Disclaimer: This is an original work. Any resemblance to previous or current works is purely coincidental. Please do not plagiarize.
Caleb barely heard her. He was seated on the couch of their living room, his hands resting on his knees. His eyes were still fixed on a point ahead of him, his other Links buzzing around in the back of his mind like angry bees.
He felt her walk up to him from behind, her arms sliding around his neck as she leaned forward, burying her nose into his hair. He didn't respond, his eyes still focused on a point a head of him as she tightened her grip. A shudder ran through him, and his hands clenched into fist.
"...Caleb, please go to sleep..."
Somewhere in the distance, a clock ticked, marking each passing second. It was odd having so few hours left in the day, when he felt like he had lived so little of it. She drew closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder.
"...It will be okay..." she whispered.
No. It wouldn't be okay. It would never be okay again.
Fire was gone. Fire had left him. Without fire, he only had darkness left.
When he said nothing, she reluctantly withdrew, taking even her own meager warmth away from him. She sighed, placing a hand on his head and tilting his head back slightly to look up at her. Her lips found his forehead, and she left a tender kiss, drawing back and heading into her own bedroom. He heard the door click, and then he was alone again.
Caleb stared at the wall for a long while, the seconds continuing to tick by. At length, he straightened up, taking one of the books from the table next to him and flipping it open. He grabbed his notepad in his hand, flipping it to a blank page and beginning to write furiously.
The apartment was quiet when Lucre woke up.
She stepped cautiously out into the living room, already knowing what she would find there and not particularly in a hurry to see it. The living room was silent as the grave, bright morning sunlight drifting in through the windows. A soft breeze blew through the air, coming from the airconditioning vent above her.
Caleb was sprawled out on the coffee table, his head pillowed on his arm. Books and papers were scattered around him, and he was seated cross-legged on the floor, his hand gripping his notepad protectively. She sighed, coming to stand in front of him. There were dark circles under his eyes. She had no idea how long he had stayed up last night, or what he had been doing. His clothes were still stained with soot from the fire. She doubted he had even noticed.
She reached out, her fingertips burying themselves in his hair as she looked down at him. He didn't respond, his breathing remaining slow and even.
Lucre sighed, pulling her hand away. I know, Ruin. I know...
They have stolen something from him. I will destroy them.
Lucre shook her head quietly, not responding as she walked over to the kitchen. A soft buzzing sound stopped her. She looked over to the armchair, where Caleb's jacket lay forgotten. Lucre padded softly over to it, reaching into the pocket and pulling out his phone. It vibrated softly in her hand, the screen reading a single name.
She took a deep breath, hesitating for only a moment before she pressed the phone to her ear and accepted the call.
"Hello, ma'am?" she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. She turned her back towards Caleb, disappearing into her own room and leaning against the wall.
"...Hello, Lucre? Is Caleb there?" asked a concerned voice. Sylvia Gains's voice was almost unmistakable. She glanced back at the living room, where Caleb was still asleep on the coffee table.
"He's still asleep..." she said. Her frown deepened. Sylvia sounded upset. Her mind immediately began running through possible scenarios. "...Is everything alright?"
"Well, yes, everything's fine on our end," said Sylvia. "I saw the news report about the fire. I just wanted to make sure..." She trailed off.
Lucre wished the phone still had a cord, if only so that she could twirl her finger around it and have an outlet for all of this restless energy. "We aren't hurt, ma'am," she said. "Don't worry about it."
Well, that was a lie. They both had injuries from their fights with the shadow creatures. Lucre's injuries had already been half-healed by the time the paramedics got to them. Caleb's were blamed on broken glass and the escape. But none of Caleb's injuries were particularly severe or life threatening, and Sylvia didn't need to know about the claw marks on his arm, or down the front of his chest. It would only worry her. And Caleb had sustained those injuries protecting her, so in a sense, she was the one to blame.
"But you were in the fire, weren't you?" asked Sylvia. Lucre's frown deepened, and she trailed her eyes to the ceiling. Sylvia was always too perceptive. It reminded her of how her father had been.
"Yes," she said.
"Are you sure you're both alright?"
She took a deep breath, drumming her fingers against the wall. She could tell that Sylvia knew something was up, but she didn't know how to broach the subject. How could she talk about Caleb's magic being stolen? Did Caleb even want her to?
"Lucre?" asked Sylvia. "What's wrong?"
"...Actually..." she began. "Is it...possible for a Gainling to lose a Link?"
There was a long pause at the other end of the line. Lucre bit her lip to calm her racing nerves, staring out the window as she waited for an answer. "...It's certainly possible," said Sylvia after a while. "Links break when they are overused, or used against their nature. Lucre, what—?"
"What about having one stolen?" she asked, interrupting.
"That's impossible." Sylvia's tone sounded grim. "They're not objects. They're contracts. You can't steal a Link any more than you can steal a friendship...or a Sealbound. What happened, Lucrecia?"
She thought of the hollow look in Caleb's eye when they had returned home last night. She thought of the way she had found him this morning, of the look in his face after he vehemently denied setting fire to the bookstore, the look when he realized what that might mean.
"It's nothing, ma'am," she said quickly. "I was just curious. I'll tell Caleb to call you back as soon as he wakes up. Give my regards to Faye."
She pressed the end call button, closing her eyes and leaning her head back against the wall as the hand with the phone in it fell to her side. She stared up at the corner of her room, her eyes wide. Caleb...she thought, her mind replaying the events of last night.
"That's my phone," said a tired voice from the doorway, a hand reaching out and plucking the cell from her hand. "You have your own."
"Sorry," said Lucre, handing it back to him. She studied him. He still looked very tired, and the dark circles under his eyes told him that he hadn't had much real rest, but he looked human again. The hollow look in his eyes was still there, but at least he seemed aware of his surroundings. That was a good start. "Your mother called," she said. "She's worried about you."
"She would be," said Caleb. For a moment a regretful look crossed his features, but he slipped the phone into his pocket, turning away from her. "I'll deal with it later," he said.
"Do you want breakfast?" she asked, following him as he walked out the door.
"Just coffee," he mumbled.
"You sure?" asked Lucre. "It's Saturday. We're in no rush. I can cook. We could go to IHOP?"
He looked over his shoulder at her, shaking his head. "Just coffee," he repeated.
She sighed, walking over to the kitchen and grabbing the coffee maker. "Fine," she said. "But you're at least eating a fruit or something. You can't live on caffeine alone."
"I can try," he said, giving her a small half-smile. She noted the gesture, rinsing out the coffee maker's carafe. He wasn't quite recovered yet, but he was trying. At the very least, there was still some sort of hope for him.
"Did you find anything out?" she asked, her eyes drifting over the stack of papers on the table. Caleb shook his head, running a hand through his hair.
"It was a shade," he said. "Those people, whoever they were, summoned a shade and commanded it to guard the bookstore. We were probably trapped in its illusion the second we revealed our true colors?"
"Our true colors?" Lucre repeated.
Caleb glanced down guiltily, fixing his eyes on the kitchen counter. He wrapped his hand protectively around his coffee cup. "...It was after I started using Passive Links," he said. "I activated my link to Earth, and found the secret room under the bookstore. But in doing so, it looks like I drew the shade's attention." He placed one finger on the tabletop, tracing small circles. "Shades are from the Midnight Realm. They don't have much power of their own, but they can steal and absorb it from the mages they come across. That one took my Fire Link."
"Can you ever get it back?" asked Lucre.
"...I don't know..." admitted Caleb. "I don't know if defeating the shade will do anything or if I just have to attract Fire's attention again."
"Well you did it once," said Lucre. "Why not again?"
"Because what?" asked Lucre, her eyes narrowing at him.
He shook his head, raising his eyes to meet hers. "...I'm not the same person, Lucre."
She blinked at him. "What?" she asked.
"I'm not the same person I was when I forged that Link. I don't know if Fire would trust me as I am right now."
Lucre stared at him. "What are you talking about? What could possibly be different? You're older now, but you're still the same inside."
Caleb shook his head, lowering his eyes to the counter top. He suddenly looked tired, and a lot older than his twenty-two years of age. Lucre stared at him, wishing not for the first time that she could do more to help him here. But she wasn't a Gainling. The idea of Links, of laws and contracts with forces of nature, was something so far out of her field of experience that she had no idea how to fix it. In some ways, it was similar, but it wasn't the same as being born with her Sealbound.
Gainlings were only born with one Link, the idea being that that link should never be activated.
"At any rate..." said Caleb, looking up at her. "Are you alright? You transformed yesterday."
She shuddered, remembering the sudden change that had taken over. It had been involuntary. She had no longer been able to hold Ruin back, and she no longer had any reason to. But it seemed that this time, Ruin was content to simply fight the shadow creatures. She felt sated, and in fact, Lucre would venture to say that she seemed slightly worried about Caleb as well. The Sealbound paced the back of her mind like a feral cat, watching Caleb cautiously.
"I'm fine," she said. "But Caleb..."
Caleb shook his head, taking a small sip of coffee and turning away from her. "Don't..." he said, as she put a hand out towards him. He sighed. "Just...I just need a moment. Did Mother say anything about Sara?"
Lucre shook her head. "I didn't ask..." she said. "She didn't sound worried."
"That doesn't mean much," said Caleb, sighing. "Sara's vanished for weeks before and turned up alright. She won't start worrying until two weeks have gone by."
"She's not responding?" asked Lucre.
"Obviously not," said Caleb with a shrug. "...I'm thinking I might have to resort to spamming her Facebook page."
Lucre felt a small smile come onto her face as she thought of the eldest Gains child. "She's not going to like that," she said.
"I'd rather have her show up breathing fire down my neck," said Caleb, shrugging. "It's better than her ignoring me anyway." He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. Lucre sat on the other side of the counter, waiting as she always did. Caleb had a great vocabulary, and could interpret scientific papers with the rest of them, but when it came to feelings, it always took him a little longer to figure out what he was trying to say. She knew him well enough to know when to wait.
"...I'm not trying to be difficult," he finally said.
"You probably think this is really childish of me."
"I don't," she said quickly. "I just want to help you." Both of us do...
"You can't." He didn't say it bitterly. He said it with the same tone he used when he was simply stating a fact. She stared down at her hands, clasping them together. Her brother's ring still stood out, the silver shining bright against her skin.
"...What can I do?" she asked.
Caleb took a deep breath. "You can call Aaron. Tell him we want to set up a meeting. And..." He looked up at her. "You can tell me what you sensed in that bookstore. Any sign of Discord?"
She tried to think back to her memories from that time. They were somewhat fragmented, split between the memories where she was in control and the memories where she hovered in the back of Ruin's mind watching, where she was the Sealbound and Ruin was the vessel. Even in that situation, she thought she would have noticed Discord.
"No," she said. She hesitated, remembering something. "No...just..."
"Just what?" asked Caleb.
"There was a lot of magic in that store," said Lucre. "Not...not Discord specifically. But a lot of different casters. I wonder..."
"I might be wondering the same thing," said Caleb. "Let's wait and talk to our friend about this before we start jumping to conclusions though."
Lucre nodded, going off to find her own phone. "...When do you want to meet him?" she asked. "And where?"
"Somewhere neutral," said Caleb. "The cafe on the corner of College and Main. In..." He glanced at the clock, then down at his own sootstained clothes. "Two hours?"
"Alright," she said, snatching up her phone and scrolling down until she found Aaron's number.
"I'll go get cleaned up," said Caleb, setting the mug down and getting to his feet.
Lucre watched him go, staring at his door long after he had closed it.