“I suppose I shouldn’t be impressed you found me, but I am curious,” Caleb said, used to being left to his own devices in this place. If the Mighty Nein weren’t curious enough to go looking for him when he disappeared up here, he assumed no one would be. Why would anyone care what he did?
Essek rubbed at a spot on his mantle, not staring. Caleb wasn’t ready to meet his gaze regardless. “Ah, your cabinets that can summon anything were quite helpful. And Jester. And a locate object spell.”
“That would do it. How can I help you? Is your room unsatisfactory?” His tone was blank and hollow with no real emotion to it. He should muster up a smile, or at least a halfway friendly tone, but that was impossible in this room. Instead he kept his eyes downcast and examined the patterns of cracks in the stone.
Essek closed the door behind him. “The guest room is wonderful. I would tell you the whole tower is wonderful, but I can’t say I like this place much.”
“I take it Ikithon didn’t show you it’s copy?” he asked, more venom in his voice than he really intended for.
The drow sighed softly. “No. He put on quite a diplomatic air whenever we spoke.”
“Why would you recreate it?”
Caleb shook his head. This was a dangerous path to go down. He didn’t want to talk about his past with Essek. He didn’t want to reveal how similar they really were. “I cannot forget.”
“Forget what, exactly? The pain?”
Essek a small step forward, “So you torture yourself because you think you deserve it, this kind of pain. Would you have me do something similar? A way to atone for my sins?”
“No, you don’t understand.” Caleb wanted to curl up further, to cease to exist. To put a lock on the damned door. Once again he yearned to go back in time, to fix all of his mistakes. The futile thoughts of a fool.
“If you believe there is a way for me to atone, I would do so. What could I do to be redeemed in your eyes?” Essek murmured, taking another step forward and placing a tentative hand on Caleb’s arm. A gesture Caleb had made before, one Essek had turned away from. This felt less calculating, more comforting.
You don’t deserve comfort.
He didn’t recoil. He didn’t move. He didn’t even take a breath.
Nothing felt right, everything was bubbling over into a lack of rationality that he didn’t understand. Caleb couldn’t hate Essek.
“You need do nothing besides becoming a better person.”
Essek sighed softly. “Yet you cannot look at me.”
“You don’t understand,” he said again, shaking his head and curling further into himself. He wished idly for Frumpkin, but he never brought his cat into this space. His cat didn’t belong here. He did not deserve that comfort here.
He paused for a moment before speaking again, barely audible, “I think I might. You cannot forgive me because you cannot forgive yourself.”
The words were naught but a whisper, but they cut like daggers and Caleb thought the world might cave in on himself. It was always a shock when his carefully constructed walls encountered the wrecking balls that were his friends. Caleb was good at hiding. It was something he excelled at. He didn’t know what to do when someone tore down the walls and saw him at his most raw and vulnerable state. But it was all true. He couldn’t hate Essek like he hated himself, and it made no sense.
“I may not trust you, but I’ve already forgiven you,” he said, not meeting his gaze, not standing, not doing anything. He could never trust Essek completely, not like that. Just like he couldn’t trust himself.
And yet he felt that conviction slipping from him as well the more time Essek spent with the Nein. He proved himself time and time again, and Caleb’s world view was being shattered piece by piece. Soon he'd be nothing but a pile of broken pottery. Useless and too jagged to touch.
Yet here was Essek beside him, reforming his jagged pieces into something useful once again. He painted over every crack with golden lines, somehow more beautiful in his fragility, in his ability to be fallible. Each of the Nein had found a new piece, returning it to the drow and making sure that he was whole. That he had all the pieces he needed to remake himself. It was like looking in a mirror, but Caleb didn’t understand how he could ever be worthy.
He felt the soft fabric of the Xhorhasian mantle brush against his fingers as the Shadowhand sat beside him on the filthy floor. No floating, no pretense, just a small comfort in proximity. It wasn’t overwhelming. Caleb could easily move if he didn’t want to be close.
He stayed where he was. Even if he didn’t deserve it. Even if he deserved nothing but pain. Even if he wanted more. Even if he wanted Essek to reach out and embrace him, as he once had when they figured out the spell for Veth.
He stayed still.
“Would you want me to make something like this? To dwell on my past mistakes, things that have hurt me and others? We could swap spells again, so I could construct a similar place.”
Caleb shook his head, sinking lower.
“Then why are you here?”
He took a deep, shaky breath. “I deserve this.”
“And I don’t?”
“And you don’t,” he repeated.
Essek hummed, thinking for a moment before going on. “You told me you used to be like me. Past tense. This is not the creation of a man who believes he has become a better man.”
“I cannot forget.”
Essek sighed softly. “Caleb, you are a very intelligent man. Your memory is impeccable, and you know as well as I do that this has little to do with the infinitesimally small chance of you forgetting. If you forgot this, you wouldn’t be able to recreate it anyways. You know the things that happened to you were mostly the fault of Trent Ikithon and a horribly corrupt system. That it wasn’t all your fault.”
“Ja,” he mumbled, aware of all the facts. Aware of all the contradictions in the negative voice in his head. With the Nein contradicting him at every chance, their voices were seared into his brain at every negative thought.
“And you know that I incited a fucking war for the sake of studying dunamis. A war on the edge of breaking out anyways, yes, but it was still me.”
Essek started pulling at a fraying thread on the hem of his sleeve. “I know… I know what you had to do. I made the clerics wring every bit of information they could find out of that scourger after she died. Every ten days for months. I know it really was not your fault.”
Caleb lifted his head then. It made sense for Essek to research the topic, but it made his stomach flip to think of the drow spending hours researching him. Essek went on, staring straight at the three chairs. “I was curious. You were the closest thing I had to a friend in my hundred years and she almost took you away from me. She knew more about you than I expected. I am sorry for prying, but it was at the command of the Bright Queen.”
“So what do you know?” he whispered. Another friend who likely knew everything he did and accepted him. Who wanted him to stay. Who had forgiven him. It was too much.
Essek put his hand over Caleb’s. It was soft and warm other than where Essek held a quill, unlike any of the Nein’s calloused grip. He didn’t move away. He didn’t deserve the gentle touch. Yet he wanted more. Comfort in this room was unheard of, something he felt he needed to cling to. Especially from someone who could understand.
He kept his hand over Caleb’s and said quietly, “Someday I’d like to crush Ikithon’s torso for you too, given your word. To make sure he cannot put anyone else through that. Someday I’d like to take down everyone who used us. And I think you and the Mighty Nein will be strong enough to do just that.”
It wasn’t an answer, but Caleb didn’t have to hear what he’d done again. Instead he stared at the blue gray skin covering his own, gentle and reassuring. Softer than his own battle hardened calluses and scars. He took a deep breath in and out, still staring at the fingers. “I… I’d like that. I think.”
A silence fell between them until Essek moved his hand slightly. Caleb was worried he was pulling away the comforting touch, his only tether to the world outside this room, until Essek just intertwined their hands, squeezing gently. “I blamed myself for my father’s death for a long time. I can’t say it doesn’t still sting, but I know there was more at play than my actions.”
“You could dwell on it, or you can choose to do something and leave it all better than it was before,” Caleb mumbled, remembering the words he’d carry with him for the rest of his life. It was almost a mantra at this point, something to cling to when things felt overwhelming. At least he’d left parts of the world better than he’d found them. Even if he’d left the most important one nothing but ash.
“Shouldn’t you follow your own logic?” Essek asked, keeping a gentle pressure on Caleb’s hand. The man seemed more present with the contact, and Essek was loath to let go.
“My own logic… it has failed me before.” Caleb curled up more, wrapping his free hand around his knees.
Essek asked, “Do you truly believe you have false memories now? Couldn’t you ask Jester or Caduce-”
“I know that. I know it’s irrational. It’s why I have forgiven you, when I could easily hate you as I hate myself,” Caleb said, still not pulling away his hand. His dusty gray blue skin covered the pale fingers he’d come to admire for all their aptitude of the arcane.
As comforting as it was to finally have everything out in the open, to know that Caleb held nothing against him, that phrase twisted uncomfortably in Essek’s gut. “I suppose I’m glad you don’t hate me. Though I wish you’d extend yourself the same courtesy.”
“It’s different to have hope for people I care about. Astrid, Wulf, you… It’s easy to hope that you can be better people. It’s something else to see it happen. I’m still a rotten person.”
“Not all rot is bad,” Essek said carefully. “Some can be cultivated; some can turn into wine.”
Caleb snorted, and it was a humorless sound, but lighter than when Essek had first arrived. “I must be some pretty shit wine.”
“Still rather intoxicating,” Essek said softly, unable to help himself. He missed the casual teasing they’d enjoyed while studying, floating on the edge of flirtation. Here, alone and seeing Caleb at his most raw, he had nothing to focus on but his complicated feelings towards the man.
Raising his head to look at him, a small furrow was apparent in Caleb’s brow. “Is that so?”
Essek only smiled and nodded, changing the subject and ignoring the light heat in his cheeks. This wasn’t time for that. “The difference between you and I is thinner than a razor, is that right?” he asked, though he remembered every word, every breath, every small hitch in Caleb’s cadence as he leaned down to offer him his second chance. It would be seared into his memory if he lived to be a thousand.
A red eyebrow lifted. “I’d say you’ll probably end up a finer vintage than myself, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Somewhere in the wine metaphor, Essek had gotten lost. For Caleb to imply…
Something in him panicked and he released Caleb’s hand. His hand ached for the fiery warmth the second he let go, but there was no going back.
It didn’t make sense. Not now.
So instead of continuing or asking for clarification, Essek just swallowed and said, “Come back down to your room. I won’t be leaving you alone, but intoxicating as you can be, I’d rather not trance here. And I believe humans typically favor sleeping on something soft.” He rose to his feet carefully, extending a hand to help Caleb up. An olive branch.
He took it. And he didn’t let go.
Begrudgingly, Caleb stood, sending him a look, but it was a halfhearted one at that, and he didn’t protest as they made their way out of the eighth floor and down to the redhead’s room, hands entwined. Essek looked at the doors surrounding them and below them, each one concealing the room of one of their dear friends, likely fast asleep inside.
Caleb seemed to be thinking of their friends too. “We don’t deserve them. Not yet.”
He could have bristled at that, not for himself but for Caleb. For everything he’d done and suffered through, to think that he didn’t deserve the Mighty Nein, as if he wasn’t an integral part of them. As if they could even be the Mighty Nein without him, the one who named them. Outside of that chamber, away from the place that seemed both hallowed and unholy, Essek felt bolder. Felt like he could speak his piece. “What do you expect yourself to do? You’ve already saved thousands of lives by stopping a war, not to mention stopping Obann and the cult-”
“It’s not enough,” Caleb cut him off.
Essek grabbed his other hand, pulling Caleb towards him so they faced each other and trying to convey the passion he felt for his words through touch alone as they floated through the space, tethered only to each other. “Then let’s burn away the corruption, and leave the Empire a better place than we found it. Then the Dynasty. Hells, let’s save the fucking world. I just want to live to see you forgive yourself.”
They stopped floating and Caleb stopped in front of the door to his own room. Behind the man he could see the plain room. No stained glass adorned the walls. There was little other than a bed, fireplace, and bathtub. “Maybe… maybe then,” he mumbled.
For a moment, Essek considered kissing the man on the forehead. But he’d have to pull Caleb down or float up to reach properly, something he wasn’t going to do, not with Caleb. Not like that. So he moved closer and kissed his cheek.
“I’m not sure what I’ve ever done to deserve falling in with your friends. With you. Thank you for giving me a second chance. I’ll use it to the best of my ability, so long as you do the same for yourself.”
Caleb seemed rendered speechless, cheeks darkening in the dim light, but that seemed just as well.
If he could have taken the stairs down to prove he was changing for the better, he would have. But instead Essek just floated back down to his room and stared at the pearl in the stained glass before falling asleep. For the first time in ages he slept, really slept, and dreamt of the soft blush on Caleb’s cheeks.