4 – illumination

The footsteps alone are not sufficient to make him stir. Not even that there are two steps, or that one of them sounds especially harried.

“My Lord?”

He exhales a silent sigh at the second disruption of the day. The first had been some lowly soldier who shouldn’t have been allowed in at all, claiming he’d found a hybrid that would be useful to him. A weak half-fae who could barely conjure up any magic at all. His chambers still smelt of three kinds of blood.

“My Lord, I apologize for interrupting you, but I believe we’ve done it.”

“You believe, or you have, Baathin?” he asks, his voice echoing through the room.

“I’ve found him. My brother. It’s what you wanted, right? Another of us, to keep building your army? To rid the world of the parasites?”

One brow arching at the unexpected voice, Axtaroth turns.

He recognizes her, of course, although this is the first time she’s been conscious in his presence. To his surprise, she shows no sign of fear. Even Baathin averts his gaze nervously, as he should, but the experiment meets his eyes, something almost arrogant in her gaze.

No, he thinks, feral. Broken.


A success, finally. He takes a moment to study her as she is now. Still tiny – barely larger than an imp – although her teeth and claws are sharp, her eyes full of hungry rage. Even the one he’s been told is unseeing, clouded over in purple and white.

The cost of progress.

“And tell me, little hunter, what is your name?”

“Shaelynn. Shaelynn Hansen. But you already knew that, since you’re the one who’s kept me here for I don’t even know how many years,” she snarls.

Axtaroth laughs. If only all of his experiments turned out so well. Then, he would have conquered that worm-infested planet millennia ago. “Send Guxyon and Caacrinolaas to me. Soon it will be time.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

“And why would I do this?” Max asks, frowning.

“As an apology for stabbing me?”

“You mean to save your life?” One of his black eyebrows arches.

“Yeah, sure. After your family shot me. Fine, to protect the pack that’s now yours too. To protect your alpha, your mate, and her second.”

Max sighs. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”

“What, that hunters were making pacts with demons? Fascinating take on this, dude. Look, if you don’t want to help me, fine. I’ll do it myself.”

“Kidnap a hunter and break them to make them summon a demon? Or do you intend to do it yourself?”

“If that’s what it takes,” Ari says stonily.

Pinche chingón, no mames-“ Max shoves a hand in his hair and turns in a slow circle. “¿Quieres morir? Porque ésa mierda es cómo tú mueres.”

“Mejor yo que él.”

Max inhales slowly, then sighs. “Fine, pero tengo que decirle a Astrid. No sé qué mierda ustedes hacen, pero me quedé aquí por una vida en la que no tuve que mentir.”

Ari shrugs then nods. That wasn’t something they could argue with.

The next day, Ari is called into Reuben’s office before they can even sit down at their desk. It’s no real surprise that Max and Astrid are both there, although they’re not sure if it’s a relief.

“Have a seat,” Reuben says, leaning against his desk, arms crossed. It’s a position Ari has seen him take before, when he’s slightly off-guard or uncomfortable.

Seeing it now makes them uneasy.

“¿Le dijiste?” Ari asks flatly, flicking a glance at Max.

“You never stop being full of surprises, do you?” Reuben asks before Max can reply.

Not that it seemed like he was going to.

And Reuben already knew they spoke Spanish, so there’s only one thing he can be referring to- “Sir it’s a good plan.”

“It’s some Machiavellian shit is what it is.”

“To be fair, sir, we’re dealing with literal demons. I’m watching my mate lose his fucking mind, and I want to know why. I want to make it stop.”

“And you’re willing to risk both yourself and Max for that? To put my daughter’s – your future alpha‘s – mate in danger?”

“It shouldn’t come to that,” Ari grits out, fighting back a snarl.

“I could command you not to,” Reuben says, tone clipped. Flat. Empty.


Ari’s gaze doesn’t leave Reuben, though. The steady control over his breathing. His scent. The way he makes sure to only exude power and confidence.

But even he can’t control the frantic little thumpthumpthumpthump in his throat.

So instead of saying that he could try, that he’d have to break Ari first, they say, “I’ll be careful. But I have to do something. Please. It’s Tate.” It’s little more than a breath, not meant for anyone’s ears but his.

Exhaling a shaky sigh, Reuben straightens and pulls Ari out of the chair and into a crushing embrace. “Be careful,” he growls, every bit a command.

“I will. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure Max makes it back safe,” they whisper.

“Not just Max. You too.”

Ari nods, face smushed against his chest.

Reuben releases them, returning to his position against his desk. He twists to where Astrid sits in his chair, looking tense, and says, “You two can go. I’m sure you have things to take care of before they leave.”

The look she gives him is verging on angry, but she nods and stands. Whatever she has to say, Ari knows she’ll say it where no one else – probably not even Max – will hear.

Once they’re gone, Reuben relocates to his chair. “Well?” he says after a moment.

Like it’s a regular morning. Like this is their regular meeting. Taking a breath, Ari briefs him on the day, all updates, their work and Tate’s. “Everything of mine has been properly labeled and filed. It should-” they take a breath. “It should be easy for someone else to pick up, if I don’t-“

“Ari,” he interrupts firmly, “we’re all getting through this alive. I might finally have to put Tate in fucking therapy, but we will. All. Get. Through. This. Understand?”

Swallowing, Ari nods. Inhales the overpowering scent of alpha calm and returns to their desk.

That evening, they go home to find Tate stretched out on his stomach on the couch. He’s not asleep, although it’s a close thing.

“Hey,” Ari says softly, toeing out of their shoes before lying down on top of him.

“Hey,” Tate mumbles.

“Kyah home?”

“Mhm. Should be up soon. She works tonight, I think.”

Ari nods; they knew that, but not if she’d left yet. They’re not sure if this is better or worse.

Getting to say goodbye to both of them.

Having to lie to both of them.

“How’s your day?”

“Fine,” Ari says, breathing in the familiar smell of him. Fighting the want.

They’re not sure which feeling sucks more – feeling Tate question his sanity day in and day out and not being able to truthfully tell him he’s going to be ok or the cyclical guilt stemming from the fact that even though he’s falling apart, Ari wants him anyways.

Up, Tate half-asks, even his thoughts fuzzy and distorted from exhaustion.

Ari pushes onto their hands and knees and Tate turns into his back before pulling them back down.

“I’m sorry,” he says, which means Ari didn’t catch the thought quite fast enough.

“It’s ok.”

“No it’s not.”

Sighing, Ari tucks their face against his throat. I love you. Still. Always.

“I know,” Tate says quietly.

It feels like he believes it, this time.

When Kyah wakes up, Tate forces himself closer to consciousness. She still worries. Visibly. Obviously. Even though he shoves himself up off of the couch and kisses her with a tenderness that makes Ari’s chest ache.

The two of them will be ok, even if the worst happens to Ari. And they don’t intend to let that happen without at least getting answers for Tate, not that they want it to happen at all.

But still, if this is the end of the timer on their second chance- if it comes down to it and that’s the trade they have to make, they will.

“Ari? You ok?”

“Yeah, just tired,” they say, managing a smile.

Tate cocks his head, but doesn’t seem to have picked up on Ari’s brooding in detail. He’s too tired – barely even able to hold on to his own thoughts half the time.

“Reuben decided at the last second to send me to take a look at something and he’s making me take Max.” It’s only sort of a lie, so neither of them catch it.

Ari trades Tate places, kissing Kyah greedily. More than what a hello or a see you later merits, but they’re sure she’ll write it off as something else, at least until after.

“You’re gonna make me late for work,” she says with a sharp little smile.

“Don’t hold it against ‘im. It’s because someone won’t put out,” Tate says, fitting himself to Ari’s back and nosing at their throat.


Says who?

The familiar thrill of it makes Ari shiver, even as it means they have to be more careful. Because he sounds clearer, if only for a moment. More present. But god, if it isn’t a welcome burst.

Kyah breathes a laugh that sounds like disbelief, likely for the same reason. She kisses Ari again, then reaches past them to touch Tate’s cheek. “You know what time you’re leaving?” she asks, looking back to Ari.

“Probably after breakfast.”

“I’ll try to get out early.”

Nodding, Ari lets her go.

Tate still holds on to them, though, his nose still pressed to Ari’s shoulder.

“Shower or bed?” they ask.

He sighs, and Ari can feel the cracking rockslide of exhaustion. The knowledge that he should shower, but wants to sleep. Desperately wants anything that’ll make him not feel like this anymore.

“I meant it,” he murmurs, mouth drifting to Ari’s throat. “I know this hasn’t been-” easy.

“Tate,” Ari says, voice tight. Because they shouldn’t. Because they can feel how it’s such a distant thing for him. But everything in them is made to respond to him and respond they do, pressing back against him even as they try to argue.

Tate whines, clutching Ari closer.

The guilt is stronger. The thought that he’s failing Ari, as well as Ari’s own that this is even vaguely a concern.

“Ari, please-“

It hits them, then – the weight of the fact that they still want Tate. The impact it has on him. The value. It’s something he clings to, much like the way he clings to Ari now, desperately scrabbling for a reminder of something that doesn’t feel like this.

Ari twists to kiss him, a relief all of its own. Especially when Tate lets out a shocked groan, his grip shifting to turn them to get a better angle.

They stumble toward the shower, almost like they’re drunk. That’d be easier. Nicer than the reality where Tate doesn’t trust himself enough to pick Ari up. But they get there, and with a wall for support, things smooth out.

Through some combination of muscle memory and sheer willpower, the combination of Tate’s fingers and his lips on their throat bring Ari to the edge with a force that threatens their own ability to remain upright.

He smiles, eyes closed, and presses a soft kiss to the hinge of their jaw.

“Come on,” Ari mumbles, turning off the water. “We’re clean enough.”

Tate exhales a laugh. The hint of a dirty joke forming in his mind just before he yawns.

Ari pulls him close and kisses him before anything else, the question unspoken. Do you want to-?

It gets them a groan – a jumbled mix of need and frustration. “I’ll probably fall asleep on you,” he admits.

Or in me.

That makes Tate shiver. He’s hard for the first time in what feels like forever, the interest actually there on the surface. So what if he passes out before his knot has gone down?

“It’s ok,” Ari says, pushing onto their toes to kiss him. “Let me take care of you.”

“You’ve been taking care of me for weeks.”

“So I’m pretty sure a little bit longer won’t hurt anyone.” They push the shower door open and grab a towel, slinging it around Tate’s shoulders before reaching for another.

Once they’re dry, Ari tugs Tate back into the bedroom, all the while carefully mentally feeling out the edges of his interest. Of what he wants versus what he needs.

Tate makes part of the decision for both of them, though, pulling Ari on top of him and kissing them again.

Yeah? Ari asks, making full use of the fact that they don’t always need words.

In reply, Tate moans and rolls his hips, his cock shoving between Ari’s thighs.

They breathe a laugh and shift, angling their hips to sink back down onto him.

Fuuuuuck. It’s a shared, echoed thought almost drowned out by Ari’s wordless cry and Tate’s whine. The feeling is impossibly good, especially after so long. The familiar heat and weight of him inside, the comfort of Tate’s arms, keeping them close. The wet drag each time Ari rolls their hips.

And the relief- The only thing that’s come close outside of a cycle is the first time, when Tate couldn’t quite believe what was happening. That he was getting to have this.

Don’t stop-

Ari has no intentions of doing anything of the sort. They’re too close, both of them. The need is too great. Something they can practically taste.

Tate’s teeth close on Ari’s shoulder as he comes, although not quite hard enough to break the skin for a third time. Hard enough to push Ari over the edge again, though, their body clenching tightly around the thick swell of his knot.


“Mhmm,” Tate hums, nose and lips brushing over Ari’s hairline. Then he yawns, again.

Reaching up, Ari cards their fingers through his hair. “I love you.”

Tate makes a wounded little sound, his cock pulsing again. “I love you.”

“I’m going to find a way to fix this.”

His arms tighten around Ari’s ribs as he exhales a sigh. I don’t think I’m worth all of that, the silent, traitorous thought says.

“Yes you are. You saved my life. Now it’s my turn. That’s what we do.”

Tate sighs once more, although this one is equal parts yawn. And then, his breath levels off into the slow, shallow rhythm of sleep.

Ari presses a kiss to his chest and shifts carefully, trying to get as comfortable as they can like this. They’ll stay there until morning, if it means he sleeps.

Max’s nose wrinkles before he can stop it.


“You smell like- never mind.”

“What, like Tate? Yeah that’s probably because he’s my mate. We live together. Sleep in the same bed. Y’know, normal-ass fucking stuff.”

Max snorts and tosses his bag into the back of the Jeep.

“Wha- Seriously dude? What are you, twelve?”

He rolls his eyes.

“Is this what it’s going to be like the whole time? Because I’ll just go by myself.”

“And get yourself killed,” Max mutters.

“Then can you at least tell me what your sudden fucking problem is? Like, you were way cooler when you first got here and everyone hated you.”

That stings, a little, because Max hadn’t meant to- he’s never meant to. That’s the problem. None of this was supposed to happen, and then it’s only gotten weirder from there. He sighs and says, “I’m driving.”

“What? N- y’know what, whatever. Fine. Drive. But I get the music.”

“Whatever,” Max says, climbing into the driver’s seat.

Giving Ari control over the music turns out to be a mistake. After the sixth song, Max says, “Ay Dios, is this how you intend to torture someone into making a deal with a demon? Because two more songs and you’ll have me ready to do it to save us a step.”

And Ari laughs.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” Ari lies. And then, “As much nothing as your problem with us.”

This is far more bitter. Biting. True.

“What is it, some sort of weird, fucked up like, homophobic thing? Or is it something personal?”

Max sighs. “It’s not… you. And before you jump down my throat and say a problem with him is a problem with you, just- don’t.”

Ari turns the music up.

After a couple of miles, Max turns it back down. “Look, it’s me. I’m the… problem.”

“Yeah, no shit.”

“Are you always this charming, or is it just me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Oh my god,” Max growls, turning into a gas station. “I’m trying to have an actual conversation with you but you keep just-”

Ari’s eyebrows raise, one slightly higher than the other. “No, go ahead. Continue,” they say, tone dangerously controlled.

“What is the point in me trying to talk when you always seem to have all of the answers? Just tell me what my problem is so we can get this over with.”

“Well maybe if you were less of a bitch-”

“Yeah, my life would be a lot fucking easier. I know. That’s what I’m trying to get to but I can’t because you just- say things. You open your pretty little white boy mouth and say whatever you want, you come here and you get the best of all worlds, everyone loves you-”

“So what, you’re jealous now? Dude you’re literally mated to the alpha.”

“Yes and I do not fit here. Even she knows it. You said it yourself. Everyone here hates me. And Astrid has an entire life of her own that is the exact opposite of everything I have ever known and I do not know if I will ever have an actual place in it.”

Ari laughs again, and for a brief moment Max wonders if he could get away with murder on this trip.


“And how many people have you tried to talk to since you’ve been here? Because I know for a fact that you know where to find me and you’ve done it, what, once since you’ve been here? And actually, that doesn’t even count because I found you to see how you were settling in. You could have friends and shit by now if you actually tried.”

“Easy for you to say,” Max mutters.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“That you were turned by Astrid’s second and then went and claimed both of them. Your place here has been secured from the get go, then to top it off you somehow managed to become her father’s right hand.”

“Dude are you being serious right now?”

“Do I look like I am joking?” Max asks, arching one eyebrow.

“No, you look super scary and badass.”


“No, fuck you. You look like an asshole with a stick up his ass who doesn’t have the first fucking clue what he’s talking about. You’ve been here for what, a year now? And you still don’t know a single thing.”

He sighs again and pinches the bridge of his nose. “I know.”

There’s a moment of silence, and then Ari says, “You don’t know how to have friends, do you?”


Ari inhales loudly.

“Look, I don’t know how to do any of this. It was easier before I knew what little bit I do, and definitely before there were expectations of me.”

“You mean other than that you were inherently a piece of shit because you’re a hunter.”

“Yes. Other than that.”

Smiling at him entirely inexplicably, Ari says, “Dude stop worrying so much. Like. Stop trying to be… whatever it is you think you’re supposed to be and just. Be Max.”

Max groans. “Have you not been listening this entire time? Because again I will say easy for you to say, pendejo.”

“Hey, fuck you. Ok look. Are we gonna do this right now? You want my full fucking tragic backstory? Right now? Fine. I ended up here because I tried to kill myself and Tate turned me – against my will – to save my life. After that I spent the better part of a year simultaneously terrified of him and hating him, while Kyah kept me at arm’s length because she was scared I’d leave her for him. She still won’t let us- her parents won’t fucking accept it. Tate more than me, which sucks man, I can’t even tell you how much because it kills him and I feel every fucking second of it and can’t say a goddamn thing about the fact that they’re hypocritical and ignorant because he’s the best man on the face of this planet. And you talk about me being Reuben’s right hand? Yeah, I’ve earned it every single fucking day since he gave me the job. You have no idea the things I’ve done for this pack. For my family. I get up every day and I try,” Ari says raggedly. “If anyone just walked in here and had shit handed to them, it’s you, but you don’t see us treating you any differently because of it. So if you could make up your goddamn mind if you’re gonna be a dick or not, that’d be great because I’m really fucking tired and have shit to do.”

Exhaling shakily, Max closes his eyes for fear that they might be wet.

“Look, dude,” Ari says, voice still rough, “I came to you with this for a reason. You know things that no one here does. You could be a force to be reckoned with, and probably a really cool person on top of it. But you’ve gotta get that stick out of your ass, man. I know it’s not easy, and I can’t begin to imagine what things were like before you got here. But you have a second chance. You can have a whole new life.”

“Turn around.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I can’t deal with people seeing me like this,” Max says, scrubbing at his eyes with his hands.

He hears Ari breathe what sounds suspiciously like a laugh, but there’s the sound of shifting too.

“Thanks,” Max says once he can breathe again. And he means it. Not that he likes any of it, but it’s… the closest he’s come to a real conversation in so long. At least one that wasn’t with Astrid, and even with their no lies agreement, she’s… an alpha. The truth shifts as she needs it to. “It’s- I’ve been around the same people my entire life. And they might have been horrible, but at least I knew them. I knew where I stood. Here, everyone has… history. And I know it’s a problem with me – inside of me – but it’s still hard.”

“So what, all of this because Tate and Astrid fucked in college?” Ari asks bluntly, turned back around now to look at him questioningly.

“Fuck, I mean, kind of? Like I know it’s stupid, but how am I supposed to- I mean look at him.”

Ari snorts. “Oh trust me, I have. And not- ok yeah I laughed and I’m only sort of sorry. But also, I get it. Like I said, there was a solid time where I was legitimately scared of him. Which isn’t like, quite the same? But there was a lot of measuring up involved. I can tell you now though that Astrid has zero interest in that as like, any sort of serious thing. I mean like. None. The extent of her interest is in crushing their egos and she doesn’t even care about that anymore. It’s all you, Max. You’ve got the bitemark to prove it.”

“Ok but you can’t tell me his dick’s not huge.”

At that, Ari laughs again. Loudly. “It’s like, slightly above average. But c’mon man, you know as well as I do that they sell that shit in any size.” And then, clearly reading something in Max’s expression, “At least… you should? No? Bro, ok they even sell them with knots. Fuck, alright if we make it through this, just like- call it a thank you present for helping me.”

“I’m starting to hope we don’t,” Max groans, hiding his face in his hands.

“You’re sure about this?” Max asks for what has to be the millionth time.

Ari shushes him again, carefully completing the last circle on the floor. It’s intricate. Exactly like the text described. It should – should – be perfect. He takes a picture, as much for record keeping as anything, and send it to Cole’s number even though they’re sure he won’t answer.

> Could really fucking use your help on this one if you’d like to pick now to respond again. Swear to god if I see you again I’m embedding a life alert in your ass or something.

The message is delivered, but there’s no answer. Ari sighs and shoves the phone back in his pocket.

“Sure as I can be. You can still leave, though.”

Max snorts. “If I was gonna do that, it would’ve been before we robbed a church and kidnapped a hunter.”

“What, you think I’m gonna rat you out or something?”

“I think we’re past that point in our relationship, abismo.”

Because that’s what Max is calling him now. A bottomless pit. Whatever, Ari would take affectionately and creatively being called an insatiable slut over the earlier animosity that Max actually meant.

At least this wasn’t actually wrong. But that thought leads to the message he’d left unanswered from Tate, saying that he missed Ari already and fuck Reuben and his stupid assignment, come home, please.

Even from this far, he can feel the silent plea. The way the darkness seems to swallow Tate just a little bit more when he’s actually on his own. It makes him laugh – entirely humorlessly – because for all Max likes to talk about how he and Astrid don’t have secrets, he clearly still doesn’t even vaguely understand what that actually means.

Because the reality of that means that Ari pulls his phone out again. Has to respond.

> I’ll try to get back soon. I love you.

Tate > I know, I’m just being dumb. Love you too.

He sighs and shoves it back into his pocket. “Ok. Let’s bring him in.”

The hunter they’d chosen was a piece of work. One of Max’s cousins who – on top of being a fucking werewolf hunter – was just an all around piece of shit. Exactly the kind of person Ari had no qualms about sacrificing to a demon.

Max had gotten them in, but after that, things had happened fast. If not for the werewolf speed and strength, which he clearly picked up on just a moment too late, they might have failed entirely.

But they hadn’t.

They pull him out of the back of the Jeep and drop him into the chair, careful not to disturb any of the intricate sigils on the floor as they tie him into place.

“How long before he wakes up?”

Ari checks his watch. “Shouldn’t be long now.”

The worry claws deeper into the pit of Tate’s stomach.

“Still nothing?”

He shakes his head. Absolutely nothing; straight to voicemail nothing.

“Hey, c’mere. I’m sure everything is fine,” Kyah says, reaching for him.

Tate wraps around her, burying his face in her chest. “It doesn’t feel like nothing.”

“I know. And I’m not… doubting you. But I know you’re also going through a lot right now,” she says.

That’s a generous way of putting it, but Tate’s grateful for it. Truth be told, a part of him had barely expected to see her with Ari gone. Like maybe she’d stay with her parents or work the entire time or something. But no. She’s here, with one hand in his hair and her other scratching gentle trails up and down his back.

He presses a lazy kiss to whatever his mouth reaches – the side of a boob, maybe – and lets his mind drift. Not quite sleep, although he feels Kyah’s breathing level off, but close.

No, he can only sleep at all with Ari there, and even that’s not a sure thing.

And now? When he’s pretty sure Ari is in danger? There’s no way.

So he’s still awake when his phone vibrates. A text, not a call.

Ari > You awake?

Tate pushes call and carefully slips out of bed.

“Hey, I didn’t wake-“

“Are you ok?”

He hears Ari’s sigh, almost as tired as he feels. “Sort of. You?”

Tate hums noncommittally.

“Yeah. Yeah that-” Ari sighs again. “Kyah’s not awake, is she?”

“No.” He listens for a moment, but her breathing hasn’t changed. “No, she’s still asleep. Why, should I get her?”

“No, let her sleep. We’ll be back soon. I’d rather explain everything when I’m home anyways.”

“Ari, what’s going on?”

“It’s- I’m ok, so you can stop worrying about that. But um. Look, just. Stay awake if you can until I get there. Please. I know that’s like, the exact opposite of what I’ve been saying for weeks but-“

“You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t think I’ve slept since you left.”

“Yeah, I know. I can feel it.”

Tate sighs, hating this. Hating all of it, but what he’s doing to Ari most of all.

“Stop,” Ari says quietly.

“How long before you’re home?” he asks, rather than say any of the other things he could.

“Couple of hours. Less if Max would let me drive. He drives like a fucking grandpa.”

I’m going six over,” Tate hears Max hiss from the background.

He snorts. “Ok. I’ll be here.”

“Yeah, ok,” Ari says quietly.

Neither one of them wants to hang up. The distance is too great for them to get a clear signal from each other – like a radio station out of range – but with Max in the car, staying on the phone is weird. So eventually Tate sighs and hits the end call button.

Ari > Love you. I’ll be home soon.

> Love you too

“So do you want the good news or the bad news?” Ari asks from Tate’s lap, words muffled against his skin.

Kyah’s sitting at the other end of the couch, half awake. Not the half that can handle being touched, for all that she’d let Ari kiss her cheek when he got home.

She says good at the same time that Tate says bad.

“Good news, you’re not going crazy,” Ari says, having already decided it was better to lead with that. “Bad news, uh. There’s like, some king of hell building an army to try to wipe out life on earth so he can take it over.”

“Oh,” Kyah says, blinking over the edge of her coffee mug. “Shit.”

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