fic, art and original work by lio

fanfic fanart original work the forsaken and the forsworn about

The Faithless and the Forlorn

jump to story

The Forsaken and the Forsworn
Gabriel Berthelot/Hugo Melançon
Gabriel Berthelot, Hugo Melançon, Vidakai
August 2022
Extremely Dubious Consent • Not Safe or Sane • Magic-Users • Pirates • Blood and Violence • Attempted Murder by Drowning • Breathplay • Hair Braiding • Ruined Orgasm • Betrayals (Assorted) • Soulbonds (Broken) • Lovers to Enemies to It's Complicated • Oh My God They Were Exes


After surviving both furystorms and an unanticipated reunion with Gabriel—and now with a powerful artifact secretly in his possession—Hugo has a dangerous decision to make when it comes to finding his way out of the Unchartables.

But as far as Gabriel is concerned, the choice is no longer in his hands.

Gabriel wakes to blue skies and an empty horizon.

His arms are not so empty, and he curses under his breath that no ship has come to spare him this thrice-fucked situation. Small mercy that Hugo still sleeps like his head's made of rock, so at least he can get himself untangled without waking him and sending things headlong into a fourth godsdamn fucking of one sort or another. The balmy daybreak has him sweating all down his side where they're pressed together, which is only further encouragement to roll Hugo off him post-haste.

While Gabriel gets to his feet and shakes out the sand that's settled into the folds of his slops, Hugo curls in on himself under the red puddle of his commodore's coat. The gold pips on the collar glimmer in the early sun. Thinking about the kind of shit he must've perpetrated to earn them—yeah, after the privilege of having his hide stripped—strains the goodwill Gabriel had conjured for him in the furystorm.

The Hugo he knew would have employed his talent at being an underhanded, vindictive son of a bitch to exact his revenge, not climb the ranks and sit pretty.

The rush of anger the thought gives him is familiar and good, but not dangerous like the other familiarities Hugo's presence here brings. It's a righteous hate, one that reminds him that this morning is not a precious treasure to hoard, no matter if he can still feel the sting of Hugo's teeth in his lip. No matter what he might have said last night. No matter what Hugo had said.

Just thinking on all that is a suckerpunch straight from all seven hells, and that ain't a way of feeling a man should endure for long if he can do something about it, so Gabriel uncovers his cutlass where it's half-buried in the sand and brings the blade to Hugo's bare neck. His eyes twitch back and forth under closed lids when the honed edge kisses his throat, but he doesn't stir. Gabriel takes a moment to relish the way the blade dimples his skin, thinking about how he could solve damn near all his problems—past, present, and sure as hells all his future ones—with a bit of routine bloodshed.

Better to do it now than wish it done later. Like when he has to explain himself to his crew.


Dark doubts wing at the edges of his thoughts. His offer of passage off the island was half genuine, half bargaining chip, all bad idea. Typical of Hugo to point out the problem right away, even if he had taken Gabriel at his word despite knowing that as oath breaker and traitor in the fold's eyes, he's marked for death twice over. As the fold's future Patriarch, it's Gabriel's solemn duty to deliver him to the Fury piece by ritual piece.

Bringing him on board for any other reason isn't gonna hold water. His people will listen when he tells them to keep their steel stowed, though he'll have all sorts of dissent and discontent on his hands. Everything has a price. All Gabriel has to do is decide if Hugo is worth what he'll cost him.

Yeah. Simple as that.

The sun falls between the foliage in brilliant stilettos, glancing off his cutlass and painting Hugo in shifting shadow and brightness. The black ocean in his heart churns, and he gets an urge to throw his sword aside and slap Hugo awake, to finish the job with his own bare hands instead. Gabriel should end him like he deserves, ugly and mean and personal, just like Hugo had ended it with him.

He could make sure he's the last thing Hugo ever sees.

But he's pretty sure that impulse ain't got much to do with his holy obligations.

He's also pretty sure he doesn't like the fact of that much, so he stabs his cutlass into the sand, spits the morning's bitterness from his tongue, and makes his way to the ocean to wash away the evidence of last night's rituals instead.

The sky is the sort of radiant blue that hurts, the sun so bright it turns the sea into a gleaming gold surface. Seeing as he's already got more headaches than any one man should have to deal with, Gabriel wades chest-deep into the ocean then turns his back to its painful brilliance. He should be keeping an eye on the beach anyway, in case Hugo gets one of his smart ideas.

Or, what's left of the beach.

He blinks the sun-glare out of his eyes, paused halfway through loosening his braid. "Fuck me six ways," he says, sweeping it back over his shoulder for now and surveying the destruction the storm left in its slipstream. The sea is consort to the Fury's wrath, revelling with her in the rain and wind and lightning, yet remaining unchanged once the skies clear. Constant. Immutable.

Dry land?

Not so much.

The island's modest forest has been ravaged, trees toppled like snapped mainmasts and crushing the dense undergrowth where they landed. The mountainous rock outcroppings have crumbled under the Fury's onslaught, sloughed by the pelting rain or exploded into lightning-scorched stone and scattered far and wide. The beach sparkles wherever a strike fused the sand into a snake of glass. A thick column of black smoke billows up on the far side of the island, which looks to be on fire.

Irritatingly, Gabriel's first thought is that Hugo is godsdamn fortunate he was willing to toss him a lifeline. His next thought is equally irritating, in that it's likely his camp and its contents have gone up in flames. It's gonna leave the matter of survival more of a pressing one, especially if Lis' magic dice continue being as lucky as they have thus far.

He untwists the rest of his braid and sees about rinsing some of the sand out of it while he thinks. If there's a silver lining, it's that he can maybe accomplish the one thing he came to this accursed spit of land for, since the storm's scouring has uncovered all sorts of new places an artifact might be hidden. Hells, for all he knows this was Xeheia's attempt at a helping hand, if not a fit of impatience. If there's one improbably deep, well-hidden ancient chamber on the island, who's to say there isn't another?

And a less empty one, at that. Hugo might earn his passage after all.

Which returns him to the Hugo problem, inevitable as the tides. Aside from murder at his hand or murder at his crew's hand, there's a third option, even if it means leaving his fate a permanent question mark. Gabriel could leave him on this godsforsaken shitpot island and pretend none of this ever happened.

It's the most convenient solution. Maybe it's the cruellest one, but it ain't like he's known for his mercy.

Gabriel delves under the softly lapping waves and tries not to think about how his world has gone ass over tit once again, and once again Hugo's the cause of it. Hugo, Hugo, fucking Hugo. If he's saltier than a deep-sea brine pool about that, well, it's not like he can be blamed. Submerged and with warm currents fanning out his hair and focus, it's easy to sink into the Watcher's surrounding embrace. He lets the rest of his thoughts sweep around him like water past the prow, and loses himself for a while in something that's part prayer, part sulk.

When he surfaces again, big godsdamn surprise, there's the man himself. Here for his morning ablutions too, judging by the way he's got his officer's coat halfway off his shoulders. When he spies Gabriel emerging from his meditations, his back goes straight like someone shoved a ramrod up his rear end and he shrugs it back on.

The way he's glaring daggers, maybe he was more awake for the sword-fondling than Gabriel knew.

"I'm busy here," Gabriel calls out to him. "Ain't you got an ocean on your side of the island?"

"This is my side of the island." Hugo's baritone carries clear as a bell without him raising it overmuch, calm and assured like when he'd dole out orders across the Squall's deck. "Unless you're forfeiting your camp to me."

"If there's anything left of it you can have it." Gabriel wrings out his hair, seawater coursing over his shoulders and chest and back. A dozen minor cuts and grazes are stinging from the salt; with some effort he elbows aside the sharp memory of Hugo's teeth in his collarbone, the dig of his nails along his bondmark.

His slops are spread on the smooth tidepool rocks and warming in the sun, so he wades back to shore to fetch them, rising further out of the sea with each steady stride. His nakedness has piqued Hugo's interest. He can tell by the increasing sourness of his expression. Gabriel puts an imaginary notch in an imaginary tally of victories when he turns away to pretend he's inspecting the smoke cloud instead.

"Each of your offers is worse than the last," Hugo mutters, a hand slanted to his forehead as he directs his attention to the blinding horizon next. "When are you expecting your ship, Captain?"

"In due course."

"Enlightening, thank you."

"What does it matter to you? It's not like anyone's expecting your oh-so-esteemed company. The Squall will be here when it's here." That's the theory, anyway. Gabriel balances on one leg to pull on his slops, handily avoiding eye contact as he does. "Anyways, don't get ahead of yourself. You still haven't upheld your end of that particular deal."

"I thought we agreed that wasn't necessary. I found the altar for you. Even if it was empty, it was a good faith effort on my part."

"Kinda convenient for you if I think that." Gabriel raises a questioning eyebrow in Hugo's direction while he fastens his sash and belt. "Ain't it, now?"

Hugo pins him with a look as sharp and green as a broken bottle; a sudden tension in his body roars like a wave about to break. "Meaning?"

"Relax, Commodore. I'm not doubting your so-called good faith, even though I got every right to gut you just for your choice of words." Gabriel gestures expansively with both arms, spattering seawater in Hugo's face. "Look around you. Storm turned this island damn near inside out, and considerin' it's only by my good graces the same didn't happen to you, I say we're not done looking yet."

Hugo relaxes onto his back foot and unclenches his jaw a fraction. He doesn't agree or disagree, even if he's glaring like he wants to tuck a blade into Gabriel's belly and pull out his warm insides. There's some subtleties to be found there, sure, not to mention other things, but Gabriel's patience for interpreting Hugo Melançon's signal flags is thin these days. If he's got something to say, he can say it.

"Unless you got better things to do." Gabriel looks around pointedly. "I'll meet you back at the encampment."

Hugo's eyes narrow further. "My encampment."

"Seeing as that's another thing that only survived 'cause of me, I've annexed it," Gabriel says. "It's Camp Berthelot now."

Hugo scoffs magnificently, then lapses into flinty hauteur, buttons on his cuffs shining as he folds his arms across his chest. It's a familiar rebuffing, and one that he carries off as effortlessly as times past despite looking like he's been keelhauled then left to drip-dry over a cannon barrel.

In no mood to bash his hull against that particular seawall, Gabriel does his best, most sarcastic impression of an Imperial salute and leaves him to it.

Part of knowing someone is recognising an accumulation of patterns, and Hugo hasn't forgotten any of Gabriel's over the years. As his erstwhile first mate traipses back to camp—his camp—he lets a breath hiss between his teeth and wills his pulse to calm its rapid gallop. The fact he is not bleeding out on the sand tells him this: his deception has not been exposed. The mask remains hidden. Gabriel is none the wiser.

Their fragile truce may survive a little longer yet, and by extension, so may Hugo.

Until the Screaming Squall arrives, of course.

While he has no choice but to acquiesce to whatever machineries of the cosmos put him here, he'd rather investigate his options when it comes to leaving. In truth, a reunion with his former crew is dead last on his admittedly short list, lower even than a spontaneous butchering at Gabriel's whim. At swordpoint is not his favourite way Gabriel's ever woken him. At least, not that kind.

Instead of turning to the sea, Hugo heads with purpose into the island's dense vegetation. The sun jitters through the storm-torn foliage. Guttation shakes from the canopy above and onto the back of his neck, mingling with the sweat from the growing heat of the day. The jungle possesses an unsettling quietude, lacking birdsong or darting lizards, or even the thrum of insects. They are near the edge of human things here, he and Gabriel interlopers in the island's liminal world.

Perhaps it should stir some existential unease, but all he can muster is regret that it curbs their food options, and an appreciation for the lack of biting creatures.

He kneels in the verdant shadows of a boulder, one smothered with climbing vines and split with a deep fissure. The storm tossed the island over like a thief going through a sea-chest, but the hiding place he'd found for the Traitor's Gaze is relatively untouched. Whether by luck, or an effect of the enchantment that curls off it, Hugo can't say. Likewise, he doesn't know if Gabriel will be able to perceive it now that he's taken it from the chamber. For this reason he hadn't wanted to leave it at his camp, anticipating that Gabriel would ransack him at some point, either out of malice or boredom.

Not unwarranted, even if he wasn't entirely correct on the reasoning. How they're going to navigate these closer quarters is a matter of some interest, what with Gabriel having adamantly resumed his bullish posturing. It was inevitable that whatever feelings had driven him to protect Hugo from the furystorm wouldn't stay surfaced for long—just long enough for Hugo to miss him with a wrenching misery cracked from the very marrow of his bones—but...

But one problem at a time.

The mask is eerily cool to the touch, its ruby eyes luminous in the filtered sun, the curved horns like twin slices of midnight. When Hugo strokes his thumb over its smooth visage, the surrounding vegetation rustles in the breeze, a rising susurrus like a chorus of distant whispers.

In his early days as Furysworn, Hugo had taken advantage of his newfound privileges to spend as many hours as he could in the Cove's archives. While mostly driven by a desire to know things he likely shouldn't, he'd also sought to understand his world more profoundly, hoping somewhere in the palimpsests and sammelbands he would find some justification for the fold's ways that he could believe, deep down. That there was some reason for his bloody induction into their number, craving some weight of meaning to it. Or something that could, if not absolve him of his misdeeds, at least soothe the antipathy that roiled in his soul.

(He had been young.)

Instead he found something else. Here, passages smeared with brine paint. There, entire pages torn from a scripture. A name redacted from the annals, and the surrounding text weighted with such sinister connotation that it sent his research in an entirely different direction. Though the name was stricken with furious rigour, here and there an epithet remained: the Devourer. Swallower of Secrets. Breaker of the Gods.

Years later he would come across these titles again while pacing between the stacks of Srin Aledo's grand library. He'd leaf through a book while on the move, so as to dodge the archivists and avoid any unfortunate confrontations—he only had so much shore leave, and it was a waste of precious time to get caught up in their petty bureaucracies when he could be reading.

A decrepit volume offering an outsider's bias on the Watcher's cult proved even less reassuring than the records at the Cove, but among the lurid description and simultaneous renouncement of the fold's barbarism, suspicious inconsistency in the notes on rite and ceremony, and several endless digressions on the moral degeneracy of venerating Exiled gods, Hugo came across the name that belonged with those titles in a footnote, and damn near walked into a bookcase.


An equal shock, discovering the same name inscribed in the hidden chamber on this very island. A bead of sweat slides down Hugo's neck. He tilts the Traitor's Gaze back and forth, lavender opalescence chasing along the inside curve. There's no question of who this artifact belongs to.

What he's less certain of is what'll happen when he puts it on.

Whichever way he cuts it, there's only one way to find out, so he lifts it to his face. A sharp point of paranoia presses between his shoulderblades as it eclipses his vision, an acute awareness of his vulnerability and the breakable fact of his body. If Gabriel were to come across him like this, he wouldn't know about it until it was too late.

The mask touches his skin. Darkness immerses him, and a chill that caresses the planes of his face like a lover with cold hands—and then the world bursts back into existence with crisp clarity and the long-absent touch of the divine.




Hugo turns on the spot in an attempt to locate the source of the voice, taking a moment to compose himself. This deity's gossamer presence pales in comparison to Xeheia's all-consuming, salt-and-iron elementality, but it's still been years since he's communed with anything more spiritual than a tumbler of whiskey. He halts with the sun on his back; his shadow casts a violet silhouette in front of him, the mask's horns lengthening in curls and undulations across the sandy loam as he watches.

"I assume this means you can get me off this island alive and in one piece," he says.


"—the Gods. I know."

A multi-tonal laugh comes from all directions, bouncing like cliffside echoes. Hugo's shadow sprouts a second pair of arms, and then another, another, another, fanning endlessly and then collapsing into a single, denser humanoid shape that pirouettes into being, a dark purple figure distorted at the edges like a heat-haze. Hugo's comprehension reels, sending a lance of pain through his head. He touches his temple to ease it, and his fingers meet cool, slick obsidian, briefly disorienting him further.

HOW SPLENDID TO BE REMEMBERED. AND HOW CONVENIENT. Vidakai draws the syllables out, layering them on top of one another until they roar like the ocean. They crash into their next sentence like waves against a headland, battering Hugo just as violently. IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE. I SEE THAT YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH MY ART.

The tight scarring over Hugo's back and shoulders prickles and crawls, the hypnotic call of the Watcher's Depths alive in him for a thunderous, devastating instant as Vidakai pries at the shredded remains of his bond. An uprush of nausea follows, a sick sweat breaking over his brow and back. It takes a substantial amount of his willpower to not retch, and the rest of it to not hurl the mask from him in outrage.

"Do that again," Hugo says, "and I will put you back where I found you and leave you there."

For the most part Vidakai seems unconcerned by Hugo's discomfort, though they do at least cease their rifling through his metaphysical person. AS YOU WISH, FORSWORN. BUT THIS WAS BRUTISH WORK DONE TO YOU. YOU MUST UNDERSTAND MY CURIOSITY. They fall silent for a moment. When they speak again, their voice is a retreating tide. A question but not. YOU WERE ONCE XEHEIA'S.

"Under duress," Hugo says equally quietly, pith-bitter at the tumult in him where his faith used to be.

Vidakai's form shimmers as their many arms raise their many hands to their extravagantly horned forehead, reconstituting into a normal number of limbs as they pose like a sailor scanning the horizon. YET THE OTHER BEING ON THIS ISLAND. A... FRIEND OF YOURS WHO REMAINS DEEPLY DEVOUT? AN INTRIGUING PARTNERSHIP.

"That's not how I'd describe our dealings together."


"I don't," Hugo says acidly. The words seem to burst on his tongue like ripe fruit, a sweet trickle of magic that makes his parched spirit ache for more. He knows power when he's been given a taste of it, but its application is opaque to him, even if Vidakai's reason for showing him isn't. The desire to chase it is strong. "What was that?"

A GIFT FROM YOU TO ME, AND FROM ME TO YOU. Vidakai coils one of their fractal limbs around a loop of jungle vine, snaking their way onto a tree branch where they laze like a big cat, clawed hands dangling. AN ADVANTAGE OF THE PACT WE HAVE BROKERED.

"I wasn't party to any of this brokering." Hugo attempts to pinch the bridge of his nose but is stymied by the mask. Instead he screws his eyes shut, fending off a headache from the deity's impossible contortions and the sinking feeling that he's already in deeper than he'd anticipated. "And I don't take kindly to being gulled, so perhaps you'd care to enlighten me on the specifics of this pact I've apparently accepted. Such as how to break it."

SO SOON? Vidakai pours out of the tree and back to earth, where they arrange themselves cross legged without technically crossing their legs. They make the inexplicable motion seem petulant. WOULDN'T YOU LIKE TO EXPLORE WHAT I HAVE TO OFFER FIRST?

If Vidakai's power lives up to their grandiose titles, then a temporary accord may be worth Hugo's while, but it never pays to be too eager. "I didn't say I wasn't interested. I do like to know where my exits are."


"Understood." Hugo barely suppresses a roll of his eyes. "Let me make myself clear: I have no intention of formally binding myself to you. I did not fight tooth and nail to free myself from the Fury only to prostrate myself before the next deity to force their boon on me."

Vidakai chortles. I LIKE YOU. YOU AREN'T AFRAID TO BE DRAMATIC. They gesture esoterically, though in a way that Hugo interprets as convivial despite himself. I DON'T REQUIRE YOUR PROSTRATIONS, MERELY YOUR COOPERATION. AFTER ALL, IT IS ONLY YOU AND I HERE.

"And Berthelot," Hugo says, testing if this is somewhere he can apply leverage. "The Furysworn. He's here for your artifact, Devourer, and so far, winning his favour is looking more useful than winning yours."


A lush tide of magic rises in Hugo, stronger than the last and no less potent for being a blatant enticement. He drinks down the offering of his own lie like it's ice water; it shivers through his body like the same. With it he gets a sense of how Vidakai's power is shaped—how they dig into the spaces between truths and consume what they unravel there. Hugo's heart beats a little faster at the potential in it, a heady rush when he thinks on all the secrets there are in the world.

It's not safe. Bargaining with a deity never is, even if this kind of tribute is more palatable than the relentless slaughter the Fury demanded of him. But there are particulars about Vidakai that Hugo is burning to know, answers that are in no book he could find—such as why the fold's elders hold them in such contempt.

If he feels an inkling of kinship over that, then it's a warning in itself. An enemy of his enemy is not necessarily his friend.

Hugo exhales, restlessness pressing at him. He has tarried too long here. The back of his neck is hot and damp as though Gabriel is breathing down it. "Very well. Lay out your terms."


Whatever they ask of him is neither here nor there. He will agree, make his escape, then renege if Vidakai refuses to help advance his plans or demands more from him than he's willing to offer. After all, how would they retaliate? Break the pact themself? It's almost endearing.

And that's exactly the kind of hubris that will come back to bite him. Beneath the mask, Hugo smiles wryly to himself.

"That's suspiciously vague," he says. "I want to know what you're roping me into before I agree to anything further."

THEN LET ME BE MORE FORTHRIGHT. Vidakai's syrupy tones shift into something akin to a knife being unsheathed. They rear up like a striking snake, a shifting impression of their face hovering inches from Hugo's splitting head, mouth stretched wide and full of far too many teeth. I HAVE UNFINISHED BUSINESS WITH THE FURY. I WANT YOU TO HELP ME FINISH IT.

The sun blazes overhead by the time Hugo heads back to camp; he barely registers the way the sand scorches his soles, having too many thoughts to pull inside out to take notice of it. He was prepared for ambivalence at best toward whatever Vidakai wanted, so being this tightly aligned in purpose is startling. It's clear to him that divine machinations are behind this confluence of circumstance, but it feels like he's missing some vital connection.

Why did the Fury bring him here, with his blood-soaked, contentious history with she and Gabriel alike, and so easily placed in opposition to their goal? It's maddening.

Gabriel is busy tethering a few yards of charred sailcloth to a tree branch to provide some shade, presumably the salvaged remains of his tent. Watching him handle the luffing material stirs a host of memories Hugo could do without, but at least distract him momentarily: Gabriel at work in the Squall's rigging, anointed with sea-spray and sweat as he hauls a line. Gabriel shinning up the ratlines in a storm to help furl a sail, hair wild and his grin wilder. Gabriel magnificently bare but for ink and shell and bone, straining against Hugo's knotwork with curses and prayers falling from his lips in turn.

Hugo watches for as long as he can bear to, fighting the irrational part of him that wants to toss aside his tentative agreement with Vidakai to relive these old memories instead, the lingering echo of countless nights together brought back to vivid life. The decadence of Gabriel's skin under his palms, the rope of his braid wrapped around his fist, the thick muscle of his shoulder between his teeth—it's a map of the world as Hugo once knew it.

His certainties may be few, but he's always been good at charting a course through perilous straits. This will be the death of him if he lets it steer him wrong.

He's spared further torment at his own hand when Gabriel notices him and comes stomping over. He hasn't braided his hair again, instead leaving it in a halfheartedly finger-combed tousle, salt-crisp and brittle without the oil he usually tames it with. A halo of flyaway strands glows golden-red in the sun.

"Considerin' it took you so long to freshen up, you still look like shit." Gabriel flashes him an unfriendly grin, lip ring glinting. "Don't tell me. You took ten-and-five paces inland and got lost."

If Gabriel is going to give him an easy excuse, Hugo may as well lay it on thick. "It's not my fault that all of this cursed jungle looks the same."

He raises his chin in mostly feigned indignation, brushing past and into camp—his camp—to survey it with a critical eye. Hugo himself was deposited here with next to nothing and now lacks even the shirt on his back, and what the storm spared of Gabriel's supplies doesn't fill him with an abundance of hope. A punctured waterskin, and some meagre rations of hard tack and salted fish to stretch out between them, shored up with the island's soft, fermenting fruit. The tinderbox and some drying wood, but no pot to put over a fire. He doesn't see the shaving kit and assumes it was lost. Gabriel was always one to nail his colours to the mast, so chances he's keeping the razor up his figurative sleeve are low. If he wanted to slit Hugo's throat, he's already had several excellent opportunities.

The flapping canvas casts blissful shade over Hugo's face. He closes his eyes and pulls in a long, slow breath of humid air, like the first half of a sigh.

"I like what you've done with the place," he says, dry.

"Yeah, well, I had to do something to pass the time while you were running around doing gods know what," Gabriel retorts. Still in a defensive mood it seems, though not so sullen that he won't slap Hugo across the backside with the flat of his cutlass. Hugo lets out the rest of that sigh and glares at him, but he only laughs. "Don't get too comfortable, Commodore. We've got work to do."

He plucks a stick from his pile of kindling and heads towards the sea, gait loose and cocky, apparently unconcerned about any risk of retaliation.

It's a near thing, but Hugo decides to be the better man and keep the tenuous peace, for now. He follows Gabriel to where the tide laps up the beach, the sand transitioning from cauterising heat to moist and warm underfoot. Even the breeze blowing off the ocean is sweltering, and Hugo fervently misses the trade winds of the high seas, the cool kiss of spray when a wave breaks against the hull.

Gabriel hunkers down on his heels, the fabric of his slops straining across this massive thighs. With a few swipes of his stick, he scores out the approximate shape of the island in the wet sand. As Hugo crouches opposite, he scuffs out an edge and redraws it more accurately, brows pulled together in thought.

He marks an X on the southern edge of his map. "This is camp," he says, his voice in harmony with the constant bass rumble of the breakers. "How we went about searching last time weren't all that methodic, so I'm thinking this time we should be smarter about it. More efficient."

"You're right." Anything to decide on a course of action and get moving. If Gabriel is gamely occupied elsewhere, then maybe Hugo could make his escape in the meantime. He divides the island with a drag of his finger. "It would be quicker to split up. You take this side." He circles the eastern shore, where the mask isn't. "I'll take the other."

Gabriel whips the stick through the space between them and lands a stinging blow on the back of Hugo's hand. "You ain't calling the shots here, Commodore," he says. "Besides, I'd sooner eat my own dick than trust your double-crossing ass to hand over the artifact if you find it."

Hugo's heart freezes behind his ribs, but the sun-flecked stare Gabriel fixes him with remains assessing, not accusatory. He shakes his head, a mess of hair tumbling over his shoulder that he tucks back with impatience.

"Nah," he says. "We keep together so neither of us misses anything... and so I can keep an eye on you."

"I see your logic and reasoning remain unparalleled. I'm only helping you at all so I can get off this island, Berthelot." Hugo rubs at his smarting knuckles, temper loosened by the unrelenting heat, the aggravation of having to keep up this charade, and most of all, Gabriel's attitude now that he's assumed he has the upper hand. The urge to grapple him into the surf until he yields is a temptation Hugo's only barely resisting. "Why would I shoot myself in the foot like that? For that matter, why would I want to keep a relic of the Fury, of all the gods."

"Yeah, why do you do the mystifyin' things that you do? I sure as hells don't know." Gabriel smooths out Hugo's contribution to the map and stabs a couple more points of interest into it instead: his razed camp and the freshwater oasis. He doesn't mention that the artifact is not necessarily the Fury's, but Hugo can't tell if he's holding out or is unaware. "Who's to say you won't destroy it out of spite and pretend you didn't find shit, then take advantage of my generous nature to cajole your way home? You get what you want and I get screwed. Nothing new there."

"I don't recall you having such strong complaints about it."

"That was before you tossed me like so much bleedin' ballast." Gabriel's grip on his stick tightens enough to pale his knuckles. "Don't go thinking I forgive you that just 'cause I gave you a taste of what you've been missing."

"Of course. Merely your generous nature showing itself." Hugo lets his gaze roam over the expanse of Gabriel's flushed, sweat-slick chest and down the soft curve of his stomach. Judging by the surly squaring of his shoulders, it may be a coin-flip if they'll end up in the breakers after all.

"Die of thirst, Melançon, 'cause your leching's not gonna get you anywhere. Look, here's the plan." Gabriel sets his jaw. His rings glint like polished brightwork as he draws a spiral from the southern beach inward, terminating at the oasis. "We start on the beach and work our way inland, covering every inch of this heap. I wanna see you turn over every leaf, branch and stone on this godsforsaken island before I call the job done. We clear?"

"As the Crystalline Sea," Hugo says.

Hugo seems in the mood to keep an uncompanionable silence, which suits Gabriel just fine. Things are gonna be tedious enough without having to deal with his bitching, and the less chance of things capsizing into a physical skirmish the easier it'll be for Gabriel to keep things under his control, no matter how much he wants to body Hugo into the sand. Still, for all their years apart Gabriel's not lost his sense for Hugo's ways, and he reckons there's some fuckery afoot. Any asshole can tell the truth, but he can trust a man of Hugo's calibre to lie to his face.

He just doesn't know what he's lying about.

Not yet.

They splash through the warm shallow tidepools that pock this side of the island's coast, fringes of colourful seaweed tickling their ankles. The flat slabs of sea-smoothed rock boast an unnatural lack of barnacles and so all look like they could be chamber entrances to Gabriel. He knows none of them are gonna magically slide open like the one Hugo found, not any more than they did last time they scoured this part of the beach. Searching here was only a formality—and to drag Hugo out into the direct sun, since it's only right to make him sweat like the dog he is.

Gabriel comes to a halt where the rocks meet sand again, and a thought occurs to him. He turns on his heel to face seaward. "Maybe there's something further out."

"Further out?" Hugo shades his eyes and looks sceptically over the ocean, a shadow angling over the stern cut of a cheekbone, lacklustre breeze ruffling his silvered temples. "I didn't survive a wreck only to drown myself looking for something that likely isn't there. In case you've forgotten, I can't hold my breath like I used to, so if you want to go deep-diving you're on your own."

Like Gabriel needs a reminder. The lacuna where Hugo's bond used to be yawns deeper than ever; the residue of him lingers like a ghost, useful only for handing Gabriel his own heart as a warning whenever he's tempted to reach for it.

"I ain't all that excited to see you drown," he says. "There's plenty more satisfyin' ways I could end you."

"In that case, I can think of only one way us diving together would work. Do you want your mouth on mine that desperately?"

It's godsdamn unreasonable of Hugo to be this handsome while being such a prick. Gabriel spits in the sand. "I want something, I take it. So there's your answer." He turns his back so he doesn't have to look at Hugo's unfairly smug face, and in case he ends up proving him right in trying to wipe that expression off it. "But, all right—we stick to the plan for now."

He'd beached his rowboat around here somewhere, though he'd be surprised to see even a plank of it remaining. Sure enough, there's no sign. A real piss-off since he'd left his satchel in it, and in that, the shaving kit. This time he's not so much interested in getting Hugo hot for a whetted edge as he is in getting hold of the oil, but they're both shit out of luck either way.

Nothing to do but press on.

Now that they're heading into the trees, he doesn't even have the pleasure of watching Hugo slowly roast in his own skin. Uncovering the artifact might be the only thing to soothe this shitty morning-after mood.

"Captain." Hugo briefly touches his arm, then points up at the canopy.

Well, there's his boat.

"Oh, son of a bitch," Gabriel says.

It's the transom and rear thwart along with a few surviving bottom boards, wedged in the fork of a tree in a twisted, splintered mess. Seaworthy it ain't. He does spy something that cheers him up a bit, though: the hanging loop of a leather strap, weighed down by its own buckle. He circles the tree trunk with a weather eye. The nearest handhold is a ways above his head.

Now, masts aren't impossible to climb without ladder or line, but they do make things a damn sight easier.

He tosses a look over his shoulder. "Don't just stand there. Gimme a leg up."

Hugo returns a look that's more raised eyebrow than anything, surveying Gabriel's six and a half feet-worth of thick, burly muscle yet again, though he's less suggestive and more pointed about it this time. Mostly. "It makes more sense for me to fetch it," he says. "I've not forgotten how to climb."

"All of a sudden you don't wanna manhandle me. What's wrong, old timer, spent already?"

"I could take you one-handed, but you don't deserve the satisfaction. Square yourself away and let's get this done."

Propelling Hugo up into the tree with force might be as amusing as getting him to bear the entirety of Gabriel's generous weight, so he shrugs and relents, going to a knee with his fingers laced to form a stirrup.

As soon as Hugo nestles his bare foot in his cupped hands, Gabriel realises he's played himself.

Sure, there's knowing how easy he could break his toes—but then there's the memory of a boot-heel resting in Gabriel's palm, the rich scent of leather and blacking going straight to his head, of undoing a ladder of lacing with his teeth one loop at a time. His pulse pounds heavily in his groin as though anticipating a burnished toecap pressed down just so. When Hugo trusts his weight in his palms, balancing himself with a hand splayed brazenly over a coil of Gabriel's bondmark, it's a challenge to keep it together.

He closes his eyes and shudders out a breath.

An impatient shoulder-pat. "Up, Berthelot."

The graceful stretch of Hugo's limbs as Gabriel hefts him upward sure doesn't help matters, even when the scabbard of his rapier smacks him in the face. He pours his storm of emotion into the movement, a literal shoving-away that puts Hugo in easy reach of the tree branches, his weight lifting out of Gabriel's grip as he pulls himself up with the strength in his shoulders and swings a leg over.

"What's that supposed to mean, anyway," Gabriel asks, mostly to distract himself from the supple twist of Hugo's body and the wrench in his chest, half sick with a desire he doesn't know how to sate. "About you still knowing how to climb."

The foliage rustles as Hugo weaves his way up towards the boat's carcass, as sure as he ever was halfway up the Squall's mainmast. He sits astride the branch like it's a yardarm, ankles hooked together and thighs tensed, bracing himself as he stretches an arm into the wreckage to disentangle the satchel. The scowl on his face could turn freshwater brackish. "My purview is to command the vessels under my authority, not involve myself in the practicalities of sailing them."

He sounds so beautifully, intensely bitter. Gabriel's laugh fountains up from deep in his chest, relieving some of the pressure there. "So you're all brass, no tacking these days. Can you even call yourself a sailor?" He smirks up at him. "So much for the dread Captain Melançon, Wrath of the Black Tide. All washed up."

Hugo drops the satchel on his face, or tries to. Gabriel steps back swiftly enough to catch it against his chest instead, at which point he discovers the fate of his vial of oil. Broken. Its contents have soaked into the leather and turned thick and sludgy with exposure to the air. The meagre remains are now gluing up his chest hair, which ain't doing a whole lot for him. He inspects the rest of the kit as Hugo climbs himself down. The mirror is cracked and smirched up, but it'll do to signal the Squall when it arrives. Beyond the obvious, the soap and lathering brush aren't much use for anything he can think of right now.

As for the razor—well. It's there for whichever direction Hugo pushes his luck in.

Passage through the forest is slower going, being dense with places to search and the thick vegetation often crowding them into single-file along the pathways they've already worn. Seeing as he's done nothing but harangue him all day and sure as hells wasn't raised a fool, Gabriel makes sure Hugo stays in front of him. He might have let Hugo keep his rapier—if it comes down to it, he wants a gratifying fight if not a fair one—but he ain't about to turn his back even if Hugo's not retaliated with anything worse than a snide barb or five.

His way of antagonising Gabriel in return is apparently by taking for-fuckin'-ever to investigate every hollow and crevice of every godsdamn plant or rock their path crosses. Which is all of them. And which, Fury grace him with patience, is exactly what Gabriel demanded of him. It's not like he didn't know Hugo's fastidiously thorough, and what's more, a wilfully petty bastard, but this is downright malicious in its tedium.

When Hugo stops to assess a dense heap of smouldering deadfall, thumb rubbing at his stubbled chin, Gabriel just knows he's gonna drag out every one of those branches. He lets out a long, loud, bored-stupid sigh.

"If you have a problem, I'd rather hear it than listen to your huffing and pouting."

"Oh, I got plenty of problems, most of them you. Leave all that and keep moving."

"Then take point if you're going to be so impatient." But Hugo does move on, navigating a lacework of thick tree roots that undulate out of the ground like shadowkraken arms. "I can't search as thoroughly as you expect if you're going to constantly chivvy me."

"What's that, Commodore? Angling for a promotion to rear admiral?" Gabriel gives the undergrowth a needless cutlass-swipe. "Now there's a title that suits you. Surprised you didn't make it for real, what with being accomplished at royally fucking someone in the ass. Or did they want you to bend over for the position? Always could dish it out better than you could take it."

Hugo, curse him, answers like it was a genuine question. "That bar was set higher for me than most anyone else. Unattainably so." He turns his head far enough that Gabriel can see a sliver of his profile and a scar ribboning from beneath his decorated collar, colourless like deep-ocean seaweed against his flushed neck. "An unprofessional soldier is an unpredictable one, and the Admiralty was determined to find me both. With my reputation, I had to work twice as hard to get where I am."

"Twice as hard at being an Imperial boot-licker, you mean." Gabriel curls his lip. "I hope you aren't expectin' me to be impressed, much less feel sorry for you."

"I expect you to realise that the higher I climbed, the less latitude my commanding officers had to exploit me. It's a meat grinder. The lethality of my early assignments made it a matter of survival."

"Not lethal enough, seems to me. Anyways, here's the fact of it: the higher your rank, the more trespasses against Xeheia's fleet you're personally responsible for."

"Then either make good on your grievances, Captain, or stop hectoring me for half a turn." Bastard has the gall to sound bored. He angles around enough to give Gabriel a stinking side-eye. "Stranded in the Unchartables by divine providence... you'd think if there was anywhere I could find some respite, it'd be here."

"Yeah, well, maybe the gods hate you as much as I do." Gabriel gives him a shove between the shoulderblades. "Keep moving."

The closer they get to the oasis and the end of their search, the more tension Hugo radiates. Maybe it's because, once again, there's neither hide nor hair of the artifact. Maybe it's because he thinks Gabriel is gonna make him search all the merry way back again (he ain't that kind of masochist). Maybe because whatever he's hiding is gnawing on his conscience like ship rats at the dry rations, and for once in his wretched, furtive life he's gonna come clean about it.

For all he claims to be cultivating his morals, Gabriel wouldn't put money on that last one.

He makes a disbelieving noise of protest when Hugo walks right past a vine-smothered rock with a deep crack down the middle of it. Now, Gabriel may be enjoying pushing him about for the sakes of it as well as in the hopes that they'd finish searching before one or both of them expire of old age, but that doesn't mean he's going to let something like that go. He grabs Hugo by the back of his coat, who pulls up short and bristles.

Gabriel taps the point of his cutlass against the boulder. "You gone blind or something?"

"Do you want me to be quick or do you want me to be thorough? Make up your mind."

"I want you to be paying attention to what the storm uncovered. Xeheia graced us with her guidance, and unlike some people, I ain't one to spit in the face of her generosity."

"Generosity," Hugo mutters under his breath, though kneels at the foot of the boulder where the split is widest. He glares up at Gabriel, and without breaking eye contact, tugs up his sleeve with finger and thumb, then shoves his hand in. It swallows him halfway to the elbow. His sinewy forearm flexes as he turns his wrist hither and thither, making a show of feeling up the insides.

"Astonishingly, there's nothing in here," he says. "No hidden levers or buttons, no magical stashes, no holy revelations. No artifact."

He stands and dusts himself off, back subtly straightening when Gabriel crouches to take a look for himself. It's not that he thinks Hugo's lying about this in particular, it's more that it pisses him off when Gabriel is pointed about his untrustworthy ways, and barely contained wrath has always been a good look on him.

Putting his hand into the dark crevice is less appealing than admiring Hugo's menacing expressions, what with having encountered a stingtail or two in his time, but he's not seen a solitary one of those hissy chitinous fuckers skulking around the island since he arrived. Even if there were one in there, it would have nailed Hugo already. Or not. Who's to say they don't recognise their own kind.

He slips his hand in and feels around. It's gritty and unpleasantly moist. Hugo inhales through his nose as though deeply weary of his own continued existence, which is finally something they can agree on. Gabriel glances up at him expecting to meet a venomous glare, but Hugo's looking off into the forest instead, lips pressed tight and worry-lines creased deeper than usual with whatever mendacious thoughts he's thinking.

"All right, so there's a whole lotta fuck all in there." Gabriel straightens up, pushing his hair back off his shoulders. "You can say it."

Hugo lets out his breath, pensive expression sharpening into haughtiness. "I told you so."

"Figured I'd give you that one for free. You ain't had many shots land lately."

"Patently untrue," Hugo says. "Not that I'm keeping score."

"Yeah, you never did once you started losing."

Hugo scoffs like Gabriel's never managed to get one over on him before. Well—he's about to be reminded that ain't true.

The trail opens up into a small clearing, most of which is the lake. Whiptrees crowd around its shallow banks, casting their roots into the water. An earthy, stagnant smell permeates the air, from the lake and from disturbed soil where the storm tore through the plantlife and toppled some of the larger trees. It's the last place left to search, though seeing as no mystical shrine's emerged from the centre of the lake or suchlike, Gabriel's gonna call it a bust.

But that doesn't mean there's no prize to be won here.

"Speaking of losing..." Gabriel casually taps at the hilt of his cutlass. "I think it's about time you spit it out."

"Spit what out?" Hugo says, a mite too quickly. "I'm not interested in whatever new game you want to play. Speak plain or not at all."

Gabriel snorts. "Fine words coming out of your mouth, but all right. Let's make this simple for a change. You—" He prods Hugo in the chest. "Are hiding something. And I wanna know what that something is."

He may be a master of the blank fucking stare, but to Gabriel, the slight paling of Hugo's face under his sunburn and a single twitch of the muscle in his jaw may as well be a signed confession. One that's gonna see him straight to the Depths if he doesn't tread careful from here.

"I don't know what you mean."

So far, no good.

"Has the heat finally gotten to you, Commodore? You must be delirious if you think I ain't got you sussed," Gabriel says. "So are you gonna spill your guts, or am I gonna have to spill them for you? Make your choice carefully now, 'cause don't think I won't enjoy both options."

"No doubt. Unfortunately, your threats have been ringing hollow for a while, Captain, so perhaps this time you could cut to the chase and arrange yourself at my feet. That's what you want, isn't it?"

At least the hot rush of blood to Gabriel's cheeks could be anger as much as anything else. "Piss-poor deflection. You're getting predictable in your old age." He unsheathes his cutlass halfway. "Last chance. This time I won't hesitate."

"Such short shrift." Hugo takes a step closer, an imperious tilt to his chin as he meets Gabriel's eyes. "Put it away, Berthelot, or I'll shove it down your throat."

"That's not all you want me to choke on." Gabriel grins at the flicker of annoyance on Hugo's face. "I know you're just dyin' to suffocate me with your cunt. Question is, how are you gonna like it when I take a bite?"

Hugo's colour is up, a flush creeping above the neck of his uniform, but to Gabriel's disappointment the feral edge to his expression wanes. He backs off a pace, clasping his hands behind his back like he's above all this, though Gabriel reckons it's to rein himself in from throwing the first punch.

"Very well," Hugo says. "If you must know, I've been thinking on your offer of passage."

"Yeah? What about it?"

"There are various factors at play that I had my reservations about. Now that I've had more time to weigh them up, it's obvious that joining you on the Squall when it arrives would end in, as you might put it, an utter godsdamned clusterfuck." Hugo's mouth smiles, which is more than can be said for the rest of his face. "So, consider yourself informed of my secret. I'll find my own way from here."

"Beg your bleedin' pardon." The initial shock makes Gabriel want to laugh, but the impulse gives way to a quickening anger, his pulse heavy like the first beats of a war drum. "After riding my ass about keeping my word? Fury take me—why didn't you just spit in my face to begin with and save us both all this godsdamn bullshit."

"It seemed wise to make myself useful when given the opportunity, considering the circumstances. I do think your offer came from a place of—" he pauses for a long moment, grimacing as he searches for the right word, then cuts his losses. "While I think you meant it, we both know bringing me aboard the Squall will bode poorly for one of us or the other."

"Nah, see," Gabriel says. "You don't get to make out like you're acting in my best interests with this. And you sure as hells don't get to imply I ain't got full command over the ship and crew you abandoned, not after what it took to clear up the mess you left."

"Read my lips carefully, because I will not waste my breath trying to bludgeon this into your stubborn head. Here's what will happen if I step foot on your ship: you will tell your crew to hold the peace, and faced with their captain siding with the fold's most notorious traitor in direct defiance of the Matriarch and the will of Xeheia herself..." Hugo squares up, bringing his face so close to Gabriel's their noses almost brush. His voice drops. "Even if they don't mutiny and slaughter me outright, you'll never have their respect again. Someone else will be helming the Squall by the next Rising, I guarantee it."

Gabriel's lip curls in a snarl. He's close to grabbing Hugo by his fancy lapels and pulling him in that last inch, a hot physical urge indistinguishable from his anger. "You say I ain't changed? Well, neither have you. Still got a mighty high opinion of yourself. Still think you know everything, too, but get this, Hugo—you don't. What do you know about my crew's loyalty, huh? What do you know about loyalty at all, you rat bastard?"

"I know that the fold becoming less fanatical since I left is wildly unlikely, and any argument you have to the contrary isn't going to convince me. I've made my decision."

"Fury fucking spare me—all right, you ain't the only one who can change his mind. I got a new offer for you. Come aboard so I can slop your innards out over the deck right in front of everyone. Bet there's some powerful omens to be read." Gabriel makes a fist and pushes it against Hugo's abdomen, hard, digging into the soft flesh beneath his ribcage the way he'd sink a knife into an opponent. He turns his wrist, an evisceration. "I'll make it quick for you. Take it or leave it."

"Quick?" Hugo coughs out a laugh, covering Gabriel's fist with his hand. His palm is sweating. "You've already dragged things out far beyond what's reasonable. Besides—" His expression darkens further. "I refuse to shed another drop of blood in the Fury's name. Especially my own."

"So you're gonna just rot here? Starve to death slowly, or get sick, or... what, fall on your own rapier? That ain't how you go out, Hugo. I don't buy it. Not you." Gabriel inhales, something in his chest pulled tight like a knot. None of this is how it was supposed to go. Any of it. They were meant to be Furysworn together, bound and steadfast, sacred to the bloody end. "You would've got the highest honour the fold could bestow, if you hadn't ruined it all. I would've made sure of it."

"You would have made me into a skull-pot for brine paint."

"I would have seen you safe to the next hell!" Gabriel's temper reels through his grip, the words roaring out of him with a crack of thunder. "I would have dove to the Depths and laid out your bones before Xeheia herself!"

"I did not sacrifice so much to free myself from the Fury's grip only to be made an offering to her in the end." Hugo's voice goes tight with vehemence, each word honed to a murderous edge. The way his mainlander accent takes on a cadence that is entirely Cove is just another twist of the knife. "If I am to die here slowly, then it's my choice to make. She cannot have me, Gab. Not prayers nor bones nor salt price—not a single piece more. Do you understand."

Oh, Gabriel understands. The Fury can't have Hugo because Hugo doesn't want the Fury, and if so much of Gabriel is of the Fury, then Hugo can't want him, either. He has folded that truth into himself again and again. It shouldn't cut any more. Not this deep.

But then, they'd never kept the things between them in the shallows.

He unsheathes his cutlass, pulse pounding so hard in his throat he can taste it. One way or another, Hugo's fate is to remain in his hands. "Come on then, asshole. If you wanna die here so bad, least you can do is let me oblige."

"Do I owe you?" Hugo says with bitter amusement, a hush of steel as he draws his rapier in turn.

"Yeah. Matter of fact, you do."

He lunges on the last word, driving his cutlass at Hugo's unguarded stomach. It takes off one of his brass buttons as he skips back at the last instant, but Gabriel has no time to admire its glinting arc through the air. Hugo's rapier darts for his shoulder. Gabriel weaves aside and ripostes, flinging his weight behind it; metal screeches against metal until his blade catches against Hugo's basket guard. Countless heated sparring matches on the deck of the Squall means Gabriel knows Hugo's tricks as well as Hugo knows his, so he's waiting for the subtle shift in Hugo's balance, the angling of his wrist that means he's going to attempt a disarm—and then shoves hard so he's forced to step back or else go sprawling on his ass.

Gabriel grins wolfishy, running his tongue along his teeth. The thunder of battle is in him, a craving for hot blood in his mouth and the sweet parting of flesh, a yearning to wreak devastating revenge in the name of his goddess. The Fury's call thrums beneath his skin, a hedonistic coiling of shadow and brine. It would be easy to invoke her power, to end it all in another glorious storm, but Gabriel's in a more intimate kinda mood. The kind that wants to brutalise Hugo with nothing but the cold bite of steel and his own two hands.

"Always with your hand on the hilt." Hugo's breathing has deepened but his sword arm is steady, tip of his rapier pointed at Gabriel's throat as they circle one another in measured paces. His eyes are alight with ferocious temper. "Have you ever conceived of a plan that isn't waving your weapon around?"

"This was your plan." Gabriel harries him with a series of feints, trying to stress him into softening his guard so he can take a good chunk out of him. "I'm just moving things along. You're bein' mighty stubborn about it, considering."

Must have hit a nerve because Hugo drops his defense to advance on Gabriel with in a whirl of whip-quick blows. Gabriel parries frantically, dashing his rapier aside but missing a strike that lays his right biceps open in a vicious strip of pain. A bellow wells up from deep in his chest, an alchemy of pain and rage and frustration that threatens to plunge him headlong into the Fury's realm. He thrusts at Hugo's thigh in furious retaliation, tearing his slops but scoring only a shallow cut. To add insult to injury, as Hugo twists aside he lashes out with his offhand, fist cracking Gabriel in the jaw.

"Fucker," Gabriel snarls on an exhaled breath. Blood streams down his arm and drips warmly from his elbow. He tastes iron, his tongue cut on a tooth and throbbing in time with his arm and face, and with the fulmination low in his belly. He takes in Hugo's smug slant of a smile and the spatter of gore on his cuff with an incendiary lust. "All right, you wanna do it the hard way?"

He tosses his cutlass down.

Drawing himself up to his full height, he rolls his shoulders and squares them, chest out and legs apart, his loose hair stirred by a rising wind and an indolent swirl of magic. Hugo regards him with sharp distrust when he spreads his arms wide and gestures open-handed, his face pinching in suspicion as he tries to fathom Gabriel's possible motives for surrender. Doesn't take him long to land on the obvious: it's no surrender at all.

A fierce delight burns through Gabriel's veins when Hugo nods and stabs his rapier into the earth. He looks like he's about to dive into a tavern brawl, his posture loose, fists clenched, chin raised, and when he draws his lower lip through his teeth it becomes obvious he's as filthy with lust as Gabriel is.

Even if he has a physical advantage, Gabriel's not inclined to give Hugo a free shot; he's no slouch when it comes to taking a man out bare-handed, even someone Gabriel's size. Gabriel himself, often enough, but this time he's not gonna find it so easy to get him kneeling. Knows it, too, by the way he doesn't hesitate to try and knee Gabriel in the balls, then viciously yank his hair. No pretense at honour today, straight down in the dirt where he belongs. Gabriel catches Hugo's arm when he jabs for his ribs and gets him good across the mouth in return, splitting his lip on one of his rings. His hunger intensifies at the dark splash of blood down Hugo's chin, bloodlust and just plain lust, no reason to care where one ends and the other begins.

Instead of trying to pull his arm free, Hugo grabs for Gabriel's prayer-beads, wrapping bone and shell around his fist with a deft twist, and shoves into him. It throws Gabriel back a pace, but he's not so distracted by the sacred transgression of Hugo touching his focus that he doesn't feel the soft lakeside silt under his heel. He ain't gonna fall for that trick twice. He barks a laugh in Hugo's face and gets a flash of bloodied teeth in response, a wide-eyed savage grin, and then Hugo lunges for his neck, hot breath then pain in the crook of his shoulder, the sharp burst of split skin.

Gabriel howls and tears him off by the hair before he can sink his teeth all the way in, and Hugo takes the opening to shove him again, flinging all his weight against Gabriel's body. This time Gabriel staggers into the shallows of the lake but doesn't drop. He sees what Hugo's game is when he kicks out at the back of his knee, trying to knock his legs out from under him and wrestle him down into the water.

Xeheia's gifts are of storm and sea and salt—

The fucking insult of it.

Gabriel swings wildly, roaring, and lands a brutal punch to Hugo's gut.

"Trying to drown me in fresh water, you godsforsaken fucking heretic?" he says as Hugo gulps down a series of painful breaths. While he's busy wheezing, Gabriel unbends his fingers one by one, disentangling him from his focus. He's lucky Gabriel doesn't snap every one of them. He meets Hugo's fevered glare with the Fury's abyss. "Yeah, you might wanna start panicking now."

Rolling with enraged strength, he grabs Hugo by the front of his coat and hauls him off his feet, ignoring his shout of surprise and landing him on his back on the lake's sloped shallows. Ain't enough water here for what he's got in mind, so he drags him through the mud further into the lake while he digs in his heels and claws at Gabriel's forearms, trying to snake his way free.


He wants to relish that note of true fear in Hugo's voice, that beautiful gilding of his name. Instead an answering terror rushes into the void of his heart, as deadly and unnavigable as undersea catacombs. Once a man's swum deep enough in, he ain't got a hope if he hasn't marked himself a way back out.

There's only oblivion left.

He straddles Hugo's waist, wraps a hand around his throat, and plunges his head under the water.

Hugo bucks under Gabriel's weight, but he can't get any leverage in the slimy mud to throw him off, and he soon settles down when he realises it's not a wise use of the remaining air in his lungs. His fingers circle Gabriel's wrist and he lapses into a familiar lethal calm, even if his pulse is hammering under Gabriel's fingertips.

The surface of the lake smooths over like glass.

Gabriel idly sucks on a split knuckle of his free hand, working Hugo's blood out of the patterned face of a signet ring with his tongue. He'll need both hands once Hugo starts thrashing, but for now he's behaving well enough. Just lying there under the water glaring at him, lips pressed tight together and sun-ripples dancing over his face. It's real pretty picture.

His mouth twitches. A string of bubbles escape from his nose.

A moment later, he squeezes Gabriel's wrist.

"What's that, Commodore?" Gabriel says. It's strangely hard to talk, like the whole weight of the ocean's bearing down on his chest. "You want up? Well, too bad."

Hugo squeezes again. Harder, like he thinks Gabriel missed it the first time. His throat presses up against Gabriel's hand as he suddenly strives for the surface, body shuddering with a flush of adrenaline. His hips rise between Gabriel's thighs, a base urge.

Gabriel can't hear the ocean here in the oasis. All Gabriel can hear is his own ragged, hitched breathing and the crash of his heartbeat in his ears. Constant drips of moisture roll off the end of his nose and keep spoiling the surface of the lake, rippling it so he can't see properly. He better not miss it. His moment of victory.

What he can see of Hugo's expression is laced with a gruelling pain, his air dwindled to searing nothingness. His fingernails gouge at Gabriel's arm.

It's happening too quickly. Gabriel's not enjoying it yet.

"Wait, fuck." Gabriel ducks under the surface. His hair spreads in thick billows around his head, and his focus is in the way when he presses his mouth to Hugo's, bead and shell clicking against their teeth, the leather cord making the seal between their lips imperfect. Most of the air he tries to feed Hugo bubbles up to the surface, and the rest Hugo moans out when Gabriel tongues his focus out of the way, ingrate that he is.

He tries again, holding Hugo still with a fist in his hair since he's gone wild-eyed and fighty. He could let him up, but that wouldn't be right, wouldn't satisfy this compulsion stirred up from the murky depths of his soul. He tilts his head to fit their mouths together good and tight then exhales, forcing Fury-blessed air into Hugo's lungs, filling him with the grace of the storm. Something makes him chase it with a kiss, like he can breathe the faith back into him and enshrine it there.

Hugo flings his arms around Gabriel's neck and splays his hands over his inked shoulders, back flexing into an arch beneath him as he returns the kiss with instinctive animal impulse. Gabriel wishes he could believe that's all it is. For all his rancour, it's hard to miss the way Hugo clung to the scraps of warmth Gabriel saw fit to toss him before the storm hit, never mind during it. His actions ain't always louder than his words, though they are ofttimes more telling. If it weren't for everything else...

If it weren't for everything else, Gabriel could halfway imagine that Hugo still loves him after all.

But love is a privilege for people who have nothing better to do, so he'll save thinking about it for after he's done drowning him dead.

For his part, Hugo seems like he wants to hurry the momentous occasion along. He exhales a flurry of bubbles against Gabriel's lips, but they're not navigating by his charts for this. Gabriel nuzzles his lips apart and slips the breath back into him, even more reverently than before.

The knot of Hugo's throat tremors under his palm. A moment later he spends violently, hips jerking up hard beneath Gabriel's straddled thighs. A hot shock of pleasure echoes in Gabriel's belly, so intense it almost hurts. It's fucking exhilarating to have him like this and he should finish it right now while it's perfect, but if the heat it stirs in his gut feels like a mortal wound, then his heart is a stripped raw, pulsing, bloody mess.

He holds Hugo down for a few more dully agonising seconds, until a jab of hopelessness gets him behind the ribs and unseats him. Gabriel heaves him out of the water by the front of his longcoat and pitches him onto the bank, landing him in a shower of droplets that sparkle like tossed coins in the setting sun. Hugo rolls onto his side and chokes up a lungful of lakewater, then sucks in one loud, retching breath after another, interspersed with uncontrollable hacking. It gets Gabriel thinking about how the brine used to make him gag sometimes, followed by the feverish idea that he's managed to thrust some of the Fury back into him for real, and now he's going to die convulsing and frothing at the mouth like a unworthy tribute.

Maybe the Fury doesn't want Hugo any more than Hugo wants her. The thought gnarls in Gabriel's chest, but he can't deny there's some ugly poetics to it. He retrieves his cutlass and stands over him to watch.

But Hugo doesn't die. Hugo hauls himself onto his hands and knees, coughing ferociously, and when he stops to wipe the spit and dirty water from his chin, Gabriel realises the son of a bitch is laughing.

The horizon smoulders with dusk as Gabriel retreats back to camp, streaked clouds burning a bloody carmine as the sun sets. Palm fronds rustle in the evening breeze as he ducks under the canvas shelter. Night's cooled off. Maybe he should think about lighting the fire, but he's still hot all over. Burning up. Alight where Hugo's nails scored blazing lines down his forearm, a firestorm low in his belly, a tempest of sin behind his ribcage. He feels like an overfilled sail, a line wound recklessly taut.

He sits down gracelessly, legs splayed in front of him, soaking wet in his slops. With a groan, he shoves them down his hips and gets a hold of himself, heels gouging the soft sand at the first brush of contact. He ain't concerned about Hugo stumbling over him (twitches hot against his own palm at the idea), but he's not inclined to make ceremony of this, either. Quick, no quarter, to thoughts of Hugo staring hatefully at him from beneath the shimmering water, eyes bright as emeralds held to the sun, air bubbles clinging to his dark hair. The bob of his throat under Gabriel's palm as he struggled to keep the air in his lungs. The urgent buck of his hips as he'd taken the sanctified breath from Gabriel's lips.

Gabriel comes like a plunge into the Depths. It leaves nothing but dark ripples in its wake.

The deafening rush in his head gives way to the rumble of the ocean. He sits for a while and lets the constant noise of it roll over him, dusting dry sand over his inner thighs and fingers until he's clean, waiting for the incoherent churn of his thoughts to settle into something useful. He almost doesn't notice Hugo approach, only catching the flicker of movement in the corner of his eye once he's practically in the camp. Sloppy, but Gabriel's short of fucks to give at present. Anyway, Hugo doesn't say anything, much less take a shot. He stands there dripping water off his coat like a revenant that's walked a league along the ocean floor to come haunt him, then crouches down to set the fire.

"Too hot for that shit," Gabriel says.

"Unfortunately, I'm wet."

Hugo says this with a dangerous courteousness, so seems like he's recovered well enough. He sits on the other side of the fire with arms slung over his knees. The leaping flames pick out the raw angles of his face, his watchful expression.

He doesn't have much else to say about anything, and in truth neither does Gabriel. Words have a way of being unreliable. Some surging emotion keeps trying to work its way out of him, but it feels far too much like shame for Gabriel to give it the time of day. Mostly because he doesn't wanna know if it's shame for yet another failure to follow through, or that he came as close as he did, or even that he tried again at all.

Yeah, all those are good for is stuffing into a bottle and hurling into the ocean for the tides to take.

Trying to unknot the sorry mess of his hair is more achievable than unknotting anything else here, so he pulls a thick handful of it over his shoulder and gives it his best, gingerly teasing the tangles out and separating the waves with his spread fingers.

Hugo watches him for a while, then comes to some inscrutable decision or other and wordlessly gets up. He disappears into the forest.


Rage, to Gabriel, is a deep-sea volcano. Pressure erupting, explosively destructive but over fast, even if the tidal waves take some weathering. Hugo's rage is more like the ice on the frozen seas to the north, silent and massive under the surface of the water. The kind you don't know is there until it sinks you. Well, Gabriel knows it's there. And for all his playacting at civility, he knows an instinct's been ingrained deep in Hugo sure as it has in him. Get attacked, fight back.

He draws his cutlass and places it on the sand within easy reach, ready for whatever the bastard has for him on his return.

Which, a few minutes and some rustling in the jungle later, is a succulent leaf. Even though it's long and pointy with serrated-teeth prickles along its edge, Gabriel can't rightly call it an attack when Hugo tosses it into his lap. The snapped-off end oozes with viscous sap that's slick when he rubs it between finger and thumb. His bewilderment gives way to understanding, and an offensive spark of gratitude that he snuffs right out.

It's not oil, but it'll do for now.

"You could least have the decency to carry on being an asshole," he mutters.

"I'll leave that to you."

Hugo makes to retreat over to his side of the camp. For reasons that don't bear discussion, Gabriel catches him by the damp cuff of his coat and holds the plant leaf out to him. He almost regrets it for the godsawful look that passes across Hugo's face, a glimpse of a horrible wistfulness that softens the stern lines of his mouth and brow before it's swept away by something more opaque.

Gabriel gives his cuff another demanding tug anyway. They're far beyond the realms of anything resembling forgiveness here, but when Hugo gives a deep, full chested sigh, it's white flag waved for now.

Hugo lays his rapier alongside Gabriel's cutlass then settles behind him, knees bracketing Gabriel's waist, though not touching. After some fumbling about, his soaked longcoat hits the beach in a puff of sand, myriad grains instantly clinging to the sodden wool. There's still blood on the stupid ivory lapel. Not from today. It's dry, rust-brown. Maybe from the start of all this, when he'd stumbled out of the jungle and made Gabriel lose his godsdamn mind entire, just like he always has.

He feels Hugo gather the weight of his hair in both hands. His stomach lurches like it's his first time on a rough sea.

"Lean back," Hugo says. It's not an order except for how it is, and one that Gabriel has to fight not to follow. When he doesn't move, Hugo pinches the nape of his neck and guides him back anyway, which is arguably a worse or better outcome depending if you ask Gabriel's dignity or his dick. The first tug of Hugo's fingers through his hair is equally ungentle. He tosses his head at the sharp pull against his scalp, but Hugo's fingers are still caught in it, so that only makes it worse. Or better. Whatever.

"Did that hurt?" Hugo separates out a lock of hair, wrists brushing the span of Gabriel's shoulder as he begins the work of raking its natural waves back into order. He leans forward to speak in Gabriel's ear. "Good."

He has that contented air that he always got when everything was precisely as he wanted it, Gabriel included. A wretchedly genuine laugh bubbles up in Gabriel's chest, one that makes the battered muscle of his heart ache anew. "Same old sadist, ain't you."

"Enjoy it while you can."

Gabriel doesn't see them getting a moment like this one again, so he does, losing himself for a while in the universe of the night: the constant rumble of the ocean, the crackle of the campfire as it sends sparks into the air. Hugo at his back, working the tangles out of his hair with steady tugging that makes his skin shiver all over. He used to play at being impatient when they did this, teasing Hugo about indulging his kinks or heckling him to get on with it, but truth is Gabriel always revelled in having his undivided attention. Whether he likes it or not, that hasn't changed. Every so often Hugo stops to rake his fingers over Gabriel's scalp, or fists a handful of hair to tug his head around to where he wants it, and he wonders where the hells he's gonna go from here.

Hugo's fingers snag in a particularly stubborn knot. He yanks at it a few times, hard enough to make Gabriel suck air through his teeth as it stokes a banked coal of desire in him, then extends a hand over Gabriel's shoulder. "Razor, please."

Fury protect him, Gabriel hands it to him without a second thought.

He doesn't feel it when Hugo cuts the knot free, except for a faint relief after, a change in the way his hair lies that feels more right. Hugo tosses the razor into the sand, then after a moment's thought, wedges a foot beneath it and flips it further away from them both.

Gabriel snorts. Then, since the silence is interrupted for now, bites the inside of his cheek and proceeds to lie through his teeth.

"Yeah, all right," he says on a weary sigh. "I'll leave you here, if that's what you want."

The verdant tang of crushed plant fills the air. The motion of Hugo's hands in his hair changes, stroking steadily downward instead of the rhythmic tug of his combing. He doesn't acknowledge Gabriel's surrender, instead continuing to work the sap through his hair until it's sleek with moisture and smoothed like sand-ripples left by the tide, laying each thick section over his tattooed shoulders as he goes.

"I still say nobody on the Squall would lay a finger on you, but you'd only start shit to prove me wrong anyways."

Feels like he's half talking to himself. Hugo smooths his hands over Gabriel's head, gathering and dividing his hair for a braid. His fingers are slick with plant juice, and Gabriel's starting to have some thoughts on what other things it might be useful for. Hugo's mad as all hells at him, no doubt about it, so it'd be real good whatever he comes up with.

"Maybe I'll come by in two-and-ten years or so," Gabriel says after a while longer. "Collect your bones."

"Maybe you will. I doubt I'll have much to say on the matter by then."

The plaiting itself doesn't take long compared to the rest of the combing-out, even if Hugo lingers over each neat tuck of hair as he pulls the braid mercilessly tight. Gabriel lets the regular tug of it lull him, the sweet taut prickle over his scalp becoming muted as his braid lengthens, though the wild heat in his belly keeps building with each twist. Once it's done to his satisfaction, Hugo ties the end with a thin cord from his coat's hopelessly frayed aiguillette, and finally does what Gabriel's been waiting for.

Hugo takes hold of the thick base of Gabriel's braid, yanks his head back and bites at the corner of his bearded jaw.

He smells godsawful, the stagnant water from the lake still clinging to his hair, though under that is salt and blood and sweat and Hugo himself. It hits Gabriel like a lungful of smokeleaf. He braces a hand on Hugo's knee and tries twisting around to get at his mouth, but he's held steady with an iron grip in his hair and a forearm across his throat.

"As you were, Berthelot."

Tempting as it is to give him a taste of his own medicine, Gabriel's already done more than enough to warrant whatever's in the offing here and so foregoes biting Hugo's arm. He settles against his wiry frame instead, back of his head resting on his shoulder. The hair on Hugo's chest is soft against his shoulderblades. It's the only thing soft about him right now.

He relaxes the arm pressed across Gabriel's neck, instead hooking his focus with his little finger and lifting it from the slope of Gabriel's chest. "Hold this out of the way," he says.

There's no keeping the sneer off his face at this disrespect, the shine having worn off Hugo's taste for blasphemy some time ago. Gabriel snatches it from him, bunching it up into a fist that he presses to his collarbone.

Hugo makes a sound in the back of his throat that's part amused, part mollified. His hand quests over Gabriel's chest, hefting the full, thick swell of it before giving it a squeeze. They may be missing a pair of soft leather gloves and anise-tinged smoke in the air, but Gabriel knows what comes next. The idle pulse between his legs intensifies when Hugo pinches and tugs his nipple, then braces the bar of jewellery speared through it between finger and thumb.

"This your way of saying sorry?" Gabriel says, which earns him an icy silence and the slow twist of Hugo's fingers. Experience tells Gabriel to complain before it starts to really hurt—Hugo always pushes it further before letting go—but for now he savours the tension of the metal through his nipple, the slow pour of pleasure that steadily sharpens into pain. Gabriel reaches up to toy with the other one, but Hugo quits his twisting to bring him up short, jerking his braid and a landing quick, hard slap to his tit. It catches his already-tender nipple and lights him up with a flare of gorgeous stinging pain that makes him curse and kick his feet in the sand.

"Don't mistake me," Hugo says, low and hot in his ear, "there are no apologies to be found here."

He flicks at Gabriel's other nipple, then grips it, lifts his tit away from his ribcage with a ruthlessness that has Gabriel keening in the back of his throat. This could be any of the times his captain had worked him over after a bout of insubordination. The man behind him could be tattooed and smirking, eyes like pitch and dark hair loose to his shoulders—except for how there's no brush of the magic Gabriel yearns to feel, no electric presence scintillating through his bond. Gabriel's hand tightens around his focus; shell and bone dig into his palm. Hugo's absence is an abyss.

Not that it's bothering him. Hugo graces Gabriel with another open-handed slap to his c. His nipples throb in concert with a third point between his legs where he's sopping wet again, his cock stiff. It twitches hard as Hugo slides a hand down his stomach, raking his fingers through the thick trail of his body hair, then grabbing a fistful of his soft belly and kneading it. Gabriel jabs an elbow when Hugo starts pinching, and gets a grunt of annoyance and the tantalising shove of Hugo's hips against the small of his back.

"You gonna spend all night tenderisin' me, or are we going to get on with the fucking for old timesake?"

Hugo drags Gabriel's braid down until his chin is tilted to the sky, and runs his nose along the underside of his jaw. "You would assume this is for your benefit."

"Well, it ain't not." Gabriel exhales through his nose. "And you aren't coming if I don't, mark my words."

Against his jaw, Hugo sighs almost imperceptibly. "You're lucky I don't have anything to shove in your mouth."

"That's just a lack of imagination on your—fuck!" Time on the mainland ain't made Hugo any less savage; Gabriel's whole body rolls like a wave when Hugo gives his dick a brisk slap through his slops. A rush of indignation burns in his cheeks, along with the urge to wrestle Hugo onto his back and ride them both to a messy finish.

While he entertains this thought, Hugo plucks at the lacing of Gabriel's slops and pulls them down, freeing his cock to the night air. This is the next best thing and requires less effort on Gabriel's part, so he ain't gonna complain. Not for a little while, leastways. Especially not when Hugo squeezes the remaining sap out of the plant leaf and gives him a luxurious, slippery stroke from hole to tip. It's cool against the blazing heat of his hardness.

Gabriel lets out a gratified sigh. "Took your fancy fuckin' time," he says, and pushes into Hugo's fingers. Immediately, Hugo releases his cock. He groans, part anger, part frustration. "Okay, now you're playing with me."

"Correct," Hugo says crisply, but does take him in hand again.

He gives Gabriel more slack, wet strokes, thumb circling the head in a way that makes Gabriel's thighs shake. He ain't slow to catch on to what Hugo's game is: whenever he gives so much as a twitch of the hips, Hugo, forever the domineering bastard, stops. He keeps Gabriel in the shallows of pleasure without letting him dive deeper, and a sweat breaks over Gabriel's chest as he fights the instinct to rut into his hand. He fails as often as he succeeds.

As for Hugo himself—his breath has turned ragged in Gabriel's ear, and there's no missing the wet heat of him in the small his back. When his fingers on Gabriel's cock tighten and move faster, more recklessly, Gabriel's peak swiftly rushes up on him. Once again, he fails to tame the frantic buck of his hips. Once again, Hugo lets go. Gabriel pants and complains in wordless fury, half ready to come from the sheer vexation of it.

"Should know by now I can't trust you to finish things proper." He makes a bid to do it himself—he could get off with two good strokes, maybe three—but Hugo slaps his hand away and gives his braid a fierce yank. "Hugo."

"Interesting words from a man in your position," Hugo says. "I think you can spend well enough like this."

"I hate you." It takes all Gabriel has not to writhe with spite. "I'm gonna carve you to pieces. I'm gonna bury you inland."

"So full of promises, Gabriel."

As determined as Gabriel is to prove him wrong in all respects, he knows he's done for when Hugo picks up again roughly and at an unendurable pace, his fingers dipping shallowly into Gabriel's slick hole on each pass, grinding against his ass as he drives him right to the edge. Gabriel discards his scant remaining fucks and grinds back, so close now it can't matter, Hugo must be able to tell there's no bringing him down again this time. He squeezes his eyes shut as the first shudder of pleasure takes him, unconsciously plunging deeper into the turbulent currents of his bond as he does, seeking and finding nothing.

In a cruel mirror, Hugo lifts his hands from him once again. Gabriel twists in the wind at the sudden lack of stimulation, swearing furiously as he comes in weak pulses that don't even make his breath catch. It's a pointless release that does nothing to quell the rioting in him. A thick, desperate emotion tries to claw up his throat, one he swallows down again in case it wants to be something disagreeable like a sob.

"Asshole," he manages, slumping back into the whipcord muscle of Hugo's arms. He lets his focus drop, heart battering at his ribcage as if trying to escape. The revenge he'll wreak once he has Hugo aboard the Squall, at his mercy—

Radiating satisfaction, Hugo rakes his fingers through Gabriel's beard and thumbs at his lip ring, working his other hand between them so he can get his sacrilege all over Gabriel's inked back.


Morning makes its threats. Hugo awakes from unsettling dreams of Gabriel two-and-ten years hence—face creased where he smiles, red-blond hair fading to ash and crowned with bones—to find himself alone under the gentle flapping of their shelter.

Ideally, the Squall arrived in the night and Gabriel has taken his leave without having to visit the treacherous matter of farewells between them—but Hugo's life has never been ideal. When he emerges onto the beach proper, he's treated to the imposing sight of a black sail on the horizon, and the nauseating trough of his stomach. Gabriel himself stands with his feet in the surf, arm held high and reflecting the sun off the shaving mirror, braid hanging neatly down the centre of his tattooed back. He breaks into a revel dance when he receives an answering blink of light from the Screaming Squall's prow, splashing in circles and hollering in triumph.

Another time, it might have stirred up the fathomless, abiding affection Hugo has for him regardless of everything. It almost does, despite the knell that rings in him at the ship's approach, but then Gabriel catches sight of him and starts up the beach in his direction, his jubilation fading with every step. The look on his face turns as ominous as a shipkiller, and like a vessel being torn to shreds in its grip, Hugo suddenly knows what he intends.

Forget his promises in the night, resentful or macabre, unspoken or otherwise. He already spelled out his truth more than plainly. He's Furysworn Gabriel Berthelot, chosen of Xeheia, the Black-Eyed Butcher himself, and when he wants something—

Dismay presses on Hugo's chest like facing into a strong wind. He should have foreseen this, if not when Gabriel had tried to drown him in his rage, then when he'd capitulated so easily after the fact. When he's not being mercurial, he's intractably stubborn.

Vidakai would have feasted.

Hugo backs up a pace for each that Gabriel takes, but his stride is longer, and the beach is turning to loam under his feet as Gabriel closes in on him. The morning has dimmed to a grimy half-light as storm clouds weigh down the sky, an unnatural darkness rolling in as the sea roughens. Harbingers of a deluge fall fat and heavy, pocking the sand. A rising wind whips Gabriel's braid around his immense shoulders, sinuous like the dark flourishes of Xeheia's mark on his skin. He's close enough now that Hugo can see the Depths possess him; his eyes are as black as brine and gorgeous with menace, his gathering magic so potent that Hugo could sip it from his skin.

Gabriel's not taking any chances.

Which means Hugo will have to take an impossible one.

"Hugo!" Gabriel's voice resonates like the rising crash of the waves. "For once in your godsdamned life, don't make this harder than it has to be!"

"I have no intention of making this easy for you at all!" Hugo yells over the growing roar of sea and thunder. "Let me go, Gabriel, or I won't be the one who doesn't make it off this island!"

Trying to make his heart as empty as his threat, Hugo does the only thing left to him when faced with the immensity of Gabriel's eldritch fury—he about-turns and tears off into the jungle.

If all Hugo had to do was keep far enough ahead of Gabriel's impending rampage to retrieve the mask, then he'd feel more confident of his survival than he does. It's what comes next that's likely to prove as much of a challenge as staying out of Gabriel's reach, namely persuading Vidakai to put their magic where their mouth supposedly is. Flying on a cold streak of adrenaline, he skids up against the boulder, shoving his hand into the crevice so hastily it grates the skin off his knuckles. The Traitor's Gaze is within, as it had been throughout Gabriel's nerve-shredding investigation.

Hugo all but smashes it against his face as he takes off again. It cleaves itself there, adding its own thrill to the ice already pouring down his spine.

"Devourer! I need you to get me off this island now!" He pelts through the undergrowth like all seven hells are on his heels. With the blackened sky and constant growl of thunder, the way the hair on Hugo's nape is standing up in electric terror, they may as well be. If Gabriel collars him there will be no more games, no more pulled punches.

And if he's caught with the artifact—

No mercy.

IT'S NOT AS SIMPLE AS THAT. Vidakai floats in Hugo's periphery, keeping pace with him as he lashes past prickly succulents and sharp-leafed grasses, infuriatingly calm despite the oncoming tempest. Hugo makes an explosive noise of frustration and reaches as if to fling the mask aside. That encourages Vidakai to find their urgency. DO NOT BE SO HASTY TO DISCARD YOUR ONLY CHANCE OF ESCAPE! I WILL HELP YOU, BUT FIRST YOU MUST TELL ME A SECRET.

"What?" Hugo's disbelief is so acute it invigorates him like a second wind. Then he understands. He has to fuel the pact, provide an infusion of power for whatever miracle Vidakai has in mind. He stumbles over a root or vine, rights himself, shoulder jouncing painfully off a tree but propelling him onward.

The storm breaks all at once, rain plummeting from the ink-dark sky, striking the canopy's waxy broad leaves in a percussive roar and soaking him instantly. He hears Gabriel bellowing for him, a dread thunder that's one with the storm. Many people have cursed his name and misdeeds in the course of his iniquitous life, but this is one of the few times Hugo has felt like it might stick.


He can hear Gabriel crashing through the vegetation on his heels, a storm of fury if not a literal furystorm. The island quakes like it might crack in two. Sweat runs in a hot river down his back. He inhales ozone and cold rain. Secrets and secrets, lies and lies; in this particular moment, it's easier to reach for something hated instead of something precious.

"I miss it." It's too much in too few words, a river turned on its side. The rest jolts out of him as he flees, feet hardly in his control as he whips through the forest. "Sometimes in the... dark hours, when the sea is black... and there's blood on me, I swear... I swear I can taste lightning on my tongue. I don't want it back. But I miss it."

Vidakai's silence is cacophonous.

The only rush Hugo feels is the mortal pounding of the blood in his veins. He lets out a wordless bark of anger. "Is that not enough?"


The deluge of power hits him like a wall of water, torrential compared to the previous trickle of the Devourer's magic. He staggers on his next step, the muddy ground rushing up to meet him, and he wishes with a vicious desperation to avoid it, willing himself to be anywhere but here in this moment, on a disastrous course for impact—

—and the world turns inside out. Instead of hitting the ground he lands somewhere new, though land isn't the word. Hurtling through disorienting fragments of a faded world, he can't make sense of where his body is, everything a blur of silver and lavender and haunted with shadows, unreality plucking at him when he can't seem to find upright no matter how he twists or lunges—

—then he tumbles into a freezing void as black as a moonless night, shoulder and hip screaming as the momentum scuds him across a hard stone floor and slams him into an impassive wall of nothingness.

When Hugo comes around again, the darkness is so thick he fears he's gone blind.

His head throbs where he collided with the wall, or floor, or both. A tentative exploration confirms a sore lump and tacky half-dried blood in his hair. No mask on his face, but he recovers it with a sweep of his hands next to where he's been lying. The ground is the kind of cold that's never seen the sun; he doesn't know how long he was out, but the penetrating chill has leached deep enough into him that he can't stop shivering.

It strikes him as unlucky to think himself safe when ensconced someplace that feels like a crypt, but wherever he is, he can't hear the storm.

Somewhat concussed and prepared to be further pissed off, he dons the Gaze once more. A soft purple luminescence brings shape to his surroundings. He allows himself a hollow laugh as it traces out the edges and angles of the chamber, insinuating its way along the weathered holy script etched into the walls.

Of course. The biggest secret on the island.

IT'S SAFE TO COME OUT NOW, Vidakai says, squatting on their own altar like the demon they are. Hugo gets the impression they're feeling very pleased with themself. XEHEIA'S FAVOURED SON AND HIS FELLOW ACOLYTES ARE LONG UNDERWAY.

It should feel like a noose slackening, but instead there's only loss like a short drop.

Hugo has gone over how things had fallen apart with Gabriel time and again in his head, forking each path their arguments could have taken like a lightning strike, finding all the ways they could have dissipated into ozone instead of scorching through them both. Things unsaid, things said altogether too loudly—he can't afford to dwell on how it hadn't gone any differently this time.

He presses his fingers to the tender bruising on his neck until the pain brings some clarity back to his thoughts. He's aware there's further trial in Vidakai whisking him here, or whatever it was their power had done. "I assume this is my last chance to return your mask to the altar. Only I doubt there's any way out of here without your help."

Vidakai's tongue lolls from their jagged mouth. I HOPE MY NEXT FORSWORN DOESN'T TRIP OVER YOUR SKELETON.

"I see."


Hugo grunts. "And escaping the island itself?"

Vidakai remains silent at that, horned head taking on an exaggerated tilt.

"So much for choices." Hugo scrubs both hands though his hair and rolls his shoulders, trying to stretch some of the more significant pains out of his body as well as steel himself mentally for what's to come. "All right. I'm assuming you need further... tribute, if I'm to traverse from here using your magic."

A VERY TEMPING OFFER INDEED, BUT IT WON'T BE NECESSARY—THIS TIME. Amusement dances at the edge of Vidakai's words. A tendril of violet magic coils its way up the chamber's precariously steep stairs, twisting back on itself a few times as though entreating Hugo to follow. THERE IS A LEVER.

Among the waterskins and crate of biscuit, jerky and fruit in the rowboat, there's a crumpled up, soggy note.

When Hugo carefully gets the disintegrating parchment flattened out, all he finds written on it is Hugo- in Gabriel's bold hand, and a spreading inkblot where the rest of the message would have been if he'd committed to it. But the fact he left a rowboat at all says something, Hugo thinks, as he looks out over the vast ocean to the distant, hazy horizon—even if that something is a sardonic 'good luck'.

He drags the boat into the water and wades alongside it until he's thigh-deep, then clambers aboard and seats himself on a sun-hot thwart. The oars grind in the rowlocks as he pulls out into the ocean far enough that he doesn't need to fight against the beaching waves. He rests them across his lap and takes a long look over his shoulder, back to shore.

It holds more certainties that the open ocean, but those certainties are dead in the water.

The Traitor's Gaze stares up from the seat next to him. Hugo sweeps his hand across its preternaturally cool surface, takes a deep, weary breath, and slips it on. Instantly, a shimmering violet path streaks across the sea, twining its elaborate way through the invisible barrier that surrounds the island and pulsing with arcane buoys that mark his route to freedom.

THERE. I SAY I'VE HELD UP MY PART OF THE DEAL, WHICH IS MORE THAN CAN BE SAID FOR SOME. Vidakai sidles out of nowhere to perch on the gunwale, trailing their hand in the water as Hugo takes up the oars again. They're cloaked in wine-dark nebulae of magic that flutter like silken robes in the breeze, or that's the impression Hugo has from the corner of his eye.

The oar's wooden handles are smooth against Hugo's soon-to-be blistered palms. He aches already, everywhere, though most keenly in a place he won't be needing for a while. He consigns that to the chained and padlocked sea-chest that constitutes some particular parts of his life, and instead regards Vidakai as fully as his burgeoning headache will allow.

"I see you enjoy stretching a definition in exciting ways," he says, oar cutting the first of countless waves. "I suppose I should have expected that."


back to top