The party takes a long time to wind down. Even after most of the crowd has left, there’s still a few stragglers - Austin sees Abyss among them and gets the feeling that these are Naberius’s real friends sticking around to chat. Naberius doesn’t seem to want to show him off anymore, not after he ran off in the middle of talking to Kesi and Gen, so Austin slips out of the ballroom and up to his room. He’s not quite tired - there’s still anxious energy buzzing around under his skin - but a bath and a change of clothes would be nice.
As Austin undresses, the bath already filling up with warm water, he brings up Gen’s face in his mind’s eye. The way she said Landis’s name…like he was more than just a coworker. Like she knows something about him. Well - everyone in Antlers knows something about Landis.
Austin closes his eyes, bracing himself on the rim of the bathtub and sliding in. The tub is easily big enough to fit four, maybe five, people, and the water is just a notch under scalding hot. It feels nice. Austin lies still for a moment, his head barely above surface, the tension slowly ebbing out of his muscles.
Landis said that one of the witches he and Otter met in the woods that one night worked at the diner. He breathes slowly, following the line of thought as though it might slip away from him at any moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was Gen. And if she was there, if she was one of the witches who summoned Crocell back and tried to sacrifice Landis, that means -
He sits bolt upright suddenly, the motion sending ripples through the water.
“Son of a bitch,” Austin mutters. “She’s the reason Otter got possessed.”
A white-hot wave of anger passes through him, warming him even more efficiently than the bath. If her and her friends hadn’t summoned Crocell back, none of this would have happened. Rabbit. The revenant. Me almost dying. Nothing. That’s not to say that something equally bad could have happened, but - things might be better, at the very least. Otter wouldn’t have night terrors anymore. Landis wouldn’t have to feel responsible for even more people getting hurt.
Austin’s hands twitch, threatening to form fists, but he doesn’t let them. He knows he can’t reverse time, can’t kill Gen before she decides to summon Crocell, but maybe if he does it now it can be a little like revenge. If it’s for Otter’s sake - Landis’s too, really - then maybe he’ll be able to see it through.
A knock on the bathroom door startles him, making him jolt again. People rarely knock, in the apartment - Austin’s used to Otter barging in while he’s in the shower, or ghosts sliding in and out through the walls. Tentatively, he sits up in the tub and looks towards the door.
“Not quite,” Naberius says from the other side. “May I come in?”
“I’m taking a bath,” Austin says, a little awkwardly.
“I don’t mind.” A pause, then: “Unless, ah, unless, of course, you mind. In which case, I suppose I will stay out here.”
Austin doesn’t quite know what to say to that. Maybe nudity is more culturally acceptable to demons than humans have made it. That doesn’t seem like too far of a reach - they are demons, after all. He’ll have to ask Morse about it. For now, at least Naberius gave him the option for an out instead of just walking in without asking.
“Yeah, stay out there,” he says, trying to make it sound more like an agreement than an order. He gets the impression that a high class demon like Naberius wouldn’t like being told what to do.
Naberius is silent for a moment before clearing his throat awkwardly.
“I believe I owe you an apology,” he says.
Austin is expecting anything but that particular combination of words, and opens and closes his mouth in shock for a bit before finally saying “Do you?”
“Morse was right,” Naberius says. “I should have informed you about the entire champion business from the start, or before the party, at the very least. It was a selfish oversight, to let you learn of it from someone other than myself, when the contract is between the two of us. I acted out of my own self interest and for that I…am sorry.”
The words come out strained, like he’s never had to say them before. Maybe he hasn’t. Austin wouldn’t know.
“Are you only saying that because Morse told you to?” he asks Naberius, who laughs.
“Not particularly, although he was very insistent.”
“So you understand that you did something wrong, by lying to me.”
“Yes,” Naberius says, a little quieter. “I do understand.”
Austin nods, even though Naberius can’t see him. His body is still awash with anger and anxiety, but getting an apology feels good. “Apology accepted.”
Naberius is silent for so long that Austin thinks maybe he’s run out of things to say and left. But he speaks again eventually, his voice still quiet and resigned, almost vulnerable.
“I’ve never made a contract with a human before,” he says. “I haven’t particularly spoken to humans at all in a matter of centuries. It’s more difficult than I would have expected.”
“I’m your first contract?” Austin asks curiously.
“Yes.” Naberius sighs. “I was desperate. Kesi challenged me to a duel just before I left for Earth, and I thought I might kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, in finding out who had killed Crocell and enticing one of the involved parties to make a contract with me. After seeing you kill the revenant, I knew you would be an ideal candidate, but if I had mentioned it in the terms of the contract, you would never have agreed.”
Austin considers this. Abyss clued him in on Naberius’s personalities, and some of the social reasons he acts the way he does, but not the reasons behind Naberius and Kesi’s duel. He bites his bottom lip - it might be a sensitive question to ask, but he has to know. If he’s going to fight Gen, it might help to know what Naberius and Kesi’s reasons are for forcing them to kill each other.
“Why did Kesi challenge you?” he asks.
“He wanted to be the one to investigate Crocell’s death,” Naberius says. “I distrusted his motives, and the Demonic Council elected me to investigate based in the role I played in binding Crocell to the lake initially, so I declined.”
“And he didn’t like that,” Austin guesses. Kesi didn’t seem like the sort of person who takes “no” very well.
“He did not,” Naberius confirms.
“So he challenged you to a duel? Isn’t there a better way to resolve that kind of thing?”
“Kesi…was not always of the class he is now, and enjoys abusing his privileges,” Naberius says. There’s an edge of exasperation to his voice. “I believe his goal was for me to fumble any contract I attempted to make, and never find a suitable human to duel, effectively making me look like a fool in front of the other demons of rank. Many of them dislike Kesi even more than they dislike me, so he would be proving his superiority, in a sense.”
Of course. He’s a bully with an inferiority complex. Austin’s known quite a few of those in his time, but never any who were willing to put real, human lives on the line.
“I’ll help you,” he says, softly.
“I’ll help you,” Austin says, a little louder. “Kesi seems like an asshole, and I’ve got my own reasons for not wanting Gen to be around anymore. And it seems like you can’t really back out now, so we might as well work together.” He pauses, waiting for Naberius to answer, and plows ahead anyway after a moment. “I’ve got military training, and I think I could beat her with a ranged weapon, but I’m pretty sure she knows magic, too. And you know magic, so -”
“You want me to teach you magic,” Naberius says. It’s hard to tell through the door, but he sounds incredulous.
Austin tilts his chin defiantly. “Yeah.”
“And you’re best at ranged weapons?” Naberius asks.
“Duels are normally fought with swords, or daggers,” he says. “You’ll need to learn swordplay as well.”
“Fine,” Austin says, trying very, very hard not to roll his eyes. “So will you teach me or not?”
“Of course I will.” Naberius’s voice is slightly more confident. “I suggest you get some rest. I’ll have Morse wake you up bright and early tomorrow so that we can get started.”
“How early is early?” Austin asks, a little worried to find out.
“Very early,” Naberius says. “Kesi appealed to Samael for the duel to be two days from now, so we have very little time to waste.”
Two days? Are you fucking kidding me? Austin’s stomach flips. He thought he would at least have more time to train, to strategize. But of course Kesi would try and prevent that. An underprepared human may not make Naberius look as foolish as no human at all would, but it would still be embarrassing.
“Fine,” he says, and sinks back under the water, letting it close over the top of his head.