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who do you trust, who do you betray

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“So, we’ve been digging up some information on your boyfriend.”

Caleb tenses. He can’t help it. It’s an instinctual reaction, one he thought he had shaken off years ago. He knows Astrid is looking straight at him, and cataloguing that reaction, so he doesn’t bother trying to play it off. “What did you find?”

“Does he really float?” Wulf asks. They started by asking the Nein, then. 

“Yes, most of the time. It’s a low level enchantment. He doesn’t usually keep it up around us.” 

“That’s what your friends say,” Astrid says. She looks at the chair in front of her, obviously an invitation for Caleb to sit. He does, still suspicious. “Beau said she doesn’t trust him.”

“She doesn’t trust you, either.”

“She has reasons to do that. What’s the cause of her mistrust for your boy, I wonder?”

Caleb looks at her. She gets harder to read when she’s around Eadwulf, when she is constantly being reminded to keep a straight face, but he knows her enough to know she’s trying to act like she knows more than she does. And he also knows that most people who know about Essek’s involvement with the beacons have been buried, so the probabilities of her having found out are — “You found nothing, didn’t you?”

Wulf laughs, a thunderous thing that startles Astrid into a small, defeated smile. “Your friends would tell me nothing! I asked Jester and she just went on and on about that one umbrella she gave him that one time and about his taste in pastries ― Beau is the one who admitted she didn’t trust him, when asked why she just said ‘no’ and left! She just left!” 

“Untrustworthy doesn’t mean not loyal to him,” Caleb reminds her, a smirk almost reaching his lips. “He has done us many favors. She wouldn’t betray him.”

“That,” Astrid says, pointing at him with her glass, “is sketchy as fuck.” 

Caleb points at the three of them, wordless, and shrugs. 

“See, that’s what I’m saying! I know the opinion you have of yourself. If you think him similar to us then he must be really bad.”

“He isn’t.”

“But he was?” Wulf asks. 

Caleb lets out a breath, slowly. “Astrid just told me I can’t be a judge of that,” he replies. 

“Fine,” Astrid says. She has a fake-resigned expression on her face, one that makes her look a little like a toddler about to throw a tantrum. It's one she often uses around them, when time stops and it feels a little like they're back to being teenagers arguing about spells until one of them stumbled upon the correct answer. 

Caleb doesn’t know how she would react to the information, but he's glad he doesn't have to find out.

***

Caleb invites them all over to his house. It feels dangerous, like he is throwing care out the window. He knows most of what they know of each other, knows enough to be able to deescalate the situation if needed. He takes a minute to commiserate over the fact that most of his friends are incredibly dangerous people with big protective instincts after he informs Essek, a smile on his face that he hopes will make him look calmer about the dinner than he is.

“You don’t have to worry,” Essek tells him, sitting on his couch while they wait for Astrid and Eadwulf to arrive. They had agreed on a time, but it was subject to change, because both Astrid and Eadwulf are terribly busy this week and didn’t want to wait more before they officially met Essek.

“I always have to worry.”

“It will be fine.”

“That depends on your definition of fine.”

“My definition of fine,” Essek says, hand reaching out to squeeze Caleb’s knee, “goes up to no one getting attacked.”

“Then you don’t know if it’ll be fine.”

“You know, the amount of trust you put on your friends is outstandingly low.”

“Oh, I’m including you in the possible attackers, don’t worry about that.”

Essek lets out a breathless laugh, softly flicks Caleb on the knee. “This dinner is not going to get violent, and you know that.”

The doorbell rings before Caleb is able to answer that it will definitely be verbally violent, which is good, because their bickering can go on for hours. Caleb walks over to the door, Essek following right behind.

Astrid smiles as she shakes Essek’s hand. It’s a big smile, one that would look sincere to most people. “Ambassador.” Her voice is polite, almost warm. She is acting. 

“Oh, call me Essek, please. It’s what all of Caleb’s friends call me.”

It’s friendly, but not too much. It’s a reminder that he has the Nein in his pockets, a very subtle dig at the fact that they are dating, that Caleb trusts him. He is a little impressed. 

Eadwulf doesn’t say anything as he shakes Essek’s hand, an intimidation tactic in and of itself. Caleb feels like he is witnessing a really complicated game of chess, or maybe like he is both the white and black kings, and his people are trying to protect him against his will, while he tries to keep the peace.

The conversation stops while they go to the dining room. Caleb thinks that maybe he is being a little paranoid, but any conversation where he cannot start making eye contact with everyone present within seconds of them speaking is too dangerous for his liking.

Astrid looks like she is bursting with a need to start speaking, and Caleb thinks to himself that any kind of debate will probably be a disaster, no matter the topic. If the topic is Caleb himself that’ll be awful, but any other topic might end with the magic equivalent of a fistfight.

"So your school of magic is Dunamancy, right?" 

"Yes. I'm the one who started teaching Caleb, actually, it's how we first started getting closer.” Essek looks at Caleb when he says this, a warm thing. Most of their relationship might be tainted by some kind of manipulation, but their wish to share magic with each other has mostly been pure.

Astrid turns to look at Caleb, and she sounds innocently curious, but her eyes look murderous. "You've learnt Dunamancy?" 

"Only some spells," Caleb admits. 

"You're underselling yourself," Essek says, sweetly, and Caleb honestly doesn't know if he's trying to make Astrid angrier or get on her good side. "You've mastered some of the hardest spells there are."

"That's impressive," Astrid says.

“Not really,” Caleb says, because she sounds tense. She’s been in the house for less than fifteen minutes. Eadwulf still looks normal, but Caleb is worse at reading his emotions, because his default is hiding them. Essek looks as tense as Astrid, but in a way that makes Caleb squeeze his hand under the table, softly. 

The conversation steers to safer topics ― not work, local shops, Jester’s last prank ― and maybe the dinner will be fine, in the end. 

***

"You know," Astrid says, the moment Essek leaves to go to the kitchen for a second. "I thought when you said we shouldn't keep important secrets from each other, this would have included that you know some of the magic that is the best kept a secret in the world."

"I try not to think about it too much," Caleb admits. "It is time magic. I always feel — I know I'm two deep thinking sessions on this magic from wanting to change something important in the past."

Astrid blinks, once, twice. "Would that be an option?" 

"No," Caleb says. It's at the same time as Wulf does. It almost makes him smile, knowing they're at the same wavelength. "Astrid, you and I know that kind of power is too much for anyone to hold. That's not something anyone should be experimenting on."

"But—" Wulf's hand lands on her shoulder, probably aiming to be comforting, though it serves as a grounding point for Astrid, because she stops, breathes in. "I know you're right. I still would like a demonstration of what you can do." 

"I can promise that," Caleb says, and as Essek arrives, he looks up at him. "Actually, Essek, would you ever mind showing Astrid some Dunamancy? Just a demonstration, no teaching.”

The last part makes Essek’s shoulders relax, and he smiles at Caleb. “I’d be open to that.”

Astrid looks a little better, now, but Caleb can feel some dangerous waves coming from her direction. “You know, Ambassador,” she starts. By this point, Essek had repeatedly told her that just Essek is fine, that the Mighty Nein all call him that. She has not given up yet. “You’re a mysterious man.”

“Such is the nature of magic, is it not?” Essek muses.

“That’s a bullshit answer,” Astrid says, straight up, and it feels like a veil has been lifted from the conversation. Essek lets out a startled chuckle, and Caleb covers his face with his hands. 

He looks at Eadwulf, from the corner of his eye. Astrid has always been more naturally charming than them, better at speaking. Both of them can seem like they enjoy conversation with some effort, but Astrid will always be better at steering conversations, at knowing what the person she’s talking to will accept. Eadwulf seems equal parts amused and surprised by Astrid, which is common for them. His eyes drag back to Caleb’s, and his eyebrows raise subtly. 

“It is,” Essek admits. “I’m mysterious because it was beneficial to my career.”

“And to your… ah, how to say? Extracurricular activities?”

Essek frowns for just a second. “I’m not sure of your meaning.”

“I know Caleb,” Astrid points in his general direction, as an afterthought, almost like she had forgotten that he was here. “And if he compared you to him, considered you an equal, then that’s probably because you did something equally bad. Treason is where I landed, though who knows?” Her shoulders shrug, but with such confidence that it’s almost meaningless. “Maybe I’m wrong.”

Caleb stays silent. It’s the best course of action, because answering would let her know that she is too close for comfort. He can tell Eadwulf is looking at him, so he just puts on an expression of amused surprise, like he can tell why Astrid thought what she thought but she is way off. He doesn’t know if it fools him.

“Does it matter?”

“Excuse me?”

“Does it matter, whatever I did?” It is a good gamble. It makes Astrid unsure of whether she is right or if he did something worse than treason. “It is in the past. Caleb has obviously forgiven me. His standards for redemption are quite high, you know.”

“I know,” Astrid says. She knows she’s been cornered, because she can’t go on with that line of thinking without admitting that she doesn’t fully trust Caleb’s judgment. “I still worry about him.”

“I think everyone in this table has reasons not to trust each other,” Essek says, quite diplomatically. “We can go on until every single secret is on the table or we can accept we’re quite ― ah, what word would Beau use?”

“Shady fuckers?” Caleb suggests.

“Indeed, darling,” Essek says, a hand landing on his, softly. “We can accept we’re all shady fuckers and move on.”

Eadwulf laughs, softly, and Astrid looks at him like he has betrayed her. “That’s good enough for me.”

“Essek admitting that he is shady, or him calling me darling?” Caleb asks, amused, and all the answer he receives is Eadwulf’s raised eyebrow, again. Astrid looks defeated, but like she just lost at a game of cards, amused at the same time.

“Alright, I’ll stop the interrogation.”

“It was quite good, actually,” Essek admits. “Very natural.”

“Don’t try to butter me up.”

“I would not dare.” 

Essek starts picking up the plates, and Caleb stops him with a hand on the wrist. “I’m guessing you all want five minutes to threaten each other. I promise not to listen.”

He can hear some hushed whispers from the kitchen, but he does as he promised and doesn’t try to listen. His hopes future dinners won’t be quite as tense, because Eadwulf has obviously taken a tentative liking to Essek, and Astrid seemed to like debating him, and that means the next time The Mighty Nein have a dinner they will invite themselves over. 

He thinks of their reactions when someone ― probably Jester, maybe Beau ― tries to drag them into the pool in Fjord’s basement, or on the strategies they might create when playing a drinking game.

The smile on his face lasts all through their goodbyes, through his nighttime routine, and until he closes his eyes to sleep.