They find an inn.
They find an inn that isn’t burned down. They find a room and huddle into it, sprawled across floor and beds with Nott in the middle. The find a room and they listen, and Caleb’s mind is a dull roar of flame and devastation.
He hears nothing that is said to him. He feels sick. There is nothing left inside him to retch out, only a bitter emptiness that burns away at his insides like scalding flame charring the gleaming walls of a rib cage picked clean. There is no meat to him. There is no substance. Just a charcoal frame and a mouth full of tar.
Caleb slips out, careful not to make a sound. He’s gotten so good at being invisible.
They do not see him, or else they let him go. Nott is the focus. She deserves the focus. He cannot distract from this. This isn’t about him, Caduceus had said. He’s right. It’s selfish to think otherwise. Caleb is inconsequential.
Caleb rents another room. Closes the door and locks it behind him. Crawls underneath the bed where no one can see him and quietly shatters.
She’s right, of course. Caleb knows this. Knows it like he knows the blackness of his fingers, the smoke that never fades from his tongue. He is less than filth, less than ash. He means nothing to anyone except as a weapon towards destruction. He is a bomb waiting to go off. Everything he touches burns away.
It’s not fair, cries a small, traitorous portion of his mind that was once a bright young child running freely through the Zemni Fields. He curls around the thought and crushes it until it hurts. No , he thinks. This is what I deserve.
What will he do?
Caleb sees embers floating in the air before his eyes. He feels ash between his fingers. His skin feels foreign, like something he stole. He’s running on borrowed time. He exists only to change the terrible things that he’s done but he’s so far away from his goal and everything keeps crumbling away. For a moment, he’d allowed himself to get almost comfortable, to find something like joy—he loves them, he realizes, and it tastes bitter. He loves them all so much.
He loves her. And he’d thought—he’d thought she’d loved him, too, but he is just a placeholder.
Luke has bright blue eyes. He’s so very smart. You’re a very smart boy, she said. Caleb realizes in this moment that whenever she told him those words they were never meant for him. My boy .
Caleb is a shoddy replacement. A filthy rag to shove into the deep wound to stem the blood. A patch covering the hole in the wall where the wind still whistles through.
He runs shaking fingers over the patch on his coat where it rests atop his curled knees. It’s a deep maroon color and stands out in contrast against the muddy brown. Nott had found it for him, nicked it from the remnants bin in a tailor’s shop. They’d cut it up and sewn it to the worn places on their clothes and he’d unraveled the rest into string for their pockets.
Patchwork. Mismatched. Temporary. Caleb had known he was temporary, but he’d never realized just how much. Placeholder boy, placeholder son. He wonders if she’d ever seen him, ever loved him, or if she’s always only ever seen an imagined portrait of her son.
His thoughts reach a crescendo. The flames climb to the ceiling and explode outwards, filling his ears with a roaring that refines to a high pitched whine. Caleb opens his eyes to see the rubble and suddenly he knows.
He can’t stay.
It hurts to think it but he’s knows it with more certainty than he knows anything else, in this moment. The thought is shining diamond among smothering smoke, clear and sharp and undeniable. Caleb knows that his presence puts his friends in danger. He’s known this from the very start. Selfishly, he’d stayed, clinging like a parasite to the taste of joy, because sometimes it seemed that maybe they wanted him. He is so, so starved for wanting. Nott’s hand in his, the press of her lips to his forehead, her fingers running gently through his hair—she’s been an anchor. She’s kept him here. And she—
He’s sure she doesn’t want him anymore. Not now that she has her real son back. Not now that she’s finally opened her eyes and seen the monster that he is.
It’s not your fault, she’d told him once. He’d always thought she was being a bit blind. But the curtains have lifted and here he is, naked in his monstrosity.
Caleb feels numb. He’d always known this would happen. To fool himself otherwise would have been despicable and yet here he was. Broken. Burning. Monstrous. Patchwork. Placeholder.
There’s a knock at the door. A voice, calling something that might be his name, though it’s hard to say beyond the buzzing in his ears. A click, like nimble fingers undoing a lock.
The door opens.
Too slow. Should have gone sooner. Should have run faster. Should have left a long time ago. Before you got attached. Before you poisoned them with your ash and your smoke.
“Caleb?” comes the voice, soft and trembling. Footsteps across floorboards. A figure blocking the light that filters beneath the bed. And then her eyes, wide and yellow.
He looks away and down. Buries his face in his arms. Shakes like he might fall apart here and now.
Placeholder. Patchwork. Traitor. Monster. Your people.
She deserves better. She has always deserved so much better.
Her hands find his face. It’s a familiar feeling, of rough skin and gentle claws. She’s shaking, or he is, or they both are—it’s hard to say. Everything is so hard to make out in this moment.
“Caleb,” says Nott, and there are tears in her voice. “Caleb, I’m so sorry.”
For what? he wants to ask, but his tongue is lead. He can do nothing but shake his head and dig his nails into his palms. He is nothing. He is no one. He is not worth her time.
“Please look at me.”
He can’t. But he lets her guide his face upwards anyway, and skirts his eyes past her. The room is on fire, he thinks. He wonders distantly if he did that. (Of course he did.)
“Caleb, look at me,” she pleads. Her thumb strokes timid circles into his left cheek. “Please look at me. I—I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I should never—I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know how I could have said that to you. This isn’t your fault. It was never your fault, none of it, you couldn’t have known—you couldn’t have known. I’m sorry.”
Caleb opens his mouth to give some reassurance, some word to send her away so that she does not have to feign caring anymore. What falls from his tongue instead is one of the words that cycles through his head like the vicious beating of a drum.
(His voice is hoarse, like vocal chords oversaturated with smoke. He bites down on his tongue after the word slips from it, hard enough that he draws blood. The metallic tang is good because it is not ash.)
“No,” says Nott. She huddles closer to him, there beneath the bed. “No, no, Caleb, no . Never. You’re not— Caleb .”
“I will leave,” says Caleb. Speech is so difficult right now but so very important. “I am sorry. You don’t have to pretend anymore. I will go.”
She hisses between her teeth. Her thumb stops circling. Good, thinks Caleb, and waits for the blow. It never comes—instead, she brings her forehead to his, so close that he has no choice but to meet her eyes.
She’s dropped the spell that hid her face. Her eyes shine yellow-gold in the gloom beneath the bed.
“Caleb,” she says, the syllables falling deliberately from between her lips. “I love you. Maybe you were a placeholder once, but not anymore. I love you. You are my boy. And I am so, so sorry.”
“I am poison,” says Caleb, against the adamant shaking of her head. He closes his eyes so that he does not have to look at her. “I am a monster.”
“No,” says Nott. “No, no, you’re not. You’re Caleb. You’re smart and wonderful and I should never have lashed out at you. I was hurt and angry but that’s no excuse. You’re my boy and I love you and I’m sorry.” A pause. He does not know how to speak. “Caleb. Please look at me.”
Is he really in a position to refuse her anything?
He looks up. Her gaze is wet with tears. She smiles when there eyes meet, and her fingers wind their way into his hair. “Caleb,” she says. Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I love you. Okay? It’s not your fault. It’s not— it’s never your fault. I’m sorry.”
Caleb nods because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Okay,” he says, and she curls her arms around him. He should still leave, but he is a selfish parasite that craves affection, and he leans into her touch. Gods, how he loves her, and how he does not deserve her.
“They’re in here,” comes a voice, low and soft—Beau. The door creaks as it closes and several pairs of footsteps pad away down the hallway.
Nott sighs. “Caleb,” she murmurs. “I need you to understand that I do mean it. You are my boy and you’re not a placeholder. And I care for you so, so much, and I did not mean what I said. I need you to know this so you won’t try to run away from me. Wherever you go, I want to come with you.”
“You deserve better,” says Caleb. “Your family—”
“And that’s a conversation we’ll need to have,” Nott agrees, so very gently. “We need to figure that out. But not right now, okay? Right now I need you to promise you won’t leave.”
He’s not sure why she wants him here, but he doesn’t really want to leave either and it’s not his place to say no to her. Not after what his past has done to her. Your people… “Ja,” he says, and his voice cracks and breaks around the word. “I will stay.”
“Good,” says Nott, and kisses his forehead. “Good.”
And they stay there, and they tremble, and the world outside them crumbles and burns.