The next morning, Nikolai was the last one on Leviathan. He was freshly bathed, but there were dark smudges under his eyes when he trudged into the cockpit, stifling a yawn with the back of his hand. Einar was at the control panel, firing up the airship.
"Hey, I was just about to come look for you," Vidar greeted. "You ready to kick off?"
Nikolai shot him a thumbs-up. "Nadea and Ajani came by to say goodbye. Asked that we give them updates when we can."
Vidar nodded. "Of course. You sleep okay?"
Nikolai bobbed his head noncommittally. Vidar didn't know what time Nikolai returned to the palace, had himself bedded down for the night not long after he left Nikolai at the festival. There was a very good chance that Nikolai had returned just long enough to shower and collect his bag, having foregone sleep altogether.
"All right." Vidar nodded. "Well, we should be lifting off soon." He turned to go, when a strong hand wrapped around his forearm and tugged him back around. He shot Nikolai a questioning look.
Nikolai wasn't smiling, but his eyes were warm. Softly, he said, "Next time, I won't tear your head off if you come and say hi."
Vidar's mouth opened and closed, fish-like. "I didn't—."
Nikolai looked at him archly, so Vidar thought better of the lie.
"I shouldn't have followed you," he admitted. "I just wanted to make sure you would be okay. In case you needed someone to have your back—again."
Nikolai nodded, blue eyes sparkling. "I could be offended, but I'll take the higher road this time. Just, if there's a next time, you can come and say hi. Just so you know." He slipped past Vidar with an upward twitch of his eyebrows, disappearing down into the bowels of the ship.
Vidar stared after him. Had he been… teasing?
A throat cleared behind him, and he turned to see Einar watching him.
"What?" Vidar asked.
"That man's a bag of cats, boss," Einar said.
"Yes," Vidar prompted, "so?"
"That's all. Just want to make sure you know."
"I don't think any of us are unaware," Vidar said, but Einar didn't look convinced. Probably because he knew the ball of warmth in Vidar's chest would remain there for the rest of the morning.
Nikolai slept most of the morning, only emerging when hunger finally got the better of him. The rest of the day passed in relative monotony. He and the knights continued to read through the spellbooks at the kitchen table.
"What good is learning about all of this magic stuff, anyway?" Ragnhild asked. "We still aren't going to be able to fight it unless we know how to use it."
Vidar set his book down. "Are you suggesting we start trying to learn magic?"
"Why not?" She asked. "We might need it! Especially if Otto's abductor is using it. It might be the only way to fight back."
"We don't even know where to start," Vidar said, glancing helplessly around at the books on the table. "Reading about it is one thing. Applying it…"
Ragnhild frowned mulishly. She grabbed Nikolai's discarded pen and placed it flat on the table in front of her. With one palm pointed toward it, she took a calming breath, relaxed her shoulders, and said, "Erigo."
The four of them waited breathlessly for something to happen.
Nikolai huffed, relaxing. "Nice try."
Ragnhild scowled at him and slapped the pen down in front of him. "You try."
"No," he said curtly, not looking up from his book.
"Because magic is probably the worst—no, maybe not worst—but one of the worst things that's ever happened to me. I've never seen it do anything good."
"What happened with the witch was of your own making," Ragnhild said.
Vidar took a breath to intervene.
"Sure," Nikolai replied lightly, still not deigning to look up from the book he couldn't possibly still be reading. "It also got my brother killed, but who's counting."
Ragnhild looked like he might as well have sucker punched her. She shot Vidar a wounded look, and he just shrugged. What did she think would happen if she prodded at an obviously sore point?
"You can keep practicing with it if you want, Ragnhild," Vidar said. "I even agree with you. Our best hope for fighting magic is probably with magic itself. However, if Nikolai or anyone else doesn't want to use it themselves, they don't have to."
"It's not like I was going to force him," she pouted.
Nikolai scoffed, "Like you could."
Vidar pinched the bridge of his nose as Ragnhild glared poisonously at Nikolai, and Aksel, across from Ragnhild in Einar's usual seat, watched the proceedings with increasing amusement.
"Excuse me?" Ragnhild demanded.
Nikolai spared her an annoyed look. "I'm trying to read."
"Why bother, if you aren't even going to try and make use of it?"
He sighed, tossed the book down, and leaned an elbow on the table. "There are plenty of ways knowledge is useful, even if the knowledge isn't practically applied."
She leaned in, mimicking his pose. Her blonde braid spilled over one shoulder, and the emerald glare she leveled toward him could've melted stone. Vidar knew whatever she said next would have consequences, but she was already speaking before he could open his mouth and stop her.
"Or maybe you're just a coward."
Nikolai's lip curled.
"Ragnhild," Vidar snapped, before either of them could actually come to blows. "Go relieve Einar."
Ragnhild met his gaze, and whatever she saw there was enough for her to stand and walk away without another word.
In the silence that followed, Vidar watched Nikolai. The mercenary rubbed a hand along his stubbled jaw, eyeing the ink pen on the table with an unreadable expression. His fingers drummed absently on the spine of the book he'd been reading.
"Nikolai," Vidar said, "if you need a break…"
Nikolai glanced at the door, then at the stack of books on the table. "Yeah," he muttered. He stood and disappeared without another word.
After a beat, a distant door slammed shut.
Aksel snorted. "Children."
Vidar tilted his head noncommittally. "They're both hurting. They're just taking it out on each other."
Aksel nodded pointedly. "Like children."
Vidar ducked his head to hide his smile. "Nonetheless. We should try to be patient."
"With him? Maybe. With her? Pfft." Aksel shook his head. "I know her well enough to know she knows better. She's looking for a fight, and she thinks he's the most likely one to give it to her."
"She and Ben were very close," Vidar said.
From the very beginning, the heavily accented Kynagardian and the only female recruit in the class of students that year seemed to stick together. Vidar, a second year Squire at the time, watched the class with interest, wondering if he had looked so young when he'd first begun his training. The other boys largely sat apart from the two of them, but they didn't even seem to notice the wide berth that the other kids gave them.
Vidar was helping Lady Anja train the recruits this season, and he knew from the very first day they picked up their wooden practice swords that Benedikt Dragunov and Ragnhild Eriksdatter were going to go far. They worked well apart, but they worked better together. Anja was a strict teacher, but she never gave them any obstacle they couldn't overcome.
Once Vidar was made captain of his own team, he'd requested Benedikt and Ragnhild. He watched them accept their knighthood with solemn seriousness, and as soon as the ceremony was over, Ragnhild was leaping on Benedikt's back with a shriek of delight, and he spun them around in circles while the older knights looked on with quiet amusement.
"We did it!" Benedikt howled, skipping away with Ragnhild clinging to his back like a barnacle.
"She still looks at Nikolai and sees him," Vidar said. "That's something she'll have to come to terms with on her own."
"Do you?" Aksel asked.
"Do I? Look at him and see Ben?"
Vidar thought of warm light flickering on sweat-shiny skin, lean muscle moving between light and shadow. "Not anymore. You?"
Aksel shrugged. "Sometimes. They spent a long time apart, so the differences are pretty easy to spot. But sometimes he'll say something, or move a certain way, and… yeah, I see him. Not as much as I used to."
Vidar nodded. "Just try not to let it show."
"It bothers him, I know," Aksel said. "It would me, too."
Heavy footfalls alerted them to an incoming visitor, and Vidar knew the gait without looking.
"Something happen?" Einar asked as he entered and sat in Ragnhild's abandoned chair.
"Just Ragnhild goading the new guy," Aksel explained shortly.
"She made it seem like the other way around," Einar said.
"No, she definitely had a role in the disagreement," Vidar said.
Einar snorted. "Not surprised. Always said she should've been redheaded. That temper of hers is going to get her in trouble."
"We'll keep an eye on them," Aksel said, in a way that implied it was for both their sakes.
Slamming his door didn't make him feel any better, so Nikolai paced in the small confines of his room. He gnashed his teeth ineffectually and roughly carded his fingers through his hair.
Why was it so easy for them to decide to start trying to use the magic? Why didn't the idea of it terrify and infuriate them the way it did him? He didn't understand. He'd never seen magic do anything good. He didn't want to go anywhere near the very thing that was responsible for killing his brother.
Getting angry wasn't the smart thing. He needed to stop and think about things rationally. He knew better than to let his emotions lead him. He sat down on the edge of the bed and gripped his knees.
If their weapons wouldn't work against magic, what would? If the killer could use a spell to put people to sleep, how would they counteract it?
Maybe knowing more about magic was wise. Even if he would never admit that to Ragnhild aloud.
With a sigh, he went to the small desk across from his cot, pulled a pen out of the drawer, and set it down flat on the desktop.
It probably wouldn't even work, he told himself. It hadn't worked for Ragnhild. There was probably some kind of key piece to all of this that they were missing. They barely knew anything about magic. Part of him, a small part that he pushed down deep, hoped that it wouldn't work, because then he would have an excuse not to try anymore.
Nikolai closed his eyes, breathing deep. He held his hand out over the pen, and waited. He didn't want to rush it, didn't want to be distracted. He wanted to give it his best effort, so that he could put the whole thing from his mind for good when it failed. He waited until his mind was calm, until he reached that meditative, quiet place between sleep and wakefulness, when everything felt warm and soft. Safe.
Something swelled up within him, rushing out like a summer breeze over the ocean. He couldn't bring himself to open his eyes as the feeling swelled. His heart pounded in his ears, and his fast breaths seemed deafening in the silent room.
He heaved himself from the desk and spun away from it.
The sound of the pen clattering to the desktop sent a chill down his spine.
AN: Thanks for reading, as always. Please feel free to tell me your thoughts. I hope some of your questions are getting answered now, as the story progresses.