Jake crouched behind the moist slab of concrete separating the sewage pipes from a large hollow chamber. A muffled thump behind him indicated the timely incapacitation of the last remaining guard, and he made two small gestures to fan out around the chamber. Quiet dialogue in a hissing language echoed off the tall stone ceiling, which dripped continuously in an uneven patter. Jake glanced over a winding metal pipe and caught sight of several figures talking over three large wooden cases, shrouded slightly by the steam hissing from several pipes nearby. One of them was gesticulating angrily as his words came out in sharp growls. Jake raised his hand again, and flicked two fingers forward. Something shot through the dark and the angry figure dropped on the spot. Immediately, the others scattered, shouting and cursing. Jake flung himself over the steaming pipe and sprinted forward toward the figures still trying to wrestle the cases on a lifter. He slipped his dagger out of its sheath at his hip and willed magic into it. The runes glowed red and a thick extension of magic snapped around the blade as he vaulted over the last pipe and nearly bowled into one of the poachers.
The vampire hissed, fangs matte in the poor light, and lashed out at Jake with a crowbar off the cases. Jake ducked under the blow, raising his blade to block the next attack. Half the crowbar clattered to the floor as soon as it touched the blade, sliced neatly down the middle. The vampire snarled and lunged, aiming a kick at Jake's midriff. Jake used one hand to bat the leg away and whirled on his own, foot crunching into the vampire's knee. Bone snapped audibly and the vampire screeched, falling to his knees. Jake barely dodged a violet burst of bearing from another vampire, a woman with long dark hair who cursed in her harsh language and tossed a handful of black powder in his direction. Jake covered his nose and mouth and rolled away, diving over a pipe. He sent two bursts of bearing at the vampire when he caught sight of her running for the exit, but she managed to deflect both before something thin and shimmering green snapped around her neck and jerked her backwards. She struggled against the snug chord around her neck, snarling, but it only tightened the more she resisted.
"Looks like she's th' last o' 'em," said a voice from behind him. Jake turned and greeted Seagen Finnery with a nod. The green-skinned kelpie hid long ears under a bowl of dark hair and sensitive yellow eyes behind black goggles. He held in his right hand a short bullwhip which glowed with vividly green magic extending far past the length of the whip and finishing around the now-unconscious vampire's neck. Jake glanced around to see Miera and Fakhar rounding up the stragglers who had tried to escape, and a total of five vampires and one sprite were shoved into the center of the room beside the crates, either unconscious, incapacitated, or bound. "Fookin' Skinnahs."
Jake withdrew all magic from his hands, clicked his Bluetooth on, and took a quick picture of the apprehended before calling his superior. "We got them all," he reported. "Six captured and accounted for. Four wounded, no critical. Three crates apprehended, looks like," he leaned in and shoved one of the wooden crate tops aside, "unicorn horns, selkie furs, and gryphon claws. And what looks like it might be a wyvern heart. What the hell is that in demand for?"
"Stand by, Harrison," came Grevorich's nasally voice over the device. "Pick-up will be at the entrance in ten. And don't fucking move any of the items, you hear?"
"Crystal," Jake replied curtly and clicked the Bluetooth off. "Good job, Unit Six!"
Seagan, Miera, and Fakhar grinned back at him, weapons still trained threateningly on the vampires. The three magi and Jake made up Unit Six of DISARM, the Department for the Investigation, Silencing, and Apprehension of Rogue Magi, which acted under MIC. They investigated cases varying from unlawful use of dark magic, violence or abuse of magic on non-magic folk, and the poaching and trafficking of magi parts usually for the purposes of aboriginal medicine or religious significance, though it was more worrisome when the items were used for darker magic such as necromancy. The 'runners' were trained in capture and apprehension, masters of their particular weapon, and entirely capable of lethal action when necessary.
Miera shook her short blond hair from a round face and waved a large, complex gun twice the size of her arm at the captives with nonchalant ease. "See, who needs your boyfriend? We do fine on our own," the wereowl drawled.
"Don't'choo mean 'is 'usband?" Seagan chortled. "Ey, when 'oo two getting' married, then? 'S been six years, a'ready."
Jake rolled his eyes, ignoring Seagan's nosy jibe. "I never said I didn't trust you guys without Mishka. He is the strongest of us though, you can't deny that."
"Eh, if he is, why innit he with us?" Fakhar prodded in his slow sullen voice. The hulking drac shouldered a mace larger than a watermelon and scratched at the thick black stubble covering his chin and cheeks. "Erryone knows Grevorich sends us on the worst raids, 'cuz he 'ates your guts."
"If Grevorich wanted me dead, he wouldn't've handed me the best runners DISARM has to offer," Jake snorted, and his unit swelled a bit. "Mishka's doing some peacemaking work on the faery end. He won't be back with us until the end of the month."
"Ach, too bad," Seagan mourned. "I 'as jus' startin' to miss 'es snide insults."
Jake's lips twitched in amusement, and an echoing clang from the chamber entrance alerted them all to approaching company. Jake adjusted his grip on his dagger just in case, but eased his hand off the hilt as a dozen figures in black jogged in and began cuffing the vampires. One captive nearly bit a phookah's hand off and was rewarded with a violent blow to the back of the head. Several of the other DISARM "footies" began carefully sifting through the wooden crates, inventorying the confiscated black-market goods, before carrying them off as well. Unit Six followed closed behind, exiting the chamber and walking down a short extent of large sewage pipe, a sharp scent of rot and feces permeating the air nauseatingly, before clambering up several slimy metal rungs fixed in the concrete up through a particularly large manhole and out in a dark, deserted alley. The poachers, or 'Skinners', as they were often called, were being loaded up into a large white utility van along with the crates. Jake and his unit walked a few blocks down the quiet side-streets of the suburban city, the sky still dark and the moon high and luckily no-one in sight, though the alley entrance had been thoroughly roped off for 'construction.'
They piled into an old Forester, Fakhar taking up two seats on his own and required to hunch over in his seat to fit. Seagan sprawled comfortably beside the drac, relishing in having enough space to sit properly without being squeezed by another body for a change. Miera slipped into the passenger seat and Jake grumbled the car to life.
He dropped his unit off at the base, and after a quick recap with Grevorich involving a lot of sullen glares and gloomy remarks (likely because he was still alive and well), he was dismissed home.
No sooner had he slumped down on the couch and close his eyes, a voice jerked him from his much-needed repose.
"How was the raid?"
Jake pried his eyes open and glanced over the couch to see Mishka approaching him dressed in only his briefs. Soft moonlight peered from the living-room blinds and exposed soft pink scars that stretched from the faery's chest to his collarbone and barely touched his navel until he wrestled on a loose-fitting shirt and hid them from view. Mishka swept back short black curls from his face, features pinched in poorly-concealed concern.
"It went well. Why are you still up?"
"I got back late," Mishka replied simply, plopping down on the couch beside Jake. "Was it the whole nest?"
"Not all of them, but we caught their operation red-handed this time. We'll trace them back to the leaders eventually and let MIC deal with them."
Jake shrugged, running a hand through short red locks. Since destroying the Shuck, his hair had grown a fiery red rather than its usual auburn, as it had when he'd been a child. Less of a bother than a curious mystery, Jake kept it trimmed short and out of his eyes. "Still an asshole. Seemed upset I'd managed to survive without you." He shot the faery a grin. "How was your meeting?"
"Fine," the faery shrugged. "Hald'uir is still skeptical about this alliance with the Hunters, but I think seelie prevalence on the Council has made him more comfortable with the idea, since he has some kind of say in decision-making. A control-freak if I ever saw one, that one." The unseelie shook his head. "No word from Wan'shir. The unseelie are even less keen on the idea of more rules and restrictions on magic use."
"Understandable," Jake said dryly. The seelie and unseelie rulers had been of the more difficult magi to appeal to about the proposed coexistence, as a long-running mistrust and disregard for humans was difficult to simply ignore. Jake sighed and rubbed his temple. "Sometimes I really wonder if we've gotten anywhere at all."
"It's a start," the fae said patiently. "The Shuck was only a small part of the history of ill-will between magi and humans, but destroying it put us huge step forward in bridging that gap. It's going to take time, Jake. It's only been six years, after all."
Jake smiled softly, reaching up to slip a finger over the faery's youthful face. "I know. Guess I'm a bit impatient." He paused, and then smiled, remembering something. "Dresarian wants us to come by and visit, by the way. Sometime in spring before the park opens up. Can you believe Tammy is almost two years old?" The last time Jake had seen Dresarian's daughter, she'd been a rowdy little black ball of fur, incessantly tugging at his pant legs and chewing on his laces. Mishka grimaced, likely loathing the thought of walking into a den full of lycanthropes, but didn't refuse outright. "It sounds like he might be coming up eventually though. They've been having issues with human threats on wandering juvies since legal protection on wolves in the area was removed. He wants to appeal to OCEMAH for protection."
OCEMAH, the Organization for the Coexistance and Education of Magi and Humans was founded a few years following the destruction of the Shuck to aid in peacefully re-establishing magi into human society through means of education. It had simultaneously become a forefront for magi rights, particularly the preservation of culture and traditions and the allocation of undeveloped land away from human settlement for the magi's own safety. It encouraged a reduction of human activities that endangered magi livelihoods, including widespread deforestation, ocean trawling, and poaching for black market items. DISARM was, in fact, a specialized branch of OCEMAH that worked directly under the Magi Investigative Council.
"Well, so long as he doesn't bring that oafish cousin of his. I still get cricks in my back from the last time he tried to hug me." Jake grinned at Mishka's less-than-fond memory of Dresarian's exuberant cousin, Bjorn, then yawned.
"Come on, let's get to bed. I'm exhausted."
A week later, Jake leaned out from the kitchen and called down the hall, "You ready yet? The pudding is done." A muffled voice answered from the master bedroom and Jake stifled a sigh. "Sorry?"
"Where is my goddamn shirt?" Mishka trudged into view down the hall, half-dressed in black slacks and worn sneakers.
"You mean the white one? It's in the laundry. Wear the blue button down."
"It's too formal," Mishka grumbled. Jake snorted, sipping at the last of his coffee.
"A button-down is hardly formal. Especially with those pants. Besides, it is a formal gathering."
"Not with your friends it isn't," the faery retorted as he disappeared back into the room. A minute later he emerged, pulling the shirt over his head and slipping his arms through the sleeves.
"Ready?" Jake asked one last time. Mishka rolled his eyes.
"I don't understand why that half-breed idiot friend of yours insists on celebrating a holiday based entirely on human culture and religion."
"I told you, it's not a Christmas party. Not entirely anyway." Jake sighed, setting the empty mug in the sink and grabbing the foil-wrapped bread pudding, ceramic plate still warm. "And please try to behave when you're there. I managed to convince Damon to let you come, with the condition that you would play nice."
"The invitation was entirely unnecessary," Mishka grumbled, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Jake gave him a look and he shrugged his shoulders. "Fine, fine, I promise I won't antagonize your friends on purpose." Jake grinned and planted a light kiss on the faery's cheek.
"Thank you. And if you behave, you'll get a treat tonight." Jake's eyes glimmered suggestively, and Mishka pulled him into a slow, languid kiss, shivering as they parted. The faery hummed in agreement and pulled away with a pleased smile.
Jake stifled a yawn and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them again Mishka was looking at him suspiciously.
"Those dreams keep you up last night again?" the fae asked. Jake made a noncommittal sound as he pressed a hand against the runes surrounding the stairway and muttered a few words. They began to glow a brilliant green as he willed magic into them, and beside him, Mishka sighed. "It's been two years now. You should get that checked out. Maybe Vaska can help."
"It doesn't hurt or anything," Jake assured him, removing his hand and readjusting the plate under his arm. "It's only... it feels more like a memory than a dream, and it's always the same thing. I'm always fighting the Shuck, but there's this woman there, with red hair, and I know I've never met her before but..." he grasped for the right word, "she feels so familiar. You understand?"
Mishka raised an eyebrow. "No, not at all." Jake rolled his eyes and the faery nudged him. "But don't think about it too hard."
The runes faded into a gentle turquoise and the stairway rippled slightly. Jake began walking up the steps, wooden floorboards creaking, and soon their footsteps were padded by carpet and the air became warm and stuffy and the smell of wood fire and apple pie draped over them. They emerged into a large living room so full of furniture and tacky decor it was almost cozy. Colorful tapestries adorned the walls lined with blinking lights. Despite Damon's insistence, a huge Christmas tree drooped between the fireplace and a yellow velvet couch, weighed down by countless decorative bulbs and ugly hand-crafted ornaments. The room was illuminated by pale paper orbs secured to the ceiling and glowing with bright bearing. Various colorful candles flickered and a crackling fire filled the room with warmth. Jake shrugged off his jacket as he walked in, and immediately caught sight of a familiar figure. Damon's face lit up and the phooka crossed the room, grinning from ear to ear.
"Come here Jake, you sodding shithead!" He pulled the human into a tight hug. "It's been too long!"
"I know, I'm sorry, I should have dropped by sooner," Jake replied as Damon pulled away, holding him out at arm's length. The phooka looked healthy, eyes bright and hair neatly trimmed around his ears, though the thick red jumper clashed unfortunately with his blue skin. Damon suddenly seemed to notice Mishka behind Jake and his face fell just enough to be noticeable.
"Mishka," he greeted with a nod. The faery nodded stiffly back, and after a short pause noticeably lacking in insults, Damon relaxed and turned back to Jake with a grin. "You're right on time. Montag and the others are in the kitchen. The twins should be coming over soon."
Jake hefted the bread pudding out from under his arm and held it out. "Where do I put this?"
"Oh," Damon looked surprised and delighted. "Thanks mate! Just put that over on the table!" Jake set the tray on the end of the long dinner table beside numerous other dishes including a whole roast salmon bathed in a lemon caper sauce, a rich garden salad, and a thick goulash-like dish.
In the kitchen, Jake was greeted by numerous smiling faces. Naetili swept from the sink to envelop Jake in a warm hug, and Damon's mother, a short slim woman with thick brown hair, pink cheeks, and ever-present creases along her eyes and mouth that accompanied a brimming smile.
"Jake dear, how good to see you!" She greeted, pulling him down for a pair of wet kisses. "Look at how thin you are! Have you been eating properly?"
Jake laughed and assured her he was, and before he could stop her, she grabbed a startled Mishka down in for a hug of his own. "You must be Mishka," she greeted warmly. "Mathilda clan Brankho, but you can call me May. It's good to finally meet you, Jake's been talking about you for ages."
Mishka looked dazed and squirmed uncomfortably until the energetic phooka scurried back to her oven.
Montag introduced Jake to his wife, a small selkie girl with thick silver curls and a smattering of freckles. She looked startled to see Jake at first, but immediately warmed up when Montag introduced him. Someone slung an arm over Jake's shoulders, and he stumbled back, startled.
"Who would've thought Montag would be the first of us to get hitched, am I right?" Jake grinned and pulled Alex into a hug, switching out for his brother.
"Blimey Jake," Arias exclaimed, holding Jake out at arm's length. "Last time I heard from you, you were out chasing wyrven in Croatia. Send a bloke a note a time or two, will you?"
"Lay off, Alex, you're smothering the poor guy."
Jake smiled as Elsa winked her one gold eye at him, the other hidden by a silver eye patch from which an ugly pink scar stretched across her forehead. Her blond hair had grown out to cup her neck in gentle waves, matching her sunset-orange blazer. The dragon pressed two fingers to her lips in greeting and Jake returned the gesture. Amiya bound forward and wrapped Jake into a hug.
"Nice to see you, Jake," she whispered against his neck.
Three of Damon's sisters were present, two younger, while the others were apparently working out of the country over the holidays.
"And be bloody thankful for it," Damon warned. "They're merciless when they're all together."
Conversation moved to the living room when May shuttled them out to finish the turkey. Jake sipped from a glass of champagne as Naetili made conversation. He peered over his glass to see Mishka in conversation with Elsa, even laughing once to his surprise.
"He seems to be doing well," Naetili said casually. Jake returned his attention to the seelie, who glanced pointedly in Mishka's direction.
"Yeah, he's off the barrier. The pain comes back sometimes, and he's had a few worrisome episodes, but he's doing well otherwise."
Jake turned to the faery in surprise. Naetili looked at him meaningfully over his chardonnay. "Fine," he said after a pause. "The Shuck left one hell of a mess to clean up after, and we're still finding rogue magi running around too close to human cities. Not to mention the underground black-market magi parts trade is getting out of hand. Ever since that bastard necromancer–"
"Hey, that's over, okay?" the faery reached out and gripped Jake's shoulder. Jake inhaled sharply through his nose and nodded.
"So how are things with Damon?" Jake asked, tone teasing. "I'm kind of shocked to see how long you two have lasted together. I would've thought he'd drive you bonkers eventually."
"Oh, he has," Naetili drawled with an exasperated sigh. "All part of his charm though, I suppose." The faery's eyes lingered on Damon across the room, stuffing his face with appetizers of bite-sized cornichons wrapped in prosciutto and talking animatedly with Montag. "And your father?"
"Still working with the Hunters in France. His team is currently resolving conflict with a local kelpie tribe. He's doing well I think. Checks in every once in a while."
"Dinner is ready!" One of Damon's sisters hurried to the living room table balancing a huge turkey on a steaming plate swimming in gravy and glazed onions. May and Nanya, Montag's fiancée, followed with bowls of raw sardines, sautéed mushrooms and fresh vegetables, blood sausage, and whole loaves of honey bread. Jake and Naetili joined the others in pulling out a chair along the table and tucking in after a cheerful toast.
The evening went pleasantly with conversation, games, and raucous jokes filling the cozy household. Small gifts went around, and Jake found himself with a new tie and a beautiful silver dagger from Naetili. Soon, everyone began to yawn and look too comfortable, sitting heavily in the couches and lovechairs. Damon was already dosing between Naetili's legs, the fae running a hand absentmindedly through Damon's hair while chatting in hushed tones with Nanya and Montag. Mishka leaned against Jake and hunched his shoulders irritably, so Jake stood and said his goodbyes, going in for another round of hugs and promising to rune them all.
May popped the corridor back open for them with a snap of magic, and Jake and Mishka disappeared down the stairs with a last wave. Jake waved the runes around the stairs away, and the magic dissolved in the room, leaving a lingering scent of cinnamon. Mishka sighed and plopped tiredly on the couch, kicking off his shoes and putting his feet up on the coffee table.
"Your friends are exhausting," he complained. "Does that werefox ever stop talking?"
Jake's lips twitched and he dropped down beside Mishka. "It wasn't so bad, was it?" he teased. "You almost looked like you were having fun, God forbid."
The faery rolled his eyes but didn't look all that irritated. "Blace is going to murder me, that I went to a Christmas party with a bunch of half- with a bunch of your friends instead of him."
Jake ignored the near-slip, appreciating the faery's effort instead. "Well, you can send Blace a nice Christmas card and tell him you're sorry but that I bribed you with fantastic sex instead."
Mishka snorted but couldn't hide the small smile tugging at the corner of his lips. The unseelie bit his lip and gave Jake a languid look. "You'd better make good on that promise," he purred. Jake smiled and raised Mishka's hand to his lips, kissing the faery's fingers, his knuckles, and his palm, gently. He nipped Mishka's ring finger and grinned over the unseelie's hand. "You know, Damon and Naetili are getting married soon. It's going to be something of a fae marriage apparently. They're getting the marks and everything."
Mishka's brows furrowed. "Who does he have as Witness and Binder?" he asked. "I thought he was disowned."
"His sister is performing the ritual. She's a nice girl – a bit scary, but she means well and she still looks out for Naetili."
Mishka raised his eyebrows and shrugged, shivering as Jake ran his fingers down the fae's neck, grazing over his collarbone. "I'm guessing you're going to drag me along for that as well."
"Probably," Jake hummed. He pulled his hand back, meeting Mishka's gaze evenly until the fae began to squirm.
"Would you want to?" he asked. "Get married, I mean."
Mishka froze, an expression of shock on his face. He caught himself after a few seconds and looked down. "Oh," he said softly.
"No pressure," Jake cooed, kissing the faery's hand. "But… it has been six years. I know you have a while, but I'm not getting any younger." He grinned to take the edge off his remark, but didn't miss the fae's small wince.
"I…" Mishka whispered, then cleared his throat and met Jake's eyes. "I think I would like that. Maybe not just yet, but…"
Jake grinned and leaned forward, kissing Mishka square on the mouth and breathing in deeply. Mishka kissed him back eagerly until Jake pulled away and rested his head in Mishka's neck.
"That's good enough for me."
.:Author's Note:. Thanks to all the readers and reviewers! I hope you've enjoyed Jake's adventures! If you're still interested in the FA world, I've written up a prequel about Damon and Naetili titled "Wings of Change" - find it on my page and let me know what you think!