Chapter Thirty-Five: Nootau
Mal nodded, taking a large bite. "Yeah. 'Sides, I'm happy at my Guild. For now."
"Not even tempted a little? It is Akemi."
"Oh, I am. It could be in my future," Mal answered before he wiped his mouth with a napkin then pulled Kaden into his side. "But I have other priorities at the moment."
Kaden ducked his head, a blush reddened his cheeks.
"I need some time at home, get settled again before any other big changes," Mal continued, a sly smile ruining his otherwise blasé expression.
Edwige took a sip of her drink and nodded. It made sense. She could understand the need for normalcy after everything they'd been through. The desperate need for her life as it was consumed her at times.
Nevertheless, sitting with Mal and Kaden, knowing they'd be leaving in a couple hours for home, hurt. She'd miss them. Their company. Their support. Mal and Kaden's unwavering belief that Nootau would come back to her.
It also hit home they were going back to their lives while she and Aegeus were not.
Everyone had said their goodbyes. Ashe and Jaxx. Even Tibo had shown up, surprising Edwige in a happy way. Good thing he had Rolly on his side. They could move on. All of them. The others were able to return to their old lives. Changed, yes, but return to normalcy. Or whatever was normal for them.
Unlike everyone else involved with the clusterfuck the Rubrum Lux found themselves in, Edwige and Aegeus were still waiting. Their lives set on pause. Neither going forward or backward. Just hovering. Hoping for the moment Nootau woke up and smiled at them.
Except that moment hadn't come. Not yet. Hence the standstill.
"Well—" Mal stood and stretched. "We have got to get going if we want to reach the Vienna Guild before dark."
"Already?" Kaden glanced up at the clock in the airy cafeteria. "Oh."
Mal leaned in for a kiss. "Yeah, I know." He straightened and open his arms. "But we'll see each other again. Count on it."
Edwige let herself be pulled into the hug. Breathed in the steadfastness of Mal and Kaden. They'd been together for so long. It'd be weird not to have them around anymore. They were... family.
With a slightly teary kiss, Edwige sent them off to the hangar, unable to actually watch them leave. It wasn't in her to see anyone else go. Helping Aegeus and Nootau took all her strength right now.
As the days passed, turning into weeks, the doctors and nurses gentle optimism turned to caution to sympathy, and finally, a bone-deep weariness and resignation they tried not to show. Edwige felt the staff's feelings anyway. They didn't believe Nootau would wake up. If he hadn't by now, he wouldn't. That was the general consensus.
Talks had gone from best treatment for his wounds, physical therapy for when he woke, and a therapist to deal with the skin-share fallout to long-term care options, rotating him in bed to prevent bedsores, and what they would want if Nootau did code. The talks hurt. Mainly because a part of Edwige understood why they were having them. Recognized the need in them. She wasn't ready to toss in the towel, though.
Edwige leaned over the bed and kissed Nootau's forehead. "Never. I'm never giving up."
"And you shouldn't, Frau," Bernard said as he entered their guest room. "Mornin'. You 'ave breakfast yet?"
"When Aegeus got up."
"All right then."
Bernard settled into the chair next to Edwige. He had his crocheting with him today. Purple, blue, brown, and some kind of sparkly gray made up the colors for afghan. The size was also notable. Rather large for an afghan. He had said quite specifically wool would be for that and not a blanket.
"Who is it for?"
Bernard glanced up from his work. "What?"
"Ah, um." Bernard flushed and cleared his throat. His Adam's apple bobbed a few times as he sputtered. Before he had a chance to answer, though, Aegeus and Gian tumbled into the room in a fit of laughter. The flush got darker.
"Edwige!" Bernard shot her an imploring expression. Sad puppy eyes and everything.
Rapid movement followed his plea, but he was not fast enough to hide the crocheting. Gian moved over toward him while Aegeus came to Edwige with raised eyebrows and open arms. She understood the question without being asked. Edwige pointed over to Bernard and Gian. Aegeus paused then glanced back over to the pair, catching Gian fawning over the afghan with excitement.
"It's beautiful! I love the pattern." Gian fingered the wool. Strands slipped across his hand. "Feels luxurious."
"It's good Australian wool."
"Love the colors."
Bernard nodded. "Good."
"Hm?" Gian glanced up, meeting Bernard's startled expression. "Is this for me?"
"Oh. Oooh." Gian met Bernard's hopeful expression head on. A smile tugged on his mouth. "Well then."
Aegeus picked Edwige up and settled her on his lap. He whispered into her ear, "Is that what I think it is?"
"Huh." Aegeus snuggled Edwige closer and she relaxed into his hold.
"Is it really so odd?"
"I just didn't think Gian... " Aegeus shrugged.
"I think he needs to care about the other person," Edwige supplied. She watched the two knights dance around each other. A newly formed "I like you" awkwardness mixed with a healthy dose of optimism. "They have been spending a lot of time together."
"All of us have."
Edwige agreed. Tentative hand motions went between Gian and Bernard. Their voices lowered to a murmur as contented exchanges were made.
"Actually. I was wondering something," Aegeus said. One of his hands began to slide up and down Edwige's side, soothing her.
"Would you be okay if I brought Nootau into the therapy pool with me?"
"Is that why you're back early?"
Edwige felt the nod against her head. He wrapped his arms around her. Warmth and love surrounded Edwige, making it easier to breath. To focus. She considered the request. Her first impulse was to tell him no. But she felt the heightened beat of Aegeus' heart. Oh no. She couldn't have that.
"Of course you can." If he thought it would help, then Edwige wouldn't complain. Time in the pool certainly couldn't hurt Nootau. Letting Aegeus feel like he was helping couldn't do them any harm either.
Gian's nervous laughter filled the room. Yes, they could all use a little stress relief.
"Just don't drown him," she teased then kissed Aegeus' jaw.
"I promise. I won't."
* * * * *
Ripples darted away from Aegeus with each flick of his tail. Warm water pressed against his back while Nootau's body weighed him down on the front. Whether or not their new regimen of water sessions helped Nootau was yet to be seen, but they helped Aegeus. When he held his third in the pool, they dropped off into oblivion.
Forgetting, not worrying about the next day, helped.
Taking the burden of care off Edwige for a couple hours each morning and again in the afternoon, helped.
Maybe not Nootau. His coma-like state persisted despite Healers and medical interventions. But being able to cuddle Nootau without protests had its perks. The quiet calm helped heal the wounds built up since their attempt at breaking into Schloss Rotlicht. The anger and frustration with Nootau's withdrawal had faded into the background while figuring out how to Heal him became paramount.
Hard to stay mad at someone who couldn't yell back.
Time would tell if Aegeus would still feel that way when Nootau woke up—and he would wake up. Aegeus didn't doubt either of his partners for a second. But for now, all he had to do was love his bedraggled and troubled third. That much was easy.
Aegeus let one arm float away from him. They began turning in the pool, making another loop. He hummed, the vibrations filling the air. Maybe the doctors would let Aegeus take Nootau out on the lake soon. Spring had come into full bloom. Flowers poked through the dirt and rocks. Buds had appeared on trees. The water would be still cold, because it never got that warm, but it'd be nice to float out under the stars and fresh air.
Some days summer knocked at the door, reminding Aegeus how long they'd been away from home. The Youth Center had hired a contractor to fill his position, insisting Aegeus could come back any time. But he wasn't sure that was the best thing to do—for the kids developing an attachment to the new counselor, or for him. After everything that had happened, Aegeus could admit to feeling lost.
The work Akemi had given them here at the castle helped supplement their income, and Edwige loved learning newest Heal casting, but they knew they didn't want to stay. Akemi knew it too. She and Jariah were just looking out for them. Keeping them occupied while they all worried over Nootau's impassive state.
The problem was, Aegeus didn't know what they wanted to do once Nootau woke up. Until they knew exactly what they were dealing with, and the type of medical care Nootau would need, they were stuck, feeling like they were on standby. The holding pattern drained both of them.
Aegeus flicked his tail harder than he should've. Ripples exploded over the surface of the pool. "Oops."
They jetted straight toward the other end of the pool.
So damn cramped.
The stars would look beautiful right about now. Instead Aegeus had to stare at white rafter ceilings with fluorescent lighting. It sucked.
Maybe if they went out on the lake for just five minutes. That wouldn't hurt. Right?
Oh, that was a dangerous rabbit hole for Aegeus to fall down. He could already hear Edwige yelling at him.
Except... except Aegeus wanted to show Nootau the stars. To let him feel what Aegeus felt when out in the open water. Oh. Oh no. That hole was even bigger than the last. Except the idea flared like a lighthouse beacon, hot and warm, calling Aegeus toward it. A tiny flare of hope ignited inside his chest.
The idea would never go over with Edwige, or the doctors. Aegeus was certain a small piece of desperation fueled his thoughts. But what did they have left to lose? He dropped his hand, skimming over Nootau's skin share.
No one was sure if Nootau could transform again. They hadn't tried. Maybe it was time they did. With something ready and willing.
They already knew what happened when the skin share wasn't mutual. How bad it could go. There was the tiny problem of Nootau not being able to give consent. But... Aegeus flicked his tail. Maybe Nootau needed to be reminded about the good parts of being a walker.And being cared about and wanted. The transformation was about the sharing of souls after all.
Loving Nootau came easy. Aegeus would die for him. Almost had. Nootau would have to feel that, wouldn't he? Would it be enough?
That's why things went so pear-shaped with Sigmund—the dirty bastard. The worst skin-share candidate in the history of man. At least they'd saved his latest victim. It'd been a close call, completely by accident, but the knights had saved her.
So maybe Aegeus could save Nootau. Pull him back from the abyss.
Aegeus propelled them to the pool entrance, then managed to get them up the ramp. He moved fast. Driven to follow through before he lost his nerve. The last thing Aegeus needed was for someone to come in and check on them and stop his plan. He put a towel over Nootau then went off in search for something sharp.
If Edwige showed up now it was game over for sure.
The pool deck was slippery, making it easier for Aegeus to pull himself along. He searched the desk, the storage benches, the table, and found nothing. Jesus fucking Krampus. They were in a therapy pool, something medical had to be around.
Ah, a first aid kit.
Aegeus popped it open. Gauze, band aids, tape, iodine, fish scales layers, all sorts of supplies. Everything but—oh, yes! Scissors. The first aide kit would come in handy. They'd both need it by the time Aegeus was through.
With his prize in hand, Aegeus pulled himself back over to the pool ramp. He used his fins to turn around and get settled next to Nootau. After a mumbled prayer, Aegeus opened the kit. He extracted the scissors and checked the blades. White light reflected off the edges. A moment of apprehension filled Aegeus but he pushed it away.
No time for second guessing.
The first cut wasn't deep. More like a paper cut than anything else. The quick slice of pain startling, especially since Aegeus knew he was the one doing it. Seemed like it shouldn't hurt as much. But the sharp throb of misery flared to life the moment he pressed the scissors against his flesh. Aegeus used his heel to dig in. Blood welled up and ooze out of the incision. The sharp twist of malady almost a relief. It made the next knick and plunge that much easier.
With every piercing of the blade, the echo of spasms faded away. The burning stings came from outside of him—detached from Aegeus. Blood flowed freely but no longer hurt him. Like he had a bird's eye view rather than first hand. His skin peeled back, flesh excised from him.
One side left.
The blade cut easily. Hard. With precision. Skin and blood fell away into his hand.
Only his harsh breaths filled the room. A current of red swirled down the ramp and dispersed into the pool. Aegeus stared at the flap of skin in his hand. He'd done it. Somehow.
Muscle, flesh, blood vessels, all of it Aegeus, pulsed. The open wound weeped for him. Aegeus laid his excised flesh on his tail, bloody-side up, then retrieved the fish scales. He carefully laid them over his exposed body. They adhered immediately, narrowing the gap. A few more well-placed strips and the wound was protected from the elements. Temporarily. Yes, there would be the need for a more permanent fix later since he was about to get the treatment wet, but the strips would do for now. All the things Edwige would complain about flittered through his mind, but if his plan worked, she couldn't be too mad.
Carefully lifting his own flesh, Aegeus took a moment to look at Nootau. Please let me be doing the right thing.
With a prayer, Aegeus pressed down his flesh over the skin share. No skin adhesion happened. Not like with the dragon or the guard. Blood dripped down Nootau's hip like a teardrop falling. A piece of Aegeus' heart shattered. He'd been so sure.
"No!" Aegeus drew in a deep breath, trying hard to keep his tears of frustration back. He leaned in as hard as he could, putting all his weight on the skin-share. "Gods Above, no!"
The trickles continued.
"Please, just please." His voice broke. And the tears fell. Aegeus shuddered, wishing more than anything he could swim with Nootau. To hold him again. He sniffed, the snot making that weird twipht sound. "I want him back. I'd give anything to have him back. Please."
Then the impossible happened. The stream of blood tears stopped. The blood thickened and the edge's of Aegeus' skin disappearing as Nootau transformed into his doppelgänger. Joints popped as he grew five or so inches, the skin turned tawny and sun-kissed, Nootau's beautiful black hair turned dirty-blond—though the length stayed the same. Different than when he transformed before. The ridges of the crest were close, but did not follow the same pattern as Aegeus', though they came close too.
Looking at himself felt rather unsettling. An intrusive invasion of Aegeus' sense of self. The disconnect rather surreal.
Shaking off the weirdness, Aegeus pushed Nootau's legs together. He watched in startled fascination as the skin come together, the scales harden, and the fins unfurl. Like with the hair, the tail was not a perfect replica. Darker than Aegeus' and more rigid. There had to be some reasoning, though Aegeus didn't know what it was. Nootau could tell him, but he'd have to wake up in order to do that.
Aegeus checked over the gill formation. Relieved to find perfectly formed slits and gills. Nootau wiggled defensively as Aegeus checked. He might be unconscious but his body knew trouble when it came around.
"Please let it understand the next bit," Aegeus whispered, sending up another small plea.
It took some careful maneuvering on his part, every hitch of his hips or push of his tail made the wound throb incessantly. But Aegeus managed to get them back into the stained pool of water, floating on the backs.
When they went under was a moment of truth. Either Nootau's body had transformed correctly or it hadn't.
"Please don't drown." Aegeus kissed Nootau, the sensation fucking with his head a bit, because he was looking at himself. "Yeah, more than a little weird."
"Okay, here we go."
Aegeus rolled them over and dove beneath the water.
The sensation of liquid filling his lungs battered Aegeus' for a moment, then he breathed. His gills pressed open and he was breathing again. Aegeus twisted and check Nootau, abruptly stopping when facing himself.
Odd. Creepy. Unnerving. Definitely all of the above. But he checked Nootau's gills. The opened and closed like they should.
Ten points for not drowning his lover.
Aegeus pulled Nootau against his chest. Time to go outside.
He dove down to the lock leading to the lake. The doors cycled open then shut, the thud echoing in the water. The outer door repeated the motions, a blast of freezing water entering the chamber. Aegeus ignored the chill, a little chagrined at how used to the warm therapy pool water he'd gotten, and pulled Nootau out after him.
The rich smells of underwater life flowed over Aegeus—fish, algae and the like. The hard earth smell of rocks and sunken trees. All of them combined to make the scent of lake. The dark waters swirled around them like a secret hideaway. Calling to Aegeus. Tempting him. Playing underneath the surface, never peaking up held a certain allure. Life was simpler here. Aegeus almost stopped their ascent to the surface, except the moon and stars called to him. And the water wasn't Nootau's home.
Cresting the surface, a blast of cool night air met them. Aegeus situated himself under Nootau and floated, looking up at the dusky sky.
"Much better." The air felt right. Not recycled and pumped through a furnace. Stars shone high above them, but faded away under the burst of deep colors the closer they got to the sinking sun. Soon only the moon would hang overhead, allowing the stars to dance among the midnight sky in all their splendor.
But now the sun inched lower. It lit up the hard earth, the placid lake, and the looming castle. The rocks glistened with a red tinge, the glow casting out over the water, almost as if it were burning. Shivering with a sense of enlightened awareness, Aegeus bent his knees and flicked his tail, propelling them away from the castle.
It screamed danger, though Aegeus knew otherwise. Akemi wasn't a bad person. Neither were Gian, Bernard, Nico or any of the rest. But the castle itself? The imposing structure loomed, compelling its will over the landscape. Inflicted its presence upon them.
The farther away they got, the less suffocated Aegeus felt. Breathing became easier. Tension bled away from his muscles. Cool water lapped against him, settling Aegeus' heart. As long as Nootau's warm soul rested against his, he'd be content.
They floated under the darkening sky. More stars flared to life. Pinpoints of light standing out against the night. The ghost-white glow of the moon reflected off the lake, standing against the opaque surface.
"It's as beautiful as I thought it'd be," Aegeus said, holding Nootau a little tighter. "It smells free. You'd love it."
Aegeus kicked with his tail, watching the ripples as the sped away from them.
"Bet you'd spend every night watching the moon rising if you could." Aegeus turned and placed a kiss on Nootau's temple. "Then you'd splash and play in the water until Edwige call us in."
Aegeus chuckled, picturing Edwige's expression clearly. The bemused twist to her lips. Hands on her hips. Her hair flying about in the wind. Nootau's rueful smile then the twinkle in his eyes as he dove deep one last time before retreating into their house for the night. The yearning for that future nearly broke Aegeus. The want, the need for it to happen nearly choked him.
"How about one dive down? Hm? See how far we can go together?" Then Aegeus' tears would slip away unseen into the depths.
With one last kiss to Nootau's forehead, Aegeus wrapped his arms around his lover and hugged him close. Aegeus bent at the waist, allowing them to submerge slowly. The transition from breathing air to breathing water gradual. He cuddled Nootau close. His eyes shut tight, his heart hammering away.
Aegeus let them sink steadily, luxuriating in being able to hold Nootau like this. Being able to float in the lake, only their bodies touching.
I love you. Aegeus couldn't say the words. How much he fallen in love with Nootau. The strength and willpower he displayed. The way he cared. How hard he loved. And how hard Nootau tried not to.
It was difficult not to love someone so utterly blind to their selflessness, to their open display of pain.
And since he couldn't say it, Aegeus sang instead. Not with his voice, no. But his siren's song. Groans, thwops, high-pitched and low-pitched sonic sound waves creating music and song under the water. It told of friendship and laughter, of dreams yet to come, and the desire to fulfill them, wishing for the healing power that never came but should, and the unbearable agony of being left behind. And of falling in love and loss.
Because Aegeus did love. More than anything. And he never want to lose that feeling of love.
* * * * *
It's a lovely song.
Nootau agreed with the dragon. It was. Something about the song called to him. Weaved around his heart. The music soothing, warm, and heartbreaking all at once—the melancholy just inches from despair.
It also frightened Nootau. More than anything he'd ever faced. At least, as much as Nootau remembered facing. Expectation came with the music. A song of more. With more came the reality of waking up and stepping into something bigger than him. Fear tangled around his heart and raged against the music tearing it down.
It's a love song, walker. A mating song just for you.
No! It couldn't be. No one would ever want such a darkened, stained spirit like his. Nor should they.
But they do want you, walker.
Why would they?
The dragon didn't exactly sigh, but it was a close thing. She tucked her head into her side so she was eye level with Nootau. Flames danced around her jaws. Her huge golden eyes pierced his soul.
Have you not healed?
I have. Nootau wriggled, weary of those all-knowing eyes.
Have I not protected you?
She had. For quite a long time without complaint.
Have you not been surrounded by strength?
Mates protect each other. They are your mates, are they not?
No. But Nootau's conscience wavered. The dragon felt it too.
Your mates have been waiting for you, calling to you all this time. Isn't it time to return to them?
Going back was what scared Nootau the most. What if they no longer wanted someone dirty like him? After everything he'd done. The ferocity of the attack, the glory he took in taking apart Dario bit by bit, all of it echoed inside his soul. The black pieces still lurked beneath the surface of the scars laid down, waiting for the chance to break free.
Regaining himself meant Nootau stood the chance of being left out in the cold. Be left to temptation to fill the void. And the thing he feared most was the chance Aegeus and Edwige got put in harm's way. The idea of them being hurt—hurt by him—his heart raged against it.
But you are hurting them. By not returning.
Facing their disappointment would also hurt. He was running from it. The inevitable withdrawal from someone as atrocious and damaged as him. The stink would drive them away. The blackness would come back, consume him, drive him into the cold where his soul would get ravaged, lost.
You're lost now, walker.
The dragon shook her head--whether in pity or refusal he didn't know.
But learning about the warmth, knowing how good it felt to bask in the feelings of people like Aegeus and Edwige, Nootau feared going back to the cold. Being alone without their brilliant spirits to guide him. Because the void held the dark places inside him, and those were excessively dark spaces indeed. The black sludge had left a film behind. Barely noticeable, but holding him hostage.
What would become of him if he returned? Got rejected?
Then I will free you from your chains.
You will not be left in the cold, walker. Never fear.
How could the dragon know?
But then she open her jaws, flames rippled through the air, directly for Nootau.
The heat washed over him, bathing him from head to toe, burning everything away. Nootau jerked from the impact. A scream erupted from him as the fire consumed him.
But as soon as the heat became too much, a wave of refreshing coolness cleansed the soot away. It filled him with a buoyancy and lifted Nootau up. A splatter of raindrops hit his face and he had to blink away the water.
Since when did the air taste like grass and earth? Air?
"Gods Above, Nootau?"
A pair of dark brown eyes met his.
"You're awake! Gods, you're awake!"
Heated lips met his, searching, exploring as strong hands held him tight. The heat a sharp contrast against the cool water lapping against him. Confused, Nootau pulled back and looked around. The moon shone overhead with the stars twinkling as backup support. A forest surrounded the water, with a castle towering in the distance. Schloss Rotlicht? Had he really woken up? He was alive?
"Am I? What is going on?"
"Swimming with me in the lake?" Aegeus answered back before laughing. "Though I gotta admit it's weird kissing myself."
Nootau stared back at Aegeus with renewed urgency. "What are you talking about?"