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How the Other Halves Live

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

 

“May the sea and the sky, the light and the dark, and all things between the seasons witness it: I declare you, O Great King of Devils, and you, O Champion of Light, to be wed, and the cycle of strife between you thusly dissolved. Embrace and be joyful!”

Those words still echoed in Diarmuid’s head as he rode along in the magic carriage Lloyd (his long-time rival, now short-time husband) had commissioned to whisk them both away to history’s least likely honeymoon. The wedding itself had felt like it took forever to be done with, and given how it had been attended by both representatives of the Dread Multitude and a whole slew of heroes alike it was a wonder that no fights had broken out. Peaceful ceremony or no, his nerves were shot; save for a few nibbles of rosemary bread and the traditional handful of fruit from the wedding cornucopia he hadn’t had anything to eat all day, and his anxious stomach didn’t feel like it was going to change its mind any time soon. At least he was guaranteed a week of not having to talk to anyone else but Lloyd. It wasn’t perfect, but it’d do.

How had they managed to get away with everything so far? The idea was nonsense if given even half a moment’s thought: he, the enemy of the whole of the world, who a mere few months ago was busy trying to conquer and/or destroy it again, was now legally wed to Lloyd, the most recent reincarnation of the Champion of Light, themselves the one whose job was to go stick a sword in the Great King (sometimes Queen) of Devils whenever said monarch showed up again. A conflict literally as old as recorded history didn’t just go away because its star players decided to shrug their shoulders and go retire to a cabin somewhere, and yet that was exactly what everyone was willing to believe. People wanted it to be true. Diarmuid, who was tired beyond imagining of the cycle, would gladly let them believe if it meant he could do something else with himself other than causing a ruckus until he was inevitably slain.

Opposites attract! was the cloying slogan of the day. Not that Diarmuid could blame them; Lloyd made for a fine figure of a hero, given how he was more or less what you got when you stuffed a silver-haired sunbeam into a suit of armor and didn’t stop it from wearing ridiculous sunglasses everywhere. Said glorious visage was the antipode of Diarmuid’s own; he’d been permitted to keep to his preferred color scheme of black, gray, and rich purples, and no one had complained about the bracelets with the spikes on them or the big horned skull he’d crammed over his traditional matrimonial flower crown, so it probably could have been a lot worse. At least no one had expected him to wear a tux.

They’d barely spoken to each other throughout the ride. What was there to say? They’d been planning this scheme of theirs for months, ever since Lloyd had fought his way to the throne room of Diarmuid’s castle with the worst proposition Diarmuid had ever heard, and it was almost complete. Soon they’d be done with their little vacation and could return to the real world, where Diarmuid would do…something. What few plans he’d tried to muster had fizzled out in the face of making wedding arrangements. Thinking any further ahead than what he was going to have for dinner was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

Join me, and we will rule this world as equals. Diarmuid didn’t always say it when the chosen hero came a-calling, and given how he’d previously been trying very hard to burn said world into cinders it wasn’t very clear what all he’d expected to do if Lloyd (by any other name) had ever agreed, but it had never been an insincere offer. All the dinners, all the speeches, the offers and bribes and promises of power and glory, they’d been thrown out as last-ditch attempts to see if maybe this time the Champion of Light would fall to darkness and let him win, just this once. Had he been boastful or just lonely? What would he have done if that ever happened? Maybe marriage, preposterous as it was as a concept, was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.

As the carriage pulled to a stop with a little chime, Diarmuid had to admit they’d picked a very pretty destination. The island—magic carriages got where they wanted without worrying about trivial details like “water”—was a black-sand affair seated just off the cost of the mainland; on clearer days , so he’d been told, you could see hints of one from the other, but it still felt remote enough to be away from the world at large. The weather was lovely. He could see forest further inland, and beyond that some mountains still dusted with hints of winter snow, but there wasn’t much in the way of civilization save for the locale’s central buildings, the bungalows it oversaw, and some satellite housing. Anything else was presumably on the other side of the island or across the strait, and anyone who didn’t have enchanted travel could be seen approaching from miles away. Diarmuid exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. They really could have some proper solitude out here.

“Wow, it’s even prettier in person!” said Lloyd as he perched atop the carriage steps.

“I suppose it is,” said Diarmuid. He wiggled his fingers and his half of the luggage floated up next to him on plumes of magic. Lloyd happily balanced his own trunk on one shoulder like it weighed nothing at all before rummaging in his coinpurse for a tip for the blank-faced driver; some people didn’t think it was worth their time to pay a gratuity to working automatons, and Lloyd was clearly not among their number. Diarmuid waited for him. Going in together would look better, after all.

The check-in process was one part simple—as all they had to do was sign their names in the ledger, and there was just enough ink in the well for Diarmuid to properly embellish his in the black-letter style to which he was accustomed—and one part difficult—as the innkeep would not stop asking questions. What did they plan to get up to during their stay? Where were they going afterwards? Did they have any plans for lunch? How about breakfast? How about the next lunch? How about between meals? Lloyd handled the talking, thankfully, and they were both too busy with their things to make a show of falling over all another. Diarmuid tried to commit every one of Lloyd’s answers to memory in the event they were separately cross-examined later. If anyone was going to get caught in a lie, it wouldn’t be the man who breathed deceptions the way a fish did water.

As the too-helpful person behind the counter put it, the villas were separate for the maximum amount of privacy even when there were multiple guests staying with them, and assuming they were telling the truth there were only a scant handful of other visitors and staff scattered across the whole of the place. Diarmuid did not like the way the merest hinting at the word “privacy” would prompt a waggling of eyebrows. What he did like was how their own quarters were raised up to face the sea, with a broad and lounge-studded lanai straddling its front, hints of a kitchen just inside its wide windows, and what looked like plenty of space indoors in which to read with nobody bothering him. When the wind picked up it carried with it the scent of distant fruit trees on the salty air. He could actually handle a week of this.

Lloyd unlocked the door and pushed it open like he owned the place. “Oh, this is fancy!” he said, already rummaging through the cupboards without first divesting himself of his luggage. “They gave us a gift basket with lots of fruit in it, isn’t that nice?”

“If that’s all we have in the way of food, we’ve got a problem on our hands.”

“Aw, don’t worry so much, Mids, we got that covered,” said Lloyd, half inside of a cabinet. It yielded the table settings, some glassware, and not so much as a grain of rice otherwise. “There’s gonna be a big party for us tonight with tons of stuff to eat. And even if there wasn’t one, I’m a whiz at fishing! And cooking! I could make a mean five-apple surprise from not even half of this fruit basket. You’re not gonna starve out here, I promise.”

Candlelit dinners were an inevitability, for the sheer look of things if nothing else, and Diarmuid weighed the pros and cons of having someone else cook for them (and no doubt get over-enthusiastic about the affair) against those of letting Lloyd’s unproven culinary skill provide sustenance for the evening. Neither was perfect. Diarmuid was having to settle for less than perfect a lot in his new life as a married man.

Aside from its kitchen, the villa had a common area that doubled as a dining room, as well as a few doors leading to cozier offshoots of the floor plan. The bathroom was a smallish affair that opened off of the main room; as it lacked actual bathing facilities, Diarmuid assumed it was intended for visitors to use. Peeking into the villa’s sole bedchamber he spotted a much roomier-looking affair. The extra privacy, even in an already private setting, appealed to his solitary tastes. So long as they were mindful of one another it wouldn’t be too difficult keeping out of Lloyd’s way for their entire stay. He could already spot half a dozen ways he could make holing up in the room even more comfortable, from the overstuffed chair in the corner to the no doubt cozy light of the dimmed hurricane lantern on one of the side tables. If he kept focusing on the smaller things for a little while, the days were sure to fly by in no time.

There was, however, a problem with the bigger picture.

“There’s just one bed in here,” said Diarmuid as he stared through the doorway.

“So there is,” said Lloyd. “We did just finish starring in a very public ceremony. We’re officially on our honeymoon. Honeymoons usually don’t involve separate sleeping arrangements. I’d asked for a twofer when I was getting the rooms set up, but I guess people are going to make assumptions no matter what.” He put down his trunk at the foot of the offending furniture. “It’s pretty big, though, so if I keep on one side you’ll have all of the other to—”

“You’ll have the entire floor, thank you very much. I don’t like sleeping next to people.” Even if Lloyd hadn’t been Lloyd, which was frustrating enough, the instinctual fear of betrayal from anyone who wanted to get close to him had encouraged Diarmuid to spend his last few lifespans engaged in bedtime asceticism. Just the thought of sleeping in the same room as someone else was enough to make his skin crawl.

“Sure, but as is there’ll be plenty of room between—”

“Innkeeper. Spare blankets. Now.”

“As you wish, Your Majesty,” said Lloyd with an irritating little smile. He was gone before Diarmuid could yell at him further.

Having temporarily banished Lloyd the modest distance back to the main building, Diarmuid sat himself on the bed to better survey his domain. It was quite a nice bed, he found, with the sheets cool beneath his fingers and the blankets the right combination of heavy and breathable. The pillows were pleasingly soft. Wind from outside filtered through the villa’s ventilation holes to cool his skin and ruffle his hair. Aside from the poor first impression he found the room was growing on him. He stretched out and stared at the ceiling, letting his eyes follow the shape of the rafters the way he used to do when he was a child. What would his younger self think if he knew he and Lloyd would ever find themselves here?

Summarizing his history with Lloyd was strange to think about even outside the context of being married to him now. They hadn’t known about their previous incarnations at all while growing up. Had that been a conscious decision by their families or was it a genuine omission? He’d been a dark and gloomy child, but as he’d attuned himself to monarchs past he knew earlier versions of himself had come in more outgoing, and even boisterous, varieties. Preferring to dress in dark colors didn’t make him a devil king, it just meant he had a consistent wardrobe, and if a melancholic personality was all it took to seat oneself upon the ebon throne then a good half of anyone who’d ever been a teenager was set to oppose him for the crown. Had the scouts overlooked him he might well have lived out his years peacefully plying a trade beneath his own personal storm cloud.

The night before the Dread Multitude’s seekers had reclaimed him had been the same night as Lyla Currant’s wedding. He’d slipped away from the party to lead Lloyd out under the plum trees, and when they kissed for the first time it felt like something he’d wanted to do for more years than just the meager few he’d lived. They’d been too young to think of getting up to much else, and had crept back before anyone noticed they were gone, but it had been a small, lovely moment that Diarmuid kept locked away deep in his heart lest anyone try to twist it into something that could hurt him. He’d known a much younger Lloyd during that memory, though, and he’d been an impossibly different Diarmuid, one who’d never ordered countryside purges. He wasn’t sure how he felt about things now.

Then again, it wasn’t like he had to feel any way about it. He was on vacation, so he could relax. When was the last time he’d been able to relax about anything? The unfamiliar drained feeling he’d been dealing with for days couldn’t be ignored forever. If he moved the lamp to the side table he could probably read quite comfortably for hours after sundown, and if he propped up against one of the pillows just…like this…he was sure to…be….

Diarmuid startled awake to find the position of the sun had changed during what he hadn’t meant to be a nap at all. He tensed as a shadow fell across him. Was he not even going to get a full day before something stupid happened to ruin his plans? He might have surrendered his throne but he’d never given up his spellfire, and he could feel the familiar rush in his veins as he called it forth to solve this new problem before it had a chance to start. Eyes focusing, he rolled to face the intruder; the moment he had a clear shot, whoever had made the mistake of invading his privacy would not have the chance to repeat the error.

Lloyd loomed overhead, bigger than life with his hair flowing like silk over his tanned, bare shoulders; at some point he’d changed into a sarong. His sunglasses made him look like an amiable insect. “Hey, nice, you’re up. Let’s go for a swim!”

Sarong-clad spouses were not on the list of assailants Diarmuid had been expecting to see. “I beg your pardon?” he asked as he reluctantly banished his gathered power back from whence it came. Irritable or not, incinerating a childhood friend was a pretty bad look. Had Diarmuid ever seen him out of his armor? Lloyd was irritatingly well-made.

“It’s that thing you do when you get in the water and move around,” said Lloyd, miming a few strokes with his hands. “I know you know how, we used to go to the pond all the time when we were kids. Lords of darkness don’t melt if they get wet.”

“You have no proof of that,” said Diarmuid as he sat up. “Did you get the blankets?”

“Sure did! And some extra pillows. And got a sneak peek at that barbecue in our honor they’ll be holding come sundown.”

A hint of distant pit-roasting drifted through the air. Diarmuid’s mouth watered; eating lightly at the reception was catching up with him. The basket of fruit in the main room called to his empty belly. While happiest when his food had a bone in it to chew on, Diarmuid could find a lot to like about the gifts of the land. He swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood up. “I suppose that will be nice,” he said, stepping around Lloyd. “I’m going to have something to eat before then.”

“You sure you won’t get a cramp afterwards?” Lloyd asked. “You’re supposed to wait half an hour after eating before you get in the water.”

“You still assume I’m interested in going for a swim.” A goblin thought bubbled up in Diarmuid’s head, and against his better judgment he allowed it to make its way all the way to his vocal cords. “Are you saying you wouldn’t rescue me if something happened?” It was an unnecessary jab. Stress made monsters out of saints, however, and as Diarmuid was by no means saintly he surprised himself with how little venom to which he’d already submitted the ever-durable morale of his new spouse. Usually it came easier.

This earned him a laugh, which was not what he expected. “Didn’t know you were into that!” said Lloyd as Diarmuid dug through the sampler for something that didn’t require a specialty tool to eat. “Suppose it makes sense, though, given how you always had to be the one causing trouble instead of getting saved from it. Bet it’d make for a fun change of pace, wouldn’t it?”

It felt like a chunk of ice rolled down Diarmuid’s back. “That is not what I meant,” he said, his eyes focused on whatever the green-spangled orange thing he’d plucked from the basket was. His face contorted into a comfortable mask of disgust. He truly hadn’t meant his words that way, and it wasn’t the voice of some subconscious desire; being rescued by someone else was how you ended up indebted to people, and you’d never get anywhere if you owed a favor to some random nobody that they’d inevitably call in at the worst time. There were enough problems with marrying his way out of authority already. Owing Lloyd anything more than he already did would be disastrous. “You’ve done enough.”

The ever-constant smile faded. “Touchy subject? Sorry, I won’t joke about that.” True to his word, Lloyd fell silent, though he didn’t move from his too-familiar orbit around the dining Diarmuid. Lloyd always had been happy to just be in someone’s presence even if he wasn’t talking to them. It’d been a big reason he’d been able to befriend Diarmuid in the first place.

Green-spangled orange things were juicy and sour-sweet with a faint musky taste to their citrus-firm flesh, it turned out, and more proper food in his stomach made it easier for Diarmuid to review things rationally. He didn’t really want to swim, that much was true. Swimming would look good to whoever was going to show up for the barbecue, however, and if he wore himself out it would make it that much easier to get to sleep. Given how rattled he was just from waking up from a nap in different circumstances than usual he’d probably need all the weariness he could get.

Diarmuid washed his hands at the water pump and turned back to face Lloyd, whose face bore the slight smile it did whenever he wasn’t emoting much at all; paired with the sunglasses it was hard to read him. “I suppose a swim would be a good idea,” Diarmuid said, which was enough to raise Lloyd’s toothy grin from the dead. “But,” added Diarmuid with a swift raise of his hand, “please keep in mind I’m not feeling very whimsical today. I’ll swim in the sea, and I’ll sit on the beach, and when the time comes I’ll eat the dinner they’re cooking for us. I’m not feeling up to much else.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s just fine. I might put on a little show now and again, though. Gotta keep folks happy!”

The last time Lloyd done something crowd-pleasing it had not gone how Diarmuid had planned. “Just how happy do you plan for this theoretical audience to be with you?”

Lloyd shrugged. “A little posing, maybe some cuddling if you’re nearby and it’d look natural. Do I have clearance to smooch you on the temple when people are looking? The thing at the reception seemed to leave you pretty rattled.”

Rattled was one way to describe it. The kiss lingering at the corner of Diarmuid’s mouth still bothered him like a too-chapped lip; it was going to take time for him to fully adjust to trading in one life of deceit for a second, far more benign lie. Better a fake smile for busybodies than an all too real knife in the back, at least. “Fine,” he said. “I’m not going to try to smile on command, though, we both know that doesn’t work.”

“The death rictus might get taken the wrong way, yeah,” agreed Lloyd. “C’mon, change out of your wedding duds already, you’ve got to be in fifty pounds of finery, there. You’d sink like a rock! I know you’ve got something to swim in, I saw you pack it. I’ll wait on the lanai for you.” He flashed Diarmuid a double thumbs-up before leaving through the front door, which clacked shut behind him to leave Diarmuid once again alone.

Swimwear was tricky to figure out when one’s ideal outfit composed of multiple layers of dark fabric beneath a light frosting of aggressive jewelry. Diarmuid had settled on a sort of silken subligar paired with a loose outer wrap, both colored in the blacks and purples he so favored, and as he slid his claw-toed feet into a pair of colorful sandals he had to admit it was a much more suitable style for the weather than his usual robes and boots. He carefully brushed his hair around the flowers adorning it. His skull helm (pushed down just enough to keep the sun off his ears but not so much as to disturb his garland) completed the look, which he briefly admired in the mirror. A fearsome visage, also wearing flip-flops, glowered back at him. He could definitely pass for a typical vacationer like this.

True to his word, Lloyd was waiting for him outside, feet kicked up on the balcony railing as he watched the waves curl their way towards the sand. The trees rustled as the wind brought with it smells of roasting pork and stewing vegetables. It promised to look lovely at moonrise; perhaps it was the nap, or the fruit, or just being left nearly alone for a few hours, but however it came to pass, Diarmuid found himself a little bit pleased to be where he was. The evening’s porch reading was bound to be wonderful.

Lloyd put his heels back on the ground without standing from his chair once the door closed behind Diarmuid. “Still in your garland, huh?” he asked. His own remained in place atop his pale-haired head.

“It’s bad luck to remove them at all until a full day passes, and you’re meant to keep them on for a week afterwards,” said Diarmuid with a scowl. “I am trying to keep up my half of the facade, you know.”

“That you are, buddy,” said Lloyd without so much as a drop of sarcasm. “Ready to hit the beach?”

Diarmuid squinted at the dazzling water and the rich black of the sands. The weather was still as lovely as it had been when he first stepped from the carriage. There was far too much sunshine for his taste. “As I can be.”

“Neat! Me too.” Lloyd launched himself to his feet with a jump that became a few hops in place. It was yet another thing he’d done since they were kids. “Will you tolerate doing the arm-in-arm thing as we walk? At least until we get to the little shady spot they got set up?”

It would’ve been easy to say no, and Lloyd would have agreed, and that would have been that since they were already doing so much to make everything work. Diarmuid forced himself to take the more difficult path. “Yes, I will survive linking elbows for a while,” he said. Being a proper devil king meant being proactive, so he fumbled for a suggestion of his own. “We can…talk. As we go. About something other than the wedding. If we’re going to be sharing a little vacation house for days we probably ought to remember how to have an actual conversation with each other.”

“Yeah? That sounds nice,” said Lloyd.

“It’d probably be for the best if we walk a while before swimming. I’m still not quite over being crammed into a carriage for hours. I could use a stretch.”

“You did just eat, too.”

Diarmuid grumbled something noncommittal, linked his arm with Lloyd’s, and guided them both down the stairs.

Strolling was more difficult than he’d expected it to be. Diarmuid understood the concept on paper, and on an intellectual level he could see why someone would want to do so, but forcing himself to not head towards his current destination with great haste required active thought. Not having a destination in the first place felt strange, too; Lloyd had suggested they walk together to the sunshade set up closer to the water’s edge, but even if they moved at a slug’s pace they would’ve run out of walk before they ran out of talk. No, Diarmuid was going to do this properly. He pulled Lloyd towards the little path that slithered its way across the island in countless knots and branches.

“Beach’s that way, buddy,” said Lloyd.

“I’m aware. We’re going to need more time to figure each other out again, and more time means more walking distance. Will that be a problem?”

Lloyd was still all smiles. “Nope.”

“Good.”

For a while that was the only thing they said to each other. Diarmuid focused on keeping his pace even and his arm from locking up. He could feel the afternoon sun doing its damnedest to filter through the spells he layered over his powder-colored skin. He’d never been able to tan, or even freckle; that was more Lloyd’s department, as even in the depths of winter Lloyd’s complexion never faded above tawny. With the weather as nice it had been even back on the mainland it was no wonder he looked cast in bronze for his wedding day. Diarmuid, on the other hand, turned red as a lobster and peeled like a birch tree if he so much as stood in a sunbeam without proper preventive measures. It hadn’t come as that much of a surprise when the darkness had come for him way back when.

That was something worth talking about, maybe. “What was it like for you, after destiny intervened?”

“You mean after they took you away?” Lloyd’s smile didn’t fade entirely, but it wasn’t as broad and cheerful as it had been. “It was…hard, I guess. You were the smart one. You always knew what to do. So without that I just floundered a bit. Did some chores, tried to pay attention to my lessons, tried to see if I could pretend to be normal again, at least up until they sat me down and told me I was a hero, and a hero’s job, so I learned, was to go find his kidnapped-by-demons best friend, and then murder him.” He sighed. “That’s about when I started remembering how many times I’d done it before.”

“To be fair, I was trying to take over the world literally every single time,” said Diarmuid.

Lloyd squeezed Diarmuid’s arm against his own, though for whose comfort he did so was unclear. “Yeah, well, remembering it still sucked,” he said. “Here I was, still messed up over the loss of a good buddy of mine, and then I get that dropped on me, and I’m told I have to add at least one more bad memory to the pile or everybody’s toast. That’s a lot for a boy to deal with. That’s a lot for anybody, actually.”

Were heroes supposed to grieve? Rather, were they supposed to grieve for the villains they dispatched? Diarmuid didn’t know; he’d certainly never had it in him to try the inverse. He’d done a lot of cursing of names when valued allies and servants of his were slain, certainly, but that was the same sort of frustration that came with finding a prized painting had gotten damaged or learning a farm horse had gone lame. To Diarmuid, people were things. They had to be. He’d never get anything done in his line of work otherwise.

Lloyd wasn’t just a thing, of course. Despite Diarmuid’s best efforts to see him otherwise, Lloyd had always been Lloyd, which didn’t exactly disprove anything. Now that they were this close again it was like all the ways Diarmuid was used to feeling were confusing or muffled. He’d figure it out later.

“Explains why you were so eager to suggest an alternative,” he said.

“Yeah…yeah, I guess it does, huh? Otherwise it’s back to the grindstone for us both.” Lloyd laughed. Diarmuid’s keen ears caught a tinge of bitterness that wasn’t usually there. “But if it works out, and you get to spend this go-around doing whatever it is you’d rather be doing instead of getting shishkebabbed, then I think all the trouble’s worth it.”

It sounded reasonable enough, and Lloyd was clearly looking for an excuse to drop the subject, so Diarmuid went for as smooth a transition as he could manage. “I know the whys of the champion thing, namely that I kept showing up to cause problems because, but I don’t know that much about how you’d pull it off. I’ve got countless lifetimes of being thwarted backed up in my head and I still don’t know that much about what all you’d get up to save for Point A, the part with you getting hero’s-journeyed, and Point B, the part where we previously had our dramatic showdown, which has been replaced this time with a literal walk on the beach.” He ducked his head to keep a low-hanging frond from knocking his headwear askew. “What sort of things usually happen in the middle?”

That seemed like the right question to ask, since Lloyd perked up immediately. “You asking for some adventure stories?” he asked.

“You could tell me about how you shopped for groceries and it’d count. Before we lucked out into being born in the same village, I used to only ever really know you at the end.”

“Good thing this trail goes all over the place, buddy, because do I ever have stuff to talk about….”

Unlike at the reception, where he’d mostly spaced out if he wasn’t directly talking to somebody, Diarmuid ensured he paid attention to every word out of Lloyd’s mouth. You could learn a lot about a person by what they talked about and what they didn’t; Lloyd, for example, rarely had anything bad to say about anyone, quick to talk about how many individuals with whom he clashed were pushed into their actions by circumstance, or perhaps symptoms of greater societal ills. He’d befriend monsters when he could and bring them to a swift end if there was no way to keep them from calamity. He’d toppled one ruler and, in a much different region, helped install another (Diarmuid was not sure if these goals averaged each other out or not in the long run), all the while trying to solve every problem in the world with his own two hands. Some of them were banal, others were pretty funny, and all of them seemed like a natural trajectory for the keen youth Diarmuid used to know.

What Lloyd didn’t talk about, at least not in the same way, were the people who traveled with him during his quest. He’d had companions, of course, since even middling heroes attracted a retinue like ants on a sugar cube, and he had a great deal to say about their individual tales. He really did like them, Diarmuid could tell that much; the more Lloyd spoke of them the easier it became to match names to faces, several of whom he’d met at the reception. Some were wizards, some were rascals. One might’ve been a baby dragon (Lloyd wasn’t very clear about that part). He talked at length about what he’d done for them to better earn their trust. He didn’t seem to have anything to say about what they did for him in return, though. Willingly fighting at the side of the Champion of Light didn’t make you friends, it made you co-workers, and the more Lloyd gushed about how wonderful these allies of his were the more Diarmuid suspected they all had very good excuses for not being emotionally available. What sort of person would wring himself out time and time again for people who simply couldn’t keep up, no matter how much he kept saying they’d always be there for him?

A hero, apparently.

Diarmuid must have started scowling harder than usual, as Lloyd stopped in his tracks and gave their still-linked arms another squeeze.

“Hey, sorry if all this talk of champion stuff is hitting a nerve you didn’t know you had. I know you always worked really hard on those plans.” Plans? Diarmuid hadn’t missed his old routine of devising measure after frantic counter-measure at all; he let Lloyd continue in favor of correcting him. “You want to talk s’more about what you want to do once we get back to the mainland instead?”

The idea had merit, at least in the abstract, but it’d require a better mood for it to go anywhere. The lingering hangover of getting away with something on so grand a scale as bucking a cosmic plan still left Diarmuid’s no-longer-so-criminal mind in the lurch. He shook his head. “Later,” he said. “I think I’m going to need a few days of nothing before I can plan so much as fifteen minutes into the future without getting a twinge.”

“That’s fair! Totally fair. You deserve a break, Mids.” Lloyd fixed his hair with his free hand before adjusting his sunglasses. He looked towards the first fingers of pink that started to stain the sky. “I bet if we start heading back now, we can take our time and still make it to the barbecue. I’m starving!”

The meandering path branched into and through itself like a tangled root ball, so for as long as they’d spent walking they needed far less time to find the shortest route back to the beach. The smell of cooking food got stronger the closer they came to the pits dug by the shore. When a harried-looking host hustled towards them, Diarmuid assumed it was to chastise them for wandering off unannounced when a feast was due to be served. The truth of the matter turned out to be something different.

“Champion, Your Majesty,” said the panting man. He looked stressed. Diarmuid was very good at spotting when someone else was stressed. “We were preparing the feast for tonight to celebrate your glorious union, but something went awry with the crab boil….”

Dinner being delayed by something was about the scale of problem Diarmuid felt he could handle, and if something had to cause trouble on his own wedding night he’d much rather deal with an issue of logistics than anyone trying to pick a fight with anyone else. A quick glance around the cook site didn’t find any out-of-control fires, ruined food, or people nursing injuries, so the stakes felt refreshingly low. The island’s small collection of other visitors certainly hadn’t tried to do anything. He unlaced himself from Lloyd to take another step towards the host. “Tell us what happened and we’ll see what we can do.”

“We sent a boat to the mainland this morning to collect a shipment of live crabs. This was still several hours before you were both due to arrive, so we made sure to store the creatures somewhere out of the heat until later. It’s how we always do things. Except, this time, we must have made a mistake somewhere….”

“I take it one of them passed, leading to the rest going bad as a result?”

The host winced. “Not quite, Your Majesty. It seems they got out.”

Diarmuid’s eyes flicked across the feasting grounds. He spotted a fugitive crustacean as it scuttled across the sand towards the waves, hotly pursued by two of the resort’s staff. It was easily the diameter of a dinner plate even without taking its legs into account. “I take it letting them return to the sea isn’t an option.”

“No, Your Majesty. They’re big ones from deeper waters, and even if they didn’t perish in the heat we fear they might cause problems for the fish that call this place home. We acquired an even three dozen in the event you kindled a craving for seafood during your stay. Now they’re roaming all over the inn. If we miss so much as one of them we could cause untold damage to the island, and they’re of such size it requires more than a simple net and bucket to recapture one.” The host wrung his hands. “I beg your forgiveness, Your Majesty, this has never happened before—”

Diarmuid silenced him with a simple raised hand. “It’s not going to be a problem for long. See to the rest of your staff and make sure nothing cooking burns. Anyone who isn’t keeping an eye on something on fire you send my way, I’ll organize some damage control. Lloyd and I will handle the rest. It can be a…couple’s activity.” By sheer force of will he was able to keep himself from making quotes with his fingers as he spoke.

“We couldn’t possibly make such a request of you!”

“Long have I commanded the forces of the Dread Multitude to do my bidding, keeping countless fiends and villains in line to carry out my grim wishes. I can handle rounding up some runaway seafood. I’m sure the feast will be all the finer if we have to work a little for it.”

Upon establishing the number of crabs still on the loose (too many) and their general physical state (too large), Diarmuid found the staff rather easy to delegate. They were professionals, after all, so they knew how to do everything already, it was just a matter of him serving as a cooler head who was used to getting things done in a state of never-ending crisis. Servers found themselves on shore patrol. Those who were still busy cooking got a visit from Diarmuid instead to ensure they had all the supplies they needed to finish the job. He spent an extra bit of time with the host to get a better idea of the epicenter of the crabs’ rampage. All he had to do was talk to people and they gave him the information he needed or snapped right back into performing their duties, with no ranting or threats required. Even the other guests were willing to chip in with the beach patrol once he formally requested they do so. It was so simple he might’ve started to worry had he not already been on vacation. You could take the overlord out of their evil regime….

Diarmuid rejoined Lloyd just outside the storage building that housed the big caged-over tanks from whence the crabs had escaped. There were still quite a lot of them lurking about the place and snipping their claws menacingly. How some of them had gotten into the rafters was a mystery for another day.

“Wow, they really got everywhere, huh?” said Lloyd. He lifted his sunglasses to better survey the scene. “It’s an utter crabtastrophe!”

“Please don’t use puns in my presence,” said Diarmuid through gritted teeth. He took a deep breath and let his face smooth over into a mild, only slightly murderous glare. “Let’s get this fixed.”

A single crab of such a size might have been one thing, as while they were big they weren’t so big that a skillfully-applied pot or basket couldn’t fit over the top of one to scoop it up and away to safety. Diarmuid had shielding spells and Lloyd had what could only be described as being Lloyd (it certainly explained why his armor always worked so well despite covering so little) so neither of them had to worry about the pincer problem. There were cauldrons already set up to boil on the beach so it wasn’t like they’d have to transport the not-so-little beasties very far. On paper it looked like an easy, if time-consuming, task.

The trouble was that there were a total of thirty-six crabs on the scuttle and they were all alarmingly fast.

The paralysis spells in Diarmuid’s repertoire were designed to work on people, or demons, or maybe animals, but (as he soon learned the hard way) his magic apparently did not consider seafood to be a type of animal; he could locate them with well-tuned rites of finding, as those were willing to recognize shellfish, but finding a crab and catching it were two very different things. Lunging at them with a fishing net worked in the sense that he occasionally caught something, but also didn’t work in the sense that Diarmuid’s experience was with throwing weighted magical tridents or bolts of summoned flame. He was grateful for the beach patrols; if he’d tried to do this without help he would’ve seen the first crab escape in a matter of minutes.

Lloyd, for his part, was having a much easier time of it: his stride was swift, his aim was confident, and any time he missed one of his diving tackles he was on his feet and back in hot pursuit in a matter of seconds. He was untroubled by running across the slick sand and clambered after climbing creatures with the grace of a gecko. He also had a powerful overhand that could sink a catch into a pot from fifty paces. For every crab Diarmuid caught, Lloyd managed four more. It was almost like he had experience with this.

As the hour ran on the numbers started adding up. Diarmuid’s patience, however, found itself ever-tried by every miss and failure. Once again he found himself confronted by how little was left in his stomach from earlier. He waited until depositing his most recent catch with a grateful cook to catch up with Lloyd, who had a crab under either arm and was merrily ignoring their attempts to escape; it struck Diarmuid as halfway impressive in its own ridiculous way.

“How many of these damned things are left?”

“Five,” said Lloyd, promptly.

“That was…confident,” said Diarmuid. “You’re sure?”

Lloyd shrugged. “The innkeeper said there were three dozen, right? I’ve just been counting how many of the silly things get caught. I’m pretty okay at keeping numbers straight in my head. Makes tracking my spending money way easier. I mean, I’d never get anywhere as a hero if I didn’t know how much of what I still needed to get where, right? Surprised we didn’t have to do something like this at the ceremony, actually. It’d be par for the course.”

“This happens often?” asked Diarmuid, horrified.

“Oh, yeah, it’s always like this. We’re lucky there isn’t a time limit.”

How did past champions ever manage to make it all the way out to his castle when there were countless unknown parties asking them to do weird chores all day? “No wonder you wanted a break from your side of things.”

Lloyd gave a short laugh. “Yeah, no wonder, right?”

The last crab was, appropriately enough, found right on the beach, and for all its invertebrate wiles it couldn’t outfox a very determined hero with a long reach and no fear of its fierce and terrible claws. Diarmuid stared the crab dead in the eye as Lloyd handed it over and did not break that contact until it slipped beneath the bubbling—and pleasantly seasoned—waters of the cauldron. The deed was done. He was tired, sore, sandy, and far hungrier than he’d expected to be at the end of their little afternoon walk; more insulting was how he didn’t feel like he’d changed as a person from the experience. Why would anyone do this if they didn’t get anything out of it? Maybe Lloyd would know. Then again, Lloyd might just shrug and say it was just what people did, leaving Diarmuid none the wiser. Valiant types were weird.

He silently allowed gratitude to happen around him until someone handed him a plate of short ribs fresh from the pit, at which point he no longer had to invest all of his energy in keeping himself from losing it in front of people who were only trying to do their jobs. O glorious barbecue! Magnificent meat! He might have attracted some horrified looks with his table manners but he didn’t care; Diarmuid could feel his vitality returning with each sauce-slathered mouthful, and after a day that had stretched on for what felt like a thousand hours he needed every bite. He picked the bones clean with the speed of a school of river fish. Now invigorated, Diarmuid daintily wiped his mouth with a napkin and turned his attention to properly savoring his dinner.

Lloyd was a far tidier eater even when cracking into crab shells, and every time Diarmuid had the presence of mind to glance in his direction he was surrounded by the smiling faces of staff and guests alike, which seemed proper. It also meant people left Diarmuid alone as he ate, which was definitely proper. Sometimes a man needed to be left with his thoughts and some taro root. He didn’t ignore the others entirely, but save for the infrequent request for a new dish or instructing someone how to blend one of his cocktails of choice he didn’t go out of his way to talk to them, either. To Diarmuid’s pleasure, they were all wise enough to return him the courtesy. Alone in a crowd was a cozy place to be.

Diarmuid was busy feasting on the flesh of the last crab that had dared defy him when Lloyd sauntered into his field of vision with a fruit-studded piece of stoneware in one hand. He thrust it forward at Diarmuid like he was presenting a precious artifact at the end of a long and grueling quest. Even if it hadn’t been huge, gaudy, and smelling of a mix of Diarmuid’s favorite spirits, this was most difficult to ignore since it was now firmly between him and his plate. Lloyd beamed. The drink hovered in front of Diarmuid’s nose for a long quarter-minute, Lloyd expectantly silent. Was there something Diarmuid was missing, here? His keen ears had picked out any time his name or titles had come up around the fire, and none of those instances matched with the unexpected delivery. Surely he hadn’t forgotten some ceremonial something-or-other that required sharing drinks from the same chalice? They’d done that already.

Sometimes the simplest questions were the best. “What’s this?”

Lloyd glanced down at the cup in his hand and then back at Diarmuid, his expression turning puzzled. “A drink…?”

“I have one already.”

“But this one, it’s another one, yeah?”

Diarmuid placed two fingers on the proffered drink and pushed it away. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“Mids, please,” said Lloyd. There was a hint of desperation in his voice that sounded off, like it had been plucked from a more suitable environment for a purpose that didn’t suit it. “You’re supposed to take it. How are you gonna know you can count on me later if I don’t bring you stuff now? We’re married, you need to know I’m good for it.”

“Foe woe’s sake, do you not know how to be around people without buying their respect?” Diarmuid hissed, glancing about for anyone who might have wandered close enough to overhear.

Lloyd didn’t seem to know how to reply to that.

Leaving him in such a state was the domain of cads and villains, and while Diarmuid might have been both these things he was also trying to struggle his way towards a fresh start, so he racked his brain for something a little more comforting to say. What would he want to hear were he in Lloyd’s shoes? Ah, yes: nice, unfettered reason.

“You don’t need to worry about me, Lloyd. I’m not going to walk out on you—on this whole ‘us’ thing—just because you forget to bring me some hors d’oeuvres someday. What we’re doing is too important for something so petty.” He gave the offending cup a little pat and added, “I’m sure this is very nice. I just don’t want it right now.”

This seemed to work, as the strain left Lloyd’s face, or at least those parts not covered by his shades. “Yeah? Yeah. Okay. That makes sense, Mids, lots of sense. We had a reception and then a big dinner. You’re probably a little sick of gifts right now, huh?”

“You could say that.” He bit back a yawn. “How long have we been awake, anyway? Between the ceremony, magical travel, and me drifting off once we got here, I’ve lost track of time.”

“Twenty-five hours and thirty-three minutes, give or take a little,” said Lloyd, once more his confident self.

Diarmuid blinked in surprise. “No wonder I’m knackered.” He sized Lloyd up, who was now helping himself to the drink in his hand and showed no sign of tiring. “I’m amazed you had as much energy as you did for the… crab incident. You didn’t sleep any in the carriage, either, and I’ve been with you since we said our vows. How in the world are you still on your feet?”

Lloyd flashed him a thumbs-up. “Pure adrenaline! If I crash before we make it back, please have somebody drag me the rest of the way.”

“I’ll do that.”

The further they got from the awkward incident with the extra drink, the more Lloyd seemed like himself again, which made it all the easier for Diarmuid to appreciate his meal. The crab was delicious in the way only spite could truly season it. He wasn’t certain who, exactly, had thought two men of average size could eat as many of the wretched things as had been procured; as he surveyed the picked-over shell shards in his discard bowl, he was certain he’d only had six or seven. Even with the other visitors attending the feast there was far too much food. If he truly needed to know, he supposed, he could ask Lloyd about it. For the time being he was happy to crack into his seventh (or was it eighth?) crab and savor the fruits of his labors.

As ravenous as he’d been, Diarmuid couldn’t eat forever. He quietly pulled the host aside and verified that the leftovers would all be taken care of properly—which, in this case, meant some was stored, some was packed up in baskets to take back to others’ villas, and the rest went home with the staff—before collecting a tired and tipsy Lloyd, who managed to make it all the way back to their understocked kitchen before nearly face-planting into a counter.

“Time for bed,” he said after he caught himself, his shades still askew. “You aren’t gonna get bored without me, are you?”

It was a question that scarcely needed to be asked. “I’m going to spend some time with my books, I think. I don’t remember the last time I had the chance to just read.” He wasn’t exaggerating; since Lloyd had barged back into his life, Diarmuid had spent his every waking hour preparing plan after counter-plan to ensure they’d both make it all the way to the wedding, and even before that he’d been pouring most of his time and energy towards the various and sundry things a devil king was expected to do. It was a long way from the halcyon days of his youth when he could find a tree to sit under and not leave until he’d decided he was finished.

“That sounds great, buddy,” said Lloyd around a yawn. “I’ll see you in the morning. Maybe then we’ll even remember to go swimming, yeah?”

“We’ll see,” said Diarmuid. He added another book to his ever-growing pile; there was only so much time in a night, but lack of opportunity meant all of them looked good to him. There was still nearly all of his honeymoon left to go, he reminded himself. There would be time.

Lloyd, who had still managed not to collapse on the spot from fatigue, wiggled his fingers in farewell and stretched a final, lengthy time before disappearing into the depths of the villa. Water splashed, cloth rustled, and then all Diarmuid could hear was the barely-there sound of Lloyd’s sleep-breathing. Soon even that faded into the waves.

Diarmuid spent the whole evening reading in blissful silence on the porch as he sipped at a glass of water he kept cold through constant low-powered ice spells. Nobody swung by to speak to him or deliver an important missive. Nobody even walked too close to their end of the beach, for that matter. He retired to bed once the moon was high in the sky—taking care to step over the slumbering Lloyd as he did so—and for the first time since he’d been a very young man he enjoyed a full, peaceful night’s sleep. It was the best wedding night he could’ve imagined.

When morning broke it did so gently. The sound of the tide greeted Diarmuid as he blinked away sleep. Sea birds called to each other as they twirled and swooped for their breakfast, the breeze jingled the wind chime hung out on the lanai, and the air was brisk and salty with the faintest hint of last night’s bonfires. Save for the staff and other patrons, wherever they were at this time of day, there was no one around to bother him for miles.

Well, almost no one. Diarmuid sat up and craned his neck over the edge of the mattress to see how his so-called better half was doing.

Lloyd looked surprisingly comfortable on his pallet next to the bed. Heroes were always sleeping in weird places, Diarmuid figured, so somewhere that was indoors, not getting battered by the weather, and not full of scorpions was likely an improvement on the norm, and that was before one even factored clean sheets into the bargain. Lloyd had somehow managed to cocoon himself in his blankets during the night, his arms and legs wrapped around one of the two pillows he’d claimed for himself; this fact alone proved it had been the right idea to have him sleep on his own. He stirred as though feeling Diarmuid’s eyes upon him. A loud and theatrical yawn signaled to the world that the light’s own champion was once more among the lot of the waking.

“Mornin’, Mids,” said Lloyd as he stretched. “You been up long? I slept like a log.” He unwound himself from the bedsheets to reclaim his shades. In spite of everything, his hair was perfect.

“I only just woke. I’m still coming to terms with not having anything I have to do today. It’s…nice.”

“Neat. Lemme wash up and I’ll make us some breakfast.”

When was the last time Diarmuid had woken up to a proper breakfast? He still felt full from the night before; the thought of more food at such an early hour turned his stomach. “Just slice some fruit for me, please. I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.” Turning Lloyd down not five minutes into the day seemed like a bad way to start their first full day of married life, so he added, “Though if you’re still interested in a swim, I suppose some time on the beach not spent chasing crabs would be one way to spend the morning.”

This had even more of an effect than he’d expected. Lloyd pumped his fist. “Hell yeah! Let’s actually make this vay-cation into a play-cation!” He went from seated to standing with great speed and vigor, then vanished into the bathroom before Diarmuid could yell at him for unnecessary wordplay.

A full night’s sleep, a light meal, and more temporal distance between himself and the ceremony made it easier for Diarmuid to appreciate the scenery. The water was a sparkling blue against the ebon shore. If he turned towards the mountains he could watch the trees ripple as the wind off the ocean ruffled through them. There were just the right amount of clouds in the sky, all white and fluffy without a hint of foul weather, and the morning sun was bright and warm as it rose over the island; while a thunderstorm would have been delightful there was value to be had in a lightly-dappled field of azure. Diarmuid removed his skull hat to let that fine ocean wind to tousle his hair; he replaced it the moment he felt the tips of his ears warming up, but even the irritation of having to refresh his sun-screening enchantments couldn’t completely spoil things. The day was a promising one indeed.

Lloyd didn’t have the same need to admire his surroundings, given how he shed his sarong and rocketed into the water the moment he passed beneath the little sun shelter where Diarmuid planned to spend much of his outdoor time not already whiled away on the porch. It was like watching a horse run out to pasture after too long in the barn. He cut through the water with confident ease, sometimes submerging only to surge forth like a dolphin and land with much less splash than one might expect from a man of his size, and his laughter echoed merrily down the villa-dotted beach. He’d always been a playful swimmer back during their village days, so it only made sense he’d found more to do with that trait once he’d taken the mantle of heroism. He was certainly making good on his plans to give whatever audience they might have a show.

Diarmuid didn’t need too much coaxing to wade out past his ankles, himself, as the temperature of the water was just cool enough to feel good on a hot day without leaving him chilly, and he thankfully hadn’t forgotten everything about how to swim. He kept to the shallows as he kindled his latent muscle memory. Back in the day he liked to go down to the river or find his way lakeside all the time and swim around until he couldn’t bear the sun anymore. Whole summers passed spent practically amphibious. How long had it been since then? Devil kings didn’t swim, they didn’t have the time for it. He paddled around and marveled about what he could still do on his own.

Just as he’d promised, Lloyd was prone to swinging by Diarmuid to deliver some (thankfully chaste) physical affection. They weren’t the only ones on the beach, after all, and even if they had been Diarmuid suspected Lloyd would behave the same; it felt like he was trying things out, or maybe practicing for an upcoming show. Given how awkward Diarmuid had been during the ceremony he’d probably have to learn how to stop tensing up the moment he sensed Lloyd’s approach. Nobody would believe their ruse for a second if he had to fight back a cringe any time his supposedly loving spouse gave him a peck on the cheek. That’d send all sorts of mixed signals.

The sun rose higher and drove Diarmuid beneath the safety of the shade, where he dried himself off and sprawled on one of the wooden loungers to wait out the heat. Lloyd, ever-untroubled by the cruel eye of midday, stayed behind. Diarmuid himself hadn’t given it a second thought when he’d dressed lightly for the day, once again eschewing his heavy layers for something to swim in and something to go over that when he wasn’t in the water. It didn’t feel weird being around Lloyd like this, not with them legally wed (and therefore obligated to not kill each other) and everyone else also in swimwear. Diarmuid barely even thought about it at all when Lloyd surged from the water again to fling his hair back like the tresses of a surfacing mermaid. Maybe that was symbolic of something.

Waves crashed in the distance, but the lapping of the water against the sand was gentle as could be. Diarmuid found himself lost in the ever-changing pattern of foam until a meaty mass in a familiar pair of sunglasses flopped down in the seat next to him. He silently poured a glass of juice to match the one already in his hand, chilled it with a brief pulse of a spell, then handed it over; Lloyd accepted it with a thank-you that was little more than a vowel grunt. They sat together in the shade and drank from the carafe between them until it ran out. It was like time had stopped in the most pleasant of ways.

When the silence broke it was Lloyd who did the deed. “This is nice,” he said. He tried, for not the first time, to pour more juice from the empty container, then replaced it as he’d done the previous times before. “Of the many post-castle experiences I’ve had, I’d say it’s up with one of the better ones.”

Diarmuid’s interest was cautiously piqued. “How does it usually go after I’m gone? My side doesn’t keep records of that part.” He’d asked about it, once, and the scribe he’d been haranguing at the time had utterly failed to provide a satisfactory answer. The Dread Multitude hadn’t held onto so much as a doodle of the previous champion with dart holes through the face. Diarmuid’s history was intangible as smoke.

“Usually?” Lloyd rubbed his chin. “Well, the way I’m used to is that first there’s a big party with, like, fireworks and stuff, and everybody dances and has a good time ’cause we’re so happy it’s over. They’re super good fireworks. Then I spend the time to make the rounds making sure everyone who’s helped me out along the way either makes it home or gets suitably remembered, depending on if they, y’know, made it all the way to the end, and then I go home, wherever it is at the time, and sometimes I stick my sword in a statue or something. It’ll never be where I leave it next time I get reborn so I stopped worrying about it. Same for the orbs, ’cause sometimes there’s orbs involved. The dang things get where they need to be.”

“And after that?”

“I just sit by myself for a while and look at the sky, thinking about everybody that helped me get where I am while I wait for the sun to rise. It’s the end of all the important parts of my story, right? It feels like the right thing to do.” He laced his fingers behind his head and crossed his ankles. “This time I’ve still got somebody to talk to after the dust has settled. It’s going way better already.”

A snap of Diarmuid’s fingers refilled the carafe, this time with a sweet kiwi-lime blend, which he decanted into their respective glasses while shooting Lloyd an incredulous look. “You mean to tell me dealing with a brittle, contrarian wizard who makes you sleep on the floor is a step up from saving the world?”

“You’d be surprised.” Lloyd took a sip of juice and sighed with satisfaction. “It’s been really inspirational, watching you do what you do up close. I could never hope to pull it off, not the way you can.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“No, really! People do what you want them to because you make them want to do it. I mean you can make the Dread Multitude put its collective pants on in the morning with nobody dying, that’s no small feat. This” —Lloyd gestured in the vicinity of his head as he said so— “is just another pretty face. I’ve got star power and a title people recognize, so of course they’re likely gonna go along with whatever it is I suggest, especially if it sounds like they’ll get something out of it. What you have? Now that’s charisma.”

How much of the wedding had Lloyd handled? How much of the vacation? It felt like the most Diarmuid had contributed much of the time was glaring at people from underneath a decorative skull if things were threatening to go wrong. Since when was charisma being angry in a focused direction? Even that ever-renewable resource felt like it was running low, but maybe it was just burnout. “I think ‘intimidation’ is more accurate, here.”

“Ah, you’re selling yourself short, buddy. You’ve always had the knack. I’ve known that much since we were little.”

Diarmuid’s brows knitted. “Explain.”

“You were the only one who wanted to give me the time of day when I was still nothing more than some bumpkin kid with fantastic hair.” Lloyd tossed his hair (already perfectly dry, and no doubt feather-soft) for emphasis. “You were so dark and mysterious, always talking about stuff nobody else in the village could begin to understand. Everything was too simple for you, it felt like. Everybody was too short-sighted and basic. You didn’t like anything. But you liked me. That meant a lot.”

He was right, which was the annoying part. Being around other villagers had made Diarmuid feel like a stain, a nasty little blotch that ruined the otherwise pretty pattern of their lives, which had made it all the easier to learn to enjoy his own company; only Lloyd was an exception to this, and that was more because Lloyd either didn’t notice or didn’t care about whatever it was about Diarmuid that bothered everyone else. Diarmuid had originally befriended him solely for novelty’s sake. That Lloyd had turned out to be interesting—and, as they grew up together, increasingly easy on the eyes—still felt like an accident on the part of the universe.

“I’m glad to hear you thought so highly of me, but I’m not sure how you being too stubborn to scare off translates into me being a charismatic leader. I’d argue it sounds like quite the opposite.” Past champions had never had trouble rousing the world to fight back against impossible odds, after all. Lloyd struck him as the sort of person who probably never had to threaten physical violence at the end of his motivational speeches. How did people ever manage that?

Lloyd pressed a hand against his forehead and ran it slowly up and over the top of his head, careful not to disturb his garland, which looked untroubled by its time in the salt water. “Just trust me on this one, okay?” he said. “Thing is, you get me. All those we’re-not-so-different speeches you’ve given over the years? I know a lot of that’s just talking the talk, but there’s some truth in there, too. We really aren’t so different, you and I.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You know. Powerful. Endless. Stuck in a total rut. It really does a number on you when you realize that meeting with the literal king of evil is the only time you ever get to say to yourself, ‘ah, here’s somebody who’s been through the same thing.’ Nobody else has ever come close to understanding where I’m coming from. Serial immortality sucks balls. You know that as well as you know me.”

Diarmuid wanted to object, to explain how no, he really didn’t know Lloyd at all anymore, and his complaint only made it halfway to his tongue before he realized how wrong he was. If he concentrated for the tiniest bit he could recall life after life spent clashing with a hero, and some of those clashes had come with welcoming-of-the-enemy feasts where they’d engaged in battles of wits before the final, fatal fight. It had started out as pure hubris on his part—there was something about being a devil king that encouraged you to be a tremendous dumbass—but as the cycle went on he’d started to look forward to spending time with the only other person who knew exactly what he was going through. He didn’t necessarily enjoy remembering his own vanquishing, but if he steeled himself enough to drudge the waters of those memories he could recall how sometimes the heroes of eras past had seemed reluctant to finally put him to the sword.

Things were a little bit different every time, but even after all this time, they also remained a little bit the same.

There was something comfortable about not having to explain that part of who he was. He’d been the same person every time before, but he’d only ever been Diarmuid the once, and these concepts were not mutually exclusive. He could remember having different favorites across his incarnations, different likes, dislikes, and mannerisms; there were recurring themes in who he was, otherwise why bring him back again at all, yet each time he rose from his own metaphorical ashes he’d find his head put together slightly differently. It was like having an endless suite of new actors put their own spin on the same old role. I’m the me I’ve always been, but I’m not the me you knew, he’d once said to a lackey trying to make an argument based on a previous regime’s policies. Having access to his past selves’ memories was different from being those people all over again. Nobody had ever really gotten that part.

Nobody except for Lloyd, that is. There were worse people it could’ve been.

All there was for Diarmuid to say was, “You’re not wrong.”

“Figured it out from watching the best, man.” He tapped his fingers to his temple in a mock salute before losing a bit of the usual good humor in his voice. “People come, people go. People fade. At the end of the day it’s just me on my own again. But every time around, every time, there’s been a constant, and it’s you. Even when everyone else is just so much smoke and mirrors, you’ve always been there.”

Where had this come from? A weird feeling had been churning in Diarmuid’s stomach since he woke up that morning, like being exhausted but not in a way he understood, and Lloyd’s words only made it worse. Diarmuid attempted to deflect things: “Doing my damnedest to destroy everything, I’ll remind you.”

“Yeah, because that’s, like, your role, right? But as I was doing all the usual stuff, the sword-hunting and quest-doing and all that jazz, I thought, here’s this guy, I knew him before all this, maybe if we didn’t throw him bodily into a spooky castle first thing he’d just go and try to live his own life like anybody else. You had a lot going for you back then. You seemed so…together. I thought, maybe you could be more than the Great King of Devils if you ever had the chance. Felt like the right thing to do this time.”

Diarmuid connected some dots that hadn’t explicitly been drawn in. “So what kind of person is more than the Champion of Light?”

“Dunno. Guess we’ll find that out one of these days, huh?” Lloyd downed the rest of his glass and stood up to stretch. “The sun’s not right overhead anymore, so I’m gonna get back in the water,” he said. “You gonna stay here a bit more?”

Unexpectedly heartfelt conversations aside, any more time beneath the sun threatened to turn Diarmuid as red as a lobster, so it was probably best if he accepted the out he was offered. He hurriedly reapplied his sun-screening spells before adjusting how he lounged in his chair. “I think so, yes.”

“Cool. Whenever you get hungry, just yell, I can make us dinner.”

Hadn’t they just had breakfast? It might have been hours ago by then but he barely felt it; the nigh-bottomless appetite Diarmuid’d had the night before seemed to still be sated by an impossible amount of pork and crab meat. “I’ll be fine, thank you,” he said. Even if it had been later in the day he didn’t see himself taking Lloyd up on that offer, as he already had plans of making a simple soup from some of the leftover crab, and his hands itched to handle his own food for a change. There was more than one cookbook tucked among his vast collection of grimoires.

“You sure?”

“I’ve spent so much time being waited on hand and foot by other people I need to prove to myself I still know how to be halfway independent. Let me have this, please.”

Lloyd bobbed his head. He stepped from foot to foot, limbering up his calf muscles like a particularly athletic flamingo. “Can do, buddy. You change your mind, I’ll either be enjoying the beauty of the island or down mingling with some of the off-duty staff.”

Diarmuid paused. “They let the staff hobnob with guests here?”

“Oh yeah, I chatted up some folks at the barbecue last night,” said Lloyd. “Seems like they run a real easy ship around here so long as all the work gets done on time. Wasn’t what I’d heard about this place, but I think I like it.” He cocked a thumb in the direction of the part of the beach that had since been cleared of the previous night’s feast. “The locals, all like twelve of them, often make up a fire down that ways and share drinks. Can’t miss us. I’ll be the guy in sunglasses.”

“I’ll be sure to remember it,” said Diarmuid. “Come home whenever it suits you. I’ll either be asleep or I won’t.”

“Nice! I’ll try and be real quiet coming back either way.” Lloyd blew him a kiss (there were people who could see them on other parts of the same beach, after all) and trotted back towards the curling white spray of the waves.

Minutes bled into hours, and in time the bright afternoon sun once again succumbed to the dark. True to Lloyd’s word, as the night wore on there was indeed a little fire built upon the shore, and Diarmuid’s far-seeing charms—cast over a second bowl of leftover-crab soup, which had turned out well—had no trouble spotting a familiar white-gold head of hair among the people seated around the pit. One or two of the people drinking with Lloyd looked familiar in a way Diarmuid couldn’t place; then again, he’d seen plenty of strangers at the wedding and a not-insignificant number after that at last night’s dinner, so it probably was as simple as mistaking one man with purple hair for another, or being unable to tell two different talking lizards apart. Did that make him an asshole? It probably depended on if he still had that problem upon getting to know them. Either way, Lloyd looked happy as a clam to be around people he could brag to, so that was all right, then.

Thinking about it, Diarmuid was able to put more of a finger on just what had been eating at him for most of the day. He and Lloyd had been around each other quite a lot lately, not just during their vacation, and given his usual track record with collaborators of course he’d be stuck waiting for the other shoe to drop. He was a human ink spot, draining life and color from his surroundings and being eternally unsurprised when the resulting gloom turned on him. Lloyd, meanwhile, was more of a human golden retriever. He’d actually come into the world full of altruism and good vibes and a general sense of wanting other people to be okay at the end of the day, no matter how much they deserved it. His was an attitude so crammed with guileless joie de vivre no wonder Diarmuid felt out of place when exposed to it for long. Why had he believed Lloyd when he said this could work?

It wasn’t a matter of whether either of them could do better, naturally. Lloyd was a hero from nose to toes, his bright, dashing demeanor paired with head-turning good looks and the ability to make most people (even certain solitary bookworms, back in the day) genuinely like him. Provided he had enough time to get to know them, Lloyd could have anyone he wanted. Diarmuid had turned down enough suitors during his current lifespan to know he wasn’t wanting for options, either. They didn’t match, but they balanced. If they weren’t in the same league as one another it was because they were each playing different sports.

No, the problem wasn’t what Diarmuid now had in his life (that being Lloyd, through weal and through woe, as the vows had said), but what he was lacking. The answer was on the tip of his tongue. He wasn’t hungry, thirsty, or desperate for company. After a yesterday that felt like it had lasted forever he was starting to catch up on sleep and energy again, so he wasn’t tired. He certainly didn’t want for luxuries. There was only one thing a willingly-deposed leader of the Dread Multitude could be missing, should he find himself recently wed and opulently fed on the shores of a lovely island with absolutely no reason to try to relieve his designated hero-opponent of his skin.

Hatred.

It was so simple: the hate that had fueled him, that which had guided him time after time down a road of destruction, that which had seen him crawl back from the jaws of death for one more chance, the constant companion that had never left his heart? Gone, utterly. He used to be like some terrible engine that burned wrath for fuel. Losing an anger the size of the world—the kind you needed in your head to want to go through with destroying everything—was going to leave a mark. It hadn’t vanished with the ceremony, either, since if Diarmuid was being honest with himself he’d started losing that killer’s edge the second he heard Lloyd had breached his castle again. Maybe that always happened and this time around he was just alive long enough to notice? Without the hate, he didn’t have purpose, and without purpose, for the first time in his current adult life he had no direction at all. What on earth was he supposed to put in its place?

A distant whoop signaled something fun happening down at the fire with Lloyd and everyone who was fawning over him. The sound was enough to shake Diarmuid from his funk; it was such a nice night it would be a shame to ruin it with excessive soul-searching, he decided. He was, true to his nature of a speech-giving, thunderclap-summoning peacock of a wizard, simply being dramatic. Surely he was just maudlin over such a sweeping change in his life, one made as an attempt to escape more than a desire to be with anyone else. Why wouldn’t he be out of sorts? Dispassion was a problem for Tomorrow’s Diarmuid. He mixed himself a potent sleeping potion, drained it in a single powerful pull, and was asleep in bed well before anyone (spouse or otherwise) returned to the bungalow to find him in such a state.

Tomorrow’s Diarmuid, it turned out, might have still had the same gap in his soul as Yesterday’s Diarmuid did, but it was easier to power through, especially with the ever-effervescent Lloyd puttering around the place to keep Diarmuid from falling too far into ennui. He permitted the honeymoon to happen as best he could. They ate, they swam. Small talk happened. At one point a gameboard materialized from somewhere in the depths of the villa—Diarmuid hadn’t seen that when they’d moved in, so Lloyd must have brought it—and Lloyd busied himself with setting it up on the table closest to the sprawling mass of the kitchen. Similar to how their previous talks had been paired with something else to look at, so too was this. There was less pressure to be intensely, immediately involved all the time. Diarmuid had to respect that sort of move.

Could he live like this, then? Could he let this peaceful new life happen around him and find something (it didn’t matter what) to stuff in the cavity left behind? He had his book collection, but that wouldn’t do for a gap of this scale; his tomes were as much a part of him as his hair, something he’d parse more by its absence than presence. He’d need something new. Maybe it was time to get really into building model kits.

For as uncomfortable as he felt Diarmuid felt he did a fine job of hiding it from Lloyd, since aside from some good-morning greetings from the floor Lloyd hadn’t asked how Diarmuid was doing all day. The board game had been a suggestion to fill time and structure a day of leisure, not an attempt to cheer him up. He could tell the difference between being ignored (which this wasn’t) and being given space (which this probably was). The longer it went on the more he could convince himself he could endure. Who said he had to be perfectly happy? He wasn’t dead again. It was an improvement no matter which way you sliced it.

They chatted about nothing in particular as they pushed pieces around the board; Lloyd, true to form, was alarmingly good at balancing the numbers of various resources in his head. While there were lulls in the conversation, they skewed more towards natural pauses than Diarmuid forgetting how to actually talk to people again. Lloyd seemed happy as ever to fill too-long empty spaces, but he was also more willing to listen to the sounds of wind and sea than he had been yesterday; his words didn’t sound as subtly desperate for approval as they had before. The game (which they played and ignored in equal measure) didn’t need as many dice as had been packed into its little pouch of tokens, so Lloyd had claimed some of the extras to twiddle between his fingers. The clicking distracted from neither game nor talk. Diarmuid could accept it.

Somewhere between hour two and two thousand of their current conversation, Lloyd asked a question Diarmuid had been waiting to answer ever since they’d walked out of Diarmuid’s throne room together. “All this time and I’ve never asked: why’d you do it?”

There was only one thing it could be in this context. “Try to unmake everything time and time again?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s a tough one,” said Diarmuid. He stared out the closest window. How could he even begin to describe the urge to someone who hadn’t lived it themselves? As much as he loathed the idea, honesty seemed like the best policy. “You know the basics already: filled with all-consuming hatred, I rise up to destroy the world until properly kicked back down again.”

Lloyd nodded. “With you so far.”

“The thing about all-consuming hatred is that it’s exactly what it sounds like. It consumes. There’s no chance of doing anything except living in a constant state of loathing. You don’t have room for a life, no room for dreams or hopes, just… anger. Anger big enough to make you want to ruin everything in existence. And you’ll do anything to make it stop, anything at all, even if you can no longer explain what you’re hating in the first place.”

“You’re saying you forgot?

Diarmuid shrugged. “I’m sure there used to be a reason, even if it was something as straightforward as a lust for power. After a while it just faded into who I am and what I do. Even without people pulling the strings I’d usually get set off by something or another and ascend to my throne to once more start what you kept having to finish. The Great King of Devils is the enemy of the whole of creation because someone has to be, I suppose.” It sounded so petty when he worded it that way. He’d never given his lot this much thought before, much less said as much out loud, and certainly never found himself in the company of someone who’d ever bother to listen. It was disheartening admitting to himself that a major reason he kept rising up to hurt people time and time again amounted to little more than a sunk-cost fallacy.

The constant clicking of the spare dice in Lloyd’s hand slowed. “But that’s dumb,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I mean it doesn’t make any sense, you know?”

“When you’re angry, you don’t care very much about making sense.”

Lloyd shook his head. “Think about it. The world doesn’t need some great unifying enemy, it’s already got enough going on. You don’t need some guy up in a castle casting spooky spells for people to get sick or a big storm to wash out a levee. Sometimes stuff just goes wrong and people need help handling it. There’s plenty of need for heroism to go around without getting demons up in the mix. This didn’t have to keep happening to you.” He pursed his lips in concern. “What about, y’know, what kept you going? Are you hating stuff right now?”

Tomorrow’s—now Today’s—Diarmuid was not doing as good a job of pretending he was fine as he had been five minutes ago. If he’d simply been able to curse Lloyd’s name (really curse it, not just feel mildly put out by Lloyd being around and invested in his well-being) this would have been so much easier. Instead all he could do was stare at the setting sun. “No,” he said, sighing. “And I think that’s a problem.”

“Really? I woulda thought being able to shrug off that whopper of a weight would be better for you, not worse.” Lloyd rubbed his chin with his non-dice-clicking hand. “You used to be okay without it when we were kids, right?”

“I’m not the boy from the village anymore. Without the hate to keep me focused I’m not really anything anymore. I haven’t figured out where to go from here.”

“Well, like I said, we’ve got nothing but time now. We can just be married, and figure the re—”

“What does that mean, Lloyd?” snapped Diarmuid. The familiar wrath’s absence didn’t keep him from feeling irritable and frustrated. It was like his last nerve snapped with a twang. “You keep saying it. Plans for the future? Be married. How to act around other people? Be married. I could teleport myself to another dimension and we would technically still ‘be married’ provided nobody’s vows get annulled along the way.”

“You were the one who said you didn’t want to plan too far ahead just yet,” said Lloyd with a frown.

“I don’t want to have my entire future wrapped up as one big, nebulous not-idea, either!”

“Well you’re just gonna have to until we’re more than half a week out from the ceremony, aren’t you?” He set the dice down on the board next to his pile of tokens. He ran his fingers through his hair wearily. When he next spoke, he sounded hurt. “I don’t get you, man. You run hot, you run cold. I think you’re warming up to me and then suddenly you hate me again. What am I supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t hate you, Lloyd.” If only he could; it would make things so much easier, or at least more familiar.

“Yeah? You’re doing a real assy job of showing it!” Lloyd scooted back in his seat, crossed his arms over his chest, and glared at Diarmuid from across the table. “I am trying to figure out who you even are anymore and I don’t know. I don’t know! Maybe it’s not in the cards. Maybe I’m just being a dumbass who hoped we could go back to being pals again.”

Diarmuid, now further in unfamiliar territory than ever, lunged for some low-hanging fruit. “Do you have to use cutesy terms for everything? Pals. Buddies. Can you take this seriously for even five minutes?”

The subtle twitch of Lloyd’s eyebrows belied a blink behind his shades. He uncrossed his arms again. “Fine. Maybe I wanted to be friends again. Better?”

He wasn’t sure if it was. Picking a fight almost felt right again, though, so Diarmuid needled further. “What I want to know, Lloyd, is why you even bother trying so hard to be nice to me now that we’ve potentially gotten out of this stupid cycle we’ve been stuck in for eons. And don’t say it’s because that’s just what you do, either, because I don’t buy it.”

“It kinda is, though…?” said Lloyd, the end of his statement twisting upwards so it sounded more like a question.

“I said I don’t buy it, Lloyd,” Diarmuid snapped.

Lloyd’s shoulders slumped. “…It’s also ’cause I don’t want you to feel like you’ll get forgotten,” he said, eventually.

“Explain.”

It took Lloyd a while to find his next words, too. “You’ve made a huge change in who you are, and that change probably pissed a lot of people off, but you made it anyway, and that’s amazing. There’s a lot of ways you can go from here, and no matter which road you end up traveling, you don’t have to go it alone. You deserve to have other people who want to keep you in their thoughts. Even if they’re just big dummies who think with their fists most of the time.”

“I live in the real world, Lloyd, and we’ve got magic, monsters, and property taxes to worry about over here.” Diarmuid scoffed. “You said as much yourself: serial immortality ‘sucks balls.'” This time he was unable to resist the urge to make air quotes. He ached for the ability to feel mad the way he used to; being able to vomit up all that rage in a speech or a screech or anything else with volume was exhilarating in the moment, but this just made him feel tired and a bit queasy. “I’m trying not to get ground down to nothing in the cosmic machinery that’s powered this face since who knows when. You’ll recall that I’m the one that usually gets a sword through the heart at the end, and no amount of happy songs or cheerful rhetoric has ever changed that. I don’t have time for your pointless little niceties.”

“It’s not pointless to care about other people, or to know they’re caring about you. That’s, like, basic community togetherness right there.”

“Listen to yourself. Caring? Togetherness? You sound like a gift shop mug. Next thing you know you’ll be telling me to live, laugh, and love.”

“It’s not the worst way to rekindle a friendship.”

Diarmuid sat back in his chair with a disgusted snort. “Because the power of friendship can save us all, can it?” he asked, half in a mocking sing-song.

Lloyd was angry. No, not angry; Lloyd was pissed. Diarmuid had never seen him like this, not over a hundred incarnations, not even in behind a killing blow. “Yes! It literally does that!” he cried. “You can dump on the idea all you want for the sake of feeling smug about it or whatever, but I have literally, truly saved the world—same one you kept trying to blow up, that one—thanks to the love and support from all my friends, and it’s worked out for me every! Single! Time!” He took a breath, composed himself, then continued. “I’ve become a better person through my interactions with others, and through them I’ve grown more capable than I’d ever be on my own. I owe so much to the dozens, no, the hundreds of allies I’ve had over the years.” His voice fell slightly for that final sentence as he placed his hand to his chest in a gesture of sincere emotion. The combination made Diarmuid’s stomach twist again.

A thought came, unbidden, that of the long line of Lloyds that saved the day and returned to an empty house. “You’re good with numbers, aren’t you? How many of those friends of yours have stuck around after the job’s done?” And how dare they walk away in the first place?

Lloyd faltered, his sudden fury sliding into the realm of regret. “That’s not their fault, Mids.”

“Really? Because I seem to recall you saying how every time the dust settles you’re alone again.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t make the effort to maintain things,” said Lloyd. He still looked angry, but this time it wasn’t with Diarmuid. “I used to be better about it, but you know how it is: you keep cycling, you keep going, and you don’t feel time pass the same way everybody else does. You keep meaning to get back to people and whoops, you waited too long, now it’s fifteen years later and it’d just be weird. And even if you force yourself to live in the present there’s always someone else who needs a little bit of your time, so you say sure, just this once, because heroes help people, right? It’s what we do. Especially if you’re like me and you just can’t say no.” He laughed, ruefully. “You can’t blame people for falling out of touch if they think you’re too busy to be buddies. How do they know I’m not if they’re not seeing all the gifts and good deeds I used to give ’em anymore? I’m good at making time for everybody but myself.”

Overhearing the merry-making further down the beach hadn’t bothered Diarmuid at the time, but it did now. “Yes, I’ve noticed,” he said. “Already making a list of new people to break your heart, aren’t you? Or were you thinking of beating them to the punch?”

“Huh?” Lloyd snapped his fingers. “Oh, right, the staff party they invited me to! No, no, I’m keeping my distance this time, honest. I just made casual conversation like anybody would. Did you know one of them is pregnant with her second baby? She and her wife are so excited.” He smiled. “I just love meeting folks. It’s hard to resist the urge to chat up everybody I meet whenever I go somewhere new, y’know? More faces to see, more names to learn….”

“More people to forget you exist once you stop showering them with free drinks.”

“What is wrong with you, Diarmuid?” asked Lloyd, and it would have been easier if he’d been spitting fire or pounding his fists as he did so. Instead he just looked betrayed. “Is it something I said?”

Diarmuid growled in frustration. “Listen to yourself. Nothing is anyone’s fault, unless it’s yours. Everybody’s problems are important, unless they’re yours. Do you have any boundaries at all?”

“I can say no to people….”

“Are you sure about that? Have you ever turned down someone who asked you to do something for them? Have you ever managed that a single time?”

“Who’s gonna do it if I don’t?”

A new, nasty observation coalesced in Diarmuid’s head. “No wonder you can’t hold on to people in your life. If the only reason someone is around is to bring me things or to solve my problems for me, that’s not a friend, that’s a vassal.”

“I tried holding on. I did. I promise,” said Lloyd. His voice hitched on the last word. Was he trying not to tear up? Did heroes even do that over anything less than the tragic death of a trusted ally? “I came back for you in the end, didn’t I?”

“Maybe that’s your problem, then.” Diarmuid stood up from his seat and made for the porch. He couldn’t stand to be around Lloyd anymore. “I’m going on a walk.”

Lloyd said nothing as Diarmuid stormed out into the evening blue. He didn’t turn to watch Diarmuid leave, nor did he call out after once the villa door banged shut again. The last Diarmuid saw of him was a glimpse through the window, his fingers reaching up to touch the crown of white flowers he wore like he didn’t know why it was there.

Diarmuid made it until the villa was just out of sight (not that he was checking, because nobody would be following him, he reminded himself) before the reality of the situation sank all the way in. Where had all of that come from? It definitely wasn’t the usual sort of clash they had; it hadn’t felt good to be mad the way it usually did, and his barbs were far more personal than the usual verbal assaults he unleashed against the hero of the moment. It hadn’t been a battle of wits or even a malevolent speech, it had just been being an asshole. Being an asshole to Lloyd was probably up there with drop-kicking a puppy in terms of needless meanness. Here was someone who saw him as someone who not only could exist outside the cycle but deserved to, who thought the world would do just fine without another villain to unite it, and how had he repaid that? By taking cheap shots at Lloyd’s lack of boundaries! The kind of person who did that was the kind of person he didn’t have to be anymore, so why was he still stuck in his own ways?

Diarmuid, the Great King of Devils in the flesh, was actually feeling bad for acting like a dick; surely that alone was a sign that the ages were on the cusp of turning, he figured.

Clearly he needed to untangle the snarl in his head before he did anything else. He owed Lloyd that much. The trail looked different at night, with shadows in different places and colors skewed towards cooler ones; thanks to the brilliant half moon in the sky Diarmuid didn’t even need to conjure a light to illuminate his path. He let his feet take him wherever they wanted. So long as he kept enough magic on hand to teleport back to the villa—a trivial matter—it didn’t matter how far he went. One could only get so lost on an island. Having nothing else on his hands but time, Diarmuid let himself wander.

Past words turned over and over in his mind. They hadn’t said anything about romantic ideals like love or devotion the entire time they’d made plans; had Lloyd not been Lloyd, Diarmuid wouldn’t have even expected them to be cordial to one another. Companionship barely entered the picture at all, at least not when Lloyd wasn’t making noise about “pals” again. The marriage was a formality, a peace offering, something nice and safe for people to gossip about that stayed harmless at the end of the day. It was strictly business. It was strictly politics. It wasn’t anything personal, except the longer Diarmuid thought about it the clearer it was that Lloyd, the beautiful idiot that he was, didn’t feel that way. What kind of person was willing to pine forever from a distance if it meant the object of their affections could have a moment’s peace?

A hero, apparently.

Diarmuid walked until he found a tree into which he could press his forehead. How had he, a scholar of uncountable secrets, not noticed this sooner? He’d been given an impossible chance to reconcile with someone who meant quite a lot of things to him in quite a lot of ways, and here he was, so convinced everything was going to go badly he refused to let said wonderful someone try to creep back into his life. This wasn’t anything new, either; how many times had he convinced himself it was simply pride that would have him guide the Champion of Light to his doorstep? How many times had he invited Lloyd (by whatever name and gender he was using at the time) to share a feast between equals before their climactic battle? How many suitors and distractions had he tired of simply because they weren’t his nemesis? How often was he abandoned by his armies at the final hour? Lloyd was always there at the end, though, and always saw things through, save that this time it hadn’t been the end at all, and Diarmuid had still managed to ruin everything. Truly the fiercest foe of the whole of creation would have to be his own worst enemy, too.

He needed to apologize. It wasn’t an entirely foreign concept—he’d been raised to know what manners were and before he’d been given the Dread Multitude to handle he’d taken pride in his good etiquette—and on paper it would just take two sincere words to let Lloyd know how he felt. This was somehow harder than the time he’d blotted out the sun. He was used to hurting people, as that was part and parcel of the job. Disappointing them was something else entirely.

Question after question weighed him down as he walked without purpose. What if Lloyd didn’t accept his apology? Worse, what if he did? What would he expect of Diarmuid now, if an apology meant admitting imperfection, and imperfection meant Diarmuid couldn’t stay on that pedestal Lloyd had clearly put him on for years? What if Lloyd didn’t care anyway? If nothing else he was owed a hug with more than the most grudging of motivations behind it. They’d have to talk again (as though they’d been doing anything but since stepping out of the carriage!) and Diarmuid would have to accept the consequences of being terrible to someone who, judging by towering mountains of evidence, loved him more or less unconditionally. He would never be that kid from the village again because he’d become a devil king, and he wasn’t much of one of those anymore because he was ready to own up to his mistakes like an adult. It had been almost an hour and a half; that was long enough for both of them to have cooled off. His feet turned back in the direction of the villa as he braced himself to be, for the first time, the kind of bad guy who could change.

When he finally returned to the little beachside house the front door was wide open, a familiar garland lying smashed on the lanai. The only other thing left of Lloyd was a letter on the counter with his terrible shades left on top of them. Diarmuid tried not to be disappointed. He assumed it was as clean a break as they’d ever get—married people lived apart from each other all the time, so it wouldn’t undo all their hard work, right? they’d been visibly together for a few days, so people wouldn’t get ideas, right? he really had been an asshole so it was reasonable Lloyd would’ve gotten fed up, right?—right up until he read the letter, which was written in a hand far more graceful and formal than Lloyd’s utilitarian block print.

Great King of Devils, it said, we who have devoted ourselves to the conflict of the ages have taken the troublesome champion into our custody in hopes of helping you once more find your way….

It went on like that for a while. There was much talk about how despite the fact that he had strayed from the path set before him, the kidnapping parties (who claimed to represent both light and dark alike, because of course war profiteers would shack up with whomever had the biggest wallet) could right his course once more by keeping Lloyd out of the picture long enough for Diarmuid to change his mind again. There was talk of destiny, duty, and other D-words he was starting to loathe hearing. At no point did the writer ever imply they thought Diarmuid was capable of making decisions for himself, or that he might’ve genuinely wanted to step down from throwing troops into the meat grinder century after century. He’d had a mere two and a half days to reluctantly ease into a life free from this sort of thing and now he didn’t even have that.

Upon finishing the letter Diarmuid consumed it with a blast of aubergine-colored magical fire that gouted from the palm of his hand. He then screamed into a throw cushion until he took no more satisfaction from it. This took enough of the edge off for him to be able to cast a tracking spell, and as soon as he got a valid location he tucked Lloyd’s shades into the belt of his beach robe before storming after the fools who’d decided to interrupt his honeymoon before he could even get tired of it in the first place. He didn’t bother grabbing his skull helm before he left; if these people wanted him to lead the Dread Multitude again, it’d just send the wrong message.

The hideout was a ramshackle little building on the far side of the island that was tucked up against the snow line, defended by an array of cunning traps and powerful combatants; these amounted to approximately bupkis, given that Diarmuid teleported past all of it. His instincts had guided him towards the exact right spot to reappear, which happened to be in the middle of the hideout’s dining room, itself in the middle of serving dinner. Thunder boomed in his wake. He glanced around at the still-stunned kidnappers with a curl of his lip as a few more details fell into place for him. It turned out mistaking two purple-haired men for each other, or being unable to tell two different talking lizards apart, wasn’t so much of a problem if there was only one of each individual in the first place.

“Hidden agents. Wonderful.”

“Hi, Mids. Didn’t expect to see you here,” said a familiar voice off to one side.

Lloyd, sans eyewear and fastened to a support pillar by a truly ridiculous amount of rope, grinned sheepishly once he caught Diarmuid’s eye. There was a pointed lack of signs of struggle to his fetters. Had he given up? Had these, these ingrates crushed his already flagging spirits after what had to be a profoundly deep wound dealt to them by someone he probably loved very much being an absolute bastard to his face? If Diarmuid hadn’t ruined things, or if he’d just been more honest with either of them instead of digging in his heels, would Lloyd have had the presence of mind to fully defend himself? Why couldn’t he just have enjoyed a nice board game with his husband and not been so difficult about everything?

No, that wasn’t the way to approach this. People had arguments all the time, and sometimes they hurt each other, and there often were serious consequences that could strain or even end a relationship even if the only blows exchanged were verbal. He was only human (even accounting for the pointy ears) and humans were flawed creatures that could accidentally hurt each other without really trying. What was not an accident was rocking up to somebody’s vacation bungalow and removing their spouse from the premises, taking care to leave a wordy-ass note explaining everything so there’d be no confusion in the matter. Diarmuid might have crushed Lloyd’s spirits by being an asshole (and oh, what an asshole he had been) but he wasn’t the one who’d taken Lloyd against his will. Perspective mattered.

“I’m trying to be a better person lately, so you lot get one chance,” said Diarmuid, holding up a finger for emphasis. “If we all agree this was a bad idea and you permit doofus over there to leave here unharmed, I’ll walk back down to the beach with him and pretend this was one last wicked fling thing that got incredibly out of hand.”

“Aw, buddy, you don’t have to make a fuss over me,” said Lloyd.

Diarmuid rolled his eyes. “I’ll fuss over whomever I please, Lloyd.”

“See how His Majesty has lost his teeth!” cried a tailcoated fiend who’d attended the ceremony. “The true bearer of his title would never banter so!” Devil kings never bantered? Where had this guy been during all those final dinners?

“Good behavior means nothing without its inverse,” said a gentle-looking woman whose aura of sparkling divine light was already giving Diarmuid a rash. “Creation needs its enemy, lest it fall into despair and decay. You must suffer, or it means nothing.”

“Surely you’ve had enough of a taste of him to sate your needs,” purred a man in a silk robe that bore the mark of a known sorcerers’ cabal. “We all know your habits, Your Majesty, and you have never been a man to linger on something as…permanent…as a paramour.”

That was something Diarmuid hadn’t fully clicked to until now: they had kidnapped his husband, someone for whom he was legally responsible, who’d always come back for him, and with whom he’d technically been flirting on and off for centuries by now. They expected him to view Lloyd just as disposably as Diarmuid had once needed to see eighty-odd percent of the Dread Multitude. They expected him to just shrug his shoulders and go back to the way everything had been, never changing or learning, because it was the way things were supposed to be. They’d fouled up the first vacation he could remember going on in more or less forever and he hadn’t even had a chance to apologize. Worse than that, he hadn’t even had a chance to get laid. The Great King of Devils and the Champion of Light had finally ended up in a private beach house together and they’d spent the whole time chaste as could be. Diarmuid could accept that sort of karmic irony for himself, but Lloyd? Lloyd deserved so much better. Diarmuid could be so much better. And these people wanted to take that away.

A new burn rose up in Diarmuid’s craw from the crater that marked where his wrath used to be. This wasn’t the hatred he knew. This was righteous indignation. And it felt fantastic.

“I said you’d get one chance. One. I’m being a kinder, gentler dreadlord by giving you another.” He cracked his knuckles one hand at a time. “There will not be a third.”

The devil from before chuckled like an exotic frog. “And what can you do to stand against us, o greatest of traitors? You are a mere human of fiendish raiment, while we are the best of the best, be we devil or saint! You have brought nothing worth our fear.”

“You at least could’ve shown up in something more fearsome than flip-flops,” complained someone dressed in opulent merchant’s attire. “You’re dressed like you’re here to play volleyball, not rescue the Champion of Light himself.”

“I cannot believe you people,” said Diarmuid as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “This isn’t even my final form.” With that, he let himself go a little.

The resulting scuffle lasted about as long as a handful of nobodies challenging a multiple-time world-imperiling sorcerer could be expected to last. It was thoroughly needless overkill of the sort that would never stop being a guilty pleasure of his. Once it was over Diarmuid relaxed back to what he’d always thought of as his proper self, patted himself down, and adjusted the flower garland he’d managed not to dislodge during the lopsided fight. Not damaging his clothing during a transformation (at least if he was alive enough to change back at the end) was a trick Diarmuid had long since mastered.

A snap of Diarmuid’s fingers freed Lloyd from his bonds. Diarmuid pulled the folded set of shades from his belt and handed them over. “I believe these are yours.”

“You’re a lifesaver, buddy,” said Lloyd, who did not seem concerned to have witnessed the temporary return of a terrible foe whose appearance usually preceded a long, grueling fight that’d end with the cycle of antagonism starting all over again. To be fair, said foe was nobody he hadn’t seen before. He snapped the sunglasses open with a flick of his hand and slipped them on like they were a part of his face. Diarmuid had to admit Lloyd had looked a little off without them, even if they covered up those pretty eyes of his.

“I’ll admit I was surprised to see you’d left such an iconic accessory behind,” said Diarmuid.

“Those mooks said they were more suited to an avatar of the fathomless dark since they, and I quote, ‘lessen the glare of the strongest of all Lights.’ Capital L. Can you believe it? Bet they’d flip out if they learned I prefer bittersweet chocolate, too.” A simple shake of his head was enough to put every gold-tinged hair back in place. It was like he’d never been taken. “Why’re you here, though? We already settled up the biggest issue between us.” He frowned in befuddlement. “You don’t owe me anything.”

Diarmuid scoffed. “Of course I don’t, you tremendous twit. I’m here because I was worried about you.” He took a step forward to pull Lloyd into a tight hug. Even in his disheveled state Lloyd was irritatingly handsome. He was just the right amount of warm and just the right amount of soft without jeopardizing the tone of his midsection. Whatever skin-care regimen he engaged in, paired with lingering hints of the sweat he’d presumably worked up during his capture, meant he also smelled quite good. Lloyd was a treat for entirely too many senses at once. Diarmuid allowed himself to enjoy it for a change.

Lloyd himself didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. “This…isn’t a platonic-friendship-style hug, is it?”

“No, it’s not,” said Diarmuid as he nuzzled Lloyd’s neck. “Against my better judgment, I love you, Lloyd.” He felt Lloyd tense up, then relax. Ah, a critical blow. “You’d let things tepidly drag out forever if left to your own devices, asking no questions and making no moves. One of us has to be proactive.”

“Like way back when, in the plum orchard,” agreed Lloyd. He cautiously returned the hug. Upon finding that Diarmuid didn’t bolt when pulled into a mutual embrace he actually put a little power into it. “For a guy who’s spend the last however-many centuries doing the villain thing, you managed a pretty good bail-out.” A smile returned to his lips. “Seems I pegged you wrong before, huh? You didn’t need to be rescued at all.”

The pedant in Diarmuid could have argued that no, he’d certainly needed rescuing, just not in the way Lloyd meant; how else did one describe breaking someone free from a cycle of pointless suffering and pain? Diarmuid had been like the story of a frog in a pot: not realizing he was boiling alive because the change had been so gradual, never thinking to leap to safety because he didn’t realize he was destroying himself as much as he wanted to destroy the world. With whatever his initial motivation had been now long since forgotten, he’d been left with no future but to succumb to his own pointless hatred time and time again, never once imagining that it was something he might ever escape. He couldn’t have done it without the help of someone as wholeheartedly kind and selfless as Lloyd—without a hero, since that’s what you called them, apparently—and while it might not have been the sort of broad-strokes threat Lloyd had meant, Diarmuid had absolutely needed to be rescued from being himself.

That would have soured the moment, though, so for once in his life he kept his mouth shut.

“Hey, Diarmuid?” asked Lloyd. Diarmuid muttered in response but refused to pull away. Devil kings, as a rule, tended to have limited access to genuine hugs, and he had entire lifetimes’ worth of catching up to do. “I, uh, I’m not going to sound like I’m just going along with things if I say I love you, too, am I? ‘Cause I’ve had it bad for you for a while, now, and by ‘a while’ I don’t mean just for this incarnation. Hoboy but you have no idea. Though the whole ‘trying to wreck the world’ thing was always kind of a deal-breaker.” His smile broadened. “Convenient that you’ve had a recent change of vocation, huh?”

“Why didn’t you fight back?”

Lloyd shrugged into the hug. “I kinda figured maybe it was finally my turn to lose.”

“You, the Champion of Light, lose? Unfathomable.”

“Yeah, well, after a while you just roll with it, y’know? The universe tends to drop me wherever I’m supposed to be, and if it turns out that’s in the middle of a bunch of really unlucky stiffs getting a cuddle from my pal Diarmuid, who am I to argue?”

“Pity it couldn’t have been someone cheerier,” said Diarmuid to himself. He hadn’t meant for Lloyd to hear it, and so it came as a surprise to have Lloyd pull away just enough to cup Diarmuid’s cheek in his hand.

“Mids,” said Lloyd, “for as long as I’ve known you you’ve been a killjoy and a sourpuss, and I’ve liked you anyway. Please take it as a compliment when I say that the thought of chipping away at that grumpy shell of yours, however long it takes and however many times I have to do it, for even the slightest chance I might make you happy, fills me with the same sort of determination a guy needs to save the world over and over.” He took his hand away and tipped his sunglasses to look Diarmuid straight in the eye. “Got a pretty good track record with that other thing, so I think it’s safe to say you’re doomed.”

How long had he wanted this? How long had he known he wanted this? If left to his own devices Diarmuid could easily have ruminated until the sun rose, so it was probably for the best that Lloyd tapped him on the forehead. “So, uh, were you planning on consummating stuff here, or…?”

Diarmuid made a face like he’d eaten an entire fennel bulb at once. “No, this place is terrible and I’m going to set what’s left of it on fire when we’re done. We’re going to do this right or we might as well not do it at all. We have a perfectly nice villa down the mountain, complete with a lovely view of the ocean. We’re going to get some rest in our separate beds, wake up at a reasonable hour, have a proper breakfast, and then have a mature, adult conversation about what we’d want from each other before we even think about so much as dry-humping. It will be very romantic.”

“Neat,” said Lloyd. “Do I still have to sleep on the floor afterwards?”

“Depends on how good a job you do, doesn’t it?”

Lloyd didn’t have a reply to that save for one of his usual bright grins, which in this case was answer enough.

As he wasn’t in the mood to enjoy an evening stroll, no matter how pleasant the company, Diarmuid opted to magically whisk them back to the porch, though not before making good on his promise to flatten the kidnappers’ hideout in a fit of gratuitous pyrotechnics. He made it three steps inside before everything caught up with him at once. Large-scale magic was exhausting. Diarmuid vaguely remembered Lloyd helping him to bed, and something about a kiss on the cheek, and everything else blended into darkness as the waves lulled him the rest of the way to sleep.

Five-apple surprise turned out to be just as good as Lloyd had claimed, even if some of the ingredients he used strained the definition of “apple.” He looked close to tears when Diarmuid requested seconds, and after some (mostly) playful squabbling they agreed over how to split the remainder in the skillet. Diarmuid had never been one for licking plates even during his most decadent of incarnations; nevertheless, the fork he placed in the wash bucket for later looked suspiciously clean.

“I take it you’re still game to, as you put it, consummate,” said Diarmuid once the table was cleared away. They sat on opposite ends of the sofa in the living room, the breeze ruffling their respective garlands. It was amazing how durable those things had been even in the context of being traditionally worn for an entire week.

Lloyd flashed a thumbs-up. “And how!”

Bless Lloyd for his complete and utter lack of self-consciousness. “I’m pleased to hear that,” said Diarmuid, “though I’d like clarification on a few things.”

“Sure, shoot.”

“Namely, if I’m so able to hurt your feelings, why do you put up with my…attitude? You knew me beforehand. You know it’s not tied to the devil king angle.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Lloyd, chipper as ever. “Last time you went too far, and it sucked, we both know that. But the usual thing, where you’re just super grumpy and prickly and generally kind of a low-tier dick? Super hot. Sometimes it gets me in trouble, but I am such a sucker for the kind of person who’s got a sour exterior but a really sweet middle bit. I wasn’t prepared for getting that full blast. I’ve cranked it exactly fourteen times since we got here and it’s all your fault.” He pointed at Diarmuid’s crotch with his pinky finger. “It doesn’t hurt that the entire time we’ve been here, you’ve been wearing nothing but open robes over a thong.”

“It’s called a subligar.”

Lloyd laughed. “Okay, open robes over a nerd thong.” He leaned in and raked his eyes along Diarmuid’s half-exposed body, and while Diarmuid possessed all the definition of an empty glossary there was clearly something there Lloyd wanted to see anyway. “Whatever you want to call it, I’m going to be really bummed once the honeymoon’s over and you don’t have an excuse to leave it on all day.”

Personal compliments from others weren’t out of the question for a Great King of Devils, but personal compliments from someone he was formally married to (and almost certainly about to have sex with) were still new and exciting. Diarmuid chose to play coy. “Oh?”

“You’ve got that wizard bod thing going on and I am into it.” Given how lewdly his sarong had already distended around his lap it was unlikely he was just being nice. He scooted closer, the warmth of his skin teasing at Diarmuid’s own in the pleasant indoor cool. “Just say the word, Mids, and I’d be happy to show you how much.”

Diarmuid placed a gentle hand on Lloyd’s face and pushed him away. “Not yet. First we talk about you a bit. What makes you tick, Lloyd?” This earned him a frustrated groan. “No whining. We’ve both waited this long, we can wait a little while longer.”

“I thought you said this was gonna be romantic,” grumbled Lloyd around Diarmuid’s palm.

“It’s very romantic. Devastatingly so. I am awash with eros and agape alike. Let’s celebrate our undying love by having you answer the damned question.”

“Fi-i-ine,” said Lloyd. He leaned back against the cushions and hummed in thought. “I’m at my best when I’m solving problems. A real people-pleaser, y’know? But so much of the time some cutie or another gets me in bed, I get revved up to give ’em my all, and then, phbbt.” He razzed his tongue noisily as he gestured. “They get all star-struck or something and I’m left with absolutely no clue what they want and no matter of friendly questioning can get it out of them. I’m not saying I need a book to figure out how to make somebody come, you know, I know the ins and outs of ins and outs, but there’s a difference between going through the motions and knowing, really knowing you did everything in your power to leave someone satisfied, that you gave them something they can think back on and feel good about.”

“And what about yourself?”

“Oh, y’know, I manage. But given the choice I’d rather it not be all about me.”

A tingle ran down Diarmuid’s spine. “So you mean to say you believe you take direction well?”

Lloyd chuckled. “Could be,” he said. “Rescue this prince. Slay that overlord. Seems I feel at my most useful when someone’s telling me what to do. And I really, really like feeling useful.” He took a sip of water, his smile keeping its shape around the rim of the glass. “Boss me around a little, see what happens. But, y’know, only if you feel like it.”

“Duly noted.”

“And I really hope you feel like it,” he added with a waggle of brows.

“Also duly noted.” It was time to be direct. “We’ve established you enjoy lavishing a partner with attention and feel you perform best if you have a clear understanding of what they want and need from you. When it comes to the act itself, do you prefer a penetrative, receptive, or less easily-defined role, if given the choice?”

“I like to think I’m a pretty good top, if that’s what you’re asking, like I’ve got a pretty good rhythm and some decent staying power and I really, really like being in somebody. Is that, uh, gonna be a problem?” Lloyd ducked his head, his copper cheeks subtly darkened by a blush. “I don’t want that to sound like I think I’m supposed to top just ’cause I’m a fighty-type and you’re more of a casty-type and there’s, y’know, there’s stereo-types—”

“For woe’s sake, Lloyd, it’s fine. Stop overthinking this.” Not that Diarmuid’s own thoughts were still. Had he ever before entertained the thought of a statuesque, sunglasses-clad figure bowing before his ebon throne before merrily bending him in half against said structure? Perhaps not consciously, but he was certainly doing so now. “If you do as you’re told there won’t be a problem,” he added with a smirk.

“Can do, buddy.” As casual as his words were he was openly fidgeting in place. If he’d seemed every bit a horse leaping from its paddock when he so much as went for a swim, what would he be like once that sarong finally hit the floor? Dragging things out any longer could wait for next time; Diarmuid now found himself very interested in breaking in his current body in what promised to be a very entertaining way. It was going to be fun ordering around such a big slab of premium beef.

“One last question, Lloyd, and that is this: do you have any requests?”

His response was instantaneous. “Could you do the voice?”

“The what?” asked Diarmuid, though he already knew.

The force of Lloyd’s scoff was incredible. “Centuries of conflict and most of the time I only ever got to talk to you was through the voice, generally while you were yelling and boasting at me. I might’ve imprinted a bit. Pretty please?”

Diarmuid heaved a sigh—purely for the show of it, as he’d gotten quite comfortable with said voice over the generations—and relaxed his throat. “You mean this one, foolish hero?” He’d gotten the hang of filtering reverb out of his everyday conversation but that didn’t mean it didn’t feel good to let it creep back in again every so often.

Lloyd shivered happily. “Hot damn, I can already hear you throwing a wine glass.”

I am not throwing any glassware in here. Other people walk on this floor.

“And you’re still prissy even when doing the voice. Superb.” He walked forward on hands and knees across the couch cushions until he had himself propped up with one arm braced on either side of Diarmuid. It would be nothing for him to pin Diarmuid in place from such an angle. This feature was evaluated to be working as intended.

Anything else?” Diarmuid growled. “I don’t like having my time wasted.” Truth be told, Lloyd had been downright expedient in expressing himself, but it felt good to be a little mean, and if Lloyd liked him mean, so much the better.

“There’s only one thing I should be asking right now,” said Lloyd. He loomed, fierce and handsome, over Diarmuid. “What is your bidding, Your Majesty?”

Shut up and kiss me.

“By your command,” said Lloyd, and he sank down to press his lips against Diarmuid’s own.

When they’d first tried something like this (and it had been the first time, ever, since they’d never grown up together before, much less spent any other sort of non-antagonistic time around one another) neither of them had really understood how kissing was meant to work. Between enthusiasm and educated guesses they’d managed, and having no other sample data with which to compare notes they’d had no reason to assume they’d had anything less than a magical encounter. The inexperience of youth could cover for a lot of bumped noses and neither of them knowing where their hands should be. In the years between then and now Diarmuid had kept to his spells and plotting; Lloyd, on the other hand, had clearly found the opportunity to practice.

A kiss on the corner of the mouth had been startling at the time, yet now that Lloyd had the opportunity to show what he was really made of Diarmuid realized just how much he’d truly been holding back. Lloyd was good at this. He understood angles. He understood pressure and movement. He was kissing Diarmuid in a manner that sounded very unexciting on paper—mouth closed, lips only barely moistened, no tongue—but was simply transcendent in person. It didn’t matter that Lloyd wasn’t using every tool in his kit at that very instant. He was Lloyd, and he was there, and both of these things together made him perfect.

They parted long enough to close the shades; isolated resort or no there were other people on the island, and for as much as they’d been putting on a show for the sake of others, this was going to be something just for them. Diarmuid snapped his fingers and locked the door from afar. The click was all the prompting Lloyd needed to have his arms around Diarmuid again as his mouth left kisses anywhere he could reach. His hands were not satisfied simply staying on top of fabric, either. It was, like most things Lloyd did when he cared about them, intense, and given how restrained Diarmuid had lived his life up until then it was almost overwhelming. Overwhelming would do.

Soft linens bumped against the hollows of Diarmuid’s knees, marking their arrival at the edge of the bed. He leaned back and pulled Lloyd with him. His robe spread out beneath them both like a second blanket. This felt right, and not in the way that he usually thought about rightness: Diarmuid wasn’t accounting for hidden threats or preparing for unforeseen complications, he wasn’t defending himself against perils of the body or heart, he was simply in charge with someone else enjoying themselves above him. He was absolutely not angry about anything. For once, its absence actually felt pretty good.

Silk slithered against Diarmuid’s skin as Lloyd’s sarong found an excuse to be on the floor instead of his body. His cock was warm and hard, its tip already quite slick; Diarmuid had never been a very good judge of sizes even with access to full view of someone else’s genitals and sometimes a measuring tape, so he opted to work by feel alone, and what he was feeling right now promised to be a good time. Just long enough to have plenty of reach, he estimated, while short enough to be able to really go to town without discomfort, and the shaft that rutted against his stomach had a pleasantly thick girth that stopped short of feeling irritating to go down on for very long. The curvature, texture, and even the shape of Lloyd’s glans all compared favorably to genitalia Diarmuid had enjoyed in lives past. It was like the whole thing had been made just for him. In a way, Diarmuid supposed, it had been.

When Lloyd made to reach for the little bottle of lube he’d left on the nightstand, Diarmuid stopped him with a growl. He flicked the tip of Lloyd’s nose in irritation.

What are you, a teenager? Play with me a little first.

Lloyd put his hand flat against the mattress again. “Sorry, sorry. Thought you wanted to go already.” He raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you say you’ve been all bottled up the past few go-arounds?”

That doesn’t mean I don’t have standards.

“I like a guy who knows what he wants,” said Lloyd, his face positively gleeful. A friendly knee made its way between Diarmuid’s own and Lloyd pressed forward until his thigh ground up against Diarmuid’s still-concealed cock. One hand snaked beneath the hem of the subligar he’d put on that morning—identical or not, he’d insisted on changing into something he hadn’t slept in—to squeeze one of Diarmuid’s ass cheeks, and Lloyd angled his hand just enough to let the pad of his pointer finger tease at the little pucker of skin hidden nearby. “Like this, Your Majesty?” he asked, and before Diarmuid could reply Lloyd had pressed his mouth against Diarmuid’s lips. This time he wasn’t skimping on the tongue.

Diarmuid bit back a gasp. He preferred to take his time, but he hadn’t been kidding when he’d described himself as out of practice; he was so sensitive everywhere he was likely to come before Lloyd was even in him if they kept at their current pace. He luxuriated in the feeling a few moments more before breaking the kiss. “Better. Now show me you know what to do next.

“You’re the boss.”

One minute Diarmuid was still wearing his subligar and the next it was lying in an unwound pile on the floor. Fast hands were useful, but where was the fun in getting stripped in an instant? They could work on that later. For now he’d sate himself with the murmurs of approval the sight of his naked flesh inspired. Lloyd glanced over at the bottle on the nightstand meaningfully. Diarmuid nodded. Another flash of fast hands saw Lloyd slicked up practically to the wrist and his questing finger—now much more slippery—once more nudging against a very tender portion of Diarmuid’s anatomy. An impatient snort was all it took to goad him further. It was very much an improvement on the situation.

A key could break in the lock for which it was made, no matter how cunning the fit, so it made sense that Lloyd was being careful as could be in making sure Diarmuid was properly prepared. Diarmuid himself would have tapped his foot anxiously if either of his had been anywhere near the ground. When would they be ready to move on? Usually he liked this part, especially from a partner as thorough as Lloyd was proving to be; today, however, there were things to do, chief among them his husband. Husband! He actually had one of those now, and not in the vestigial way they’d originally planned! That was going to take some getting used to.

He’d expected Lloyd to go from one finger to two, or maybe straight to the cock, and so when Diarmuid felt a second, less slippery hand cup his balls it startled him. He bit at the inside of his cheek to keep from yelping in surprise. Try as he might, he couldn’t hold back an interjection of shuddering delight when that same hand slid upwards to wrap around his base with a firm (but no less friendly) grip. Lloyd had no trouble working both sides at once, all the while his eyes dancing from target to target just behind his sunglasses. Trust a hero to be a multitasker!

Lloyd didn’t let up until Diarmuid came. This didn’t take very long at all; ever the gentleman, Lloyd made no mention of Diarmuid’s carnal swiftness, instead working him until he was wholly spent before cleaning off both his stomach and Lloyd’s own fingers with a moistened cloth from the same nightstand as before. He found other places to touch while Diarmuid caught his breath. His cock was as hard as ever, perhaps even moreso, and while it was clear he was still quite interested in having an orgasm of his own its presence remained all promise, no threat. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the thought? As by Lloyd’s own admission the answer had been entirely too many people, Diarmuid felt that angry-on-behalf-of-others feeling stirring again. It certainly did wonders for cutting down on his refractory period.

Once he felt like he could stand being touched again, Diarmuid caught Lloyd’s eye and nodded to the nightstand again. In one dexterous motion Lloyd scooped up the bottle, unfastened its cap, and drizzled a truly absurd amount of lubricant on himself with the panache of a flair bartender. All it took was a swipe of his hand to render himself glistening from slit to hilt. He chewed his lip as he gave himself a few extra swipes for good measure; if there had been any doubt as to his appreciation of Diarmuid’s current physical form before, it was good and banished now.

“You look amazing, Your Majesty,” said Lloyd. “Did you have fun?”

If left to his own devices Lloyd probably would have carried on without so much as a single thought for his own happiness, even with the object of his desires lying mostly naked and still a little sex-flushed before him. That wouldn’t do. Diarmuid folded up one leg in such a way as to block access to his still slightly tender posterior. “Don’t get distracted. Your next job is to come inside me, Lloyd. On one condition.

“Yeah?”

You’re not going to come until I tell you to,” he growled, “and I expect results the moment you’re given orders. Do I make myself clear?

Lloyd shivered. “As crystal.”

Good. Proceed.

On the grand scale by which Diarmuid lived his many lives, he’d had other people inside of him too many times to mention, so objectively speaking it was nothing new when Lloyd aligned himself just so before pushing forward with slowness just short of agonizing. The little “ooh” that escaped Lloyd’s lips once he worked his way past the glans was a sound Diarmuid’s varied selves had heard countless times. Even with Diarmuid keeping to himself during his most recent reign he’d favored a few toys during private moments, which meant the firm warmth of another man’s shaft wasn’t the least familiar of experiences, nor was the way Lloyd stretched him out in just the right way bit by maddening bit. Sex was a thing people did, and since Diarmuid had been so many people by then it’d been something he’d done so often that specific instances ran together like so much candle wax. Objectively, there was nothing special about the way Lloyd began to move with purpose, since Diarmuid’d performed this exact act (on varying sides of this very equation) so often he might well have been able to do it in his sleep.

It had never actually been with Lloyd before, though, and so Diarmuid felt he was quite justified in how he crossed his ankles against the small of Lloyd’s back to hold on for dear life.

Lloyd, it turned out, was prone to getting handsy even when given direct command to come inside of someone else. He took Diarmuid’s robe—which still pooled beneath them thanks to Diarmuid’s arms remaining through each voluminous sleeve—as an adventure of its own, sometimes sneaking a hand under the fabric against one of Diarmuid’s biceps, sometimes tracing his fingers along the back of the silk during those occasions he wasn’t pressing both of them into the bed. At no point did his explorations interfere with his rhythm. All it took to keep him in line was a properly-timed glare or growl; once he figured out that part Diarmuid was able to coast along with Lloyd right on the edge of coming for a blissful few minutes. Apparently all that heroic stamina of his could be used for this, too.

A trembling in Lloyd’s thighs probably needed addressing sooner than later. “Don’t,” Diarmuid intoned.

This earned him an extremely satisfying whine. “I’m going cross-eyed up here, Your Majesty.”

That sounds like your problem, not mine.

“Please….”

Diarmuid thunked against the pillow (it was very hard to properly throw one’s head back dramatically while supine) and he let loose with a good, full-throated cackle that rattled the windows and spooked a flock of birds perched outside. “You beg, Champion of Light? You plead? You expect mercy from one such as myself, who has returned from utter destruction time and time again all in the name of seeing your ruination? I am eternal!” Sex talk was allowed to be a little cliché if it was still really hot, and so Diarmuid went for one of the oldest, creakiest chestnuts in his repertoire. “Foolish mortal, what hope do you have against me?

Lloyd wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist. “Mids, real talk,” he said between thrusts, “I’m doing the best I can but the gloating is doing some real good stuff to me right now.”

They did have the better part of a week left to themselves, Diarmuid mused, so it was important to pace themselves. He bared his teeth in a mocking sneer. “Pitiful worm. You say you are finished? Then finish.

The sound that came from Lloyd’s throat was quieter than Diarmuid expected, and no less impassioned for it. Praise and kisses alike fell from his lips. He shuddered and gasped, his arms looped beneath Diarmuid’s to hold them as close as could be as he came, and once he managed his final trembling thrust he collapsed, gently, atop Diarmuid, their limbs still entwined. Lloyd had certainly given a performance fit for a king. However much he’d spilled, it was sure to be a fitting tribute.

“Your Majesty, Your Majesty,” said Lloyd, dreamily. He nuzzled against Diarmuid’s cheek. “I love you so much.”

Diarmuid snorted in contentment and petted Lloyd’s hair. It really was as soft as he’d remembered.

The waves and wind chimes were the only sounds in the villa as they rested together. It was still mid-morning so the tide would be in; perhaps later on they could walk along the black sands together to see what washed ashore. Diarmuid found it easier to think in terms of what they might do, now, since while there was no doubt still a lot of work to do to fix the lingering wounds left by his endless reincarnations, he wanted it to be something he did with someone else’s help. That said helpful someone had a simply fantastic dick and knew how to use it was a lovely little bonus.

Eventually the silence got to Diarmuid. “About time we got around to that,” he said.

“No more voice?” Lloyd asked, playfully disappointed.

“It wouldn’t make for good pillow talk.” The instant Lloyd pulled out the robe was probably done for, so Diarmuid decided the wisest strategy would be to leave him where he lay for now. He would simply have to endure being affectionately squashed beneath someone who meant the world to him. What a terrible fate with which he’d met. “I love you, too, of course.”

Lloyd kissed him sweetly before tilting down his sunglasses to look deep into Diarmuid’s eyes. “I’ve wanted to bang you for, like, ever.”

“And now you have,” said Diarmuid with a smirk. “So, was it worth having to, as you so eloquently put it, ‘crank it’ fourteen times before you got so much as a proper kiss?”

“Fifteen. You went to bed early yesterday. Really early, so…more like sixteen.”

Lloyd.”

“You asked! Jerking off’s awesome, what can I say.” He grinned. “As for how it was, us together? So worth the wait. I can’t wait to see what I can do for you once I learn more of what you like.” Lloyd hummed thoughtfully. “That was something you liked, right? The ‘Your Majesty’ thing?”

Diarmuid shrugged. From other people the titles and accolades sometimes got on his nerves, but from Lloyd…. “‘Your Majesty’ is fine. Or ‘God-Emperor,’ if you’re nasty.” The uncertainty in Lloyd’s laugh was proof of yet another direct hit to the libido. If he didn’t know any better, Diarmuid would’ve said he was getting good at that. They’d certainly have time enough to find out. That idea prompted him to think more on taking bad old conversations out for a second shot. “Got any idea what ‘be married’ looks like for you now, aside from plowing me on a regular basis?”

“Oh, I dunno,” said Lloyd. “I was thinking of getting really into public service stuff. I still want to help people, right? So I figure I can take all that  money and clout I have no trouble building up and put it towards a bunch of good causes. I want to live out the rest of my life as just a really nice, relatively ordinary guy.” He grinned. “Not so nice I won’t still drape myself on you and make other people so jealous, though. I’d be good at that. I’m a great catch, just ask anybody.”

The thought of living a simple life that could still inspire envy in the hearts of others sat a little too well with Diarmuid. He could easily see himself attending some fundraiser or another, glowering at the other, lesser donors while keeping a certain dashing young warrior on his arm. “I suspect I’m rubbing off on you a little too much, Lloyd. People might say I’m a bad influence.”

Lloyd laughed. “The literal Great King of Devils might be a bad influence on me? Say it ain’t so!” He nibbled at the tip of Diarmuid’s ear. “It’s a new era. We get to be more nuanced now, whether they like it or not.” He pulled Diarmuid close once more. “C’mere, you sassy little wizard.”

Diarmuid went limp. Most of him did, anyway, and the sole holdout was given a pass due to extenuating circumstances. “Never say that again.”

“How about ‘Your Mids-jesty’ instead?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Well, you’re no fun.”

“You’ll recall that you’ve admitted you actually like that about me.”

“Yeah. I do.”

Eventually Diarmuid could no longer handle being a laundry time bomb, so he gave Lloyd a kiss, rolled him to one side (taking care not to think about the fate of his robe), and excused himself to the bungalow’s master bathroom for some necessary procedures. The second orgasm he’d been working up to when Lloyd had tapped out was easily coaxed into being as part of the process; a little solo time was also important for pacing oneself. By the time he came out again Lloyd had somehow cleaned up, tidied up, thrown wide some of the shutters, and had even remade the bed. He was seated cross-legged on the floor next to said bed with one of Diarmuid’s books in his lap. The sun brought out the subtle golden sheen in his hair. He had not bothered to get dressed again.

“Get up here, you big lummox,” said Diarmuid as he extended a hand to pull Lloyd up onto the mattress.

Lloyd beamed. “I’m off floor duty?”

“Still probationary. For now? Yes, you’re free from floor duty.” And if sleeping next to Lloyd meant sleeping next to an octopus made out of elbows, so be it.

They lay together on top of the comforter, watching the clouds drift by through the window.

“No fireworks,” said Diarmuid.

“Not this time, nope.”

“It’s not even noon. If we’re going to stay here until the sun rises again, we’ll be waiting quite a while.”

Lloyd laced his fingers with Diarmuid’s. “I’m okay with that.”

The last time Diarmuid had held hands with someone, not counting the handfasting at the ceremony, had been the morning after the plum orchard, just before he’d been taken. He remembered the way Lloyd’s fingers had been wrenched from his own as the scouts hauled Diarmuid into the sky to once more play the terrible role he’d been assigned. This time he could refuse to return to the stage. This time he didn’t have to let go. “…I suppose I’m open to talking about what all ‘be married’ can mean for us, too,” he said after a while. “Assuming you don’t mind having to teach me how to be a proper part of an ‘us.'”

Lloyd squeezed his hand. “Wanna go live happily ever after?”

“Ugh. If we must.”

Much to Diarmuid’s delight and eternal mild irritation, that was exactly what happened.

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3 thoughts on “How the Other Halves Live

  1. You always do the best turning of fantasy tropes on their head, and this was no exception. It was entertaining, and a delight, and I’ve never seen kink negotiation in fiction done in a way that was actually hot before!

  2. Oh, this was WONDERFUL. I lost track of the number of times it made me laugh out loud, and a goofy sweet premise and a wonderful porny time, and ALSO time for wandering into some just really interesting, serious, nuanced meditation on getting stuck in the same patterns and what our relationships with people really mean?? So good. I loved it.

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