All right, wizard boy, Lucien says, and his voice swells and envelops Caleb’s mind until there are red eyes across his vision and an endless scream in his ears. Light them up.
His eyes refocus. Cree stands beside him, smiling. The Mighty Nein stand and hover before him, crammed together in the corridor. Their faces are falling slack with horror and Caduceus is saying ‘oh, no,’ and Jester’s yelling, ‘Fight it, Beau! Caleb, don’t let him –’
You won’t let them stop the show before it starts, will you? That’d be a dick move.
So Caleb’s hand flies to his component pouch and smashes bat guano and sulfur into his sleeve. His fingers slice the well-practiced movements into the air, and the incantation words spill from his tongue. Fire wells in his palm, and his hand draws back to release the blast right where all your irritating friends are. Look at them, all packed nicely together for us –
A cry. A familiar incantation, shouted in Essek's voice.
And Caleb’s hands move in reverse. The spell he’s almost finished speaking sounds again, backward, like the words are being taken back into his mouth. The smear of shit and dust down his arm lifts from his sleeve and returns to a ball in his component pouch. And there in the hallway, Essek floats before Caleb with blood on his lips and ferocity in his eyes, and his Counterspell pulls the Fireball right out of time, reverses the casting, leaving nothing. Nothing but the lightning scent of Essek's magic in the air.
A heartbeat pause. Then Lucien’s voice: who the fuck is this one?
‘I will not let you hurt them.’ Essek is a little unsteady where he floats, but his voice is not. He’s looking at Caleb evenly, calmly, his hands readied to cast again.
Lucien laughs through Caleb’s mouth and speaks alongside Caleb’s voice. ‘You say that like you get a choice, pretty boy.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ Essek says, and his lips peel back, showing his fangs in a snarl that’s more disdainful than angry. ‘I was talking to Caleb.’
And some faint part of Caleb, almost buried under the eyes and the voices, understands.
I will not let you hurt them,
Essek said. It was not a threat; it was an assurance. A promise. An it's all right. No harm will come to our friends.
Then Essek shouts an incantation and slams his hands down onto the flesh-stone floor, and a pulse of pure force crashes out around him in a wave – slamming Caleb into the wall, slamming Lucien out of his head, slamming all consciousness from his body.
Then he’s spluttering awake, sitting up and spitting out blood. Caduceus is kneeling over him, his hands bloodied but warm with healing energy. Caleb runs his eyes through the tunnel, counting the others - eins, zwei, drei - where they stand over the curled-up form of Cree. He reaches sechs, almost stops, then remembers that he needs to count further. His eyes seek out Essek, and find him hovering a little way behind Caduceus. Sieben. Caleb breathes fully again.
Essek looks at Caleb, and bites his lip. ‘I apologise for –’ he begins, in the same moment that Caleb says, ‘I am sorry, I -’
A silence. They look at each other. Caduceus looks back and forth between them.
‘You were not acting of your own volition,’ Essek says, after a moment. ‘And there was no harm done. But I do apologise for, ah. Throwing you into a wall.’
Caleb smiles – a little weakly, because his face feels one solid mass of bruises. ‘It was for the best.’
‘We need to go, you guys.’ Jester is rocking back and forth where she floats, tail-tip twitching. ‘If Cree put that threshold thingy wherever it needed to go, then the ritual or whatever could happen any moment –’
Beau moans loudly, but stands, leaning on Yasha. Fjord lights up his blade and holds it out, illuminating the passage before them. Caleb grasps the skin of the wall and tries to rise, but his legs buckle.
Caduceus grasps him and steadies him into a low float. ‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘If we get into another fight right now, I’m not sure we’re coming out of it with two wizards. I’ve got one big heal left in me, enough to get one of you two mostly fixed up. But –’
But only one. The other risks death, or stays behind.
And Caleb is about to say that it should be him who goes without, because he is the one emblazoned with crimson eyes. He is the liability and Essek is not. But then Essek coughs quietly and says, ‘I have something that might help with that. A way to duplicate healing between two individuals.’
‘Then do it!’ Jester says, and Fjord nods.
Essek’s hands disappear into his cloak and re-emerge, clasping a length of silvery thread. ‘I will be forthright,’ he says. ‘This is not a matter of spell-splitting, as you did so effectively earlier, Jester. This is… a tethering of two living essences. Harm or healing done to one is shared with the other. I will, of course, end the spell as soon as Caduceus has done his work, but while it lasts –’
Jester’s tail lashes – not from anger, Caleb thinks, but from desperate fear. ‘Yeah, but no one is going to beat up of either of you right now, and we need you two okay so we can go.’
Essek loops the silver cord around his own wrist, like half of a handfast. ‘What I mean to express,’ he says softly, ‘is that this spell requires a degree of trust.’
Ah, Caleb thinks. Yes, that is always the issue, between the two of them.
The other end of the twine lies, shimmering, in Essek’s palm. Caleb looks at it, and then at his friends, and then at Essek. Essek looks back without any expectation in his eyes, without any fear – just an unspoken, quiet question.
Caleb closes his eyes.
He does not want to do this. Not the healing, that is – he very much wants to stop feeling like a mashed-up twig – but the decision. He does not want to decide whether he trusts Essek Thelyss now. He wants to do that little by little over weeks, months, over shared study and a soft re-learning of each other. He does not want to decide at all; he wants to realise that he has already decided, some evening in the Tower as he watches Essek eat soup or listens to him laugh at one of Jester’s jokes. Because this takes time. It takes time.
He does not want to decide now, in a corridor of flesh that’s forgotten that it was once a city. He does not want to decide in a few seconds, with no time to think or re-think, no time to talk to Essek, no time for anything.
But this is the moment he’s been given in which to decide. So Caleb breathes in deep (and oh, his ribs don’t like that at all), and forces himself into a more upright float (which his ribs like even less), and he looks at Essek and thinks, well, do I trust you? Enough, at least, for this?
And he remembers the haze of the battle. His own lips shaping the words that would have burned his friends. Essek’s Counterspell, forcing those words to become unsaid.
He breathes in one more time. Then he holds out his wrist to Essek.
There’s a half-second in which Essek’s face, so carefully calm, cracks into that same look he wore in the outpost when he heard the word trust. Caleb sees him swallow. Then Essek gathers the end of the thread and wraps it, with oh-so-careful movements, around Caleb’s wrist.
‘This will feel a little strange,’ Essek says. ‘You may want to resist, by instinct, but to do so would cause the spell to fail, so…’
He doesn’t say trust me. But Caleb hears it anyway, and he thinks, yes. For this, I do. I will.
Caleb has been afraid for so long, so long, that Essek was a danger. That this man’s delicate hands would draw out Caleb’s most vicious parts. That they would bring the ugliest of their shared flaws to the surface, turn Caleb into his own worst enemy.
But today, it was Essek’s hands that unravelled the magic that would have made Caleb burn the people he loves again. It was Essek who stopped Caleb from becoming the enemy of his friends.
What Caleb feels toward Essek is not trust – not completely, not yet. But it’s not not trust, and that is more than they have had for a long time.
Essek murmurs the incantation. The platinum cord pulses with grey light, then burns away into nothingness. An odd feeling spills through Caleb, a bit like he’s being pulled outside his body, and bit like something else is joining him inside his own skin. And his instinct screams at him to fight, because he is far too familiar with what it’s like not to belong to himself -
But Essek looks up and gives him a small, reassuring smile. Caleb nods back, and doesn’t resist.
And quite suddenly Caleb’s senses expand, drinking in sensations that aren't his own. He feels his neck brushed by a fur collar he’s not wearing, the sounds around him amplified by long ears that Caleb doesn’t have. He feels Essek’s pain in a dull layer over his own, all the residual ache from the blast of the Intuit Charge and the impact of a watery tentacle ( how, how did they not realise sooner how hurt Essek was?) He feels the breath stirring in Essek’s lungs, and feels the soft unfurling of warmth and relief as Caduceus puts his hand on Essek’s shoulder and mends his battered flesh – and Caleb’s flesh with it.
Caleb swallows. He should feel – possessed. Spied upon. He doesn’t; he just feels very not alone.
And Essek’s hand is still outstretched from the casting, so Caleb twists his own hand around and clasps it. Just an experiment. Just because he’s curious to see what the contact feels like. Yes.
What he feels is Essek’s skin against his, and along with it, the quiet press of his own touch. He feels the comfort both of holding and of being held. And he most definitely feels the electric warmth that flashes through him, starting at the place where their palms touch and condensing into a tight feeling in his chest. Like that platinum thread has wound around Caleb’s bruised ribs and pulled itself taut.
Is the feeling his, or Essek’s? Caleb focuses, and realizes – ah. It’s both of theirs, of course.
This isn’t safe. Feeling this for Essek is not safe, and letting Essek know that he feels this is even less so. But Essek’s hand is warm, and his lips are slightly parted, and - and they can have this, can’t they? Just one indulgent moment. One moment to forget that they’re wizards, to just be two people who get each other and quite like each other’s company.
Just once. Once before the end of the world.
‘Okay okay,’ Jester says, and the moment ends. ‘Let’s go.’
Caleb blinks. All of this has taken only a handful of seconds, he realises, just enough time for Essek and Caduceus to cast their spells. Jester is already turning to drift away down the tunnel, and the others are gathering up their weapons to follow.
Essek holds Caleb’s gaze and Caleb’s hand for a second more – and in that second Caleb knows what Essek is thinking as clearly as if it were his own thought. It’s not telepathy, not words; it’s a knowledge that Caleb just has, suddenly. I want more time.
And that is what Caleb wants too. But Lucien will give them none.
It seems determined to elude us, Caleb thinks, even after we have found the means to alter it. He doesn’t transmit the words to Essek’s mind, though he could. He just lets the feelings sit in him - wistfulness, resignation, a trace of dry amusement at the irony - and a second later, Essek lets out a soft little half-laugh.
Their time is up. The world is getting ready to end. And as if in agreement with that thought, Essek drops Caleb’s hand, drops his eyes, drops the spell. Caleb’s alone in his own skin again, and the feeling of solitude, of being bereft, hits like Essek’s punch of gravity did earlier.
‘We need to go,’ Essek says. He’s straightening his cloak, not meeting Caleb’s eyes.
‘ Ja,’ Caleb says, and lets himself bob back up into a float to match Essek’s. They turn, together, and drift after the others.
As they float past Cree’s body and toward whatever ritual she has set in motion, Caleb digs a hand into his component pouch. He finds one of the pearls and turns it over between his fingers, then glances at Essek and says, ‘Later.’
Essek’s head tilts. ‘Later?’
‘Later, if we survive,’ Caleb says. ‘We will have time.’
And he can see in Essek’s face that the binding spell isn’t necessary, this time, for Essek to know Caleb’s thoughts. Later, there will be time to talk about trust, and to let it grow. To acknowledge this fragile thing between them. To follow that little spark of possibility and see what it becomes.
He waits for Essek to say that there will be no later. That they are, in all likelihood, going to die here when Lucien comes for them. That even if they survive, there will be Scourgers waiting, an Assembly that wants them both dead. That they are wizards, they are them, and all the time in the world would not be enough to fix that.
But Essek looks down, closes his eyes, and smiles. Nods, just a little.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I would like that.’