A/N: Inspired by just about any supernatural sci-fi/fantasy thing I've ever read. In particular, a shout out to Jim Butcher's Dresden files.
1x2, 3x?, 5x?, 4x? Expect multiple pairings, some het and some not, and also some breakups and…changes.
Warnings: Language, violence, sex, language. Angst. AU. Gore.
He decided to give Montana a try. He'd never been there before, but he had seen photographs, and it looked like a place where a man could find peace.
Not that he expected to find peace, or deserved it, but he wanted to look for it.
It had been years since he had lived in such complete isolation and seclusion as he was now. The small, weathered cabin he had purchased had a small plot of land attached to it, both more than a three hour drive from the nearest town. He appreciated that, and the fact that he had now gone eight days without seeing another soul.
It was the longest he had ever voluntarily gone without such interaction, and as nice as it had been for the first few days, on the ninth morning he was starting to tire of the sound of just his own voice.
He had wanted time and space to himself, especially in light of recent events in the world at large, but now…now he was thinking that peace would always elude him.
If waking up at dawn, with a bright blue sky overhead and endless green mountains stretched before him wasn't peace, he didn't know what was. The fact the he was still plagued with dark thoughts, dreams, and memories only seemed to emphasize just how unnatural it was for him to be here.
He was contemplating a trip into the local town. He didn't need to get any supplies – wouldn't for another two weeks – but he could use some good old fashioned human interaction.
That plan went out of the proverbial window when he spotted a dust cloud approaching the cabin early in the morning. A car was approaching, and this cabin was out of the way enough that this was no Sunday joyride.
He waited on the porch for his guest. He calculated that the approaching car was driving considerably faster than local law enforcement encouraged, and since all of the locals he had previously encountered approached life from a rather relaxed pace, he concluded that his visitor wasn't from around here.
When the car got close enough for him to make out the silver, classic lines of a vintage Porsche he knew without a doubt that this visit wasn't going to be fun.
The car screeched to a halt amidst a tornado of dust. He waited patiently as the driver got out of the car.
It was a young man, his head a slightly wind-mussed mess of blonde hair. Dark aviator style sunglasses covered his eyes, and the suit he wore might as well have been a sign proclaiming his wealth. The man was loaded and stylish. And he definitely had no business on this piece of property.
"Can I help you?"
"I hope so!" The man smiled brightly and lifted his sunglasses, revealing bright, aquamarine eyes that seemed to be filled with eternal good cheer. The shape of his face and the open smile were eerily familiar. "I'm Quatre Winner."
"Hi, Quatre." He greeted.
"Er… I was looking for someone."
"Looks like you found someone."
Hearing his name on the stranger's lips gave him pause.
"That'd be me," he answered warily.
Quatre's smile widened and he approached the porch, taking the steps up and stopping just a few feet from Duo.
"It's a pleasure to meet you." He held out his hand.
Duo glared at the hand until the blonde dropped it back down to his side.
"I've actually come to ask for your help."
"My help?" Duo couldn't help but smirk at that. "What could I possibly help you with? I'm still new around here, so I can't recommend much."
"I'm sure you're aware of the recent legislation legalizing and regulating the use of magic in the United States?"
Duo felt his heart rate start to accelerate and forced his face to remain neutral. Not that he had had much opportunity for socializing, but in these parts he had been labeled as the charming, misguided city boy who was to be pitied. As far as he could tell, there wasn't a single person in two hundred miles who had a glimmer of magical ability, much less any knowledge of who he was.
"Think I saw something in the papers about it."
"I've been appointed as United States Arbiter to the North American Council."
The North American Council had only recently come out of secrecy after centuries of clandestine rule over magic users and magical beings on the continent. The Council was now a semi-autonomous body that regulated the activities of registered magic users and beings. With the new legislation that recognized and legalized such individuals, the United States government had decided to work with the Council instead of disbanding the powerful body. Duo had heard about the Arbiter – and had been amused that the United States government had granted such an Old World title to the position. The Arbiter was both a liaison between the two bodies, and advisor, and a powerful entity in his own right. It was an ancient title in the magical community, and the revival of it had been a sign that the government was willing to cooperate with the intricate and sometimes outdated ways of the magical community.
"Ridiculous. How old are you, twelve?" The words were out before Duo could stop himself, and he mentally cursed when the blonde looked triumphant at his interest.
"I'm twenty eight, actually, but I assure you, I am extremely well qualified."
Duo sneered. "What, exactly, makes you qualified?"
Quatre reached out and brushed his hand against Duo's forehead. The instant his fingertips touched, Duo felt an electric shock pass through his body.
At first all he felt was a light whisper of mental fingers, brushing over his mind, teasing out his thoughts and memories. Before he even had time to put up much of a defense, the light touch had delved past the surface of his mind, drawing out those same dark thoughts he had been trying to hard to repress. They all came to the surface now, the blood, the despair, the anger, and fear. He experienced them all again as the touch rifled through them like a rolodex.
After a few moments, Duo had had enough and gained enough control of himself to mentally shove the touch away, adding a good dose of physical force as well, and Quatre was soon stumbling backwards, a hand clutching his heart.
Duo was breathing hard, but he was able to regain control of himself in time to see Quatre turn and vomit over the side of the porch. He felt grim satisfaction.
"So much…pain," the blonde panted.
"Don't EVER do that to me again," Duo warned, his voice quiet and deadly.
Quatre nodded in vigorous agreement.
"I just – I wanted to show you."
"That you're an empath? A damned powerful one, too. But you come near my head again and I'll kill you."
"I couldn't find anything good. All of your thoughts – all of your memories! – there's so much pain." There was sadness and pity in those wide blue eyes. Not emotions Duo was used to having directed at him.
Duo shrugged. "You got farther than I wanted you to, but you didn't get to see everything. There's some good stuff, buried deep. Don't you worry." The fact that his good memories were less than a drop in the bucket compared to all of the horror he had experienced wasn't worth mentioning. Nor was it Quatre Winner's business.
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got things to do." Duo gestured for Quatre to leave.
"Wait! I'm sorry. That was rude of me. I shouldn't have done that without permission."
"But I need your help."
"You said that already, and once again, there's not much I can do for you."
"I know who you are. I've seen your registration papers."
Duo stiffened at that and turned a full on glare to Quatre.
"Have you now?" When the new legislation had come through last year, one of the key elements had been registration of all individuals who could use magic or were magical beings. Failure to register could result in imprisonment, deportation, or death by the Council. Duo had resented having to register himself, as though he were some sex offender or drug dealer, but the one thing that had soothed him had been the assurance that because of his past and particular abilities, he wasn't in the general registry. To even know that Duo Maxwell existed, one had to have extremely high government clearance. It made sense that the Arbiter would be granted such clearance, but it still grated.
"My job isn't an easy one. I've had a lifetime of experience in delicate negations, and I have a certain skill set that allows me to be very good at it. My empathetic abilities are also a boon. What I don't have is a great deal of experience in the magical community. I don't have a reputation, and I don't have many connections. I need a Consigliore."
"Been in the closet, have you?"
"My family is very well known, and any whisper of impropriety would have been devastating to our status in society."
"Impropriety?" Duo repeated with a smirk.
"That was how my…abilities were viewed, yes."
"So how did you get named Arbiter?"
"My family is very well connected, and my father has long harbored dreams of me going into politics. This is me doing what he wants, and getting to help people like us."
"People like us?" Duo repeated. He liked this kid, he seemed to be good and honest. Pure, even. But that also meant naïve – and Duo wasn't a fan of naivety. "Listen, kid, you and I are not alike."
Quatre frowned slightly. "We have different abilities, but we're both magic users, both interested in protecting innocent people and doing the right thing. You've had more experience, I'm sure."
That clued Duo in to the fact that while Quatre might have seen his registration papers, he had definitely not been allowed to pursue the no doubt extensive file. If he had, there was no way he would believe what he was saying.
"You haven't seen my file," Duo said.
Quatre blushed, caught in his bluff. "Well, no, not really. I asked the FBI for information on a few individuals who might be of use to me, as we move forward into this new era. I was given your name. I was told that you had more experience than most in dealing with magic users, and that you had done work for the government in the past."
"Yeah, they definitely gave you the G rated version," Duo muttered.
"I don't understand."
"Yeah, I'm beginning to see that." Duo sighed. "How old do you think I am?"
Quatre shrugged. "You look to be about my age."
"I do look about your age," Duo agreed. He sneered. "That'd be because my race is rather long lived. And I happen to favor being this age. Trust me when I say this – once you start getting up to your forties its starts to go downhill."
"Your race?" Quatre echoed.
"Yeah. Oh – they didn't tell you? I'm not human." Quatre paled considerably, and he was already on the fair side. "I'm a half-breed. Half Dark Court. Half…who knows, but there's not a drop of human blood in me."
"You're half Faerie?"
"Yep. Dark Court, mind you, so… all that sweetness and light you're trying to sell, with the pure heart bullshit you're projecting at me – doesn't do so much for me."
"But – but they told me you were good."
"Good at what I do," Duo muttered. "You came a long way, and on pretty shitty information. I haven't talked to anyone in nine days, so…I'm feeling a bit chatty. Why don't I grab us a few beers and I'll tell you a story."
"I don't drink. And – it's only ten in the morning."
Duo sneered. " I'm sure it's five o'clock somewhere. I'll get some lemonade for you, then."
"That would be lovely."
Duo nodded, gestured towards the battered rocker on the porch, and went inside to fetch drinks.
When he came back out, Quatre was sitting on the edge of the rocker, looking as though he doubted its ability to sustain his weight. Duo passed him a glass of lemonade and then leaned against the porch railing, sipping his beer.
"I'm almost a thousand years old, give or take a few years," he said as an opener. He had timed it so that Quatre was mid sip, and he smirked when the blonde choked on his lemonade.
"One thousand. Years."
"Good to know your hearing works. Whoever told you I used to work for the government – it's funny they should mention that, because there isn't a human alive who was actually around when I worked for the government."
Quatre frowned, but remained silent, letting Duo tell the story at his own pace.
"During the Civil War there was a lot of Old Magic being messed with – especially on the Confederate side. I was contracted to…deal with them. I wasn't working for the United States government, but for the Council. The Union contacted the Council, and I was…loaned out for a few special assignments. Apparently, the promise not to keep files on that wasn't kept."
"I didn't realize."
"Hm. There's a lot you probably don't realize. Your title? Arbiter? Usually the Council appoints an ephemeral they trust to act as Arbiter between them and whatever human powers might interfere with them."
"Jesus, you don't know anything, do you?" Duo sighed. "Ephemeral – it's what we call people like you. A magic user. You're going to live longer than a regular human, but you've got nothing on one of us – one of the Old Ones. We're either magical beings or really, really power magic users. You've got some power, no kidding there, but the days when a magic user became more than an ephemeral are long past. The blood lines are too diluted. Anyway. Usually, the Arbiter was the servant of a Council member – you do know what I mean by servant, right?"
Quatre nodded. "Yeah, I've been doing some research for the past few years. A servant is a human – or, I suppose, an ephemeral, too, right? – who has been chosen by a magical being as their helper. You get more strength, a longer life span – and your master also gets stronger because of the relationship."
Duo was glad that Quatre did, in fact, seem to some things.
"When do you meet with the Council?"
"Tonight, I'm flying to Las Vegas in a few hours."
Duo nodded, thoughtful. He remembered when the Council had made the move to Vegas, almost thirty years ago now. The fact that most of the higher ranking Council members were vampires had been a prime factor in the relocation. The nightlife and eclectic mix of people in Vegas allowed for more entertainment options than almost anywhere else in the United States. He was glad that Quatre hadn't met with the Council yet. They would eat this innocent child alive, and it was almost embarrassing how unprepared he was.
"So what do you want from me?"
"Your help. It was clear to me before – and even clearer now – that I need someone like you to advise me, I need a Consigliore – and my research suggests that the stronger and more powerful my Consigliore, the more well received I will be by the Council… and you have the ... respect of the United States government. I've been authorized to deputize you as a US Marshal, and you'd be paid –"
"I don't need money, and respect isn't the word I think they used when they described how they felt about me." Duo sighed. He had walked away from the Council more than one hundred years ago, and had never looked back. He had hoped to never become involved with their politics again, but he was deeply worried about Quatre, and humans, if they honestly believed that they stood a chance of holding their own against some of the most powerful, deranged, and manipulative creatures ever to walk the planet.
"I'm not really comfortable with badges," Duo said.
"You need the authority, and the respect, that comes with that badge. As well as being named Arbiter, I am heading up a special task force that will liase between the Council and the FBI to oversee any criminal investigations involving the use of magic."
"This just gets better and better. So – you want me to be your advisor and I have to be a cop?"
"Look, the one thing I was told about you – the one thing I do know is the truth – is that you value human life, and you would do anything in your power to see that innocent humans are protected. I'm asking you to do what you can to make sure that human life is preserved, and that magical people aren't discriminated against."
Quatre was looking at him with big, vulnerable eyes, and Duo had to give in.
"Yeah. Okay. Sure. It'll be fun."
Fun spelled with torture, murder, and centuries of grudges.
Duo wasn't used to travelling is the style that Quatre was clearly accustomed to. The Porsche turned out to be a rental car, and when they arrived at the airport in Billings, a private jet was waiting, already fueled, for them. Even though Quatre didn't drink, he directed the stewardess to bring champagne for Duo, as well as an assortment of fresh fruit that had Duo practically purring. If Quatre was trying to win him over, the kid had the right idea – one of Duo's greatest loves was good food, and he thought nothing was better than the taste of fresh fruit.
"So, tell me more about this task force of yours." Duo was always suspicious of human law enforcement, and he wanted to prepare himself for the people he would be working with.
"Wufei Chang is the head of it. He's a…null?" Quatre was testing out the word that Duo had taught him for a human without any magical ability.
Duo frowned and then sighed. His memories of the Inquisition were still all too vivid. He knew what it was like to have a null on the right side of the law. It was never pretty.
"His deputy, Hilde Schiebeker. She's a witch."
"No, she's not at all religious. She's like me – she's just got some natural talent, and a little bit of training."
"You've got more than a bit of training," Duo argued. "I didn't even detect your magic when you first drove up."
"I detected yours. It's like a huge thunderstorm over your head."
Duo smirked. "Yeah, I've heard that from an ephemeral before. If you've been in the closet all of these years, how did you get training?" He had never been good at hiding his magic, had never really tried. Once, he had been accused of actually projecting his magic – as though he was looking for a fight.
Quatre sighed. "My family is Muslim, and my father emigrated here from Saudi Arabia. Have you ever heard of Sufis?"
"The mystics? Those guys that spin around in dresses?"
"Yes, those guys. Well, I spent three years living with some in the desert near Riyadh. I learned a lot from them, especially discipline. Since then, I've never been outed as a magic user. I can conceal my powers from other…ephemerals, and from magical beings."
"Hm. We'll see. The American Council isn't anything like the European Council, but there are some old and powerful bastards on it, all the same."
"As powerful as you?"
Duo snorted. "I worked for them. The weakest member of the Council is still strong enough to give me a run for my money."
"What kind of work did you do?"
Duo's smile was bitter. "Oh, sort of the same thing you're asking me to do."
"What happened to those necromancers, during the Civil War?" There was a certain wariness in Quatre's eyes, and Duo had to give him points for being a quick learner.
"What you always do with a necromancer. I burned them at a stake."
"You – you aren't joking."
"Not at all."
"So, you kill people."
"Not indiscriminately," Duo pointed out.
Quatre still looked shaken.
"Listen, this is why you wanted me. Actually, this is why you need me. That bleeding heart of yours is going to get you killed, and get a whole lot of innocent people killed, tortured, or enslaved. You need someone who's not afraid to get their hands dirty."
"Why do you do it?"
"That, quite frankly, is none of your business." It wasn't a subject Duo ever discussed, because it wasn't a simple discussion, and because it was too personal, too humiliating, for him to share with just anyone. It had been more than a century since he had last told anyone that much about himself, and he wasn't ready to open up again so soon. Especially not to someone he had just met.
"I'm sorry. You don't like me very much."
Duo sighed at the genuinely disappointed look on Quatre's face.
"I like you fine. I like you a lot. But I've met you before – not you, exactly, but ephemerals just like you." Frightningly like him, Duo added to himself.
"I'm guessing this isn't going to be one of those happy memories you've got hidden away."
"Perceptive of you. I've seen you get tortured, raped, murdered – countless times. You have so much faith in yourself, in humanity, but it won't be long before you realize just how wrong you are. It won't be long before the Council has you bowing to their every command." Duo sighed. "Which reminds me, you aren't anyone's servant, are you?"
"No. You're the first magical being I've met. Well, that I knew was a magical being, anyway."
"Right, well, if anyone asks, you're being courted, okay? Because if they realize that you're free, you're going to get conned into being someone's servant, and your life is going to get really shitty really quickly."
"I'm being courted?"
"Yeah, we're old fashioned, so we don't jump into anything. A lot of magical culture is also influenced by French customs, and so there's a lot of unnecessary bullshit and romance, sometimes. When I say I'm courting a human – or an ephemeral – it means I'm trying to convince them to be my servant."
"So I can't be forced into it?"
"Sure you can. Just sounds prettier if I say that I'm courting you instead of saying that I'm threatening to kill your family."
Quatre swallowed hard.
"All of the research I've done suggests that the North American Council is very different from the old, European Council. Different customs, different members. I thought that it was more progressive."
"In some ways, yeah. In others...it's the same as it ever was. Just, at your first meeting, don't do a lot of talking. Let them make their little show of power and look all impressed – but don't be intimidated. Don't agree to any of their demands. Just tell them that everything is under negotiation"
"Are you courting me?"
The question jarred Duo.
"If they ask – are you courting me?"
"They won't ask . That would be extremely rude. And… being my servant is not the way to make friends on the Council." Not to mention, a very quick way to get himself killed. The last servant Duo had had…well, it wasn't one of the happy memories he had tucked away.
"Have you ever had a servant?"
"Yes." Quatre looked ready to ask another question, but the look on Duo's face silenced him.
"You really don't have many good memories," Quatre muttered.
"Not many," Duo agreed.
Quatre spent the rest of the flight reading reports, and Duo tried to catch a few hours of sleep. The prospect of having to face his old masters on the Council in just a few hours was not one that filled him with a sense of excitement. He had made a lot of enemies on the Council, and if anyone knew how to hold a grudge, it was someone who had lived for a thousand years or more.
When they arrived in Las Vegas they were met by a chauffeur, who promptly informed Quatre that Agent Chang and Schiebeker had requested his presence at a crime scene. So, before Duo had even been on ground for ten minutes, they were off, already elbow deep in problems.
The Council meeting had been scheduled for one A.M. Duo explained to Quatre that it was a clear snub – any of the night dwellers on the Council were old enough and powerful enough to be awake at dusk, and making Quatre wait four hours after sundown for the meeting was forcing him to bend to their will. Duo supposed that, at the very least, this would be a way to kill time between now and the meeting.
The car drove them to an upscale condominium complex just off of the Strip, and as they rode the elevator up to the thirtieth floor, Duo got his first good look at Las Vegas. He had never been here. Not before the Council moved, and certainly not after. It was a glowing city, and he could practically taste the pulse of human life. Magic seemed to swirl through the air, and he wondered just how many Old Ones had relocated to the city.
When they arrived at their floor, the elevator doors slid open and they were greeted by a wall of blue uniforms. Duo grinned. He had never been to a human criminal investigation before – at least, not after the fact – and he was a little excited about the prospect of the new experience.
Quatre flashed the men a badge, and they parted like the Red Sea.
"Hm, will my badge let me do that too?" Duo asked as he followed the blonde man down the hall. Quatre gave him an arch look.
"I thought you didn't like badges."
Duo shrugged. "I dunno. Never really worn one. I should probably give it a try."
They walked to the last door on the left, but even before they arrived Duo could taste the recent death that hung in the air. That, and the powerful, emanating sense of dark magic pervaded the air. Unconsciously, he moved in front of Quatre.
"The area has been secured," Quatre scoffed, moving aside and then glaring when Duo moved with him, still blocking his path.
"By who?" Duo wanted to believe that his instinct to protect Quatre was nothing, but he started to examine his motives and realized that it was more. Quatre did remind him of ephemerals he had met before, but especially one in particular, and Duo knew that it was going to cause trouble. He sighed and stepped away so that Quatre could pass.
"Wufei and Hilde. I'm sure she can sense the magic just as well as I can, so she wouldn't have cleared it if it wasn't safe. Let me do my job." His eyes had a steely look in them.
"Right, but if you want me to do mine, then can we use a little caution? Don't touch anything, please."
Duo could see Quatre's exasperation and confusion, but the blonde gestured for Duo to proceed him.
What Duo saw immediately wanted to turn around and go back to Montana. He did NOT want to deal with this shit again.
The condo had been lavishly decorated in white – furniture, carpet, walls, accessories. Of course, most of that was now in shades of red and pink, with a majority of the blood concentrated in the center of the room. A woman's body was spread eagled, her skin split and peeled back from sternum to groin, and her body seemed to have been emptied of her internal organs, leaving an empty cavity behind.
Behind him, Quatre started to retch again. Duo made a mental note about working on that. It wouldn't do for the Arbiter to be throwing up every time he saw blood or a bad dream.
The room was clear except for two people. Quatre introduced them.
"Wufei, Hilde, this is Duo Maxwell. He is my new Consigliore."
Wufei Chang was tall and built like an athlete, his body a lean frame of muscle. His hair was shoulder length, but he wore it pulled back into a tight ponytail that pinched his already severe features. Duo had a strange desire to see the man with his hair loose. He imagined that it would change his face significantly.
Hilde Schiebeker, meanwhile, was petite and delicate looking. Her dark hair was cut boyishly short, and her long bangs framed large, dark eyes. Her magic brushed against him like waves in the sea, playful and enticing. Duo fell in love with her at first glance.
Duo grinned and waved. Hilde looked up from poking at the body with a stylus and gloved fingers to grin back.
Wufei looked on with a scowl.
"What are you?" He asked, his voice filled with disdain.
Duo looked at Quatre, who gave him an apologetic shrug.
"Well, according to Quatre I'm a US Marshal."
"That isn't what I meant."
"Wufei's big into defining people," Hilde confided.
"How's he define you?" Duo asked, ignoring the man in question.
Hilde shrugged. "Misguided but harmless."
"Harmless?" Duo echoed. There was no doubt that Hilde's appearance didn't indicate a force to be reckoned with, but her magic, as friendly as it seemed, was definitely powerful. He looked over her head at Quatre. Clearly, the blonde had reached the same conclusion.
"You need training," Duo said to her, "but even now you're anything but harmless."
She smirked and gave Wufei a knowing look.
"I don't like repeating myself," Wufei spoke up.
Duo rolled his eyes. He could tell that they were going to be such good friends.
"I'm not human, and that's as much as a null like you needs to know."
"A null?" Hilde echoed.
Duo sighed and gestured to the angry Chinese man.
"Reach out with your magic. Try to…shape it around him. Can you feel anything? And kind of resonance? Any echo?"
Hilde had to close her eyes, which meant that she definitely needed more training so that she could learn to focus with her eyes open. Duo stood at her side, and he could feel her reaching out towards Wufei.
"Nothing." She said.
"Right – now try Quatre. Um, Quatre, would you mind…spilling out just a bit?" Duo asked.
The blonde smiled, and an instant later a flood of lightness seemed to fill the room.
"Um, spill a little bit less, please," Duo instructed.
"Sorry. I'm not used to this." Quatre tried to pull some of his magic back in, leaving just a faint hint of what felt like sunshine on Duo's skin.
"I can feel him. He's…bright."
"Yep. He certainly is."
"What about you?" Hilde asked, turning to Duo.
"Um…we'll save that for another day. But, my point is, you can sense other magic users. Someone is a null if they have no Chang here is a classic null."
"I don't need to magic to do my job," Wufei growled.
Duo shrugged, really not in the mood to argue the point. He stepped closer to the body and instantly felt as though he had walked into a wall. He stumbled back with a curse.
With the others looking at him in confusion, Duo circled around the body, his hand extending, as he tried to feel the source of the interference. He made an entire loop but could feel no way past the magical barrier.
"Shit. How did you get in there?" He asked, looking at Hilde.
"Um, well, it was a bit complicated – you know, but I just did it one step at a time. Walking."
Duo could appreciate sarcasm, and God knew he liked to dish it out, but now was so not the time. He glared.
"The barrier – how did you get past it?"
"You don't – you can't feel the dark magic?"
She nodded. "Yeah, it's pretty faint though. We've already determined that the perp was a Super – er, sorry, that's our word for a magic user or magical being, short for supernatural – and that he, or she, was probably in the middle of some ritual. It looks like it wasn't finished, though."
"Ritual?" Duo had never pretended to care about rituals – that wasn't how he used his magic, and so he didn't care. He knew, however, that a lot of ephemerals relied on them to focus their will and their magic. "Do you have much experience in rituals?"
Hilde blushed. "A little. Not much. I joined a coven a few weeks ago, and I'm starting to work on it."
Duo nodded and looked past her to Quatre.
"She needs training. Do you have the time?"
Quatre looked uncertain. "Wouldn't you be better?"
"No way. Look, magic comes in all shapes, but it's…it's like this island, surrounding by shark infested water, and each of us find a way to get to it. Some people use a bridge, some people might use a boat, or a plane. And some of us just swim to it."
"What about the sharks?" Wufei asked sarcastically.
"Well, some of us scare the sharks more than they scare us. My point is, Quatre's magic is like… the Golden Gate bridge. It's good, it's solid. It's bright," he added, using Hilde's earlier description. "Hilde's is a little different, but it's still… light. Mine is something different, and the way I do things isn't the way I want her to learn how to. It's better if Quatre teaches her."
"Then I'll make the time," Quatre decided.
"Great, now that we've got that worked out. What kind of ritual?"
"Something dark – obviously. I can't detect any kind of signature on her – she's ah, a null, I guess. So I'm not sure why she was the vic. There are a few runes here, drawn in her blood. They're gateway runes though – directing energy somewhere." Hilde frowned as she pointed them out, and Duo vaguely recognized them. It had been a long time since he had had to deal with witchcraft.
She stood and started to walk towards him.
"Wait! Stop!" The command came from Quatre, and all of them whirled to look at him. "Sorry." He looked sheepish. "I just…I have a bad feeling. I don't think she should move."
Duo shrugged, taking it in stride. He had known empaths before who could sense the future, and he didn't question it.
"Directing what kind of energy?" Wufei asked, speaking up for the first time in several minutes.
Hilde frowned and turned back to the body and the bloody writing.
"Hm. It's not… it's… look at these two. Thurisaz and Ansuz, right by the gateway rune. I don't understand."
"Thurisaz – that's supposed to drive you crazy, right?" Duo asked, wracking his memory.
"It can," Hilde said.
"And what's Ansuz?"
"Good fortune…and. Oh shit." Her face went pale and she looked up to meet Duo's eyes.
"WHAT?" Wufei demanded.
"Immortality. The divine in humans."
"Magic," Duo translated for both Wufei and Quatre.
"Shit. Oh fucking, fucking shit." Hilde's mind was clearly as quick and cynical as Duo's own. She had immediately figured out her predicament.
"What? I – no. That isn't possible. You said that the vic wasn't magical." Wufei, too, had caught on. Duo looked back to see Quatre, pale and silent, and was glad that they were also such smart people.
"She isn't. She – damnit." Hilde ran one hand through her hair and gingerly reached out, her fingers tracing the same circle that Duo had found earlier. "This wasn't here before," she whispered, more to herself than anyone else.
"She was just the sacrifice to make the circle," Duo surmised. He sighed. "How long has your task force been assembled?" He asked Wufei the question.
The Chinese man frowned. "Six months, right when the legislation started to pick up momentum in Congress. Agent Schiebeker and I have been on site for the last four months, training our unit and working some smaller cases. This… this is the first thing like this we've encountered."
"So you haven't met any Old Ones?" They looked confused. "Magical beings? Supers? Whatever you call them."
"A few magic users," Hilde spoke up. There was a catch in her voice, but she seemed determined to remain calm. Duo was proud of her. It wasn't often that humans impressed him, but Quatre and Hilde had both done so very quickly. "No vampires, or shifters, or anything else."
"Hm. You two piss off any of these magic users?"
Wufei glared. "No, every one of them seemed so thankful that we arrested them and put them in silver cuffs. A few even wrote love letters."
"I can certainly understand their motivation," Duo shot back with a glare at Wufei.
"We need to get her out of there," Quatre interrupted their staring match.
"Yeah, that get's my vote too," Hilde said.
Duo ran a hand through his hair.
"This circle was made by an ephemeral – magic user – and it was made through a blood ritual. So… best way to cancel it out is more blood."
"You want me to open a vein?" Hilde asked, already grabbing her pocket knife.
"No!" Quatre and Duo shouted at the same time. They exchanged looks.
"That would be a very, very bad idea," Duo explained. "This ritual wants your blood. I think that's why Thurisaz was used. You need to bleed to complete this. No, it's got to be one of them." He gestured to Wufei and Quatre.
"Why us?" Wufei growled. "I'm sure you bleed just as well."
"My blood stays in my body. Sorry, kid," he added with an apologetic look at Hilde. "You don't want to deal with what happens when I start to bleed." And neither did he. Not after last time. He shuddered at the memory.
Quatre was looking a little squeamish, and so Duo turned to Wufei with a sigh.
"Looks like you're up, champ."
"I'm not –"
"Look, either you start dripping some red or she's going to die. Do what I tell you."
"You aren't my superior."
"Oh, sure I am. In every way." Duo said with a mocking grin.
"Wufei, please." The plea was from Hilde, and Duo watched as the Chinese man closed his eyes and seemed to resign himself to his fate.
"What do I do?" He demanded a moment later, opening his eyes and looking at Duo with a curiously blank expression.
"Well…" Duo paced as he thought. While he didn't know much about casting ritual magic, he had plenty of experience in breaking it. He couldn't count the number of times he had had to fight against witches.
"We need a talisman, something protective and aggressive. A knife would do… any chance any of you have a blessed knife?" They all looked at him blankly. He sighed. "Okay, that should be at the top of your equipment requisition list," he said to Wufei. "How about something silver?"
"My wedding band," Wufei said after a moment.
Duo arched an eyebrow. "My sweat is too acidic – it tarnishes gold. And silver – it doesn't matter." The Chinese man withdrew a silver chain from his neck, a silver ring dangling from it.
"That's actually pretty handy," Duo mused. And then, because his brain took interesting paths, he speculated on who the uptight man could possibly have convinced to marry him.
"What do I do with it?" Wufei demanded.
"Oh, right. Well, you need to bleed on it, and then we'll see if you can use it to cut her out."
"It's that simple?"
Duo shrugged. "Maybe. My guess is that this was a trap set for you two – and that whoever did it knew you wouldn't be able to figure out how to get her out. So… this was probably a really efficient plan. Except, of course, I showed up." Duo smirked.
Just then, Hilde shrieked. The sound was low, like that of a wounded animal, and she was clutching at her abdomen.
"What? What happened?" Wufei demanded.
"It's the spell," Quatre was starting to sweat, and Duo noticed him reaching for his own stomach. "It's starting to work on her. The body – it's acting like a…a voodoo doll or something. It feels like her organs are on fire."
Wufei went very pale, and even Duo started to worry. Hilde started to writhe on the floor, blood quickly soaking through her clothes. Behind them, Quatre sank to his knees, his jaw locked against the pain he was experiencing through Hilde.
"Does it help her – you feeling it?" Duo asked.
"A little, I'm trying to take as much as I can," Quatre panted.
"Keep it up, then," Duo said and then turned back to Wufei.
"Any time you're ready there, champ."
Wufei glared at Duo, but a cry from Hilde had him pulling out military issue pocket knife and slicing into the palm of his hand. A thick well of blood quickly formed and Wufei clutched the ring into it.
"Now what?" He demanded.
"Try to – you know, trace it against the barrier."
Wufei scowled and walked over to Hilde. He held the bloody ring up and started to draw a line towards the floor.
It took a moment, but then Duo felt it. The quiver of magic as the circle started to disintegrate.
"Quatre – shut it down! Pull back into yourself!" He directed in sudden alarm. He was remembering a broken circle, centuries ago, that had collapsed and killed the two ephemerals trying to fix it.
"But, Hilde – "
"Do it!" Duo ordered.
Quatre's drawn face met his own and seemed to accept his command. Duo instantly felt the room grown dimmer, and he was a little awed at just how much power Quatre had been exerting. As soon Quatre's magic disappeared, Hilde's sobs turned into screams. Duo winced.
Wufei finally managed to break the circle, and the wave of dark magic that exploded outward was intense. Quatre fell over backwards, and Duo could feel the electric chill of the magic deep in his bones. Whoever had set this circle was no witch out for a lark, but someone with some serious power. Which begged the question – why go after Hilde Schiebeker?
His musings were ended by the police charging into the room, guns out, fear and confusion all over their faces.
He focused on Hilde, who was currently cradled against Wufei, the fierce man's eyes daring anyone to comment.
"Those two?" Duo asked, looking at Quatre.
"No," Quatre panted, standing again. "They're just partners. He, ah, he's still pretty much devoted to his wife. Ex wife."
Duo looked at the two again. Maybe he was reading too much into the embrace, but after a millennia of observing human interaction, he was pretty sure he could differentiate between friendly and romantic affection, and this definitely looked like the latter.
It was another hour before they headed back to Quatre's penthouse apartment at the Aria. They saw Wufei and Hilde off to the hospital, and Quatre had to fill out paperwork for a while.
"Not much time before the meeting," Duo commented after looking at his watch.
Quatre gave him a tired look.
"I have a feeling that my introduction to the Council isn't going to be any more fun than yours to Hilde and Wufei.'
Duo smiled grimly.
"Nonsense, that was plenty fun. Haven't had so much fun in ages." Duo clapped a hand on Quatre's shoulder.
"Nice place you've got here," he commented as he walked through the high tech, very posh surroundings.
"You are welcome to stay as long as you like," Quatre offered.
"No thanks. I'll find a place tomorrow, but I would like to use your shower."
Quatre nodded and gestured for Duo to follow him.
"Of course. Your things are in the guest room. I, ah, what should I change into?" He gestured to the travel rumpled suit he had been wearing for no doubt a full day now.
"Here's the thing – the Old Ones on the Council have been around for, well, a LONG time. The longer you live, the more everything starts to feel the same – the only thing that really breaks up the monotony is, ah, how to put this delicately?" Duo tapped a finger on his lips while Quatre looked at him intently. Duo shrugged. "I don't think there is a delicate way. So, here goes: the Old Ones love to fuck humans. Simple as that. You all fascinate us. You're so different, so fragile – it's… pretty much one of our favorite pastimes."
Quatre's cheeks went red.
"So, with that in mind, dress to impress, ok?" Duo grinned, saluted him with two fingers, and shut the door in his face.
After a qucik, scalding shower he laid out his clothes on the bed, staring at the uniform he had thought never to put on again. The black leather pants were well worn, but an enchantment cast on them many years before meant that they still looked supple and new. The high collar black shirt was still crisp and severe. The black boots still polished and his throwing knives still tucked into the insides of each. He put on the familiar clothes and stared at himself in the mirror.
He was intimidating in the unrelieved black, and the dark clothes made his already pale skin look alabaster. Only his long braid of hair and his dark, indigo eyes offered a relief from the severe palette. He grinned at himself, the old grin that promised a slow, painful death.
The God of Death was back.
What most of the tourists in Las Vegas hadn't realized for decades – and likely still did not – was that the North American Council owned – if not outright, then at least a controlling interest – in nearly every casino on the Strip. Mandalay Bay was owned by the Head of the Council, and was the current headquarters for the Council.
Quatre led Duo through the crowds of humans, most drunk and stumbling about, towards the private elevators in the main lobby.
The air was thick with magic, old and powerful magic, from multiple sources, and it was throwing off Duo's equilibrium. It was also giving him flashbacks, and he had to force himself to bury his memories even deeper. He couldn't afford to let his past affect the present – and he definitely couldn't afford the risk of letting the Council know his weaknesses.
They took a private elevator to a penthouse at the top of the hotel, far away from all of the humans, and every foot they seemed to rise only increased the feeling of magic. Quatre seemed to sense it just as readily as Duo, and he watched as the blonde grew progressively tense the higher they rose.
When they at last arrived, they were greeted by two vampires. They were old – at least two hundred years or so – and powerful enough that it was clear they were supposed to act as bodyguards and bouncers.
"I am Quatre Winner. I have an appointment." Duo had instructed Quatre to act as if he owned the world, and the blonde seemed to be falling into the role with ease.
One of the vampires gestured for them to follow, and they did, the other vampire falling into step behind them.
The last time Duo had been to a Council meeting, it had been in Chicago, while that city was still new and full of danger. The meeting had been held in a brothel – a favorite front for the vampire who had been the Head of the Council at the time – and the Council had sat at the traditional round table.
It seemed that times had changed, however, because the large room they were led to had no round table, nor a table of any kind. It was a living room of some kind, filled with couches and arm chairs, each occupied by a man or woman who looked like a fashion model or movie star. Around the perimeter of the room there were a few more men and women. Seated at the feet of a few of the Council members were shape shifters in their animal forms. It was all a bit surreal, with the floor to ceiling windows on two sides of the room revealing the colorful skyline of Las Vegas, and the room practically reeking with magic.
He cleared his throat and Quatre seemed to remember himself.
"Good evening," he said, the model of good breeding and class, even in his electric blue silk shirt and fitted black pants. He looked like a GQ cover, and Duo was smirked internally when he noticed several Council members eyeing him.
"Welcome, Quatre Winner," a familiar, urbane voice spoke up. Duo felt chills travel down his spine.
Seated in a large, red leather armchair was a tall, aristocratic man with short, honey colored hair and piercing blue eyes. His wide, thin lips were curled into a smirk.
"I am Treize Khusrenada, the Head of the North American Council."
When Duo had last seen Treize, he had been a Council member, but he had not even been third in line for the throne. Duo wondered what had happened to change all of that.
"Ah… and look! You brought an old friend." Treize focused his gaze on Duo, and the look in his cold eyes was far from friendly. There was a large lion stretched out at Treize's feet, his massive head close to the man's knee, and Treize idly stroked his dark, reddish mane as he continued to hold Duo's gaze.
"The last time I saw you…why, I do believe you were disavowed from the Council, weren't you?" Treize turned away from Duo and looked at a woman seated to his right. She looked like an older, taller and infinitely more dangerous version of Hilde.
"For the murder of your maker," the woman supplied.
"Yes, yes, that's right. Thank you for reminding me, Lucrezia." Treize turned his cold gaze to Quatre.
"Did you bring him here to purposefully insult me?" He asked, his tone idle and deadly.
Quatre clearly had no idea how to proceed, and remained silent. The silence stretched, awkward and unbearable. Finally, Treize broke it with a brittle laugh.
"I'm only joking, of course. My maker deserved to be executed. Really, he did all of us a favor. Noventa was getting a little too set in his ways, and, well… we needed a change." Treize shrugged eloquently. "But I am curious, after Mr. Maxwell's very entertaining exit, he promised never to return to our service. Why did you bring him here?"
"He is my Consigliore," Quatre replied, his equilibrium back and his posture ramrod straight.
"What an interesting choice." Treize smirked again and leaned back into his chair. The lion at his feet laid his head down on his paws, large, intelligent green eyes regarding Duo and Quatre.
"Well," Treize said after a stretch of silence that Quatre refused to break. "It is with pleasure that I welcome you as the Arbiter between the Council and the United States Government."
Quatre inclined his head.
"Who was the last Arbiter, again?" Treize asked, his gaze shifting past Quatre to rest on Duo.
"Anthony Quinn," Lucrezia helpfully supplied. Her dark eyes seemed to be laughing at Duo.
"That's right. He was an empath, too, wasn't he?"
Quatre looked jarred. Treize chuckled.
"Oh – was it a secret that you were an ephemeral? I am ever so sorry. What ever did happen to Anthony Quinn? If I recall, he was actually quite useful to us. And an exceedingly powerful empath."
"Your maker had him executed." Lucrezia said, her tone suggesting that she was discussing the weather.
Duo forced himself to bury all possible emotion. He knew Treize well, and he knew the game the man was playing.
Treize's eyes were narrowed to mere slits.
"Hm. Why again?"
"His master committed treason against the Council."
"Oh yes, yes of course." Treize focused his gaze on Duo. "Should we expect history to repeat itself?"
"Well, since your maker isn't around to get his head cut off, I'd say things might go a little differently this time around," Duo said before he could help himself.
There was a moment of silence, and then Treize laughed. Most of the Council followed his example.
"Oh, I have missed you, Maxwell. See to it that you take better care of this one, hm?" Treize waved a hand in dismissal. "I will have my servant contact you Mr. Winner. I do hope you have a pleasant evening."
Quatre looked back at Duo, a little unsure of how to proceed. Duo jerked his head towards the door, and Quatre bowed and turned on his heel, leading the way out of the room.
It wasn't until they were out of the hotel and walking down the Strip at a brisk, angry pace that Quatre spoke.
"What the hell just happened?" He demanded.
Duo laughed, he couldn't help it. The tension from the meeting, coupled with this pale, fragile man turning to glare at him as though he could actually do anything to Duo – it was too much.
It was a few minutes before Duo could control himself, and he was sure he had given plenty of tourists fodder for their 'guess what happened in Vegas' tales.
"I'm sorry. I, ah, that was my fault."
"Obviously." Quatre sighed, and much of his anger seemed to fade away. "Who was Anthony Quinn?"
Duo's jaw clenched. "The last Arbiter. He was appointed back in 1878. After he… died, they didn't bother to appoint another one."
"Didn't seem much point. The nulls seemed to be blissfully unaware that a massive war had just taken place on their own continent –" Quatre's face showed his confusion – "yeah, my point exactly. After the Civil War ended, there was a lot of bad blood between those who had chosen sides and those who didn't – as I mentioned before, a lot of manipulation of humans occurred during that war. So, there was a good fifteen years of war between factions on the Council. But the nulls didn't seem to notice, and in 1900, when Anthony died, they left the position open."
"So I'm the first Arbiter in over a hundred years?"
"Yep. Don't you feel special."
"Who was Anthony Quinn?" Quatre repeated the question, and Duo knew he wanted a different answer.
"My servant." The admission brought on a fresh wave of guilt and fury.
Quatre was silent for only a moment.
"They said you committed treason? Was that when you killed Treize's maker?"
"No, that was after." Duo scrubbed his face with his hands. "Listen, is there anywhere we can grab a bite to eat?"
Quatre's eyes were filled with sympathy, and Duo was getting very tired of seeing that emotion there.
"I love sushi," Duo said, trying to muster up some enthusiasm.
Quatre managed to flag down a cab, and a few minutes later they were seated on the patio at an upscale Japanese restaurant, the deep bass thrum of music and flashing lights making it feel more like a club than a restaurant.
"So," Duo started again once they had a bowl of edamame settled between them. "I should probably explain just what, exactly I used to do for the Council."
"That would be nice."
"They have a name for me – well, I'm sure they have a few. They call me the God of Death."
Quatre frowned. "Why?"
"Couple of reasons. Turns out I'm damn hard to kill, myself, but also turns out I'm really, really good at killing other people. Back in the Old World I was the European Council's Executioner for three hundred years. I immigrated to the United States and I served the American Council in the same capacity. So, they call me the God of Death."
"You killed for them."
"Yeah. But, during the Fifteen Year War, things got a little…murky. Half the Council was plotting to overthrow the other half, and the Head was killed early on. There was never a majority to vote on who should become the next Head, so the throne was empty for twelve years. Which meant there was no one to give me orders. I, ah, took justice into my own hands, and eventually we managed to restore order."
"Yeah, me, and a few Council members who weren't crazy bastards. Anyway, order was restored, Noventa was chosen as the new Head, and we had a few years of peace. Anthony was appointed to be the Arbiter."
"So, you had peace for… twenty two years. Then what happened?"
"Well, someone decided that I should be punished for carrying out executions without a warrant. In case you didn't guess, that someone was Treize. So, I was found guilty of treason against the Council." This part was hard to tell, mostly because he already relived it each night when he closed his eyes. "I, ah, I can't be executed by the American Council – which is a long story not worth telling – so, because that was the judgment passed, they decided to execute the next best thing. My servant." The look on Anthony's face when that verdict had been announced still haunted him – that quiet acceptance.
Quatre was frowning.
"Yep. So, ah, they decided to execute him like they would have executed me."
"I don't understand."
Duo sneered. "Well, with tricky bastards like me, you can't just cut off the head and burn the heart. You've got to encase them in silver – just to make sure that I'm never resurrected."
"Encased in –" Quatre abruptly broke off.
"Yep. Poured molten silver onto him."
"While he was alive?"
"Of course." Duo couldn't add more details – couldn't tell him that he had been the one to tie Anthony's hands and remove his clothes and talismans. He wouldn't tell him that Anthony had remained silent, tears streaming down his face, as the silver burned over his flesh. Anthony had been a powerful empath, likely more powerful – or at least better trained – than Quatre. He and Duo had perfected the art of sharing and projecting thoughts and emotions, to the point where they could hold an entire conversation without actually speaking. But that day, as Anthony slowly and painfully died before his eyes, Duo could feel nothing. Anthony shut him out so completely that it was as though no connection had ever existed.
"I – that's barbaric."
"Well, Noventa was an old Roman soldier." Duo shrugged.
"So, you killed him for killing your servant?"
"Hell yes." He had enjoyed every second of that crusty relic's pain, and had taken vicious delight in pouring molten silver down his throat, burning him up from the inside out. Cutting his head off had just been for show, the vampire could not have survived the silver inside of him.
"Why wasn't that treason?"
"It was. But, like I said, the American Council can't kill me. So, I was disavowed and I walked away."
"Yeah – my authority as Executioner was revoked. If I kill another Old One, I'll be put in a silver box for a century."
"But they can't kill you."
"They can sure as hell try," Duo muttered.
"So, most of those Council members hate you."
"Not at all. As Treize said – I did them a fucking favor. Now, they're running it the way they always wanted to. Noventa was Old World, and they are very New World. They're afraid of me, is what they are. In all of our history, no one had ever dared to assassinate a Council Head without support from other Council members."
Quatre was frowning again, looking thoughtful. "So, this works in our favor, a bit."
"Yeah, I suppose so. Don't get me wrong – there isn't a fan club or anything."
"Duo, I'm sorry about Anthony."
Duo knew that Quatre was sincere, he could feel the fresh wave of sympathy from the blonde, but there was no possible way that Quatre could come close to understanding the loss that Duo had experienced. To punish himself, and Quatre, he spoke again.
"He was with me for fifty years. Average lifespan of an ephemeral is about one hundred, hundred and twenty years. If you're a servant, that'll give you another fifty years or more – depending on how powerful your master is. He'd still be with me now, if he wasn't a fucking statue."
Duo inclined his head once.
"Are all servants and masters like that?"
"No. Take Treize – there's no way he'd screw Une, ever. He chose her because she's a devious bitch who is devoted to helping him take over the world. Most of us, though, we choose our servants because we want more time with them."
"They seemed to assume I was already your servant."
"Yeah, well…" Duo sighed and went for broke. "You like just like him. It's downright creepy, come to think of it. His eyes were more green, though, and he had a bit of a tan – not like your pale self."
That kept Quatre quiet for a few, long moments. Duo ate, the food tasting strangely like ashes in his mouth.
"Did you know tonight would go like this?" Quatre eventually asked.
"Yeah, I had a pretty good idea that it would."
"You came anyway."
"You need my help. Besides, I've got nothing better to do."
He felt the wave of warmth and sunlight Quatre directed at him and he fought against it, refusing to give in to the feelings.
He looked up into eyes that were so familiar, and yet very different. He sighed and closed his eyes and let Quatre Winner's dazzlingly magic grant him a moment of peace.
He knew that it would end soon enough.
Up Next: A blind date, and an old...friend.