He barely registers the sounds around him as he falls. Instead he curses himself for being nonchalant, for thinking it was over because they had won. Someone, once, had told him “Never turn your back on the enemy.” How stupid of him, then, to look away from the man he had wounded, thinking it fatal enough to keep him down. How stupid of him to look away and scan the battlefield, taking count of his family.
The knife in his back pulls out; he was already ready to pass out from his wounds and fatigue before. His assailant slips the weapon into his back again, and what was left of his vision goes black. He grunts and closes his eyes against the impact of the blade, and before he falls unconscious he is just able to make out the fuzzy sounds of screams around him.
His last thought is At least they’re all right .
He wakes up to the sound of a door slamming and shrieks following. He doesn’t get out of bed, just sighs, stares at the ceiling, and begins counting backwards from ten. Before he reaches three the door to his room flies open.
“Fjord!” Jester exclaims. She takes a running leap onto his bed, rucking up the covers and bouncing on her knees excitedly. “Fjord get up!”
“Mmmm,” he groans, cracking his eyes open. “And why should I do that?”
Jester narrows her eyes at him. “Because,” she says.
“Because,” he parrots.
She purses her lips. “Because,” she says again, “Yasha is back! So we can leave now!”
He sits up at that. “Yasha’s back?”
Jester nods enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes, yes, yes! So get up! You’re the last one awake, and you were taking so long. So I came to get you!” She stops bouncing on the bed and snaps her eyes to his. “Are you feeling okay? You’re usually up before now. You’re not sick, are you?” The tiefling slaps her hand onto his forehead.
“Fjord, I am the cleric. You’d tell me if something was wrong, right?” She looks at him worriedly.
Gently, he removes her hand from his face. “I’m fine, Jester. Just a little tired. I’m sorry I wasn’t up before.”
She quirks her lips and waves her hand. “It is fine! Water under bridge!” Jester pushes herself off his bed and skips to the door, turning around when she reaches the threshold.
“Fjord?” she asks, and he looks up at her from where he sits on the edge of the bed, legs thrown over the side. “I know you said you are fine, but if you weren’t fine you would tell me, right? We are a group now, after all. We have to tell each other when things aren’t okay. And we have to help each other when things aren’t okay. I’ll help you whenever you need it.”
He smiles at that. “Thanks, Jester. I’m here for you, too.”
“Nott?” he asks, standing at the edge of the field. He can hear the others at their camp behind him, voices cheerful as they take care of chores and rib at each other. “What are you doing?”
The grass before him shakes randomly. He tracks the girl’s movements like this, gaze flitting from rustle to rustle as she, apparently, moves. The rustling stops and he smiles when the tips of Nott’s ears become visible above the grasses.
“Uh, nothing!” she calls. Her ears move backward; the universal sign of Nott lying.
He sighs. “C’mon, Nott. Who knows what crawling around in the grass. Best leave it be and join us back at camp.”
He thinks he hears her mutter “ I’m crawling around in the grass” before she raises her voice. “I’ll be just a minute! I...have to find something!” And the ears disappear and the rustling resumes.
Deciding the others were fine handling setting up camp, he sits down at the edge of the field, back against the lone willow tree. Distantly he thinks about its water source, about whether there’s a stream or a pond hidden in the tall grasses that they didn’t spot from the road. He closes his eyes but listens to the sound of shifting grasses as the littlest member of their party looks for something .
He doesn’t realize he’s drifted off until something falls into his lap. He wasn’t truly asleep and so consciousness comes to him easily. As he blinks he peers at the little goblin girl above him. Her mask is shifted around to the back of her head, and, even though it’s almost been a year since their little group formed, something within him warms with the knowledge that she is comfortable around them. “Hi, Nott,” he says. “Done now?”
She nods, shifting on her feet, but doesn’t answer, instead turning her gaze to his lap. He does the same, and is shocked to see a bundle of flowers. “What’s this for?” he asks, gingerly picking them up.
Nott scratches her cheek. “Well, you and Yasha really helped me out in the last fight, so I thought I’d get you something.” She pauses. “But, uh, we’re not really near any towns right now, so…”
He tucks the wildflowers into his belt. “Thank you, Nott.”
She looks down at the flowers still in her hand, most likely meant for Yasha. “It was supposed to be a crown, like Jester makes, but I still haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.”
“This is just fine,” he reassures her as he stands up. She blinks, and the edges of her lips curl in what counted as a small smile.
“Fjord,” Nott says as they walk back to the camp and their friends.
“I’m glad Caleb and I decided to stick around with you guys.” She’s silent for a beat, then adds “Even if you are lunatics.”
Fjord laughs, booming across the fields around them, and they are met with curious looks as they reach the fire.
“How do you do it?” Mollymauk questions. His chair is set back from the table and his feet are rested on it, ankles crossed.
“Do what?” he asks in return. It is late; the rest of their party has already retired, and only the two of them and the innkeeper’s son remain on the ground floor, the latter sleepily scrubbing down the bar and taking stock.
Mollymauk gestures with his right hand. “Stay so positive .” He almost sneers at the last word.
He raises an eyebrow. “Why’re you asking me? Jester’s more positive than I am.”
Again, Mollymauk waves his hand dismissively. “She’s insane,” he says, as if that explains it.
“I dunno.” He shrugs. “Never really thought about it. Never really thought I was someone people looked at and said Hey, that guy’s just absolutely positive .”
“If that was supposed to be what I sound like, I am, frankly, offended. Never do it again.” Mollymauk pulls his deck of cards from somewhere amongst his brightly colored clothing and shuffles them idly. “Come on, big guy. Day in and day out we’re fighting things, avoiding cities because at least one person in this group is banned forever, getting arrested by the Crownsguard. Hells, Jester almost died today. How do you stay positive?” He fans the deck out in his hands and holds it out to him.
He pulls a card out from the left edge of the deck, and Mollymauk snatches it from him before he can look at it. “I really don’t think about it,” he says again. He leans back in his own chair, settling in and musing. “It’s…gotten easier since meeting up with Jester, then Beau and the rest of you. It’s easier to get up knowing you’ve got other people depending on you. Not that I don’t think the rest of you can take care of yourselves!” he adds hurriedly. “Any one of you could give me a run for my money in a fight. It’s just,” he trails off. “Hard to explain.”
“No, no,” Mollymauk says, studying the card he picked. His brow furrows but he looks up, pupiless eyes dancing. “It’s different when you have others to fight with, or for. Protecting your family is a powerful motivator, isn’t it?”
He thinks of the days he spent as a sailor in Port Damali. He felt a kinship with his fellows, but nothing more. He wouldn’t risk his life for theirs. He thinks of this little ragtag group, of a little tiefling laying wounded upstairs, just barely stabilized by their combined efforts. Thinks of the rage and fire coursing through his veins when he watched her collapse. Thinks of the rage and fire he feels when any of them are injured, fatal or no.
“Family,” he says, testing the word out. “Yeah, I guess that is a pretty good motivator.”
They walk in silence back to the inn they’re staying at. Beauregard says nothing, just rubs her arm from where her assailant had hit her.
“Um,” she says, breaking the silence. “Thanks for, uh, helping out.”
“‘Course,” he replies. “Wasn’t just gonna leave you hangin’.” He grins, and she turns her head slightly to look at him. “Though I’m sure you could’ve handled it by yourself. I’ve seen you fight. You could take us all out on your own, and then some.”
Beauregard laughs. “Is Yasha counted in this fight? I don’t think I can take her.”
He hums. “I think you’d have her on the rocks.”
“Only if she’s the only one I’m fighting. If it’s her plus the rest of you, I think I’m out for the count.” She falls back into silence, but the oppressive air hanging over them has dissipated for the moment.
He only notices she’s stopped walking when he goes to point out a rather unfortunate looking shop sign, but finds no one walking next to him. “Beau?” he says softly, turning around. She’s a few feet back, out of the light of the torches lining the shop doors around them.
“You won’t tell anyone what happened, will you?” she asks, and her voice is smaller than he’s ever heard it.
It only takes a second for him to backtrack to her, concerned. “Beau, you got jumped in an alleyway. Why wouldn’t you want anyone to know?”
She doesn’t answer, just bites her lip. “I…I can’t tell you now.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
She sighs. “Won’t.”
He’s silent for a drawn out minute. “Are you in any immediate danger?” he asks.
Beauregard looks up at him, startled. “What? No,” she says. “No, not anymore. They won’t be back for…ever, hopefully. A while, at best.”
“Is anyone else in our party going to be in immediate danger?”
A quick and fierce shake of her head. “No! This is just…this is just me.”
He studies her face for a moment, then nods. “All right, I won’t tell anyone.” He turns on his heel and resumes the trek to the inn.
She looks shocked and jogs to catch up to him. “Really?”
He sighs and stops walking again. “Beau, we all have things we like to keep close to our chest. Up ‘til now, to the best of my knowledge, none of those things have been a threat to us. But you were attacked, and what if I hadn’t been on my way back from talking with the Watchmaster? I know,” he cuts in, seeing her open her mouth, “I know I said I thought you could easily handle them. And I still think you could. But one lucky blow, Beau, and you’d be unconscious in an alley and none of us would know.” He pauses, looks her in the eye. “That scares the shit out of me, Beauregard. Of course I want to tell them. Hell, they’ll probably mad one day if they ever figure out we kept this from them. But it’s not my secret to tell. If you don’t want to tell me or anyone why you’re getting attacked by people in a dark alley in the middle of the night, then okay. That’s your decision. I’m trusting you for now.”
Beauregard stares at him, shocked. “I didn’t think it mattered that much,” she stammers.
It’s his turn to stare now, and he does so incredulously. “Of course it does. It involves your wellbeing, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yeah,” she says. “But still…”
“C’mon, Beau. We’ve all been together a while now. We’re more than just a group. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to any of you.”
“Yeah,” she says, nodding, “okay.”
They start walking again, and just as the lights of the inn come into view he says, “If anything like that happens again, for the same reason, there ain’t nothing you can do to stop me from spilling everything I know to the others. Which, admittedly, isn’t a lot. But I will tell them, Beauregard.”
“All right,” she responds. “That’s fair.”
He nods, pleased. “Damn right. And Beau? I know you’re not ready now, but you can come to me if something’s ever bothering you, all right? Any of us. We’re family; we’re here to help.”
Even after all these months, he’s still not quite sure what to make of Yasha.
She comes and goes with the wind, no rhyme or reason to her wandering, as far as he can tell. Even in their little party of enigmas she was a curiosity. Often staying behind when the rest moved forward, only to show up weeks later, uncannily knowing where to find them. Or, even more strangely, sometimes showing up at their destination before them, waiting.
Now, though, she just looks at him curiously. “Does that happen often?” she asks.
“Does what happen often?” he replies gruffly.
“That,” she repeats, and gestures to her chest, then his. He looks down, though he knows what she is referring to, inwardly groaning at the thought of avoiding the questions again.
“Uh,” he says eloquently, and the seawater on his shirt is cooling uncomfortably.
Yasha shrugs. “Don’t tell me if you don’t want to. Just curious. Seen a lot of stuff in my travels.” She gives a pointed look to his damp clothing. “Nothing like that .”
“Uh,” he says again.
Something in Yasha’s face softens, though it feels strange referring to her as soft. “Don’t you know?” she asks, voice quieter.
He sits up and peels off the wet shirt. “I have an inkling,” he admits. Nothing more. Nothing he hasn’t already told the others.
She nods and doesn’t say anything more.
“Where are the others?” he asks as he rummages through his belongings for a new shirt.
Yasha leans back in her chair in the corner of the room. They had stocked up on healing potions and other supplies at their last stop, and as such hadn’t been able to afford the town’s best inn; instead settling for a room with four beds with the rest of them set up on the floor, or squeezed in bed together, in the case of Jester and Nott.
“They left to take a look around town,” Yasha tells him.
He turns around, tucking his new shirt into his waistband and tightening his belt, and raises an eyebrow. “None of us have any money.”
Yasha shrugs again. “Didn’t stop them.”
He sighs as he puts on his leathers. “Didn’t feel like going with?” he asks as he slips his bracers on.
One side of Yasha’s lips twitches. “Felt like staying in today.”
They exist in silence for a few moments as he finishes getting dressed. It’s only when he’s strapping his weapon to his back. “Your sheath’s empty,” Yasha says bluntly. He swears, glancing around before confirming it wasn’t forgotten on the floor, and unbuckles the sheath from around his torso.
This hasn’t happened in months he thinks as he grits his teeth. When he summons the falchion it comes easily, dripping water and encrusted with barnacles.
“Does that happen often?” Yasha asks again, and he remembers, again, that she is not always present in their group, is not privy to all the little happenings everyone else is.
“Not anymore,” he says slowly, pulling the sheath back on.
Yasha looks at him with her half-lidded eyes. “Is it related to the,” she breaks off and swipes her hand in front of her torso.
“Might be,” he replies.
They say nothing, just stare at each other from across the room, until Yasha says, “You know, I have some…experience with others. Things. Other things. You know.”
“Afraid I don’t,” he tells her honestly.
“Things from other places,” she says.
“Ah,” he nods. “I’m…not completely sure if you can give any advice for this, to be honest.”
Yasha nods, rising from her chair. “All right,” she says, moving to where he is and clapping him on the shoulder. He grunts at the impact. “I might not always be around, Fjord, but all of you really did Molly and I a favor, after the carnival. Thanks for taking care of him when I’m not around.” She grins, and he is too shocked by the open expression to respond. “Gods know he needs it. But listen, even when I’m not around, you ever need anything, just call for me. I’ll do my best to get here.”
“Thanks, Yasha,” he says, genuinely touched. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You look great, hon’,” he drawls from where he leans against the front of the vendor’s booth.
Caleb looks up from where he’s strapping a new book to his side, glaring. “Very funny,” he says.
“Come on, darlin’,” he drags out, not quite a whine. “Let’s go already. Even Jester’s done shopping and messing around.”
“Stop whining,” Caleb responds.
“I’m not whining,” he says sharply.
“Really? What do you call that where you’re from? In Zemni we call that whining .”
“Har har,” he deadpans. “Come on, you got your book, let’s go. We’re wasting daylight.”
“Why don’t you just leave yourself, if you’re so eager?” Calebs asks, practically a sigh as he lets himself be pushed away from the stalls and the market.
“Because if someone wasn’t here to pull you away you’d spend every last coin shopping, and then you’d shut yourself away and read for the rest of the day.”
“I am a fast reader,” Caleb protests.
“Not fast enough, and also not the reason why we’re here.” They’ve arrived at their current lodgings, and he drags Caleb inside and upstairs as fast as possible, shoving him into their shared room. “We’re here to relax and have fun. Now put those books away and let’s go.”
“Reading is fun,” is the last weak protest, but Caleb is already removing his holsters and his heavy clothing.
“Not the kind of fun we’re having today. Dammit, Caleb,” he says, looking at where the shadows are on the floor, displaced by the sunlight streaming in. “It’s already after noon; Jester’s gonna skin us.”
“Sorry,” comes the muffles reply, not sounding very sorry at all. Caleb tugs his heavy tunic over his head, leaving him in just his light shirt.
After seeing that Caleb is ready, he tugs him back out of their room, rolling his eyes as the human stares longingly after the books placed carefully besides his bed.
The others have long since abandoned waiting for them to arrive, and joyfully splash around in the wide river. He grins as he sees Jester moving around the water with Nott on her shoulders. He can hear the little one yelling and shrieking from where he and Caleb stand, but Jester latches onto her legs and refuses to let her off. After some taunting Beauregard and Mollymauk team up, Beauregard reluctantly climbing onto the tiefling’s shoulders. Beauregard succeeds in toppling Nott off Jester shoulders, but the little tiefling abandons the rules of the game, and her partner, and lunges right at Beauregard and Mollymauk. The duo laughs at her attempt to topple them, Molly deftly moving out of her reach even in the water. Jester squeals with delight as she suddenly moves upward, and both Beauregard’s and Mollymauk’s eyes go wide at the sudden sight of Yasha, who just grins wickedly. Jester crows from her new perch, urging Yasha onward, and in no time they have managed to push both Beauregard and Mollymauk under the water.
“They really are something,” Caleb says as they approach. A path leads down the few feet of the riverbank; a rock outcropping looks over the river. They unspokenly agree to take a seat on the edge of the outcropping, legs dangling off the edge.
“Yeah, they are,” he agrees.
They are quiet for a moment, watching as Jester tries to coax Nott into deeper water and fails. Yasha puts a hand on her shoulder, shaking her head and discouraging her from pushing Nott further than she wanted to go. Beauregard and Mollymauk seemed to have started a splashing contest with each other, and the smooth surface of the lazy river is broken. Pouting only for a moment as she leaves Nott, Jester goads Yasha into an underwater handstand competition.
“You know,” Caleb begins. “I am very glad we all found each other.”
“Yeah?” he asks.
Caleb hums affirmatively. “I did not think much of any of you, at first. But,” he turns and looks him in the eye, “now, at the end of the day, there is no one else I trust to watch my back. And Nott’s.”
His throat constricts and he coughs before speaking. “I know what you mean. I’d die for any one of you.”
Caleb turns to look at him quickly, startled, eyes wide. “Let us hope it never comes to that,” he breathes.
He chuckles. “Sure.”
“Fjord! Caleb!” Jester has left the water now; clambering up the riverbank to where they sit. She wrinkles her nose as mud clings to her, but otherwise is unfazed. “You have to get in the water!” she cries as she approaches. “We did not come here to sit around.”
“I’m perfectly fine where I am,” Caleb tells her. She pushes him into the river with a splash.
“Fjord!” she says again. “Get up! I’ll push you too.” She glares at him in what she thinks is a threatening way.
“You can try,” he drawls, settling his weight down and gripping onto the rock with his legs.
She moves behind him, plants her feet, and shoves her arms against his back, grunting. “Come on! Get up, get up, get up!”
“Come on, Fjord!” Mollymauk shouts from the water, egging Jester on.
Beauregard joins in from where she floats lazily. “It’s warm!”
“Get him up, Jester,” Caleb calls, thoroughly soaked from head to toe. Water drips from his hair as he looks up at him and Jester.
“Get up, Fjord,” Jester wails, voice growing desperate. “Get up, get up- ”
He comes to slowly.
Slowly, ever so slowly, noise comes back to him first. At first the air seems quiet, then the little sounds reach him. Rapid breathing, sniffling, low mutters. Then, somehow, Jester, crying. “Get up, Fjord,” she sobs, and distantly he registers something heavy weighing on his chest. “Fjord, you have to get up, please.”
Caleb next. He sounds close by. “Jester, what’s happening? Why won’t he get up?” He speaks rapidly and worriedly, making his accent come out in his words.
“I don’t know,” their cleric chokes out. He want to tell her it’s all right.
“Come on, Fjord,” Mollymauk growls, and he feels a hand squeeze his.
“He should be waking up, I don’t know what’s happening,” Jester stammers, and feeling must be coming back to him, because he feels something hot drip onto his face and slide down his cheek.
Someone shifts under him. “His blood,” Beauregard whispers. “Jester, are you sure that bandage is enough? His blood, it’s…warm.” She shudders.
“Better warm than cold,” Mollymauk snaps.
“I’d rather not be feeling it at all,” Beauregard fires back. Someone shushes them, and the person holding him relaxes.
“Fjord, please ,” Jester says quietly, voice barely audible. She feels close to him, and when he opens his eyes they meet hers, closed, hovering above him.
Something sets her off, his breathing, maybe, or perhaps it’s just luck. She opens her eyes and gasps. “Fjord!” she whispers, and her face scrunches and contorts, and she’s weeping as she hugs him.
The air around them immediately shifts as sighs are breathed.
“Don’t ever do that again,” Caleb swears.
“What were you thinking?” Mollymauk asks, though the grip on Fjord’s hands tightens.
“W-we thought you were gone for good!” Nott cries from where she clutches the sleeve of Caleb’s coat in a death grip.
He tries to sit up, but winces as back shoots through his back and abdomen.
“Don’t move!” Jester hisses, releasing him long enough to glare at him. Her nose is running and her eyes are puffy and red. She sniffs, then buries her head in her neck. Warm tears tickle his collarbone, but he doesn’t dare to move her.
“We all saw you go down,” Beauregard says in a small voice. “That guy…he just didn’t stop stabbing you. I didn’t think we’d get to you in time.”
“We almost didn’t,” Nott interjects. Caleb sighs after she speaks and Jester barks of a watery laugh.
“But we did,” Yasha says, and he cranes his neck to look at her where she kneels next to Mollymauk. Her face looks even paler, if that were possible, and relief is written all over her expression.
“Of course we did,” Jester says resolutely, pulling back and wiping her eyes and her nose. Mollymauk hands her a handkerchief, which she gladly accepts. “We are family,” she says, as if that explains the miracle that just happened.
He breathes out shakily, and it rasps as it leaves his lungs. He’ll likely need to take it slow, even after more healing when Jester feels up to it. Leaning back into Beauregard’s lap he looks at his friends. At his family.
“I love you,” he says. “All of you.”
“Of course,” Jester agrees. She knows she speaks for all of them when she says: “And we love you.”