Max has always smelled entirely human to Duke, which is why it's a such a surprise when Duke finds him talking to the Queen of the Winter Court in their hotel room one night.
They're in Toronto. Max has family stuff, but Duke isn't going to mope around their room by himself, he knows people in T-Dot, too, tyvm. He's coming back after dinner and his trainer-approved (okay, tolerated) one beer. The key card doesn't work right the first time. The door handle is cold under his palm, and there is a little push of…something that he doesn't really notice except in retrospect. The door opens. Duke takes two steps into the room and sees her.
Duke freezes. The hotel door swings shut behind him, forgotten, and the Queen turns her head to look at him.
She's beautiful, but in a terrible, inhuman way, pale and cold and shining. Her dress looks like it's made out of blowing snow and bare branches, and her magic feels like a hailstorm of ice crystals against his skin.
Her eyebrows go up, and he knows she can tell what he is, the same way he can recognize her.
"Interesting," she says, and it comes out condescending, disdainful. Duke feels his lips curl back off his teeth, and a snarl catches in the back of his throat.
She looks back at Max. She steps forward and cups Max's face in her hands. Max flinches, tiny, almost suppressed. She kisses his lips, gentle and close-mouthed, and then his closed eyes.
Max exhales when she steps back, and his breath is visible. She smiles, cool and pleased, and turns away.
Duke takes a quick step back. She sweeps by in a whispering rush, trailing the scent of snow and magic. The door opens on its own, and shuts behind her.
Duke and Max stare at the door for a long moment.
"That, um, that didn't look like the hallway out there," Max says.
"Nope," Duke says. He takes a deep breath and opens the door. It looks like the hotel hall now, same boring carpet, same dull fluorescent lighting. The glimpse of the midwinter forest the Queen had stepped out into is gone like it never existed.
"Huh," Max says. Duke closes the door and turns around, and Max sucks in a shocked breath. "Jesus, what's wrong with your eyes?"
"Nothing!" Duke says automatically. He reaches for the old, familiar illusion, pulling it close around him, but Max's face doesn't change. She's given him the ability to see through glamour, he realizes. He ducks his head. "Nothing's wrong, they're, um, they're supposed to look like this."
"Are you one of them?" Max asks, and his voice is hard, flat.
"No!" Duke says. He looks up fast and meets Max's eyes. Max's shoulders relax; maybe it's the reflexive fear and loathing in Duke's voice that convinces him. "But I'm not -- exactly human."
"Yeah, the bright red eyes are kind of a giveaway. What are you?"
"I'm, my family -- we're loup-garou."
" 'Wolf...' " Max tries to translate, his face dubious. "What do you do?"
Duke hesitates. It feels weird to say it out loud, but he suddenly really wants Max to know, to understand. "I can show you?" he offers.
"Yeah, okay," Max says.
"I need a little space."
Max's eyebrows go up, but he backs away, sits down on the edge of the far bed.
Duke starts taking his clothes off.
Max's eyebrows go higher. "Is your superpower porn? Because you know you don't need to use that 'I'm not human' line to get some."
Duke tries to grin, but it feels tight. "Yeah, yeah, I know you're easy."
Before Max can say anything else, Duke closes his eyes and changes.
He opens his eyes. The room is too bright now; his night vision is better in this shape. The smells are stronger now, too, the residue of previous guests detectable under the aggressive cleaning supplies, the faint rotten ice taste of the fae Queen's magic. He can smell Max, his blood beating under his skin, hot and copper-sweet, enough to make Duke's stomach twist with want.
Max is staring at him, his mouth open in a perfect O. The scent of his fear and anger is fading, and his heartbeat, after one quick stutter, is evening out. Duke hadn't realized how much he'd been worried about Max's reaction until the tension in his muscles eases.
"You're a werewolf," Max says and he sounds amazed.
Duke rolls his eyes and gives him an exasperated huff. He's seen himself in the mirror in this form, he doesn't look that much like a wolf. He's bigger, taller and heavier in the shoulders than a real wolf, his muzzle wider. His fur is longer, thick and shaggy and completely black. His front paws are more like hands, which is helpful for opening doors and peanut butter jars. And of course his eyes are bright red.
Duke changes back, ends up sitting naked on the floor. "I'm not a werewolf," he says. "I can change into that shape, but it's not tied to the moon, and I'm not hurt by silver."
He's leaving out a few things, but he's never done them, and anyway, the blood drinking is entirely optional.
"What about iron?" Max asks.
Duke shakes his head. "You've seen me lacing up my skates and using a steak knife, man, you know it doesn't hurt me. I told you, I'm not one of them. We're part of this world."
He's taking this really well, but maybe someone who gets a personal visit from a fae Queen is hard to shock. Which brings him to the most pressing issue of the night...
"What did the Queen of Winter want?" Duke asks.
Max grimaces, and he's the one who looks uncomfortable now. "She wants me to be her champion." This is what Duke knows about the fae: they live in a universe that’s just a step to the side or beneath this one. They can cross over but they have almost no power here, only the ability to create illusions, glamours. And they steal or lure people back into their world to feed off their creativity and passion, because they have none of their own. Mostly humans, because their magic doesn’t work quite right on people like Duke, on the people whose magic is part of this world.
"What?" Duke says. "I mean, no offense, but -- why you?"
Max scrubs a hand over his face. "Because my dad was, before, back when he was playing."
"Whoa, really?" Duke tries to picture it. Tie is not his first image of a fae champion.
"Yeah. She said--" Max frowns, like he's trying to remember it exactly. "The seasons are changing in the Courts, and winter is in ascendancy again. So she needs a champion to increase her, her power or importance or whatever."
"You said no, right?" Duke asks, but that was not the face of a Queen who'd been told no.
"She said she'd never released my dad from his obligation. That if I said no, she'd make him do it instead."
"Fuck, man." Duke finds his boxers, pulls them on. This doesn't seem like a conversation he wants to have naked. "You don't -- you don't have to, like, actually fight one of them, do you?"
"No." Max's mouth twists. "It's all tied to the games. If I fight someone on ice and win, it's a symbolic victory for her."
"What happens if you lose?"
"I don't know."
It's probably not good. Duke's heard stories about what happens if you don't live up to your end of a bargain with the fae.
"Have you even been in a fight on the ice before?" Duke asks.
"In the O!" Max says.
Duke gives him a very unimpressed look.
"I know, but-- what am I supposed to do?"
Duke doesn't have an answer for that. “So when — tomorrow?”
“She said — the winter solstice to the summer solstice.”
That’s like two months from now, almost.
"You're not going to tell anyone about this, right?" Max asks.
Duke snorts. "Who’s going to believe me?"
"I won't tell, I promise," Duke says. "You won't say anything about--" He waves his hand at his eyes.
"No," Max says. "I promise."
In the morning, the whole thing feels almost like a dream.
But Max flinches just a tiny bit when he meets Duke’s eyes in the mirror when they’re brushing their teeth, and Duke knows it wasn’t a dream.
Duke shakes it off. They’ve got a game to play, and when they’re on the ice, it’s easy to think about nothing except the game. They win against the Leafs, and Max gets a goal, gets to show off in front of his old man and the Toronto media.
Then they’re on a plane to Boston, collapsing into their separate beds with barely enough energy to make sure one of their phones is plugged in with the alarm set.
It’s a late night, they’re playing the next day. It’s just — after any other road game like that, beating the Leafs in their own house, they would have hooked up afterwards. Nothing serious, handjobs and a lot of laughing and chirping each other's skills. Maybe Max feels weird about it now, too many secrets out in the open.
Duke scrunches his eyes shut, rolls over away from Max’s almost-snore, and makes himself stop thinking about it.
Two months go by real fast when you’re playing your first real season in the NHL, when you’re trying to hang on to that hot start in the standings and the rookie scoring race.
Duke has to google the actual date of the winter solstice. Max makes a face at him when Duke shows up at his place that night. Duke makes a face right back, and Max sighs and lets him in.
Max is wearing one of his game day suits. Duke would give him shit for that, but Duke's wearing dark wash jeans and a button down shirt, way nicer than he'd normally wear to hang out with Max. The Queen of Winter doesn't seem like a casual Friday type person. Duke is wearing all black Nikes, though, just in case they have to do any running. Max can sniff all he wants over that choice, but see how far he gets in his Cole Haas or whatever.
"Where's Orion?" Duke asks.
"Upstairs," Max says. "I didn't want him to freak out over whatever happens."
They sit down on the couch in the living room to wait for -- whatever's going to happen.
According to Wikipedia, the solstice will happen at 9:48 pm, their time, when the northern hemisphere of the planet is tilted as far as it ever gets from the sun.
Duke knows what the solstice is, basically, it's just never been something he's paid attention to. But he can feel it tonight, a moment like the whole world holds its breath. In that stillness, someone knocks on Max's front door.
Duke jumps. "Fuck."
Max grins for a second, then it fades. He stands up and heads for the door, wiping his palms on his thighs as he goes. Duke follows him.
Max opens the door. Standing there is a huge guy -- like, Chara on skates huge, if Chara were wearing a full suit of armor and had huge curling rams horns coming out of his helmet. Or head, it's hard to tell.
Behind him is not Max's front yard and the street, but a huge ballroom. It's full of people, but Duke can't quite make out their faces.
"The Queen calls for her champion," the guy in armor says.
"Right," Max says, and takes a deep breath.
On impulse, Duke reaches out and grabs Max's hand. Max gives him a quick sideways look, almost grateful, and he doesn't shake Duke off. They step through the door together.
Duke feels the fae magic tug at his grip, but it can't catch on real world magic, and Duke makes it through the door. The ballroom is made out of ice, sculpted out of that kind of turquoise blue glacier you’d see in a National Geographic documentary. The floor is unpolished granite, hard and cold under his feet.
The crowd has parted for them, drawing back with a rustle of silk and whispers to clear a path up to the Queen on her throne.
A heavy metal gauntlet comes down on Duke’s shoulder and he barely manages not to jump.
The Queen tilts her head and studies him for a long moment. “Well, I suppose every knight must have his squire,” she says. “Let him be.”
Fuck you too, lady, Duke thinks, but he’s got the sense to keep it to himself. Max scowls.
She makes a little “come here” gesture, and there’s nothing to do except walk down that path.
Duke doesn’t let himself look at the fae on either side of them. Their faces are as cold and pale and, and hard as their Queen’s, like they’re carved out of marble. Here and there, he can see a human face, pink and brown and plain next to the fae, and that’s somehow worse. The humans all look dazed, like they’re sleepwalking or they’re not all the way there.
He focuses his eyes on the hem of the Queen’s dress so he doesn’t have to look at anyone’s face.
And then they’re standing in front of her.
“Kneel,” she says.
Max does. Duke doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter, she’s not paying attention to him anymore.
She stands up.
“I called for my champion and you came. Do you swear to serve me on the ice as your father did?”
“I do,” Max says, his voice low.
The Queen holds out her hand, and an attendant gives her a small knife. She undoes the first few buttons of Max’s shirt. Max twitches at the first brush of her hand, then holds still. She pulls the fabric of his shirt aside and makes a small cut on his chest, just below his collarbone. It’s done before Max or Duke can even protest.
Max’s blood wells up, bright red, the scent of it hot and sweet in Duke’s mouth. The Queen cuts her palm and presses it to Max’s chest. Her blood smells like nothing to him.
“So we are bound,” she says. “Your victories are my victories, your defeats are my defeats.”
She steps back. She draws her hand down the knife and it lengthens, turns into a sword.
“Rise,” she says.
Max stands up. As he rises, armor shimmers into view around him, plates of dull, cold black like pond ice. She hands him the sword and gestures for him to turn and face the crowd. His mouth is pressed flat, his face grim and unhappy.
“The Knight of Winter,” she says, and the crowd cheers.
She sends them back after that. It’s weird to see the huge stone doors at the end of the ballroom swing open onto Max’s front hall.
Max’s armor and the sword disappear when they step through.
Max pulls his shirt open and scrubs at the blood on his chest. The cut under it is completely healed. “Goddamn, that can’t be sanitary,” he says.
“Are you okay?” Duke asks.
Max takes a slow, shaky breath. “Yeah, I…” He trails off, looking at Duke. For a heartbeat, he looks like he’s going to say something serious, then he just shakes his head. “I gotta check my blood sugar.”
“Sure,” Duke says.
Max goes towards the kitchen, and when he passes Duke, Duke can smell snow.
Duke can still smell it on him in the locker room the next day, the faint scent of winter clinging to his skin despite the Arizona sunshine.
Duke catches his eye and Max grins, but it looks tight, fake.
Duke squeezes his shoulder and Max hip checks him, but his smile eases up.
Duke sees her when they’re out on the ice for the anthems, sitting in one of the expensive boxes. She looks normal, just another conventionally attractive middle aged white woman surrounded by other conventionally attractive white people of varying ages. He looks away, up at the flags like he’s supposed to. In the corner of his eye, her box glitters like sunshine on new snow.
In the middle of the second period, Max fights Peter Holland. (They’re playing Toronto again, and Duke wonders if that’s part of the symbolism, too.)
Well, Max tries to fight Holland, anyway. Holland checks him up high, and Max drops his gloves and launches himself at Holland. They crash to the ice, flailing away, and the refs separate them immediately.
Duke's up on his feet yelling with the rest of the guys, the crowd whooping approval.
Max is grinning, wide and genuine when he gets sent to the box.
Duke follows Max home after the game.
Max makes a face at him when he pulls up in Max's driveway, but he lets him in.
Duke gets himself a Gatorade and sits at the breakfast bar while Max checks his blood sugar. Orion whined when Max first came in, uncertain before he let Max scratch his ears. He's watching Duke suspiciously now, and Duke wonders if he can smell the fae magic on Max, too.
He watches Max go through the motions of the test, quick and competent, despite his red knuckles. Max nods to himself and gets a bottle of water out of the fridge, cracks it open.
He leans against the kitchen counter and looks at Duke. Duke looks back.
"I know, I know, that could have gone better," Max says.
Duke takes swig of Gatorade and doesn't say anything.
"It would have been better if the refs hadn't broken it up so fast. I just need to practice more."
"Coach is going to love that. How's your hands?"
Max looks down, flexes his left hand. "Fine."
Duke takes a breath. He's going to point out that Max didn't get a point in that game, that he's not there to fight, he's there to score, and he can't do that in the box or with a broken hand.
But he looks at Max's face and knows that Max knows all that already. So he just takes another drink.
They get the next three days off for Christmas, a whirlwind trip of family time, non-trainer approved food, and — for Duke anyway, he doesn’t know what Max is up to — napping in a pile of big, warm, furry bodies that smell like home.
It’s both not enough and too much time.
He thinks about calling Max Christmas night, when he’s getting ready for bed, already back to his pre-game-night schedule. But he doesn’t.
After morning skate the next day, Doan says, "Domi, can I talk to you for a minute? You too, Duclair."
He's using his serious, captainly voice, and when they both nod, he leads them into one of the trainer's offices and shuts the door. He leans back against the edge of the desk, arms folded across his chest.
"Have a seat," he says, tipping his chin at the chairs in front of the desk. Max has to move a pile of paperwork, but they get themselves settled.
Duke's getting himself mentally prepared to hear the "you have to do more without the puck" speech when Doan says, "Max, did you make a bargain with the fae about -- anything?"
Max's mouth drops open. "What?"
"I could smell the fae magic all over you during our last game, and now again today."
Doan looks at Duke. Duke shrugs. He knows what Doan is -- and Doan knows what he is -- and no matter what's going on with Max, that's not his secret to tell.
"I'm a selkie," Doan says.
"A what?" Max says.
"It's like a were-seal," Duke says.
"Ohh," Max says.
"What?" Doan says.
"He thinks everything's some kind of were-creature," Duke says.
Max opens his mouth like he's going to argue, and Doan says, "Regardless. Max, I know you're worried about your goal-scoring slump, but the fae are dangerous."
"I know!" Max says, his face flushing. "That's not -- I did make a bargain with one of them, but that's not why. I didn't have a choice."
"Can you tell me why?" Doan asks.
Max shakes his head. "It's private. Personal."
"It doesn't have anything to do with the team," Duke adds. "It won't hurt the team." He thinks about Max's split knuckles and hopes he's telling the truth.
Doan looks at both of them and sighs, unfolding his arms. "I suppose it's too late to make a difference anyway, the magic is bound tight to you already. But if you ever need help, or advice, you can talk to me. Okay?"
Max nods. Doan transfers his serious captain look to Duke and Duke nods quickly, too.
"All right, go home, take a nap.”
“Yes, sir,” they say in unison, and manage not to crack up until they’re out of the office.
“So you knew about Doan?” Max asks as they head for the parking lot.
“Yeah, I could smell it on him as soon as I met him.” Faint, in his human form, something a little like the ocean, like a predator, musk and raw meat and fresh killed fish.
“Does he give you captainly advice about how to be a werewolf in the NHL?”
Duke rolls his eyes. “I’m not a werewolf. And no, he doesn’t. He offered though, pretty much those exact same words as he said to you at the end there.”
Duke’s never taken him up on it, but he has dinner with Doan and his wife and kids sometimes. The younger two especially love it when he changes and gives them pony rides around the living room.
“So how many are there of you guys in the league?” Max asks.
Duke shrugs. “At least a couple on every team, as far as I can tell.”
Max’s eyes get big. “Oh, man, who?”
“None of your business,” Duke says.
This is the most he’s talked to Max about what he is since that first night back in October.
“You suck, dude,” Max says. “What if I guess and you tell me yes or no?”
“No,” Duke says.
They’re almost to their cars now. Duke digs for his keys while Max checks his phone. “You want to get lunch? I have to let Orion out, but — wait. Is this why you don’t like Orion?”
“I like Orion just fine!” Duke says. Which is true, he’s just pretty sure Orion does not return the feeling. He keeps walking towards his car. “And I’ll meet you at the burrito place in thirty minutes.”
He’s smiling when he drives out of the lot, and he’s still smiling when he gets to the burrito place and sees Max has saved him a seat.
Max doesn’t get into a fight during the game that night, not officially anyway, or the one the next night.
They play at home on New Year’s Eve, and get the win and the franchise record for their captain.
Everyone goes out that night, even the old guys. Doan lets them buy him one round, lets everyone slap his back and hug him, then goes home to his family. The party keeps going. It’s almost midnight. Duke dances with half a dozen different girls whose names he never catches. He drinks to their captain, he drinks to Max’s assist, he drinks to the new year.
Max stumbles into Duke’s side as he makes his way back to their booth. Duke catches him and frowns — should Max be drinking?
He pats Max’s head, very gently. “Are you all right?” he asks.
“English, dude,” Max says, laughing.
Duke frowns harder. Was that not in English?
The music fades out and the dj comes on. “Let’s get this year started the right way,” he says. “In ten...nine...”
The crowd picks up the countdown, and in a sudden burst of music and cheers and those little party poppers with the paper streamers, it’s a brand new year.
Max goes up on his toes and kisses Duke’s cheek, right at the corner of his mouth, when the clock hits midnight.
Duke blinks, and Max is turning away, throwing his arm around Ollie’s shoulder, and Vermy is kissing both of Duke’s cheeks, saying something in French that Duke can’t make out under the pounding music.
Max gets his first NHL hat trick at home against Edmonton. Duke assists on one of the goals. He’s screaming as loud as anyone in the building when the hats come down, and he hugs Max hard enough that he can feel it through their pads.
They win the game, too, six game point streak, and it feels good.
Max is still lit up, glowing with it, in the locker room afterwards. He catches Duke’s eye, tips his head towards the door. Duke gets up and tries to look casual as he makes his way across the room.
Deep down, he’s hoping for blowjobs, but as he gets there, Max says to Doan, “Can we talk to you for a minute?”
Doan has finished changing already. He looks ready to go, but he says, “Sure.”
They find an unoccupied office again. Max doesn’t sit down.
“I wanted to ask, I know you can’t change a bargain with the fae, but can you — reinterpret it?” he asks.
“Reinterpret it?” Doan says, frowning.
“I swore to be the Winter Queen’s champion, to serve her on the ice like my dad did.”
Doan sucks in a surprised breath, but he doesn’t interrupt Max.
“But I didn’t say I’d fight. I’m an NHL player like my dad, but not the same kind of player. Maybe I don’t have to be the same kind of knight.”
Duke looks at Doan, whose frown is more thoughtful now.
“Fae magic is all about symbolism,” Doan says slowly. “Let me see your mark.”
“My— Oh.” Max says. He peels his shirt off. The scar on his chest is silvery.
“Can I?” Doan says, reaching out.
“Yeah,” Max says.
Doan touches it gently. “It feels all right. You haven’t gotten into any more fights, but you have been putting up points. And the team has done well, and you had a great game tonight. If she’s not unhappy with you yet…maybe the magic is all right with you reinterpreting it.”
Max grins, sharp and bright and fierce. “Okay. Good.”
“But pay attention to the mark,” Doan says. “If it turns black or starts to hurt, let me know.”
Doan leaves the two of them alone.
“That was a good idea,” Duke says.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Max says.
Duke rolls his eyes.
“I figured out pretty early I couldn’t be my dad, but I could be great in my own way. I just should have recognized that earlier.”
Duke nods. His throat feels weirdly tight, almost like he’s proud of Max, which is a dumb feeling.
The team slips farther down in the standings. The point streak ends and they hit a losing streak instead, ugly and frustrating.
Max is still putting up points, though, on Duke’s goals and off of Duke’s assists.
The mark on his chest stays shiny.
Duke wakes up in their hotel room in San Jose. His heart is pounding and he doesn't know why, not at first.
But the room smells like spring, green growing things and wet dirt, and Max's bed is empty.
He sits up. "Max?"
There's no response. Duke's not really expecting one. The room is silent except for his breathing. Max's phone is still plugged in on the nightstand, his shoes are still by the door.
There are flower petals in the tangled sheets of Max's bed, and Duke suddenly remembers it's the spring equinox, one of the nights when the barrier between this world and the fae's is as thin as a soap bubble.
"Tabarnak," Duke says.
He lies back down. His heart is still pounding, but now it's because of what he's thinking about doing.
He knows it's within his abilities as a loup-garou -- well, probably. Okay, there's a good chance at least -- but he's never actually done it before.
He makes himself take a few slow breaths, then closes his eyes and kind of steps out of his body.
He knows it works because the room feels different immediately, the fading trace of fae magic like a brush of silk and stinging nettles against his, his spirit, he supposes. No scent or taste, but everything looks sharper, colors stranger, richer even in the dark. He doesn't let himself look back at the bed, because seeing himself there is just going to be freaky.
He can see the thin spot between the worlds, a shimmer in the dark. This is a terrible idea, he thinks, but he steps through anyway.
He steps out into the middle of winter. He's in a clearing in a forest. The trees are bare and black around him in the gathering twilight, the ground under his feet snowy. It's not cold, exactly, but the magic that surrounds him, battering against him, feels like winter.
There are no tracks, no features, nothing as far as he can see except snow and trees. Oh, shit, this was really a terrible plan.
He closes his eyes, lets the magic wash over him. In the middle of winter, there is a tiny thread of spring, like he felt in the hotel, and a shiver of dissonance -- the iron in Max's blood.
He doesn't open his eyes, doesn't walk, just -- drifts, lets his spirit follow that faint trail.
The sense of spring grows stronger. Winter fades away, and he hears music, laughter like crystal bells. He opens his eyes and sees the Spring Court. It's midday here, bright with sunshine. The trees are fuzzy with tiny new leaves, with flowers like clouds of pink and white. There is a banquet spread out on carpets like a picnic, silk pavilions set artfully throughout the clearing, billowing in the gentle breeze.
And there are fae everywhere, beautiful and strange enough to make his head ache.
Duke makes himself look away, follow the buzz of Max's blood. He is not in one of the tents, but in a little structure set aside, something that looks like it was grown from a thorn tree. There is a guard out front, but Duke drifts in like smoke through the branches at the back.
Max is lying on the floor, one arm flung up to cover his eyes.
Duke hesitates. This is the part he's less sure about. He reaches out, and for a moment it feels like nothing is happening, that he's just fumbling around in the dark. Then he sinks into Max's body.
He can feel the brush of Max's mind against his, the startled flash of Max's thoughts.
Max? he says. Thinks.
Holy -- Duke?
How are you -- is this a hallucination? Max asks.
You really think you'd hallucinate me, out of all people, in your last dying moments?
Duke was joking, but Max feels serious, honest, and it makes something twist sharply where his heart should be.
Am I dying? Max asks.
Right this second? No. But there's probably not a good reason for the Prince of Spring to have kidnapped you and thrown a party, Duke says. He's not the King yet, but killing Winter's champion is the kind of gesture that will get him there faster.
Right. Okay. Max takes a deep breath with the body they're currently sharing. So you probably have a plan and everything, but I think I should mention, there was kind of a scuffle and I lost my pump. So I may slip into a coma at some point during this rescue. Slash hallucination.
Shit, Duke says. Okay--
There is a sudden fanfare, and Duke realizes the music and laughter outside have stopped. Breathless anticipation has replaced it.
The front wall of Max's cell folds open.
“Bring forth Winter’s Champion,” he hears someone order, and the whole floor of the cell ripples up and spills Max out into the bright spring sunshine.
Max manages to get to his knees.
“Your defeats are her defeats,” the Prince of Spring says. “Your wounds are her wounds.”
There is a guy in armor standing in front of him. He’s easily as big as the guy from the Winter Court, but where that guy’s armor was silver, this one’s armor is polished wood. Instead of horns, huge branches spring from his helmet, covered in tiny new leaves and flowers like cherry blossoms. He’s holding a big-ass sword. It might be wood, it might be bronze, Duke doesn’t care to find out.
Duke reaches out and pulls the change down over both of them.
He rolls to his feet -- paws now -- and bounds forward, slamming into the guy in armor. They go down together in a huge crash, and the soldier tries to bring his sword arm around.
Duke bites down. A wooden gauntlet shatters in his jaws and the sword drops from the guard's hand. Fae blood fills his mouth, the taste acrid and disgusting. There is a red roaring sound in his head, and for a moment he wants to throw himself into the crowd, to tear and rend and bite--
He twists and bolts for the woods.
In the back of his head, Max is yelling, Did you just turn me into a wolf? How did you do that?
I told you, I'm not a werewolf, Duke says, and keeps running.
He follows Max's scent in reverse, trying to find that thin spot again. He finds snow, and the Winter Court instead.
He pulls up short. His breath steams in the cold air. The Winter Court is arrayed for battle, and the Queen rides at the front, on a white horse with a dripping red mouth.
She looks at him. Them. “Interesting,” she says, and this time it is not condescending at all. She gestures, and the air splits open in front of Duke. He can see familiarly bland hotel room on the other side.
He looks back at her. She smiles. “Your victories are my victories, after all.”
He throws himself through in a single bound and ends up in their hotel room again.
The split in their universe seals itself shut.
Duke concentrates, and pulls himself out of Max's body. Max changes back as Duke leaves him.
"Wow," Max says vaguely.
Duke drifts back into his own body. For a disconcerting second, it feels weird, foreign, like he's going to slip right out again.
Then he settles and sits up.
"Wow," Max says again from the floor.
Duke gets out of bed and goes to give him a hand up. Max sits up, but he pulls Duke down the rest of the way, mashing their lips together in a kiss.
Duke makes a tiny, startled noise."I — what?"
"I know I'm the knight or whatever, but you pulled off a pretty badass rescue," Max says. He's smiling. "You deserve a kiss, at least."
Duke blinks at him, then snorts. "Whatever you say, princess."
Max is still laughing when Duke kisses him, sweet and careful.
Duke wakes up when the temperature drops, the scent of snow and magic filling his nose. The Queen of Winter is leaning over their bed. She smiles when she sees he's awake.
"I am very pleased with you both," she says.
Max snuffles and doesn't wake up.
"You have won me a great victory. Your defeat in our world would have been crippling, and your triumph rebounds even more so."
"You're welcome?" Duke says cautiously.
"I release your beloved from his obligation," she says.
"Oh. Um." Really? he doesn't say.
Her smile quirks like she hears it anyway. "You exceeded your obligations to me, and I failed in my obligation to protect you. So." She opens her hand, and Duke feels the cool shiver of magic across Max's skin.
"And besides," she says. "I am not sure that I could keep him. Not from you."
Max rolls over, and Duke looks down at him. He's still sleeping. The sheet has slipped to his waist, and Duke can see that the mark on his chest is gone. When he looks up again, the Queen is gone, and the room smells like nothing at all.