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unsure, distrustful and eternally remorseful

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Verin is worried about him. That is ― unsettling. It is the first time Essek actually questions something might be wrong with him, because Verin doesn’t worry. Verin visits him, and looks tense the entire time, and Essek is happy to see his brother and angry that Verin doesn’t treat him like a brother anymore, and then he goes home. 

Verin keeps looking at him, though. Every time Essek speaks, or quiets down, he is looking at him. 

“Essek,” he asks, suddenly, interrupting him. “When was the last time you rested?” Essek frowns, opens his mouth, but Verin says, “An actual long rest.”

Essek stops talking. “You look exhausted,” Verin adds, before Essek can even think of an answer. “Is everything alright?”

The only friends in the world still don’t trust him even after he risked his life for them. He deserves that. There are assassins coming after him. That fact only makes him feel vaguely anxious. There are so many groups of people that might want him death that he’s beginning to lose count. His only friends in the world left two weeks ago and they only sent a message insinuating that they were in danger and asking for help.

“It is fine,” he says, and Verin just looks resigned.

Essek would like to be more open with Verin, but he doesn’t know how. Verin is not like the Mighty Nein, who will ask incessant questions and analyse his reactions. Verin will accept his answers at face value, even when those answers are insufficient. 

“I think I should―” Verin asks, but he is interrupted by knocks on the door. “I thought no one could knock on your door without you opening the fence.”

“I allowed some friends to pass whenever they wanted,” Essek says. He is aware that statement only raises more questions, but he gets up nervously to open the door. He would usually open it with an enchantment ― he would usually glide to the door and not walk hastily, but the Mighty Nein come before his brother’s perception of him. 

And if he cannot trust him with his love for the Mighty Nein, then what can he trust him with.

“Essek!” Jester is, as always, the first one to come in. She waits until the door is closed to hug him ― a nice concession to his worries. “We think no one saw us knock, Caduceus was checking. Hi! We missed you!”

He hugs her back with just an arm. A concession to her worries, maybe. “I missed you all,” Essek answers, aware that Verin might be listening in. “Not that I am not happy to see you, of course, but, ah ― what is the reason for your visit?”

“We have way too much food,” Caduceus admits.

“We might have impulse-bought a ton of things and then Caduceus might have impulse-cooked a lot of it, and then realised halfway through that it might be too much. It’s nothing urgent, don’t panic,” Beau explains.

“We’re here to share,” Jester finishes, separating from him now. “I would have warned you, but I’m kinda pooped out today, we just arrived a couple of hours ago.”

He sees Fjord mouth the words ‘pooped out’ out of the corner of his eye. They are all carrying bags, and pots, which must have been a pain to travel with. He doesn’t want to turn them away. “Is there enough food for nine?”

Caduceus nods, and before anyone can add to the answer, he turns around and walks to the living room, where Verin is standing up, obviously having been spying on the conversation, looking slightly bewildered. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“Is this a trap?” Verin asks instead of answering, and Essek turns to the door, where the Mighty Nein are standing. They weren’t invited in, but they know they don’t have to be. His feet are still touching the floor ― a conscious decision he has to take, but one he takes for the Mighty Nein ― as he gestures towards Verin.

“This is my brother, Verin. Verin, these are the Mighty Nein.” 

Jester is the first one to react, crossing the room in a fast, loud run and extending her hand towards Verin. “Hi! It’s nice to meet you. Essek has mentioned you before.”

“He has?” Verin shakes her hand, but he still looks confused. He won’t stop glancing at Essek as if he were demanding answers to the questions he has not posed. 

“He said he trusted you?” Essek coughs a little, because maybe mentioning what he said when they were planning strategy to fight a dangerous, possibly life-ending threat is not the best plan. “It’s not important! Anyway, I’m Jester.”

They all introduce themselves, and Verin looks slightly floored, so Essek guides them to the kitchen so they can start preparing the dining room for a dinner of nine. He always feels hesitant to let them intrude on his space, but they task themselves with setting the table before he can even suggest it ― probably an excuse to look through his drawers, but he will welcome it all the same. 

“Essek,” Jester starts, from inside his pantry, “do you have anything that might serve as dessert? Can I make cookies? Do you have any fun ingredients for cookies?”

“I have chocolate chips.”

“You do?” Both Verin and Beauregard ask, at the same time.

He bought them last time he went out, not knowing what he would do with them but knowing that having chocolate in the house when the Mighty Nein next came over would be a good idea. He gets them out of the cupboard, throws them at Jester, who catches them after fumbling for a second.

She starts organising the counter space with Caduceus the moment the dining room table is set, because while his kitchen is spacious, no kitchen where two different people are cooking is easily traversable. Taking that into account, they leave, and the moment they start walking back to the couch, Verin grabs him by the arm.

“I didn’t know the rumours of you having befriended the group who brought back the beacon were right,” he whispers in undercommon. He sees Beauregard twitch, obviously listening in, and he lets her. 

“You can leave if you want to,” he answers, wilfully missing the point.

“That’s not ― I kind of feel like I’m about to be sucked into a cult.”

“That might be a sensitive topic for them,” he answers, because while he still does not understand everything that was going on with Lucien, he can still be mindful of their reactions. “Also, that one talks undercommon.”

He points at Beauregard, who obviously turns around to look at him. “You talking shit?”

“You know I wasn’t.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” she says, and points at Verin instead. “You really shouldn’t assume which languages the people in a room speak.” 

Verin laughs loudly, and the Mighty Nein seem surprised. Essek vaguely wonders how many times through the night they’re going to have that look on their faces when something that shows that he and his brother have different personalities occurs.

“That’s fair,” he says. “I’m just confused, sorry. My brother and I hadn’t talked in a while, and he’s not the best at updating me on his life.”

“Right?” Jester says, exasperated, suddenly coming in from the kitchen. “It’s like ‘hey, Essek, how are you doing, what’s your life like, have you done something interesting lately?’ and he’ll say ‘I am fine, how are you?’, like, that is not an answer!”

“Weren’t you baking?” Essek asks pointedly, drawing a chuckle in the room.

“Yeah, but I don’t know where you keep your sugar.” 

“It’s on the cupboard above the stove,” she turns around immediately, and he tells after her, “please ask Caduceus to get it! Don’t climb my counters!”

“She’s gonna do it anyway,” Beauregard tells him. 

“I know,” Essek sighs, resigned. “And then she’ll throw it on herself and my kitchen will be a disaster and you guys will step on it and spread it all over the house.”

A big noise comes from the kitchen, and everyone laughs. “We will help you clean it up later, friend,” Caleb says. It is the first thing he’s said all evening apart from his introduction to his brother, and Essek finds the courage to look at him. Not in the eyes ― the guilt, even in this subdued setting, is too much to look him in the eyes ― but in the face, briefly, enough to see that he seems worn out.

“Ah, there is no need, I was just complaining.” He dismisses the idea with a lazy hand gesture. “You guys look exhausted anyway.”

“We have had a rough couple of weeks,” Fjord admits. “You know how it is.”

Verin makes an inquisitive noise ― one that means ‘no, I do not know, but I would love to find out if you explained’ ― that goes largely ignored. They start to tell the tale of a funny salesman they met on their trip, something about the books he sold, lighthearted in a way that seems to be more for Verin’s benefit than Essek’s, so he tunes out a bit, just enjoying the sound of their voices.

“Speaking of books,” Caleb suddenly says, Essek’s attention zeroing in on him immediately, “were you able to do the research we asked you to do?” 

“Ah, yes. I have the books up in my tower?” He starts getting up, and Caleb follows. Verin looks incredibly curious still, but he seems willing to take his chances getting answers behind Essek’s back. Probably a smart choice.

“Do I need to move?” Beauregard asks, on the floor, laying against Yasha. 

“I think I can manage to remember three paragraphs about a magical creature all by myself,” Caleb answers, and Essek just smiles at them.

“I’ll be right back,” Essek says, and looks over his shoulder as he gets to the first step of his stairs. “Don’t ask each other any questions.”

“We’re gonna interrogate your brother, dude, get over yourself.” Beauregard sends him away with a rude gesture.

“Don’t worry,” Caleb mutters as he goes up the stairs. “Without Jester there, I’m sure they’ll get sidetracked before they get to the really embarrassing information about your childhood.”

It’s one of the least charged sentences he has said to Essek in months. Essek takes a second to appreciate those words, to commit them to memory, because he knows they will be back to awful, tense silences really soon. 

“I can only hope.” 

Essek lays his books in front of him as Caleb looks. He found only a handful of sentences about the creatures Jester sent him a panicked message about in his books, but he hopes it will be good enough for them. “I know you wanted me to research something else, but the message cut off before Jester could say what and I never got any follow-ups.”

“Ah, that is what Jester forgot the next morning. She kept complaining about not remembering something.” He makes a pause, hesitant, then says, “I do not think you have to worry about that other thing.”

Essek understands that there are…conflicting opinions within the Mighty Nein regarding him. He understands that Jester is the one who defends him the most, probably followed by Caduceus. He understands that Beauregard and Caleb seem to be the ones who are the most opposed to sharing information with him, and that the only reason why he has not been cut off completely is Jester’s insistence in trusting him. 

Caleb’s unwillingness to tell him more still hurts.

“That is fine, you can still let me know at any time.” The air is uncomfortable, tense. He moves to one of his tables, starts fidgeting with what was left there, with no real purpose but to avoid the conversation.

“It is not that we don’t trust you.” Caleb’s voice almost scares him, and Essek puts the paper he was holding down, calmly, slowly.

“Isn’t it?”

“You helped us save the world,” Caleb answers. “You risked your life with us. You continue to risk your life just by being our friend, if what you have told us is true.”

“That is,” Essek’s hand is clutching the table, and he wills himself to stop, “not an answer.”

Caleb doesn’t talk, and Essek nods slowly to himself. “It is fine. I do not expect you to.”

“I think you need time to deal with the consequences of your actions without the temptation of the powerful knowledge we deal with on a daily basis,” Caleb says. “Wanting to rush yourself won’t help, and self-hate won’t, either.”

The self-hate reference almost makes him spit out a, ‘what do you know?’ but Caleb knows. He knows better than Essek himself, so Essek stays quiet, because he knows he is right.

The guilt consumes him, chokes him. Guilt for having lied to the Mighty Nein, guilt for having betrayed them. He put them in an awful position just by being their friend, and he put himself in an awful position too. His relationship with them has swords hanging above it.

“You look exhausted, too,” Caleb tells him, when Essek doesn’t find it in himself to answer. He can feel eyes on the back of his neck, and he feels grateful that Caleb is looking at him, even if it is to analyze his responses.

“I have not been able to rest,” Essek confesses, ashamed. He does not say that the Mighty Nein get to risk their lives together and then travel with each other, knowing every member is safe, while he gets to be sent back to the place that is most dangerous to him, while also being worried about what is happening to them. He does not say that the combat against the Tombtakers was the first real fight he had been a part of in a long time. He does not say that he is still terrified of the dangling threads of information about what happened that the Mighty Nein have not trusted him with, the voices they mentioned Caleb and Beau having more experience with. He doesn’t say it, because he has no right to ask anything of the Mighty Nein, especially their sympathy. 

He goes back to the table where Caleb is ignoring the books Essek so painstakingly spent days reading. He sends a small smile his way, much more self-confident than he feels. “I’m sure the change in setting is to blame. Everything will be back to normal soon.”

“Have you had any encounters with the people who are threatening you?”

He is not expecting the question, somehow, even though he should have. “I…do not know.”

Essek is shaking, his carefully built façade slipping away. Caleb touches his wrist, softly, then holds his arm. He keeps using physical contact when Essek stops hiding what he is feeling, and he does not know if the driving force is pity or a wish to manipulate him. Or maybe something else entirely.

“How do you not know?”

“I am hyper-vigilant,” Essek mutters. “I keep thinking I’m seeing something, seeing someone out of the corner of my eye. I think I have been followed at least two of the times I have been out of the house, but I cannot be sure.”

Caleb looks ― sympathetic, in a way. Like he understands Essek’s plight. “If you are in danger, you should tell us,” Caleb says. “I’m sure it’s not necessary to say it, but we want to help you like you’ve helped us.”

Essek nods, something on his throat that he cannot name. Caleb looks down at the books, giving him an out, and Essek takes it, starts explaining what he found while looking at Caleb’s shoulder, until his feelings stop being so overwhelming and he feels he can suggest they return with the others.

*

He hears laughter as he goes down the stairs, and he immediately tenses up. His place has been occupied by Jester, whose hands look sticky and who has raw cookie dough on her hair, so he stays standing. 

“I was going to tell them about the time I read your diary and found out you had a crush on my friend,” Verin says, a grin on his face. He is enjoying this, the bastard.

“I despise you.” It isn’t a ‘stop’, which Verin would have accepted, and his smile gets even bigger.

“This was like, a long time ago. Decades. We were both still teenagers. And Essek had started keeping this notebook that he carried around everywhere, so logically I had to read it―”

“Logically,” Essek interrupts, and Verin half-heartedly hits him on the side, almost falling off the couch to achieve so.

“And I thought it would be another of his magic journals, like something keeping up with one of his projects, but instead it was like. Entries upon entries gushing about how pretty this friend’s hair was, and about his magic abilities―” Essek covers his hands with his face. He saw Beauregard smile and, while he is aware that most of the Mighty Nein know about his feelings for Caleb, them knowing he has a type is mortifying. “―and saying he wanted to kiss him―”

“There was no such entry,” Essek interrupts.

“I can quote it from memory,” Verin says, and Essek makes a pillow float to his face. “You can stop me, but you can’t stop the truth.”

“Verin,” Beauregard says. “Did Essek ever―”

He can guess how the sentence is going to end ― something embarrassing he did while flirting with Caleb, most likely. Caleb was standing right behind him while he walked down the stairs, and he hasn’t looked at him since this conversation started, but even knowing he’s there, listening to this, is too much, so he sends the pillow flying to Beauregard’s face. 

“Hey!” She complains, grabbing the pillow and throwing it at him. He stops it mid-air, and it falls down to the floor, anti-climatically. “Aren’t you supposed to be dignified?”

“Jester, don’t the cookies smell done by now?” He says, a little desperately, but she springs up, starts running towards the kitchen. 

He sits back on his place, still a little mortified. This is worse than the conversation with Caleb about his guilt. Verin keeps looking at him like he is delighted to see him act like this, and Beauregard keeps looking at him like this is the best moment of her life and Essek does not know if Caleb is looking to him at all, because he cannot bear the thought of even staring in his direction right now.

“This is so much better than having dinner with Caleb’s ex. No offence, Caleb,” Beauregard adds hastily.

“None taken,” Caleb answers easily. 

“You seem like the kind of people who often find themselves in uncomfortable situations,” Verin comments, and the Mighty Nein stop, like they had never thought of it that way.

“That… might actually be true,” Fjord admits. “The thing about having as much power as we do is that we meet many powerful folks. And powerful folks often―”

“Suck,” Beauregard finishes in his stead. Essek tries not to be offended by the implication there, because the Mighty Nein have often sung their praises about the power of his magic, but then Beauregard adds, “no offence, Essek.”

“None taken.” Essek lets out something that’s halfway between a sigh and a laugh. 

“I can only imagine. Was dealing with powerful folks what left you all so tired?” Verin asks, pointing at Veth, who is asleep on her corner of the couch. “Because you all look like you’ve been through hell and back.”

“This is actually how we always look,” Jester teases, bringing a wooden spoon with a piece of cookie on it. “So you are being really mean to us.”

Her hair is loose on her shoulders, today, obviously unbrushed. Her skirt has a tear that she probably could have fixed with a cantrip if she cared to do so, and there is a control to her movements that wasn’t there the last time he saw her, like a part of her body is hurting and she wants to avoid moving it too much. She slips the wooden spoon into Fjord’s mouth with no warning, only speaking when he makes an alarmed noise.

“Try it!”

“It burns!” He says.

“Well, yeah, that’s why I was carrying it on the spoon. Is it good?”

“It is hot!” He complains, and then, when Jester continues to look at him with a pout, he sighs. “It’s really good!”

“Yay!” She kisses his cheek, runs back to the kitchen but stops on the last second. “Oh, Caduceus says most food is already warm and ready to go? So we can go to the dining room.” 

They all get up noisily, Yasha grabbing Veth’s sleeping body and carrying it there, and Essek stays behind for a second, when he sees Verin doing the same. “I’m having fun,” Verin offers before Essek can ask, in undercommon, since Beauregard was the first one out the door.

“That is good. These are...good friends.” 

“Yeah, it seems that way.” He is curious, obviously so, and Essek knows he is battling whether to ask or not. It is a losing battle, because he mutters, “How did you become friends? I asked them but they immediately became sidetracked.”

“They will do that,” Essek says, fondly. “I was the one tasked with dealing with them when they first arrived in the city. Since I was the only person they knew, they kept asking me for help, and then somehow they decided we were friends and kept telling me to spend time with them.”

“How long did they spend repeating those invitations before you accepted?” 

Verin knows him too well, even after years of not knowing each other. 

“A while,” Essek admits. “But eventually I realised how much it meant that they were trusting me with their secrets and wanting my help.”

And he betrayed all that, but that he cannot admit. “It’s good to see you like this,” Verin admits. “You looked relieved to see them.”

“They are essentially mercenaries.” Essek uncomfortably fixes the collar of his shirt. He wishes he was wearing his mantle, so as to avoid his fidgeting, or to at least cover it. “They get themselves into the most dangerous situations in the world, and then they come back two weeks later and either look completely normal or are suddenly updating me on months of unbelievable circumstances they forgot to tell me about and asking for help.”

“They did say that you’ve helped them a lot. Rather begrudgingly, though.”

“Things have been ―  tense, I’m afraid.”

He doesn’t expand on it, because while he trusts his brother, there is certain information he doesn’t wish to give to him. “I’m sure it will all get fixed.” Verin is probably assuming it’s about political issues, and Essek doesn’t correct him. “They obviously appreciate you a lot.”

Verin still looks ― not uncomfortable, Essek would reassure him if he looked uncomfortable, but maybe wary, mistrusting of this situation. Essek knows that he has never had friends, and that seeing him casually bantering with other people must be confusing. 

“You don’t have to look so anxious,” Verin comforts him.

His anxiety comes from a thousand other places ― the fact that the Mighty Nein are currently in his house, which he knows is often being monitored, the fact that he is back in this damned city where no one has his back, the fact that his brother visiting might have made him a target unknowingly, the fact that this is the first time he’s talked to his brother for longer than twenty minutes in decades. Knowing that the Mighty Nein barely trust him, and that they would more easily trust him with their lives than with their secrets, is just a drop in the ocean. 

He must be making a face, because Verin’s frown deepens, and he asks, “Essek, is everything okay in your job?” 

Essek can tell that he has been wanting to ask that all evening, because it is barely related to the current topic. He wants to honor that he dared ask by answering honestly, if in a reserved manner, but before he can open his mouth Jester passes running towards the dining room, and Essek whispers, “I’ll tell you later,” and follows.

*

Dinner is nice. It is all that he can say ― he spends a lot of it listening to the Mighty Nein, or stopping his brother from revealing too much about him, or failing to do the latter.

“There used to be,” Verin starts, when they are passing around the plate of too-sweet cookies Jester baked, “this really wonderful portrait of Essek in our mother’s house―”

“You are cruel.”

“It was a picture of her, father and Essek. Essek was around three, this was right before I was born. He is wearing a bowtie and frowning, arms crossed, frown on his face. It was on top of the fireplace, and everyone who came in could see this adorable, adorable picture.”

“Where is it now?” Jester asks. She looks like she would travel the entire world if it meant being able to see that picture.

“Yeah, Essek, where is it now?” Verin says, pointedly. “What could have happened to that great image?”

“Mother,” Essek starts, his hand on his glass of wine, “used to keep this incredibly pointy figurine on the mantle. One day, the portrait fell off the wall and into the figurine. It was a tragedy.”

Jester makes a wounded noise, but Verin talks over him before he has finished the sentence. “It was not a tragedy, it was foul play.”

Essek takes the glass of wine to his lips. “That was never proven.” 

An angry growl comes out of Verin’s mouth, and the laughs of the Mighty Nein are worth the embarrassment over the anecdote. “The entire story,” he starts speaking loudly, as if to drown out anything Essek might say to defend himself, “is that a friend of our mother was visiting at the same time as Essek, and he spent a good fifteen minutes making fun of it whenever she was out of earshot. One week lately, Essek was out of the room but within range of a Telekinesis spell when it “fell” on top of the figurine, which stabbed baby Essek’s face.”

“You made it stab you on the face?” Beauregard asks, incredulous. “That’s harsh, man. and I talk as someone who burned the family portrait.”

“Predictable of you,” Essek says, and she throws him a piece of cookie.

“Please,” Verin says, “stop destroying your family memories.”

“No,” both Essek and Beauregard say, at the exact same time.

They calm down after that, start making their way to the living room for a drink, or to the garden to breathe some fresh air, or to the kitchen to clean up obscene amounts of sugar off his kitchen floor. He decides to help Jester with the latter activity, again letting Verin alone with the Mighty Nein, because he knows if she gives her a chance to look for the broom she will inspectionate his entire house. 

“No, no, let me!” She says when he starts cleaning the floor, snatching the broom out of his hands. “Just sit there and tell me how you have been.”

Remembering her words earlier, he decides not to use his go-to answer. “A little tired,” he admits. “But overall work hasn’t been busy, so that part has been good.” Still stressful, because everyone seems suspicious of him, but he won’t tell her that.

“I’m glad, then! I felt kinda bad asking for help while you were still adapting to being back, but this way we won’t need to have a library day tomorrow and can rest for a bit.” 

“You look like you need it,” Essek prompts, not a question but wishing it were.

“Ah, yes, we had to fight some stuff this morning, you know.” She is spreading the sugar around more than anything else, keeps stepping on the tiny mountains she is creating with it. The gesturing she does when she speaks isn’t helping either, making it so that her usage of the broom is much less controlled. “It was a ton of tiny things instead of a big one, and we’re awful at fighting a lot of tiny things.”

“Hopefully the research I provided Caleb with will help you.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will!” They fall into a comfortable silence for a bit, while she keeps spreading the sugar around. She hasn’t even grabbed the dustpan yet, but Essek doesn’t mind it too much. 

“Hey, Essek,” she suddenly speaks up, looking troubled. “What do you know about cursed books?” She is whispering, actual whispers that Essek is surprised she is capable of. She seems ― anxious. She is looking at the door like she is afraid of someone coming in, and Essek vaguely wonders if he should tell her not to give him any information the others wouldn’t want him to have, and then decides against it.

“What kind of cursed books?”

“Books that might give people tattoos, or make them have disturbing dreams with voices in them.” She isn’t hesitating, voice low but with an unmovable air to her. “Things that might make someone go insane, or give them the wish to keep reading it unstoppably.”

“I am afraid I do not know much of them.” He stops for a second, recollecting the million thoughts he has. “Could I see the book?”

She makes a face. “I don’t think so. I don’t even have it, Fjord does, and he doesn’t know I’m doing this. Also no offense but it might be super dangerous for you.”

Essek nods, calmly. He wasn’t expecting to be allowed to do it. “Could you describe it to me?”

She does, answers his questions in a collected manner that makes him feel even more anxious than he has been feeling lately, but ― with a purpose. With a way to help his friends. 

“I’ll start looking over this tonight,” he mutters. “Thank you for telling me before it was too late.”

“Thank you for helping,” she says, broom forgotten. “I just ― I have been so worried, and it seems to be something we cannot talk about, and the other day the two people who got the eyes suggested they wanted to read the book again, and it seems so bad. I don’t know why we aren’t trying to get rid of it.”

“I’ll research how to destroy it too,” he reassures her, and awkwardly pats her on the shoulder. “You keep them from reading it again, and I’ll find a solution as soon as possible.”

She sniffles for a second, and Essek is terrified that she might start crying, because he wouldn’t know how to deal with that, but instead she smiles sunnily at him. “Thank you, Essek. I know you’ve done some real shitty stuff, but you’re a really good friend to us.”

He laughs, a little more emotional than he would like. “I’m trying,” he says, almost surprised to realise that it’s the full, honest truth.

*

They say their goodbyes slowly, Jester sending meaningful glances his way and Fjord looking at them both with obvious confusion on his face, because Jester still looks a bit emotional. Essek hopes Jester will explain everything to him when they are alone, because he doesn’t need someone else being against him. He knows making Jester cry is an unforgivable offense in the Mighty Nein.

Verin stays behind, and Essek vaguely wonders if the guest room is ready ― he knows it isn’t, because he cannot remember the last time someone stayed over. It must have been Verin, but whenever that was it hasn’t been in the last couple of decades, at least. “Are you staying the night?”

Verin looks surprised. “Is that an option?” 

“I can get your guest room ready in a second,” Essek offers. Verin considers it, which is more than he would have done four hours ago.

“Sure, why not? I hadn’t even told mother I was here, and if I arrive now I will never go to bed.”

Essek makes a vague noise, agreeing with Verin, and leads him to the room where he usually stays. He is aware that Verin keeps looking at him, and Essek wants to disappear, make himself invisible and go to bed, start his research already, maybe. Instead, he helps Verin make the bed, feet firmly on the floor like the Mighty Nein hadn’t walked out already. 

“You look,” Verin suddenly says when Essek is about to ask him if he wants another pillow, “the happiest and the most miserable I have ever seen you. It is kind of scary.”

Essek chuckles weakly. “It is an apt description.”

“They seem good friends,” Verin says. “They had some…interesting ideas.”

Essek internely winces. He knows Verin believes in the law and in the Bright Queen in a way that Essek himself never will. The Mighty Nein are smart enough not to question that in front of someone they have never met, but some of their ideas they hold as unquestionable to anyone with a brain, so he wonders.

“What did―”

“They said war is useless, and conflict within two governments rarely affects their citizens in a positive way, whoever wins the war.” Verin is trying to make eye-contact, and he looks bewildered, like he didn’t expect Essek to be friends with people who held those beliefs.

Verin is a soldier. Essek knows that. He knows the entire purpose of his job is to command forces, but Essek also knows that his brother hates bloodshed in a way that makes his job difficult, so he just raises an eyebrow. “Do you completely disagree?”

“That talk borders on treason.” Not a no, not an answer at all. He seems conflicted. “They are really interesting people.”

“That’s a way to describe them, for sure.”

“They are good for you.” Verin smiles, softly slaps Essek’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go to bed.”

“Good night,” Essek says, not knowing what to make of the conversation as he walks to his own room.

*

They have breakfast together, the next morning. It happens by chance ― Essek wakes up earlier than Verin does, but is still cleaning the mess of the night before by the time his brother wakes up, so Verin ends up making them breakfast. His cooking abilities have never been great, but they seem to have gotten slightly better in the last thirty years or so, because the food is at least edible.

“I already told you, but I had fun, last night,” Verin says. He still seems confused by it, like he doesn’t quite believe it happened. “I still cannot believe you made friends.”

It would be a dig, coming from anyone else, but from Verin it is honest. There has been more honesty between them in the last 24 hours than in the last 24 years. Essek doesn’t question it. “You look like you belong with them,” Verin adds, eyes fixated on his plate.

“I do not,” Essek says. He doesn’t. The Mighty Nein’s friendship is a gift, not a given. Not something he can take for granted. While he feels more comfortable around them than he does around literally anyone else he has ever met, his betrayal of them makes him feel acutely aware of the limits of their relationship. “But they are…good friends.”

“I saw,” Verin says, amused. “I talked for a bit with most of them, and they seemed to be good people, if a little―”

“Unhinged?” Essek suggests, and Verin lets out a chuckle.

“I was going to say ‘unconventional’, but you’d know better than I do.” There is a pause where they keep eating, and Verin says. “I did not talk much with the one you left with, what was his name again?”

“Caleb,” Essek mutters after a pause, mistrusting.

“Caleb, right,” Verin says. “Are you exes or something?”

Essek hides his face on his hands. He lets his fork clatter on his plate, and he knows Verin is stopping himself from laughing at him. A small mercy. “No.”

“There was some tension there. Is it what isn’t letting you sleep?”

“Yes. No. It is complicated.”

“Mhm,” Verin says, then, “how uncomfortable are you right now?”

“Very.”

“I thought so.” Verin steals a sip from Essek’s cup of cocoa, even though his coffee is right in front of him, and Essek lets him. “I never thought I would see you actually liking someone, having anything more than a crush on someone you barely knew.”

“Yes, well.”

Essek never really thought he would ever like someone, or even love them ― not that he is in love with Caleb. Not that he isn’t in love with Caleb. His relationship with him is covered by a fog of his guilt and Caleb’s resentment, and his feelings are so entangled with all of it that he cannot identify them.

“Does he know about your feelings?” Verin asks. He gives back his cup, but grabs something from Essek’s plate. Essek doesn’t see what and he doesn’t care. He cannot speak when he is chewing, and that would be a mercy.

“Probably.”

It would be better if he didn’t, but the Mighty Nein can be perceptive when they wish to be. They must know. However, he has been trying to avoid selfishness. Nothing would be more selfish than making Caleb deal with the burden that his feelings are, when Caleb is obviously conflicted about him.

“You don’t seem like the person I last talked to,” Verin says, quite succinctly.

“I am trying to change,” Essek admits. “Though I’m not sure where that leaves me. And I’m not sure how long it will take.”

“Well, change doesn’t happen in a day.” And the acceptance of all the mistakes you made that lead to thousands of deaths doesn’t, either. “Having people that are important to you can only do you good.”

“You’ve always been important to me,” Essek says, uncomfortably. “Even if I haven’t been the best at showing it.”

And even if keeping his brother who believed in this country more than anything was the safest route for him, and would still probably be. There is an internal debate about keeping people away or letting them come closer, and he still is unsure which one would be safest. Isn’t it selfish to let his brother in his life again when he knows he might be charged for treason any day soon? Or when he is being followed ― or he thinks he is ― whenever he leaves the house, and might get attacked and possibly murdered?

Sometimes he feels like every single one of his relationships is a particularly volatile experiment, and every single one of his actions, even stopping altogether, might make it explode. He cannot tell his brother any of this, though, even while he stares mistrustingly at him.

“I know,” Verin says after a couple of moments. “Your friends told me last night that you guys went into a rough fight not long ago, and that you mentioned me as someone who you would trust as an ally, but who was too far away to bring over to help. I ― honestly, I came to visit because I was worried about you. Leaving and coming back so fast when you hate change as much as you do? I thought you’d be all over the place.”

Essek had guessed as much, but it’s good that his brother is saying it out loud. “I have been,” he admits. “You mentioned you had heard rumours. Finding friendship for the first time with people who definitely don’t belong to this country raises eyebrows.”

And having those rumours be true, though not for the reasons people believe them to be true, isn’t ideal either. But again, that knowledge is not Verin’s to bear.

Verin makes a noise, commiserating with him. “I’m gonna be around for a little bit before I return to Bazzoxan. We should meet up again.” 

Essek considers it for a second. Saying ‘yes’ means Verin being around him more, which is dangerous. Possibly being around the Mighty Nein more, which might raise suspicions around him. It means that he’ll have to take time out of his busy schedule and slow down his research for the Mighty Nein.

Saying ‘no’ means that his relationship with his brother will go back to the coldness that has marked it for years.

“We should.”

What he knows is this: the book is somehow related to the Tombtakers. Two members of the Mighty Nein read it and developed a wish to read it and gain information from it, some weird nightmares and voices that keep appearing in their dreams. His bets are on Beauregard and Caleb, because they are the two most likely to have read a book, but all bets are off when it comes to the Mighty Nein. It is related to Aeor, and most likely to the Cognouza Ward that was sent to the astral plane.

What he doesn’t know is: would the book being destroyed make the curse better or worse? Is there a way to destroy the book? Will the curse be more intense now that Lucien, who was apparently the main representative of the book’s wishes, is dead? Who wrote the book? Why do people forget details of the book after reading it? Is the book an innocent object that was somehow corrupted by the city? Can he really help the Mighty Nein?

He starts by researching cursed books. He is not sure what he expects to find in such a basic search, but there is not much of use. There is a lot about destroying apparently indestructible books, but Essek does not know if that would help. He is acting on the assumption that there is a connection between the book and the city, and that destroying the book without getting rid of the connection would only make the connection between the people who have been cursed and the city stronger.

He is acting on a lot of assumptions, apparently. He vaguely wonders if moving the book to another plane would help, and creates a note on that before he forgets, before moving on to another topic. He doesn’t even actually know if the book is indestructible, but he has to suppose it is, with the amount of magic it must be carrying on its pages. 

After two days of research with little to no sleep, he has more questions than answers, but he is ready to abandon his private library and start doing research elsewhere. 

*
He returns with a limp on his leg, one he cannot notice as he glides but that makes itself apparent as he tries to put his leg down. He has been trying to walk around the house more, but today is not a day for that. He is in pain, and covered in blood, and glad that no one saw him before he could teleport back.

Leaving the city was not ideal, but it was his only choice if he wanted more information. He lets the books clatter on the table, hoping that something will be found on them even if he knows there probably won’t be. 

He knew he was being followed when he left the bookshop. He knew, and he hoped it was his nerves getting to him, and he tried to push it down. Not being able to follow his instincts has been the worst part of being filled with anxiety at all times. Still, he was tense when he got attacked the moment he was in an empty street, and he managed to have a quick reaction after the caster’s binding spell failed.

He went direct for the kill. Maybe he shouldn’t have, but letting dangling threads behind will only make them come back with a vengeance. He washes his hands on his kitchen sink, his mantle still on, wonders vaguely if he should burn this one. It’s his everyday one, and most of the others are slightly more elegant, but he can commission another, and no one will be the wiser. 

He takes it off, puts it down on the kitchen table. He tries to think clearly about his options ― this has to be kept a secret. He could try to spread the story that he was attacked by the Empire, but he couldn’t control the conclusions people would get to. Some would assume that it was because he is an important political figure for the Dynasty, and some would assume it was because he was selling information to the Empire and was not useful to them anymore. The latter would make the price on his head even higher, and the former would undoubtedly escalate into a conflict.

One of those options would be foolish, but the other one would be unforgivable. He has made enough unforgivable mistakes for a lifetime, and he cannot afford any more errors. So this will be kept a secret, and he will have to live with the fact that his comeuppance is coming. It is not a warm thought, but it is an unavoidable one.

Someone knocks on the door just as he is finishing his healing potion, and his heart rattles up, before he realises that it has to be the Mighty Nein. He knows his security is the best one in the city. He knows he would have realised if his spells had been disturbed. He cannot let his anxiety make him irrational.

Still, he checks before he opens the door, is surprised to see Caleb alone. He makes a simple spell to ensure he is not being deceived, but it is him, on his own, so he opens the door hastily, making sure to stay out of sight of the exterior while doing so. He does not keep secrets from the Mighty Nein.

“We just got back―” Caleb starts, but then he looks at Essek, and he interrupts himself. “Did something happen?”

“Assassin.” Essek leads him inside. “I’m fine. It wasn’t even here I was ― doing research outside the city.”

Caleb’s eyes squint at him, and Essek reminds himself that he deserves the mistrust when he is obviously trying to misdirect him. He cannot, however, reveal what the research was about, because the mere idea of betraying Jester makes him uncomfortable. 

“Which side was the assassin from?” Caleb asks after a second. 

“I’m guessing Empire,” Essek says. He feels deeply self-conscious ― most of his clothing was kept clean thanks to the mantle, but the sleeves of his shirt are still bloody. He doesn’t know how his hair looks, or his face, and he is floating because the assassin got a hit in before he killed them. “Though I didn’t really give them time to explain.” 

“Good,” Caleb says, a little viciously. He keeps looking at Essek, and this time his eyes stop on the leg of his pants. “Is your leg okay?”

“Just a minor burn,” Essek admits, and Caleb looks towards the door. 

“Do you want me to call on Jester?” He asks. “I came here in her stead because she said you had something for her and she seemed tired, but―”

“I’m fine,” Essek says, calmly stretching his leg, even as he feels a twinge. “I’ll be good as new tomorrow.”

He gets up, his feet not touching the ground. He wants to get Caleb as far away from the books half-hidden under his mantle as possible, so he leads the way up to his tower, where he is keeping two communication stones. 

“I thought it was inconvenient that Jester’s messages kept cutting off mid-conversation, or that she couldn’t talk if she had spent too much magic that day,” Essek explains. Caleb is still looking at him worriedly, like he is afraid Essek will break if Caleb looks away. “These work with recorded messages instead of continuous conversation, but it was the best I could do in such a short period of time.”

Caleb takes the stone, casually, but carefully looks at it. “Can any of us use it?” 

“Yes. It actually records the sound so if any of you speak while someone is touching that red circle, I should be able to hear it. It has a time limit of ninety seconds, though.”

“By design or because the spell was limited?” Caleb astutely asks. 

“By design,” Essek admits. “I didn’t want to have to hear five minutes of conversation. Once a message has been recorded, others cannot be sent until I have listened to the first one, which I would do pressing my finger against that blue dot.”

“That is useful. Theoretically, if someone stole the stone, would they be able to listen to the recording?”

“Sadly, yes. I have been working on avoiding that, but have yet to achieve it. That’s why there aren’t more stones, too. I thought they could be useful to you all, but didn’t manage anything past this.”

Caleb makes a small, considering noise. “This is already a lot. I’m sure Jester will be the one carrying it, but it will be useful for all of us. Thank you.”

Essek closes his eyes, tries to ignore the warm feeling crawling through him. “It really was nothing. It’s as useful to you all as it will be to me.”

“How did you get it to work, anyway?” Caleb asks.

They spend a while talking about magic technicities, and ideas to make it better, and by the time they are done Essek has a piece of paper filled with plans to make it work better. It is something he loves, talking about magic with Caleb. He has a brilliant mind, sharp and fast, and it makes Essek remember the parts of arcane research that he has always enjoyed.

He made his biggest hobby his job, arcane research and identifying and understanding magical artifacts a big percentage of his tasks as the Shadowhand. He also made it a huge part of his personality, and his failures to achieve quasi impossible magic started feeling like personal failures instead of just limitations any user of the arcane would have.

He understands that. He also understands that he tends to try to use the arcane to solve all his problems, and that right now that is something he should avoid, especially because the only way of solving all his problems would be travelling back in time and, well. That is a dangerous idea, one that would probably kill him and that, while theoretically compelling, has never been achieved by anyone.

Caleb already tried to stress the importance of taking time to accept the consequences of your actions, to remember that those consequences cannot, and should not be erased. He knows, logically, that his gut instinct to create a perfect situation for himself, where he never did all that he regrets, is wrong.

So having conversations that remind him all the other uses of magic that he does not instinctively seek out, the ones that he dismisses, means the world to him. But what among the things the Mighty Nein do to him ― among the things Caleb specifically does to him ― doesn’t?

The conversation is winding down around the time Caleb suddenly makes a noise, as if remembering something, and ― 

Essek only notices because he has become so used to not looking Caleb in the face, but his gestures change. Everything else about him seems to stay the same at first glance, but the way he moves his body is different, enough so to make Essek panic.

“I have been meaning to talk to you about this,” Caleb says, and after muttering a word Essek doesn’t hear, a book comes out of his vault of amber. Essek almost steps back, but keeps himself controlled. He makes a note to congratulate Jester on her abilities for description, because he recognised it immediately. “It is a book the Tombtakers left behind. We think it has information on the city, but it is written in what we believe to be an undercommon cipher. We were wondering if you could help.”

Essek considers his options for a second. He does not want to fight Caleb ― he wouldn’t be able to make himself do it, for starters, and he is starting to believe Caleb will surpass him in power really soon. “Doesn’t Beauregard speak undercommon? Isn’t she an expert in ciphers?” His voice drips indifference. “I have been busy, lately, I do not know that I will have the time to decode an entire book.”

A frown appears on Caleb’s face. “You know what you have done, and you want to stay here doing nothing? Helping us is the least you can do.” The words are like a punch to the gut, when accompanied by that tone. He looks like he is going to continue, and then, for just a second, enough that Essek is unsure if he actually saw it, like he is battling with himself. He says, “I believe it is getting late,” and lleaves, book on his arms and stone on his hand as he starts walking down the stairs.

Essek almost follows, helpless as he looks at him leave, but he wonders what he can do. What positive change could he bring to the situation? He sits back down, instead, barely realising that he had gotten up, and, knowing the nature of the vault of amber, he stays up here figuring that Caleb will have to re-cast it before he leaves the house. The ridiculousness of the situation makes him snort, even after all.

*

“Hey, Essek! I don’t know how this works, maybe I’m speaking too loudly? Wait, will you hear me if I whisper? Caleb just got here and gave me this rock, but he didn’t really explain how it worked so I’m working off your instructions ― your handwriting is super pretty, by the way, did you ever learn calligraphy? Anyway I wanted to visit today but I’m super tired so Caleb offered but I really want updates on the secret book research thingy, so I’ll wait for your answer!” 

“Jester, ah ― find Caleb. I don’t know why, but he has the book. I might be closer to getting answers, but I still need a couple of days. You cannot let him read another chapter, or whoever had the other eye. Be careful. He tried to get me to read it. Stay around until I discover what is supposed to happen to the book. Take it away from him.”

The answer doesn’t come until almost an hour later, and Essek spends the entire time breathing slowly, calming himself down, not even thinking about the fact that he has not yet had dinner. He still has yet to change off his bloodied clothes, and there is still a hole on his pants. 

The rock lets out the noise Essek enchanted it to do when he received a message, and he almost throws himself on top of it in his haste to listen to it.

“Hi, Essek. I’m with Fjord and Caduceus ― I told them about the plan, that’s why it took such a long time for me to answer, because Caleb gave the book back to us immediately when we asked. He said that he took it to ask for your opinion. I don’t know if he was lying.”

“He didn’t seem to be lying, but ― I do not think he was completely in control. We have dealt with mind-control, or with heavy influencing before,” Caduceus’ voice suddenly adds.

“We were thinking about taking the book out of the house and see if that changes anything, do you think that would affect them in any way?” That’s Fjord, and he is talking faster than he usually does. Cleverly so, because by the lack of a goodbye Essek can tell that they ran out of time.

He grabs the rock and starts recording. “I do not know what difference it would make, but it would be a good test. If there is a difference it would actually help with my research, so find somewhere safe where it would be hidden and away from them and update me on the situation.”

*

He doesn’t rest. He gets his research out, instead, finds an entire chapter in one of the books he brought today about magical objects connected to entities that cause the entities to filter in the person’s consciousness. It is not exactly what Essek was looking for ― he is still unsure of what part of the book made the tattoos appear on their bodies ― but it is enough information that he actually has theories, and a list of four different spells he would have to perform on the boon in quick succession. 

It is morning by the time someone knocks on the door, and this time it is Jester, who again hugs him when the door closes behind her. “Thank you for warning us last night. I don’t want to know what would have happened if he had left him alone with the book for a long time.”

“It was for my own peace of mind as much as it was for yours,” Essek admits. “You did not have to come all this way just to thank me.”

“It was not that,” the book comes out of the haversack, bringing with it a strong sense of dejà-vu. “Please?”

“Jester, no―”

“You’re the only person around here we can trust,” Jester says. Her honesty always feels at least slightly disarming, but it feels devastating, today. “It will be far enough away that I can give you updates today to see if I notice anything shifty, but I’m close enough that I can come running if you need help.” The book is left on the floor, and she grabs his hand between hers. “If you think you’re going to read it, use the stone and I’ll slap you before you can, okay?”

Essek nods, not trusting his throat to work, and she smiles sunnily at him. “Okay!” She grabs the book again, puts it on his hands and turns around and quickly leaves, before Essek can even offer her a beverage.

*

He gives it twelve hours. Twelve hours for Jester to update him often, letting him know that nothing seems to have changed on Beau or Caleb and he doesn’t have to change the parameters of his plan before he realises he cannot continue having the temptation of that kind of knowledge in his house.

So he decides to go to his tower and blow it up.

There are many spells he has to do before he can even consider blowing it up ― to leave connections weakened, and try to ensure whoever created this book never knows it has been destroyed. He forgoes many security necessities to make sure this gets done fast, and as he sees it gets destroyed before his eyes he is thankful that he did.

He updates Jester, telling her to check on Caleb and Beau, leaves the room, and passes out from exhaustion the moment he reaches his room. 

*

“Thank you,” Caleb says the moment Essek’s door opens. It isn’t unexpected, nor is it unwelcome, but it is ― heartrending. It has barely been enough for him to rest, and he is sure the effects of what he did yesterday must have been much harsher on Caleb. 

“Ah, there is no need for that. Did it work like it should have? I know Jester sent me something updating me, but I have not listened to it yet.” 

“It did. The eyes disappeared, both mine and Beau’s. She wanted to come thank you too, but thought that you’d be too tired to entertain two people at the same time.”

Essek lets himself fall down on the couch, maybe proving her point, and gestures at Caleb until he sits down too, because he has a crick on his neck and is too exhausted to do the polite thing and ask him to sit with his words.

"You should really apologise to Jester for making her worry," Essek says.

“I should?” Caleb asks, amused, sitting next to Essek, sideways with his feet on the couch so he can look directly at him. “She was so angry when she realised you had decided to destroy it without warning her. You should be thankful she didn’t come running yesterday to make sure you hadn’t hurt yourself.”

He carefully examines Essek after finishing the last sentence. “I didn’t. It was slightly dangerous, but I dealt with it.”

“You didn’t read the book,” Caleb affirms, not a sliver of doubt in his voice.

Even so, Essek answers, “I didn’t, though I wanted to.”

Caleb nods pensively. “The knowledge was tempting. The losing control of yourself wasn’t.”

That, Essek understands. Caleb looks completely normal now, in a way that only makes it clearer how out of character he was acting yesterday. He is glad all effects seem to have disappeared, though― “Where was your eye?”

Caleb shrugs with just one shoulder, and it takes Essek a moment to realise that he is drawing attention to it. That might explain all the conversation about getting naked back before they fought Lucien. “And it is completely gone?”

“Yes. They checked last night and then again this morning. Beau’s hasn’t re-appeared either. Hers was on her hand, by the way.”

“I guessed, she had it wrapped the last few times I saw her,” Essek admits. 

“Ah, you’re smart.” Caleb says. He looks weirdly ― placid, in a way, though there is some tenseness he hasn’t let go off. It gets more apparent when he suddenly looks straight at Essek, very clearly enunciating, “I feel like I haven’t been completely fair to you―”

“You do not have to apologise for what you did while an evil city was clouding your judgment,” Essek interrupts.

“No, not that ― well, that too, obviously, but I was referring to the way I was treating you before. I kept being afraid you were going to betray us even after you risked your life with us, and I know this would have not gotten done as fast as it did if it weren’t for you. I’m sorry.” 

Essek doesn’t know what answer is appropriate for that kind of apology. “You had every reason not to trust me,” Essek says, in the end, barely stopping himself from squirming. “I’m just glad I apparently proved myself.”

Caleb looks unhappy at that, but apparently unable to articulate it. “What you did was invaluable.”

Caleb’s eyes are still on him, and in the end he softly touches Essek’s chin. “May I?” He asks, voice barely audible, and Essek nods, his head absolutely empty of any of the anxieties that have filled his brain lately. Their lips meet, touching softly, eyes closed and Caleb’s hand still holding his chin. 

“Thank you,” Caleb repeats, and this time Caleb stops him from answering by kissing him again, and Essek supposes he will just have to accept Caleb’s gratitude, this one time.