Somehow, I open my eyes.
JUN: I’m alive?
I definitely, definitely thought I was dead. The fog of a dreamless sleep hangs over me as I struggle to take inventory. My hands jolt to the spot where I was stabbed, but there’s nothing there. Wait, no—I hike my shirt up to observe the spot, and there’s actually a faint mark. But it’s closed and hard to notice unless you’re looking for it.
I trace the spot gently, then firmly, as if to pry open the skin there like a false door. But it doesn’t give way.
My awareness of self works its way outwards slowly. I’m not in any pain. I’m lying in a bed. The bed in the spare room Krystoff gave to me. But I’ve only been staying in here for less than a month, so it still feels a little foreign to wake up in. My mask is on the nightstand next to me. Though wearing it now feels a little bit like a moot point, so I let it rest there.
There’s a quiet knock at my door.
JUN: Come in…
KRYSTOFF: Jun? Are you okay?
Krystoff walks into the room and clicks the door behind him closed, gently and methodically, as if afraid to make any sound. As if afraid something that small could break me now. His relief to see me up and alert is palpable.
His entire midsection is wrapped in bandages, which immediately draws my attention. He leans a resting Regenald against the wall and approaches.
JUN: I’m fine. Are you okay? What the hell happened? How am I alive?
He smiles and gestures to a spot on the edge of the mattress, so I gesture back for him to sit. He isn’t floating, and Regenald is asleep, and his wound hasn’t healed all the way… I suspect I might already know the answer to my own questions.
JUN: You tapped out your energy, didn’t you?
His smile wanes.
JUN: And you haven’t healed because you spent all your power keeping me alive.
KRYSTOFF: It’s fine. It’s a small price to pay. I’ll recover eventually…
JUN: But now what are you going to do about Rotys’lav? And your fucking dad??
JUN: And—and… I can’t stay here now, can I? The barrier will eject me at the end of the year without you to stop it.
This point seems to grieve Krystoff more deeply than the prospect of his brother killing him and his father working towards totalitarian reign over the entirety of Duen as we know it.
KRYSTOFF: I-it’s not all bad. It’ll take time and… my father is still a politician, after all. It’s not like he’ll completely run this land into the ground… He can’t rule over anything if he destroys it.
But he doesn’t seem so sure.
KRYSTOFF: And… who knows, maybe Rotys’lav really will be strong enough to stop Kaguyos if he successfully kills me and takes my soul.
JUN: Nothing about that comforts me even slightly. Goddamn it. Fuck! You should have let me die.
I’m just trying to be pragmatic, but he surprises me by grabbing my shoulders so hard, his nails dig painfully into me and his arms actually tremble from how viciously he’s crushing me. I jolt, meeting his eyes with reproach, and he wears a wild and severe expression.
KRYSTOFF: You… are mine. And I will not… let you… die. As long as I’m alive, you will not die.
His voice breaks and his grip loosens.
KRYSTOFF: If you’d died, I would have let Rotys’lav take my soul without a fight. The world can fall into chaos for all I care. As long as I know you’re alive—even if you can’t stay here—I can keep living, too.
JUN: Krystoff… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I just hate the idea of getting ejected from Duen and not being able to know if you’re okay. And everyone else, too, for that matter…
KRYSTOFF: In application, many people may not even be aware of the change in authority if my father starts annexing other sectors. Ideally, your friends here will be unaffected.
JUN: Well, that’s good, I guess, but what about you…? I don’t want you to die.
KRYSTOFF: Then… I will do my best to rebuild and stop my father with the others.
I have no idea how he’s going to do that considering his father has had centuries to cultivate a miserable nation and grow in power, and Krystoff has completely depleted his energy, but it seems like that’s the most proactive option, so I refrain from voicing my doubts. I’m sure Krystoff knows far better than I do what he’s up against. It pains me to know I may be leaving Krystoff to a near-certain death like that, though.
It pains me to know that I’m leaving at all, but it isn’t about me right now.
JUN: I can’t do much, but I’ll do whatever I can to help you before I have to go. Thank you for saving me, Krystoff.
KRYSTOFF: I owed you many times over. You care so unconditionally for me, it almost makes me sick. I’ve never done anything to deserve your kindness.
JUN: Don’t talk like that.
KRYSTOFF: Jun, I would like you to make another contract with me.
He reaches into a back pocket and pulls out a ring. It’s thick, weathered, and fairly nondescript. If I saw it on the ground, I might think it was a misplaced lug nut.
KRYSTOFF: This is a talisman left to me by my mother. If you wear it and you’re ever injured when I’m not nearby, it will automatically draw energy from me to heal you. It’s not quite as effective as me being physically present, but…
JUN: What? I don’t want that. What if it overdrafts and hurts you?
KRYSTOFF: It won’t if you don’t get gravely injured. Which, I certainly hope you’re not planning on doing again anytime soon.
JUN: I mean, Duen and Earth willing. But I still don’t want to risk your health for mine.
He presses it into my palm, perhaps hoping I’d put it on anyway.
KRYSTOFF: Please, Jun. It will put me at ease. I can’t bring you with me to face Rotys’lav and my father without knowing you’ll have a safety net. I don’t think I can even sleep at night anymore knowing how deplorably vulnerable and fragile you are.
It sounds like an insult, but I read it as the genuine fear it really is. In the interest of allowing him peace of mind and maintaining my ability to stay in his vicinity, I decide to cave.
JUN: Fine. But that means you have to watch out for yourself, too. If something happens to you, I’ll be just as vulnerable as I’d be without the ring.
KRYSTOFF: Nothing will happen to me.
I quirk an eyebrow at his sudden unearned bravado and slip the ring onto a finger without much pomp or circumstance. It sits unfamiliarly.
My hands then find their way to Krystoff’s bandaged sides, feeling with a butterfly lightness. I shouldn’t be messing with it, but I can’t stop myself. He is not so untouchable as we both wish he was.
JUN: …Can I see it?
KRYSTOFF: If… you want to.
He starts to undo the bandages himself, but I take over and unwind them like I’m unwrapping the world’s most grotesque present. Each new swath of his torso unveils a little more mangled flesh.
It looks like he mostly managed to close it, though the skin looks pretty tenuous and delicate, and I have to imagine his internals are still healing too. I trace my fingers as carefully as I possibly can over the razed skin… trying my best to will it into wellness. I reach my other hand around his back and touch the exit point of his lance injury as well. I can’t see it, but it feels like it more or less matches the front.
Krystoff shivers and cups my face in his hands.
KRYSTOFF: Your touch is a relief. It hurts much less when you are near.
JUN: Then… stay with me.
I mean more than just right in this moment, but I know he can’t fulfill that.
Nevertheless… he stays with me for the night.
END OF CHAPTER THREE: THE CAGE.