He awakens slowly, like resurfacing from beneath the ocean, moving from one state to another like states of matter rather than consciousness. It is dim in the dome, most of his friends asleep around him.
Jester is tucked into his side, emanating heat like a furnace, and has clearly accumulated others seeking out her warmth—Beau’s head rests on her knees where she is curled into herself, her staff clutched to her like a teddy bear; Fjord’s back is pressed up to hers, similarly tense even in sleep; Yasha is almost catlike at her feet. Caduceus sleeps like the dead on his other side, sprawling, limbs in every direction.
Nott is the only one awake, back straight as an arrow where she sits against the couch, big yellow eyes as wide as Frumpkin’s, where his cat rests on the cushion behind the goblin’s head. Her crossbow sits, loaded, on her crossed legs, and her fingers rest on the trigger.
“Are you alright, Caleb?” she asks in a hoarse whisper, and if it wasn’t so silent here, in a magic dome in a fancy inn in the nice part of a city that has so recently been under attack, he doesn’t think he’d have heard the question.
“Ja, I am okay,” he says, and shifts as he sits up so as not to nudge any of his companions awake. “Just a nightmare.” He looks around, shuffles past Caduceus to sit against the sofa beside her. “I thought you were taking watch with Jester.”
“She was half-asleep. I just let her drift off.” It takes a long while before she asks, “Do you want to talk about your dream?”
He doesn’t, and he does. He is terrified to say what he has seen out loud, the horrors that hide in the depths of his subconscious, but he knows it must be addressed.
He doesn’t know, not after the words Trent Ikithon spoke to him today, what kind of things are buried there that are not of his own design.
“If I…” his words are so faint that she leans closer to hear him, big green ears twitching to catch them. “If he… if anything happens, if I… if I somehow… turn, like Yasha turned.”
He can see the woman descending upon them, when he thinks back; it is seared into his memory, the way she raised her swords to them back in Bazzozan, the way the blade stuck in Beau’s chest here, in the cathedral. None of it her fault, of course. She was blameless in her corruption.
If anything like that happened to him, could he say the same?
“Caleb, how would that happen?” Nott wonders, incredulous. She doesn’t believe him, even though she, more than the rest of them, understand what Ikithon is capable of. She has not grasped how willing he is to twist minds to his agenda.
“If it happened,” he continues, without explaining the magic behind it; it’s complicated and Nott is clever and she’d understand, but it is more than he wishes to go into tonight, in the dark, as tired as he is. “If it happened, I need you to promise me something.”
“Of course, anything.”
This is why he can talk to Nott, why they have always understood each other—they don’t have to justify their fears or issues to each other. They know that they’ve both been through shit, both done plenty of shit, and that it is not what is important to the other. “I need you to promise to put this,” he taps the crossbow lightly, so as not to cause a misfire, “through my skull.”
Nott recoils in the dark, her shoulders suddenly tense, and pulls the weapon away from his fingers. “Caleb, I—“
“You made me promise that if it took killing you to change you back to you, then I would,” he reminds her. This is the most painful thing he’s had to ask her, but it is easier under the cover of the night. “I am willing to kill you to save you. If I… if Trent Ikithon got his claws back into me, somehow, I don’t… I wouldn’t be able to resist, I don’t think.” He taps his forehead sharply, and the fingernail digs in harder than he really meant it to, but the pressure relieves something in him for a moment. He folds his arms tightly and lets his fingers dig into the skin there instead, white scars long since causing any pain that would affect him, but finding relief nonetheless.
“I think there might be… a switch, of some kind. I don’t know if there is, but I think… it’s possible. And if that is the case, then I am worse than dead, because I do not trust that he would not send me after the rest of you. It is exactly the sick kind of game he would force me into, as punishment for defying him, all of these years.”
“Caleb, why would he come after us? We haven’t done anything to him.”
She looks so earnest, as though she has not learned that the world does not work fairly, as though she forgets that there are some people who are bad. Of course, the bad people from her own past seemed like savages, goblins living on the fringes of society; perhaps she has not fully acknowledged that those in power do not always play by the rules they create.
“He is a man who does not like to lose,” he sighs, and runs a hand over his face. His hair has long since fallen out of its restraints, long and scraggly and oily, half tied back and half covering his eyes. Enough of a shield to hide behind. “And the games he plays are very long. It would cost him very little to do, and would bring him tremendous satisfaction. Because it would hurt me.”
The room is silent aside from the soft breathing of his friends, and Caduceus’ occasional grunted snore, and he sneaks a look at Nott. She looks as conflicted as he’d expected her to, when he woke up and knew the question he had to ask.
“I will kill you,” she says, finally, as though she’s choosing her words very carefully, “under the same conditions that you have agreed to kill me. As a last resort. If that’s the only possibility. When everything else has been exhausted.”
“Caleb, if we let Yasha live, after she almost killed me, almost killed Fjord, almost killed Beau—“ she shakes her head, as though shaking off the memories. She didn’t really see Beau, of course, but he’s sure that the sight of Yasha looming over her is not something she will soon shake. “We can try to save you before we give up on you.”
“You have seen what I can do under someone else’s control—“ he snarls, and peers into his hands, always dry from the fire, the pads of his fingers smooth from the burns, and thinks of the succubus in his mind. Light them up, pretty. That was far tamer than the kinds of things Trent Ikithon might teach him before sending him after those he wants to hurt. “I am not Yasha,” he continues, leveling his breathing with the volume of his voice. It wouldn’t do to wake the others for this conversation; Nott is the only one with a chance of understanding. Perhaps Yasha, after what she has been through, but he won’t put this burden on her shoulders after what her hands have been guided to do. “I can do far more damage to all of you, all at once.”
Nott watches him carefully, and tonight of all nights he ducks from her scrutiny. She is the only person whom he always allows to see him, fully, for everything he is and is not, but not tonight. It is too dangerous; he cannot guess what might lie behind his eyes.
Trent Ikithon has not been sitting idly by for the last sixteen years. Neither have Astrid or Eodwulf, both certainly growing in strength while he was trapped in his mind in an asylum. He doesn’t know what they are capable of, so he doesn’t know what he is capable of if they manage to find him.
When they manage to find him. He strolled straight back into their grasp, through the doors of the throne room of the Dwendalian Empire.
After all of the running he has done, he handed himself over to them. It is this that terrifies him; he should’ve fought tooth and nail to escape the awareness of the Righteous Brand today, and yet he stayed after the fight, shuffled to the pyre of his own volition.
He’s fought so long; perhaps he has no fight left to give.
He shivers, and Nott takes his hand gently, comically large, as always, in her own. “I promise that if it comes to it, I will kill you,” she says softly. “But only if it comes to it, and not without trying our best to save you first.”
He won’t drag her further over the line than this, he knows. It is the bargain he has struck with her, after all. It is only fair.
“Then, Nott the Brave,” he says, and the shaking breath precedes calm, steady hands. “If we can stop this war, and it does not come to that, will you help me burn the heart from the Cerberus Assembly?”
“What about Astrid?” she asks. “And your other friend…”
“Eodwulf,” he offers, and the name is unpracticed and rusty on his tongue. “I think they are beyond saving, Nott. Remember that they have murdered their own families, as I have, and they continued on with their lives.” When she doesn’t answer, he lets his eyes close, and the images of his nightmares flash behind his eyes. “They are monsters. I was a monster, once. And I could not recognize it until it was far too late.” Without the vulnerability of the world in front of his eyes, he pushes his hair behind his ears. “Perhaps I am still a monster. It is in my nature, for having not seen that before.”
“Caleb, you were a child,” she reminds him, and he can feel the tears prickling at his eyes. “The people teaching you are the only ones responsible for leading you to believe that wasn’t wrong.”
He cannot open his eyes now, cannot unleash the floodgates, but it doesn’t matter; Nott wraps her arms around his slim shoulders and pulls him into her shoulder, and the tears begin to flow, traitorous.
“You learned better all on your own,” she says, as he sobs into her sweater. “You don’t need to prove it again and again to feel like you’re worthy of forgiveness.”
The words ring hollow in his ears—he still cannot accept the redemption that she offers to him, but for the moment, perhaps he can allow her to hold it out in front of him, that he may one day take it.