The Mighty Nein had forgiven Essek.
Caleb had been expecting that much, but he hadn't expected it all to happen so quickly. A few battles with Essek by their side, throwing his life into danger for their safety in Eiselcross, a couple decent conversations, and it was like nothing had ever happened. It was like nothing had changed, like he was still a good man in their eyes. The trust wasn't entirely back, but Caleb’s friends didn't hold a lick of it against him. He couldn’t quite tell if they’d all just accepted him or were attempting to “kill him with kindness,” since it had worked well before.
But it didn’t really matter. They seemed genuine, even to Caleb’s discerning eye.
They had moved on with nothing but a wary eye and even more friendship than before.
And Caleb was having a difficult time dealing with it.
He'd been prepared to defend the wizard, to argue that the man deserved a second chance, just as he had. He'd been prepared to comfort him if Beau or Veth said something too cruel, or if Yasha or Caduceus said something that cut too deep. He’d been prepared to fight for his second chance if Fjord wanted to be pragmatic and abandon him. He'd been prepared to fight for Essek alone, or perhaps with Jester, to make sure that he got what Caleb had promised.
To get Essek a second chance. To fight for Essek like no one had fought for him. To make sure that Essek wasn’t left alone like he was.
Picturing the drow on the run from people hunting him from the Kryn Dynasty, having to conceal himself like a beggar and live out his days in the blinding sun, didn’t sit well with Caleb. So he would do what might have helped him, in those moments.
That was what he had decided upon when they recruited the drow to help them. He made up his mind to be helpful, and always had trouble when his plans didn’t work out. Not that they ever seemed to anymore. It seemed these days he was operating in a constant state of panic, not the carefully plotted schemes he made on his own or with Nott. Caleb had planned to be kind, civil, to offer that second chance that he had so desperately needed when he was at his own low point.
Somewhere along the way, he underestimated his friend's endless compassion.
Sure, they teased Essek and said things that were a bit too crass, but then they apologized. And Essek showed real remorse, soothing the more volatile of the party and keeping everyone together. It should have been perfect. It should have all felt right, like things going back to normal.
But everything little thing about it rubbed Caleb the wrong way. It felt off.
He didn't really want to dwell on the reasons why, not around his friends.
Those thoughts prickled around the edges and brought up all the negative feelings that he tried to bury around the Nein. How was he supposed to feel about all the similarities between him and Essek?
How could he think about what kind of man he would be if the Mighty Nein had known him right after he'd broken? If he hadn’t spent five years on his own before meeting Nott?
How could he think about that, and about what he'd done, and still believe that he deserved that kind of compassion, that kind of near unconditional love?
He couldn't. So he didn't.
Caleb couldn't forgive himself yet. So he couldn’t forgive Essek.
Now Caleb couldn't bring himself to even look at the man. The man who had won them over, then betrayed them. The man he'd called his friend. The man he'd spent hours researching with, discussing new spells, dunamancy, all manners of the arcane. The man who had put everything on the line to come clean to the Mighty Nein. The man who had pledged his allegiance to Caleb and the Nein over anything else.
The man he could imagine himself falling for. Why did he always fall for people who would hurt him, whether they meant to or not? Not that he didn’t deserve that pain.
It was far too much for Caleb to deal with.
So instead of accepting Essek like he knew he should, instead of accompanying the rest of the Nein in a "family dinner" in the tower, he would hide like the coward he was. The coward he had always been.
"Jester, why don't you show Essek the guestroom? I'm going to retire early."
She agreed, eager to show Essek around the tower Caleb had created just for them too. Jester had been ready to welcome Essek back with open arms from the beginning. None of them ever deserved what she gave. If Fjord hurt her, he’d kill him. Well. Not really. Jester would never want that, even if Fjord had asked him to do something similar long ago.
Caleb really hadn’t changed much.
So Caleb couldn’t allow himself to see the look on Essek’s face when he saw the guest room, made over into blues, purples, and silvers with stained glass that shined with pearlescent inlays. The man deserved a second chance. That was why he kissed Essek on the forehead. Like how he placed the pearl for fortune's favor on his friends' foreheads. Like Mollymauk used to do when he could only hear screaming and feel burning flames. Caleb wanted to leave Essek better than he found him, to drag him out of the hell that was manipulation by the Cerberus Assembly. He wanted to help him.
But it was too soon, too raw.
So he just ascended the tower, floating and ignoring how it would probably feel natural to move like this for Essek. How the other wizard might wonder if he'd been inspired by the cantrip.
He had. And Caleb should tell him so. He should invite Essek to use the laboratory he’d created for himself, Yeza, and Veth. He should show Essek the library, show him how to ask for whatever he wanted from the cats. He should do many things.
But for now he moved to the eighth floor, slipped into the stone room with old wooden chairs, surgical instruments, and filthy hay.
Caleb slid to the floor near the closed door and rubbed at the scars on his aching forearms.
For now, this was what he deserved.
"-and this is the library! Caleb memorized all these books, so we can read them! Well, some of them are in weird languages, but he'll read them to you if you ask. Oh! You should totally ask him to read the Cat Prince one to you! He read it to me a few weeks ago; it's really, really cute." Jester’s face grew serious, as if the cuteness of the children's book was of utmost importance.
Essek pulled at the hem of his shirt under his mantle, trying to stop the nervous habit. At least Jester couldn’t see it. "I… I am not sure he would enjoy reading to me as he did with you."
"He won't mind! He likes you!" She beamed at him and he schooled his expression into an impassive one to nod along though he didn’t agree. Caleb couldn't even look at him. He'd betrayed the trust of a man who didn't trust easily. Once bitten, twice shy. Except with all the scars on his arms, Essek assumed he had been bitten far too many times.
He’d blown it from the very beginning, and now Caleb couldn't even bring himself to share a meal together. It hadn’t been awkward with the rest of the Nein there, but he’d felt the absence like a hole in his chest.
It felt like a miracle that Caleb had deigned to give him an opportunity to redeem himself at all. Essek could still feel the searing touch of the man's lips on his forehead, a Widogast spell for a second chance that required no components. He was trying, but it would likely take years. Years Essek didn’t have to spare, with human lives so fragile and so short.
Jester saw right through it, patting his arm. It took a moment to remember not to recoil from the overly familiar touch. These were his friends. They had saved him, and they expressed care through physical intimacy. It wasn't a political move from someone trying to gain his favor. It was comfort.
"He does like you, Essek. I just think… maybe he needs more time," she said softly.
His time as Shadowhand kept him from snorting outright. Instead he said, "I'm quite sure he hates me."
"No!” She protested, almost pouting. It was a strange look, especially since she'd been miraculously aged recently. “You guys just need to talk! I mean it's complicated. Like, he told us all to be nice to you before you got here! I think he sees himself in you, but he like, really hates himself sometimes. But he shouldn't!"
You were not born with venom in your veins. You learned it.
Essek sighed, raking his hands through his hair. The gales of Eiselcross had done a number on the carefully styled locks. “Do you know where he went? I… I would like to talk with him, if he’d allow me.”
Maybe you and I are both damned, but we can choose to do something and leave it better than it was before.
He had been trying. He had been trying to be better, but it was hard on his own. The Mighty Nein had appeared in his life like a blinding light and then their every subsequent absence felt like an eclipse. Chasing that light felt like the most worthwhile thing he'd done in a century.
Jester hummed, rubbing her chin. “Sometimes he disappears up on the eighth floor. I think he must have a secret bathroom up there or something, ‘cause he disappears up there all night and doesn’t come down until morning. I’m sure you can catch him before breakfast, though!”
That sounded intriguing. Perhaps the man had a private study at the top of his tower. It seemed odd that he would share that small laboratory with Veth like Jester said, so Essek could only assume that a second study was the use of his private space. There was also a strong likelihood that a space of that type would be a good one for a conversation. Perhaps Caleb would be reminded of the many spells Essek had taught him in his own private study.
Of the many spells he was still willing to teach him. Of how Essek would be more than willing to research and help the wizard with whatever he wanted. How he just wanted to feel like they were still friends.
It was as good a plan as any, for a man whose plans had not been working out well for him at all lately.
Essek let Jester lead him to his room, and tried not to look as impressed as he was. Old habits kept his expression neutral before he realized there was nothing to hide from Jester. It would only endear him to her to show how much he appreciated Caleb’s attention to detail and design.
"And this is your room for tonight! Caleb changes it each time we have a guest. When Dagon was staying here he had like a full bar for him, and the window had wolves and bacon, and there was an axe hanging over here-"
So he customized it for all their visitors. It wasn't special. Still, Essek couldn't help the awestruck feeling, and likely the matching expression, growing inside him.
Everything was cast in silvers and blues and purples, just like his home. The stained glass window was inlaid with pearlescent hues and images of oysters with pearls and dodecahedrons. A safe haven for someone given a second chance. It felt more like home than the outpost in Eiselcross ever could, though that was due in part just because of the company.
But all Essek wanted was to share it with the one person who wouldn’t even give him the time of day. Well. He probably would, since he knew it intrinsically, but nothing beyond those clipped, formal comments. Nothing like the intellectual friendship Essek had started to crave.
“He’ll come around. Just give him time,” Jester said, giving him a hug before leaving.
He patted her back awkwardly. It felt strange to be held while not floating, but not altogether unpleasant. “I… I hope so.”
Jester left him alone in the beautiful room and he took time to clean up, smoothing his hair properly after getting it blown about in the brutal winds of the north. He then peeked out the door, found no one watching, and ascended up the floors, floating until he reached the barrier. The few Zemnian keywords he’d been told didn’t work.
Chewing his lip, he considered just sending the wizard a message.
But Essek’s curiosity got the better of him and he moved to the room that could summon whatever the summoner wished for. It probably didn’t work for what he actually wanted in this moment, but it was worth a shot. Afterwards he’d try the cats.
It was much easier to entertain his curiosity than the possibility that Caleb, the one who had offered him the second chance, the one he’d first considered a friend, truly hated him. He could joke about it, but the reality of the thought had sharp edges that cut and twisted inside him, jagged enough to draw blood.
So for now he would explore the limits of the tower.
When he opened the cabinet he found a small slip of parchment that read, “Fort, doch nicht vergessen.”
The fact that it worked startled him. Essek just stared at it a moment before sitting down to cast comprehend languages. Ten minutes would be worth taking a moment to look into Caleb’s mind’s inner workings. His training as Shadowhand was always in the back of his head, urging him on to collect as much information as possible, especially when heading into what was likely going to be quite reminiscent of a difficult negotiation.
The spell took hold and he felt the words translate themselves into his mother tongue.
Gone, but not forgotten.
That didn’t quite sound like a private study.
He spoke the words in what he could only assume was a terrible Zemnian accent and watched the circle open up to accept him into the eighth floor. Maybe he should pick up a book to study Caleb’s language. Clearly he didn't know enough yet about the wizard who had won his favor. The nine doors shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow Essek was yet again startled by the intricacy of this tower. With a quick locate object spell focused on Caleb’s spellbook, he found the correct door to knock on.
“Caleb? Would you mind if I came in?” he asked, feeling ridiculous. He should have just messaged the man. He should just leave and come back in the morning. He was probably interrupting something important-
“Ja, sure.” The voice came from within, emotionless and echoing in whatever chamber it was contained in.
He cracked the door open and was surprised one last time.
The three chairs with leather straps sitting in the middle of the room were definitely not what he expected. But when he saw the rusted scalpels and matted hay in the corner, he could make a decent guess as to where he was. He’d learned enough from the Scourger’s corpse.
Looking frailer and smaller than Essek had ever seen him, Caleb was sitting on the floor near the door, curled in on himself and barely acknowledging Essek’s presence.