It was one last card played by the White Star. Apparently, he's a firm believer of the saying if I'm going down, I'm taking you with me.
And now here Cale is, sitting in his bedroom in the villa three days after the final battle, and staring at the insidiously purple tendrils already branching outward from the tiny innocuous-looking blotch of colour in his abdomen as he wonders if he should tell someone about this.
Everyone had been so happy that he hadn't fainted after the battle though, barely even coughed up any blood, and that he'd honestly seemed fine aside from a few injuries that Vitality had quickly healed up overnight. He'd been tired but he'd also been able to walk around under his own power.
Cale doesn't want to disappoint them, or make them worry. Besides, everybody still has so many things to do - recuperating from their own injuries, cleanup, celebration.
If he can solve this on his own, then wouldn't it just upset them needlessly if he lets them know? It's not like he's even really dealing with this alone. His Ancient Powers are always with him.
'Cale,' The Super Rock immediately begins lecturing. 'You know they would want to know. Even if you had an antidote in your hands right now, they would still want to know. Don't sacrifice yourself.'
Cale rolls his eyes. 'How is this sacrificing myself? I'm just weighing my options.'
He glances down at the injury once more before smoothing down his shirt again. It doesn't actually hurt much, only aching a little, like pressing on a bruise.
"Can Jack or Pendrick heal this?" He asks out loud this time. They're the best healers he knows, and they would help him if he went to them with this.
He gets a vague sense of hesitation between his Ancient Powers before the Sound of the Wind steps up this time.
'We've seen this poison before,' She tells him grimly. 'It was something created by the Ancient White Star. The White Star you faced must've copied that off of him as well somehow. No healer could ever heal it. The best they could do was slow it down. It basically rejected all attempts at destroying it. I don't think even that Saint of yours will be able to get rid of it.'
Cale takes a moment to digest that. "But there's a cure."
They sound too certain that it can't be healed normally, so they must know the actual method to destroy this poison.
But again, the Ancient Powers all hesitate, and Cale almost doesn't want to hear it.
It's the Glutton who finally answers. 'You won't like it.'
"I already don't like any of this," Cale replies dryly. "Spit it out."
'…Most of the ingredients are easy enough to gather,' The Glutton sighs. 'Some are a bit more difficult, but we can point you in the right direction, or one of your dragons will probably know, or you could even replace a few of them with something similar. There's just one thing. The core ingredient. That's the one that's really necessary. And honestly, for you, it's not hard to get either. It's just that you won't do it.'
Cale's hands curl into fists in his lap.
'You need a dragon's heart.'
"No." The response slips out before Cale is even consciously aware of saying it.
The poison burrowed deep in his abdomen throbs in time with his heartbeat. His Ancient Powers are silent now.
Cale sits and stares at nothing for a while. In the distance, he can hear sporadic laughter and rapid footsteps from Raon and the cats, high on sugar after stealing all the cookies Beacrox had made this morning. There's also the rhythmic clang of blade against blade because even after an epic showdown against the final boss, half the people Cale has somehow befriended still consider swinging their swords around as an excellent way to relax. Everyone else is scattered about the villa, all of them alive and well and happy.
"Okay," Cale says at last, climbing to his feet. "I get it."
'Cale? Get what? What are you going to do?'
Cale hums noncommittally as he toes on his shoes. "I guess… I'm going to take some measures first."
'What? What do you mean? You're not going to keep this to yourself, right? You need to tell your friends.'
'Even if you don't tell all of them, the ones closest to you can at least support you.'
'The elf healer and the Saint might not be able to cure you but they can at least delay the poison.'
'You better not carry this all by yourself, you idiot.'
'Your condition is only going to get worse from here. You wouldn't be able to hide it even if you want to.'
'It's been thousands of years, maybe a new cure can be found.'
'Yes, at least let your friends try. They'll definitely all do their best.'
One after the other, like a barrage of spell-fire, the previous owners of the Ancient Powers all take turns offering their unsolicited opinions, each more urgent than the last. Cale laments the days when he could actually carry out his plans in peace.
"I'll tell them," He cuts them all off. It would be too troublesome not to tell them, and… well, since it's looking more and more as if worse will come to worst, he doesn't want this sprung on them right before he just… keels over. Besides, he has the likes of Eruhaben and Rosalyn on his side, so who knows? Maybe they'll think of something.
Of course, a large part of him still wants to spare them all the effort they'll put in to find a cure - in the end, logically speaking, wouldn't it all be for nothing if it doesn't work? - but at the same time, he does kind of understand how not knowing about it at all would hurt them just as much.
So, he would tell them. Not everything - he will never use a dragon's heart, even if it means his own death, so there's no point telling them about that - but he would let them know about the rest.
After he makes a trip to Huiss.
It's easy enough to make his excuses so that he can disappear for an afternoon without anyone the wiser. Mentioning the Capital made everyone assume it was to see the crown prince, but Alberu is neck-deep in politics and paperwork, and has no time to host Cale, let alone catch him coming and going from the convenient teleportation circle anchored in his bedroom. And all his dark elf guards have long since become used to giving their prince's sworn brother free reign to do as he pleases.
Cale leaves at a little past noon and is back by late afternoon. The only reason it even took that long was that he figured he was in the Capital already so he might as well do some shopping for everyone. Of course, he gets scolded for wandering around on his own - wasn't he just supposed to go see the crown prince? They wouldn't have let him leave without a guard if they'd realized he would be walking around the city.
Cale just waves a dismissive hand. "Who would attack me?"
And then before anyone can answer, he shows them his spoils for the day and manages to distract everyone with all the shiny weapons, fashionable clothing, snacks unique to Huiss, enough quirky magical trinkets to make Rosalyn smile, and even a set of kitchen utensils that makes Beacrox' eyes light up, long enough for Cale to slip away.
"Young master-nim, did everything go well with His Highness?"
Cale heaves a sigh because of course Ron would notice something off. Actually, this old butler has been watching him like a hawk for the past three days, not letting up even when the others had slowly relaxed, and while he hasn't confronted Cale about it yet, that doesn't change the fact Ron probably knows something is wrong.
"Mm," He says noncommittally because he hadn't actually met with Alberu. He quickly forges on, "There's something else I want to talk to you about though."
Ron is silent this time. His face is calm, and his smile is as generously benign as usual, but there's something about the look in his eyes that says he knows Cale's about to give him bad news.
Cale averts his own gaze for a moment. He'd been planning to tell Ron first anyway, because if anybody would remain unperturbed no matter what information they're given, it would be this old man. And it's just infinitely easier to talk to people who won't react too emotionally. For some reason though, looking at Ron now, Cale finds it a bit harder than he'd expected it to be.
Still, it has to be done. Ron's not going to let him take it back now, and Cale does actually want to live. They'd finally gotten rid of the White Star once and for all— it would be very disappointing if Cale couldn't enjoy the slacker life he'd worked so hard for. And to increase his chances of that, he needs everyone to help him look for a cure.
He musters his courage and looks back at Ron, who hasn't moved at all. "I actually didn't notice at first, but apparently the White Star did a bit more damage than I thought."
That's not a lie - he really hadn't noticed the poison at first. It had looked like a minor cut, and Vitality had made it disappear before Cale had even gone to bed that night. Then he'd woken up in the morning to Vitality's agitated voice, and the wound had not only reopened but had taken on a new appearance as well, shaped like a miniature starburst that stained his skin like a bruise.
Maybe he should've suspected something though. The White Star had smiled - too bitter and angry to be triumphant but gloating all the same - right before Cale had killed him.
Instinctively, he presses a hand to his abdomen, and Ron's attention immediately snaps down to follow the movement.
Cale clears his throat. "I was poisoned."
He doesn't bother with any more words, lifting the front of his shirt instead. Then he frowns when he catches sight of the wound. It's… already a little bigger than it was this morning.
He looks up again, and then he has to flinch.
Ron is no longer smiling, and his eyes are terribly cold.
Hastily, Cale puts his clothes back in order and takes a couple tentative steps forward. "It's okay. I'm going to start looking for a cure."
Another beat of ominous silence passes before Ron speaks. "Your Ancient Power can't heal it?"
Cale hides a wince. "This poison targets Ancient Power users. The more Ancient Powers they have, the more effective the poison."
"And using an Ancient Power would just aggravate it further," Ron finishes in a terrifyingly flat tone of voice. "I see. Then, young master-nim, this Ron will accompany you back to your room, where you will take a bath and then wait in bed while I inform everyone else of this development."
Cale blinks. "What? Wait, Ron, I don't need bedrest right now-"
He breaks off in the face of the vicious stare Ron has levelled on him.
"I will… take a bath and wait in bed."
"Very good, young master-nim."
Cale checks Ron's expression again, and then awkwardly assures, "I'll be fine, Ron."
Ron begins ushering him down the hall. His voice is like ice, and his words sound like a threat issued to the gods themselves. "Yes. You will be."
The first thing Eruhaben says as he sweeps in through the door is, "I've already called Pendrick. He's on his way."
And then a black blur barrels past him and crashes headlong into Cale's chest, almost flattening him against the bed.
"Human!" Raon shouts, clinging to Cale's shirt. "Why didn't you say anything?! Where are you poisoned?! If you continue to hide it, I will destroy everything!"
Twin streaks of red and silver come bounding up onto the bed as well, and in the next second, Cale finds himself pinned in place by two cats and a dragon, all of them making their grievances known.
"Well?" Eruhaben comes to a stop at his bedside, his brow furrowed, his lips set in a thin displeased line. "You heard him. Let's see it."
Behind him, Choi Han comes bursting in, followed by Rosalyn, and then Beacrox is bringing up the rear with his father. All of them look like the end of the world is imminent.
Cale looks from face to face, opens his mouth, and then closes it again when he can't think of anything to say anyway. He gently dislodges Raon and nudges On and Hong off his lap instead before lifting the front of his pajamas.
Nobody moves. Nobody speaks. All eyes are riveted on the ugly patch of purple that probably looks worse than it is against Cale's pale skin.
It's Ron who breaks the silence first, glancing at his son, "Do you recognize it?"
Beacrox moves to the fore of the group and glares at the wound - or possibly Cale - like its very existence is a personal affront. "…No. It's nothing I've ever come across before."
"It was something the Ancient White Star created, and the White Star copied it," Cale tells them, and more than one face goes black. "Before me, it hasn't been seen since the ancient times."
"Did your Ancient Powers tell you that?" Eruhaben swiftly pounces on that point, and beside him, Rosalyn whips out paper and pen. "Ask them what else they know. Make them tell you everything, even if they think it isn't important. And then write it all down for us. Every word, Cale."
Cale looks up at him. The dragon's expression looks like it's been carved out of stone, but in contrast, his eyes are almost bright enough to burn, and half-hidden in his sleeves, his hands are clenched so tightly that his knuckles have gone white.
(Eruhaben had been grievously injured shortly before the final battle. Raon had cried on him, long and hard and loud. Cale on the other hand had asked again then, had taken out the life-saving artifact and leveraged everything on a single sentence, "Please don't make me lose a parent."
And in the end, when placed in the ancient dragon's hands, the jar had finally filled to the brim with water. But it had also split right down the middle the second Eruhaben had finished drinking, and that was that.)
Cale sighs and takes the pen and paper Rosalyn is holding out to him. He writes and talks at the same time. "The Ancient Powers don't know the cure-"
The Sky Eating Water cusses very loudly at him here.
"-but they've seen this poison before, so they know some of the components of the cure," Cale continues without a hitch. He can't list them all because what if his friends manage to conclude what the core ingredient is? But he nags at the Ancient Powers until they tell him the base ingredients, and that will have to do. At the very least, it's a starting point that they can work their way up from, and it'll divert them from getting any ideas about hearts, dragon or otherwise.
"Did anyone recover from this poison?"
Cale pauses before glancing up. It's the first time Choi Han has spoken, and he's watching Cale with dark unblinking eyes.
"Yes," Cale says steadily, because that's true too so he has no need to lie. "Not many, but a few did survive it. Medical research in conjunction with magic wasn't as advanced back then, and not a lot of people kept records."
"But it's possible," Choi Han nods. "So we'll figure it out."
"Stupid Choi Han!" Raon suddenly pipes up, and a moment later, Cale has a dragon draped over his shoulders this time. "Even if it wasn't possible back then, we'd still figure it out! We are great and mighty, and the White Star lost to us so he isn't going to take our human away!"
The room as a whole seems to take a much-needed breath. And then Choi Han nods again, even more resolutely. "That's right. We'll save Cale-nim no matter what."
Rosalyn comes over and takes a seat at the edge of the bed, peering at the list Cale has started. "Raon-nim is correct. Young master Cale need not worry. Between all of us, there's no way we won't be able to find a cure for this."
Cale scoffs a half-hearted sound and goes back to writing, pretending not to notice On and Hong worming their way onto his lap again. "Who's worried? Since I have all of you, won't I be fine?"
He has always been someone who could only survive thanks to the help he received from others. This time is no different. This time…
He finishes jotting down all the details and hands it back to Rosalyn. Then he reaches up to drop a hand on Raon's head as he wonders - not for the first time - if this time will finally be his end.
The entire villa throws itself into researching the poison. Pendrick is forced to admit defeat after half a day of chipping away at the poison, only for it to come back with a vengeance, tendrils creeping up to Cale's ribs and down to his thighs. Jack snatches his hands back in horror when his first prayer has Cale biting back a cry of pain as the purple deepens to a malicious black that doesn't stop bleeding for a good ten minutes.
"There's dead mana in that wound," Jack reports hoarsely. "And I can't purify it. It's like it rejects anything that comes into contact with it."
Eruhaben and Rosalyn take page after page of notes, constantly trekking between the lab and Cale's bedroom as they work. They also consult with Sheritt, and more often than not, aside from breaks for cooking the meals, Beacrox joins them, utilizing his expansive knowledge of poisons to help break this one down. Anything they can't procure as they begin their experiments is written down and sent off with Billos for the merchant to track down.
Raon, On, and Hong are on self-appointed guard duty, barely ever letting Cale out of sight. Choi Han and Ron are little better. For now, Cale can still walk around perfectly fine on his own, although after two weeks, he finds himself tiring more quickly, something that doesn't escape anyone's notice, but it mostly just means people want him to sit more often, which isn't exactly a hardship for Cale.
Alberu blows in at the end of the month, apparently having finally waded through enough work to realize something's gotten the villa up in arms.
"You should've told me!" The crown prince all but seethes as he towers over Cale. "My aunt knew before me! Even my great-grandfather knew before me! I thought you were smart! I have the entire royal library at my disposal so use it!"
Cale flicks a glance over at Choi Han, who looks simultaneously guilty and pleased with himself. Cale rolls his eyes and starts placating Alberu. "The sun of the Roan Kingdom has been too busy to even get enough sleep. My situation could wait so how could I tear our future king away from his important matters?"
He stills when hands clamp down on his shoulders, and brown eyes bore into his own.
"You're my dongsaeng," Alberu says, as grave as a god-witnessed vow. "You are an important matter to me. You drive me nuts, and the Sun God knows my first grey hairs will be because of you, but I'll be damned if I ascend the throne without you there."
Cale squints a bit at that. That sounds perilously close to bidding his slacker life goodbye. Alberu better not-
He yelps when his shoulders are released but a hand scrubs his hair into a bird's nest instead, and after a long-suffering sigh of "What am I going to do with you?", Alberu is striding away again, less agitated but no less determined as he throws on his human disguise and calls out to Raon, "Raon-nim, could you come help me pack up the medical books in the library? We might as well move them all here."
Raon instantly perks up and zooms off after him, shouting back for Cale to not move before he comes back, and then the two are gone, off to ransack a library.
In their wake, Cale arches an eyebrow at Choi Han.
Choi Han shrugs defensively. "I thought he could help."
Cale sighs and decides to go lie down for the rest of the day. He really isn't cut out for expending this much energy catering to Alberu's melodramatics.
Word gets out to a few select groups beyond their own. It can't be helped. There's only so much they can do on their own, and some of the ingredients for the cure can be found in their allies' territories so it's just easier to contact them directly. It doesn't hurt either to see if other people might have records on this poison, so it's a reasonable course of action to pursue.
Dodori, Mila, and even Rasheel are the first to retrieve whatever they think might help from their lairs. Two of the three have lived long lives, and all of them have travelled quite a bit. Some of the treasures they've amassed have more value than just monetary.
Witira and Paseton come when called. They don't know anything about it but are quick to agree to gather the two ingredients that need to be harvested from the ocean floor. Likewise, the Jungle has a rare plant they need that only blooms once every three months, so Litana finds out as well and promises to collect it for them as soon as it matures. And their alchemist allies from the Mogoru Empire become frequent callers on the villa's communication devices.
The Whipper Kingdom, the Caro Kingdom, and the Breck Kingdom don't have anything particular to offer, but their leaders all agree to search their archives for anything that might have a connection to the poison. Choi Han very reluctantly touches base with Clopeh, who comes bearing several dozen stacks of legends and lore because mythical poisons just might turn up in tales of old. Taylor looks vaguely stunned the first time he has to deal with Clopeh Sekka's insanity up close, but he graciously agrees to run down any leads on this front with the man anyway.
Cage disappears for a while before returning with a scowl on her face.
"The God of Death won't talk to me," She complains before joining Taylor and Clopeh.
And then there's the Eastern Continent with history and development of its own, so Ron and Beacrox head over to speak with Bud and Glenn, while Alberu reaches out to Jopis and Fredo. They come back with more books and a variety of herbs and antitoxins but still no sure-fire cure and definitely no mention of a dragon's heart. Cale gets to relax right up until Fredo pays him a visit, bringing Solena with him to distract the others long enough for the two of them to get a moment alone out on the balcony.
Cale only needs to take one look at the vampire to know that Fredo knows.
Fredo smiles but there's no amusement behind it. "Even if I do, someone like you should've already taken measures to prevent it, right?"
"Exactly," Cale says quickly. "So there's no point in letting them know. If they're given one way to make the cure, their scope of research will probably narrow whether they want it to or not. Since it's impossible anyway, it's better to just give them free reign to follow wherever their tests lead them."
He pauses, studying Fredo carefully before repeating, "Don't tell them."
Fredo's expression is inscrutable, but eventually, he nods once. "For now."
And then, in the space of a blink, the vampire is standing directly in front of Cale, and before Cale can so much as flinch back, Fredo has tugged up his shirt to study the poison crawling its way across Cale's flesh, large enough to cover most of his stomach area now.
Cale gives him two seconds before forcibly taking a pointed step back so that the vampire has to retract his hand if he doesn't want to rip Cale's shirt. Fredo lets him go, and his gaze is half pity, half banked displeasure when he meets Cale's gaze again.
"You soft-hearted fool," is all he says in the end, and then he's gone, ducking back inside to announce that he would search Endable's libraries for anything that might help.
Cale watches him go, and then looks over at where Eruhaben and Rosalyn and even Mary have surfaced from the lab for dinner but they've also taken their notes up with them, heads bent low, immersed in some new idea that might pan out. Beacrox is serving the food, but he's also listening very intently to the conversation, and even Bud and Glenn who've decided to stay for the week have their noses buried in papers too.
Watching them, Cale feels more than a little useless. It's not like he hasn't tried to pitch in too. He's been flipping through some of the books Bud brought over from the Eastern Continent. But Ron looked fit to murder the first time Cale tried to use [Record] - and even Cale has to admit that it was probably justifiable considering he spent the next five minutes coughing up blood, because apparently [Record] is close enough to an Ancient Power to trigger the poison - and from that point on, Choi Han and the kids have the extra duty of snatching the texts right out of his hands if he attempts to use that particular ability again.
So now he has to read the good old-fashioned way, which isn't too much of a setback because his memory is still decent even without an ability, but it also gives his brain the extra space to field his Ancient Powers' highly unhelpful input in-between.
'Just fucking tell them,' The Sky Eating Water suggests, once, more than once, several times, many times. 'And then you can all go hunt down a damn dragon that you don't know. A mean dragon with a bad personality. I'm sure nobody will mind then. It's not like dragons are great buddies with each other anyway. The only reason the ones you know all get along is because of… well, you.'
Cale just ignores her nonsense. After all, it's fact that the White Star killed most of them anyway, and if a war that threatened to bring back demons into the world didn't draw them out, then he highly doubts they even exist anymore. And even if there is one, what right does he have to go and carve out their heart just so he can live? Isn't that exactly what the White Star did?
So, for all intents and purposes, there are five dragons left in this world, six counting Sheritt, and Cale will die before he ever uses any of their hearts.
"Nature is mourning," Gashan tells him one day, looking more somber than he ever has before.
"Nature should mind its own business," Cale mutters in response and shoos Gashan away when he spots Ron approaching with his morning lemon tea.
Two months go by.
Eruhaben estimates that - judging by the rate the poison is spreading so long as it remains largely inert - they have at least another four months before it gets really serious, and aside from some exhaustion that comes and goes, Cale hasn't felt even slightly under the weather, so it's natural for everyone to have mostly let down their guard.
The two-month mark is when they get a wakeup call.
They're having lunch. People do actually have other business to attend to, and they can't all hole up in Cale's villa day in and day out, so only Cale, Choi Han, the kids, Eruhaben, and the Molans are gathered together at the dining table today. On hindsight, fewer people around to witness what happens next was probably a fortunate coincidence.
One moment, Cale is swallowing a mouthful of perfectly scrambled eggs. It's Beacrox's cooking; it's always perfect.
And then, in the next moment, his stomach roils abruptly, and something two steps left of pain lances through his torso. Cale stops, fork halfway back to his plate.
'Cale,' The Cheapskate starts like he's also sensed something wrong.
'Shit,' The Sky Eating Water summarizes succinctly.
'Brace yourself,' The Glutton warns.
"Cale-nim?" Choi Han is the one who calls out, even though half the table has fallen silent in favour of turning to look at Cale. "Is something wr-"
And that's all he has time to say before Cale drops his fork, shoves away from the table, and then twists around and gets violently sick all over the floor.
It isn't just half his lunch that he vomits back up. His vision tints red as blood and viscera burn their way up his throat and spill from his lips to splash onto the floor.
That's gonna be a pain to clean up, Cale thinks in some dim, detached part of his mind even as the rest of him heaves and coughs and chokes until he's tearing up because everything hurts.
Multiple voices are shouting in the background, someone is holding him up, and someone else has pulled his hair back to avoid the mess. Nobody tries to move him, letting whatever this is run its course, and when he finally stops throwing up what feels like half his internal organs, someone is there to scoop him up the second he starts tilting to one side.
The world slides out of focus, the voices fade. Cale only stays awake long enough to take a few sips from the water glass someone presses to his lips, and then he's out like a light as blessed oblivion drags him under.
He wakes three days later. It's night, or at least someone's turned off most of the lights and pulled the curtains shut. Cale is tucked in bed with a mountain of pillows, one dragon, and two cats surrounding him.
He stirs, feeling sluggish and not quite all the way awake. A minor headache throbs in his skull, and his stomach hurts. He tries to move his arms, but that only results in Raon jerking awake with a snuffle, which wakes the other two as well.
"Cale-nya!" Hong whisper-shouts, shooting to his feet.
"I'll call the others!" On declares before racing out of the room.
"Human," Raon is the quietest, and he doesn't do anything except cling stubbornly to Cale's side, sticking as close as possible without actually lying on top of him the way he usually does.
Cale forces his arm to move, running a hand over Raon's back, and then doing the same with Hong when he cuddles up beside the dragon.
"'m fine," He says, although maybe he shouldn't have because his voice comes out like it's been sandpapered. Then he has no more time to think about it because Ron enters the room at that moment, with Choi Han at his heels.
"Young master-nim, how are you feeling?" The butler keeps his voice pitched low, and he doesn't seem particularly agitated despite the vicious light in his eyes. For once, it actually makes Cale feel better, especially when compared to the slightly wild-eyed look on Choi Han's face.
"I'm fine," Cale says again, stronger this time, although after a moment, he tugs weakly at the blankets. "Did you guys turn off the heating? Why is it so cold?"
He catches the stillness in Ron's expression and the spike of anxiety in Choi Han's, and realizes it's a him problem and not a maintenance problem. He sighs. "Never mind, I can just-"
"I'll get you more blankets!" Choi Han blurts out and then practically teleports away like he needs to be doing something.
He almost knocks into Beacrox on his way out, but the chef sidesteps him with only a cursory glance before walking the rest of the way over to Cale with a tray of tea, freshly brewed and smelling of-
"Not lemon?" Cale croaks, brightening a little.
Ron smiles and helps prop a few more pillows behind Cale so that he can sit up comfortably. "We ran out of lemons, young master-nim."
Cale happily wraps his hands around the tea mug Beacrox passes to him and greedily guzzles down a sweet mouthful.
"Drink slowly," Beacrox warns with a glower, hovering like a disgruntled employee forced to work overtime.
Cale obediently slows down, and by the time he's finished most of a cup, both his stomach and his throat actually feel better, and it's even done wonders for warming him up, although he doesn't mind when Choi Han returns with a teetering armful of blankets. He also doesn't feel like throwing up again, which is a definite plus.
The door opens again just as Beacrox finishes refilling his mug, and Eruhaben strides in with On trotting after him. Cale nearly does a double-take when he sees the almost frazzled air around the ancient dragon. "…Eruhaben-nim?"
"You unlucky bastard," Eruhaben growls as he stalks over to stand on the other side of Cale's bed. He leans forward, and there's an edge to his otherwise smooth movements that reminds Cale of a dragon's natural lethality, but the hand that comes up to rest against his forehead and the fingers that feel for the pulse in his neck are infinitely gentle.
Cale hastily gulps down a huge mouthful of the tea, ignoring the huff from Beacrox.
"I'm alright," Cale says once he's swallowed. He does honestly feel better.
But Eruhaben only shakes his head, features drawing tight. "You're not. The poison's working faster through your system." His brow knits together. "It's… oddly like a dragon's development."
Cale's fingers twitch briefly against the mug.
"We think it hit its first growth phase, so to speak," Eruhaben continues. "So even without a stimulus, it's gone ahead and mutated into something stronger." He withdraws, and his gaze drops to Cale's stomach area. "Our estimated timeline has changed. Basically, you've jumped forward about three months, and your condition is only going to get worse from here. It might even speed up again in another few weeks if it goes through a second growth phase."
The room feels like a cemetery after Eruhaben finishes, and Cale can feel Raon's tears soaking through his pajamas even though the black dragon doesn't make a sound. Hong shivers beside him, and On pads over to curl at Cale's hip, propping her chin on his thigh.
"Are you sure your Ancient Powers don't know anything else?" Eruhaben presses insistently. "Can you ask them again? Perhaps they forgot something that can help."
Cale looks down at his tea. The hope in the faces around him is hard to look at. 'Guys?'
'We haven't forgotten anything,' The Super Rock says. He sounds resigned. 'You just won't tell them everything.'
Cale clenches his teeth against a sudden rush of irritation. 'Do you want me to be like the White Star?'
A deafening beat of silence rings between them all.
'Cale,' The Glutton finally says, unbearably gentle and unbearably sad. 'We just want you to live.'
'Don't be stupid,' Water adds. 'Even if you do this, you're never gonna be anything like the White Star.'
'Don't you want to live your slacker life and spend more money?' The Fire of Destruction offers like an incentive.
'Don't you want to watch your kids grow up?' The Thief tacks on, much more sensibly.
'Being alive is the best,' Vitality murmurs in an echo of another time and another man.
'Don't sacrifice yourself,' The Super Rock says. 'Didn't you want to live a long happy life with your friends and family? Didn't you promise your team leader that you would start a farm?'
Cale takes a long draught from his mug.
"No," He says, and watches dispassionately as everyone seems to deflate a little. "They don't know anything else."
"No matter," Eruhaben draws himself up, and even the shadows seem to retreat from the faint glow he's giving off. "We'll figure it out, you unlucky bastard, I promise."
Cale nods and doesn't say anything else.
Cale only manages to get out of bed and move around for another three weeks or so. After the first time he almost took a tumble down a flight of stairs because his legs gave out unexpectedly, and only Choi Han's timely reflexes and Raon's magic prevented a major accident, he's confined to bedrest or a wheelchair from that point on.
He also can't eat solid foods anymore. They try one more time - something still delicious but light - but Cale heaves it all back up and almost passes out again after five minutes of emptying the contents of his stomach and possibly his entire chest cavity. After that, even if he doesn't call it quits, Beacrox would refuse to cook him anything heavier than a broth anyway.
Cale doesn't mind much. He has the best chef in the world in his employ, so at least his taste buds aren't suffering.
The rest of him can't be said to feel the same. He'd put it off until the next time he woke, but when he stripped for a bath, even he had to cringe at the mass of malevolent-looking black-and-purple contamination spanning most of the length and width of his torso and halfway down his legs. The tendrils have snaked down almost to his knees, around to his back, and up to his shoulders. The only area it seems to have actively avoided is his heart.
'It's meant to be a slow bleed,' Vitality explains gloomily. 'You'll suffer before you die.'
Just his luck, Cale thinks, and then does his best to put it out of his mind. No point brooding about it, and on the bright side, at least it grants him more time.
The days slip by like sand in an hourglass, and the tension in the air thickens with every passing day. Cale's pretty sure Eruhaben has all but stopped sleeping. Rosalyn isn't much better, and Beacrox's expression grows darker every time Cale eats a little less than the meal before. Choi Han's taken to pacing the hall outside Cale's bedroom like a caged animal or sparring with Hannah or Lock to relieve stress, Ron is practically living in Cale's shadow these days, and the kids alternate between sticking silently to him like glue and entertaining him with stories and made-up games that don't require moving and a list of all the things they would go and do once Cale gets better.
They sound more and more frantic by the day, and Cale can't help but think, this is why I didn't want to tell them at all.
They start feeding him magical concoctions that help mitigate some of the increasing side-effects. Pendrick comes around every other week to play a balancing game with the poison, shoring up Cale's immune system without making anything worse.
By the fourth month though, Cale has lost a third of his original body weight, he aches all over like he's nursing a fever even when he isn't, and he's cold almost all the time.
The wheelchair no longer sees any use.
"Human," Raon says one night in positively serene tones. "If you die, I will destroy the world."
Cale is dozing on and off after a full half-hour spent retching up blood and water and little else into the toilet. Ron had stuck with him the entire time, and by the end, even Cale thinks the old man's fingers would've been trembling if he'd been anyone else, what with how tightly he'd been holding Cale's arms as he'd half-steered, half-carried him back to bed.
He forces his eyes open now and stares up at the ceiling for a while. "No you won't."
He senses more than sees Raon puff up, wings flaring. "I will-!"
"You won't," Cale interrupts. "Because even without me, you'll still have a family. You won't be alone."
"IT'S NOT THE SAME!" Raon shouts, and he must've put up a soundproof barrier because nobody comes running. "It's not the same! You can't die, Human, I won't allow it! I am great and mighty, I can do anything, even if Goldie Gramps can't, I'll save you- mmph!"
He's cut off abruptly when Cale curves a hand around the dragon's back and pulls him forward into his chest. Raon's wings flap a few times in surprise before all of him just falls limp. Claws prickle Cale's skin through his clothes, but not enough to hurt.
His shirt is getting wet again.
He doesn't really know what to say to make Raon feel better. He's never been good at this sort of thing.
"You won't be alone," is all he can say in the end, holding Raon as tightly as he can. "And I'm still here right now. Don't go knocking me out of the running yet."
Raon cries himself to sleep, and Cale feels like the worst sort of trash in existence.
Cale and Alberu have always been able to understand each other without words, in all matters, almost right from the very beginning of their acquaintance, so when Cale looks at his visiting hyung's haggard face and smiles very calmly, Alberu pales about five shades in response before lunging forward and shaking him - very gently - by the collar.
"Don't you fucking dare give up, you bastard," Alberu bites out, not at all like the Roan Kingdom's vaunted crown prince.
Cale shakes his head. "I won't. I'm not. But…"
Alberu swears like a barbarian and collapses back into his seat.
"I hate you so much right now," Alberu rasps, before spending the rest of the afternoon torturing Cale with recounts of the new cheesy sobriquets and epic poetry that the public masses have come up for him.
You'll take care of them if I don't make it?
Of course I will.
Cale and Alberu have always been able to understand each other without words, in all matters, almost right from the very beginning of their acquaintance. This time is no different.
"The messenger said that Countess Violan is threatening to visit if you do not go home, young master-nim," Ron tells him after bringing him the thirteenth letter that the Henituse household has sent since shortly after the war ended. Cale had rejected the first twelve, and now it's come back to bite him in the ass. He should've gone back at least once when he still could.
"I'm already home," He mutters absently, unfolding the parchment Ron hands him. He likes his blood family - Lily and Basen are cute kids and doing him a huge favour by taking over what's essentially supposed to be his responsibility, Violan is peripherally like what he thinks a mother should probably be, and Deruth's indulgence has helped Cale get away with a lot. And even if there aren't all those things to take into account, he'd still watch out for them because the original Cale had loved them in his own way, even if he'd felt completely alienated from them too.
But realistically speaking, Cale's family will first and foremost always be the people who live with him in this villa, or come and go regularly enough to have their own rooms— those who have travelled with him and fought with him and backed him to the very bloody end and back.
"Reject it," Cale sighs after scanning the contents. His hands shake too much nowadays to hold writing utensils properly. "I can't go like this anyway. And make sure none of them comes here. Just make up an excuse."
"You won't tell them?" Ron asks as he takes the letter back.
Cale rubs a hand over his face and thinks about what he knows and has pieced together of Deruth's character. "I don't want to drag them into this too. Basen and Lily are still just kids, and not like Raon and On and Hong or even the Wolf children. Besides, if the worst happens, it's better if Father doesn't check out on his wife and kids too early."
He pauses, then smiles a bit wryly to himself. Sometimes, he thinks even he forgets that he isn't the original Cale, but even if he were, wouldn't it still be the same? "Well, since it's me, it probably won't matter as much."
There's a dull thunk from his left, and he almost jumps out of his skin when he turns and finds that Ron has embedded the letter opener into the nightstand.
"My apologies," Ron intones, mild as milk even as he wrenches the knife out again. "My hand slipped."
Cale gapes at him. "No… worries?"
Ron smiles benignly back at him, but then he also says, "Young master-nim, I hope you know that you matter very much to a great many people."
Cale stares at him for a long moment. "…Don't be weird. Go write the letter."
Ron actually manages to look faintly exasperated, but only for a second, and then he bows and heads out to do as instructed, although not before he makes sure Choi Han is available to sit with him next. Cale is never alone anymore.
He hasn't been alone in a long time.
He doesn't much want to be either.
The second so-called growth phase strikes at around the five-month mark. Cale is taking a midday nap when he jolts awake and just knows.
He's mostly been left to his own devices for the time being. Even Raon is off with Mary, and On and Hong are out stretching their legs. Eruhaben is the only one with him, out of his lab for once and sleeping on the couch across the room. He's a dragon, not a strand of hair out of place and still as ridiculously beautiful as ever, but damn if he doesn't look tired too. Cale really doesn't want to wake him up.
But he can almost feel the poison acting up - his lungs begin to struggle, his vision blurs, and he can taste the tang of blood at the back of his throat.
"Eruhaben-nim," He gasps out as he pushes up onto one elbow, and the ancient dragon snaps awake like someone's flipped a switch.
He's at Cale's side between one breath and the next, and that's the last thing Cale registers because every part of him seizes in the next second, and his world explodes in agony.
There is so much blood - that's all he knows. It feels like there's so much more than his body should be able to hold, clogging up his sinuses and throat, and searing through his tear ducts, to the point where he thinks he might've drowned in it if he wasn't being tipped forward. It soaks through his pajamas too as everything infected by the poison rips open, and distantly, he wonders if this is what it feels like to be flayed alive.
He feels like he's burning.
He feels like he's freezing.
He feels like he's dying.
He thinks he hears someone murmuring apologies and comfort in turn, thinks he hears someone else crying, and even more people muttering feverishly between themselves.
By the time this bout tapers off, Cale doesn't even have the energy to hold himself up. He's propped against someone's much sturdier frame, and he just knows he's gotten blood all over them too. He's dizzy and almost completely purblind, and every breath feels like razorblades.
"Hurts," He slurs, whimpers, sobs, and ah, maybe the one crying is just him.
"I know. I know, I'm sorry," Someone says, and there are fingers running through his hair, soothing enough to make Cale turn instinctively into it. "You're going to be alright. Just breathe now."
At least he's capable of that much again, and exhaustion is already weighing down on him. Unconsciousness is a wish away, and Cale has no desire to fight it.
Cale slumps, boneless with fatigue even as his body continues twitching with pain every few seconds. But he's thankfully no longer forced to weather it while awake, and once his heartbeat has mostly evened out again, Eruhaben carefully passes him over to Ron so he can wash and change him while someone else strips the bedsheets. Pillows and rug are all going to have to go as well, and…
Eruhaben glances down at himself. He could probably use magic to clean the blood out of his clothes, but… no. He doesn't need the reminder of his child convulsing and heaving up his weight in blood and guts.
"Get some fluids into him as soon as possible," He says, and his voice sounds a bit strange even to his own ears, though in what way, he's not quite sure. "I need to change."
Nobody stops him. Nobody follows either, and so Eruhaben is free to teleport back to his room and set up a barrier before promptly lashing out with enough fury and mana to shatter every breakable object in the vicinity. Which, to a dragon, is basically everything.
He doesn't know how long he stands there in the dark of his bedroom, but eventually, he fetches a new set of clothes, burns the one that's gone tacky with drying blood, cleans himself up, and then makes his way back out, not to the fifth floor but to his lab instead.
-running out of time.
Cale doesn't really wake up properly after that. He drifts in and out, day and night, and sometimes even gains enough awareness to respond and communicate. But he can't sit up without aid, he can barely keep water down, let alone any of the broths Beacrox tries to make for him, and he's rarely ever not bleeding from somewhere, either coughing it up, or running a nosebleed or some part of his body - stained black - would reopen. It's gotten to the point where they have to change his bandages every few hours because he just bleeds through them.
Cale doesn't have much of an opinion about any of this. He's just… tired.
'I'm sorry,' He directs at his Ancient Powers one day, studying the dots of red that have seeped through the white strips wound around his arms. 'You might have to die with me.'
'Don't be a fucking moron,' Water immediately rebukes.
'We're already long dead,' Wind reminds him, briskly but not unkindly. 'You're the one who gave us far more time to live and even see each other again than any of us ever expected.'
'And who knows, there's still time,' The Shield says with an adamant sort of optimism. 'Don't give up yet.'
'Glutton and I can't exert most of our power,' Vitality adds. 'But we can give a nudge here and there to keep your heart as strong as possible.'
'I'd set the poison on fire for you if it wouldn't just make it worse,' Fire grouses. 'But you have to keep fighting. The strongest fires only stop when we decide to stop.'
'We're with you,' The Super Rock finishes, solid with conviction. 'If this is the path you've chosen, then our answer is still the same - we'll walk it with you until the very end.'
"Human?!" Raon flutters into the air, paws waving in a panic. "Are you crying?! Don't cry! Do you want apple- no, our Human can't have apple pie right now. Do you want water? A story? Don't be sad! Goldie Gramps and Smart Rosalyn said they're getting close! You just have to rest a lot until then!"
Cale smiles, blinks the water out of his eyes, and motions for Raon to come back down. "I know, I'm not worried. I wouldn't mind a story though."
Raon agrees with a vigorous nod before launching into the fifth of a growing saga about a great and mighty dragon protagonist and their human companion, on a journey around the world that consists of plenty of scams and property damage as they save strays and lost souls alike.
Cale leans back against his pillows and tries not to laugh as he listens to his dragon ramble on.
By the sixth-month mark, Rosalyn excuses herself from the villa and disappears for two hours before coming back with red-rimmed eyes. Choi Han looks like he's on the verge of a mental breakdown as he occupies a piece of wall in Cale's bedroom and stares intensely at its occupant for most of the day. Hong stays by Cale's side, as does Raon, but On has taken to patrolling the forest surrounding the villa, and fog can usually be seen blanketing the trees even when the sun is at its zenith. Lord Sheritt can't leave the castle but she hovers in front of a communication device and asks for an update every couple hours even when nothing's changed.
Beacrox almost never leaves the kitchen anymore, making soup after soup, trying to create something that Cale will be able to stomach while also consisting of all the nutrients he needs. Lock and his siblings seesaw between training like the poison is something they can shred apart with their claws and wandering the grounds like lost children. Eruhaben runs experiment after experiment with batches of ingredients that get rarer by the week, and none of the other dragons complains when he orders them out to fetch this or that plant or artifact found in some musty corner of the world. And Ron does as he always has - sees to Cale's daily needs with dedicated precision, seemingly the calmest one of them all.
Visitors come and go. Cage has taken to cursing the absent God of Death under her breath every other hour, and Adite wearily video-calls them after a long but futile four hours spent arguing with a stubbornly silent World Tree.
Cale spends more time asleep than awake. The poison has grown past his neck, creeping past his jawline, and his cheekbones look sharp enough to cut. He's deathly pale enough to pass for a ghost, and gaunt enough to probably give Count Deruth a sledgehammer of a flashback to his first wife on her deathbed if he could see his eldest son now. He bleeds and bleeds, and even Ron is sick of changing blood-soaked bandages five times a day.
Every breath Cale takes rattles in his lungs like a death knell, and for the first time since he brought them all here and made it a home for them, the villa no longer feels welcoming.
Fredo visits again one night. He stands for a long time at the foot of Cale's bed, just observing Cale and ignoring the warning rattle of a sword in its scabbard behind him, and then he turns and meets Ron's eyes from where the butler is staring at him from a chair by the nightstand, before walking out the door.
Ron watches him leave through narrowed eyes before glancing once at Choi Han and then getting up as well.
The hall is dimly lit and empty aside from the two of them.
"What?" Ron demands bluntly because even he's just about reached the end of his patience after these long six months of watching his puppy young master waste away.
The vampire looks from Ron to the bedroom door and back again.
"I gave him a chance to find another way," Fredo finally says. "I believe I've waited long enough."
Ron frowns. The vampire smiles, already half-turning to leave. "Ask my dear son if he's really told you everything he knows about this poison. Or ask yourself what is more important to Cale Henituse than his own life."
The vampire disappears down the hall, and Ron does not stop him. He's too busy thinking back on everything that's happened over the past half-year, of his young master's insistence on only knowing pieces of the cure from back in the ancient times, and of Eruhaben's increasing frustration because "I'm missing something. Something that connects all of this together. It's as if I have all the pieces but… nothing to build it on."
Most of all, Ron thinks about what has been bothering him for a while now - his young master has never not been obstinately, single-mindedly proactive when going after something he wants. What he wants, he will get, even if he has to crawl his way there while coughing up blood, but in these past six months, even when he could still move around well enough, he has been everything but proactive since the moment he admitted to the poisoning.
Something else occurs to Ron right then, not from these six months but before, that same day they'd found out about the poison in fact, when Cale had also come home from Huiss.
What had he been doing in Huiss? Ron had assumed it was for one of his usual meetings with the crown prince, everyone had, and then he'd assumed Cale had told His Highness of the poisoning first. That had been proven wrong when the crown prince had burst in only a month later to give Cale a well-deserved dressing-down, but with everything else going on, Ron hadn't thought any further on the matter at the time.
On hindsight, Cale had never actually said he was meeting with His Highness. But if Ron assumes that there was no meeting at all, then what other reason could there have been for his young master to go to the Capital?
What else is in the Capital?
Ron stares in the direction the vampire king had left in. And then he turns on his heel to go and find a communication device linked to the crown prince. He needs a confirmation first, even if it means pulling His Highness out of bed at two in the morning.
Cale is woozy and vaguely nauseous when he comes to, but then he always is these days. The only thing that's different this time is the gentle but unyielding hand on his shoulder and Ron's voice in his ears, "Young master-nim, what were you doing in Huiss the day you told me you had been poisoned?"
A beat, two, and then it's like being doused in cold water. Cale still feels too groggy by far, but he's suddenly a lot more awake than he was three seconds ago. He pries his eyelids open and turns startled eyes on Ron, who isn't smiling at all. It's as if the butler has taken a backseat and the assassin has come to the fore, and all that lethal piercing acuity has converged onto Cale.
For a man who has really only known Kim Rok Soo turned Cale Henituse for not even three years, Ron is still the person who can read him best.
"Did it have something to do with the cure?" The old man forges on with uncompromising intent. "Because you know what it is, don't you, young master-nim?"
Cale breathes, and breathes, and breathes again. "…I've already told you guys everything about it, Ron."
The stare Ron pins him with is chillingly clinical. "You have told us everything you want us to know about it. That should be closer to the truth, yes?"
Cale says nothing this time, but that alone probably gives him away, or maybe it's whatever expression has made it onto his face. Either way, Ron's grip on his shoulder tightens ever-so-slightly and gives him a minute shake. "Young master-nim, you need to tell us right now. Whatever it is, we will retrieve it." He pauses, some internal thought flashing through him. "And we will retrieve it without cost to ourselves."
Cale's next breath comes out in an embarrassing wheeze of a sound, and it takes even himself a moment to realize it's because a laugh has bubbled up inside him without warning. It trails off into a few gravelly coughs that puts blood on his tongue, but fortunately, it's not so much to need the bucket, although it does pitch him forward a little as he curls in on himself to brace against the pain.
The hand at his shoulder lets go, only to rub circles down his back, rough from years of work but warm and familiar.
In contrast, "Young master-nim," Ron repeats in a voice like steel. "What are we missing?"
A door slams open in that moment and Eruhaben of all people barrels in with ink on his fingers and a messy sheaf of papers in one hand.
"Growth phase!" The dragon all but spits out, and behind him, it's as if the entirety of the villa has crowded themselves in the doorway, having given up entirely on pretending they weren't eavesdropping from the hall.
Eruhaben pays them no mind, all his attention fixated on Cale. His eyes look like they're spitting fire, and his mana swells around him like the rising tide during a monsoon.
"You selfish bastard, you knew all along!" He bares his fangs, and his next words come out in a snarl, "A dragon's heart - that's the last ingredient, isn't it? The heart of a dragon, freshly harvested. That's why you wouldn't say a gods-damned word."
There are multiple gasps from the door, and rapid whispers follow. Raon swoops up to hover above Eruhaben's head, and his eyes have gone very wide.
And Cale. Cale laughs and laughs until he's choking on his own blood, and it's not even funny - it's not funny at all - but for a long hysterical moment, he can't bring himself to stop.
"There's nothing you can do about it," He chokes out, and everybody falls ominously silent. "I already… I already made a Vow… at the Church… the Church of the God of Death in Huiss. No living dragon's heart… can be used on me, willingly or… or otherwise. I even named you all, just… just in case, you and Raon… and Dodori and Mila and Rasheel. Even Sheritt-nim. Just in case." He breaks off, coughing and coughing and coughing. "Even if I die, I won't take any of your hearts."
And he hadn't wanted them to know. What was the point? They couldn't use one even if they wanted to, and knowing Eruhaben…
He drags his head up to meet Eruhaben's livid, devastated gaze.
He thought he'd made the right choice, and now he knows he did. Because this ancient dragon right here would've ripped his own heart out for him if that was the only way, and Cale isn't ever going to let that happen.
And Raon. Cale shifts his gaze to the black dragon, still so terribly young, too young to look as anguished as he does. Cale couldn't rule out what Raon might do for him too. He's too young to know better.
So, Cale had made it impossible, just in case, and then he hadn't told them, because he'd known that this would be the result, and that it would just hurt them. Best-case scenario, they would find a different cure without the added obstacle of tunnel-vision. Worst-case scenario, Cale would die, and they would never know about the original cure.
Except neither of those things has happened because the universe just can't give him a break, and now he has to deal with the fallout.
Probably not for much longer though, with the way his body feels like it's tearing itself apart from the inside.
"Can we find another dragon?" Choi Han asks abruptly from the doorway, and everybody turns to look at him. There is something almost manic in his eyes, a threat and promise both as he says, "Won't another dragon work? I can kill them. I will kill them."
"The White Star probably killed any dragons that aren't us," Rasheel growls with ill temper from the back of the crowd.
"And even if he didn't," Mila adds through pursed lips. "Teacher stipulated a living dragon, and the heart apparently needs to be freshly harvested. You can't have a living dragon and a freshly harvested heart at the same time."
Choi Han's mana flares, black and agitated. "Then-"
"A living dragon," Raon abruptly interjects. He's still staring at Cale. "Is it really just a living dragon, Human?"
Cale has slumped back against the pillows, and he actually doesn't feel all there anymore. His tongue feels too heavy, and he can only blink dazedly back at the black dragon.
Raon doesn't seem to need him to answer, and in that moment, his expression is oddly calculating and even more oddly similar to the one that Cale often wears. "Goldie Gramps, it's just a living dragon."
Eruhaben stares for several thundering heartbeats, and when he turns back to Cale, his mana is a near-crushing weight on everything except the bed.
"Cale," And Cale can barely make out Eruhaben's face now, but the dragon's gold eyes are clear, glittering with something violent and ruthless and full of an incandescent sort of wrath as he demands in dangerously soft tones, "Did you include the dragon half-blood in your Vow? Did you include him separately from the definition of a 'living dragon'?"
Cale's breath stutters in his chest for only a fraction of a second—
He forgot about-
The dragon half-blood should count as a dragon, right? Except technically-
The difference shouldn't matter anyway because the hearts were all consumed-
A dead dragon's heart, still beating in the body of a chimera.
—and that's enough to give the truth away.
Eruhaben's face is a blazing portrait of feral triumph and draconic savagery as he spins on his heel and storms for the door, his crackling mana leaving scorch marks in his wake, and he only slows when Cale tries to call him back, voice cracking halfway, barely above a whisper, "Eruhaben-"
He dissolves into a new fit of wet coughs that stain his bedspread a worryingly dark crimson, but he still hears Eruhaben's reply just fine, as if the ancient dragon is speaking both out loud and straight into Cale's head, clear as the echo of a bell, "I will now return the same sentiment to you, Cale. Please don't make me lose a child."
Cale goes stone-still, and even his coughing seems to stall for a moment. Eruhaben is gone in the next second, and with how merciless his resolve currently feels, there's no way the dragon half-blood will be able to escape, especially when Choi Han and the other dragons all take off after him, Raon included.
Cale inhales a shaky, shuddering breath. He doesn't know what he should do next.
"Young master-nim," Ron says, and even though the butler's voice sounds muted and very far away, his words still come through, and he's still supporting Cale. "This is simply how important you are to all of us. Please do not deprive us of the privilege."
Cale lets the old man ease him back against the pillows again. He closes his eyes. He thinks he should try to protest more, because the dragon half-blood is pitiable, and even if Cale still hasn't forgiven everything he did during the war, it's also fact that they'd become allies in the end.
In a way, the dragon half-blood is also one of Cale's people, and he ate four dragon hearts, but the fifth, the one Raon thought of and the one Eruhaben is aiming for, the one that resides within the dragon half-blood's own—
He doesn't know what to do, what he can do. He's just-
He's so tired.
He's so cold.
And everything hurts.
"Young master-nim, go to sleep," Ron tells him, and there is a hand combing through his hair. "Everything will be better when you wake up."
And it's easy, so easy, for once, to just let someone else decide.
Cale exhales and lets his consciousness fade.
The next time Cale awakens, he feels… fine.
Well, he's starving, and thirsty, and he feels frailer than usual, like a strong gust of wind might knock him over if he tries standing up right now, but otherwise, he doesn't feel like coughing up blood, he isn't cold, all his bandages have been removed, and most importantly, he isn't in any pain anymore.
He opens his eyes and is almost blinded by the sunlight streaming into the room. It takes a few moments to adjust, but the warmth of it feels pretty good.
'Look who's finally awake!' Water cheers.
'You aren't going to die!' Vitality enthuses.
'I'm so hungry!' The Glutton complains. 'The poison put up a huge fight! The antidote won in the end, but your heart was touch and go for a while there. Vitality and I had to time it just right so we wouldn't accidentally strengthen the poison, but we'd be able to protect your heart. And now I'm hungry! Call for Beacrox!'
'Shut up! We should spend money first!' The Cheapskate shouts. 'Spending money after almost dying feels the best!'
The Sound of the Wind and the Super Rock are contented presences at the back of his mind, refraining from adding to the racket, which Cale definitely doesn't mind. He suppresses the unbidden tug at his own lips and sits up to look around instead.
His sheets have been changed again, as have his pajamas. Someone has washed his hair and bathed him, and he feels better than he has in what feels like forever.
And then of course, that's when reality finally kicks back in, and he remembers exactly what had to have happened for him to be alive.
The door swings open.
"Oh, you're awake," Alberu says, striding over to drop into the seat next to Cale's bed. He beams in a distinctly smarmy way that makes Cale want to punch him. "After scaring everyone to death and back, how do you feel?"
Reflex almost has Cale opening his mouth to praise the crown prince as extravagantly as usual, but the words stall on his tongue. Instead, he looks at Alberu, looks around the room again, then presses a hand to his abdomen. "What happened? Is everyone okay?"
Alberu scoffs and drops the smile. "I knew that was what you were going to ask first. What do you think could've possibly happened to them? One not-actually-a-dragon versus five dragons and one swordmaster. You do the math. Also, it's not as if the dragon half-blood was reluctant."
Cale frowns. "They asked first?"
Alberu shrugs. "From what I was told, Raon-nim asked. I don't know if it would've been less cruel to just kill him directly, but that's what happened, and the dragon half-blood agreed." He rakes an assessing eye over Cale. "He didn't have long to live anyway. A couple more months, right? So we actually did him a favour in the end. I don't know the specifics, but now, without the dragon's heart, he has a few months more."
Cale jerks with surprise. "Wait, he's alive?"
Alberu finally smiles again, looking amused this time. "You'll have to ask Eruhaben-nim for the details, but apparently, they found a way to remove the dragon's heart without killing him. It was a shock to everyone." He tips his head to the side in consideration. "I don't think Eruhaben-nim would've tried if the dragon half-blood hadn't agreed. But yes, he's alive. You can go say hi later."
He levels an admonishing look on Cale now. "You really made everyone worry, dongsaeng." His expression pinches. "It was really close this time."
Cale glances away. "…Where is everyone?"
"Outside," Alberu jabs a finger over his shoulder. "Literally right outside. But we thought it would be better not to overwhelm you, and I won the latest game of rock-paper-scissors so I got to come in first."
Cale sighs and sags back against the pillows. Alberu observes him for a while before remarking, "It's the heart, isn't it? It belonged to Raon-nim's sibling. That's what's bothering you, right?"
Cale doesn't reply. Alberu sighs this time before rising to his feet. "Alright, well, my part's done for now, so I'm going to let Raon-nim take over."
He reaches out, suddenly, and pulls Cale right into a hug. Cale goes stiff before slowly relaxing, and when it's clear Alberu isn't going to let go until he reciprocates, he huffs and returns the hug.
"We would be so much worse without you," Alberu murmurs simply before releasing him.
Cale watches him leave, and then watches Raon enter. Unlike Cale, the black dragon doesn't hesitate, flitting across the room with a joyful shout, "Human, you're awake!"
He slams into Cale's chest like a mini-rocket, and Cale is helpless to do anything except coax the creature into his lap. Honestly.
"Never do that again!" Raon bellows. "Or I will destroy everything! Human, we are supposed to fight together! You can't sacrifice yourself like that! You taught me that!"
Cale lets the dragon rant on a bit, petting his head and listening quietly, but eventually, when Raon takes a long enough breath, he tells him, "That was your sibling's heart. Is that really okay?"
Raon huffs loudly and pulls back just far enough to look Cale in the eye very seriously. "Human, my sibling is dead. The White Star killed them a long, long time ago. After that, no matter what, it was just a heart. But you are still alive, and you needed it to live! You weren't hurting my sibling, so of course it's okay!"
Cale mulls that over for a moment, and then goes back to petting Raon when he finds that he has nothing to say. It's Raon who continues, "And don't worry, my mo- mm, ahem, my mom understands too, and she said that if it really bothers you, then look after yourself better because you're carrying the potential of two hearts now."
Cale finally stops and lets his hand rest against Raon's back. Blue eyes peer up at him expectantly. Cale sighs.
"Okay," He says, because what else can he say? "I'll remember, and if I don't, you remember to remind me, alright?"
Raon beams. "Of course, Human! I am the great and mighty Raon Miru! I'll take care of you whether you forget or not!"
Cale breathes out a laugh, and in the temporary privacy of his bedroom, he finally gives in to the urge and gathers his dragon into a hug.
"By the way, what put Ron on my trail in the first place?"
"Hm? Oh! Lemonade Gramps said the vampire dropped a hint!"
"Did he? We should send him a present then. An exploding present."
"Really? Can I send him a mana bomb?"
"…Well, maybe I'll reconsider."
"I'm sorry." Cale yields first because he knows he miscalculated, and it ended in a lot of unnecessary grief for everyone.
In front of him, Eruhaben arches an imperious eyebrow. "For?"
Cale grimaces. "I'm sorry I kept it from you. I should've told you from the beginning. I gave you a lot of extra work, and made you worry for months."
Eruhaben laughs coldly. "But you're not sorry you made that Vow."
Cale meets the other's gaze evenly. He would absolutely never be sorry for that.
For a second, it looks like the ancient dragon's temper might rear its head, but then he does the opposite, and his shoulders slump a little instead, nothing like the regal posture Eruhaben has always had.
"I'll die someday, Cale," Eruhaben says quietly.
"But not for a long time," Cale says firmly.
"Yes, because of an interfering brat who doesn't know how to mind his own business," Eruhaben says very dryly. He sobers a moment later. "You are much, much, much younger than I am. You, and Raon, you cannot go before me, Cale."
Silence falls like a blanket of snow before sunrise. Cale takes a deep breath. "I'll try harder, to be… to not get into as much trouble, and to share my problems more often, even if I think it might be better not to. But you have to try hard too."
Eruhaben somehow manages to snort without diminishing any of his grace. "I suppose that's the best I'm going to get." He sighs, but the last of the severity in his expression melts away, leaving something soft and fond. "Fine, you unlucky bastard, we will both endeavour to stay away from any self-sacrificing acts."
Cale quirks a smile, Eruhaben sighs again, and the world feels a little brighter, just because they're here.
"You didn't kill the dragon half-blood."
"Well, he seems a little too prone to sacrifice these days too. Besides, I do have some sense of measure."
"He could've refused."
"Please, I am a dragon. Naturally, I must do whatever it takes to guard the things that are important to me. So no, he couldn't have refused when refusal was never an option."
"I'm going to be drinking a lot of lemonade, aren't I?" Cale grumbles, swirling the glass that Ron has just handed to him.
"We received a new shipment of lemons," Ron says without mercy.
Cale slants a look at him, and the butler smiles back with terrifying benevolence. Cale huffs and downs his lemonade as quickly as possible.
He doesn't say thank-you, because emotional heart-to-hearts aren't how they work. But he drinks the lemonade Ron brings him, and doesn't stray from the old man's side all day. He spends time with On and Hong and tries not to look too horrified when they show off the assassination skills of the Molan household. He watches Beacrox and Choi Han take snarky verbal jabs at each other, the former whipping up some ice-cream for everyone upon Cale's request, the latter determined to keep Cale within his line of sight at all times for at least the next few days.
He spends the rest of the afternoon napping because he's still recovering, perfectly at ease under Ron's vigilant gaze, and that's enough for both of them.