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Used to the Darkness

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Caleb Widogast

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.

Essek Thelyss

"-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.

Chapter Text

Caleb Widogast

“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.”

“Of course.”

“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?”

“Everything.”

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.

Essek Thelyss

“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.