written and illustrated by Iron Eater
“Good afternoon! Did you know that if you or a friend or loved one have suffered any hardship from the ravages of the Dread Multitude, you’re entitled to reparations?”
The person on the other side of the door went cross-eyed as they tried to focus on the brochure that had been cheerfully shoved in their face. The name on their stump-shaped mailbox said Periwinkle in round white letters, each dotted with painted flowers, and matching flowers were woven all through their light green hair. Homeowners looked like all sorts of things in those parts. “I-I’m sorry,” they said, “who are you, again?”
“Oh! I’m sorry, let me introduce myself properly. I’m Floyd, and this is my husband, Dermott,” said Floyd, gesturing from himself to his companion. “We’re here to help! Do you have a minute to talk?” His eyes were bright and expectant.
The periwinkle-bearing person smiled uneasily. “I’m sorry, I don’t make a habit of letting strangers into my home,” they said. An emotional journey played out in real time across their face, once which Dermott was accustomed to seeing by now; people had every reason not to trust an unfamiliar swordsman offering monetary aid out of nowhere, and yet there was something about Floyd’s presence that made people less likely to slam the door in his face. The hunkiness probably didn’t hurt. Between Floyd’s freckled bronze skin and his flowing pale hair, he practically glowed in all but the dimmest of light. A free-roaming Adonis could find himself welcome in places he really shouldn’t have been.
“That is so fair,” said Floyd, who hadn’t stopped beaming since before he’d even knocked. “You never can tell what people might get up to if given free rein.”
Dermott struggled not to shoot him a truly withering look. Part of the reason they’d agreed to handle part of the job themselves was to give certain people more practice with not casually strolling into people’s houses to start rummaging through their stuff. Floyd not shoving the homeowner (Periwinkle, presumably) to one side to see what was in the cupboards had to be taking a great deal of mental effort; even when they were kids Dermott had often been awoken by the sight of his grinning best friend leaning over him with a new book or picture or interesting bug in hand. At least these days Dermott expected to wake up with company.
“So, um,” said Periwinkle. “If you wouldn’t mind giving me the short version…?”
Undaunted by the polite half-refusal, Floyd flourished the brochure again. “Sure thing! We’re happy to answer any questions you might have right here on your doorstep! If you don’t have time right now, of course, that’s just fine! This thing here explains exactly how the program works, and what you can do to get the assistance you deserve to help get your life back together. You can cross-reference everything at your local library.”
“We don’t…have a library?” said Periwinkle. They took the leaflet and skimmed it hesitantly. That they hadn’t slammed the door in Floyd’s face was testament to his charisma.
“Oh, that’s fine, too! See the crystal scale pasted to the back? You can bring that to any oracle or whispering stone and they’ll be able to tell you anything else you might want to know.”
With a baffled glance at the aforementioned scale, Periwinkle asked, “Remind me who you’re with, again?”
Floyd launched into a spiel he always gave a little differently every time. “We’re both representatives of the reparations bureau, which is tryin’ to rebuild the world after the most recent clash between the Champion of Light and the Great King of Devils,” he said, with no small enthusiasm. “Just ’cause it ended more happily than usual doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of mess to clean up! If you’ve had a grove disturbed, or need a third party to help get affairs in order that were disrupted by the Dread Multitude, our organization can provide you with the resources you need, at no cost to you. That includes counseling and bereavement services if you feel like they’d help. There’s no time limit on accepting. Sometimes the repercussions of this stuff aren’t obvious until way on down the line, and you shouldn’t feel like you’ve missed out on the aid you deserve just ’cause you didn’t realize it earlier.”
Periwinkle blanched at the torrent of words. “Thank you. I think.” A flicker of thought crossed their features. “How do you people even pay for all of this?”
“Easy! You know how devil kings traditionally have coffers full of treasure? We’re using that. All our services are provided free of charge as a universal public right. No strings, no payback required.” Floyd loved bringing that part up. The ever-shifting castle of the Great King of Devils hadn’t gotten destroyed this time around, which was a first, so all the gold and gems that clogged the place could actually be put towards a goal beyond lying around and looking opulent. There was, no doubt, some grand cosmic power that was really hacked off at this cycle’s incarnation of the devil king for spending all that kingly cash on doing nice things for commoners. Dermott had it on good authority this only caused said devil king to lean into it further.
It would’ve been easy for Dermott to hang back with his usual air of detached cool while Floyd handled all the talking, but Periwinkle had other ideas. They sized him up thoughtfully. “So Floyd is the front man, but what do you do?”
Dermott placed his hands together and opened them again to summon up a ledger and quill with a flourish of sparkling black-and-violet magic. “Bookkeeping,” he said. Not that they really needed it for themselves, since Floyd never forgot even the tiniest details about people he’d met, but part of proper delegation was making sure everyone else working on their project had the information they needed. That required paperwork. He plucked up the floating quill and dipped it in its matching inkwell. “I’d like to record that we’ve spoken with you and let you know your options with the program. How shall I write your name?”
“Am I going to have to do anything if you put my name in that big book?”
“Not at all,” said Dermott. “This is so we know not to trouble you in the future. It’s not a binding contract in any fashion. You can do whatever you want with the leaflet once we’re done here, up to and including trashing it.”
While Periwinkle still didn’t seem completely sure of Dermott, he had apparently said something right, as this was enough to coax an answer from them: “Periwinkle. Just Periwinkle, no Mr. or Ms. or anything, and I don’t need any formal title stuff. I’m a flower spirit.”
“Periwinkle, flower spirit, accepted literature,” repeated Dermott as he wrote those down on a blank line in the simplest calligraphy he could bear to use. There were only two illuminated flourishes. He kept the book on hand as he took the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks Floyd had left in the conversation. “As my husband implied, there is no time limit for making requests in the future, nor is there a ceiling on what we can provide. Our only restrictions are how soon we can dispatch someone to help and how many of them will be available.”
They nodded, the sparkles in their namesake-colored eyes swirling like glitter in syrup. “I’ll keep that in mind,” they said, not-so-subtly sizing up Dermott as they did so. “If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of spirit are you?“
He gently blew on the ink to dry it, not so much as batting an eye at the question. “None. I’m completely human.”
Periwinkle tapped their chin with the leaflet. “The kind of human with pointy ears and red cat-eyes?”
“Exactly.” Having nature spirits mistake him for something else was a harmless annoyance; he was, after all, a being of immense magical power—literally world-destroying in potentia, if you wanted to get precise about it, despite having retired from the global imperilment sector—and the sharp teeth were a little unusual for humans to have, so people made assumptions. It beat being mistaken for a vampire again. Just because he wore black and purple all the time didn’t mean anything! How could he get his eyeliner looking so perfect if he couldn’t see himself in a mirror, anyway?
Keeping company with Floyd helped more than he’d first expected. Dermott had yet to meet anyone during their travels who’d seen anything suspicious about a pair of color-coordinated adventure husbands with suspiciously familiar names, and as far as he could tell people believed whatever lines Floyd gave in explanation. It was a little unsettling to think about how good a confidence man Floyd would make if he ever lost all sense of morality.
For now Floyd remained his usual sunny good-boy self, thankfully, and he was happy to gently coax more information out of Periwinkle while Dermott saw to the rest of the records. It sounded like the nearby community had gotten off fairly lightly during the whole demon-invasion thing, with just enough that still needed doing that resources were getting stretched thin; by Dermott’s estimation it was exactly the kind of situation that could be fixed by throwing somebody else’s money at it. He and Floyd had booked a stay at a nearby inn to get to know the locals and see how accurate that first impression was. Getting to know the locals meant getting Floyd to disengage from this local (who was starting to visibly wilt from how unceasingly chipper Floyd was in his ground state) so they could make good on their inn reservation. Dermott had been getting a lot of practice at this part of the job.
“If you’d care to make a mark right here,” he said, turning the ledger to face Periwinkle and tapping a blank space by their records, “we’ll be on our way. Floyd and I are going to be staying at the Reaching Shade for the next several days if you need us to look into anything. Leave a message with the innkeep and we’ll get back to you as soon as we’re able.” He waited for them to doodle a little picture of a flower in the spot before returning book and quill to their storage cubby in the space between spaces. “Thank you, Periwinkle, it’s been a pleasure,” he said with what he hoped was a genuine-enough tone of voice. Taking Floyd by the arm, he led them both back towards the forest trail.
“Bye! Hope we’ll hear from you soon!” added Floyd, waving merrily over his shoulder with his free hand. Periwinkle waved back weakly before disappearing back inside their house. Dermott could imagine them sliding down the door in exhaustion as the post-Floyd hangover set in. At least the leaflet would still be there once they were ready for it. That was all one could hope for: people making use of opportunities said people might not have gotten a crack at otherwise.
It was an easy job. Thank goodness it was an easy job. Oh, there were snarls here and there, and some folks were still too proud to accept the help they so desperately needed, but compared to running an entire evil empire it was a pleasant walk in the park. Dermott didn’t mind at all. Softball situations like these meant he could put the lion’s share of his brainpower towards solving more pressing issues.
Issues such as the sudden, intense rainstorm that split the sky while they were still trekking along the road towards the village.
“For woe’s sake, Floyd,” wailed Dermott, “I thought you said you knew traveling spells?” He pressed himself against the trunk of a tree. It didn’t matter if there might be lightning later; shrugging off thunderbolts wasn’t a problem compared to the indignity of being wet.
A little frown of concentration shaped Floyd’s features as flickers of teal energy flickered through his fingers. “Yeah, but we agreed no flying stuff, and the ones I usually use don’t work if I haven’t been somewhere before. I gotta get a good feel for a place’s vibes first.” He made a loop with his thumb and forefinger and peeked through it. “Closest place I can suss out is that nice little B&B we stayed at last night.”
“And that’s miles in the wrong direction. Wonderful.”
“I got a rainshade in here somewhere, hold on.” Floyd, now elbow-deep in his traveling satchel, combed through its contents. His frown reversed into one of his usual smiles as he pulled out a bamboo and oilcloth contraption that unfolded with a flick of the wrist. “Here we go. This thing’s great! It’ll keep the rest of the rain off.”
Dermott glanced over at him with peevish curiosity. “How did you fit that in there, anyway?”
“No, I mean even when this thing was all folded up there isn’t enough room for it. It would’ve stuck out the side. Also I swear I’ve seen you pull a pike out of that thing before, which is even more physically impossible.”
Floyd chuckled. “Well, yeah, it’d seem like that to somebody who doesn’t know the trick to it.” He held out his free hand. “Want me to give you a piggy-back ride the rest of the way? That’ll keep us both under the umbrella, and I know you hate walking in the wet.” He said this while not actually under it himself, instead holding it over Dermott’s head as though he didn’t even notice the tree-filtered downpour that had already plastered his bangs against his forehead. Typical Floyd behavior. It was so blasted hard to sulk properly in the face of that kind of gesture.
Proper sulking prevailed, thankfully. “It’s just a little water,” grumbled Dermott as he wrung out one of his sopping sleeves. “Do we really need that to be our first impression? Me being too delicate to handle a little weather?”
“Aw, you know nobody would view it that way, buddy,” said Floyd. “You’ve been such a good sport about not floating everywhere, and I know you hate getting mud on your nice boots.”
“I’ll remind you that my nice boots I left at home, since we agreed they were too ostentatious,” said Dermott, once again struggling to cling to his bad mood. He clunked a lower-than-usual heel against one of the tree’s roots for emphasis. Door-to-door duty had required such sacrifices! His usual outfits involved at least thrice as many silver skulls as his current one and after going for a few weeks without he was feeling their absence. The reserved carved velvet look he’d chosen to wear on the road struck him as downright pedestrian. At least there had never been any question about the makeup. Some things were just understood to be mandatory.
Dermott brooded beneath the rainshade until the worst of his mood passed. This spot of glumness went uninterrupted by Floyd, who still wasn’t standing under the shade himself, bless and damn him alike. It was probably bad form to let the love of one’s life catch pneumonia. A sheen of violet light passed over them both, banishing the worst of the wet to a much less pleasant dimension, and Dermott pulled Floyd next to him before the rain could soak him again. Dermott ran his fingers though his still impeccably-styled hair. “It’s been an experience for me out here,” he said in lieu of an actual apology.
“It’s all good.”
He furrowed his brow. “Are you sure about that?”
Floyd cocked his head. “Why wouldn’t I be?” he asked.
“I keep getting bogged down by petty nonsense like…like this,” said Dermott, waving a black-nailed hand at the weather. Now that he wasn’t getting actively soaked by it he could almost accept it as being rather nice. There was something romantic about the crash of thunder and sizzle of lightning, assuming they got some of either. Maybe later on he’d sit by a window with a glass of wine and a book and enjoy how not out in the rain he was. He wasn’t sure which annoyed him more: how minor it was in the long run, or how much such a minor irritant had bothered him.
“Buddy, you gotta trust me when I say it doesn’t bug me. It’s just part of who you are, right? I know you usually don’t mean it as much as it looks like you do. You’ve been that way since we were little.”
Dermott grumbled wordlessly. Floyd was right, which was annoying as it was comforting. That had been one of the reasons they’d gotten on so well in those first early days, since little Floyd (a bundle of weird energy and noisy enthusiasm) hadn’t minded Dermott’s omnipresent low-grade gloom, and little Dermott (an arguably even weirder, if far quieter, child) had been so surprised by someone else (his age or otherwise) who didn’t ask him to smile a little or cheer up that he hadn’t tried to get rid of Floyd until it was too late. Having a best friend had been nice. Then things had gotten complicated between them, but they’d worked through that part, now hadn’t they? At the end of the day, and in spite of it all, Floyd still gave Dermott room to feel bad about whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted to. It was hard not to love someone like that.
Once Dermott had burned through the worst of his remaining mood he felt Floyd’s knuckle brush a stray droplet from his cheek. “I’m good to carry you the rest of the way if you’re still game for it,” he said. “If piggy-backing doesn’t sound so great, I can just balance you against my front, no problem.”
The offer was a welcome one, if not without issues of its own. “Won’t that take up your hands?”
Floyd laughed. “Dermott, I have rescued so many people this cycle alone, it’s not as big a deal as you’d think.” He gestured with his non-umbrella-holding hand. “One time, a few iterations back—it was during your Dark Queen of Blood thing, remember that?—I had to carry a princess the whole way back from where she’d been held hostage. Her ankle was so messed up she couldn’t even stand. There were dragons! Plural! It’s all a matter of weight distribution. Also making sure the ol’ sword arm isn’t pinned down or at risk of clipping the person you’re holding, obviously, but that’s just more weight distribution if you really think about it. I can give somebody a wicked bonk with this thing if it comes down to it.” The brief tensing in his arm belied his urge to flourish the umbrella in demonstration.
Being compared to a damsel in distress, even indirectly, inspired tingly feelings that Dermott was not in the mood to unpack. Instead, he asked, “You’re really fine with it?”
“Totally fine. You’re my favorite not-so-evil wizard, of course I wanna do you a solid.”
“I suppose it would keep my outfit cleaner…” said Dermott with a sidelong glance at how much of a mire the road had already become. How did people live like this?
Floyd flashed him a thumbs up. “Nice! Hop on up, buddy.” He knelt down to let Dermott get one arm around his neck; they were exactly the same height when standing barefoot, but Floyd had so much more mass to him that people mistook him as the taller of the two, and it did help to have a better angle to get scooped up by all that brawn. His skin was warm against Dermott’s in spite of the weather. True to Floyd’s word, the rainshade neatly covered both of them this way.
Travel was less unpleasant when there wasn’t so much water to deal with. Their arrangement was a win-win situation: Floyd got to show off, Dermott was able to maintain a little of his coolly mysterious nature, and everyone who saw them would be able to tell how close they were. Close was maybe an understatement—their wedding wasn’t just for show, at least not anymore, and Floyd threw himself into sex with the same experienced enthusiasm he brought to everything else—but Dermott didn’t mind flaunting their friendship, either. One didn’t tend to become a master of magic by having a bustling social life! There were worse fates than going door-too-door with his best and truest friend, even if the storm was trying to change his mind.
A few sodden travelers passed the pair on their way to the inn. Some were alone while others were in pairs or threes, and the shared dress sense between them implied they were locals. None of them spoke beyond short, weary greetings. Every time a new face appeared Floyd would wave to them as best he could with Dermott in his arms, while Dermott himself simply regarded them with smug satisfaction. Where were their strapping young-enough spouses to attend to their every whim? Let them think him soft at their own peril! There was nothing wrong with being pampered, especially when it made Floyd so happy to do so, and Dermott deserved a reward for how well he’d behaved during the whole of this job. A wicked little flicker in his heart hoped he’d made at least one of those passers-by jealous.
Soon enough Floyd and Dermott arrived in the shadow of the Reaching Shade Inn. It was bigger than Dermott had expected, built in and around the trunk of a whimsically grand tree, with the main space and most of the individual rooms keeping close to ground level while a separate part of the building nestled in the boughs. His keen eye could already pick out half a dozen signs that the inn doubled as the community’s meeting hall. While the rain and the angle made it difficult to see from where he was, he was fairly certain he spotted a beribboned maypole out back that looked a week or so old at most. People out here made those part of a whole ongoing festival thing, didn’t they? That was convenient. The fewer places Floyd and Dermott had to actually go to properly canvass the locals, the better, since that meant there were fewer chances for people to get overlooked.
Floyd scooted through the threshold crabwise until they were both properly inside, the umbrella being held outdoors until he could give it a few good shakes and fold it back up again; he let Dermott down with a practiced ease that gave merit to his princess-transporting claims from before. Now indoors, they found themselves in an antechamber with a big set of double doors leading into the main room of the inn and a window counter in the wall revealing the seated form of the innkeeper on the other side. She looked up from her book at them.
“Welcome to the Reaching Shade, boys. What can I do you for?”
“Hi!” said Floyd, his eyes as bright as his gleaming grin. “I messaged ahead of time to make a reservation, yeah? Can we check in yet or will you still need some time to prep stuff?” Of course he’d rented out a room in advance; how Floyd had managed to set that up without knowing the place well enough to teleport there was a mystery for another time. Dermott was getting used to that kind of technicality.
“Sure thing, hon,” said the innkeep. “What name’s it under?”
“Floyd and Dermott, with the reparations bureau.” He flashed his pendant at her. People were happy to assume the little teal teardrop—its color matched his eyes perfectly—was some kind of symbol of the organization, a cunning reproduction as opposed to the real McCoy, and that suited him and Dermott just fine. It beat having to carry business cards.
She sat up a little straighter at his introduction. “Well hey there, big spenders! We got the branch suite all cleaned up and ready for you.” The innkeeper plucked a pair of keys from the pegboard behind her and slid them across the counter into Floyd’s waiting hand. “Just head on through the main room and up the stairs, it’ll be at the very top. Whole place’s yours for the whole of your stay. Y’all got horses to stable or anything?”
Floyd shook his head. “Nope. We walked over from Peace Crossing.”
“No kidding? All the way on your lonesomes? You must be tired, you two sweethearts scoot on up and have yourselves a rest and a dry-out with the fresh firewood up there. Dinner’s just before sundown. It’s festival season or I’d get the kitchen to send you something before then, but we’re all busy as bees over here.” She hadn’t looked busy when she was still focused on her book, but Dermott supposed he didn’t always look that busy when he’d been in the thick of wrangling demons, either.
“Thanks, ma’am!” chirped Floyd as he pushed through the double doors into the main room.
“Yes, thank you,” echoed Dermott with a nod of his head. Further courtesies could wait; Floyd was already loping through the common room with great speed, and they’d spoken at such length about the need to not go through dressers and cupboards the minute he found himself in a new place that it’d be a shame not to evaluate his progress. So what if they’d be unpacking into said dressers and cupboards in time? It was the initial restraint that mattered.
The main room through which they passed was well-populated by then, though not as much as Dermott expected for a festival; maybe the weather kept people at home. Rain pattered on the roof in a soft, steady hiss. Paired with the soft babble of conversation, the Reaching Shade felt downright cozy. He took what stock he could of the place as he hurried after Floyd. There was the bar, there was the kitchen, there was the odd-jobs board and some bounty announcements and the local news post… it was all typical of little settlements like this, unusual only in that so much of it was indoors. Passers-through like Floyd and Dermott were crucial to the ecosystem of the average rinky-dink village in the middle of nowhere. How many times had they snuck into the inn of their own home village to catch a peek at whatever exotic stranger was spending the night? Now it was their turn to be somebody else’s gossip. How the tables had turned, and not just because of the Lazy Susans built into the ones closest to the kitchen.
A pair of intricately carved double doors led from the main room to the lower-story landing. The stairwell was enclosed and ran around and around the tree’s wide middle, making a sort of wooden tunnel lined with open shutters and snuffed lanterns. Rain blew in through the windward windows; now that they were safely out of sight it couldn’t hurt to do a little hovering in the name of not tripping and breaking something, and so Dermott glided across the slicker stairs with his preferred level of ethereal grace. They’d need to talk to someone about that. What if they needed to entertain a guest? Worse, what if Floyd fell on his way out to one of his morning runs? Floyd knew plenty of healing spells, but Dermott had personal experience with how efficient self-curatives could be when cast under duress. Just because a broken bone could be instantly mended didn’t mean it couldn’t still hurt! Festival season was no excuse to permit potential safety hazards. What else wasn’t up to code in this place? Why couldn’t they have just stayed in one of the smaller outbuildings on ground level? At this rate—
Dermott’s inner diatribe was cut short by the sight of the room itself. It was the cushiest place they’d stayed in months, that much he could tell at a glance, its upper walls being big glass windows that let in plenty of natural light and hints of scenery without letting people on the ground look in. There were curtains and wooden blinds to pick from if they wanted more privacy. Someone had been very clever when engineering the place; the innkeep hadn’t been kidding when she mentioned fresh firewood, as they had somehow gotten a full fireplace installed in the main seating area without setting the tree itself ablaze. A little more investigation revealed the bedroom had a separate one with its own woodpile. If the weather was going to continue being wet and gloomy Dermott could already see himself spending many an evening curled up next to one or the other. There was even fully functional plumbing and a full set of handmade toiletries in the bathroom. The detailing was lovely. He had expected to find excuses to keep away from a no doubt too small and too humble closet of a room, but this? This was dangerously close to meeting his standards.
“I didn’t know people built things like this out here,” he said.
“I know, right?” said Floyd, who was busy trying to get a fire lit. “I was asking around and doing some scrying, and apparently this was the passion project of a guy who originally did a bunch of fancy houses up in Clearwater a few decades back. They’ve been keeping it up to date ’cause why not, right, and it makes for a great fellowship hall even if nobody’s staying here.” He smiled up at Dermott. “Figured the money they’d make from us paying for a long stay would do wonders for the locals.”
“And is that the only reason?”
Floyd chuckled. “Nah. I wanted a cushy place to sleep for a change, like actually nice and not just cute, and I figured you’d like staying somewhere private that isn’t in a tent in the middle of the woods.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” Dermott glanced at Floyd’s discarded satchel thoughtfully. “I still don’t know why you don’t just use magic for that. It’s got to weigh a ton with an entire camping kit in there at once.”
“I like it better this way. Besides, it’s all about smart packing.”
“You keep saying that.”
“Yeah, ’cause it’s true!” He coaxed the logs alight at last, its gentle flame making his skin seem to glow, then untied his bandana to wring out his sloppy braid. “You wanna lock up behind us so we have some stretch-out time before dinner?”
That kind of questioning was Floyd’s specialty. It sounded friendly and blithe, and it could be friendly and blithe if that’s what a situation called for, since that was the kind of person he was; Dermott could still hear the unspoken ask woven through it clear as day. “We’re locked with key and spell,” he said, since they were. Dermott lifted up his hat to run his fingers through his own hair. Even with as mild a day as they’d had in the grand scheme of things he was tired. He missed floating from place to place; while hardly an effortless process, since it was magic, it took a different kind of effort than what he’d been dealing with these past few months. Using his legs to walk everywhere was what peasants did, and unfortunately the work he and Floyd were doing required him to act like a peasant at times. “If you mean stretch-out as in resting, yes. As in embracing, yes. As in more than that… maybe after dinner.”
Kicking off his boots, Floyd settled down onto the big couch in front of the fire. He smiled lazily. “Figured some cuddles would be good for you. You know I’m always down for it. Especially if we can drop the act for a little bit, what with the door being locked and all.”
“I imagine there’s no harm in it, Lloyd,” said Dermott. It was just a single change of consonant, but it meant the world to them both; outside the walls of the suite they were Floyd and Dermott, bringers of reparations and paperwork, but when they were themselves they were Lloyd and Diarmuid, the Champion of Light and the Great King of Devils themselves in the most recently incarnated flesh, and it was still weird to Diarmuid how well going incognito as themselves had been working. Hadn’t the broadsheets been full of their pictures back when the wedding was going on? Did people simply choose not to believe they were seeing the ever-returning foe of all and the savior of the world strolling by, hand in hand while debating the finer points of the craft? The ease with which people were ready to accept he was a completely different person with a not so different name was borderline offensive. At least people didn’t have as much trouble pronouncing his alias.
Oh, but it felt good to be himself again inside his own head. He and Lloyd were adamant about that—they didn’t even use identifiable nicknames when keeping in character, and Lloyd only got away with “buddy” because it fit the persona—and this made it no less exhausting to keep up. How did people get anything done without a leather jacket or big horned headdress to bolster themselves? He missed the weight of his crown. The hat Lloyd had helped him pick out was cute, but a crown? A crown was a symbol of power. Not getting clocked as the ruler of the Dread Multitude was kind of the point of his disguise, however, and so he’d simply have to do with looking more fashionable than everyone else in the room through less regal means. He never quite felt like himself if he wasn’t dressed to the nines. He did feel like himself if he was leaning into a different sort of role, however, and Lloyd had given him a perfect opening for it. Who was he to deny a hero courting danger?
Sliding in at Lloyd’s side, Diarmuid leaned in to brush his lips against Lloyd’s, who responded with softness and not even the faintest hint of tongue. For as eager as Lloyd could be he still paced himself, his eagerness carefully reined in, and yet the promise of more was there if only he was asked for it. The novelty of this had yet to wear off for Diarmuid. He’d spent his past several incarnations going decidedly under-kissed. A few months of married life had hardly balanced those scales, but not for lack of trying, that was for damned certain. It was a testament to Lloyd’s great experience in this and other lives that he somehow never cut himself on Diarmuid’s fangs.
What started out simply intensified with each passing moment. If Lloyd had worn his hair loose that day Diarmuid would’ve had his fingers tangled into it already; as he wasn’t feeling like navigating the weave of Lloyd’s braid, he sated himself with cupping Lloyd’s face in both hands to renegotiate the absence-of-tongue situation. They moved together with lazy passion. Diarmuid had been swift to establish he needed a relaxed pace to keep from getting uncomfortably overstimulated—spending so much time on his own did have its downsides—and this had, pleasantly, never been a problem with Lloyd. Lloyd just wanted people to be happy, his own pleasure be damned. Overcoming that second part without telling Lloyd to stop being himself entirely had been another issue Diarmuid had stewed over many an evening. He tried to push the bubbling thoughts from his mind. No time for brooding! There were husbands to neck with!
“Nice,” said Lloyd when Diarmuid finally pulled away. “I liked that.”
“Did you, now.”
“Yeah! It’s pretty cool when you get into it. Makes me happy when you’re having fun.” Good, that was good. Lloyd deserved to know when people were enjoying his company. And if Lloyd wanted Diarmuid to have fun, well, there were ways of making that happen.
“I know you want more, no matter how light your manner,” said Diarmuid, affecting his best smirk. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Even after everything we’ve been through today you want nothing more than to slake your desires however you can.” He’d once read a book that had complained about slake being an unsexy word. Clearly the author had never heard how Diarmuid used it.
Lloyd laced his fingers behind his head. “Hey, whatever Your Majesty wants, y’know?” he said as he spread himself out just enough to show off his body without taking up so much space it’d be awkward to sit next to him. Where Diarmuid preferred a baroque approach to style, Lloyd got by on being a big handsome guy who took good care of his body and didn’t mind who was looking at it. One did not regularly wear armor which practically didn’t exist between the nipples and the knees without having some level of physical confidence going on. That confidence just made him more appealing, in Diarmuid’s opinion. Maybe on a different day Diarmuid would’ve asked him to prove those words; for now, it was enough to simply sit next to Lloyd and let the warmth of the fire restore Diarmuid’s reserves of emotional fortitude.
Just because he was tired didn’t mean he couldn’t scheme, however. “Bold words, little hero,” he purred as he snuggled against Lloyd’s side. He ran a black-lacquered claw along the strong curve of Lloyd’s jaw. “Are you sure you want what I do? Think carefully before you agree.”
“I mean,” began Lloyd, who made no move to pull Diarmuid closer, not just yet. They both had an appreciation for good timing. “Knowing you, you were gettin’ into the idea of me showing off for those people we passed on the way here. You like it when people get all jealous of stuff you have and they can’t, right? And sometimes I’m part of that stuff. Might’ve gotten some ideas of my own about that.”
“Did you, now.”
So Lloyd was going to be a little coy, was he? Diarmuid knew the proper counter to that. “Your king demands details on these ideas of yours,” he growled. “Tell me what you want.” Lloyd gave a happy shudder. That was another reason Diarmuid held on to his crown: Lloyd was into the whole imperious thing, and cycle after cycle of crashing Diarmuid’s castle had built up a bit of an association between the trappings of royalty and his favorite person in any world he walked. Besides, the Dread Multitude had forced the title on him way back when, so they no longer had any say in what he did with it. Diarmuid was allowed a mulligan, those assholes were not.
“Well, uh, I know I’d love to get you in my lap, maybe make out a little,” said Lloyd, who still managed to keep his hands behind his head. “Wanna grind you on my cock some, too. That’s a just-for-you thing, now, and you know it.” He wet his lips, which were still a little bright from their kiss. “You look so hot in those robes, Mids, like you know that fancy look really gets me goin’. I gotta let you know how much.”
Diarmuid scoffed without breaking his smirk. He brushed a little travel crud from his front where it threatened to mar the velvet. “These threadbare rags? I thought you had better taste.”
“You could be wearing a turnip bag and it’d get me so totally hard, Your Majesty,” said Lloyd. “I mean, just gettin’ to make out with our eyes closed would do it for me. But the rain didn’t smudge your makeup, like, at all.” A little bead of sweat had formed at one temple. Perhaps it was merely the fire. Given how the lower hem of his tunic was riding a little higher than usual thanks to his growing erection, it probably wasn’t.
Those ideas of Lloyd’s all sounded like a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and it really was a shame Diarmuid felt so worn down. Lloyd was a splendid kisser. At least winding him up was its own form of refreshing; having so much control over another person, especially one as potent as Lloyd, made Diarmuid’s heart sing in ways few other things could. “And why does my eyeshadow matter?” he asked, toying with the ties of Lloyd’s tunic’s collar.
“Makes you look meaner,” said Lloyd, cheerfully. “But in, like, a cool way. And when you’re mean to me it’s special, ’cause nobody else gets to see you gloat like I do. They don’t get the speeches. Not the way you’d give ’em every time I’d storm your throne room for another showdown.” He shifted his weight to better look at Diarmuid. “I mean, that one you gave the first time we met face-to-face this go-around, the threads in a tapestry of undying hatred one? I kept going over that one in my head a lot after that.”
Bringing outside events into the mix was enough to make Diarmuid snap out of his role for a minute. “Ugh, that thing,” he said with a roll of his eyes, his words dripping with self-disgust. “Not my finest work. I feel like it would’ve needed a little more time in the oven to really land, but such is the fate of spontaneously speechifying while sixteen.” Hear me, hero! Know that I will not rest until your cause is crushed! Should every fiber of my being be set upon a loom, the banner of wrath it would weave would encircle the earth tenfold before comprising even a fraction of my loathing for you, and it had just gone on and on and on like that. Good grief. It had been a genuine enough sentiment at the time, but that didn’t excuse him being sloppy with his metaphors. That did raise another question, though: “What about it stuck with you?”
Lloyd shrugged. “It was nice knowing you were thinking about me.”
That wasn’t untrue. There’d been scarce few days back then that Diarmuid hadn’t cursed Lloyd’s name, or plotted against him, or generally just wished him ill, and at the time he’d just assumed it was normal vendetta business. Of course his sworn enemy was always on his mind! Of course his heart beat faster when the hero who’d slain him dozens of times before was around! That’s how it worked. It was obvious in hindsight, naturally, but having gone decidedly unslain so far and eager to not dwell on his behavior over a good dozen-and-change years, Diarmuid opted to get back into character.
He braced himself with the back of the couch to hook one leg over the far side of Lloyd’s lap, his knees against the cushions on either side of Lloyd’s meaty thighs. One hand against either of those equally broad shoulders completed the maneuver. The black and purple folds of his robes hid Lloyd’s erection from sight; Diarmuid was careful to keep upright so their cocks were still a good ways apart. He could already tell he was going to be sore if he kept this up too long. Thankfully, if his plan worked out, it wouldn’t take long.
“You had better be thinking about me, hero,” he said, allowing a little extra theatrical harshness into his voice, just enough to season things without alerting anyone downstairs to his true nature. “I know you want more than a kiss and a caress. Tell me! Look me in the eye when you say it. Or are you ashamed, you insolent worm?”
Over the course of his career as Champion of Light and hero of many lifespans, Diarmuid had known Lloyd to express many a thought and feeling, but shame had never been one of these. Instead it was taken as Diarmuid had hoped it’d be: a challenge. Lloyd’s fingers unlaced from where he’d been resting them to seize Diarmuid by the hips. If he’d pulled down he would’ve easily overcome Diarmuid’s wobbly-legged balance to claim some of that cock-on-cock action his twitching pelvis so clearly longed for, which no doubt would’ve ended up being very nice if a little disjointed, but Lloyd did not pull down. Instead he leaned up with the kind of core strength only held by those who did as many crunches in a day as he did. Diarmuid could feel the power in those muscles just from how Lloyd’s shoulders flexed. That was another reason it was easy to love him, honestly.
“I wanna suck you off,” said Lloyd with a shuddering breath. Another bead of sweat rolled down his cheek to disappear into the toned contours of his neck. His words were clear and confident despite his arousal. “Just get right down on you until I got your whole cock in my mouth, just balls-on-chin in there, then not let up until I can taste that you’re done.”
It was an easy scene to imagine thanks to how many times he’d done it before. Diarmuid could picture the way Lloyd’s silver-white locks (conveniently fully dried out for the purposes of this exercise) would shine as the firelight caught it with every dip and bob of his head, could feel the tickle of Lloyd’s ever-fluffy bangs against his stomach and the warm, wet heat of Lloyd’s tongue. For as much of a devout top as he was Lloyd loved cock, particularly Diarmuid’s, and every soul who’d helped him perfect his technique deserved a commemorative plaque or something. He just seemed so happy whenever Diarmuid invited him to go down. Who could deny such pure, simple joy?
At the moment that person needed to be Diarmuid or neither of them would be in shape to get to dinner on time. “And then?” he asked, the demand to continue hanging in what air still remained between them.
Lloyd’s eyes were half-closed by then, his pretty lashes obscuring some of the familiar teal, but true to his word he didn’t break Diarmuid’s gaze. “I wanna play with you some, get you going again with my hands so you’re nice and relaxed and loose,” he said. “Get a finger in there. Maybe two, maybe three, whatever you want, Your Majesty. You gotta be feeling your best, so I gotta do a good job.”
“And why would you need to do that? Use your words.”
Both of Lloyd’s hands fisted into Diarmuid’s robes as Lloyd strained to arch against him, trying in vain to hump against flesh that was still a good foot or so away from anything. He grimaced in happy agony. “Because I wanna pound you into the mattress until you’ve decided I’ve had enough.“
It was not idle talk. Lloyd’s physicality permeated every nature of his person, every little thing he did, and while Diarmuid had plenty of first-hand knowledge of Lloyd’s martial prowess, it wasn’t until this incarnation that he’d encountered Lloyd’s marital prowess. Thrown onto a bed? Pushed up against a wall? Bent over some furniture? Held upright through sheer strength of arms? Wherever Lloyd wanted sex to happen, it would happen, and his staying power was phenomenal. He really would try to go until he was given permission to stop, too. All this and he actually knew what to do with his hands in the midst of everything! Diarmuid had no complaints.
Unfortunately, Diarmuid also had no illusions, at least not about this; if he agreed to what they both wanted now, he’d definitely be in no shape for a meet-and-greet at dinner, and no amount of healing spells would keep him from frog-waddling everywhere for hours if Lloyd was already this ready to go. What a shame. At least his career of being an almighty overlord with a Lloyd-shaped thorn in his side had given Diarmuid a long history of damage mitigation.
“Touch yourself,” he snarled, taking care to curl his lip just so around one of his fangs.
“You sure…? I thought you wanted me to—”
“I know exactly what I want,” said Diarmuid. “And what I want is for you to be able to do your job down there. You can’t possibly manage in your current state, now can you? We’re going to have to do something about that little problem. Don’t think for a minute this is the end of it, either. You know me better than that.” He tilted his chin, the smirk returning. “Look at you, hero! You’ve fallen into my trap, helpless before your own desire as your pitiful mortal needs vie for dominance with that noble heart of yours. Did you honestly think a mere hand’s worth of time was the extent of my plans?”
Lloyd, having released his hold on Diarmuid, was already shrugging out of his tunic. Thank goodness he’d gotten a taste for Diarmuid’s monologues! Talking into a mirror just wasn’t the same. “Totally trapped over here,” agreed Lloyd, who could’ve easily sent Diarmuid ass over teakettle if he really wanted to, especially since Diarmuid had needed to shift around to give Lloyd proper access to himself without risk of messing up all that silk and velvet. The shine of his iridescent manicure—teal, of course, everything was teal or white or gold with him—disappeared beneath the hem of his trousers as he pulled himself out for inspection. “So very trapped. Completely helpless. Dunno how I’m gonna get myself outta this one. This a good angle for you, buddy?”
Diarmuid took a moment to appreciate the cock displayed to him. It was a handsome member, as handsome as the rest of Lloyd, with a good length, girth, and heft to it that afforded it a pleasing size without losing its versatility; Diarmuid was of the opinion that after a given size one had more of a conversation piece than a working genital, and the modesty loincloths he demanded of his minions had long been a result of that mindset. No such trouble here, though, as this one was demonstrably proven to fit comfortably wherever he might want it to go. Its shaft was as freckled as the rest of him. The darker brown head was slick with precome that caught the firelight almost as fetchingly as Lloyd’s hair. In a fair and just world Diarmuid could’ve admired it all day, ideally with a little flexing and posing from its owner to round things out. Clearly he’d been correct to keep trying to destroy such a cruel world that would deny him his divine right of dick-looking for more than a few minutes.
“It will do,” he said.
“You’re the boss, Your Majesty.” Lloyd started stroking himself in a calm, steady rhythm. This was yet another task with which he had great personal experience. “Do I get to come?”
More wonderful ideas they had absolutely no time to explore! Lloyd’s goal-focused nature and willingness to work tirelessly towards a goal had proven quite the exploitable personality in the bedroom. Testing Lloyd’s limits was a delight even when it didn’t involve him climbing the long and winding staircase to Diarmuid’s throne room with a stout buttplug hidden beneath that ever-so-skimpy armor. Someone could probably find a lot of deeper meaning in how they recontextualized their traditional roles for their own wants. Diarmuid was determined to not be that someone; part of the fun of sex with Lloyd was not having to think about why things so often ended with Diarmuid impaled on a merely metaphorical sword instead of a sharp metal Light-blessed one. He got to cackle! Why ruin a good thing like sexy cackling by overthinking it?
Alas, it was the wrong place and the wrong time for any of that, and Diarmuid did actually have a plan that wasn’t completely made up on the spot. “Finish on yourself. I know you love showing off, you churl of a champion, so give me a good show. And don’t come more than once.”
“Yeah?” said Lloyd, his tempo rising.
“It will be enough for you to function. But I know it won’t be enough for you to be truly fulfilled, now will it?”
“Nope.” As eagerly as he was touching himself, Lloyd kept his hands off of Diarmuid, having not been given permission. He’d figured out that detail quickly. That was how it was between them: new rules happened all the time, and so long as everyone made those rules clear when they came up, it was part of the fun. “What’s gonna happen when I give you the show you want?” he asked, his voice more eager than amorous. That ratio wouldn’t do at all.
With a toss of his hair, which he hadn’t been gelling as much while on the road, Diarmuid said, “You’re going to wash up and get dressed again, that’s what. And do you know what happens next?”
Lloyd shook his head.
“We’re going to go downstairs. We’re going to have dinner. We’re going to meet all sorts of people. And the whole time we’re down there, the whole time, you’re going to be thinking about my skin against yours, and your lips against mine, and how you know that I know how badly you want to share that perfect body of yours with me in a way I can’t deny. And you’ll be thinking about all of that while knowing that until we’re done meeting the locals, you can’t do a damn. Thing. About it.”
Going by his wail of delighted despair Lloyd was as pleased with this idea as Diarmuid was. His hands were a blur of brown with a strip of color following his swift-moving manicure. Diarmuid could spot the signs of Lloyd trying to pace himself in spite of everything—he’d been told to put on a show, which he looked keen to blessed well give—but he was, at the end of the day, human after all.
Lloyd was not the kind of man to get loud when he came unless it was requested, and this by no means meant he was light on passion when he did so. Streaks of white spattered against his stomach as he gasped. After building tension as tight and potent as a clockwork spring, it was quite a sight to watch him slowly relax from those same dizzying heights. He wiped his forehead with the back of his free hand, the other still gently coaxing forth a few straggling drops of come from his cock, and looked up at Diarmuid with open adoration.
“Did I do okay?”
Did he? Thank goodness Diarmuid’s travel robes were voluminous or he’d he in a terrible state, himself. He’d need to sit and stand very carefully until things calmed down. “I suppose it will do.”
“Cool,” said Lloyd. He laughed tiredly. “Can I get a kiss, Your Majesty?”
“Hmph. If you must,” said Diarmuid, already leaning in.
They shared a moment of sweetness as Diarmuid slid off of where he’d been pinning Lloyd and back onto the couch cushions, which freed Lloyd to sit up again. Through some miracle none of what dappled his stomach got on Diarmuid’s robes. If only they didn’t have responsibilities that moment could’ve stretched into minutes, or even longer, but alas; while Lloyd and Diarmuid might’ve happily kept to their hermitage all week, Floyd and Dermott had jobs to do. It still stung to pull away.
Gray, rain-tinged light streamed through the windows, obscured here and there by the great tree’s canopy, and the added warmth creeping into its rays gave a hint to the time. Diarmuid’s eyes flicked over to the wall clock hung up over the mantelpiece. They hadn’t dallied for as long as he feared, but if they didn’t get a move on there could still be problems.
“I want to spend more time with you, Lloyd,” he said as he stroked the bridge of Lloyd’s big beak of a nose, “but we should probably start cleaning up. I haven’t yet freshened up from the road and you’ve got someone’s come on you.”
“No clue whose fault that is,” said Lloyd. He stretched, rolling his shoulders this way and that. This, too, was a very pleasant view. “Let me do a quick wash in the tub and braid my hair back up. You gonna change? I think I’m gonna change. Don’t want to smell like trailhead in the middle of a packed public place.”
Diarmuid eyed him with suspicion. That could have been an innocent reference to sweat and road dust, but knowing Lloyd it could also be referring to the break they’d taken an hour or so out from the bed and breakfast at which they’d stayed last night. As much as he enjoyed giving head he had no problems whatsoever with receiving it, either. The thicket they’d found had been just the right size to hide the two of them, and everything had been perfect until someone shifted their weight wrong and they had to untangle themselves from the thorns. It’d been Diarmuid’s idea, that time, so of course Lloyd wasn’t going to let him hear the end of it.
Probably for the best not to rise to the bait this time. “Yes, fine, go cleanse,” said Diarmuid. “I need to check my look, anyway. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the green accents.”
“I think they’re cute!”
“You think everything is cute.”
“Yeah, ’cause everything about you is cute, Mids. Deal with it.” He made a pair of finger-guns at Diarmuid, winked with a click of his tongue, and then vanished towards the washroom without self-immolating from the force of his own ridiculous nature. How he always managed that Diarmuid would never know.
Left by the fire with nothing but his own exasperation for company, Diarmuid palmed a mirror from his own traveling bag to see if he felt any different about the green stripe he’d paired with his usual cat eye. The Dermott look was forever a work in progress. He took pains to do his makeup just slightly differently from his usual styling while not technically presenting as himself. It was important he look a little bit off to sell the “skilled impersonator” story; it was important he put effort into things—the Dermott persona would never so much as nine-tenths-ass something, much less half-ass it—but just as important to more closely match the idea people had of what he looked like. The more liberties he took the less likely they’d blow their cover. Lloyd would be fine if someone happened to put a pair of sunglasses on him and realize why he looked so familiar, but Diarmuid? Diarmuid needed to keep a low profile if he wanted to get anything done. Driving an army of monsters and demons through people’s backyards tended to leave them a little peeved.
Lloyd was a man of many talents, and his polymath nature included very efficient bathing. He was out and rummaging through his packed clothes in the time it took Diarmuid to freshen up his contouring. Some of the nervous energy Lloyd had been not-so-subtly carrying since before the storm looked to have gone down the drain with the gray water. It wasn’t like him to be nervous about talking to people. Talking to anyone who got too close to him was what Lloyd did. Maybe it was nothing, but Diarmuid promised to himself that he’d keep an eye on Lloyd all throughout dinner to see if there was anything else eating at him. The worst that could happen would be staring at a hot guy for a few hours with nothing to show for it but a few hours of staring at a hot guy. Diarmuid could manage that.
They chatted with each other as they freshened up, and by the time the sky was red enough to consider heading back down Diarmuid felt ready to slip into the shoes of Dermott once again. He extinguished the fireplace with a snap of his fingers. Taking Lloyd’s (now Floyd’s) proffered elbow, he locked the door behind them before descending the (now better lit and properly mopped) stairwell to the inn’s ground floor.
Where the Resting Shade had been modestly busy before, now it was packed. Dermott glanced over the crowd and recognized a few faces there; some had been there when he and Floyd had first arrived, others they’d passed on the road, and Periwinkle was over at the bar chatting with a vase of tulips. There was a broad mix of ages present throughout. Dermott intentionally did not engage with the pack of sullen teens in the corner but felt their eyes on him all the same, and given that his outfit was the only one present blacker than theirs he supposed it shouldn’t have surprised him. There weren’t just young adults crammed into the inn, either, as a very tired-looking pair of women were overseeing a gaggle of toddlers in the corner while a third caregiver was spoon-feeding someone’s baby. So this place was doing well enough that people could support children? Healthy-looking children? That was a good sign. If people thought there was a future for their brood to live in that meant they still had hope. You could do a lot with hope.
Floyd found them both a booth with a good view of the rest of the room. Someone came by and asked if they wanted drinks, and before Dermott could so much as ask about their wine selection Floyd happily slapped down some high-denomination coins and declared he’d be buying everyone present a beverage of their choice. This very quickly set the mood. Somewhere in the middle of the din they placed their respective meal requests, and by the time their platters arrived Floyd was already swarmed with people wanting to talk to him. Business as usual. Dermott was happy to let Floyd handle this part of the job; where Dermott could organize people in groups towards a common goal, Floyd was better at letting people be people, and better understanding the individual needs of the locals would go much further in the long run than just pouring a bag of money on the table. Sometimes problems took more than deep pockets to fix.
The band up on the stage played on and off all during Dermott’s dinner, and a rotating cast of locals kept Floyd occupied throughout. So far all of them thought it was very funny that the Champion of Light and his questionable choice of husband had sent out lookalikes to represent themselves to the common people, complete with a replica pendant, and wasn’t it impressive how Floyd looked nearly as beefy as the real thing? It felt like people only needed a few minutes around him, often less, before they were volunteering their entire life’s stories to him, and Dermott had no doubt that Floyd was taking every detail to heart. He always knew who wanted to have a difficult conversation and who preferred casual chat, which new faces belonged to owners who were hiding suffering and which ones belonged to those eager for chances to help others. He’d approach every different conversation with genuine, personalized sincerity. It was uncanny. Floyd’s ability to read people was another one of those thank-goodness-he-used-it-ethically knacks he had.
Festival time meant festival food. Floyd encouraged anyone who would listen to exposit about the resident traditions, all the regional rites and rituals that gave the place a good dollop of its local color, and he would listen to someone explaining the meaning behind the shape of a bit of pastry for hours. The appeal was lost on Dermott; learning these things was not a problem, it was learning them in a loud, crowded room from primary sources that were becoming increasingly drunker that gave him trouble. Didn’t these people write things down? Dermott had always been more of a book learner. He sipped at his soup and tried to absorb what he could anyway; this earned him a crash course in the local dialect but not much more. At least now he’d know when he was being asked if he wanted a refill of his wine glass.
Eventually Dermott tired of people talking around him and excused himself to get a better look at the community board. He knew these things existed—his own village had maintained one back in the day, and a trip back home to visit his grandmother had verified they still kept it—but how was anybody expected to make sense of the riot of bills and flyers without overlooking anything important? Some were layered so thick he could’ve hammered nails wih them. There had to be a trick to it. He relaxed his eyes and focused on the blurry shapes of the papers. Here was someone offering kittens to good homes, here was someone who needed help with fixing a paddock (Floyd was going to be all over that one in the coming days), here was someone who wanted rather a lot of rat tails for a culinary project. Someone else reported gossip from a few forests over. Someone else wanted to set up a bridge league. Dermott was going to have to remind Floyd of how much canvassing they still had to do or they’d be there doing errands for people for weeks.
As he gradually figured out the lay of the corkboard, a recurring theme stood out to Dermott: people kept seeing some sort of shadowy thing out in the woods, and it’d already damaged some houses, eaten some livestock, and terrorized several different witnesses who all gave more or less the same description. Well, that wouldn’t do. Anyone could help weed a garden, but when you had something big and nasty causing potential bodily harm, that’s when you put heroes on the job. Dermott was tepidly accepting of being the kind of hero who lobbed plumes of dark spellfire at nasties. There was a nonzero chance said nasty incursion was technically his fault, anyway. The Dread Multitude was a mess; it felt like every glen and grotto hid yet another loyalist who hadn’t gotten the memo the war was over. He’d spent a lot more of their little mission of mercy yelling at out-of-touch death knights than he’d expected back when Floyd first convinced him to come along.
So that was a goal for himself while he wasn’t working directly with Floyd, then. If it was the kind of monster that was an animal he could study it and figure out a less antagonistic environment for it, if it was the kind of monster that was a person they could have a conversation like reasonable adults, and if it was the kind of monster that was some kind of spirit thing he could probably bind it into a rock or something so it wouldn’t bother anybody. That sounded like a good use of his skillset. He didn’t have the same drive for doing good as Floyd had, but Dermott took those tasks that called to him very seriously. Floyd would be excited he wanted to help at all. Doing things that actively delighted his husband—as opposed to the more passive ones, like “waking up in the morning” and “breathing”—was something he needed to do more often, anyway.
Dermott pushed the thought from his mind. This was not the time for self-reflection, this was the time to identify problems to be solved! He was the scholarly one, so he would damn well be scholastic. Floyd could help with the backlog of problems that needed strong arms and a stronger back, and Dermott could sleuth around for ways to bring about the mystery creature’s downfall. If he framed it as a dastardly scheme the idea was so much more palatable.
Someone started a sing-along which made further study of the board an exercise in frustration. It was probably for the best; Dermott realized he’d been glaring at the posted bills for nearly half an hour, and there were probably better uses of his time than swirling his wine glass menacingly while looking for clues that probably weren’t there. There was no sense in forcing progress that couldn’t reliably be made until sunup. Dermott summoned up a spare ledger (not his bookkeeping tome, though no less massive) to jot down some notes to follow up on in the morning. You didn’t rip things down from these boards until you’d completed the task, right? They were places for the community to contribute, and that meant the community needed to know just what had and hadn’t been done. Dermott plucked a few spare leaflets from his ledge’s pages and pinned them up among the offers of day labor and puppies. There, that was him contributing, too.
He ghosted through the crowd like a cinder, never joining conversations but letting information come to his ears as it would. A few times he asked for another drink. Being at a party was strange, as up until recently the only thing he’d do at a feast would be to sit upon his terrible ebon throne and look bored as people caroused around him. Now he was sitting on a bar stool and looking bored while people caroused around him. Completely different! Floyd would’ve gladly entertained him, he knew, but that would have pulled Floyd away from doing Floyd things, and Floyd things included making sure the majority of people he met came away with a positive impression and a willingness to talk more later. The fewer cold receptions they could manage, the better.
Where did that leave Dermott, though? In his experience he was far less likely to make those positive expressions on new faces (barring, potentially, the sullen teenagers in the corner) and he didn’t even like talking to people outside of a professional environment. There wasn’t a library here, Periwinkle had said, so he couldn’t stick his nose in a book and research until Floyd came to collect him. He’d insisted on punctuality for the sake of mingling, putting off what probably would’ve been some great sex in the process, and now that there was a monster problem he was going to be thinking about that all night instead of the puff of Floyd’s breath against the back of his neck. Having to do his job while out on the job? It wasn’t fair.
He was looking at this the wrong way. Maybe talking to someone without Floyd there could tell him something new, and even if it didn’t, Floyd would be proud of him for trying. Having someone else who cared about his efforts like that was still new to Dermott. Mustering up his social skills, he flagged down a server with a pitcher and requested another drink.
“Well hello!” said the server as he refilled Dermott’s glass. He was wearing a flower crown. Lots of flowers in hair in those parts, Dermott noted. “You’re one of the reparations guys, right?”
“That’s correct,” said Dermott. He took a sip, savoring the unexpected complexity of the wine’s bouquet. Whoever grew grapes in the surrounding forest knew what they were doing. “Floyd and I will be around for a while. Do you have anything in need of our immediate aid? Yourself, the inn, the whole settlement, anything?”
“Huh? Oh, goodness no, things are mostly calm out in these parts. We’re all too busy being excited for the festival to worry!”
Dermott quirked an eyebrow. “I read there was a monster problem?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the common board.
The server faltered ever so briefly. That, that right there, that was a moment of weakness, and Dermott was very good at spotting those. His attention snapped to his target like a predator gauging its distance from a grazing rabbit. “Oh, you know how it is,” said the server with a slightly forced laugh. “Someone sees a bear on their way back from the outhouse, someone else gets their fence knocked down during a storm, and suddenly everyone’s convinced it’s evil spirits making a mess.”
“Do you usually have problems with evil spirits out here?”
“Not really…? Most of the spirit people out here are nice, and the ones that aren’t nice don’t cause trouble, so it’s probably nothing.”
Dermott sat up a little straighter in his seat. He was going to do his best not to interrogate this poor man, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to extract useful information when he scented it. “Why do you want it to be nothing?”
“It’s Springfest, you know? Winter’s gone and everything’s green. It’s supposed to be a happy time. The rain’s already made it so we can’t enjoy the maypole as much, and the kids are so excited to look for pysanky. You wouldn’t know it from how things are now, but when the Dread Multitude was rampaging at its worst, we had year after year of bad harvests. Last year things were finally looking up, so we thought this Springfest would be the start of something special.” The server set his pitcher on the counter and sighed. “Can’t we just have something nice for a change?”
“Floyd and myself are all-purpose troubleshooters,” said Dermott, firmly. “If you let us help you, we can and will help you. But you have to work with us or we can’t guarantee results.”
The server fidgeted. “We get adventurers from time to time, but we’re not used to turning to strange wizards and himbos—”
“Don’t call Floyd that,” snapped Dermott. “He doesn’t like it.”
“Sorry! We don’t turn to strange wizards and warriors, not ones nobody knows, for things like this. We’re small, and we don’t have a lot to offer. Adventurers like rewards. If we end up in debt to the wrong person it could be the end of everything.”
Dermott drained his glass and set it on the counter, using just enough force to make a definite sound without risking damaging the damn thing. He then clacked down a high-denomination coin of his own; Floyd was not the only one who carried cash around to help grease the wheels of conversation. “As we’ve said, we’re with the reparations bureau. The people paying for this are people with money to burn, and for once it’s going to a good cause. If you don’t suck up that pointless pride of yours, people are likely to get hurt.” He snorted. “Do you want to enjoy the festival or not?”
That was enough to get the ball rolling. Dermott was able to goad bits and pieces of information out of the flower-crowned server, and just when he feared he’d exhausted the well a shepherd who knew the server swung by to complain about her missing sheep, and one detailed account kept leading to another until Dermott found himself in a mostly empty main room save for the inn’s staff (busy cleaning) and some stragglers (busy seeing one another off). Floyd was in the latter category. It was probably time to collect him.
“It’s late,” said Dermott once a pause in the conversation came up.
Floyd looked around at the darker, emptier room. “Oh wow, it is.” He waved to the lingering remnants of the crowd that had bustled around him all evening. “Sorry, but I’d better get movin’, Motts and I got stuff to do in the morning,” he said, one arm around Dermott’s shoulders in a half-hug. “Bye! G’bye! It was great getting to meet you all! Hope to talk again later!”
Left to his own devices Floyd could’ve spent another half hour just saying his farewells, so Dermott guided him back towards the landing. Floyd didn’t stop talking the entire climb up the stairs; true to his nature, it felt like he’d befriended half the village over the course of a single meal, and he wanted to share trivia about all of them. Dermott let him talk. There wouldn’t be much to say about the thing in the woods until Dermott had performed some proper reconnaissance, so why not let Floyd enjoy himself? There were worse things in the world than letting one’s spouse be happy.
Once the lock clicked, the lamps were lit, and their not-too-fake identities melted away, Diarmuid felt a familiar set of hands at his waist. Turning around, he was met with an equally familiar lazy grin. “Hey-y-y, Mids.”
Lloyd laced his fingers at the small of Diarmuid’s back. “What’d you think of the meal?”
“The mutton and vegetables were decent,” said Diarmuid, not pulling away. “I was surprised by the wine, though.”
“Yeah, me too. It was a really good dinner. I had fun.” He leaned in for a quick kiss, leaving his forehead against Diarmuid’s once they parted. “So I’m tired and a little drunk, but I sure didn’t forget about what we talked about earlier. Got some ideas I’ve been stewing over all night. You game?”
The expression he wore was the kind Lloyd adopted when he’d been working hard in pursuit of something and he knew he was just about to claim his reward. It was hopeful and satisfied. It was definitely a bad idea to entertain it if they needed to hit the ground running in the morning. Saying no to that face was like kicking a puppy, and it took all of Diarmuid’s experience with being the bad guy in their relationship to do it. “Not this time, Lloyd. We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow,” he said with a sigh. “There’s a monster problem.”
“Deathly so. It hasn’t killed anyone yet, but people are getting hurt, property is getting damaged, and it’s been eating animals it shouldn’t. There’s a lot of children in this community and they’re going to be hunting for eggs this weekend, and that means we can’t leave them exposed to anything that comes out of the deep woods while they’re distracted. We need to handle this as soon as possible.”
Lloyd nodded. He looked disappointed, but it was the determined kind of disappointed that Diarmuid had seen on him a lot before they’d floated the idea of marriage. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. Early day tomorrow?”
“Ideally. Let’s get this done.” Diarmuid waited a moment before adding, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool, Mids. This stuff happens. We can spin it as, like, a multi-day edging thing?”
Save for some goodnights and some I love yous, that was the last thing they said to each other that evening. It was hardly the last thing on Diarmuid’s mind, though; he was tired, and every passing minute counted out by the clock just reminded him more, but his domain was that of the night’s ink-dark blackness. Sleep would be a while before it took him no matter the exhaustion of his body. He washed away his makeup and cleaned his teeth while plans roiled in his head. Would he follow up with the people he’d spoken to that evening, perhaps? Would he poke around on his own to see what came out of the bushes? He wasn’t worried about the danger—there was exactly one person in the world who presented a serious threat to Diarmuid, and that person was going to be spending all day tomorrow helping people stack boxes or whatever—but the consequences were another story. The last thing he needed was to set off a chain reaction that leveled the countryside just because he didn’t watch where he was stepping.
Diarmuid changed into his pajamas and slipped into bed next to Lloyd. Within seconds he was being sleep-cuddled. Lloyd could fall asleep anywhere someone wasn’t actively trying to stab him, and he’d stay down the entire night; Diarmuid, on the other hand, would frequently be up for hours after Lloyd retired, and he was still getting used to sharing the sheets with someone else. Their working pace had been a strain on his usual sleep schedule. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d truly felt well-rested. It was a little embarrassing how much worse he was than Lloyd at being on the road! Didn’t plucky youths travel further, for longer hours, far more frequently, and not need to postpone things they wanted because they’d need to be up with the sun? He pulled the quilt up around his chin and scowled. How much more progress would Lloyd have made without Diarmuid’s dead weight slowing everything down? Some partner he was.
As if he could sense Diarmuid’s bad mood, the big, warm mass of Lloyd’s sleeping self snuggled closer, holding him just a little tighter than before. When Lloyd was awake this was usually when he’d kiss Diarmuid on the forehead and tell him not to be so hard on himself, that all this field work stuff was new to him, that Lloyd was still having fun getting to share such a big part of his life with someone who meant so much to him. Even in his dreams he was gentle and supportive. It was almost annoying.
The embrace, whether Diarmuid liked it or not, really did help. He could feel his expression smoothing out with every second. Maybe he was forgetting how much he brought to the table: Diarmuid didn’t think about all the different spells he cast over the course of the day because spells were what he did, being innately sorcerous and all, but Lloyd’s grasp of magic was different, with much more specific uses. What was it like not having a designated Wizard Guy around? Diarmuid would never have to find out. He’d just keep following Lloyd and keep doing what he was good at and everything would work out, probably. It wasn’t like he’d only be pulling out the big bookkeeping tome, either, as once they’d settled the business with the demon-in-potentia Diarmuid figured he could start enchanting backup divination scales for anyone who lost their brochure. Yes, that was more productive thinking. Better to linger on concrete details than try to second-guess someone who was just glad he was there.
He managed to drift off some time after that.
Diarmuid awoke, as he usually did, flat on his back with his hands crossed over his chest. Unlike how he usually did he didn’t find Lloyd lying at his side. When that happened it usually meant breakfast was cooking, but sniffing the air didn’t reveal any cooking smells from elsewhere in the suite. Being on the road had disrupted a lot of their normal routine, so this was probably nothing to worry about, but Diarmuid still made a mental note to ask if Lloyd was sleeping properly. Diarmuid had learned to be proactive about such questions. Incarnation after incarnation of heroism had left Lloyd prone to worrying about everyone’s needs but his own, which meant having to make sure he didn’t work himself to exhaustion for fear of looking lazy; forcing him to accept that he was allowed to chill out, especially during peacetime, had been another ongoing theme of their still nascent union.
The rain had let up overnight. The morning sun through the windows was gray with clouds; Diarmuid braced himself for another day of mud and puddles. He dressed as accordingly as he was able without compromising his fashion sense. Part ways through applying his mascara he heard the door jingle, open, and close again; upon sticking his head out of the bathroom he was greeted with a familiar brown-and-white figure performing lunges in the entryway. A pair of padded shoes, caked with mud, lay next to the doorway. This scene, at least, was familiar.
“Oh, there you are, Lloyd. I couldn’t find you at first.”
Lloyd looked up from his cool-down stretching with a sheepish smile. “Sorry if I made you worry, buddy! Was out doin’ my usual morning stuff. Sword stuff went fine, but I don’t know the lay of the land so great yet so my routing for my run was off, and then I passed somebody with a stuck wagon, and, well, you know.”
“You had to stop and help.”
“Yeah. Good thing I had some spare leaflets on hand for after!”
Diarmuid eyed Lloyd’s jogging outfit, which was composed mainly of a pair of shorts and a crop-topped hoodie. It left very little to the imagination. That splendid midsection of his was perfect for lounging on by discerning devil kings of taste, naturally, but a well-made middle didn’t come with pockets unless one was some sort of marsupial. “Where were you keeping them?”
Lloyd patted the little hand-pocket sewn to the front of his hoodie. “Chalk another one up to smart packing!” he said, brightly.
“Oh. Of course.”
They chatted about their respective plans for the day and Diarmuid was endlessly grateful that Lloyd had brought some breakfast up from the kitchen with him. Working solo was agreed to be the correct course of action until they’d sussed out a little more about the whatever-it-was busting up the scenery. A lunch date at the Reaching Shade was out until they’d made more progress on their respective tasks: Lloyd would get back out there and get to fixing fences, while Diarmuid would seek out more nebulous goals. They’d rented the suite out for days, hadn’t they? There was time. Diarmuid couldn’t imagine a scenario where there wasn’t.
Once they were both properly made up (in Diarmuid’s case) and dressed (in Lloyd’s), with faux names back in place, they went downstairs together. After swinging by the bounty board they shared a quick kiss in front of the inn before going their separate ways. Duty called.
What was the best way to help this community without picking up a hammer or a spear? Spending money with the shopkeepers sounded like a good way to enrich what they had going here, further sowing the seeds of sufficiency, and after weighing his options Dermott decided the general store was the best option for that. What would they stock in these parts? Was it only dry goods and medicine? Did they have any actual books? It was time to find out.
The proprietor—a squat, bearded man whose eyebrows made him look like an owl—didn’t have much in the way of folkloric texts, so Dermott would have to go without any guides on regional custom, but what he did have were other books. So many other books! One productive conversation later and Dermott’s purse was lighter while his satchel was heavier. He was prepared to spend hours scouring his purchases for any hints of malevolent thingies across history. If he was going to need to pace himself for their mission, a little light reading was a necessity! The other purchases he made would have their day in the sun soon enough. He shuffled his satchel, which emitted purple sparkles until it lay mostly flat and empty against his side again; Floyd could pack as carefully as he liked, but Dermott preferred to rely on good old-fashioned magic.
Now that he was ready to walk without getting bogged down by a few stone of books, where would he go next? The shepherd’s, probably, since her health and livelihood had been most keenly affected. He thought back to where she said she grazed her flocks. It was mid-morning by then and some of the cloud cover had burned away in places. If he got moving now, Dermott could have plenty of time to speak with her. Maybe, if nobody was looking, he could hover a little bit on the way there. Just to keep himself clean on a wet, mucky morning. Just where the mud was its worst. That was probably fine, wasn’t it? He shook his head and grumbled at himself. No, he’d agreed to keep his feet on the ground the entire time he was in his Dermott disguise, and that was that. He’d solve the problem of sheep turds on his boots some other way.
Walking (and walking-adjacent activities, like the hovering from which he abstained) gave him time to think. He’d made the right decision last night, hadn’t he? They’d stayed late. They’d talked to a lot of people. They’d learned of something that required them to be at the top of their respective games, and so they’d turned in without so much as a handjob between them, since just a handjob frequently became so much more than that. Granted, Diarmuid (Dermott? back to Diarmuid for now, since he was alone with his thoughts) had been awake for a while after that, and Lloyd (currently de-Floyded) was used to working hard before getting up early, so…maybe it would have been fine? But it might not have been. The day of the spring festival had all the trappings of a time limit about it, and the same little spark of Diarmuid’s that helped him harness arcane powers had a feeling that things needed to be sorted by then. Assuming there was anything to be sorted! What if it was just a bear? In that case they’d still need to get it somewhere it could thrive without getting too close to people, so still a task for them. No matter what happened, they’d have time to make it up to each other. Eventually.
Diarmuid’s thoughts returned to distant memories of lying in the grass to watch the clouds, of picking through a thicket to make a secret cave, of the first time his stomach twisted into knots when he saw the sun fall across his best friend’s bare shoulder. What would life have been like if he’d never been taken from the village? How different would things be if he and Lloyd had simply remained…simple? The weird, dour kid with creepy eyes would’ve become a weird, dour man with creepy eyes all the same, but he wouldn’t have had the damned throne to worry about. He couldn’t have had the same breadth and depth of magical knowledge without being crowned, or at least Diarmuid was pretty sure he couldn’t, and he wasn’t sure what all he would’ve done when it came time for him to choose a calling, but surely he would’ve thought of something. More importantly, Lloyd wouldn’t have been burdened with that sacred duty of his.
If Diarmuid had never left then Lloyd wouldn’t have had to be a hero. He was a fantastic hero, of course, someone who believed the world could be better and wasn’t afraid to work as many long nights as it took to improve things for other people, and that probably wouldn’t have changed. What was worrying was the toll saving the day took on him. Lloyd could make time for anybody but himself. Those he considered friends might let him down, might outright betray him at times, but he’d always bounce back with plenty of empathy for their situation and nary a cross word in his mouth. He’d set himself on fire to keep people warm, then chug a few potions and do it all over again. He’d probably sell that gorgeous hair of his for a watch fob if left to his own devices. Something about that font of endless good vibes wasn’t something other people wanted for long. It was not lost on Diarmuid just how many times Lloyd (by any other name) would confront Diarmuid alone.
Claiming heroism broke Lloyd was too reductive a take, but sometimes, late at night when his busy mind was keeping him up, Diarmuid couldn’t help but think about how much less Lloyd would’ve had to suffer if Diarmuid just hadn’t been such an asshole every time.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the two of them could coexist without having to murder one another? You’re doing that right now, you twit, he thought to himself, irritably, but the idea lingered. Things right now were lovely, but they weren’t the same as if the past decade and change of history hadn’t happened. That was what hurt, probably: the sense of lost time. He wasn’t used to that. His old self would’ve been disgusted at how sentimental he was being, but his old self was invited to stop clenching so hard his anus could turn coal into diamonds.
Even when he finally met up with the shepherd, Diarmuid’s brain kept going. Was he needlessly obsessing over a possibly wrongheaded decision that had been made with the best of intentions? Was he not obsessing enough? He and Lloyd were now over two-thirds of a year into being a couple, and in spite of the true love and the great sex they were still, for lack of a better term, figuring each other out. Diarmuid did not want to be figuring Lloyd out, he wanted to be a good and supportive partner to someone who very badly needed that kind of person in his life. Being a good partner meant thinking about things. He’d been doing a lot of that lately.
The day played out much like this: Diarmuid brooded between bursts of attempted altruism, he listened when people spoke and answered those questions he was asked, and all the while he kept thinking he felt something in the forest. He really wanted to scry out what that something was. Sloppy scrying could easily become a two-way street, though, Diarmuid couldn’t shake the feeling that he wouldn’t be able to get a good look at the woodsy whatsit without somehow revealing his true self to it and everyone present. Some of last night’s partygoers had gushed about what a sweet fairy tale ending the Champion of Light and the Great King of Devils had managed for themselves, overcoming adversity with the power of love and bringing peace to all the land. Certain other partygoers felt the devil king had gotten off too easy. Diarmuid wasn’t about to deny them their right to be pissed at him, and so the Dermott act would remain. He’d just have to do things the old-fashioned way for now.
The longer he went the less progress it felt like he was making. By the time Diarmuid staggered back up the stairs to the suite he was halfway convinced he’d undone work from the hours before. Lloyd was already inside, sprawled shirtless on the couch while his fresh-laundered clothes dried in front of the fire. He looked up from the notes he was organizing with a smile. “Hey, Mids, welcome back! How’d your big solo day go?”
Diarmuid unceremoniously dropped his bag on a little table next to the door. He could’ve sworn for the last few calls he made the damn thing was made of lead. “I’m exhausted, I’m frustrated, and I smell like a barn. Or maybe a frog’s ass. Someone was convinced they saw a demon in their pond where the rain made the banks extra slippery. It went badly.”
“Aw, poor buddy,” said Lloyd. He gestured to the cleavage crease that marked one of many places where his pecs were too big for their own good. “Rest your troubled brow against my ample bosom, Your Majesty, and tell me of your troubles.” Lloyd was the kind of guy whose build blew straight past reasonable chest definition and was firmly in titty territory. Diarmuid, now face-down in the indicated spot, had yet to find cause for complaint.
That is, he wasn’t going to complain about nuzzling his husband’s massive chest. Everything else? Fair game. “You would not believe the day I had….”
The words came with ease. He edited himself a bit—Lloyd didn’t need to know about Diarmuid’s inner turmoil if they weren’t having an honest-to-glory Uncomfortable Conversation about that—but for the most part? Perfect, blissful openness. Diarmuid could bemoan every single thing that had bothered him that day, safe and sound in the comfort of Lloyd’s arms, and no one would tell him he needed to look on the bright side for a change. He felt like a viper biting into a rag: gripe by gripe and drop by drop, the venom came out. This was so much better than ranting at room full of useless lieutenants!
Before he realized it the sky was growing dark and Diarmuid was hungry. He growled at himself before shuffling around to rest his cheek against where Lloyd’s sternum presumably was; annoyed or not, he wasn’t about to scoot out of a genuine hug when he needed one. “Damnation. I’m sorry, Lloyd, I’ve been talking non-stop since I got in and I’ve barely let you get a word in edgewise. I’m not being very supportive right now.”
Lloyd just stroked the top of Diarmuid’s head with a soft smile. “Nah, it’s fine,” he said. “You’re my grumpy li’l guy. Besides, you still told me plenty about your day while you were doin’ it.”
“Hrm. If you’re sure about it, I’ll take you at your word.” Diarmuid stayed draped across Lloyd’s toned stomach (which was not perfectly laser-cut like certain fiends in Diarmuid’s employ, since Lloyd insisted on staying hydrated, and this was just fine by Diarmuid) to let himself be comforted. They were probably due downstairs for supper soon. He’d get up to prep for that any minute now.
Something tickled at his memory. “Ah, right,” said Diarmuid. “I got you a fresh book of math puzzles from the shop. It’s in my satchel.”
Lloyd perked up. “Yeah? You’re the best, Mids, thank you so much!” He loosened his grip on Diarmuid. “You mind if I take a look-see?”
Diarmuid grudgingly sat up. “Go ahead. It should be packed in with some other books I purchased.”
“Any anthropology stuff?” asked Lloyd. It wasn’t an idle ask; Lloyd liked learning about places nearly as much as he liked learning about people, and he wrote down everything. More than once Diarmuid had requested to borrow his journal to cross-reference something. So long as one stayed out of reading certain older, more personal sections, there was nothing to worry about.
“Bummer. I liked that old lady we met a few stops back, with like a dozen books written up on how they do things out there. Wish I knew who’d cleared out her collection right before we arrived.”
Diarmuid made a noncommittal noise. He’d stayed up late to meet with the record-keeping woman the night before he and Lloyd had planned to visit her together, and she’d been a very good sport about playing along; once Lloyd’s next birthday rolled around there would be an entire set of regional reference tomes waiting for him. Diarmuid had been sure to tuck those away extra deep in the infinite recesses of his magic storage container. “You know how it is in places that don’t have easy access to a printing press.” He checked his hair in a hand mirror. “Maybe that can be a project once our tour of reparations is done? Send out scribes to help people record things for future generations.”
“Yeah! That’d be so cool!” said Lloyd, still rummaging through Diarmuid’s bag. The view was a fine one, as Diarmuid had lucked into the company of the owner of a particularly large and shapely posterior. Small wonder the gorgons he’d sent after Lloyd had failed back in the day; it was impossible to turn to stone what was already made of cake.
Actually solving any of the puzzles in the book would wait for another time; they had another public dinner to attend. Dinner at the Reaching Shade was a rare chance to see a lot of people in the same place at once, and people in groups responded differently than they would when ambushed with a smile and an informative brochure. Diarmuid couldn’t figure it out. Something about this place was fighting them in what should’ve been a pretty routine mission, since every other extended stay they’d had hadn’t taken nearly so long to make so little progress. Was it because it was remote? He kept thinking of it as a village, but the other villages they’d been in had mostly clustered around a central point, with maybe a few stragglers in the form of farmers or herdsmen. This place was a bunch of buildings tucked into deep forest. It didn’t even have a name. Maybe that was it? He stewed over the thought all through dinner. At least the bounty board was a little cleaner thanks to his and Lloyd’s efforts that day.
Once again they stayed late, and once again they went to bed with minimal canoodling. Once again Lloyd’s morning routine ran long. Once again Diarmuid felt something watching him while he was out making house calls. Once again there was so much to do and so little time that taking a few minutes to fool around with Lloyd struck Diarmuid as irresponsible, so he spent that time looking up census records instead. While it was a series of different events from their first day in town, the general shape of the day was the same, right down to lightly terrorizing people into telling him what he wanted to know. It started to feel like a routine.
This was how things went for the next several days, in fact: they’d wake up, work, have a meal in there somewhere, do more work, come back to the Reaching Shade for dinner, mingle, then return to their room to sleep. What few hours Diarmuid had that weren’t dedicated to passing out brochures and removing cats from trees were spent in devoted study. It added up over time. Slowly but surely his and Lloyd’s teamwork was chipping away at the mountain of tasks they had to clear out before they could leave the village in good conscience. He had to admit they were a formidable pair when they had the same goal in mind. They really were doing some good out here.
What they weren’t doing was actually having sex. Oh, they were still physically close, as cuddling side by side on the couch to sort through their respective notes was cozy and it was easy to punctuate an idea with a kiss, but that was where things stopped. The only reason their bed was warm was because they both slept there. Lloyd seemed fine with it. Lloyd was fine with as much or as little sex as he got, really, but Diarmuid still felt guilty; his libido sometimes faltered when he was occupied with something, sure, but this wasn’t so much faltering as it was leaving a smoking, empty crater. Was it stress? Maybe it was stress. He didn’t like having a big, beautiful suite with access to a big, beautiful man in it and not making the best use of both, but surely it was temporary? Until then he’d make do with enjoying Lloyd’s company and not taking it personally when Lloyd would excuse himself to another room to jerk off. That, at least, Diarmuid was used to.
Maybe he wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. Oh, the blasted trees! He knew something was watching him from out there. Was it the spirit of the land itself, perhaps? Periwinkle wasn’t the only spirit in the area—he’d interviewed a few more himself, and Lloyd reported doing the same—so it was certainly a possibility. If the thing was directly connected to Springfest, maybe it didn’t like outsiders showing up and making noise when its people were supposed to be dancing around with ribbons and bells. Wouldn’t a spirit of springtime want people to be hornier, though? He continued resisting the urge to scry. Something in the pit of his stomach told him that there’d be no turning back if he did so.
Before Diarmuid knew it the final festival day had arrived, and he had yet to shake the suspicion that he was missing something important. He was also, as was becoming the norm, alone in bed. That was fine. Lloyd had a routine he needed to maintain to keep his body in top fighting condition; just because things were peaceful now didn’t mean they’d be that way forever, and besides, the results were ever so easy on the eyes. He was no doubt spending his morning greeting everyone he met and asking what they were doing to celebrate. They’d both promised to keep the next day for themselves—even if Lloyd wasn’t going to say anything Diarmuid knew the mood had been off, and they deserved a break—so one way or another they were going to get a lazy morning. Time would tell how hung over they’d be for it.
He puttered around the suite as he gradually came awake. Signs of Lloyd were everywhere: a brush with a few long white hairs still clinging to the bristles, a less revealing outfit laid out for once he returned from his exercise and weapons practice, some bullet points scribbled on a stack of papers left on the main table. Looking closer, Diarmuid could read that Lloyd had been workshopping a recipe using local materials. Was he going to be making something for the potluck? That was sweet of him.
The completed number puzzle book lay on the table next to the recipe in progress, each page neatly filled out in workmanlike block numerals written in ink. Diarmuid didn’t even need to check the key printed in the back pages to know that every single entry would be perfectly accurate. Lloyd liked math. He was almost as good with numbers as he was with people, and he was very, very good with people. Diarmuid was glad Lloyd had gotten a little fun out of his gift. If lovemaking was off the menu, he deserved something nice to do with his free time…and that was where Diarmuid was going to leave things. Nothing would get done if all he did was think in circles about his myriad flaws. The more he thought about it the more Diarmuid knew they needed to have an Uncomfortable Conversation on their day off before anything else. Almost anything else. Lloyd had a rise-and-shine technique that was truly to die for.
Neatly stacked beneath the puzzle book was Lloyd’s journal, another routine of his he’d kept up throughout. Diarmuid frowned at it. Would it hurt anything if he peeked inside, just to see what was on his husband’s mind, pure and unfiltered? Lloyd let him look through it all the time. It’d save them both a lot of trouble. Granted, the more honest thing to do would be to nut up and have that Uncomfortable Conversation, no shortcuts allowed, but this was easily the strangest week they’d had since they’d first gotten married, so—
“Hey, Mids! Whatcha up to?”
Diarmuid nearly leapt out of his skin. He turned around to look Lloyd in the face, knowing he looked guilty as sin. Guiltier, probably, since the red eyes and sharp teeth didn’t easily parse as innocent. “Trying not to invade your privacy,” he admitted.
“Huh? Oh, my journal. You know all you gotta do is ask and you can look in there whenever you want, right?”
“Yes, but I was…considering not asking. I’m not proud of that.” He could already hear Lloyd taking a breath to forgive him, so he hurried ahead to lay the foundation of some of what they’d have to slog through tomorrow. “I know things have been different between us lately. I want to talk about that later, when we have time. For now, can I just ask: why do you put up with all this?” He gestured to himself as he said all this. Hopefully he got the message across.
Lloyd shrugged and gave him a quizzical half-smile. “You take me seriously. It’s nice.”
The speed with which he replied caught Diarmuid off-guard for the second time in as many minutes. “Your eternal task until very recently was to murder me any time I made too much trouble,” he said. “I have to take you seriously.”
Another shrug. “Well, yeah, but it’s still nice.”
It would’ve been easy to ask who wouldn’t take Lloyd seriously, but Diarmuid could answer that question already. That was something else that hadn’t changed since they were kids: where Diarmuid was the sour one, Lloyd was sweet and bright and cheerful, a genuinely good person, and too often people thought that meant silly. Or things a little less polite than silly. You’re the smart one, I’m the other one, Lloyd had told him before, and the thought of Lloyd thinking about himself that way broke Diarmuid’s heart. Didn’t people take a minute to stop and think about just how much the Champion of Light (or his impersonators) did for them? Didn’t they notice all his little tics and quirks, the things that made him special? Didn’t they ever ask him what his favorite number was, and get to enjoy ten solid minutes of him enthusing about powers of two? Didn’t they care?
Fine. Fine. If others were so damned determined to ignore the treasure in their midst, then he’d just have to work twice as hard to make sure Lloyd knew how perfect and important he truly was. And that, too, needed to be part of the Uncomfortable Conversation. Ugh. Diarmuid was starting to remember why he hadn’t bothered with all this open communication nonsense before.
But first, the important part. “I love you, Lloyd. Very much. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, ‘course I do,” said Lloyd, and while his smile was a little broader now it still had that thoughtful air he affected when he had something on his mind. “I love you, too! Something botherin’ you, buddy?”
No sense in dancing around it. “Yes. The monster problem is weird, and it’s making me weird, and I’m… I’m not pulling my weight.”
Lloyd cocked his head. “Huh? You’re doing a ton!”
“Not for you. Not the way you deserve. I’ve barely touched you in days, I haven’t been asking if you need or want anything, I’ve hardly even been present—“
Diarmuid found himself pulled into a firm, slightly sweaty bear hug. “Hey, hey, no, don’t talk like that,” said Lloyd next to his ear. “All this field work, this adventuring stuff, it’s all new to you, and it’s hard, and you’re still trying, like really, really trying, even though you’ve never really done it before!” Lloyd gave Diarmuid another squeeze. “It’s still a lot of brand new things to handle at once and you’re putting so much effort into all of it, even though I know you gotta be tired.” He pulled back to look at Diarmuid, his face honest and open in a way Diarmuid was still getting used to having aimed at himself. “Are you mad at me?”
“What? No! Why would I be? I’m the one who’s been slowing us down.”
“Yeah, ’cause I’m the one who’s been pushing us. You’ve been tired every night, and distracted every day, and I keep setting goals that aren’t, like, feasible for somebody who hasn’t also been doing the thing for like a million years.” Diarmuid was sure they hadn’t been reincarnating for quite that long yet, but he kept his mouth shut to let Lloyd speak. “I’ve been thinking so much about how I am excited to have you here with me that I haven’t stopped to consider what your limits are.”
That was honestly a pretty reasonable concern. Was this the Uncomfortable Conversation, then, with Lloyd still in his running clothes and Diarmuid with maybe half his look presentable? They might be a little late for breakfast if they kept this up, but maybe they needed to be late for breakfast for a change.
“I won’t lie, the pace has been exhausting,” said Diarmuid. “I’ve had to talk to people. A lot of people. You have no idea how much I’m looking forwards to tomorrow, when the only face I’ll have to see all day is yours.” The corner of Lloyd’s mouth twitched upwards. That was promising. “I think, once we leave the Reaching Shade, I’d like to take it a little more casually. We don’t have any time limits but those we set ourselves, so we can afford a more relaxed pace, right?”
“Yeah, that’s just fine.” Lloyd took a deep breath and let it out. He sounded relieved. “So you’re not mad at me?”
“Absolutely not,” said Diarmuid with great force and sharpness. “You’re a constant joy, an excellent conversationalist, and I miss the many splendors of your body. You are clever and kind and I’m grateful I don’t have to lose sleep over trying to thwart your many deeds anymore.” He reached up to stroke Lloyd’s cheek as he relaxed his brittle tone. “I wish you didn’t feel like you always have to prove yourself to me. If anything, I should be doing it for you, instead.”
A matching hand found Diarmuid’s cheek. “Tell you what, Mids: let’s agree we’re both gonna screw that part up a lot going forward, ’cause we’re both extra, but we’re also both gonna try to do better, ’cause I’ve loved you since even before you cleaned up your act, and I’m pretty sure you were somewhere in the same ballpark, too.”
Even before their truce, thoughts of a certain smiling bronze swordsman—the one who’d killed him literally hundreds of times before, that one—had kept showing up during Diarmuid’s precious few private hours. At the time he’d assumed it was natural to have his sworn adversary on the mind. When he hadn’t been consumed by plotting to conquer the world it’d been impossible not to think about Lloyd. Who could blame him? The Champion of Light was his eternal foe, so it was a matter of self-preservation to try to remain half a dozen steps ahead of Lloyd at all times. Keeping up to date with Lloyd’s skills, his habits, his wants and needs and favorite foods, they’d all been part of the grand strategy. How could Diarmuid be expected to lay a proper trap without knowing the perfect bait?
He really had been good at lying to himself, hadn’t he?
“Maybe,” said Diarmuid, glancing askance.
Lloyd chuckled. “It’s a deal, then. After today, we take it easy. I wanna cook you the biggest breakfast ever.” Given the scope of some of Lloyd’s past morning feasts, biggest breakfast ever was a mildly terrifying prospect. At least it would be a delicious way to die. “Would it be okay to, y’know. Get a little excited about sleepin’ with you again? I still really, really wanna pound you into the mattress, but if you’re not feeling it, you know, it’s fine.”
How long had Lloyd been dwelling on that fantasy? Suddenly a big breakfast was not the most concerning idea on the table. “I think,” said Diarmuid, trying not to focus on how little Lloyd was wearing, “that today is going to bring an end to the monster problem, one way or another. I haven’t been able to get a bead on the blasted thing or I’d know for sure. Something about it has been tugging at me like a hangnail and it’s killed the mood any time I so much as thought about helping you towel off.”
“Oh yeah, that thing!” said Lloyd. “Yeah, it’s a demon. Kind of a nasty one, too. Pretty sure it’s gonna show up at the end of Springfest so I’ve been trying to keep ready.”
Diarmuid squinted at him. “You knew this whole time?”
“Yeah. I thought you did, too, ’cause you didn’t bring it up after a while.”
“Why am I so bad about talking to you.“
“Hey, c’mon, we just talked about being nicer to ourselves,” said Lloyd as he pried Diarmuid’s face out of his despairing hands. “I bet it’s trying to mess with you and the whole devil king thing, right? Of course you’re not gonna be at your best. I should’ve followed up on that more, whoops. But, like, it’s just a demon. We’ll kick its ass. More important thing is that everybody’s safe, sound, and has a receipt for getting their poisoned wells purified, right? And you’ve been doing a great job of that.”
It was hard staying upset in the face of such reason, no matter how hard Diarmuid tried. “Fine. We’ll keep on guard all night and snap the thing in half the moment it shows its stupid face. We can manage that without breaking cover, can’t we?” The last thing these people needed was the Great King of Devils, who was more or less responsible for most of their annoyances for the past too many years, showing up in the middle of a springtime fertility extravaganza, especially if he’d already helped himself to the potluck.
Lloyd nodded. “Sure can,” he said. “Today can be mostly loose-ends stuff. We’ve talked to almost everybody in the village, and there’s just one bunch we haven’t worked with yet.”
“The teens.” He enunciated it like saying their name too loud would make adolescents come crawling out of the walls.
Diarmuid made a face. “Oh. Them. I swear I can feel them staring at me every time we’re at dinner.” He shuddered. Having kept an evil empire running during the whole of his teenage years, Diarmuid was not about to underestimate the next generation. “Are you sure we can’t just take their families’ word for it?”
“C’mon, Mids, we can’t just pass them by just ’cause they’ve got attitude problems. What if they’re at risk for demon attack? And they’d probably listen to you way more than me, anyway.”
“And why might that be?”
The grin was back and more dazzling than ever. “It’s ’cause you’re so cool.”
His logic was flawless. Diarmuid sighed again, this time with a rueful smile. “I am, aren’t I?” he said, tossing his hair. “Fine. Let’s go into today ready to make a better tomorrow.”
Knowing it was a loose-ends day did not make it any less of a busy one. Diarmuid (as Dermott) hardly had a moment to sit until well after noon, and he could scarcely walk a dozen paces without having to dodge another reveler. The wine flowed. Now that he knew he wasn’t just imagining it he could feel the demon in the woods with awful clarity. Just try it, he thought every time he sensed its fell presence trying to interfere with his fell presence. Wouldn’t it be something if it made the first move in a bid for his attention! He wasn’t going to give it the dignity of direct notice, though, not when there were geese to help parade down the still-muddy main road.
There were games. There were dances. There was something about throwing barley that Dermott never got a clear explanation regarding. He considered taking Floyd’s hand when a toast went up celebrating all those who’d found love that past year, but some things were probably too much of a coincidence to play off as mere coincidence, so he settled for fond thoughts instead. He came horribly close to having fun a time or two. What kind of dark wizard had fun at a backwoods hog-calling competition? The kind of dark wizard who wasn’t biding his time until a loud and messy showdown, probably, so Dermott was right out.
He felt a rock in the pit of his stomach the whole time the children were hunting for pysanky. Dermott didn’t let a single one of them out of his sight; any time they wandered too close to the treeline he found a way to shoo them back towards their parents, and all it took was a single feeling of someone else’s chagrin to know he’d made the right move. What if they hadn’t been in town that day? What if he and Floyd hadn’t noticed in time? For woe’s sake, just how much hero work was pure preparation? But the eggs were found and no harm came to anyone, and so Dermott would take nothing happening as a victory of sorts. Now he had the benefit of feeling even less bad when the demon showed itself.
At long last the sun began to set and the real party began. Dermott was sure to spend plenty of time around Floyd—they were a couple and they did like each other, cover or no cover—but he kept watch of the younger crowd as they filtered out back behind the inn a little at a time. It didn’t take long for the whole pack to relocate. He let Floyd swing him across the dance floor for another few songs; after one final reel, they exchanged kisses and knowing looks, and Dermott put the next part of the plan into action.
He strode out of the main building wearing his best air of superiority, his boot heels clacking purposefully against its halo of cobbles as he found a secluded—but not too secluded—spot on the makeshift patio. Ignoring the curious glances this had already earned him, he summoned up a floating cushion and seated himself upon it as though he always stomped around other people’s festivals with dark magic in tow. He called forth his ledger to review its contents. An excellent way to make other people interested in you was giving yourself something of your own on which to focus, and the method which had accidentally drawn in a certain shimmer-haired and starry-eyed kid back in the day would probably work on sullen youths from a village of similar remoteness. If it didn’t? Well, it wasn’t like he didn’t need to look over his records again, anyway.
He snapped his fingers and one of the Reaching Shade’s wine glasses appeared in his hand, already filled with a fine vintage at just the right temperature for the weather. Anyone with half a head for spell-sniffing could’ve seen the magical residue his sorceries left from a mile away. There, that was his part handled. Now all he had to do was be a confident stranger with an exotic haircut. The question was not whether he’d been noticed, but which one would say something first.
“Real vanilla party, huh?” asked someone a few paces away.
Dermott simply murmured wordlessly. Would onyxes or opals be a better match for the region’s needs? He had scads of both lying around, but rebuilding an entire world required paying attention to every single detail or it’d all fall apart the minute someone took their finger from the metaphorical bow tie.
“You’re a necromancer, right?” asked someone else.
“Dark wizard,” he said, turning a page. “Big difference.” Opals were for purity, onyxes were for steadfastness, and both of those properties were a load of horse apples unless you were actually trying to plug magic into them. Was the land more tainted or more war-torn? From what he’d seen it was doing more or less fine on both fronts, but he had to look towards the future for this….
“You’ve been hanging around for a while now,” said a third. “My aunt says you helped fix her cursed teakettle. Do you need money that bad or something?”
“Shut up, he’s with the reparations bureau,” said the first one. They didn’t quite pronounce bureau correctly. “Haven’t you heard anything the big blondie’s been telling people?”
“Who, the himbo?”
“Don’t call him that,” growled Dermott. A ripple of visible alarm washed through them, one which shouldn’t have felt so good to see. “My husband, Floyd, and I are both with the bureau. We don’t need money. One could argue we have too much of it.”
Someone scoffed. “So what’s the point of being way out here, then?”
He snapped his book closed, its work complete no matter the stance on opals. “We’re performing a complete a circuit as we can of any residences, formal or otherwise, that have been impacted by the ravages of the Dread Multitude. Every person matters. So Floyd will tell you, anyway.” That Dermott found it easier to agree with the statement was probably better left unsaid. Compassion tended to not rate too high, coolness-wise.
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” said the scoffer. She folded her arms across her chest and tried, unsuccessfully, to match his air of calculated disinterest. “Why bother with a goody-goody like him, anyway? He’s got to be cramping your style.”
Dermott was not going to tell a bunch of children about his sex life. He was not going to do that. “You’d be surprised,” he said, instead.
“But your style has been cramped, great warlock,” said a gurgling voice that didn’t belong to any of the teens Dermott had encountered during his stay. It sounded like it came from the bushes. The youths moved away from it as one. Between that and the alarmed rippling earlier they were very liquid that evening. “I can smell your power,” it continued, “and you are letting so much of it stay hidden. We of the Dread Multitude could give you so much more.”
He stood gracefully from his cushion and glowered at the darkness from which the voice came. “Not interested. The war is over. You lost.” A few months ago Dermott would’ve had to fight not to stumble over his words and say we, but by then he was getting the hang of being in a different kind of us, one he’d actually agreed to be a part of.
“A temporary setback!” it screeched. The darkness took form, becoming a huge, vaguely humanoid shape with horns and a lashing tail. It reminded Dermott of the troops he had to keep reminding to wear their modesty loincloths. As fiendish figures went, he gave it a C-.
“Listen,” said Dermott, strolling towards the shadow-thing with wine glass still in hand. “You are making a huge, huge mistake, here. You’ve got two meaningful options. First, you can turn around and leave, never to trouble these parts again. Go find a cave or something. Maybe read a newspaper for a change. Or second,” he continued, holding up two clawed fingers for emphasis, “you apologize to these nice people, see if you can integrate into the community, find yourself a new life as their friendly neighborhood devil-beast.” He took another sip from his glass. “Which of those sounds better to you?”
“Join me, and we will raze this place to the ground together!”
“That’s neither option one nor two,” said Dermott. His eyes darted towards the cowering young people. He needed to act fast before one of them got too brave for their own good and got hurt. “Are you seriously picking a fight during Springfest?“
“A pox upon your springtime festival! If you will not stand at my side then you will be ground beneath my feet!” It lashed out with a claw that ricocheted off of a shimmering black shell that rose between it and the Reaching Shade. Dermott smirked. What kind of amateur missed someone casting something that obvious? Fiends these days, honestly. He only had time to be a little smug before the thing struck again, and this time the barrier shook from the impact. Uh oh.
The thing’s screeches had not gone unnoticed. Floyd, one hand holding a half-full beer mug and the other holding some sort of battered sausage on a stick, trotted out the back door with the casual calm of someone who dealt with this sort of thing for a living. “Everything good out here?” he asked. Another powerful blow struck Dermott’s shield and Lloyd took another bite of stick-food. “Oh, yeah, that’s a demon problem, all right.”
“Worse than we thought,” said Dermott, grimacing in time with another flurry of blows. He could feel his guise crumbling with every passing second; soon there would be nothing left but exactly who and what he was, with no way to hide it. Well, there was one way to handle that kind of problem. “I’m going loud.”
“Ope. You sure? You’re the one who wanted to keep a low profile.”
It was true, it had been his idea, mostly, and for the rest of their trip it would continue to be his idea, but right here and for right now, the time for being Dermott was over. Diarmuid nodded. It was all he needed to do.
“Alrighty,” said Lloyd. He picked the last bits of fried batter from the skewer, tossed it in the closest bin, and shook his hand the same way he’d snapped open the umbrella; this time instead of a bumbershoot he called forth a broadsword whose heavy blade gleamed with the same gold-on-white as his hair. He swished it in front of himself, then patted Diarmuid on the shoulder. “I’ll be on defense. You got this, buddy!” With that he was gone, no doubt keeping people out of danger, as he was wont to do.
While Lloyd might’ve been happy just plucking his king-killing sword from the ether (and it was a little weird seeing him do that), Diarmuid had a history of dramatic entrances to uphold. He stomped his foot and lightning split the sky, followed by a peal of thunder. He pointed at the demon, whose claws now struck a wall of teal and gold that refused to budge against its onslaught. “You dare to raise a hand against me?” he said. “You, who are but a smudge upon my hem? You, who are ignorant of who truly stands before you?” He paused, letting the echoing thunder fill the silence. Now that he didn’t have to focus on a giant-tree-sized barrier he had ample chance to focus on setting the scene.
The demon roared wordlessly. Diarmuid could hear a few people clamoring in fear somewhere behind him, plus the soft sounds of Lloyd herding people around in his most firm-yet-comforting voice. So they were going to have a proper audience, were they? No sense in just going loud when he could go loudest of all.
He raised his hand and called forth his chosen blade: a grand black-handled scythe with a head made of ruby-red metal that danced with spellfire. Aubergine lightning teemed around it as it manifested from nothing into something. Diarmuid twirled the scythe dramatically before slamming its butt into the ground with an echoing boom. In a flash, the clothes he’d picked out for his Dermott persona were gone, replaced with his clothing, his proper attire, everything from silver-shod boots to horned skull headdress to the very tight leather pants, and the weight of his crown returned, at long last, to rest upon his brow. The dubious green accents of his eye makeup shifted to a more appropriate crimson, one that matched his eyes. Wolves howled. A flock of bats burst from the trees, chittering against the rising moon. He felt like himself again. As his cloak flared out around him in a wind that moved nothing else, he rose to hover at a properly intimidating height.
“I am King Diarmuid, Great King of Devils, master of all darkness and despair, and I said, get lost.“
In the grand scheme of things it was probably overkill. Lloyd had more experience with this stuff, and left to his own devices he probably could’ve handled it on his own; Diarmuid, on the other hand, generally only dealt with the Lloyds of the world, which meant he barely even knew how to hold back unless he was playing with his food. At least this time there wasn’t much property damage, save for the chunk taken out of the forest. Trees grew back, didn’t they?
As Diarmuid went through the proper procedures to make sure the demon was completely, positively, 100% guaranteed dead, he could hear the sounds of people talking behind him. It didn’t sound like an angry mob. That was nice.
“He’s your husband?” asked one of the teens, rattled but unhurt.
“Yup!” said Lloyd’s voice. Diarmuid could hear the pride in it. “Did you know I’m technically the prince-regent of darkness and despair by marriage? I think that’s neat.”
Diarmuid floated back to ground level and returned his scythe to its usual place. The damn thing got in the way when he wasn’t actively posing with it or using it to ruin some poor fool’s day; upon turning around he saw Lloyd had done the same with his sword. It was probably a good idea not to open-carry artifacts in an environment where people were drinking. “Thank you for the help, Lloyd.”
“You bet, buddy,” said Lloyd. He raised his fist to Diarmuid, knuckles outward. “Power of friendship?”
“Eh,” said Diarmuid, weakly returning the fistbump. He brushed some ash off his clothes. “Should I change back?”
Lloyd shrugged. “Only if you wanna. I think people are kinda into it, though.” He looked over his shoulder and waved at the contents of the inn, now spilling out to investigate the noise in relative safety. “Like, if the reformed devil king came through our village when we were kids, I know I’d want someone to draw our picture with him.”
“I don’t even want to think about how that timeline would work,” said Diarmuid, pinching the bridge of his nose. The throng of locals drew ever-closer. He heard shouting, then cheering. The next thing he knew he was being dragged inside by people who were far too excited about having the Great King of Devils at their party, Lloyd encouraging them every step of the way, and that set the tone for the rest of the night.
When Diarmuid woke up the next morning he was glad to find he’d had the presence of mind to clean off his eyeshadow before falling into bed. He was gladder still to find Lloyd lying next to him. For the first time in days the sky through the blinds was completely clear. It was going to be a beautiful day to stay inside.
“So how’d I do?” he asked, his voice scratchy from sleep.
Lloyd nuzzled against Diarmuid’s neck and shoulder. “You did some pretty good deeds out there, Your Majesty,” he murmured. “I’d say that’s a seven or eight, easy: fine work, solid fundamentals, room for improvement. I know you’ll only get better the more you try.”
Only a seven or eight? Coming from anyone else that would be an insult; from Lloyd, it just made Diarmuid want to give things another shot. How devious. “Are you trying to engage in positive reinforcement?”
“Yeah. Is it working?”
Diarmuid smirked. “Maybe. Continue, please. Let’s see you do better than a seven or an eight.”
“Hell yeah.” The mattress dipped as a big slab of friendly muscle wiggled flush against Diarmuid’s side. “I meant it when I said I’ve been thinkin’ about you all week.” Lloyd kissed at his ear, already a master at how to work with them at this angle. “It means so much to me you came alone. Watching you work so hard, even when things got tough, made me really proud.”
“That’s maybe a five,” said Diarmuid, ignoring the way his cheeks struggled to flush at the compliment. “I’ve been pent up since the first day we got in, and save for some mechanical general-wellness sessions in the bath I’ve been celibate. I’m asking for a ten, Lloyd. Surely you can do better?”
Another shift of the mattress saw Diarmuid flipped onto his stomach with Lloyd on top of him, weight balanced just enough to press him against the sheets without actually squashing him or mashing Lloyd’s pendant into softer, more delicate flesh. A warm, hard bulge ground against Diarmuid’s pajama pants. Lloyd had a boner and he clearly wanted there to be no confusion about the matter. “You’re so hot, Mids,” he whispered instead of a direct answer, pulling Diarmuid closer against him as he rolled his hips. “Can’t believe I get to wake up next to you every day.”
Diarmuid gasped as Lloyd targeted the thin fabric barrier between them. Oh, but it felt good to be doing this again! Any concerns Diarmuid might have had about willingness to perform vanished; he wanted this, right here and right now, morning grogginess be damned. Apparently blowing people up was a good way to kick-start his sex drive after a dry spell. He wasn’t sure if it was a good thing that he knew that.
“You need to know how hard you get me, Your Majesty,” said Lloyd between more ear-kisses. He already sounded most of the way to the state Diarmuid had left him in way back when, the one they’d never followed up on. How long had he been awake? Knowing Lloyd, he’d probably tiptoed off to the bathroom to jerk off when he first arose, then washed up and slipped back into his usual spot, all for the sake of being a better bed partner for Diarmuid. He must’ve been lying there for hours, waiting. Truly he was the Champion of Light.
Lloyd snaked his hand under the hem of the black tank top Diarmuid slept in, pulling him closer. Where Lloyd was a big man with muscles on his muscles, Diarmuid was about as ripped as the next bookworm; Lloyd had never met that reediness with anything but sincere delight. “You get me this way, Your Majesty,” he continued, his fingers splayed across Diarmuid’s chicken chest. “I love you so much.” He ground, insistently, at Diarmuid’s ass. “All of you. However you wanna be. Doesn’t matter if anybody else likes it, because I do.”
Wait a minute…. “Are you trying to have a heart-to-heart in the middle of foreplay?”
“Maybe,” said Lloyd. He nipped at an earlobe; unlike Lloyd’s, Diarmuid’s weren’t pierced. It was probably for the best; given how much attention Lloyd liked giving his ears, jewelry might’ve been a choking hazard. The hint of tongue that followed this made Diarmuid gasp. It was very difficult being properly annoyed with someone who knew how to land a precision strike on whatever erogenous zone he could reach.
The hand against Diarmuid’s front drifted playfully lower. “Gonna keep you busy all day if you’ll let me,” Lloyd said, still working over Diarmuid’s neck.. Diarmuid had survived their honeymoon. It was not an idle promise. “Been too long since I gave you a proper good morning. Can I do that for you, Your Majesty? Can I touch your cock?”
“You had better.” Keeping a low profile meant being careful about not just what Diarmuid said but how he said it, but since the nameless settlement had decided to provide amnesty to certain visiting devil kings—and therefore wouldn’t flip out if they heard him—he felt like he could use his more malevolent voice. It was just a matter of opening up his throat and no longer filtering out the otherworldly magnitude, nothing difficult. He’d long since perfected speechifying with that dreadful timbre. Thanks to Lloyd, he’d learned another use or two for it, too.
At the sound of that command a shudder ran through Lloyd’s body where it lay atop Diarmuid’s own. “Your will be done.”
Lloyd’s hand vanished below the waist of Diarmuid’s pajamas like a diving kingfisher. He didn’t seize Diarmuid by the base nor make to stroke him any other way; instead Lloyd’s hand stayed outside of Diarmuid’s ever-so-fancy underwear to grope him through the silk. The ploy was devious. Maybe he hadn’t meant to teach Lloyd how to be devious, but heroes had a nasty habit of learning by doing, and what Lloyd like doing was Diarmuid. Now Diarmuid had to live the rest of his unnatural life with a highly experienced professional warrior who wanted nothing more to have fun, happy, exhausting sex with him. It was truly a hell of his own making.
While Diarmuid didn’t mind having Lloyd pin him down like this, it worked a lot better for actual penetration, and it came as a relief when Lloyd rolled into a sitting position with Diarmuid perched in his lap. Lloyd’s now free hand joined the other in feeling Diarmuid up between his layers. Diarmuid, for his part, tried to figure out where his legs needed to go; he ended up semi-kneeling with one leg on either side of Lloyd’s thighs, and this only spread him open further. That was probably Lloyd’s plan, too. He had the most uncanny knack for getting Diarmuid to reveal his vulnerable spots.
“Foolish mortal, are you stalling?” said Diarmuid, even as he felt a hickey being left on the side of his neck. Of course he could tell Lloyd wasn’t stalling! One did not break out the voice for a single sentence and then just leave it there unused, however, and Lloyd worked best with guidance most confident.
“Nope.” The thumb of one hand tugged down Diarmuid’s pajamas while the fingers of the other finally slipped through one lacy leg hole. Diarmuid sighed with pleasure as his balls were cupped, growing slightly more vocal when Lloyd’s pinky brushed against the sensitive skin between said scrotum and one of the few parts of Diarmuid’s anatomy that reportedly wasn’t pale as a specter. Apparently assholes came in candyfloss pink. He was willing to take Lloyd’s word on that. Whatever its color, his was enjoying Lloyd’s frottage-focused endeavors very much, thank you, and the instant Lloyd felt like lubricating its interior Diarmuid feared he’d come from that alone. So what if that happened, though? Lloyd was patient, Lloyd was kind, and Lloyd was used to putting in long hours for nebulous reward. He’d probably cuddle Diarmuid until the refractory period wore off and then get right back to it, slicking things back up as needed. Lloyd was reliable like that.
There wasn’t much of a place for Diarmuid’s hands to go that wasn’t palms-down against one set of thighs or another; the best he could do was reach up to loop one arm around Lloyd’s neck to better keep himself in place. Not that Diarmuid minded. Whether they were spooning or getting up to something more involved, it really emphasized how much of Lloyd’s height was in his torso. Even with his rucked-up shirt technically in the way Diarmuid could easily feel the way the muscles in that slab of manly meat worked together like a well-oiled sex machine. In Lloyd’s case, the oil was coconut.
Once Lloyd settled on a new rhythm he really got to work. He could have pulled Diarmuid’s clothes completely off, leaving himself free access to whatever he wanted south of Diarmuid’s navel, but for whatever reason Lloyd was happy to keep with unorthodox methods of underwear exploration. The leg hole? Really? It was hot, Diarmuid wasn’t about to deny that, but it was also terribly silly. He’d need to remember to complain later. Until then he’d simply have to live with someone he loved dearly giving him an extremely practiced handjob.
The silk slid against Diarmuid’s skin and Lloyd’s knuckles as gentle as a whisper. Lloyd’s hands were deceptively soft for a swordsman’s; no one could go through as much lotion as he did and not have something to show for it, and the way he worked Diarmuid’s shaft and balls involved a careful touch that he refined just a little bit more every time he had the opportunity to concentrate on what he was doing. It was so much nicer than having to do things solo. It was exactly what Diarmuid had been missing. It was also building up to a climax he wasn’t even going to try holding back, so it was probably time to say something about that.
“Do you think this is enough to sate me, cur?” he said between pants. “Am I meant to be fulfilled by such base attentions?“
“Then do your worst, little champion! Strike me down with your most terrible blow! Tremble at my potency, for I—“
He was cut off by Lloyd wrenching his chin upwards and silencing Diarmuid with a kiss too full of passion to let any words through. It was the final straw: Diarmuid came into Lloyd’s hand because there was simply no more option not to. He slumped backwards. Every ounce of tension he’d built up by scouring this damn place in pursuit of that damn demon began to flake away like scales of rust. He wasn’t perfectly relaxed, not just yet, but there was time. For once they had nothing but time.
Lloyd was all sweet kisses and nuzzles again despite remaining as erect as ever. “So, how was that one?”
“It rates at least a six,” said Diarmuid, preferring his everyday speaking voice in the afterglow. He wiggled in place against Lloyd’s cock. A layman’s guess implied that was going in him before Lloyd made good on those promises of the biggest of breakfasts. Excellent. “I’m sure you’ll do even better next time.”
“Jerk. I love you, too.” He hugged Diarmuid close, only taking his hands away to lick clean the one in which Diarmuid had come. “Have I ever told you you wear the cutest undies?”
“Well, you do.” He left a little peck on the sore spot that marked the hickey he’d given Diarmuid earlier. “I like all the little things you do to make yourself look fancy. I notice ’em. I think it’s really cool how you can look at a reflection as smokin’ sexy as yours and think, no, I can do better,” —his impression of the voice was nowhere near the real thing, though it was cute that he tried— “and then perfect a style that just goes above and beyond. Like, if I were you, I don’t know if I’d ever thought of half the tricks you do with eyeliner.”
Having wiped his face clean before bed meant waking up bereft of paint, as well. Lloyd was the only person Diarmuid ever let him see that way. “I thought you liked me looking meaner?”
“I like you all kinds of ways. I like proving to myself I really mean it, too. Personal goal.” Lloyd heaved a great sigh, the kind that signaled he had an announcement to make that was going to make Diarmuid groan, and gave Diarmuid a friendly squeeze while doing so. When Diarmuid was soft like this, Lloyd’s hand could close around nearly his whole dick and balls at once. Having a little extra fancy cloth here and there was a nice compliment to it. “Thing is,” Lloyd continued, “thinking back on goals we set for ourselves and all, I’m sorry to say I messed up.”
Diarmuid frowned. Messed up how? Had something gone wrong with that golden barrier Lloyd had thrown up at the last minute? Did he know something about the demon that Diarmuid did not? “What’s that?”
“Well, it was something you were really, really clear about before we left, right?”
“You asked me to keep my hands outta other people’s drawers.” He gave Diarmuid another squeeze for emphasis.
There it was. Diarmuid’s entire face collapsed in on itself into a sort of sour singularity. “Lloyd.“
“You know how it is with me, Mids. Can’t ever let your guard down around the Champion of Light or I go right for your soft ‘n tenders.” He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out between his lips, tickling the short hairs at the nape of Diarmuid’s neck. “You think they’re gonna be okay if we take a day off? The village folk?”
Oh no. No, no, no. Lloyd was not about to start second-guessing his decision to celebrate a big win for the local community by getting some proper rest and relaxation, especially not with his cock still hard and his hand still down the front of Diarmuid’s pajama pants. He deserved better whether he liked it or not, and Diarmuid was just the man to harangue him into being nicer to himself. Two could play at the advice-while-sexually-entangled game.
“Lloyd? You are not leaving this suite for at least the next full day unless there’s a direct medical emergency. Or you need kitchen supplies. Only those.” He straightened up a little where he sat. That this put more pressure directly on Lloyd’s erection was no accident. “I keep worrying about being a good partner to you without doing anything about it, so today I’m going to do something about it. You can’t keep grinding yourself to nothing because your own wonderful nature worries you might miss somebody else’s burden to bear.” Diarmuid crossed his arms over his chest as fiercely as he could, given the circumstances. “I’m going to keep you in here, I’m going to keep you from burning out on your own wonderful nature, and I’m going to do my best to drill a little proper self-care into that number-crunching brain of yours.”
Lloyd made a thoughtful sound. “So you’re gonna…teach me to be selfish?”
“In the interest of helping you learn to set some actual boundaries for yourself? Naturally.” He smirked. “After all, we both know I’m a terrible influence on you. I didn’t even wish you a good morning.”
“Every morning’s a good morning if I get to stick my dick in you, buddy.”
So that was still on the table? Perfect. Diarmuid was in the mood to have a good morning of his own. He was going to help Lloyd ignore his worries for a little, lifting a little bit of the eternal onus that weighted down those broad and freckled shoulders, and they would manage this by letting other people’s problems remain other people’s problems until Lloyd had been pampered back into a more steadfast state. That felt like something a good husband would want for the man he loved above all else.
And what if this actually gave Lloyd a taste for vacations? He’d been working non-stop both before and after their honeymoon, so who could fill shoes that big if Lloyd decided he’d earned another day off in some strange and distant future? Wouldn’t people be jealous of Diarmuid for monopolizing Lloyd’s time? Wouldn’t denying that overwhelming sweetness to the world be cruel? Wouldn’t that be the kind of thing only an asshole would do?
Diarmuid smiled to himself and leaned up for another kiss. He could be a little bit of an asshole. Just a little. As a reward for all the times he was not.