Veth was wary of two things in life, totally and completely. One was zealotry and glittering, fervent eyes—conviction without a foundation, like she’d seen in Otis and the other Tomb Takers. She’d even seen in some of that from the goblins in her clan once upon a time—well, not her clan. The clan, more like.
The other was silence.
Silence had never brought anything good to her. The woods had been like still water the day the goblins had raided her village, and the air itself had ground to a halt when she led the clan away from her husband and son in a desperate bid to save their lives. Sometimes she thought she imagined that quiet, like the horrible silence was trapped in her head, her own personal hell.
This was different. The air was soft as Caleb knelt to the floor and opened his spell book to a familiar page. Tension was electric between them, between all of them, just a spark away from setting off a storm of lighting. Her very breath sounded loud, an intrusion on the worry, but then Caleb began to speak his arcane words and her fear—that’s what it was, even if she didn’t like to name it—ebbed somewhat.
She knew better to interrupt him while he worked, especially not tonight, so instead she settled down on the ground beside him, as she had for over a year now while he cast the dome. She sat so close their shoulders touched and it brought with it a gentle rush of familiarity. It was the only thing familiar here, in this cavernous, icy expanse. She was surprised by how much she wanted to cling to it, to wrest that familiarity from the moment with desperate hands and hold it tight while they waited.
The dome went up finally and Caleb leaned back, blowing out a ragged breath, like he’d been holding it the entire time he’d been casting. “I have to admit,” he said. “This is not the way I thought this would be going.”
“Did you think it was going to go any particular way?” Veth asked, surprised at how normal her voice sounded. She didn’t sound afraid, at least not to her own ears. That was crazy, she thought, because she’d never been so afraid in her life.
Caleb shook his head staring out the dome with a distant look in his eyes. “I’ve been lost this whole time. Every…incident has altered what little plan I had until there was nothing left at all.”
Veth swallowed hard before she spoke, staring down morosely at her gloved hands, lying clasped in her lap. “I think it’s been that way for most of us. I mean, look: if Jessie hadn’t had years of her life sucked away, she and Fjord would never have gotten together. And Beau and Yasha, I mean, who knows where they would be if we didn’t have the constant threat of death hanging over our heads now.” She tried to make the words flippant, her normal, comical self, but she wasn’t sure she pulled it off.
Caleb’s eyes flicked to her and she felt her belly flip over, like it always did when he regarded her with his steady, blue gaze. “And you?” He asked, voice low and serious. “Where did all your plans go?”
“They died,” she said before she could stop herself or think about what she was saying, meeting his gaze squarely anyway.
He lowered his head, that equally familiar guilt radiating off of him. If guilt and shame could have been channelled into heat, all of Aeor would be warm.
“That wasn’t a knock,” she said. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like one.”
He ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the long red strands. “I know,” he said. “I am just…sorry that things have turned out the way that they have.”
The barest hints of light flickered against his face, white-blue when they were usually amber. It washed him out, made him look ashen and frail, like a dead thing he hadn’t resembled in quite some time.
It also looked a bit like moonlight, casting dark shadows that made him seem otherworldly and mysterious, his jawline sharper, his eyes like dark, glittering ice. He looked beautiful and dangerous and sad and Veth wanted nothing more than to climb into his lap and let herself be held. Or to hold him. For them to hold each other? It had been a long time since that was an option for either of them, though, and tonight was no different.
“Caleb—” she started at the same time that he said, “Well—” and snapped his fingers.
Frumpkin appeared in front of them, coat shiny, a beautiful, pure white. A cat made for the snow.
Caleb’s eyes bounced between Frumpkin and her. “I’m sorry, Veth. What were you going to say?”
Veth reached out and scritched under Frumpkin’s chin, trying to ignore the way her heart was suddenly hammering in her chest and how her guilt could have warmed the whole fucking damned frozen city now. “He looks good like this,” she said instead of saying anything that meant anything. She was sweaty all of a sudden and finally thought she understood too intimately how the Gentleman must have felt when last they saw him, bringing Marion to his doorstep with so little notice.
“He blends in,” Caleb said pragmatically.
“Yeah,” Veth said. “He does.”
An awkward moment of silence passed between them, but Caleb didn’t make any moves to trade his vision with Frumpkin’s, as was the plan. Instead, he angled himself toward her, focusing the full force of his gaze directly on her.
She struggled not to shrink back from it, but there was nowhere to hide. There just…wasn’t. The time for obfuscating was past, she sensed, because who the fuck knew what was about to happen here? She could die, she knew that was a very real possibility. So could he—in fact that was an even more of a possibility. Everything, all of it—this was the end of the line. In more ways than one.
“Veth,” he said with a stolid resoluteness that gave her courage.
Maybe it was also fear that gave her courage. Fear for herself, fear for him, for the rest of the Nein, for Essek, for the world and her family, hiding out in a thieves’ den, waiting to see if she could succeed at the most important thing she’d ever been forced to do. Maybe that was why, when he turned to her with his steadiness and resolve she found her own as well.
The first time she’d kissed him had been all sweetness and gratitude, hesitant and full of feeling.
This was different.
Less sweet, less apologetic, less grateful. More desire, more fire, more desperation. He should know, she told herself with her hands clenched on the fabric of his coat, pulling him to her with a strength she didn’t know she had. He deserves to know, she thought, as if she was giving him something, not taking it away. Up until this moment, they’d had peace. They would circle each other and pine until kingdom come—at least she would—but there was always peace in the knowledge that this could never happen.
It was selfish of her to consume that peace and spit out the scraps like the gristle of a steak. But, as it turns out, selfishness tasted good.
And he paid her passion back in kind, one hand cupping the back of her head, holding her to him like he feared she would slip away into nothingness if he didn’t. Their kisses were desperate and hard, but oh the taste of him was sweet. The sweetest honey she’d ever had, all the more so because she knew she shouldn’t be having it.
When he finally pulled back, it was only so they could take in deep, heaving breaths. They had kissed until their lungs screamed for air and she wondered if they would have just kept on going if there wasn’t a mission at hand. Even still, he only pulled far enough away to rest his forehead against hers, one hand still hopelessly tangled in her braids as they both fought for control.
“We’re going to die,” she found herself saying, for some reason compelled to speak her deepest fear to him.
“No,” he said with a dangerous kind of certainty. “Not all of us. You are not dying here, Veth. Not you. Never you.”
“Don’t argue,” he said, softer this time, but with no less iron. “We may well all die here, but I will be certain that you make it home.”
“How,” she said, feeling traitorous tears heat her eyes. “How can you know that? Do you think I’d just be able to live my life after all this? Like it had never happened? And that’s even if we managed to stop Lucien from bringing the city here. If he does, I’ll barely have more time than all of you.”
With his free hand, he pointed a finger at her, the way he always did when he was excited about something and knew what he had to do. “I have a plan, Veth the Brave,” he said with a smile tinged in sadness. “Don’t question a wizard with a plan. Many of mine have fallen through lately, but this one will not. You’ll see.”
She didn’t believe for a minute that he had a plan at all. But she nodded anyway because there was a beautiful dream in his voice, and his words sounded like distant echoes of the past.
“Our best trick yet,” she said, the words watery, her tears only just beginning to spill.
He brushed them gently away and pressed one last, soft, kiss on her lips. It was so like the first one she’d given to him that it was a struggle not to weep even more than she already was.
“Our finest trick of all,” he said. “Living.”
She sniffed and wiped her nose, nodding. “Okay,” she said, and then again, with more assurance. “Okay. You have to go. I’ll keep watch over you.”
It was hard for her to see in dim light, but she thought she might have seen the glimmer of water on his cheeks as well. “I know you will,” he said and his eyes went vacant. Frumpkin paused a moment to rub against her leg and then he was gone as well, off into Aeor to watch and wait.
Veth roughly wiped her face again, angry that she had let herself fall apart like that. Angry that her life was a mess and she didn’t know what was going to happen next and she didn’t even fully believe that they would live through this. That anyone would.
But she steadied her breath and laid her hand over Caleb’s. His fingers threaded through hers, knowing she was there by touch even though his eyes were trained elsewhere, and she stared off into the darkness ahead of them as well.
And the real waiting began.