Chapter 9
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"So? How did it go?" asked Magdalena, her arms crossed over her chest as she rested her body against the bookcase behind her. She rose an eyebrow when he didn't immediately respond, her lips dragging into a haughty smirk and said, "That well, huh."

Cale covered his face with his hands and let out a muffled, "It went really well."

She hummed and pushed off from the bookcase. Sashaying across the floor, she sat down opposite him across the table. They were in the library, the time ticking ever closer toward midnight, and Cale had been here for hours, trying to study. It wasn't going very well; more than a week later, and his mind was still occupied by Julius and their date and Cale's revelation. It had been a tough week, where he had constantly found himself daydreaming any time he wasn't concentrating enough on class.

It wasn't like him, he knew. He wasn't usually the type to daydream often, but Julius made his mind go blank and then it just got away from him. He couldn't keep it under control. His mind was so full of studying and Julius that sometimes it got mixed up.

Magdalena clicked her tongue and smiled mischievously at him. "Did you kiss?"

"No," Cale said. He lowered his hands and sat up properly, staring her in the eyes. His eye twitched at the amused look she leveled him with. Scowling slightly, he said, "We didn't kiss."

"Then why are you avoiding me?" Magdalena asked, a no-nonsense tone to her voice.

Cale's gaze drifted down to the open notebook sitting on the table in front of him. He muttered, "I just needed to think."

The silence was worse than any response she could have given him. He licked his lips and his mouth formed a smile without his permission. "The date went really, really well."

Humming, she put her elbow on the table and rested her head on her hand. Smirking at him, she  stared silently until his eyes broke away from her's and then she let out a bark of laughter. Cale twitched at the suddenness of it, but he felt a puff of laughter escape him as well. It was kind of funny, wasn't it? That the date went so well that Cale was panicking. Things were moving so fast; he hadn't even been in this world for a full year, much less known Julius for long. And yet, Cale was in love with him.

It felt like he should be panicking. When he voiced his thoughts out loud, it sounded ridiculous. Like something from a cheesy romance novel, like out of a bad romcom. But he wasn't panicking. He didn't think things were moving fast. He simply thought... well, he didn't really know what.

He enjoyed spending time with Julius. And right now, what he needed most to keep going—trapped in another world, in a body destined to die at a date coming ever closer—were things that he genuinely enjoyed and liked.

He found that he couldn't regret it.

"Are you ignoring me?" Magdalena's voice broke through the haze of his thoughts, and Cale immediately blinked at her. 

It took him a bit to realize what she had said, and then another bit to think of a response that wouldn't get him hit, and then he said, "I was thinking about Julius."

She covered her mouth with her hand as he burst out laughing again. This time, common sense made Cale gesture at her to quiet down; they were in the library and she had bene laughing loudly for too long now. Soon, a librarian would come to see what the big deal was and, worst case scenario, they might be thrown out of the library. Cale couldn't afford to be thrown out, he had so many things that he still needed to look up.

Thankfully, she quickly quieted down. Snickering quietly behind her hand, he wondered what was so funny. No matter how he examined it, he couldn't see it. But he had other, more important, things to worry about.

Then he remembered. He had been ignoring Magdalena, talking with her only when he needed advice, effectively taking advantage of her. Hadn't he made a decision that he wouldn't do that anymore? Hadn't he promised himself that he would be better than that? Scowling, he slammed the book in front him shut, looked Magdalena straight in the eyes and asked her, "How are you?"

She furrowed her brows, sat up straighter to match him and asked, "Do you actually want to?"

"Yes," Cale stated.

She rose a skeptical eyebrow, looking him over from top to bottom, before she snorted and said, "I didn't think this day would come. Here you've been ignoring me for months, and now suddenly you're interested? Did Julius say something? Did your mother write to you about how discourteous you've been? What?"

"I've hurt you—"

"No, really, you think?"

"I apologize, that was never my intention—"

"You do realize that makes it worse, right?"

Cale took a deep breath, "I know that it's bad. I know I've hurt you with my carelessness. I know that I have taken advantage of you, only coming to you when I need advice. I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you."

She glared at him with cold eyes. For a minut, two minutes, three minutes, neither of them spoke. Silence hung over their tiny hidden corner of the library. Finally, she breathed out and shook her head. With harsh eyes, she said, "If you do it again without telling me why—I'm not unreasonable, if you have a reason it wouldn't hurt—I'll tell your mother." Smirking, she said, "You might think that's not a threat, but that's just your imagination."

Cale gulped. He shrunk bank against the chair and said, "I really am sorry."

"I know," Magdalena said. Humming, she continued, "But that doesn't absolve you of responsibility."

Nodding, he stared down at his notes. He was lucky, he knew, that she hadn't decided to just walk away from him and never talk to him again. It wasn't out of the realm of her characterization. He, who had read 'Fire & Ice', knew this better than most.

"I won't do it again," he said, licking his lips and clenching his hands shut. 

"You probably will. It's not easy to change. But it's alright, as long as you have a reason and tell me beforehand," Magdalena drawled out, her finger tracing patterns on the table's surface.

Cale narrowed his eyes. He wasn't sure if that response was good for him or not, but he knew it couldn't be good for her. To just agree to being ignored again, like it hadn't hurt her? It made his stomach churn and he shook his head. He didn't want to be a person that would take advantage of the people he was supposedly "friends" with. He didn't want to keep hurting her, just because he was too caught up in his own drama.

Still, he didn't think there was anything he could say to change her mind. It was only to be expected, that he had lost her faith. Words wouldn't be good enough. He would simply have to actually interact with her more, seek her out first instead of waiting for her to come to him.

If Cale asked, he was pretty sure that Julius would help him. Help him in the sense that he would straight-out tell Cale when he was being an insensitive dick. Julius had never shied away from calling it like he saw it, and Cale now thought that it could be really useful. Like Magdalena said; change wasn't easy and it took time. But if he put in the work, and had someone to help push him when he needed it, then he could do it.

It was uncomfortable, to realize that you weren't as good a person as you had thought. That you had hurt people without even meaning too. But the first step toward becoming better than that was to recognize the problem. 

"So will you tell me, how you're doing?" Cale asked, half-thinking she would shut him down. But she didn't. Instead, she regaled him with the tale of how her ten-year-old little sister had gotten lost in the woods this weekend, only to reappear with four hours later with a tale of how she had ended up in another land. From the landmarks she had identified, Magdalena's parents thought that she had ended up in Zotrioye. 

Magdalena herself had been studying and gossiping with her fellow high society friends, making sure that she knew all of the dirt. Apparently, Sayer had been seen sneaking into the catacombs beneath the academy this weekend and hadn't been heard from since, and now there was a betting pool for if he was dead.

He wasn't, but Cale was determined not to think of what he was doing down there.

He listened attentively to every word she told him, like how her mother had already started planning her wedding, how her father was worried about his law-firm, how her sister still occasionally went missing, how her cousin would come to Aurelis Academy next year and eventually, how her week had been. By the time that the library closed, Cale felt as if he knew her much better. Now he only had to keep it up.

***

Julius plopped down on the seat across from Cale, setting his tray down on the table between them, and glared down at it. Cale frowned and asked, "What's wrong?"

"Sayer is being annoying," Julius said, picking up his glass and downing all the water in it in one try. He slammed it back down on the table and frowned at Cale, his cold eyes filled with derision. Before Cale could try to divert the subject to something he felt more comfortable talking about, Julius said, "He keeps talking about how there's a monster in the catacombs. He wants to go down there and look for it," Julius practically sneered out the last words.

Cale gulped. He looked furtively around the cafeteria, relieved when he couldn't see Sayer anywhere. "Should you be talking about this?" he asked.

Didn't Julius always agree with Sayer? Didn't he idolize him, admire him to the point where he would go to battle for him? And yet, he was talking about Sayer like he thought he was a fool, something that had never even been hinted at in the novel. Cale's eyes narrowed in confusion and he looked over Julius, from his elegant and tanned hands with his long fingers ideal for playing the piano, to the top of his head and the golden hair that laid on it. Cale contained his urge to touch it.

"I can talk about whatever I want, especially when people are being stupid." Julius leaned forward, his weight pressed on his elbows on the table and stared straight at Cale. 

"Why is it stupid?"

A scoff. "You don't go into the catacombs if you want to live. Moreover, doing so risks breaking the seal that keeps us safe. For that, it's not just expulsion you're risking; you could get thrown in prison for attempted murder."

"Eh?" Cale blinked, surprise coloring his vision. He hadn't known that. Was that why Sayer went into the catacombs by himself, instead of getting assistance from the faculty? Because they wouldn't agree to come, knowing the risks they'd be taking? Cale asked, "It's really that bad?"

"Of course," Julius said, looking at Cale with a pitying gaze. "Without serious consequences, there wouldn't be a school here at all. There'd just be the Gatekeeper."

Cale nodded. 

It made a startling amount of sense. What was lying in the catacombs, biding its time, was not something that Cale had even considered that he needed to be worried about. First, there was the five-thousand year old seal that predated the fortress itself. Second, there was the fact that the spirit spent most of its time sleeping and when awake, didn't care much about humans at all. Third, the arc with the spirit took place after Calla's death so as long as he graduated this year, it shouldn't concern him. So why was Sayer suddenly so interested in it? It was almost a whole year before he should be going down there.

Nonetheless, it was none of his business. Cale had no intention of getting involved in it. Clearing his throat, he asked, "Does he want you to go down with him?"

"Even if he does, I'm not going." Julius bit down on his meal, his eyes harsh and unforgiving. He chewed with decidedly more force than was necessary and quickly swallowed the whole thing. Julius' eyes were filled with the kind of derision that Cale wasn't used to seeing on people in real life and it made him wonder if he should be offended. Though he that the look wasn't directed at him, it felt a little like most people from Cale's world would hate Julius on principle.

Cale hummed. "Do you know when?"

"Sometime this week," Julius answered, his eyebrow furrowed.

Nodding, Cale looked down at his own plate and his half-finished meal, gently pushing it away from himself. Suddenly, he didn't feel like eating. "I'll stay in my room then," he mumbled, dismayed at the idea that he wouldn't be able to visit the library for a full week.

But he would rather be safe than sorry.

Julius followed Cale's lead and pushed away the tray with the half-eaten meal. Together, they left the cafeteria and traveled along the hallways. A slow, steady pace that kept them moving at a comfortable speed. Cale licked his lips, his eyes drifting to the side. Julius was walking next to him, his eyebrows furrowed as he stared ahead, deep in thought.

Cale slowly inched his way closer to Julius, letting his arms swing by his sides. But he peeked over and saw the concentrated look on Julius' face and decided that he didn't want to interrupt him. Instead of trying to take his hand, Cale simply walked next to him, close enough that the warmth of Julius' body transferred through the clothes over their arms, as they were close enough to touch if they wanted to. 

His mind drifted back to Sayer. Was he really going to go down to the catacombs? It was early, far too early. Sayer wasn't even supposed to know that there was something wrong with them yet. Cale didn't think that he had in any way changed things, but maybe this was what people always talked about; the butterfly affect.

There was nothing that could do about it. He had managed to stay away from Sayer for months, and he wasn't going to break that streak. He didn't want to go down to the catacombs. He didn't want to get dragged into the story or plot. He simply wanted to keep his head down until he graduated and could get out of the crossfire.

Cale bit down on his bottom lip. His steps faltered for a moment before he shook the worry loose. As far as he knew, Sayer had never even attempted to talk to Cale; it was highly unlikely that he would go looking for him for this expedition. Which meant that as long as Cale stayed in his room for the next week or so it would be fine. Sayer would do his thing, going down to the catacombs and playing his part as the protagonist. Meanwhile, Cale would keep all the doors and windows that he could locked.

A warm hand curled around his own. Cale looked down and saw the tanned hand of Julius holding his pale one, and his heart skipped a beat in his chest. Looking up and to the side, he saw Julius staring at him.

"Worried?" Julius asked. 

His hand squeezed Cale's tightly, and Cale looked ahead again. He nodded. Quirked his lips into a humorless smile and asked, "Do you think I shouldn't be?"

"No," Julius answered. "Sayer is a fool. The seal has held for thousands of years; it'll hold for thousands more. As long as the Gatekeeper is alive, going down to the catacombs will only get you thrown in jail." A pause and then Julius tagged on, "And possibly executed." 

A puff of laughter escaped Cale's lips and he smiled brightly at Julius. Julius slowed to a stop and Cale turned toward Julius, tilting his head in an unasked question. There hands were still connected. Julius stared straight at him, his eyes meeting Cale's unabashedly with no hint of embarrassment. Facing him, Cale raised an eyebrow, wondering why Julius had suddenly stopped walking.

Julius stretched out a hand toward him, settling it on Cale's cheek. The warmth made Cale tremble; his stomach fluttered. He dragged in a painful breath through his stiff lips. "What?" he breathed out.

Julius took a step closer to him. Face to face, Cale was drowning in the green of Julius's eyes. They glittered in the limited light of the hallway, the torch reflecting off them. Cale could see his own reflection in them, but he was more interested in the soft curve to Julius' eyes. Cale forced himself to take another breath before his chest started burning with the need for air.

"I haven't seen you in days," Julius said softly, his voice low enough that it barely reached Cale. 

Cale's eyes were watering from a lack of blinking.

His eyes slipped down to Julius mouth, his throat dry. Cale licked his lips again and said, "I've been busy."

"If you regret this, tell me," Julius said, his hand drifting over Cale's skin and reaching the stray strands of hair that had slipped out of his messy braid. Fingering the hair, Julius pushed it back behind Cale's ear and pressed his hand gently down along the edge of his neck. Cale gulped, the sound loud in his head.

He shook his head. "I don't regret it," Cale said, his voice raspy. Something in his stomach fluttered again, and the sensation made his skin tighten.

His eyes were still stuck on Julius's mouth.

But he didn't want to presume. Cale breathed out, "Can I..." He couldn't say it. The words got stuck in his throat. But he wanted to. He wanted to so badly. He cleared his throat and his gaze rose to meet Julius' again. "Can I kiss you?" Cale squeezed out, his lungs shuddering in his chest, his heart running a mile a minute, his hands clenched to hide their trembling.

The pause was unbearable. Then Julius smiled; slowly, his eyes lightening up with so much joy Cale felt like he couldn't breathe. Those glittering eyes stared right at him. "Of course," Julius stated, like it was that simple.

Maybe it was.

Cale's hands settled on Julius; one on his shoulder and the other on his waist. He stepped closer, so close that he could feel Julius' breath against his skin. He shivered, his breaths shuddering through his body as he leaned forward. It was almost too much. But with Julius, he had the feeling that nothing could ever be too much.

They kissed. Cale pressed their lips together, holding still for a breathtaking moment as he simply acknowledged what he was doing. Then he pressed closer, feeling Julius' hand curl behind his head.

He wasn't sure how he was still breathing. 

Maybe he wasn't. That was fine.

His hands shifted and embraced Julius tighter. Tilting his head, Cale felt Julius's grip on him against his back and head. Warm. Julius was always warm. Cale basked in it, moving his lips against Julius' and feeling him respond. Slowly, carefully, gently, the kiss pressed deeper. 

Cale could hear the beating of his own heart.

***

Cale woke up because of the heat. It was the kind of cloying, suffocating heat that felt like it was trying to drown. Blinking his eyes open, he stared blearily at his room, his eyes drifting from side to side. There was no smoke.

Still, the heat was nauseating.

Pushing himself up into a sitting position, Cale wheezed in a deep breath. Ash was on his tongue, the taste of embers filling him. He pushed the covers off himself, dragging his nightgown off as quickly as possible. Leaning forward, his fingers clenched in the fabric as he desperately tried to breathe.

There was no smoke. Why was there  no smoke?

He was so warm.

Shivering, he quickly redid his hair until it was piled up into a bun on his head. Sweat made the hair strands not long enough to reach it stick to his skin. He shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing his hands over his eyes. His head was pounding; the kind of headache that made him clench his jaw as tightly as possible. It hurt. He wanted to scream

Curling up into a ball, he felt the heat sweep over him. It couldn't be natural. But it was so hard to think. He gulped, the movement hurting his dry throat. Cale pushed his head down between his knees and breathed slowly; large, shuddering breaths through his nose.

His body shivered. He bit down harshly on his lip until he could taste blood. It didn't make him let up. The pain was good. It was grounding. 

What was happening?

The heat. Why was it so warm? It was the middle of winter, if anything, it should be too cold. 

The air burned his lungs. He gagged. Fell over onto his side and groaned. Something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong. But what was it?

He couldn't think.

His head pounded. He could hear his own blood rushing. Felt his veins pump blood desperately throughout his body. Could see the steam rising from the floor.

Steam was rising from the floor?

He licked his lips. Pushing himself onto his arms, he crawled over to the edge of the bed and peeked over it. Yes, there was steam rising. It rose like waves, like rain but reversed. In the heat, Cale's brain failed to make sense of the phenomenon. What was happening? It was warm, he thought. Too warm. Steam was rising from the floor. It shouldn't? No, it shouldn't.

What time was it? Cale blinked his eyes, his gaze drifting toward the door. He stared at it. What was going on? It was warm. Wasn't it? Yes, it was. It shouldn't be? No, it shouldn't. His throat was sore from the heat, his eyes so dry it was painful.

Cale blinked at the door. He didn't know why he was looking at it. He was on his bed. For some reason, steam was rising from the floor. From the walls. Outside, he could see the night sky through the window. The moon was smiling down at him. The moons? He couldn't tell how many there were.

What time was it? It was so warm. He felt like he was being cooked. Burning. It all felt like it was burning. But there was no fire.

What was happening?

On his bed, the covers were bunched together. Cale was naked as the day he was born. He didn't— what was— where was—

Nothing made any sense.

He shook his head. Opened his mouth. A wheeze left him, all that he could manage. He wanted to scream. There was a cry building in his chest, a pressure that threatened to drown him. Pulling at his hair, he pressed his hands over his face, falling over on the bed. It hurt. His head was pounding. It pressed at him from all directions.

It was unbearable. Curling into a ball, Cale whimpered. His hands clenched, his nails digging into his skin. He hardly felt them tear into his face.

He shuddered, his body shaking. Shoving his face into the covers, he keened. A whine built in his sore throat and left him without permission. Cale clawed at his own face, his hair tangled in his fingers. He didn't know what was happening anymore. He wasn't sure he had ever known. The heat fried his brain, leaving him unable to think. 

Damnit, but it hurt.

It was too painful for him to deal with. Worse, somehow, then when he'd been sick.

It was too warm. It was too painful. He wanted— 

sleep.

"...up! Wake up! You have to wake up!"

Cale slept. His fingers squeezed around something as consciousness blearily made its way to him. Still, he didn't wake up. Dozing, he was only aware enough to know that he was lying on something soft.

It was still too warm. He fell, once more, into the grip of dreams.

It was the cold that woke him up. More precisely, because he seemed to have lost the ability to feel cold since he woke up in this body, it was the absence of heat. That unbearably, scathing, drowning heat that he had only the vaguest of recollections about. The heat that was the reason his head was still pounding and his throat was so dry it hurt to swallow.

But the heat was gone and he woke up.

Cale's eyes stared at the ceiling above him. Clean, pale, with not a color to be seen, it was not the mirage he could recall. The waves of the steam had made it seem like it was moving, but now it was sitting still above him. For some reason, he couldn't take his eyes off it.

He could hear somebody moving around. He blinked. Moving his head seemed like too much effort. Blinking was too much effort. He listened to the footsteps. Familiar. They were familiar. 

Julius. Julius was here. Cale blinked again. He wet his lips, opening his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a slightly exaggerated wheeze. Closing his mouth, he decided that talking was too much effort, too. Maybe he shouldn't try to do anything. Maybe he should just lie here and relax.

He deserved to relax, didn't he? He was always too busy studying, always reading late into the night. He was always worrying about everything. Relaxing was nice. He should do it more often.

"You're awake," Julius said. Cale could hear him moving, coming closer. With what felt like monumental effort, Cale stared out of the corner of his eyes and saw Julius. The teenager looked horrible; his shoulders were slumped, his spine slouching, his eyes tired, his hands shaking and his hair was the kind of limp and greasy Cale associated with going too long without showering.

He was beautiful. Cale tried his best to smile. He didn't think he succeeded, but that was okay. It was trying that mattered.

He wheezed out something incomprehensible and Julius sat down on the stool by the bed. He gripped Cale's hand gently, squeezing it softly. Smiling, Julius bent forward and pressed his forehead against Cale's. "You're awake," Julius breathed out again, softer this time.

Cale nodded. The short motion made him wince, which made him squeeze his eyes shut. Julius let out a breath of laughter.

"Sorry," Julius said. "The painkillers are probably fading, right?"

Cale learned from his mistake and didn't move. Julius must have taken that for an answer, because he moved away. Not far. Cale's gaze followed as long as he could, but eventually it got painful simply looking out of the corner of his eyes, and he gave up on it. The ceiling sure was pretty. It merited further studying. 

Julius came back and held up a bottle in front of his face. It was only now that it occurred to Cale that he was mostly sitting up, not lying down. There was probably a pile of cushions supporting him. He wondered where Julius got them all.

"For the pain," Julius said. Cale's gaze shifted to the bottle. Instead of squeezing out an answer, Cale simply opened his mouth and waited. Sure enough, barely a second later, Julius was pouring the bottle's contents in his mouth. Cale swallowed it soundlessly. It grated on his throat, and the taste was awful, but he swallowed it all down.

When the bottle was empty, Julius used a handkerchief to dry Cale's lips. "Better," Julius asked.

Cale blinked slowly back at him. Yes, he wanted to say. Magic was awesome, the pain already lessening. But the idea of speaking made him wince in anticipation of pain.

Julius let go of the handkerchief and placed his hands on the sides of Cale's face. His fingers pressed on Cale's scalp, drifting lazily over it. Cale's shoulders relaxed and he leaned back against the pillows, his head falling back. Julius followed the motion, his fingers making soothing figures on Cale's head. The soft message felt like a godsend. Cale's eyes were slipping closed before he knew what he was doing.

"I'm sorry," Julius whispered into the silence. Cale opened his eyes again. He wanted to ask what for, but it was so much effort. 

Julius was sitting next to him on the bed. Cale had no idea when that had happened, but he didn't object. Having Julius next to him was nice. It made butterflies swirl to life in his stomach. It made his hands clammy and his throat dry. When Julius was near, something in him always sat up and took notice.

Julius pressed his forehead against Cale's shoulder. The warmth was pleasant. Not at all like the nightmare-like heat that Cale could remember. 

Cale's fingers twitched. He wanted to touch Julius. He wanted to reassure him that he was fine. He wanted to make sure that Julius knew he had nothing to apologize for. He wanted that warmth that took his breath away. He wanted the heat that didn't hurt.

Julius shuddered. Cale could feel it, could feel Julius shaking against him. "I'm sorry I didn't come sooner," Julius breathed into Cale's shoulder. His voice was so low that Cale had to strain to hear it. 

Uselessly, Cale's hand flopped onto Julius' leg. 

The warmth in his stomach traveled up to his chest. Weakly, his fingers grasped onto Julius' leg. Cale bent his head forward and rested it against Julius'. Breathing deeply, his eyes closed. It hurt and he could hardly remember why, and Julius was crying against him, and still — Cale was happy. 

He was happy that Julius was here with him. He was happy that he was alright. He didn't want to lose him.

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