleamed with piercings. Shining chains of gold and gems hung across his chest, his blouse left boldly open to bare it (and the hair upon it, and what looked like at least one more piercing) to the world. The mustache of his Van Dyke was waxed into annoying little curls. That oh-so-familiar voice filled every corner of the room with its inescapable ringing baritone. It was impossible to ignore his presence.

Like it or not, Rhett Velvet, a rogue’s rogue if there ever was one, had barged his way back into Obsidian’s life.

“I almost had the eye out of that fucking idol!” Rhett bellowed. He certainly hadn’t gotten any quieter with age. His personality would expand to fill the size of whatever room he occupied, like a slime mold in an oatmeal storehouse. It was one of the nigh-innumerable reasons he and Obsidian could never work as a unit for very long.

“Which one?” asked someone at the bar. “I thought the Azkontine Ruins had all its altars sacked months ago.”

Rhett tutted. “Like I’d tell you where to swipe the fruits of my labors!” he said. “No giant glittering gems for you without doing the hard part. I’m sure I’ll bring it back it next time so I can gloat about it at you.”

“So what got you?” asked someone else. Obsidian rolled his eyes. It was a cliché to ask, but that was because everyone asked, once they got used to it, and it made for easier pick-up lines than a lot of the alternatives. Hey, baby, I just came back from getting decapitated and I could really use a little head. That kind of thing. Obsidian hated them. He hated even more how often they worked on him. There was something about dungeon running for a living that gave you horny brain worms that were vulnerable to shitty come-ons. He really needed to focus on something else before he made the same fucking mistake for the umpteeth time.

The cannonade that was Rhett’s laughter made focusing very difficult. His whole body moved when he did that. His whole body moved under lots of different circumstances. “It was a bunch of cultists!” he said, grinning like a cat in an empty birdcage. “Them and their pet whatchamacallit with the teeth! Everything was going great, then I adjusted in exactly the wrong way for my jewelry to sparkle in the torchlight, they saw me trying to nick their artifact, and I would’ve made a clean escape anyway if the whatsit hadn’t gotten summoned right in front of me. Flames, chomp, here I am back here again. I’ll get ’em next time.”

That’s the way it was with Rhett: no matter how badly he fucked up, he was always a hundred percent convinced that the next time would be better. You had to have a little of that do-over energy to you or you’d tap out after your first time dying down there in the depths, but with him, it was unreal. Set off a trap? He’d disarm it next time. Get cursed? He’d bring more hexbreaker talismans next time. Fell into a pit? He’d be more agile next time. Completely, utterly fuck up an interpersonal relationship? He didn’t mean it, he was better than that, just give him another chance, he’d do better, he could change. After a while you either got numb to it, kicked him to the curb, or both. What did it say about a serial up-fucker and apologist if you kept letting him fuck up and apologize?

Not giving Rhett that chance felt like the smart thing to do. Obsidian tried to shrink into the crowd, but one could only shrink so far when dressed mostly in varying shades of black and a conspicuously feathered hat. He stuck out like a big inky thumbprint on a priceless manuscript. Rhett, who despite appearances knew quite a lot about manuscripts, spotted Obsidian instantly.

“Well look what the cat dragged in!” he said. The occupied seats on either side of Obsidian were, suddenly, vacant. Shit.

“Rhett,” said Obsidian in his iciest tone.

Rhett ignored the nasty welcome and leaned against the bar in front of a now-empty stool. “Good to see you, too.” He gestured to the bartender, who slid each of them a frothing tankard. Obsidian wasn’t sure if he should be offended that Rhett was buying him a drink or that Rhett hadn’t bought him his preferred drink. “It’s been, what, three, four years since last time? I was starting to think you’d gotten out of the trade.”

“As if I’d give you the satisfaction.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know you wouldn’t, but a man has to wonder,” said Rhett. He still hadn’t sat down. “Not that I’ve been bored. Always new shit to see down there in the depths, no matter how many dozens of dives you’ve delved, always new treasures to harvest. You can’t get stuck in a routine unless you try to, right? Every so often, though, I come across a fresco of some unknown something or another, and can’t help thinking what secrets it might reveal to my old comrade Obsidian.” He pronounced Obsidian’s name in a subtly strange way—Ub-sidjon, emphasis on the Ub, if Obsidian himself had to transcribe it—and letting that kind of syllable-skipping behavior slide was probably what kept getting them into messes down the line.

That wasn’t the only detail that stuck in Obsidian’s craw, of course, and Rhett had just handed him another one. “Claiming routines can’t happen without a conscious hand guiding them is delusional,” he said, pointedly refusing to touch his tankard. Said routines kept happening to them every time they overlooked how bad they were for each other; one day things would be fine, and then the next would see Obsidian practically sleepwalking through making decisions, which was not the best idea for a man whose profession required a lot of ghosting into situations and coming out alive on the other side. It wasn’t that great a trait for someone who didn’t want their pockets picked, either. He needed to stay mad at Rhett by any means necessary. His self-respect was riding on it.

“Touchy, touchy! I meant that there’s basically infinite danger down there, which means infinite fun, and infinite goodies, right? And even if I only see something scholarly in one chamber out of a hundred, that’s still a whole lot of scholastic potential over the course of a week.”

Obsidian was plagued by a twinge of interest. Every single person who drank from the fountain—and you had to if you wanted the ruins to let you in, it was like its own form of key—was given their own intangible guiding thread back to its waters, and following your thread in reverse might take you to the same basic places someone else might see, but generally not in quite the same way. It was like the whole complex underneath the bar was a hall of mirrors that kept moving which walls were where. There was a very real chance he’d never find those places Rhett had passed by on his own, assuming Obsidian kept to his principles and clung solely to his own thread. It did seem a bit of a waste to leave forgotten art to molder, though. Who knew what those hidden nooks might hold for his research? Who knew what arcane heights he might achieve if he claimed them for himself?

He had to stop tugging at his own base desires like this. “Good for you,” said Obsidian. “Given the racket you made coming in, I presume your own excursions have not exactly been pinnacles of academic interest.”

“I missed your big-budget vocabulary,” said Rhett with uncomfortable fondness.

“And I missed having a quiet moment to myself. What do you want, Rhett?”

Rhett had the gall to look hurt. He fluttered his lashes at Obsidian like he’d been accused of ruining the lemonade social. “I wanted to buy you a drink and catch up, maybe talk shop a little. Trade ideas. If nothing else lick my wounds a little before making fresh plans and going back for a rematch with that thing with all the teeth. The usual.” He tilted his chin and fluttered his lashes again, this time with a more come-hither approach. “C’mon, don’t you want to hear a little bit about that idol?”

Obsidian did, in fact, want to hear about it, even as he was internally screaming at himself that this was how it always started. He wanted to know about the cultists and their whatever-it-was. He wanted to try to claw a few scraps of academic information out of Rhett’s feather-brained head. He wanted to plan his own route to see what kind of being the idol depicted. He wanted to get a better look at that piercing that kept glinting beneath Rhett’s blouse.

“Fine. We’ll take a booth.”

Every ounce of Obsidian’s common sense verified that he was making a terrible decision when he took a seat across from Rhett in a more secluded corner of the bar, and if somehow he hadn’t been bemoaning his own self-sabotage from the moment he’d first heard that familiar burst of profanity, Rhett’s expression would’ve been enough to know no good could come of this. Obsidian had taken the gifted drink with him; he told himself that it would be a shame to waste good booze, even if accepting it felt like giving up. At least it briefly gave him something to focus on that wasn’t Rhett.

Starting the conversation would have been another way of giving up, and so Obsidian waited for Rhett to say the first word. It didn’t take long: “You got hotter.”

“Thank you for noticing,” Obsidian replied, smugly. Accepting the compliment was just recognizing an objective truth: he had gotten hotter. What had been a trim, nondistinctly athletic build when he and Rhett had last met had become something meaner, bulkier, more befitting of a pugilist. Most of it could still hide beneath his clothes. Obsidian preferred to solve problems through words, spells, and the odd bit of trickery, but dungeon creatures had a habit of ignoring one or more of those. Sometimes the best defense was a strong right cross.

“I like the gauges,” said Rhett, who’d never been happy to say three words when three hundred were available. “And the hat. And how you still look like a five-star bitch.”

“You’re goddamn right I do.” From anyone else it would’ve been an insult (even if this, too, was objective truth), maybe even an excuse for a fight, but from Rhett? No, Rhett meant it as the highest of praise. He said it like an art critic presented with a freshly signed masterpiece. Obsidian wished he didn’t have such vivid memories of how much fun it was to be shitty to him and how ravenously Rhett consumed every single scrap of sneering attention thrown his way. The Obsidian Experience was an acquired taste most people had no desire to develop nowadays. It had been far too long since he’d last spat on anybody.

Focus, focus. “Weren’t you going to be telling me about the idol you found?”

“I was getting to that,” said Rhett, sulkily. “Come on, we have history, at least let a guy hype you up a little before things return to being all business again.”

As much as Obsidian was enjoying the praise, things had a habit of never staying all business where the two of them were concerned, which was the ur-problem at the heart of all things Rhett. That and how Rhett seemed to always be broke. Where did the money go? Obsidian had tailed him for an entire week, once, and the numbers didn’t add up. Some people just bled currency. When the currency Rhett was bleeding belonged to other people, that was when the trouble that followed him started to follow them, too. Obsidian found himself bracing for the latest in Rhett’s long line of bargaining. His hand instinctively went to his coin pouch at his belt; it felt the same weight as before, but one did not pick up the epithet of rogue’s rogue without cultivating some mighty fast fingers. Rhett helping himself to Obsidian’s things had been a recurring problem back in the day.

Obsidian opted to keep things simple. “Any time I deign to let you ‘hype me up,’ it ends up exploding. I don’t have time to explode. You wanted to talk shop? Then talk.” He palmed a notebook from a carrier strapped to his thigh and willed a charcoal stick into existence with a thought and a flourish of ink-black magic. It hovered slightly above the blank page to which he opened the notebook. “And use your fucking words.”

The too-big grin on Rhett’s face was proof this was a bad idea in every possible way, and the fact that half of the tankard he’d ordered for Obsidian was already gone without him realizing was even worse, but a man of Obsidian’s interests was nothing if not willing to weather a few mistakes in the name of knowledge.

They’d first met, like so many other adventurers did, on a run.

Obsidian had always been the too-cool loner type, which meant he wasn’t exactly a party person: be it standing aloofly while other, less interesting people drank and danced around him or trying to coordinate two to five fellow professional scavengers long enough to keep from stumbling into yet another spike trap, dealing with others tended to be more irritating than it was worth. It was easier going solo. Solo ventures meant he never had to worry about splitting the spoils evenly, or having enough food and potions for multiple people, or weathering someone’s feelings because they couldn’t handle a little constructive criticism. Skulking through the shadows was a breeze without some asshole’s armor clanking upon every step.

Yes, going alone into the depths of a dungeon was the perfect plan right up until things went wrong.

It had looked like a straight shot between his hiding place and the plinth on which a jewel-encrusted dagger perched, and he’d watched and waited for what had felt like hours to see if there was any rhyme or reason to the guards’ patrols. His tread was silent. His movements were deft. He was as cautious as he was swift, and Obsidian’s scouting told him the way should have been clear, but here he was, zig-zagging for his life through the remains of a city buried in a cave and filled with entirely too many people with funny ideas about mushroom consumption. He couldn’t afford to die here, not with so much loot in his satchel and so many freshly penned entries in his research journals; the last time he’d found a spring from the fountain of immortality had been days ago, so if he took an arrow to the back of the head he’d be out a good week or more of work. He couldn’t make any lasting progress on deciphering the mysteries of the ruins if he kept losing all his notes in a puddle of his own blood! So he ran, and he dodged, and he racked his brains for any possible hiding places or detours he might have passed before, and all the while the angry mob behind him drew ever-closer.

His boots skidded in some loose pebbles, sending him tumbling, and Obsidian braced himself for another frustrating death that was going to ruin the entire delicate ecosystem of his finances for weeks to come. He clutched the dagger to his chest. The worst part was how the stupid thing absolutely would have been worth it if he’d only managed to stick the landing.

“Heads up!”

Something whizzed over him. Obsidian had just enough time to recognize the fast-moving shapes of flashbang capsules to turn away, clamp his hands over his ears, and squeeze his eyes shut; the ensuing explosion rained more pebbles and still-hot shards of broken ceramic against his clothes. Even with his eyes closed they ached a little from the brightness. His pursuers had it even worse, though, as they’d been knocked as helpless as he’d been mere moments before, and the way they cried out and rubbed at their eyes was proof enough to him that they’d been rendered blind. Too much time in the bowels of the earth could leave anyone a bit sensitive, but that make of capsule? Obsidian knew they were designed to work topside, during high noon. If whoever had thrown that decided to take a shot at him before the ringing in his ears died down, there was still a chance his goose could be cooked.

With the current threat nowhere near neutralized Obsidian didn’t have time to ruminate. He jumped to his feet and drew his blade. “Who goes there?” he said, his throaty voice scraping against the distant cavern ceiling, and the point of his rapier traced angry patterns in the air.

“Is that how you say hi?” came the same voice as before. Whoever was talking was doing a damn good job of staying out of the torchlight. It was like talking to a ghost. Obsidian didn’t care for ghosts.

“Show yourself!”

“Fuck’s sake, all right, all right. I was just disarming the pit you were about to run into, no need to thank me.” After a subtle click and some distant, arrhythmic thumping beneath the subterranean cobbles, the speaker finally stepped into view.

He had to be the fattest elf (or elf-like person, anyway) Obsidian had ever seen in the depths, and given how tight and flashy the stranger’s clothes were this clearly wasn’t a problem for him. Someone so sparkly shouldn’t have been able to be so sneaky. He stepped over one of the ailing berserkers—delivering a kick to the genital triangle as he passed—and extended a hand to Obsidian with a smile nearly as bright as his flashbangs. “The name’s Rhett.”

Obsidian learned something about himself in that moment: He’d grown up around plenty of people who could be described as on the heavier side and hadn’t really noticed anything about them in particular, but a big man with a big personality and very snug clothing was something else entirely. What might’ve been useful knowledge back at the bar was downright annoying in the middle of what was, he reminded himself, still an active danger area. There were threats to be neutralized. He brushed Rhett’s hand aside and made for the deep-dweller Rhett had kicked.

“Not much of a talker, huh?” asked Rhett, turning to watch Obsidian slit the poor bastard’s throat.

“Not when there’s work to do,” said Obsidian. He shook some of the blood from his rapier and moved down the line to the next drug-addled deep-dweller. Some people were squeamish about taking human lives when delving, and Obsidian was not one of those people; he knew as well as anyone that anyone the dungeon got its claws into became part of the dungeon’s strange ecosystem, and that included other explorers who’d drunk from the fountain. Nobody knew where they popped out when it revived them, but revive them it did, and he’d seen foes whose lives he’d taken rise up against him within a month. Killing deep-dwellers never took care of them for long. What it did do was buy some peace and quiet, and by the time Obsidian was able to properly wipe off his blade he was feeling a lot more peaceful.

Naturally, Rhett had to ruin it. “So about that prize you risked life and limb to make off with,” he said, somehow always in Obsidian’s way despite appearing to be busy with going through the fallen nasties’ pockets.

“What about it?”

“Well, I think it’s fairly clear you wouldn’t be going home with it and everything else you’ve swiped for yourself,” —the word choice made Obsidian bristle, as swipe implied a lack of planning and level of spontaneous crime that was anathema to his more methodical approach— “so I was wondering if you would be interested in handing it off. Things would be fair and square between us that way: I get just a hint of treasure for my trouble, you get everything else for handling the brunt of the dirty work, and we part ways amicably. What do you say?”

Based on how much spare cash Rhett was tucking away into one of his no doubt swag-stuffed bags, he had an interesting definition of everything else. “I say fuck off,” said Obsidian. He flourished his sword and returned it to its scabbard. Aside from serving as visual punctuation, he’d met too many people who didn’t realize not having it out meant he had both hands free for casting, sand-throwing, or whatever other dirty tricks would be necessary to get the job done. Rhett struck him as one of these people. “You made some bright lights at a useful time, I’ll give you that, but you didn’t plan your trip here, time all the patrols, disarm all the traps—”

“Not all of them,” said Rhett, patting what looked like a rolled-up piece of fabric but Obsidian’s keen eye told him was one of the bundles of safecracking tools they sold at the less reputable shops up top.

Shut up. I didn’t disarm plenty of traps just to hand over the reason I came this far off the beaten path in the first place.”

“It’s not that far off.”

“It’s at the tail end of a lot of tunnels that have seen so much traffic it’s a wonder there’s even moss left in them! And that required finding multiple secret passages, complete with that stupid fucking kaleidoscope device in the arboretum.”

Rhett whistled. “You’re the one who solved that? I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since I slid down a chute from an upper level and ended up in one of the trees next to it. What was the trick to it?”

The trick was referencing the constellations painted on the interior domes of each little free-standing structure and comparing them to the rebus logic of the mosaics painted all around the kaleidoscope, which had mostly been child’s play save for some idioms that had taken Obsidian an annoyingly long time to figure out once he’d brushed up on his forgotten text know-how; the hard part had been finding where some of the missing kaleidoscope panels had been and unfucking the attempts from previous visitors. Once Obsidian had cleaned up everyone else’s mess it was a snap to do. The cleanup had been what took him ages, as had carefully hiding one of the loose panels so nobody could sneak in past him and snake his hard-earned rewards. “The trick was being smarter than anyone else trying to solve the same problem, pure and simple,” he said.

“So you’re a genius, got it,” said Rhett, and Obsidian did not like both how sincere the compliment sounded and how much he liked hearing it directed at himself. “A smart guy like you’s got to be good at math, right?” Rhett continued. “C’mon, one ancient magic knife in exchange for all the remaining treats you can carry.”

There were even fewer of those so-called treats now. Where did a man in an outfit that revealing keep it all? “Not interested.”

“You’re killing me, here,” said Rhett, one hand to his forehead. “I could really, really, really use that thing. Besides, you’ve got a rapier already! You don’t need something smaller!” Rhett also had a dagger—an entire brace of them, it looked like—and yet here he was, whining that he couldn’t get yet another instance of something he already owned just because it had some sparkly bits on it. Typical loot goblin behavior. Obsidian was about to launch into a lengthy explanation on the value of a parrying dagger to a fencing style such as his when Rhett kept talking. The difference this time was that he was willing to haggle: “I’ll suck your cock for it.”

Obsidian frowned. How good could someone be if they didn’t start with offering a blowjob or end there after building up their talent, transactional purity, or both? “Why do you assume I’d even be interested?” he snapped.

“Nobody lands a fish if they only cast their line once,” said Rhett with a shrug and a grin. “Besides, unless I am way less of a judge of character than I was yesterday, you keep checking me out.”

Shit. He had been, hadn’t he? Most of that had been to gauge just how much of a threat he was dealing with in the form of this strange, redheaded elf from who knows where, but that didn’t mean his eyes hadn’t skidded towards certain parts of Rhett’s figure like nails rolling past a magnet. He was also hard. If that was all it took to get him in such a state these days, maybe he should let a stranger suck him off. The last thing Obsidian needed was to be so pent up in the field that he got all starry-eyed for a bounty instead of scouting out their vulnerable spots. Speaking of vulnerable spots…

“Whether I was or not, why should I assume you won’t take advantage of me when you’ve got me where you want me?” said Obsidian. He’d once read an account of a woman who’d worked her way through an entire camp of beast-men using nothing but a lot of stamina and the threat of her potent bite strength. It might have simply been sensationalist hogwash. The problem was that Rhett looked like a man who dealt in hogwash by the barrelful.

Rhett was unfazed. “You want to tie my hands? Bind my ankles? Keep a blade at my throat while I work? I’m not into that kind of song and dance during my own R&R time, but I’ve performed under worse circumstances, and I really want that dagger.” He wet his lips in a conspicuously practiced manner. “So what do you say?”

It was probably the best offer Obsidian was going to get in a while. Sure, he didn’t exactly have trouble meeting people in the various watering holes that huddled around places blessed by the fountain of immortality, but the problem was that he’d already been with all the locals he cared to, and none of them had proven themselves worth the effort of more than the occasional double-dip. Obsidian was a man of skill, class, and enormously high standards; better to go without than to debase himself with an also-ran if he could avoid it! If he accepted Rhett’s offer, it would tide him over that much longer, and he’d be that much less likely to make stupid fucking mistakes like the one that had nearly cost him his head. It would be a shame to lose the dagger, of course, but maybe he could pry some knowledge out of Rhett about some other locale full of unsolvable mechanisms in exchange. Besides, there were worse places to fool around in the dungeon than a freshly-cleared area. They could always pile the bodies in a corner or something.

“One sufficiently skilled cocksucking, executed to my satisfaction, in exchange for one magic dagger, namely, this one I have right here,” he said, patting the dagger’s black-dyed leather sheath. “After that we’re even. Shake on it?”

Rhett chuckled and extended a hand. “Sure, we can shake on it.” His grip was firm. Obsidian couldn’t help but imagine what all that little trait might be useful for, too.

They made their way into a side nook out of view of the main hallway, since even after clearing out an area you never knew who could find their way in later. Rhett was on his knees and tending to Obsidian’s many belts the moment they’d stepped out of sight. Good god but he had fast hands: Obsidian found his cock arcing into the cool dungeon air mere seconds after realizing what was happening. With little more than a cheeky wink, Rhett held up his half of the bargain.

Not gasping the moment tongue touched flesh required herculean effort on Obsidian’s part. How pent up was he if this was all it took? He was dealing with a dry spell, that was so, and Rhett was (apparently) extremely his type, that was abundantly clear, but usually he didn’t have so much trouble keeping his icy facade in place. Rhett’s lips danced across Obsidian’s shaft as though his life depended on it. His tongue knew just where to lick, his jaw knew just when to tense and when to release. When Obsidian tangled his fingers in Rhett’s hair and pulled—not a lot, of course, but just enough to remind him who was in charge—the moan that reverberated against Obsidian’s skin was a thing of beauty. It was fantastic. It was paradigm-shifting.

It was almost enough to keep him from noticing how much lighter his spell pouch felt, even accounting for the different way it hung once unbuckled.

He caught Rhett by the wrist with his free hand and wrenched, being careful of the teeth; Rhett yelped and sputtered as he dropped the pouch he’d tried to lift. Obsidian snarled at him but held him in place.

“Picking my pocket? Fucking seriously?

Rhett tried to apologize around the mouthful of dick he’d not been permitted to spit out. This earned him another twist of the wrist as Obsidian summoned a set of keyless shadow manacles to keep the little shit from wriggling away again. They clanked in place behind Rhett’s back, and with a surge of blue and purple energies they sealed themselves snugly in place. Rhett groaned in complaint.

“Don’t even start with me, you prick,” said Obsidian. He rolled his hips forward to punctuate the statement. “You have a job to finish and you’re not going anywhere until I’m through with you. We shook on it, remember? Never go back on your word with a magician.

A big part of being in Obsidian’s particular profession required making people believe you could actually do whatever it was you said you could. In his case that was mostly truthful: He was trained with spell and blade alike, and when he said he was learned in this forgotten culture or that drowned tongue, he meant it. What he couldn’t do was twist someone’s words into invisible snares. That kind of magic required different tutors than he’d had, and they asked for things in trade it was impossible to replace. Pair it with a good light show and some already effective tricks, however? You could go a very long way with that. Even if Rhett didn’t buy it, that didn’t change how he was stuck in place with a job even his deft little digits couldn’t wriggle out of, and Obsidian couldn’t help but enjoy having a captive audience. He enjoyed it a lot, actually. That Rhett actually went back to sucking him off instead of resisting only made things better.

Being a man of reasonable years (not as old as the classic beard-having wizard, but no mewling apprentice, either), Obsidian had experienced his share of fellatio before, and while he was certain he’d had better at some point, it hadn’t been in an agonizingly long while. Rhett was good at this in spite of the extra duress. Maybe the duress even helped, who could say? What Obsidian knew for certain was that he was being sucked off by a pro, and every spit-slick bob of Rhett’s head was nudging him closer to completion. A familiar knot of pleasure built up at the base of his spine. He felt his thighs tremble. Sweat beaded at his temples. A blowjob like this didn’t happen every day, nor did negotiating with an utter rogue as part of said blowjob. Obsidian was unlikely to experience either again very soon. He’d have to make this count.

Gritting his teeth, Obsidian wrenched Rhett’s head back by the hair to come, forcefully, across his face. It was incredible.

When he pulled out he felt like he’d run a marathon, despite being on the receiving end and having barely gotten out of breath when fleeing for his life not even an hour prior. “I think that’ll do,” he said, wiping off his gleaming cock on one of the all-purpose rags no serious delver ever went into the dungeon without.

Rhett didn’t seem to agree. “You got it in my eye,” he said, still magically manacled.

Obsidian spat at him, the frothy gobbet landing in the ruin dust next to Rhett’s knee. “Shut up. That’s for trying to lift my components pouch while I was distracted. You’re still getting the dagger out of this, so you’re going to take whatever punishment I feel like dishing out.”

“I still get the dagger?” said Rhett. He looked genuinely surprised.

“We shook on it, didn’t we? I’d originally planned for you to swallow, but no, you don’t get to if you’re going to attempt shit like that.” Obsidian snapped his fingers and the shackles were gone, leaving only light discolorations in their wake; ink magic like that tended to stain if you weren’t careful, and he hadn’t felt like being careful. The dispellation done, he tucked himself away before starting the laborious process of fastening every buckle again. “You get the blade once I don’t have my cock out. I don’t need to tempt you with a vulnerable spot, now do I?”

Rhett chuckled again. It must not have been as good a blowjob as Obsidian had thought if the sight of Rhett in mirthful motion was enough to hammer against the borders of Obsidian’s rest period. What a shame they’d probably never cross paths after this; he was already getting ideas for an encore. Pulling his waterskin from his pack, Obsidian tried to focus on how he’d pay his leave and get back to pursuit of profit.

While Rhett was also visibly hard (holy shit! to think Obsidian hadn’t done anything with that!), he was just as excited to get his sticky little fingers on the less metaphorical of daggers present. “Do you even know what you’ve got on hand?” he said as he drew it to hold up against the light. “It’s one of a set, and rumor has it the set’s only at its best when all the little brothers and sisters are cuddled up together. I’ve got three of the others—”

Obsidian was very proud of himself for not spraying water mid-sip at this detail.

“—so I figure number four will nearly complete the set, right?” Rhett retired the dagger to an empty spot on his bandolier. There was a sort of hum at the edge of Obsidian’s perception, one which Rhett presumably had also noticed given the way his long ears twitched, and then a sense of rightness that was difficult to put into words. The pieces had found a missing sibling, indeed. “Just one more to go and I’ll be solid, I mean really ready to go toe to toe with whatever this weird place throws at me, and you’re to thank for it.” He thumped Obsidian on the shoulder like a long-lost friend. “I won’t forget this.”

“Just like you won’t forget you’ve still got my come drying in your mustache?”

“Shit, right, can I borrow your water for a sec…?”

Going solo was a big part of Obsidian’s entire mystique. He was the dark shadow in the corner, the black-clad seeker of forbidden knowledge, and that sort of vibe required there not being any giant clown men yukking it up while he was trying to brood. Obsidian was meant to melt into a crowd, not prepare for a doubles’ relay race with a man who’d no doubt spend his entire turn flirting with the judges before palming the trophy and walking off. The mysterious stranger thing required one to really commit to being a lone wolf in every way. He was good at it. But was it good for him in return? Cold beds for days, maybe weeks or even months at a time had not exactly helped his morale when times were tough. Maybe what he’d been lacking before was that charismatic spark that elevated a tryst from good to great.

Yes, Obsidian liked his privacy, but he also really liked getting his cock sucked. Perhaps some more negotiation was in order.

“I was wondering,” he began, turning back to Rhett, but there was no one there. And his wallet was missing, to say nothing of his waterskin, his rag, most of his rations, his more expensive potions, and the orb-key he suspected was crucial in tracking down the fifth and final dagger of the whole damned artifact set. Shit.

He was going to murder that stupid fucking elf the next time they crossed paths.

One of the most dangerous things about Rhett was how easy he was to talk to, or more accurately how easy it was to get him started and let him just go on and on for hours as he bounced from topic to topic. He was also frustratingly interesting; he actually had things to say about the idol, and not just whether or not it had a funny sculpted phallus on the front; Obsidian’s curious nature was drawn to hearing of such things like a moth to a flame. That Rhett was quick with the laudations and encomiums any time Obsidian deigned to let slip a comment of his own, no matter how aloof, didn’t help in the slightest. One did not present themselves the way Obsidian did or pursue their craft in the manner Obsidian chose without having a bit of an ego to back it, and unlike some people he didn’t consider self-adoration to be a character flaw. Having a handsome, clever man pay him compliments was like dumping grease on a stove fire. Damned if Obsidian wasn’t in the mood to watch things burn despite his better judgment.

The longer their conversation went the more Obsidian loosened up. How the words did flow! It was like they’d not seen each other for a matter of days, not the actual years that had passed between them. The stupidest, most sentimental part of Obsidian’s brain dared to wonder why they’d ever split in the first place. Thankfully, all the other parts of him were quick to shout down those sappy thoughts, often with helpful charts and diagrams in tow explaining just how bad of an idea that was. Rhett was hardly an innocent party in this whole mess, after all. It was important to remember that.

Rhett Velvet was much like his almost-namesake cake: bold, rich, and flavorful, downright decadent at times, and prone to making you feel miserable the next day if you indulged too much. Obsidian’s sweet tooth was going to be the death of him. Every time they got together he hoped things would be different—different how was rarely ever addressed until it was too late—and just like clockwork it would all go wrong and someone (almost always Obsidian) would kick someone else (almost always Rhett) out until their orbits intersected once more. This last hiatus had gone on long enough that Obsidian had thought they’d finally broken the cycle. Shows what he knew! He didn’t like how swift he’d been to jump right back on the treadmill; at least when you put a rat on a wheel it didn’t tell itself it was making progress.

The drinks kept coming, and Obsidian couldn’t help but notice how Rhett kept paying for them. That was weird: One could say the opposite of money was Rhett Velvet, or at least that used to be the case, and yet here he was, tossing coins to the bar staff as they plunked down tankard after glass after cup. Obsidian paced himself. His tolerance for strong drink had improved the more he’d bulked up, but that risked building a tolerance for Rhett’s bullshit, as well. He was already making yet another of the worst decisions of his life by accepting gifts in the first place. Everything else was harm reduction. So long as they kept things professional and avoided talking about themselves he might actually get out of this one unscathed.

Eventually, and inevitably, Obsidian ran out of sharpened charcoal and talking shop slid towards more personal topics.

“All this time chatting and you’re not even going to ask me how I’ve been?” asked Rhett as he sipped at something with a big slice of lime perched on the glass. He had the gall to pout about it.

This was the Rhett that Obsidian knew, loathed, and sometimes jerked off to during his weaker moments. At least he’d been composing a suitable retort ever since last time: “I’m going to assume you pissed off a lot of people, burned every single bridge you ever crossed, came across countless priceless antiquities only to promptly sell or trade or outright lose them, and have been unsuccessfully going solo since I told you to fuck off. It’s what you always do.”

Rhett winced. “That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?”

“But is it wrong?”

“Not entirely,” said Rhett, still sulking in a way that begged to be corrected. He had to know what he was doing. There was no rational explanation otherwise.

Obsidian rolled his eyes behind his tinted glasses. He wasn’t going to rise to the challenge this time. He and Rhett were simply talking and having drinks, like so many other people around them, and that was all it was going to be. Other people managed to not fuck their exes every day. Since when was Obsidian going to accept some garden-variety asshole being able to do something better than him? Since never, that was when, not even if he really wanted to slap the taste out of Rhett’s mouth. He was better than that, even if deep down he suspected it was futile to think so.

“What I care about is learning more about the demon that killed you,” said Obsidian. “I’ve been trying to catalog summon sightings lately to see if there’s any common threads. I think they’ve been getting nastier lately, and not just because people are exploring deeper in the complex. We need to be prepared if something’s happening down there. Or did you forget you claimed you wanted to share notes?”

Rhett scoffed. “We’ve been doing that, Obsidian. Maybe I wanted to see how the days have treated you outside of all the time you spend digging around for mummy panties to catalog, you know?” He finished his current drink—Rhett’s many thirsts were bottomless—and leaned forward with his chin propped up atop his laced fingers. “At least let me buy you dinner.”

Drinks were one thing. Drinks were simple, low-impact, the kind of thing prepared in a minute or two at most. Dinner was an investment. And in spite of just how high Obsidian had run a tab before, he couldn’t help but fixate on an unspoken detail: “Where did you even get the coin for all this?”

“What do you mean?” asked Rhett with a flutter of his lashes.

“Usually you’re flat broke unless you’ve just completed a good run,” said Obsidian, “and everyone in the bar heard you swearing about your most recent failure, so you can’t have just come off of relocating a dragon hoard.”

“Is it really that surprising that I might have put something away for a rainy day?”

Yes.

The roar of laughter from Rhett was, much like his earlier torrent of swears, enough to make people look over for a moment before returning to their respective evenings. Fuck, now he and Obsidian had been seen together again. Would there be more betting pools this time? This was a mess, because it was never not going to be a mess, and if Obsidian was even an ounce as smart as he looked he would have walked by then. The problem was that Rhett was Rhett, and a free meal was a free meal, and Obsidian had been between big payoffs long enough that he was willing to be bought. Even if Rhett never did answer his question.

“I expect the special, and nothing less,” said Obsidian with a toss of his hair.

Rhett didn’t try to hide it as he sized him up; even after years of boxing, Obsidian remained the smaller of the two. A sleeper build did not a high-capacity stomach make. “You’re sure you can eat that much?”

Watering holes like these dealt with all kinds of clientele, but most of them boiled down to one of five groups: the between-jobs adventurers, the people-watchers who never delved themselves but sometimes handed out tips and requests, the poor sods getting by on crackers and water while they tried to recuperate from a recent death, the big eaters desperate for a more balanced meal after who knew how long living off of travel rations, and the real stars of the show, the lucky bastards who’d actually made it back alive with pockets full of gems they were dying to flaunt in front of other people. That last group needed stupidly big, stupidly expensive things to buy to prove to everyone else how successful they were, and those garish monuments to excess could still inspire the have-nots in the room to spend a little more. Many a time Obsidian had caught his mouth watering when kitchen staff marched through the main room with a still-sizzling platter of fajitas. He wasn’t quite in plain-water-and-crackers territory, but if he had even a chance at trying one of those beautifully overfilled platters for himself, he was damn well going to take it, even if that meant he risked owing Rhett something.

Obsidian didn’t bother guessing whether he could eat that much food in a single sitting. If there were leftovers, that was nothing a little preservation magic couldn’t fix, and if there weren’t, clearly he’d been due for a feast. He crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at Rhett over the tops of his shades. “Are you going to buy me dinner or not?”

The gleam in Rhett’s eye should have sent Obsidian running. Instead they stared each other down, neither moving, until Rhett thumped the top of the table with another laugh. “Glad to see you still have some fight in you!” he said. He gestured to a passing server and flashed a handful of coins. “Two specials, if you would.”

“It’s going to be a while before it’s all cooked, sirs,” said the server. “Will that be a problem?”

“It’s not a problem for me if it’s not a problem for my friend, here,” said Rhett.

“We can wait,” said Obsidian.

“Then I’ll be back as soon as things are ready,” said the server. Obsidian noted with approval that she collected payment up front; with how easily bar brawls, sudden opportunities, and other distractions could pop up, anything more involved than tallying up drinks expected patrons to pay up before anyone could conveniently vanish. Successful businesses around the dungeon had to treat every customer as a potential thief. In Rhett’s case they were objectively correct to do so.

Rhett finger-waved at the departing server before returning his attention to Obsidian. “As you can see, my friend, I am completely legitimate today,” he said, his choice of words only making things worse. “Plentiful food and drinks graciously provided for a long-time kindred spirit! And plenty of shop talk, don’t forget.” He smiled. “Now will you tell me a little about how you’ve been?”

“Fine. But only until the food arrives.”

“Of course, of course,” said Rhett. “Now, tell me, because I must know: who have you been seeing lately…?”

It would have been so much easier if Obsidian really had killed Rhett the first time they met after Rhett made off with a large fraction of his hard-earned supplies. Maybe it wouldn’t have been a permanent solution—they’d both drank of the fountain, after all, and they rarely strayed far from its healing waters—but it would’ve sent a message, and because Obsidian had not sent that message it meant he’d painted a target on his back. Puckish sorts like Rhett loved targets.

Things had started off normally: Obsidian had been enjoying a drink at the bar as he so often did, watching as the day’s crop of the recently deceased got the fuck over it in record time, when a nearby large booth erupted into a commotion. Some booths were big because a lot of individuals happened to fit into them at once, but this? This was one of the booths that only got used by working groups, and there was no drama quite so delicious as other people’s petty party squabbles. Obsidian swiveled in his chair to rubberneck.

It wasn’t the biggest team he’d seen, but it wasn’t the smallest, either. He counted five people, eighty percent of which were pissed off at that final twenty; whether it was money shit, interpersonal shit, or weird shit like people getting possessed by magic swords at inopportune times, in his time as a delver Obsidian had seen far too many reasons to remain a solo act. Not having to deal with it himself made it all the more satisfying to watch.

“What do you mean you’re out of money?” said a big, burly man with an axe. A weedier sort with a crossbow slung over their back stood next to him, glowering over his shoulder.

“And what happened to the rest of the kitty?” said a woman in a purple dress with fish and snakes embroidered all over it.

“It’s not my fault,” said a familiar fermenting-cask-sized redhead, raising his hands innocently. Obsidian had no idea of what Rhett was being accused at the moment but he already suspected he was guilty. “One minute I had it right where I’d left it, and the next, poof! I think it might have been the grabberlings we waded through down by the cave swamps, they’ll snag anything they can.”

Someone—Obsidian couldn’t get a bead on their identity at all through the thick, shapeless full plate they wore—slammed their gauntleted fist into the table, making the wood shudder. “Dammit, Rhett, this is the second time it’s happened!” they boomed. “We gave you a second chance, and you’ve fucked up.”

“I can explain!”

“You explained plenty last time,” said Angry Armor, “and we already gave you a second chance. Mars, Rosalie, Cliff, we’re going to have to pool our personal funds. Rhett, you’re out. Find somewhere else to sleep.”

“Doesn’t the time we’ve worked together mean anything to you?”

“It means you’re not welcome at our table anymore,” said the crossbowyer stuck to the axe man. Maybe that one was Cliff if the axe guy was Mars? “Find somewhere else to cause trouble and leave us alone.”

“Then I guess this is goodbye,” said Rhett.

Leave,” said Snake Dress.

And so Rhett left. His old colleagues only watched him go to make sure he wasn’t stealing anything else; at least, that’s what Obsidian would have done, given what went down the last time they’d parted, and there was no time for a criminal mind to go to work quite like getting kicked out. Once Rhett was far enough away from the table the other four went back to quiet planning. As far as roster shake-ups went it was surprisingly benign.

Benign was boring. Obsidian had been hoping for some venom. What he had not been hoping for was Rhett to immediately pick him out of the crowd and go from a mopey mess to perky in the space of a breath. Sitting at the edge of the bar usually meant he had a little extra room to himself, and maybe a quicker escape if a fight broke out he didn’t want to join. Today it meant he was pinned in place by a smiling wall standing in what was usually an open space.

“Well if it isn’t whatsisname, the puzzle master of the deep!” said Rhett. “You know, I never did get your name before I had to take my leave.”

“What you took was my stuff, Rhett,” said Obsidian. He willfully refused to take the hint and name himself, instead cocking a thumb back at the calmer, quieter party that had just booted Rhett from its roster. “Seems like they’d agree that you’re pretty bad about respecting other people’s property.”

“It was grabberlings, I swear!”

“Just like it was grabberlings that took my key-orb and spare lunches way back when?”

Mischief flickered across Rhett’s face. Uh oh. “I’m just saying, we were able to negotiate so well between us, what do you say about a second bout of bartering? I’m between reliable lodgings right now, so if you’d like an extra set of hands to help earn some cash…?”

“What happened to those daggers you worked so hard to get, anyway?” asked Obsidian, gesturing to Rhett’s knife sash. None of the blades were the same as the ones he’d bore before. There was no sign of the enchanted artifact he’d saved a stranger’s life—and sucked a stranger’s cock—to acquire. Had he actually fallen on hard times? Died and gotten looted, perhaps? It was bad manners to slit someone’s throat in a public space, but Rhett was likely at his weakest if he didn’t have such treasures on his person. All Obsidian would have to do was watch for the flashbangs.

“Oh, those?” said Rhett. “Completed the set, but found something better, so I dumped ’em.”

A rush of cold passed through Obsidian like someone had spilled a whole bucket of ice water on him. “You dumped them?”

“Can’t get too sentimental about gear if you delve for a living, right?”

You took my orb-key.

“I put it to good use! Did you know there was a demon trapped in there? Gave us a real run for our money when the outer layer flaked away after unlocking the tomb. We killed it, of course, so now you don’t have to worry about it coming for you at a bad time. You’re welcome!”

There had been tombs involved? Tombs Obsidian hadn’t been able to plunder and make rubbings of? Tombs Rhett had no doubt already stripped with the efficiency of a school of river fish? At this rate he was going to start pummeling Rhett about the face and shoulders until someone pulled them apart, but Obsidian was going to have to spend a lot more time punching sand bags if he was going to make a dent in all that mass.

Speaking of mass, Rhett was very much the same size and shape as he’d been during their first meeting, and Obsidian’s cock still approved. He adjusted how he sat. How did the saying go? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me? Obsidian loathed the thought of being made a fool of a second time. He had to spin this to his advantage somehow, because if he didn’t figure out a solution, and quick, he was going to get fleeced again.

What were his strengths, here? He had a positive cash flow, for one, and had already arranged for lodging for the night, for two. Rhett presumably had neither a room nor money to encourage someone to share. It sounded like the inn was going to be full up, too, so no picking the lock on an empty suite for him. Would he be willing to trade another blowjob for somewhere cushy to stay? Would really good head be worth the trouble of putting up with Rhett for an entire evening? Would he even want to trade sex for convenience again, or had he put that time of his life behind him?

“So, just so you know,” said Rhett as he leaned in, “if you’re still pissed at me about getting your pocket picked last time, I wouldn’t mind seeing if you can put me in my place. You know, with one of those conversations held behind closed doors, in exchange for getting to stay behind said doors overnight. I might’ve revised some of my opinions on stuff we talked about last time. You know, with the ink.” He ran his tongue over his teeth and winked. That answered that.

Obsidian was not a good person. He didn’t try to be a bad person, either, but he’d come to terms with the fact that he carried no light in his heart at the thought of making the world a better place for others, and you couldn’t be a delver and altruistic without something else going on to cover expenses for you. In this line of work you had to look out for yourself. His quest for knowledge was for the sake of his own learning first, future scholars knowing his name second, and any other use for his thusly unearthed universal truths a small and distant third. All this being said, he was less concerned at the idea of a transactional tryst as he was the no doubt significant baggage connected to it. Rhett had already robbed him once. What was stopping that from happening again?

He needed to weigh his options. As annoying as Rhett was, he was remarkably skilled; he’d have to be, if he’d been able to use similar methods as Obsidian to end up in the ruins where they’d first met, to say nothing of how he’d managed to make off with an armful of valuables without Obsidian noticing. Maybe he knew more than he was letting on about some of the subtler elements of the dungeon, too. Hadn’t he just been smugly talking about crypts and devils and similar? Obsidian didn’t want to go too much into detail about such things in public, but accepting Rhett’s offer meant having him in private. That could open up a truly incalculable number of leads. How nice it would be to share a room with someone who might have words worth listening to for a fucking change!

And then there was the elephant in the room, which was how badly Obsidian wanted another shot at that mouth of Rhett’s.

“Why should I waste my time on hollow promises?” he said with a curl of his lip. “You haven’t given me a good reason to stop being pissed at you.” Any good hunter knew the importance of bait. Judging by how Rhett perked up at the dismissal, it had been a suitably juicy choice.

“You’ve seen my work before,” said Rhett.

“When you stole my fucking—

Rhett interrupted before Obsidian could properly build up steam. “When I stole your key-thingy, right, right, but what matters is that I managed to outfox a smart guy like you, right? Consider it a demonstration. Both for later on this evening and maybe later on in the depths, if you’re game.”

Obsidian quirked an eyebrow. “We have worked together once. You got ejected from your old party mere minutes ago and you’re already suggesting a team-up?”

“Because we have proven chemistry!”

“And how is that expected to mean anything when I am still furious with that shit you pulled last time? You don’t know my name, you barely know my profession, and you’re already trying to cozy up for the night. What’s your angle, Rhett?”

“Easy: You strike me as a guy who’s at his best when he can get nasty. And I’m the kind of guy who’s got a taste for spending quality time with the meanest sons of bitches out there. No sense in trying to un-ruffle those mussed feathers of yours if it goes against what I’m looking for in the first place.” He grinned. “If you’re going to kick my ass and spit on me, I want you to mean it.”

There it was, clear as day: Rhett was looking for some rough trade and Obsidian hadn’t been imagining things the first time. Gentleman magi, as a rule, tended to be on the smaller and more fragile side, so Obsidian hadn’t ever had much of a chance to explore that side of himself with his peers. Rhett was not fragile. Rhett, in fact, could probably stop several arrows while completely naked, and no one went below while dressed in outfits that revealing without having confidence in their own durability. What was the worst that could happen, someone’s hand would slip and he’d pop out of the fountain a little while later? So long as Obsidian didn’t forget about his wallet this time he could have a lot of fun with someone so eager to be a chew toy. His palms itched with the desire to strike out in sexual anger. Could  he leave a bruise? Would he even leave a mark at all? There was only one way to find out.

First, though, there was another question that Obsidian needed answered. He leaned in and Rhett did the same. “Riddle me this, Rhett,” said Obsidian. “You make an interesting point, but how am I expected to trust you when I know you’ve broken your word in the past?”

“We shook upon agreeing to the terms of you handing over some treasure, which I adhered to. Not my fault you didn’t suggest any fine print.”

What a little shit. What an unbelievably petty little shit. Obsidian was good and pissed off now. If he couldn’t physically kick Rhett’s ass, he could always try doing something else to it.

“You’ve proven you can work on your knees,” said Obsidian in a low, gravel-studded growl. He could see the hair on Rhett’s arms stand up at the sound of it. Good.

Rhett wet his lips a little less consciously this time. “Yeah?”

“You good any other way?”

“Try me,” said Rhett. “You know you want to.”

“Make off with any more of my things and I’m slitting your throat while you sleep.” Obsidian extended a hand. “No stealing from me, no selling me out, and no fucking up jobs intentionally. In exchange you get somewhere to sleep.”

A crease formed in the middle of Rhett’s pale forehead. “Is the sex part of that equation supposed to be for your benefit or mine?”

“That’s for me to know and you to discover,” snarled Obsidian.

Rhett was all smiles again. He took Obsidian’s hand and shook it with what might have been an even firmer grip than last time. “It’s a deal,” he said. “You tell me when we relocate and I’m there. By the way,” he added before Obsidian could get a word in edgewise, “you still haven’t told me your name, mister…?”

“Obsidian.”

“His most excellent sorcerous grace, Obsidian,” said Rhett. He didn’t pronounce it right.

Obsidian slapped down payment for his tab and seized Rhett by the lapels. “Shut up,” he said as he rose to his feet. If there had been any question about whether or not Rhett agreed to their little deal, the fact that Obsidian could actually drag him was proof positive. “We’re going to have a more private conversation about the repercussions of your actions, and we’re not leaving until I think you understand the point I’m trying to make here, you get me?”

“I get you,” said Rhett, beaming, and barely anyone in the bar paid them notice as Obsidian hauled him off towards his—now their—room.

It was the second bad precedent out of many, many more.

Some places that catered to adventurers loved gimmicks. Big portions! Fearsome spices! Wild flavors or combinations thereof! Literally deadly ingredients, sometimes! In Obsidian’s experience, the louder a place was about the idea of its food, the less likely it was to have anything worthwhile lurking behind that veneer of novelty. The nameless taverns that straddled the fountain of immortality, however? They had their peacock plates, yes, but if you ordered a special you actually got something special out of it, because the goal of anything that came out of the kitchen was to get a delver back on their feet and back into the dungeon so they’d want to come back and spend their hard-scavenged treasure. You knew you were getting more than something that looked pretty in a magic mirror if you had the money for the expensive side of the menu. Two such caloric apotheoses arrived at their table just as he was starting to wonder if he’d need to wave down a server to ask.

For all his academic airs Obsidian was not very curious when it came to food. He didn’t eat like a student—despite being a life-long bachelor, he took pains not to live like one—but that tended to translate into making sure he ate foods in colors other than brown and remembering the occasional vegetable. He tended not to think about it more than that. Culinary aesthetics in particular were someone else’s problem; so long as it looked slightly nicer than a pile of plop, Obsidian would eat it. That even a meat-and-potatoes palate such as his could recognize the craftsmanship put into the platters, plural, set before him was a testament to something. It smelled amazing. He and Rhett exchanged no more than a single glance before they both began to tuck in.

Rhett was a quiet eater, and thank god for that. Not having to listen to him talk (or chew, or make much else in the way of noise save for the occasional clack of tableware) meant Obsidian could actually think clearly. Thinking clearly was the only way he was going to get out of this unscathed. Making sure said clarity graced the right head was going to be trickier.

He’d talked more about himself in the past hour than he had in the previous six months combined, and that meant he was coming dangerously close to self-reflection. Rhett liked asking questions more complicated than things that could be brushed off with one-word answers. More nefariously, he liked asking questions that encouraged Obsidian to brag, because why shouldn’t a man be proud of his own achievements? The lost library of Tan-Alwet—those parts that had been found again, anyway—wasn’t going to translate itself, and people deserved to know. The Obsidian of today was on an entirely different level than the reedy little sword-mage that had first encountered Rhett. It was important that there be no confusion.

Why did Rhett care, though? He clearly wanted something, because he always wanted something, but if he actually had money to burn that ruled out the usual reason. Sex, then? Probably sex, at least partially, since that had never not been a part of it before; given all that talk about statues and demons and rubbings he’d made of wall reliefs (since when had Rhett given half a shit about wall reliefs?) there might actually be something else going on. Why else offer Obsidian so many juicy details for his notebook? Rhett’s solo career looked to be treating him well enough in spite of his recent resurrection, he seemed in good health and better spirits, and he hadn’t even been hunting for a rebound this time, so why would—

Oh, shit, he didn’t want to proactively party up, did he?

Making guesses was sloppy research, and sloppy research made problems for everyone, so Obsidian was not going to settle for anything less than perfect if he could simply cowboy up and ask directly. Finishing dinner first would be important. While Rhett was almost never the source of a break, himself, it still felt wise to wait until the majority of Obsidian’s meal was in his stomach, just in case things changed. A smart explorer always tried to expect the unexpected.

What a meal it was, too! He’d been able to put away a lot more of it than he’d expected, to the extent he was seeing more and more of the tableware as he went, and Rhett had been keeping pace as neatly as ever. That was another thing that made it dangerously easy to put up with his bullshit: Rhett was a man composed of high volume and empassioned gestures, even in the middle of a meal, but he was never, ever slovenly, which Obsidian hadn’t realized mattered to him until he’d ended up sharing a table with people who did not share such graces. It was like Rhett was built to expertly carouse. So what if Obsidian’s own table manners were just a little lacking in comparison? He was hungry. He still kept his mouth closed when he chewed and didn’t slurp when he licked his fingers, and that was better than half the rest of the inn on a good day. Usually Obsidian put the gentleman in gentleman magus with all the dedication of a method actor. He was permitted to eat with his hands now and then.

As his appetite ebbed and his suspicions grew, Obsidian chose his time to strike. “I know you’re not doing this just because we have history,” he said as he wiped his mouth of stray bits of crab. “What’s your angle?”

“Hm?” said Rhett, who had somehow managed to crack and eat a comparable number of crab legs without getting so much as a shard of shell on his clothing, damn his eyes.

“You buy me drinks, you buy me food, you offer me voluminous material for my academic work, all without asking for anything but my company. I don’t trust it. You don’t do anything without a reason, Rhett Velvet, and I want to know what that reason is.”

Rhett took a swig of tea. “You still can’t believe I’m just feeling friendly and fortunate today?”

No.

“Good,” said Rhett with a chuckle. “I knew you were smart.” He ran a finger along the curl of his mustache, its arc mimicking his smug smile. It was a gift of Rhett’s: he knew how to make himself look exquisitely punchable. Obsidian’s fingers flexed with rekindled, violent desire. “As you probably guessed, I’ve nearly exhausted my pockets thanks to wiping out while trying to steal that jewel for myself, and I just so happened to buy us both some big, fancy dinners before actually securing a room reservation for the night.”

“Of course you did,” said Obsidian. “So why aren’t you prepping to sleep in the stables?”

Because, my friend, we crossed paths again right when I was at my lowest, and I knew I had a shot at making my case so long as I spun things properly. We haven’t seen each other in ages. You’re not with someone else at the moment or you would’ve rubbed it in my face, you always arrange for lodging first thing, and someone just handled your bills for the evening so you have a little extra windfall to play with as you so choose. Am I right?”

Obsidian scowled. Rhett was right, which was why it was important to refuse to acknowledge his question. “Quit running your mouth and get to the point, or I’m leaving this table.”

“Okay, okay!” said Rhett. “Here’s the deal: I get to sleep in a nice, soft bed, and in exchange for paying for said nice, soft bed, you get to fuck me on it.” It was a classic offer, one he’d made (and which Obsidian had accepted) many times before. Sometimes he didn’t even steal anything! Obsidian’s thoughts had strayed in carnal directions all evening, so a single direct proposition had his mind already awash with ideas of hammering Rhett straight through the nicely-carved bed frame. It was hard to say whether Rhett looked better face-up or face-down. That Obsidian was already spending so much effort daydreaming about leaving long scratches down the expanse of Rhett’s back was not helping him haggle.

He had to get off the back foot as quickly as possible. “Just the once? That doesn’t seem like a very good trade.” 

Rhett scoffed. “This is premium ass we’re talking about, it could pay for everything in five minutes or less if we’re going by the current average going rate,” he said. “For you, though, I’ll cut you a special offer.” He winked.

A growl traveled through Obsidian’s throat and out through his nose; he wanted to wipe that look right off Rhett’s stupid fucking face, which was frustrating, since he knew that’s what Rhett wanted, too. “That being?” he asked instead.

“Whenever I’m making use of the room you will so graciously have provided, I’m open season. Mouth, ass, whatever. The instant I walk through the door I’m at your mercy. If I don’t like it I can always leave.” He fluttered his lashes. “You don’t want me to leave, do you?”

Obsidian didn’t like how easy this was. If things were too easy it risked making him stagnate. Worse, if things were too easy it meant there was something else going on, some cunning trap or fiendish plan that would magnify the difficulty of everything the instant he stepped into it. He pivoted again. “Who says you’d be able to? I’ve studied a lot more ink magic since you saw me last. You remember what it was like back then, don’t you?” Not that Obsidian was that into the more dedicated side of bondage, but he did like keeping Rhett in one place. Magic shackles were some of the only things that worked. The resulting stains complimented the inevitable scratches and bruises nicely.

“Like I said,” said Rhett, quietly, and was that a hint of a shudder in his voice? “At your mercy means at your mercy.”

Nobody around them was paying them any mind. People in places like these got really good at minding their own business; even if their nearest neighbors could make out their conversation, said neighbors would long since have gone numb to scandal. Adventurers fucked. In other news, water was wet. Obsidian still couldn’t help glancing around before asking, “So you’re saying you’re fine with me doing whatever I want, whenever I want, up to and including in your sleep? You’re making a dangerous suggestion, Rhett.”

He laughed, the shudder from before remaining. “What, having sweet dreams and waking up to a sore asshole? Sounds like I get all the good parts for none of the effort. It’ll make for a fun little morning mystery.”

Did Obsidian even want that? He picked at the remnants of his dinner while going over the details in his head. Not hearing Rhett whine while getting reamed felt like leaving money on the table, but the sheer disrespect of using him like a toy carried a lot of appeal, especially if he woke up part way through and started complaining. Shut the fuck up, he said mentally as an imaginary Rhett groaned his way to consciousness. He’d come quick and dirty and not offer Rhett so much as a reacharound. No, no, that would be the time for some slaps on the ass and nothing more. I’ll fuck you again once I’m hard. Deal with it. Obsidian could keep him there all day, hard and desperate and never allowed to come until Obsidian was done. God, imagine what some of those new spells he’d mastered could add to the mix! How many times had he jerked off to a similar scenario? If he didn’t find an excuse to find somewhere else to be right now he was going to rip his pants from the sheer ferocity of his hard-on, that was for damn sure.

Ah, right, he had a hard-on. That meant this was horny logic. You couldn’t trust horny logic. Rhett wanted something and he was willing to barter every orifice and more in order to get it. This was how things always happened, entirely too frequently leaving Obsidian holding the metaphorical bag (which would coincidentally fail to have any of his belongings in it), and just because Rhett was great in the sack didn’t mean it would be worth—

“That offer doesn’t have to end come daybreak, you know,” Rhett purred. “So long as you give me a reason I just might stick around.” He fluttered his lashes again. “I don’t have anywhere to be tomorrow. Do you?”

Obsidian’s inner monologue devolved into a tangle of unintelligible swears. An entire day of fucking with (and just plain fucking) Rhett was too good to pass up. What was a man between bedfellows expected to do? Nobody else was quite like him. Nobody else had just the right combination of good looks and quick lips and gluttony for punishment. He was insufferably obnoxious and Obsidian needed to get his cock in him immediately.

“Fine,” managed Obsidian. He extended his hand across the table. “Lodging, including all assorted amenities, as long as you make yourself sexually available, to be terminated if I cross a line or if I get tired of your bullshit early. We shake on this, too.”

Rhett was all too eager to do so. His paw of a hand enveloped Obsidian’s longer, slimmer fingers like a mitten. How was he even bigger than Obsidian remembered? It required great mental fortitude on Obsidian’s part not to bite his lip at the thought of what he planned to do to the equally massive owner of that hand. That was another problem with Rhett: once Obsidian allowed him even the tiniest bit of leeway, just the fainted hint of accepting that maybe they’d spend a little more time together, everything else about him snowballed until one way or another things came to a catastrophic head. The fallout alone was the stuff of torrid fantasies, and Obsidian hated how much he missed their fucked-up situation during the times it was on hold. He kept telling himself the next time would be worth all the previous failures, that all he needed was one more shot and it’d be right between them. Why else would he keep putting his hand on the stove?

“Do you have any other affairs to settle?” asked Obsidian, still determined to pretend to be professional despite the tent beneath his belts.

“I should probably freshen up if I’m to entertain a gentleman caller,” said Rhett. “Can’t be getting greasy fingerprints on milord magus.” He tossed his hair in a manner somehow even more annoying than everything else he’d done that evening, which was quite the feat, truth be told. He probably wanted to get yelled at for it. Of course he did, he knew how much joking about Obsidian’s chosen title got under his skin! Any time they made plans it was always after slogging through a lot of Rhett being the most irritating person (be it human, elf, beast-man, or otherwise) in the universe. That was the sort of shit he considered foreplay.

Later. Obsidian would correct him for being an asshole later. “Then I’ll meet you on the landing.”

“Not even going to tell me what room you’re in?”

“I know you have lockpicks on you. No.”

Rhett clicked his tongue in approval. “See, that’s why I like banging smart guys. It’s more fun when someone has basic pattern recognition.”

“Go wash, Rhett,” said Obsidian, and Rhett, to Obsidian’s mild surprise, actually did so. Soon it was just Obsidian left alone with empty cups and plates, and as servers swung by he was gradually running out of those, too. The terms of their agreement gave him an out just as much as they gave Rhett one. He didn’t have to follow through. He could ask for a different room. He could grab a sleeping bag and find someplace cozy just inside the dungeon limits. He had one last chance not to make a terrible decision.

I’m going to regret this immediately, thought Obsidian to himself, before downing the dregs of his last drink and weaving his way towards the stairs.

He was going to have to do something about Rhett. Again.

How many times had they done this? How many times had he listened to his dick instead of literally any part of his brain and welcomed Rhett back into his life? How many times had it blown up? Oh, sure, sometimes it was a fast ruination and sometimes it was a slower burn, and there was usually a different reason each time, but Obsidian hated how he was frequently the smartest person in the room and still fell for Rhett’s shit time after time. Maybe he needed to write I will not tolerate my ex-fuckbuddy’s advances a few dozen times on a blackboard. Maybe he needed to go for a swim in a pool full of electric eels any time he felt the urge to hunt down a familiar pointy-eared menace again. Maybe he just needed to grow a spine. Anything to break the positive association he’d built up around the worst person in the world for him to keep returning to like a dog to its own sick.

This time it had been a matter of loot sharing. It frequently was. The way it was supposed to go was that Rhett got any goodies they found that supplemented his skills and interests, Obsidian got the lion’s share of the magic or historical-interest shit, and the rest of everything they split down the middle, circumstances permitting. He kept meticulous written inventories of it all. He might not have noticed that someone was not just helping themselves to his share if he hadn’t thought to enchant his inventory one evening, and sure enough, the next day there was proof someone had been tampering with it. It was just the two of them, and Obsidian didn’t like tinkering with his records without lots of careful annotations explaining why, so it was pretty clear who it had been. Furious did not begin to describe his mood.

When would be the best time to tell Rhett he was getting the boot? They were deep in the bowels of some crystal cavern or another—you knew it was a proper part of the dungeon if you could say it was the bowels of anything—and there were too many monsters and deep-dwellers skulking around to split up immediately, but the further they delved the further they got from a verified exit. If they waited until they were finished with their run, who knew how much of his shit Rhett would have filched (and, undoubtedly, hidden in a cache to reclaim later), and how much of what had meant to be shared supplies would be used up? He couldn’t just suggest they turn back, because pickings were great and they had what he suspected was merely another few hours’ worth of travel before they reached the Shrine of the Shimmering Goddess, and the chance to compare his notes to carvings he’d heard were all over said shrine was why he’d come down here in the first place. Obsidian was stuck. He’d have to choose the least of all the evils before him eventually, and maybe find an excuse for one last go at Rhett’s mouth before he made that choice. Until then, he brooded. Gentleman magi were good at brooding.

“So why don’t you just chug potions like a normal person?” asked Rhett, not looking at him. Rhett’s attention was directed to his current task: trying to harvest one of the prettier crystals jutting from the walls with a dainty jeweler’s hammer. The damn things were horribly sharp and horribly fragile. People paid good money for them up top, but Obsidian had never considered it worth the trouble to make a trip to these caverns just to grab some sparkly rocks.

Obsidian tipped a bit more wizard’s spice into his pipe and let it light against the ember-stone clasped inside the mechanism. “Because the potable glurge they sell in the shops is next to useless if you’re a serious spell-weaver,” he said. He knocked the side of the pipe’s bowl with his finger, sending up little eddies of light and color. It was almost ready. “Spice is what you use the instant you get serious about your casting.”

“You sure it’s not just because it makes you look cool?”

It did make him look cool, and that didn’t hurt things any, but Rhett didn’t need to know that. “Potion bottles take up far more space than a spice ampoule,” he said, “and the results are far more potent. Even if they were exactly the same, it’s a matter of efficiency. More space in my pack means more room for things I don’t have better versions of. Like the two healing potions you stole overnight.”

Tap, tap, tap. Rhett didn’t look away from his work. “Sure, blame the man with the fast hands any time something goes missing,” he said. “You’re wrong, by the way, but I forgive you.”

There was no use arguing with Rhett now, not with him doing something dangerous, so Obsidian returned to what he’d been doing before he’d been briefly distracted. Taking a pull from his pipe, he closed his eyes and let the invigorating blend work its way through his aura by means of his lungs.

It was a good thing wizard’s spice didn’t do a damn thing for people who hadn’t learned to channel magical power; you could probably get addicted to this stuff if you didn’t realize its capabilities. Obsidian, being a scholar of no small ability, knew exactly what spice did to the human (and elven, and otherwise) body, and so he let his thoughts fall into the grooves he’d dug through long hours of meditation, pulling the spice-stuff with them like water coursing through channels. Maybe more like ink than water, actually, as he’d been leaning hard on spells of that nature that evening, so perhaps it was like he was illuminating the pages of his soul? Either way, it’d mean he’d be able to mystically entangle the next giant two-headed whatever that burst out of the tunnels with murder on its mind, and that was what mattered in the end.

Count to five, breathe. Count to ten, breathe. Count to fifteen, breathe. Count to twenty, breathe. It was a numbers game, at least at the start, since mortal flesh needed jump-starting to remind it that it was capable of miracles. Unlike a magic potion this was a holistic process, carefully realigning every part of himself until he was once more suitable to work wonders at the level to which he was accustomed; sure, it wasn’t as quick as popping a cork and downing something that tasted like medicine’s own poor self-image, but someone with as exacting a magical tradition as himself wasn’t going to be casting spells that a bunch of bad flavors in a bottle could properly refresh. Some people might use that as an excuse to sate themselves with simpler casts. Obsidian was not one of those people.

When he opened his eyes again Rhett was standing nose-to-nose with him, hunching over a bit so their eyes were even with one another’s. It was easy to forget how much of a difference there was between their respective frames until he got up in Obsidian’s face like this. “You really think I’d take your things while we’re on a mission, Obsidian?” He still pronounced it weird.

“You would and you have,” said Obsidian. He snorted twin jets of depleted smoke through his nostrils like a dragon, or at least the kind of dragon with good skin and high cheekbones. “I have proof, but I’m not about to detail it. You’d just lie your way out of it again. Now hand over the healing potions you snaked before things have to get ugly between us again.”

Rhett leaned back with a little frown. The change in posture was enough to reveal he had, indeed, claimed the crystal he’d targeted, and a few red fingerprints across its lustrous surface were proof of how sharp it was even for a rogue as skilled as he. “That’s not very neighborly of you to say,” he said, as though Obsidian had just insulted his casserole at a community potluck or something.

No sense in dancing around it. “Rhett, are you going to give me my stuff back or not?”

Why do you think I stole from you? We’ve got a good thing going on, here! We’re making tons of money, you’re getting boatloads of notes, we’re both honing our skills far beyond where we’d get just hucking knives at ring targets or stabbing straw dummies in the heart. We’re really making names for ourselves! Why would I kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?”

Obsidian’s hand darted forward and seized Rhett’s gloved hand by the wrist; unlike when they’d first started making mistakes together, he now had more power behind his deceptively graceful grasp. Those long hours spent with the sand bags were already paying off! Clenching his pipe between his teeth, he peeled off Rhett’s glove with his free hand, revealing all manner of ink smears across his fingers that faded out into little runes and squiggles too intricate to play off as a between-rests stick-and-poke tattoo. Obsidian had trained for years to learn how to work with ink magic without leaving blotches behind. Rhett had no such knowledge.

“You’ve been fucking with my inventories,” said Obsidian, matter-of-factly. He tossed the glove back into Rhett’s hand—Rhett caught it by instinct, of course—and released him. “Smart of you to try to cover your tracks. Foolish of you to think it’d just take a little fudging of the list for me not to notice you were helping yourself to my personal stores.” Leaning into Rhett’s personal space, he added, “Now give them back.”

A smile had already alighted upon Rhett’s stupid face by the time he’d replaced his glove. He shrugged broadly. “Afraid I used ’em already,” he said. “Those crystals are sharper than they look, y’know.” Sure enough, both of his gloves were lightly discolored, though there weren’t any signs of rips in the fabric. Healing potions could work on more than just people if you knew the trick to it. Rhett, naturally, was full of such tricks.

“I cannot believe you’re doing this,” said Obsidian. He puffed at his pipe, more to keep it lit and to give him something imposing to do than anything else. “You seriously expect me to let this slide? You steal from me, lie about it, then admit it to my face, and you expect to get off scot-free?”

Rhett shrugged. “Sure. It’s worked all the other times.”

Wizard’s spice was often mixed with additives that had a calming effect on the person taking it, the better to relax their energies, open up their third eyes, align their humors, and whatever other woo-woo granola bullshit hedge mages told one another. Obsidian took his straight and uncut. This now meant he had a head full of spellfire while being absolutely livid. Looking at Rhett was making him see red, and not just because of the hair or the fingerprints on the crystal; mage rage wasn’t quite the problem non-casters made it out to be, but that didn’t mean it was pleasant having all his chakras aligned at once when he was already seething with white-hot anger, and all the worst, most id-drunk parts of himself wanted to take it out on someone else.

The fury pulsed through him like a bolt of ever-forking lightning. This wasn’t good. Was he really considering killing Rhett? Not just as an abstract out of frustration, but for real? It wouldn’t last, not with both of them carrying the blessing of the fountain, so it wasn’t like that bell couldn’t be unrung in its own way, but what was the point if that probably wouldn’t solve things? Knowing Rhett, he’d just pop up like a patch of crabgrass and maybe request Obsidian give him a quick handy before offing him next time. No, that would be an entirely different kind of bad precedent. Obsidian owed it to himself to find a better solution than trapping himself in an endless puppet show.

He took a too-deep drag from his spice pipe and blew the smoke in Rhett’s face. “We’re through. Get out.”

For the first time in their long, stupid history together, Rhett blinked in the face of an ultimatum. “But we haven’t even reached the shrine!”

“Yeah, sucks, doesn’t it? Too bad you took my shit or you wouldn’t have to find it on your own.”

“You never minded this much before,” said Rhett. He actually sounded surprised. What a bastard.

Obsidian took a step forward, causing Rhett to step back. “I did! I very much fucking minded! And you kept doing it because you, I don’t know, convinced yourself I liked having an excuse to get angry! I do not need an excuse to get mad at you.” He spat on the ground to punctuate his words. This close to smoking, even his saliva was ink-tinged. “I’m tired of this, I’m tired of you, and I’m tired of lying to myself that you’re worth the time I waste on you.”

Rhett remained on the back foot. His eyes darted around, but there were no shadows or hidey-holes in the crystal-clogged chamber. “If you want to turn back and try again some other time, we can,” he said. “C’mon, man, let a guy try and change your mind on the walk home. It’s a pretty long haul, right? I’m sure we can hash things out.”

“Oh, you’ll be walking,” said Obsidian. “But I won’t.”

With that, he snapped his fingers, and the travel spell he’d set up for emergencies lashed out like the hand of a jealous child to drag him back along his fountain-granted guiding thread, depositing him in the room he’d paid for back at the inn. Even with an aura full of wizard’s spice it felt like he’d been kicked by a mule; what loot and supplies he’d collected came with him, but Rhett did not. Convincing recall spells to let you take things back with you was exhausting. Obsidian collapsed on the bed—far too big for just one person, but he’d worry about that later—and congratulated himself for doing the right thing. He’d be sure to celebrate with a drink at a bar he knew wouldn’t be seeing Rhett again for hours at the earliest. Now he’d just have to wait for the splitting headache from replenishing his magic stores only to nearly exhaust them within minutes of each other to die down.

How long had he put up with it this time? How much of his private effects had gone missing, or been used without permission, or just plain gotten sold for beer money? How many opportunities had he missed out on because he was too busy putting up with Rhett? He could do so much better than that, and if he couldn’t, that was clearly a sign he’d be better off sticking to empty rooms and the occasional one-night stand. Rhett was a delectable dessert of a man, well befitting his name, and it was true that there was so much about him to savor, but everyone knew a diet of nothing but cake was bad for you. Obsidian had finally reached the end of his too-long fuse, and it felt good to finally blow up the toxic swamp he kept digging for himself. No more endless arguments. No more robbery. No more playing the cat’s-paw to Rhett’s whims. This was the end of them as a team. 

Obsidian lay his aching head on one of the half-dozen pillows spread across the bed and looked forward to a brighter, Rhett-free future. This time he’d learned his lesson about dallying with hot elves that lacked even a magpie’s sense of personal property. Never again. Ever. Not in a million years.

The jewelry in Rhett’s ears caught the lamplight as he trotted up the stairs to the landing, shining like sunlight catching the foamy crest of a wave. Clearly he wanted to look a little extra brilliant or he would’ve moved less conspicuously; Rhett could move in perfect silence if he wanted to. The worn wooden steps didn’t even creak as he passed. Annoying as he was, flawed as he was, bad for Obsidian as he was, Rhett was very, very good at being a knife in the dark or a key in a gate when he actually felt like committing to a job. It was something Obsidian had nearly admired about him, back in the day. Nearly.

Obsidian led Rhett up a few more flights in silence before cocking his thumb at the door at the far end of the hall. “Get in,” he said. “It’s not locked.”

“Like that’d be a problem for me,” said Rhett with a grin.

“Shut the fuck up, Rhett.”

Surprisingly, Rhett actually did shut the fuck up long enough for Obsidian to close the door behind them and throw the bolts. Doors had key locks as a formality, but everything in the inn intended to be private used bolts, hooks, and latches; while Rhett could probably legerdemain his way into a coconut if he felt like it, relying on factors a bit more physical kept out the other ninety-nine percent of the riff-raff. There was nothing quite like a big wooden bar across a door to keep it closed. It also meant that if one of them wanted to leave, it could happen without needing to fumble for a key. Not that Obsidian planned on it, of course, but unlike some people present he was a man of the spirit, not just the letter, of his word. If he wanted to think himself the better man—and he was, there was no doubt of it—he had to walk the walk.

He snapped his fingers over his shoulder and pointed at Rhett, though there was no magic involved. Obsidian preferred to set a scene by force of will alone. “Next to the bed. On your knees. Now.”

“Don’t you want me to strip first? Give you a little show?”

“No.”

Rhett did as he was told. Obsidian proceeded to hang up his hat and walk right past Rhett to get the fire going; it wasn’t cold that time of year, but he’d always been a fan of mood lighting. Once the hearth was ablaze, he went from lamp to lamp, dimming them by hand, and checked that the curtains were pulled fully across the room’s windows. How nice it was to have actual glassed windows! He usually didn’t get such lavish quarters for himself in the name of saving money, but the innkeep had been having trouble renting out the bigger rooms and was willing to cut him a deal. He hadn’t seen the harm in having a little more space to himself as a treat. Now he was even more glad for that decision.

Upon turning back to Rhett, Obsidian was pleasantly surprised to find him still kneeling. “Rhett Velvet. Rhett Motherfucking Velvet. You really are a piece of work, aren’t you?” He braced the toe of his boot against Rhett’s codpiece, making the corner of Rhett’s eye twitch. “Look at this ridiculous thing,” continued Obsidian. “Too big, too gaudy. Who are you trying to impress?”

“Anyone who feels like looking!” said Rhett, brightly.

Obsidian grabbed him by the chin and forced Rhett to meet his eyes. “In the dungeon, Rhett?”

The smile didn’t waver. “Never hurts to plant the seeds of negotiation early,” said Rhett. “People never know what’s on offer if you fail to put out a sign.”

That had been another part of their previously (emphasis on the previously) detonated thing: when not exploring the depths, they may as well have been exclusive, but once they passed the threshold from the safety of a bar or tavern into the ever-shifting tunnels below, things were more nebulous. Rhett was not shy about bargaining with his body. Neither was he shy about letting Obsidian watch—or even join in, should the mood strike—so as long as the only meat on the market was Rhett’s and Rhett’s alone, it hadn’t been a problem. Keeping Rhett quiet via a cock in the mouth had been fun in the moment. Now it was just the two of them, however, and Obsidian seized upon an opportunity to be meaner to Rhett, as was right and proper.

“Advertising when you’ve already signed over your evening to me?” said Obsidian, his lip curling. “Are you implying you’re going to be bored?

“No! Absolutely not, I was just—”

Obsidian pressed harder with his boot. “Just strutting like a pheasant, then? Flaunting the old razzle-dazzle? Do you think me a rube who needs parlor tricks like sewn-in gems to keep my attention?”

Rhett’s mouth quirked. “I’ve been wearing this since before the fountain revived me, Obsidian, I swear I had no idea you were going to be at the bar tonight.”

Well, shit, if he wasn’t going to go for that hook it was time to pivot to something else. He stepped back off of Rhett’s codpiece with his arms crossed over his chest. “A likely story,” he said with a scoff. He released Rhett’s chin, careful to hide how pleased he was when Rhett didn’t break the eye contact he’d had forced upon him. “So what did you have in mind when you traded yourself for a night on a comfortable mattress?” Obsidian didn’t like how almost-nice those words made him sound, but who knew how much a man’s tastes or expectations could change after a few years? Besides, if he didn’t know what Rhett wanted, he wouldn’t know what was best to deny him.

“I was hoping for a good night’s sleep and some quality time with a mean, nasty dom,” said Rhett. That certainly answered some questions.

“What makes you think you’ve earned it?”

“Oh, I know I haven’t,” said Rhett, ever-chipper. He hadn’t moved an inch from where he’d first knelt by the bed. “This big, plush room? You should kick me out immediately. You know I’m just going to steal from you again, assuming I haven’t already. Why wouldn’t I? It’s my nature! You knew I was a scorpion when you picked me up.” A dangerous glimmer danced in his eyes. “Sure would be a shame if someone only got wise to that after I weaseled my way into a comfortable situation.”

There was a lot more going on beneath that head of auburn waves than people guessed at first. It was easy to write Rhett off as a big dumb party animal, a meathead motivated only by treasure and sex, and while those observations weren’t wrong, neither were they the whole story. Rhett was a king among thieves. True rogues knew you needed a light touch to open a complex mechanism; push too hard, go too fast, make one wrong move after two dozen correct ones, and you’d jam the works entirely. What you wanted was to set things up so you had to do as little as possible. Obsidian was, by nature, locked up tighter than an imperial treasury, so Rhett was simply doing what he did best and coaxing the tumblers into turning for him. It was its own kind of elegance.

Of course, if Rhett had truly desired elegance, he wouldn’t have pointed out anything to Obsidian in the first place. Rhett’s words were proof: he was there for the conflict, not strictly to win or lose, and if there was one thing Obsidian desired most from life it was a duel with someone who knew how to fight back. The gauntlet had been thrown. Obsidian knew what to do with that.

“I think you need to be reminded of your place, Rhett,” he growled. Rhett smirked and subtly turned his head to better offer one of his cheeks. When Obsidian struck the sound echoed off the walls.

His face already flushing from the impact, Rhett angled his chin in the other direction. “What was that? I didn’t quite get it the first time.” There was a tremor to his voice that hadn’t been there the last time they’d done something like this; Obsidian hadn’t made his finest strides as a boxer until after their most recent split. The next strike was enough to make even a mountain like Rhett flinch. Those long months in the practice grounds continued to pay off. Obsidian would be a liar if he denied that some of his gym time motivations had revolved around imagining kicking the ever-living shit out of Rhett should their paths ever cross again. How convenient that such an event had come to pass, and under such exquisitely frustrating circumstances!

Rhett was normally pale of complexion, half from his heritage and half from spending much of his professional life creeping around indoors, so the difference between now and a minute ago was stark. His cheeks blazed like halved pomegranates. The gray at his temples traced a halo between his face and his red-brown hair. “Oh, that’s what you meant,” he said between shuddering breaths. “You should’ve said so in the first place.”

Obsidian cracked his knuckles. They had a long way to go, given how his hands didn’t even sting yet. “Now that I have your attention, let’s prepare a little itinerary of discipline. First things first: I’m going to jack off on your face and you’re not going to do anything about it.”

“Are you going to get it in my eyes again?” If it had been a more normal meeting of ex-lovers, this would’ve been a reasonable question, as Obsidian had yet to lose his taste for messing up Rhett’s makeup. Whatever it was they had wouldn’t have worked if things were more normal. In lieu of giving an answer Obsidian just slapped him another time.

As Rhett reeled from the impact, Obsidian kept talking as though nothing had happened. “Once I’m warmed up, I’ll decide what to do with you properly. Could be anything. Could be fucking you. Could be giving you a black eye. Whatever I choose, you’re going to sit there and take it, aren’t you?”

Rhett nodded in obedience. It wouldn’t be right if he did so any other way; he was at his least dangerous when they’d just started, since Obsidian knew that he knew how making too much of a fuss would just lead to things ending early. Good behavior was practically guaranteed, since Rhett was too greedy to be satisfied with a few love taps and nothing else. The trick was not to get complacent once things were in full swing. Obsidian had learned the hard way what happened if he ever did. They’d only agreed to a transaction and an escape clause, nothing more, and Rhett had just outright boasted that he was likely going to rob him! That was going to keep Obsidian on his toes the entire time he was entertaining this specific company. Much as he hated to admit it, this was the kind of spice he missed when he was with anyone else.

No sense in dragging things out. Obsidian spat in Rhett’s face—always a classic, that—and saw to unfastening just enough of his belts to pull out his cock; the instant there wasn’t a perfect layer of snug leather holding it in place, it sprang forth like a tiger from a cage. The relief was immediate. He didn’t have any oil with him, but a full meal and no plans beyond using Rhett like a chew toy meant his entire magical stores were available to him. A flick of his wrist and a pulse of energy coated his palm in slick, clear lubricant that gently warmed his skin where it spread. Obsidian studied the sheen of it against the firelight and admired how it didn’t mar the light tan of his palm, nor would it leave hard-to-clean residue on his clothes or anything else. Just because he specialized in ink magic didn’t mean it was the only thing he knew.

He propped his off-hand against his hip and briskly passed his hand along his cock with as light a touch as he could manage. Timing was everything! Getting himself off early on guaranteed him staying power for later in addition to ensuring he had any ounce of clearheadedness at his disposal, and experience had shown Obsidian that he liked the sense of power that came with showing how much he technically didn’t need Rhett if he wanted to come. The more he could reduce Rhett to a toy before either of them were fully undressed, the better.

Keeping silent was the domain of fucking while in the dungeon, where every stray sound in an unfamiliar location could spell disaster, so as Obsidian continued to jerk himself he allowed himself a little groan to celebrate this round of fucking happening somewhere else. It didn’t come off as weakness if he was the one pleasuring himself, not Rhett.

“You want this in your mouth, don’t you?” he said, slowing his pace to better show himself off. “I bet you missed going down on this all night. I bet after all that time wining and dining me you’re dying for some reimbursement. Wouldn’t it be nice if I gave you a little taste for old times’ sake?”

Rhett nodded. His lips had preemptively parted and his pupils were huge in the creepy way elves’ could get, the latter flicking back and forth as they followed the movements of Obsidian’s hand like an animal sighting unsuspecting prey. Rhett made a two-syllable vowel sound in the back of his throat that was close enough to an affirmative to count in any reasonable situation.

As Obsidian was hardly feeling reasonable, all this earned Rhett was another smirk. “Too fucking bad.”

In no time at all, Obsidian had finished, and he made damn well certain he got it in Rhett’s eyes.

He waited until Rhett had blinked away the worst of it—while still looking quite the mess, of course—before backing up to study that awful codpiece again. Obsidian tapped it with his boot. “We’re going to do something about this stupid thing,” he said. “You need to be saved from your own bad taste.”

While his eyes were still wide with desire, Rhett wasn’t playing quiet anymore. “Hey, fuck you, I dress magnificently.

“You don’t get to be the judge of that. Now stand up.”

Obsidian circled the no longer kneeling Rhett. The codpiece really did have to go; even if it hadn’t been as gaudy as a festival parade, it was getting in the way of what he wanted to do. Thankfully, fabric was fabric, no matter how much jewelry was stuck on the outside.

He gestured and the fingers on his still-oiled hand lengthened, curving and tapering into fearsome talons that would put a harpy eagle’s to shame. A gentle tug of a claw was all it took to unfasten Rhett’s sash. Once the patterned satin slithered to the floor Obsidian was less gentle, ripping into Rhett’s blouse and trousers (and, of course, the structural elements of the god-awful codpiece) until he stood bare from his necklaces to his knees. The once-proud outfit was ruined.

Bringing fancy clothing to wrack and ruin wasn’t the end in and of itself. Obsidian could fix it with the simplest of spells; he’d been wizard-washing and shadow-stitching his own gear ever since his apprentice days. What mattered was the message it sent. Given how hard Rhett was, said message had been received.

Obsidian shook out his talons to return his hand to normal. Save for the faint scratches he’d already left on Rhett’s torso he wasn’t interested in breaking the skin. Why slice up a perfectly good canvas? Instead he looked up into Rhett’s slap-reddened, come-streaked face—lingering briefly on the new piercing, which was one of a set and quite nice against Rhett’s hairy chest—and snorted. “Slightly better.” He pointed at the quilt, still smooth and untouched. “On the bed. Face down.”

There was no need to say anything more, as Rhett hit the mattress like a meteor. His legs spread invitingly as he adjusted the position of his arms to not be pinned beneath him; it was like looking at a reclining triton, albeit one still wearing pieces of a shredded outfit. Obsidian took the opportunity to admire that with which he’d been presented. Rhett was huge. His body was a series of swells and creases that begged to be touched. A dusting of cinnamon-colored curls adorned the curve of each soft cheek, growing denser and darker the closer they came to his crotch. There was gray here, too, just a hint of winter’s frost among the spice, and it practically sparkled in the firelight. It was a grand expanse just begging to be put to ill use. Rhett’s ass was almost reason enough to put up with the rest of him.

A gentleman magus had to be a gentleman, at least sometimes, and so Obsidian willed forth more lube into his palm to smear liberally across Rhett’s tender parts. Pressing a finger up into Rhett’s asshole to slick up his insides, Obsidian was pleasantly surprised to find his digit come away clean. Had that been part of the freshening up Rhett had mentioned? Whether planned or not, it was convenient, and when Rhett tried to clamp down around him it was easy as could be to slide out of that intimate grasp. So he was more interested in trying to peel the varnish off of Obsidian’s nails than let himself be readied for a reaming? No more preparations for him, then.

Letting Rhett get away with a stunt like that wouldn’t do. Obsidian gave Rhett a swat on the buttock that sounded like a clap of thunder in the privacy of the room; Rhett moaned on impact and the softer parts of his body—which was to say, most of them—quivered and shook. He hummed with pleasure as though could utter no higher praise.

“You’re still so mean to me,” he said.

“You deserve it, you little shit,” replied Obsidian, settling onto his knees between Rhett’s own.

“Fuck yeah I do!”

Tight black leathers were not the most maneuverable of garb. Obsidian planned to doff them later into the evening, but this was going to be the first time he’d wallowed in any of Rhett’s orifices in a long, long while. He had to make a statement. He had to make it count. He also had to loosen another few of his belts because at this rate he was going to lose circulation somewhere. Obsidian pressed the underside of his cock between Rhett’s ass cheeks and rocked his hips, taking care to tease at Rhett’s ever-sensitive pucker. “You want this?” he asked with a growl. “You think you deserve it?”

Rhett whined. “No, I don’t… I don’t deserve it at all…”

“That’s right,” said Obsidian with another swat that made Rhett jump. He dug his fingers into Rhett’s flash and spread him wide. Wasn’t that a pretty sight? Countless dozens (maybe even hundreds) of cocks had been there before, and now Obsidian was back to take what was his. He lined up his glans, took one last, deep breath, and plunged forward.

The best thing about fucking a fat man—one of them, anyway—was the sound it made. Rhett made plenty of sounds, of course, to the extent Obsidian had to stretch forward and hook some fingers (not the ones he’d used for prep work) into Rhett’s mouth to keep the neighbors from complaining, but those were vocalizations. He technically could have produced them without Obsidian even being in the same room. What mattered was the sound of skin against skin, of wet against wet. It was a primal thing. Without that, why bother?

So much of Rhett was soft to the touch it was easy to overlook his solid core, especially when simply looking at him. Someone in Obsidian’s position was privy to a lot more: the warm, silky smoothness of Rhett’s asshole, the subtle rasp of hair against a splayed palm, the pliant squish of flesh that would readily give right up until fingers met tight-muscled bone. Rhett enveloped him. The only way Obsidian could have managed to go any deeper would be to have Rhett ride him, and prior experimentation had proven that this was worth neither the trouble nor the increased chance for Rhett to merely hop off of Obsidian’s cock and steal his wallet again before Obsidian could so much as catch his breath. It wasn’t funny in retrospect, either. Not even a little.

A lesser person would claim Rhett was too much to handle. Obsidian, however, was greedy, since rare was the sort who went into the depths without at least a whisker of self-interest, and it took someone big and loud and outright bad for him to sate that greed in any meaningful way. Rhett was perfect. He yelped when struck, he moaned when fucked, and when presented with a cock at mouth-level (circumstances permitting) he would gladly swallow it to the root until he was either come in or on. There was enough of him to go around that Obsidian hadn’t overly minded keeping Rhett’s mouth busy while the occasional rival group of delvers or deep-dwellers took turns in the back. Not that this had been a problem for Rhett; even while spit-roasted he could pick pockets like he’d been born to do it. Who would notice a little extra hand motion from a pantsless man in the middle of an adventure sandwich? It turned out people were a lot less attentive when they were learning the hard way whether or not they were into sloppy seconds-or-greater.

The memory of Rhett being repeatedly shoved further down his cock in time with a cooperative bandit was too much for Obsidian. He wrenched his fingers from Rhett’s mouth, twisted them into Rhett’s hair, and pulled backwards right as he came. He could feel Rhett shiver against him, but a cursory check revealed Rhett was still as hard as ever, and also making a wet spot on the now very mussed quilt. Excellent.

“Enjoy yourself?” asked Rhett, clenching around and thrusting against Obsidian right up until he pulled out.

Obsidian wiped himself off on a piece of Rhett’s tattered pants. “Shut up.”

“Because it’d be a shame if you went to all this trouble and didn’t enjoy yourself,” said Rhett, layering each word with smarm. He pushed his knees against the bed and lifted his hips to present. Obsidian wasn’t the only greedy one in the room. “Don’t tell me you’re already bored with me?”

In lieu of more sharp words or another slap, both of which would arrive in time, Obsidian grabbed one of Rhett’s wrists with enough speed and strength to catch him off balance. One invocation later and Rhett was on his side and shackled to the headboard; once he was no longer supporting most of his weight on his other hand, that one was shadowbound next to the other. His ankles followed suit, albeit without bedposts to use they were left to kick free. 

Rhett wriggled in place as he strained against the bonds. “You’ve gotten better at this,” he said with what might have been genuine respect. His challenging leer was unchanged. “So what’s next, you gonna step on me? Gonna spit on my dick? Gonna hit me with a blackjack until I bust one? Or you do?” He flexed his knees enough to let a hint of come trickle out from between his legs right where Obsidian could see it.

Gross. In the past that would be enough to inspire a fresh punishment; Obsidian managed not to rise to the bait this time. “No, I think I’m going to take a little break,” he said. “That’s a break for me, not for you. You haven’t seen half of what I’ve learned since before.”

He undressed without hurry. Why rush things? Keeping his own clothes neat and nice while Rhett’s lay in ribbons was a statement all its own, and it gave his hands something to do while he performed some spell-weaving in his head. A pulse of magic left his shaft clean of any lingering mess. Rhett eyed Obsidian the entire time he polished his boots and hung up each belt and pouch in turn. Good. Let the big man be suspicious; it would only make the coming surprise more interesting.

Now nude save for his tinted glasses—which stayed on, thank you—Obsidian reached out into the empty air and grasped at something that didn’t exist until he willed it so. Hand over hand he pulled forth a coil of black something that absorbed the faint light of the inn room even as it sparkled with aubergine. It was as thick around as bridle rope. Obsidian hauled on it until he was satisfied with the length, then twirled it like fresh taffy to shape it further.

“You gonna tie me up in one of those fancy knots, then?” jeered Rhett. Was he sweating? Perhaps it was the fire, perhaps the exertion of being buggered, perhaps he was actually concerned. No matter the source, it didn’t bother Obsidian, who kept manipulating the loop of magical ink without getting so much as a speckle on his hands. It was more satisfying than giving an answer.

Obsidian increased the tension on the chunk of shadow until he was satisfied, then released it at Rhett as though he was trying to surprise him with a spring in a can. Unlike such a faux serpent, the ink had guidance: It wrapped itself around Rhett’s hips and thighs (dimpling both deliciously) until the remainder of its length threaded between his legs to rest against the quilt; the final few inches of its opposite end wrapped around Rhett’s base and balls, making an ersatz cock ring. The result left Rhett on his side with a shadow draped upon the bed behind him like a tail. He looked like a woodcut of a fair maiden being sacrificed to a dragon, assuming some key details had been altered along the way.

Rhett’s cock twitched with anticipation as he peered over his shoulder at the apparatus he now wore. “The fuck is this?”

“Something to keep you busy,” said Obsidian. He snapped his fingers and the not-quite-tail stretched straight out, lashed like an angry cat, and sunk itself a full hand’s length into Rhett with a single furious thrust before it began moving in and out of him on its own. Each thrust pressed deeper. No matter which way Rhett rolled it was like he kept giving it better angles; the bindings at his wrists or ankles yanked him into position every time he drifted too far in any direction, refusing to let him scoot away. Eventually he gave up trying to either contort to freedom or hump the bed. By the time this happened there was barely anything visible left of the length of shadow save for the little curve where it integrated itself into the main loop around his waist. This, too, made a slick, organic sound with every movement.

“What are you going to do,” said Rhett, whose breath now came ragged and lusty, “just sit there and watch while I get fucked by some magic lingerie?”

“That’s exactly what’s going to happen,” said Obsidian. He pulled up a chair and sat himself down on the cushion, crossing one leg over the other. “You’re going to be stuck like that until you come. And you have to come from my little gift alone, no cheating.”

Rhett managed a shaky laugh. “You think this is enough for me? This little thing? I can fit a fancy potion bottle up here, you’ve seen me do it.” Obsidian had, in fact, seen him do it. How Rhett hadn’t ended up with one of the most embarrassing invocations of the fountain of immortality from that stunt was impossible to say; perhaps potion glass was sturdier stuff than it looked. No matter the reason for his success, Rhett had whiled away an entire afternoon with an intriguingly-shaped empty vessel while the two of them waited for some giant clock pieces to align. Obsidian had never been able to look at certain kinds of glassware the same way since.

“I know what all you’ve done to yourself before, Rhett,” said Obsidian. “That’s why this is just stage one.” Another snap of his fingers and the circumference of the ink tendril increased by half, making Rhett wheeze. A third and final snap redistributed the shadow’s mass until it rendered itself an abstractly segmented length of beads that threaded in and out of Rhett at a merciless pace. The second wet spot that had bloomed next to him was due to only get worse.

Not that Rhett was cowed yet. “Is this it?” he said. “You just gonna jerk off while you watch?”

“If I see something worthwhile, maybe,” said Obsidian. He uncrossed his legs and crossed them again in the opposite direction. “We’ll find out together, won’t we?”

Something changed, be it speed or strength or some other, more nebulous quality, and Rhett’s reply died in his throat to be replaced with a yelp. His cock leapt against his stomach, spurting across skin and fabric alike; still the animate ink refused to let up. Rhett wailed. He pleaded. He thrashed and twisted, which did nothing but make the sticky spot worse. Obsidian watched it all with a critical eye. Things were too easy, which meant his was not the only plan in motion that evening, so he had to remain alert. Rhett was going to do something, of that Obsidian was certain. Until then, however, he was going to make good on that promise of open season.

Obsidian stood from his chair to sit on the mattress next to Rhett, whose face remained a mess even with the slap-marks having faded. “I’ve cleaned myself off,” he said, truthfully, “and I really think it’s about time you stopped making so much noise. Time to put that mouth to better use, Rhett.”

Despite his well-ruined state, Rhett needed no further convincing to return to how they’d first begun: him with his wrists held fast by ink magic, Obsidian’s cock sliding between his lips. It was almost like one of those bargaining sessions with hostile delvers, except this time Obsidian didn’t have to keep one hand on his sword the entire time. All of the opposing force, none of the threat of grievous bodily harm! It was even sending the same kind of impact ripples all throughout Rhett’s body, the kind that always got Obsidian rock hard if he hadn’t been there already. The next time they did this—and there wouldn’t be a next time, because it was the worst god-damned idea imaginable, but it was important to prepare just in case someone tripped and fell and they ended up fucking each other again—he’d need to remember that. Maybe he could look into making a travel version to keep Rhett alert for a whole run without completely wrecking his aura. Wouldn’t that be something.

Rhett was good at what he did and Obsidian had a front-row view of all manner of things he liked, so it wasn’t long before Rhett found his nose mashed against Obsidian’s midsection as the latter emptied himself for a third time that night. Upon pulling out Obsidian cradled Rhett’s face in his hand, studying him this way and that, then struck him one final time. Rhett, overcome, succumbed to the demands of his body. The quilt was going to need a lot of magic cleaning if Obsidian expected to rent a room from this place again.

“Wow,” said Rhett, though it came out as more of one long vowel instead of anything articulated. Rhett was all vowel sounds when he was being used properly.

A snap of Obsidian’s fingers unwound the living shadow and sent it wafting away into nothing. Rhett sagged. He was a sticky, drooling mess in a way Obsidian had never managed on his own before. He’d look better with that black eye Obsidian had threatened, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. That such a complex magical sculpture had worked in the first place, and for so long, was incredible, and with how drained he now felt, Obsidian knew he was going to need a pit stop of his own before returning to the ever-important task of beating the tar out of his old business partner.

The scent of wizard’s spice took the edge out of the sex and sweat hanging in the air. Obsidian exhaled slowly, counting breaths in his head.

“Can I get a hit of that?” slurred Rhett from the bed.

Obsidian knelt down until they were face to face. “No,” he said, but he blew a mouthful of smoke into Rhett’s face in memory of days gone.

Not that there was time to be melancholy. They had all night to make bad decisions together! A clever spell-caster knew to pace himself, as even the purest spice could be rough on the body if taken too much at a time or too close together. Relying on the training that had added mass to his biceps and fresh new definition to his back was going to be the way to go for at least another hour or two, assuming Obsidian brought magic back out at all. Why assume it was a given? Being predictable was one of the most dangerous habits a dungeon-crawler could develop, and Rhett was more duplicitous than an entire army of mimics.

Obsidian finished his pipe and made to examine Rhett’s bonds—which had remained in place in spite of the greater magic being banished, hence the need for a smoke—when he noticed something that gave him pause: faint, ink-dark glyphs spread along Rhett’s fingers the way they did any time he fucked around with Obsidian’s spells. What was meant to be unbreakable shadow magic may as well have been tissue paper, even as Rhett strained to keep his wrists pressed together as though he was still trussed. Was it because of the remaining sleeve fabric making a barrier between skin and binding? It had to be. Leaving him clad in tatters was meant to be a humiliating reminder of how helpless he was, but instead here those tatters were, giving him an undeserved out. Sloppy, sloppy. It was a wonder Rhett hadn’t tried to overtake Obsidian while he was still busy with his pipe.

Sloppy or not, there was no reason to let bad behavior go uncontested. Obsidian snapped his fingers again and fresh coils of ink blossomed from the now-compromised sets, catching Rhett off-guard just long enough for Obsidian to cut the rest of those damned clown clothes off of him with one of Rhett’s most recent collection of enchanted knives. This time the ink settled around Rhett’s hands like a set of mittens, robbing him near completely of his devilish dexterity. That might actually hold him for another few minutes.

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” asked Obsidian with a smirk.

“You weren’t noticing up until now,” said Rhett, firing back with an equally sly expression. “You’re lucky I like playing with you or I’d be long gone. You always zone out when you’re smoking.”

“Shut up, Rhett.”

Rhett did not shut up. “I could recoup my expenses so easily, I got a good feel of your coin pouch on my way in so I know you’ve got the money for it,” he said.

“Shut up, Rhett.”

“But that wouldn’t hit you where it hurts, would it? That’s why this time I think I’ll go for one of those fascinating little notebooks of yours—”

He didn’t finish that sentence due to direct Obsidian intervention. Even a split lip and a swelling eyelid wasn’t enough to wipe that smug fucking expression off his face, unfortunately, and Obsidian couldn’t shake the feeling that the back-and-forth between verbal, physical, and magical confrontation was Rhett had been looking for more than anything else. The fountain of immortality really did give you horny brainworms.

No, they gave more than the nebulous you horny brainworms, they had given Obsidian them. An hour in at the most and Rhett was already preparing to make good on that promise to steal his shit. Not just preparing, but bragging about it! And aiming that theft directly at a personal target! If that kind of thing was left unchecked—and by definition, unpunished—it would only teach Rhett that Obsidian actually liked it when he kept fucking doing that.

What kind of maladjusted scholar would want someone skittering away with their hard-written research, laughing all the way? Some kind of amateur, that was what, and Obsidian was no raw apprentice; he hadn’t spent years of his life studying magic and sneaking through lost cities to be made a fool of by a cackling, boorish rooster. Granted, Rhett had already made a fool of him on too many occasions to count by then, but that didn’t mean Obsidian was going to sit there and let him. It was an insult to even suggest it! Obsidian had his reasons, after all: If he could just make Rhett understand which of them was the smart one and which of them was the hot one, surely Rhett would stop acting like he had something to prove all the god-damned time. That would make things easier for everyone.

Rhett had plenty of skills that were useful on a run, or during down time between skirmishes, or perhaps even in a proper research environment in some far and distant future, and yet he kept falling back on his quick fingers and lax views of personal property. He kept thinking it was acceptable to nick other people’s things because he hadn’t yet learned his place. He hadn’t yet learned his place because nobody had taken the time to explain it through methods that would stick. Ravaging him into compliance was a public service if you thought about it. Altruism was hard work, but Obsidian was ready to shoulder that burden in the name of the greater academic community. Somebody had to! The world couldn’t afford to lose a personality like that (and an ass like that) to societal neglect.

All Obsidian had to do was stay the course. He’d keep beating the shit out of Rhett until Rhett yielded to his genius (and also his autonomous control of his wallet), and then he’d keep beating the shit out of Rhett for fun (but in a way that was better than what they were doing now, because they’d have properly established a hierarchy, naturally), and then all those frustrating moments of finding Rhett had made off with one or more of his valuables—again—would be worth it. Who cared if Rhett’s defiance was already making Obsidian distractingly, dangerously hard again? Who cared if Rhett had figured out a dash of spellbreaking? If Obsidian just stuck to the plan and managed to finally beat some nuance through Rhett’s thick skull, everyone would see they’d both been right all along, no matter how many stumbles they’d shared along the way.

Obsidian cracked his knuckles and prepared for another round of percussive education. This time he knew it was going to work.

Love4
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5 thoughts on “A Little Bit Louder and a Little Bit Worse

  1. What utterly delightful bastards! I loved these two immediately, their respective flavours of assholery are perfectly complementary and an absolute pleasure to watch — from safely outside of the blast radius, of course. Also the worldbuilding in this intrigues me immensely, I like the way you conceptualized the rather video-game-y revival system, and the narrative voice is excellently snarky. I love it.

  2. Also, it is quite funny how it feels like it ought to be a sequel even though it isn’t, since they have so much history. (Sorry for the multiple short comments.)

  3. These guys are like the definition of that AITA post ending with “You guys are perfect for each other, never involve anyone else in what you’ve got going on”, yikes. Super hot and super bad decisions all-around!

  4. Oh my god, I love them so much! Obsidian and Rhett are going to become the strongest delvers in the world simply because of how they keep leveling up their skills to one-up each other for sex (and out of spite). XD The mention that there had been betting pools makes perfect sense. How could you not if you saw those two interacting??

    Deep, deep appreciation for Rhett overall. He’s hot AND fat (not in spite of, or because of in a way that feels demeaning) and I just love to see it. The art at the end is also fantastic. Obsidian’s scowl is perfect, and Rhett’s little foot kick is so, so cute!

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