"It wasn't your fault," Cale said, four hours later when his mouth was starting to work again. His voice was low and coarse, and he immediately sipped some water from the glass on his bedside table as soon as he finished speaking. Cale didn't pretend to be an expert on romantic relationships, but he thought that something this serious — he could have died — needed to be discussed as soon as possible.
Julius looked up from his book, "What?" He frowned at Cale, his cold eyes once more looking him over. Then he asked, "Do you even know what happened?"
Cale shrugged. Wincing at the pain that accompanied the movement, he said, "No. But I know you had nothing to do with it. And it most certainly wasn't your fault I was hurt."
"Sayer cracked the seal," Julius stated. He put the thick tome down on the bed next to Cale's curled up legs and forcefully scooted the chair closer toward Cale. Picking up Cale's hand, Julius squeezed it tightly. "Sayer cracked the seal," he said again. His eyes flickered down to Cale's hands. Julius gulped and said, "The seal cracked and the Fire Spirit was just... there. Suddenly." Julius paused before he hissed out, "And Sayer wanted to talk to the damn thing."
"I thought the Fire Spirit was asleep?" Cale asked. It was the only thing he could think of to say to that.
Julius breathed out a half-baked laugh, "It was. That's the only reason you're not dead right now, Calla." Looking up, Julius intense green eyes stared right at Cale's. "The Spirit was asleep and Sayer wanted to wake the thing up to talk to it. To befriend it."
Taking a sip of water again, Cale licked his lips before he asked, "How do you know this?"
"I was there."
Cale swallowed another sip. Furrowing his eyebrows, his eyes swept over Julius. Carefully, he checked him over to make sure that he wasn't hurt. He had already done this, but there might be something he had missed. Humming a little, he leaned back against the pillows behind his back and asked, "Does Sayer know?"
"He's the one that dragged me there," Julius said. His fingers swept over the skin on the back of Cale's hand and left fire in their wake. Julius continued, "Him and his posse. They wanted to stop the Spirit from destroying the school."
Cale smiled, "Didn't you used to be a part of that posse?"
"I was an idiot," Julius scoffed. He moved over to sit on the bed next to Cale. Settling in with his back against the pillows, Cale moved over closer to the wall in order to make room for him. Their sides pressed against each other as Julius once more picked up Cale's hand and gripped it. He interlocked their fingers and leaned his head against Cale's shoulder. It couldn't possibly be comfortable for him but Cale didn't say anything.
Instead, he burrowed deeper into the pillows and said, "You're not an idiot."
"Not now. But I was. Before you," Julius whispered into Cale's nightwear.
"You can't pin it all on me," Cale breathed out. "You're smart, sooner or later you were always gonna realize that Sayer is—"
"A shortsighted fool?"
"I was going to say, a person who is very eager to prove himself."
Cale felt Julius humming. "Regardless, it doesn't matter. Sayer almost killed you. He's lucky if I don't punch him the next time I see him."
"Punch?" Cale coughed out a laugh and sipped more water for his sore throat. All this talking was disagreeing with him. "You're really gonna punch him? No, wait, I can absolutely see you doing that."
Julius raised his head and stared straight at Cale. Cale turned his head toward Julius and rose a pale eyebrow. "What?"
"Can I kiss you?" Julius asked, his eyes serious. Cale blinked at him. His eyes glanced over the rest of his room before he turned his focus back on Julius. He licked his lips. Even that small movement was painful. Turning his head hurt. Hell, he still had a headache, despite the painkillers he had taken. What he wanted, most of all, was to just sit here and feel the warmth of another person by his side.
He took a deep breath. He couldn't keep himself from turning his head away, looking straight ahead. Despite it all, there was a pressure in his stomach that wasn't from the pain as he answered, "No."
"Okay," said Julius and leaned his head against Cale's shoulder again. Cale let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and sagged back against the soft, squishy pillows. For a second, he almost dropped his glass, but he managed to get a grip on it fast enough that none of the water spilled.
He didn't even know why he felt this way. No, maybe he did. But he didn't want to think about it; it made a pit open in his stomach. Instead, he curled around Julius and let the warmth remind him that he wasn't alone.
That there was someone here who cared about him. That he cared about.
He drank the last of the water and wet his lips. They were dry, far more drier than he was used to. He blamed the heat.
Julius took the empty glass from him and put it down on the bedside table. No longer needing to make sure that he wasn't spilling the water all over the bed, Cale immediately took opportunity to curl around Julius like an octopus. He locked his arms over Julius' body and threw his legs over Julius', sighing at the warmth.
Maybe the warmth should be throwing him off. Maybe it should make him uncomfortable. After all, the heat had nearly killed him. It had certainly made him determined to never ever enter the catacombs. But Julius was... Julius. He was warm, and kind.
It wasn't until he was on the edge of falling asleep that he remembered what they had been talking about. Squinting into the light, Cale asked, "Did you fix the seal?"
"Yeah, we fixed it," Julius reassured him. He was squeezing Cale just as tightly as Cale was squeezing him. Into the silence between them, Julius said, "I came here as soon as I could after it had been fixed."
Cale nodded. "I know."
"Your mother is going to be furious," Julius mused.
Cale furrowed his eyebrows. "You've already told her? Everything?"
"Yes," Julius stated like it was obvious. He continued, "As soon as I knew you were safe, I wrote it all down for her in a letter; from when Sayer first dragged me off to when I found you. I thought it'd be better if I told her as soon as possible. Obviously, I also told my parents; they've told me repeatedly that they want to know things like this."
When he mentioned his parents, Julius' voice got a huffy quality to it. Cale smiled. He closed his eyes again and said, "Parents are odd like that, yeah."
"They've been like this ever since Tobias almost died fighting a Water Spirit."
Cale opened his eyes again. He pushed himself up as much as he could without feeling like his arms would fall off and stared at Julius' face. "Seriously?" he asked. "He really fought a Spirit? And survived?"
Julius' arms hugged Cale tight to him. Cale didn't try to resist and laid back against Julius. Julius answered, "It was about four years ago. A Water Spirit's lake was on the edge of being emptied and the Water Spirit was defending it. My brother went there for negotiations and things got out of hand. In the end, they reached a consensus though. Things turned out fine."
"You're not joking with me?"
"No," Julius stated. He hugged Cale tighter and Cale sighed with the motions. In return, he hugged Julius tighter as well.
Cale let out a puff of laughter, "Is Tobias' life always like that?"
"Things are much calmer than when he was a child." Julius' hand started to softly card through Cale's hair. "Once, he went missing for two years and when he returned, he hadn't changed a bit. He did bring Vincent back with him though. The man hasn't changed at all in the time I've known him." Here, Julius paused and his voice got a decidedly musing tone to it, "I'm pretty sure Vincent is a Spirit."
"Huh." Cale mumbled into Julius' skin, "I'm not really sure how to respond to that."
"That's fine, so far pretending like we haven't figured it out seems to be working well," Julius said. He sounded amused by the notion and Cale had to admit, it was a pretty amusing situation. "At this point, we're just waiting to see how long it takes them to tell us. They can't actually believe that we haven't put the pieces together?"
The last sentence somehow turned into a question, but Cale was too tired to respond. He hummed in agreement and cling fiercer to Julius, delighting in the warmth that filled his whole body.
The first thing Magdalena said to him was, "I heard you almost died."
Cale blinked, looking up from his book. For a second, he almost thought that he was in the library but no, he was still in his room. He stared at Magdalena and after a moment, said, "Yeah, so they tell me."
Magdalena nodded. She threw the door closed behind her and walked over to his desk, sitting down on the chair. Throwing one of her legs over the others, she leaned back on the chair and rose a judgmental eyebrow at him, her brown eyes practically spitting fire. "The Headmaster is insisting that the problem's been solved and that there's no more danger. Do you believe that?"
Cale's lips twitched unbiddenly and he shrugged. "I don't know. But I hope it won't matter."
"That's right," she nodded and smiled at him. "You're poised to graduate this year right?"
Cale hummed. He nodded and closed the book on his lap, setting it aside so the weight wasn't on his legs. It didn't seem like the conversation would be over anytime soon.
Magdalena grinned at him, "Congratulations. I'm sure your parents are thrilled!"
He couldn't quite stop a smile from growing on his face. They were. The letters made this clear. And honestly, he was very proud of himself. It felt stupid of him, to take pride in something so insignificant. He wasn't even going to be graduating with good grades, but the sheer fact that he would be — if he could keep up this studying speed — graduating at all, made him want to whoop with joy. He would just barely skate by with a passing grade in all his classes and though he knew that that wasn't something a normal person would take pride in, for him, it was a major achievement. It was the key to living longer than a year in this world. And that time was rapidly running out.
"They are," he agreed with Magdalena. He smiled at her, pleased that his efforts were paying off.
He wasn't sure what to say to her. He didn't know how to make conversation with her; he was always left drawing a blank. He owed her, he knew this. He needed to think of something to say. Anything at all to start a conversation.
"How's your fiancé?" slipped out from between his teeth.
Magdalena's face lit up. She leaned closer to him and beamed brightly, her smile so radiant that he almost felt blinded. Beaming, she said, "He's good! He just got a promotion so he's more busy than ever, but he still takes the time to write me letters every week. Isn't he just the sweetest?" Almost cooing, she pulled a folded picture form her pocket and held it up in front of his face. "Look!" She waved it in front of his eyes. "Look how cute he is!"
Cale... couldn't really see it. The man looked like any other average man. There was nothing wrong with his face, but there also wasn't any exceptional about it. Certainly nothing that could be described as cute. Thick eyebrows, a high nose that was slightly crooked (his TV watching experience told him that this was evidence of it having been broken before), dark eyes that he couldn't make out the color of, a jaw that was normal. He couldn't tell if it was square or strong; he hardly even knew what those descriptors referred to.
But Cale was no idiot. He liked to think that he had some social decorum. So he nodded and tried to look like he agreed, "Very cute."
She rose a skeptical eyebrow at him (and how she could make her eyebrows convey so many different meanings, he had no idea) and snorted. "It's okay if you don't," she said and put the picture away. Her fingers lingered on it a little as she smoothed it over and folded it again before she gently deposited it in her pocket again. "I know that not everyone will agree with me. That's their loss." She crossed her arms over her chest and sneered out, "If they can't see how amazing he is, how hard he works, how kind and gentle and considerate he is, then that's their loss."
Cale found no fault in this logic. He nodded to show his agreement and she smiled at him, very obviously pleased with it. The more he looked at her, the more he realized that she was incredibly free with her expressions. Much more so than most of the girls he had seen at this academy. It was nice, that her feelings were so obvious. It meant that he didn't have to guess if he had upset her.
They settled into silence again. Her eyes lingered over the thick mess of covers, blankets and pillows that were scattered on his bed, but she didn't say anything about it. Cale appreciated it — he didn't want to talk about it. He'd prefer if he didn't have to think about it either, but his brain wasn't that kind to him. Most sensations were still lost, and he had only a few bits of clarity of the monumental agony he had experienced during the time that the Fire Spirit was awake, but what he could remember clearly told him that he didn't wish to recall more.
Shuddering, he clenched his jaw shut. Magdalena's eyes flickered back to his face. She pulled short strands of her hair behind her ear and for a long moment, just looked at him. Her brown eyes were intense and the focus made him lean back on his pillows like it would hide him.
"You're alright now?"
The change in subject was so abrupt that for a second he didn't know what she was referring to. It took his brain a moment to catch up and when he did, he blinked. He licked his dry lips and said, "Ah, yes. As well as can be."
She nodded and scooted the desk chair closer to his bed. "Good, good," she said and smiled at him. It wasn't the bright smile that she had worn when talking about her fiancé but rather a more subdued, quiet one. He didn't mind.
He certainly wasn't in the mood for grinning now. Not when his entire body still hurt, when he was still subject to spontaneous spots of nausea, when the memory of that suppressing, all-consuming heat was still present in his nightmares. Cale pressed a hand over his eye and bit down on a sigh. His other hand moved toward the bedside table and carefully picked up the glass of water. He ignored its trembling.
Magdalena's hand settled over his on the glass and steadied it. Carefully she helped him bring it over to his mouth and take a small sip. She let go and sat back on the chair, and he did his best to smile gratefully at her, even though the tiny movement made his headache worse. Somehow. He took another sip of the lukewarm water.
"Thank you for coming to see me," he said as he let the glass rest on his lap. After a second's thought, he lifted the glass again and put the book back on his lap. Then he put the glass on it, letting it sit there. This way, he didn't have to expand the effort to hold it.
Magdalena shrugged. "We're friends, right? It's what friends do."
Something fluttered in his stomach. He felt his lips twitch. His hands trembled again and he forced himself to take a deep breath and calm down. He knew that he had failed at this, far too many times. He was always distracted with something else, and he used it as an excuse to justify why he stayed away from her. But that was cruel of him. If he didn't want to be her friend, then he should say so and stop hurting her. And if he did want to be her friend, then he needed to be a proper one.
Cale nodded, "Yes, we are."
They weren't really yet. He hardly knew a thing about her. Everything that she knew was stuff about Calla and Cale's relationship with Julius. She didn't really know him either.
But he liked her. She was nice. She helped him even when he neglected her, when he genuinely just forgot about her. It wasn't always the case that Cale purposefully avoided her, sometimes he just got so busy with studying that he forgot her. And yet still, she supported him.
How cruel was he? How cold-hearted was he to keep her friendship on a string, to be used when he needed it? To take advantage of her kindness whenever it suited his purposes? Hadn't he made a vow that he would do better? That he would be a better friend? Get to know her? It was one thing if he got to know her and found that he didn't like her, but to just not even bother with it?
What did that say about him?
He rubbed his forehead and sighed. Trying to settle into a position against his pillows that wouldn't exacerbate his headache, he scooted further into the mess of pillows. There was practically a mountain of them behind his back at this point. Magdalena uncrossed her legs and asked, "Time to rest again?"
He wanted to say no. He would like to take this opportunity where his coward heart had no reason to run away. He had been excused from lessons for a whole week again, and he had nowhere else to be. It was a good chance to actually get to know her and decide if he liked her, if he wanted to be her friend. By yet again missing classes, he was only going to need to do even more frantic studying to be able to graduate. What better opportunity would he have?
"I'm sorry," he said. He ducked his head and found that he didn't dare to look her in the eyes. Surely, there must be disappointment and hurt there again. He was tired of being the cause of that for other people.
She laughed softly and patted him gently on his shoulder. "It's fine," she said and his head rose again without his consent. She continued, "You're hurt. I understand that you need to rest, don't worry about my feelings. I'll come back, okay?"
He smiled at her and nodded, the movement faint so as to not disturb his headache. "Yeah," he said, "I'm looking forwards to it."
Gently putting his legs down over the edge of his bed, Cale took a deep breath and slowly stood up. With his hands still supporting him on the bed, he waited until his legs stopped trembling before he tried to take a step. Letting go of the bed, his hand immediately gripped the chair harshly as he walked forward.
He couldn't keep sitting around on the bed. For one, his muscles would atrophy and then it would be even more painful to walk. Second, it was boring. He was restless. Turned out, all the books in the world couldn't keep his body from itching due to lack of common exercise. It itched to walk, to move about. So even though every step made him wince and his jaw was clenched so tightly shut that he worried he'd damage his teeth, Cale still continued forward. Besides, he needed to recover so that he could return to his classes.
When he reached the bathroom, he shuffled his way inside with his hands on the wall the entire time, leaning his weight on it. Inside, he stood before the sink and stared at his image in the mirror. With a half-hearted sigh, he lit the oil-lamp on the table next to the sink and let the light wash over him.
He looked ragged. Staring at his own (it was Calla's, and oh, sometimes it scared him, the way he had slowly started to think of this body as his own) body, he furrowed his brows. His hands gripped the sides of the sink as he leaned further over it, watching as his reflection got bigger.
Somehow, his skin was even paler than it usually was. His cheeks looked a little sunken maybe, and he had dark rings under his eyes. His lips were chapped and his eyes bloodshot, his blue veins visible even in the low light. The small smattering of freckles over his nose were more noticeable than usual against his sickly skin.
He looked ill.
Breathing deeply, Cale gently let go of the sink and moved over to the toilet. Doing his business as quickly as possible, he studiously washed his hands when he was done before he started the harrowing journey back to his bed. But by strategically gripping and leaning his weight on a variety of furniture, he made it there without any mishaps.
Cale fell back down on the bed. He splayed his body out like a starfish and stared up at the ceiling in silence. Slowly, he clenched his hands.
It hurt, that he had almost died due to something he had no control over. That he had almost become caught in the crossfire, dead from being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Calla. Just a mistake; there was nothing malicious about it. Nobody who hated him, who wanted him dead; it was just... a mistake. A horrible, awful, lethal mistake.
He shuddered, closing his eyes. Clenching them shut, he took a few more shuddering breaths, feeling his whole body shake with them. He wasn't sure how long it had been since Magdalena had left—he had taken a nap and woken up alone—but he found himself dearly wishing that she was still here.
That he wasn't alone.
"Damnit," he whispered, the words almost pulled from him. He wanted—he didn't know what he wanted. Something.
Turning on his side, he faced the dark wall and counted his breaths. Maybe he could lull himself to sleep again and wake up in a better mood. He wasn't even sure why this was all hitting him now, he'd thought that he was fine. He wasn't dead. He didn't get permanently injured. The healer insisted that as long as he got enough rest, ate a balanced diet and took his medications, he would make a full recovery.
He pressed his hand over his eyes. Breathing rhythmically, he waited for sleep to claim him once more.
As he waited, he heard knocking on his door.
Frowning, Cale turned around on the bed and gazed at the door with tired eyes. "Yeah," he croaked out, wincing at the hoarseness of his voice.
"It's your mother," came from the other side of the door.
Cale sat up. Staring straight ahead at the bookcase opposite him as he waited for the dizzy spell to fade, he said, "Come in."
He couldn't possibly say anything else. Not when she had made the effort to come all the way here, a journey that took days. The Frosthaze's main manor was really far out in the countryside, as it turned out.
The door opened. Cale glanced over at it, his blood pumping unbearably loudly in his ears. Mariana Frosthaze entered the room like she owned it, her presence instantly blanketing the entirety of it. In the doorway, she seemed bigger than he thought he remembered her being. Her long blonde hair was tied up in an elaborate hairstyle at the top of her head, her grey eyes lighting up when she caught sight of him. "Calla," she took a large toward him and the door fell shut behind her. "Are you alright?"
Cale opened his mouth to reassure her. Yes, he wanted to say. He was just fine. But no words left him. He lowered his gaze to his hands gripping the edge of the bed so tightly they whitened even further, not something he'd thought possible. He cleared his throat and tried to push the words out, yet still—nothing.
Mariana walked over to him and sat down next to him on the bed, her weight causing him to tip toward her as the mattress bent below her. Without delay, she swept him into a warm hug, her arms encasing him as she squeezed him tightly.
Cale shuddered again. Stiffly, he put his arms around her and leaned his head on her shoulder, closing his eyes and resolving to ignore the fact that she wasn't his real mother. That he wasn't her real son. After a breathless minute, he relaxed and sunk against her, his heart beating a mile a minute. He clenched his eyes as tightly shut as he could, forcing himself to cast his worries away and just enjoy the comfort. After all, it was sorely needed.
"Oh, my darling child," Mariana muttered into his hair, her voice so soft that it was almost painful.
Cale had no idea how long he spent locked in an embrace with Calla's mother. With his eyes closed and his mind blessedly silent, he simply let the time pass without fretting. His breaths eventually evened out and before he knew it, he was dozing.
Half-asleep, he was only vaguely aware of what was happening around him. He saw glimpses of what happened; he was moved to lay on the bed. Mariana made him drink a potion of some kind. There was a knock on the door. Hushed talking that disturbed his uneasy sleep. A sense of someone looking at him. Then, finally, blessed silence.
Sinking deeper into his sleep, Cale was no longer aware of anything.
"—went on a date?"
Cale groaned and the voices quieted down. He opened his eyes and blearily looked at the wall in front of him for a second before he slowly turned around to face his room. Mariana was sitting on his desk chair, facing the door to his room. Julius stood leaning against the door, his face unusually soft and open. Cale pushed himself up on his hands and yawned.
Mariana immediately turned toward him, the chair swiveling around under her. "Are you feeling better now, Calla?" she asked, her hands raised in the air like she wanted to touch him but didn't quite dare to.
Cale nodded. He cleared his throat, licked his lips and hummed in confirmation.
"Here," she said and took a glass from his desk, holding it out in front of him. Cale gripped it with both hands, pleased when it didn't tremble as much as he had grown to expect. He sipped the water and swallowed it down, feeling the cold water spreading in his chest.
"Thank you," he said, his voice less hoarse and closer to his normal voice. He took another sip. The cold water was heaven to his sore throat.
She nodded at him, biting on her lip. Reaching forwards, her hand smoothed over his hair and brushed it behind his ears. "If you want to come home..." she said, her eyebrows furrowing.
Cale shook his head and insisted, "I want to graduate this year."
Mariana sighed. She smiled helplessly and gently patted his cheek. "If you're certain. I do think that the sooner you graduate, the safer you'll be. There's no telling if something like this might happen again. The school certainly won't address it, they just keep giving the same empty reassurances."
The warm smile that she gave him made him lower his head and stare down at his own lap and the glass resting on it. The guilt he felt from stealing her son's body—he didn't know how all those transmigrator dealt with it. How did you just steal someone's whole identity, their future, past, present, their dreams and aspirations, every relationship they'd ever had? How could a person do that, without feeling a crushing sense of guilt?
"I'm sorry," he said, the words escaping him. He couldn't keep them in anymore. He was so incredibly sorry, not only that he was stuck in this world without a way back—without being able to see his family and friends ever again—but that he had stolen Calla's body. That he had taken his whole identity, and he had no way of knowing if Calla was still alive. Maybe he was stuck in this body too, unable to control it? Maybe he was outside it, watching over them as ghost? Maybe he had already moved on, reincarnated as someone else? Maybe, possibly, the option that gave Cale the most hope, Calla was in Cale's original body?
At one point, that thought that been unbearable.
"You've nothing to apologize for. I'll be seeing you during the Winter Holidays, won't I? What's more, if you feel up for it, you could come with us to the Royal Winter Ball?" Mariana asked.
"I'd like that," Cale said in a low voice. He looked up at her and smiled, a small, quiet thing. He had forgotten, but he would be going home to the Frosthaze manor over the Winter Holidays, wouldn't he? That would be nice, taking a break from studying and being so far away from the protagonist and drama that surrounded him.
"Good, good," Mariana said. She waved over Julius and said to him, "Now, you don't hurt my son, you hear me? I allowed this engagement because it'll be years before you'll marry if Calla agrees, giving you plenty of time to get to know one another. But if you do anything to harm him, I'll get it called off before you can say sorry, you understand?"
Julius nodded and gulped audibly. "I understand, Madam."
"Good," Mariana smiled brightly at them both and squeezed Cale's cheeks.