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How To Care For Your Wizard

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     The main room of the Tavern is largely in darkness when Beau stumbles down the stairs, and for a moment she regrets not bringing her goggles, although she’d had more important things on her mind when she’d shot from her bed moments before. She can feel the tendrils of the nightmare still gripping her, sending shivers dancing under her skin and pooling in the pit of her stomach, leaving her shaking and nauseous as she comes to a halt. Her instincts are to flee, to get as far away as she can before anyone can see this crack in her armour, and in the past, she would have already been out of the door, not caring that she was leaving her belongings and companions behind.

It’s different now…

    It’s why she had managed to force the panic down when Jester had stirred at the sudden movement, somehow finding the words to reassure her that everything was okay, murmuring something about really needing to pee and waiting for the Tiefling to settle before bolting from the room. It’s why she hadn’t gone for the nearest window to escape, instead stumbling down here and hoping that she would find some kind of distraction and why even now with the door in sight and everything screaming at her to run, she hesitates, arms creeping around herself in a self-hug. She has a reason to stay now, people to stay for and it leaves her adrift, instinct and panic, warring with a sense of belonging that she’s still only just coming to understand.

“I have whisky if you want it.” The quiet voice sends her leaping into the air, reaching for a staff that isn’t there even as she whirls towards the source, peering through the dimness and finally spotting movement near the hearth that still houses a tiny flicker of flame. The firelight catches on pale skin and adds copper to messy auburn hair as Caleb leans into the pool of light, letting her see him and she curses at him.

“You scared the crap out of me,” Beau hisses, one hand clapped over her heart for effect and to be fair it is racing beneath her fingers. She’s not used to being caught of guard, and it scares her a little to know that she’s settled enough to be caught by surprise even when she’s still on the edge of panic from her nightmare. “What are you still doing up?!” She demands, stalking towards him with a scowl, and she doesn’t have to ask if he’s been to sleep yet, the answer is written in the exhausted hunch of his shoulders and the shadows under his eyes that come into view as she steps into the dim light.

    Caleb draws back at her words, still uncomfortable with dealing with them even after the long months spent together and she huffs, wondering how he can cling to that wariness, when despite all her training and experience, hers seems to have drained away.

“I am copying down these spells,” he mutters after a moment, tilting his head down to the pile of parchment beside him and the book that’s balanced precariously on his knee. Oh right, he had mentioned something like that the night before when the rest of them had decided to crawl right into bed after a job had left them more wrung out than they’d been for a while. But that had been hours ago…

“Couldn’t that wait till morning?”

“I would rather finish it now.” It’s a polite refusal, one that she’d come to expect from him, but there’s a strain to his words that she doesn’t fully understand, and he seems to hunker in on himself, one arm moving to protectively cover the book as though he expects her to snatch it away from him. It’s tempting, because he looks exhausted and she knows that he wouldn’t be able to stop her if she tried, but there’s something that makes her wait and so she backs off, moving to settle in the seat opposite him with a sigh.

“You said you have whisky?” He doesn’t answer, instead just pushing a bottle across to her, before turning his attention back to his work and that’s fine, she’s not really in the mood for conversation either, willingly accepting the bottle and taking a swig that would make Nott proud. It burns on the way down, the sensation combating the chill left over from her nightmare and grounding her in the present, and she takes a second smaller mouthful before turning her attention back to Caleb. He’s bent over, intent on the book, but…she’s watched him read countless times, and it doesn’t take her long to realise that his eyes aren’t flying across the page like they normally would and whilst he goes to write several times, he never makes a mark on the paper.

    She leaves him be for a few minutes, sipping the whisky every now and then, but she’s not looking to get buzzed. The panic from her nightmare has eased away in the silence and the company, and she’s found her distraction as she watches Caleb’s head bob forward a little too far to just be squinting at the page, only for him to jolt upright a second later. This repeats a dozen times before she’s had enough, setting the bottle aside and leaning forward. “Caleb?” She waits for him to flinch as he always does when they address him directly, still wary even after all this time, and it’s there, but muted, hidden in the slow rise of his head as he peers at her. He looks exhausted, the shadows under his eyes now looking more like bruises and she winces, knowing that Nott will never forgive her if he let this continue. She would never forgive herself, but she’s not about to admit that, although she can’t stop the concern from bleeding into her voice when he finally hums an acknowledgement. “You haven’t written anything for nearly ten minutes.”

“I…” The lie is there, she can see it forming, only to dissipate as he sighs and curls forwards over his book, shaking his head from side to side. It’s a denial, but not of her words and she’s not sure what he’s fighting against.

“Go to bed.” It comes out far gentler than she intended, and she’s glad that no one else is around to hear her. Caleb shakes his head again, more fervently this time and his fingers curl against the page, and she sighs before reaching out and brushing her fingers against the edge of the top page. “That will still be there in the morning, and...” She doesn’t get chance to finish, because with a cry of alarm Caleb pulls back, yanking the book out from her touch and cradling it against his chest, and there’s no trace of sleep in the wide blue eyes starting at her.

   Frightened, he’s frightened of me… It takes her a moment to place the expression in his eyes, and something uncomfortable twists in her chest at the sight, because he’s been wary of them before, but she’s never seen such tangible fear towards them. Not even when he and Fjord had been working their way through the argument they’d had, and it hurts to realise that she’s done something to put that expression on his face. “Caleb? I…” She doesn’t like apologising at the best of times, but the words catch now, because she doesn’t know what she’s done or if an apology will even fix it.

“I’m sorry…” Caleb beats her to it, the words barely audible, red dusting his cheeks as he ducks his head, trying to hide the book from view she realises after a moment and her eyes narrow. He’s always been protective of the books he carries in his holster, and they’ve all learnt to respect that barrier, but over time he’d become more willing to share other books with them, on the proviso that Jester stopped doodling in them. She might’ve suspected that it was something to do with what it contained, but he had been open about the fact that it wasn’t very useful, although he still wanted to learn the spells it contained. So, what is it? She hadn’t realised that she was still staring at him, searching for some sign of what was bothering him, and she jolted when he straightened, and shot her an anxious glance. “It won’t take me much longer…”

That was a lie.

    She had learnt his tells over the last few months, and she scowled at him, crossing her arms and tapping her foot against the floor. Was it worth fighting over? He was clearly on edge about something, and it wasn’t as though they had any plans for the day so that he could spend it catching up on sleep. Maybe she was just being stubborn, or maybe she really had started to care about this strange group, but the thought of leaving him be left a foul taste in her mouth and with a sigh she adopted a last combative stance and leaned in once more. “Caleb, you’re nowhere near done.” She held up a finger to stop the protest she could see forming. “It’s not going anywhere, so why the hell are you pushing yourself when you clearly need to sleep?”

    Rather than anger or denial, there’s confusion written across his face as he glances between the book and her, meeting her gaze for a moment before his eyes skitter away. “I…” He’s at a loss for words, and normally the sight would amuse her because Caleb on a good day can run circles around them with his words, for all that he has no social graces, but there’s something lost and genuine about the confusion that softens her laugh to a small smile.

“It can wait.”

“It can wait…” Caleb repeats her words, voice little more than a whisper and he sounds so stunned, so shocked that she frowns. “I…” He meets her gaze again, holding it this time as he swallows thickly, fingers curling against the book and she can see that he’s trembling now.  “In the past…” He can’t say, and Beau is quick to nod, understanding what he’s alluding to, as something dark and unpleasant twists in her chest. She should have known that this…whatever it was stemmed from that, and she opens her mouth, intending to drop the matter when Caleb continues, voice soft, the words for her ears alone. “I…We were expected to learn q-quickly. If a spell wasn’t learnt in a single day, it would be snatched away and…”

“You were punished?” Beau asked softly when he froze, trembling worse than ever and even before he nods she knows that she’s hit the nail on the head, and not for the first time she wishes she could find the people that had done this to him. One day, she promises herself, but for now Caleb is right in front of her, haunted and exhausted and with a caution she would never show anyone else she reaches out, not touching the book, but letting her fingers brush his hand. “You know that we’re not them, right?”

“J-Ja…” It’s not as certain as she would like it to be, but she can’t blame him. If their roles were reversed, if she had endured what he’d gone though, would she even be here? It’s hard enough to trust people with her own past, she’s not sure she would ever have reached out if she’d had his past and yet here he is, learning to open up, to be part of a group and whilst she would never admit it aloud, it endears him to her.

“Then trust me when I say there is time.” Right now, she would move heaven and hell to make sure that he had the time to study without destroying himself, and it’s another uncomfortable reminder of just how much this misfit group has changed her, but she doesn’t falter. “You can have all the time in the world to study this book if that’s what you want, but not at the cost of your health.” He’s my boy, Nott’s words echo through her mind and Beau pulls a face, giving a tiny shake of her head as her lips quirk into a wry smile as Caleb blinks at her, startled and unsure of her words, no, he’s our boy.

“But…”

     It’s going to take more than mere words to convince him, and more than one telling, and she growls under her breath, something less than flattering about stubborn, Zemnian wizards and she knows that Caleb must hear it, and yet he doesn’t try to pull away. It’s that which gives her the courage to move her hand slightly, letting her fingers come to rest against the book once more, not gripping it, but visibly touching it as she meets his gaze. “You need to rest, you look like hell.” Probably not the best way to voice it and she can almost imagine Fjord’s eyeroll, but she hopes her tone conveys the concern behind it. “And I know that if I go back up, or even if I let you take this with you, that you’re just going to lie in bed and keep trying.” He doesn’t try to deny it, although his gaze does flicker away again. “So, I want to ask if you’ll let me look after it, just until morning.”

    The fear is back, but he still doesn’t pull away and she takes that as a good sign, taking a deep breath before continuing. “I promise that it will be back in your hands first thing in the morning once you’ve rested, and I’ll make sure Jester doesn’t distract you while you’re reading.” She adds the last bit to sweeten the deal, even though she has no idea how she’ll keep Jester distracted, although Nott might be willing to help if she knows that it’s for Caleb’s sake. Caleb is still hesitating, gaze flicking between her and the book. There’s longing in his eyes, just as there is in the rare moments when he manages to forget the past and enjoy the present, to enjoy being with them, and she can tell that he’s wavering. “And if I break my word, I give you full permission to set Nott on me.”

    That does draw the faintest quiver of lips from him, and slowly she pulls back, giving him the space to decide for himself. She’s not quite sure what she’s going to do if he refuses…maybe go and wake Nott, but there’s something fierce and protective in her chest that wants him to listen to her, to trust her, and she doesn’t realise that she’s holding her breath until he finally moves. He’s trembling, and he falters more than once, but eventually the book is held out to her and she breathes, just as shaky as he is as she reaches for it, watching his fingers tense the moment she grips it.

“You promise?”

“On my life.” It’s the one promise she knows he won’t doubt, and whilst normally she would feel silly swearing on something so important for a simple book, she knows that it’s more than that. This is a defining moment for them both, and her breath catches as he searches her face for a moment before finally letting his hands fall away, leaving her holding the book and his trust in her hands.

   It’s only when he rises and heads for the stairs, with only a couple of glances back that the enormity of what’s happened fully hits her. He’s trusted her, despite her bad attitude and poor people skills and the fact that she already knows more about him than anyone apart from Nott, and it takes her breath away as she stares down at the book. It’s just a book, plain green covers, pages curling with age and yet in that moment it’s the most precious thing she’s ever held, and she’s gentle as she settles it on the table, before reaching out for the abandoned bottle with trembling fingers.

****

    Beau’s head is aching the next morning, her mouth dry and full of the cotton wool from where she’d finished off the rest of the bottle after Caleb had retreated to bed. It’s tempting to just roll over and go back to sleep until she can beg Jester to take mercy on her, but the hangover isn’t enough to affect her memory, and the promise she’d made had her crawling out of bed with a muffled groan of protest. The book is right where she left it, and she’s gentle as she scoops it up and heads for the door, already hearing movement from the room next door.

   Everything is too bright and too loud, but she refuses to waver as she reaches the door to Nott and Caleb’s room, rapping sharply on the wood and immediately regretting it as the sound rattles around her aching head. However, it’s worth it when she hears a burst of movement on the other side of the door and Nott’s confused voice, followed by the door being wrenched open, and then Caleb’s there, expression melting into something soft and surprised again as he glances between the book and her face.

“Here,” she holds it out and is honestly surprised when he takes it gently rather than snatching it back, and she smiles as she studies him. He still looks tired, but not like he will collapse without warning and as he glances down at the book now safely pressed against his chest, a tiny smile, a real one that creeps into his eyes spreads across his face. And when he speaks, his voice is almost reverent, his words meant for more than the book.

“Thank you.”

 

Chapter Text

They had grown complacent.

    They had been on a roll lately with the jobs they’d taken, a steady income and a growing comradery making life on the road easier and safer. It had been several weeks since any of them had taken more than a scratch in battle, something Jester had been more than happy about, but had unfortunately made them less cautious than they’d been in the past and it was coming back to bite them now.

    Fjord jerked back as he felt an arrow fly past, the stinging pain that followed in its wake telling him he hadn’t ducked quickly enough, and he wrinkled his nose as he felt blood beginning to trickle down his face. He swiped at it but didn’t have chance to give it more attention as bodies were pressing in on him on all sides, more than the two dozen bandits they’d been told about, and he made a note to have a ‘word’ with the council of Elders who’d hired them when they got back. For now, his attention was on the fight, and he snarled as he ducked under a blow, slashing at a hexed bandit, barely blinking as he switched the curse onto another, driving the Falchion deep through a gap in their leather armour and they went down with a sharp cry. However, each he felled it seemed as though two more appeared and he could feel exhaustion and a creeping feeling of dread crawling up his spine.

    There was a blast of heat from the far side of the narrow gorge they’d found themselves caught in, and he glanced up just in time to see flames sprouting skywards as several bandits shrieked before falling back, fire devouring them. It reminded him of the glove stashed inside his armour, and parrying another strike he fumbled for it, slipping it on and lifting his hand, releasing his hex in favour of focusing on the fire magic. It wasn’t hard to hit them this time, flames erupting around them, clearing a wide swathe through the bandits that had been pressing in on him, giving him room to breathe for the first time of minutes, at least until Molly appeared in a flurry of movement and colour.

 “We need to get out of here,” Molly shouted as he fell back alongside Fjord, parrying a blow with difficulty, blood streaking from his shoulder from an earlier blow and for once there was no sign of usual grin. “Now!” He added as he spun, a whirling dervish that took down another bandit, before sliding round to block a blow at Fjord’s back before finishing grimly. “Otherwise we’re not going get out of here at all.” Fjord turned and finished off his attacker, before letting his eyes rove over the rest of the group. Nott and Jester were back to back, and whilst they were holding their ground for now, they also weren’t gaining any room. Whilst Yasha was crouched next to Beau, hands glowing as she worked to heal a nasty looking gash across the monk’s chest, struggling to hold her in place as Beau lifted her staff to stave off a bolt that had been heading for Yasha’s back.

“Agreed…” Fjord muttered, glancing at Molly who nodded looking relieved before moving towards Jester and Nott. “Beau! Yasha!” He shouted, catching their eyes and he didn’t need to say anything else as Yasha yanked the monk to her feet, the two of them moving together with an ease that was terrifying and inspiring all at once and he shook his head before frowning. “Where’s…” He’d seen the flames a moment ago and assumed that Caleb was safe, that he was holding his own and the dread that had been creeping in roared to life as he spun, seeking out dirty brown, just as he heard Molly cursing and Jester screaming out a warning.

   Fjord was moving before he’d even registered what they were saying, charging forwards, Falchion a blur of silver and water in the air as he cleaved a way forward through the bandits foolish enough to try and stop him. He could see Caleb now, the wizard backed up against the rough rock wall of the gorge, one arm wrapped protectively around his side as though nursing an injury, his other hand held out, diamond glistening in the half-light as ice glistened around it, but it was faint and wavering, speaking of exhaustion and injury and Caleb’s expression was one of mingled fear and resignation.  Even as he closed the distance between them, the ice spluttered and disappeared without being cast and Caleb barely managed to keep a hold of the crystal.

    However, that was the least of his worries because Caleb was pinned from all sides, and several of them seemed to be lining up, closing in for the kill as they sensed blood in the air. Fjord growled low in his throat, gathering his magic and letting it build around his Falchion as he sent Eldritch’s blast into them. It wasn’t enough. He now had a clear view of the two men with daggers raised, poised to throw them at the wizard and he didn’t think as he dashed through the gap he’d created, even as he heard Nott shrieking Caleb’s name, terror evident in her shrill voice. There was no time to take them out, so he did the only thing he could think of, trusting in his armour to take the brunt of the damage as he flung himself between the threat and Caleb. He was afforded a brief glimpse of wide, shocked blue eyes and then the idiot is lunging forward, something strange and dark flashing through his eyes and caught off guard Fjord was helpless to do anything but watch as Caleb twisted around him, just in time to meet the blades that had been flung at them.

    He didn’t think he’d ever forget the noise that Caleb made in that second, a strangled, broken noise that continued to ring in his ears even as he sprang forward, catching the wizard one-armed, even as he swung up his blade, and used Eldritch blast point blank on the men that had thrown the daggers. Fuelled by panic and fury, there was no escape, but their screams fell on deaf ears as he was already turning, pulling Caleb with him, trying not to focus on how Caleb was sagging against him, only some deep stubbornness keeping his feet moving in a clumsy pattern as he tried to move under his own steam.

     Behind them there was a roar of fury, followed by the lashing whip of Infernal in the air and the bandits that had moved to follow him faltered, glancing back towards the sound and Fjord risked a brief glance as well, spying skeletal wings rising above their heads. Yasha… Still, there was no way he was going to be able to get Caleb back to the others through the gorge, because already the bandits were rallying, turning to this new threat and he cursed under his breath before taking a calming breath as he caught the stuttered whimper from Caleb.

“Go! I’ve got him!” Fjord shouted towards the others, praying that they’d heard over the noise as he immediately began to back away, carefully pulling Caleb with him, highly aware of the daggers buried in the wizard. They would need to be removed, but not right now and hopefully when Jester was there to immediately patch up the wounds.

“Y-you should leave m-me behind,” the whisper when it came shouldn’t have been as unexpected as it was, but the words were enough to bring Fjord to a stumbling halt. It wasn’t just the pain in Caleb’s words that brought him up short, it was the certainty beneath them and he had a feeling that it wasn’t just that he thought it was the best idea…but that he expected Fjord to do it.

“Not happening,” he growled, and he wanted to say more, but there were footsteps behind him, closing in fast and he twisted, ready to try and parry whatever attack was coming and praying that he wouldn’t drop Caleb in the protest. Three of the bandits were closing in on them, blades raised, and his fingers tightened on the Falchion, mind racing as he tried to work out how to get them both out of here, and they were nearly upon them when a familiar lollipop came slamming down between them, crushing one bandit and knocking the others back and he could hear Jester shouting something in Infernal in the distance.

    Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, he banished the Falchion and turned his attention back to Caleb. “This is going to hurt,” was the only warning he gave, not wanting to give Caleb chance to argue, as he swung the wizard up into his arms. It tore another broken sound from Caleb’s lips despite his best efforts to be careful, and he flinched at the sound, mumbling apologies under his breath as he broke into a run, trusting Molly to lead the others away as soon as possible.

**

  Fjord’s legs and lungs were burning when he finally deemed it safe enough to slow to a trot, and he was breathing hard as he risked a glance behind him, searching for any sign of pursuit and trying not to admit that he’d been hoping to see some sign of the others. They’re safe, he needed to believe that, not least so that he could focus on the wizard in his arms. Caleb had been silent since that whispered suggestion to leave him behind, but Fjord knew that he was still awake from the white-knuckled grip he had on the front of his armour and he sighed, before searching for a place to set him down, knowing that he needed to take care of Caleb’s injuries.

    The best he could find was a small copse of trees, but at least it provided them with a modicum of shelter as he gently eased Caleb onto the ground, leaning him back against a trunk. It took a moment to coax him into releasing the front of his armour, and by the time he had succeeded Caleb had managed to coax his eyes open, peering at him through hazy slivers of blue. “You idiot, what were you thinking?” There was anger beneath the question, but his voice was soft, soothing as he held Caleb’s gaze for a moment before forcing himself to fully take in the damage that had been inflicted, one of the daggers was buried in his shoulder, the material around the wound stained crimson, whilst the other was embedded in his side, the same one that Caleb had been holding before and Fjord didn’t want to think about what damage could be hidden underneath.

“That the other’s needed you more,” Caleb mumbled, blood speckling his lips as he spoke, and it took Fjord a moment to tear his focus away from that and the fear it ignited in the pit of his stomach, to focus on the words.

That was a lie.

     He wasn’t sure where the sheer certainty of that thought had come from, maybe it was because of Caleb’s earlier words or maybe it was the fact that he knew that Nott needed Caleb more than the rest of them put together, but he knew it was a lie and his eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe that,” he settled for saying, before shaking his head as Caleb opened his mouth no doubt to protest the ‘truth’ of his words. “Besides, surely even you can’t argue that it’s better for the armoured person to take an attack like that.” They’d argued time and time again with Caleb about getting him some form of armour, sick of seeing him taken down so easily, but he had held his ground every time and as their skill had grown, their concern had waned a little.

“I-I don’t think that would have stopped this…”

“It would have lessened the damage,” Fjord countered, pleased to see that even Caleb seemed to realise that he couldn’t argue against that point. “Why do you think I tried to get in the way?” It was far from the only reason, but it had been there in the back of his mind when he’d moved, and it was easier to say than the others.

“I don’t know.” At first, he thought that Caleb was just trying to be awkward, but there was something about his voice and in his expression that brought Fjord up short and he frowned before asking carefully.

“You didn’t think I would try and protect you?” He knew that he’d hit the nail on the head when Caleb flinched, averting his gaze, and Fjord couldn’t quite keep the shock…or was it hurt, from his voice as he asked in a quiet voice. “Why?” Sure, they’d had their differences in the past, but he had been under the impression that was all behind them now that they’d come so far as a group, no longer just acquaintances and companions drawn together by coincidence, but friends…family.

“What happened at the High Richter’s….” They’d never spoken about what had happened that night, well at least not to one another and Fjord was cursing himself for that oversight now as he watched Caleb trying to huddle in on himself.

“Caleb…” He’s not quite sure what he wants to say or what he should be saying in this situation, and he settled for reaching and grasping the wizard by the shoulders to stop his attempts to curl up, terrified of what damage he could just be causing himself. He doesn’t miss the way Caleb flinches and quivers at his touch, almost as though he had been expecting to be hurt and he sighs, not releasing him, but loosening his grip enough to let Caleb pull away if he wants.  “I just want to help.” He’s not sure whether Caleb believes him or whether he just lacks the strength to fight him. He’ll figure out the answer later, preferably when they’re back with the other’s, safely tucked up by a warm fire and Caleb isn’t bleeding and shivering against him, not quite able to muffle the whimper that slips free as a particularly strong shiver jostles his injuries.

“They both need to come out,” Fjord murmurs, because its easier to focus on that, than the fact that Caleb had still been worried by something that had happened months ago.

“J-Ja,” Caleb meets his gaze for a fleeting second, something undefinable in the pained blue before he drops his gaze to the blade in his shoulder.  “I know,” he’s moving now, reaching for the hilt with a set expression and trembling fingers.

“Wait! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Fjord demands, but he already knows the answer, remembering all too vividly how Caleb had wrenched out each of the crossbow bolts himself when they’d faced the bandits, not giving anyone else a chance to help him. Frantic at the thought of that happening again, his hands close over Caleb’s, noting the chill that’s settled into his skin, but unable to focus on it right bow because Caleb is still trying to get his fingers around the hilt of the blade. “Let me do it.” It’s a plea for permission. Permission to help, to be given a chance to gain the trust he’d thought that he’d had before this and that’s really what this boils down to… a question of trust and he waits for Caleb to refuse or yank himself free, not sure what he’s going to do if that happens, but Caleb has always managed to surprise him and its no different now, when after a moment he gives a tight nod before letting his head fall back against the tree trunk.

    It takes him a moment to process the fact that Caleb agreed, and he swallows thickly before turning his attention to the daggers, praying to both his Patron and whatever gods are watching that neither blade was poisoned.  Dropping his backpack, he pulls out a healing potion, the only one he has to his name right now because the village had been low on supplies and he curses, wishing yet again that Jester was here, before setting it to the side for once he’s done. “This is going to hurt,” he warns softly, and the look Caleb sends him speaks volumes, and a wry smile twists his lips at the sight before he turns serious once more. “Stay still.”

   He goes for the one in Caleb’s side first, and thankfully the blade comes out easily, although not without Caleb crying out, a sharp pained sound that is still somehow better than the broken noise from earlier, and Fjord squeezes his arm briefly before examining the wound left behind. Whilst the wound is deep, it looks clean when he pulls back the folds of Caleb’s clothes to look at it. Still, it’s bleeding heavily and firmly places a hand over it, fumbling in his bag for anything he can use to stem the flow whilst he deals with the other one and he can feel Caleb quivering, unable to hold back the low whimpers bubbling up in the back of his throat.

 “Easy Caleb.” He’s not Molly, he doesn’t know how to be a light-hearted distraction and hell, even Beau’s bluntness which has admittedly been softening lately is more of a distraction that his gentle, soothing words, but it seems to help a little, Caleb settling a little just as Fjord’s searching fingers close on the remnants of the healer’s kit he had been carrying around. It’s not much, but there are bandages and he sets to work on wrapping the wound as best he can, searching for something to talk about to distract Caleb from the pain.

“You know, what happened back then…” It’s not the best time to talk about it, but it’s at the forefront of his mind and the words come out and Caleb’s head has lolled towards him, slivers of blue focused on him once more, silently urging him to continue. “It’s in the past. That was a different time, and I like to think we’ve both changed since then.” Fjord knows he has. Back then Caleb had probably been the one he was wariest of, because even though they’d caught Nott trying to steal, she had always been open about her sticky fingers and they had learnt more about her through her actions, whilst Caleb had always seemed distant, untouchable in some way.

   Now, he knows different. Oh, there are still secrets between them and he’s sure that Nott and Beau for some reason, know more than the rest of them do, but Caleb has slowly opened up to everyone, fitting in with an ease that Fjord would’ve thought impossible just a few months ago. And Caleb as awkward as he is, has turned out to be an excellent teacher since their recent string of jobs has taken them further and further from the academy, and whilst he wouldn’t say it aloud, he thinks that Caleb enjoys it, a rare lightness in his eyes whenever Fjord or Nott who often joins them manages something new. Fjord’s certain that Caleb’s had training, more than he’s let on, but every time he’s brought it up he’s met with stony silence and he’s learnt to let it drop, although part of him wishes that Caleb would trust him enough to say, and not just because of their shared interest in the arcane.

“Maybe,” Caleb’s cautious agreement pulls him from his thoughts, reminding him of their conversation and he glances up, pleased to see that Caleb had managed to coax his eyes open properly although he doubts it will last. “You would’ve have taken the strike though…?” It’s not really a question, they both knew that Fjord had been deadly serious that night, as had Nott when she’d moved in position to protect ‘her boy’.

“At the time, yes.”

“And now?”

    Fjord finished tying off the bandages, noting with worry that there were already spots of red bleeding through the material. Jester you better hurry, he thought even as he gathered the bandages and potion and moved around to Caleb’s other side. “Would you try and steal in a situation like that now?” He finally asked, as he examined the second dagger.

“I don’t know…” It’s not a lie, but the hesitation tells Fjord everything he needs to know. In the past Caleb wouldn’t have hesitated, his own goals whatever they were, holding priority over anything that the group was doing.

“I don’t think you would.” He says it quietly but firmly, and its more a statement than anything and he sees Caleb blink, surprised by his words and he seizes the moment of surprise to grasp the hilt and gently begin to pull the blade out. Caleb cries out, hand flying to grasp Fjord’s wrist just as he realises that there’s something different about this blade, feeling it catch and jerk as he pulls, and he goes to let go as Caleb lets out a stuttered whimper, but shaking fingers bite into his skin.

“Don’t s-stop…” The words are forced out through gritted teeth, pain threaded through them, but Caleb manages to meet his gaze, resolved but pained and Fjord can’t bring himself to stop in the face of the trust he finds within that gaze.

   It’s not easy, and by the time he’s drawn the blade, serrated near the tip he discovers out of Caleb, the wizard has bitten through his lip, blood trickling down his chin. Fjord tosses the blade aside with a snarl, the strangled, broken noise that Caleb had made earlier replaying through his mind. “Here, drink this,” he orders, pressing the potion into Caleb’s hand as it falls away from his wrist. It won’t be enough by far, but it should keep him alive until help arrived. Caleb tried to grasp the bottle, but whatever strength he had been clinging to had been burned through and Fjord barely managed to catch it before it spilled, shushing Caleb’s mumbled apologies as he lifted it up to bloody lips. “Drink,” he ordered, balancing it carefully, whilst using the other to put pressure on the wound and it was his turn to mutter an apology as Caleb arched up at the fresh pain.  “Sorry, this would be easier if Jester was here.”

“J-Ja,” Caleb agreed once he was finished. “I think I would even let her draw in my books right now…”

“Is that a joke?”  Fjord demanded with a weak chuckle, delighted when it earned him a brief quirk of the lips from the wizard as he shrugged with his good shoulder, before his expression darkened once more as the pain took over once more. “I’m going to wrap this up, okay?” Another tiny nod, Caleb’s eyes struggling to stay open now and reluctant to let him sleep just yet, Fjord began to list and explain the various sailing knots. It was boring stuff, even for him, but he knew how Caleb’s mind worked and that he couldn’t resist learning something even when he was coming apart at the seams and sure enough, he could see Caleb’s lips moving, committing the words to memory.

   They’re both wrung out by the time Fjord’s finished and he prays that no one else finds them before the others, because neither of them are ready for a fight. There’s a little more colour in Caleb’s face now, indicating that the potion has done some good, but the bandages are both spotted with red, and his expression is lined with pain, his head lolling towards his chest as exhaustion claims him. Fjord knows that he should probably scan the area for any sign of the others, or trouble, but he can’t bring himself to leave Caleb and instead he moves to sit beside him, making himself as comfortable as he can before reaching for the wizard and easing him down until he’s laid with his head in Fjord’s lap, resting on his back to avoid putting pressure on his wounds.

“Fjord…” Caleb stirs, just enough to peer up at Fjord, some of the haze cleared from his eyes, only to be replaced by a deep-seated weariness that Fjord feels reflected in his own bones.

“Yeah?”

“Don’t tell Jester what I said…” There’s that weak quirk of Caleb’s lips again, showing the damage he had done to the bottom one whilst trying to ride out the pain, but there’s an earnestness to the words that has Fjord chuckling and nodding. Normally he would’ve been tempted to tease, or willing to let Jester have another target for her mischief, but he doesn’t have the heart to do it today.

“Your secret is safe with me,” his voice is warm and sincere, and Caleb studies him before nodding, apparently satisfied with whatever he’d found, his eyes slipping shut a moment later and this time his breathing evens out quickly. It’s a gesture of trust that speaks volumes, and Fjord knows that they still need to have a proper conversation about that night in Zadash, but it’s a step in the right direction and he hopes that with time, Caleb will come to trust them…him…fully.

 

Chapter Text

      The dark walls of the prison brought back unpleasant memories, and Nott was torn, wanting to speed ahead and find Caleb, certain that it must be a hundred times worse for him, but needing the comfort that the others offered her. They were all silent, keen to avoid any unwelcome attention, but they were close, their footsteps a soothing rhythm in her ears and every now and then Jester’s fingers would brush her shoulder. Reassuring her that they were following, that she wasn’t alone, promising her silently that they were going to find Caleb.

But will we be in time?

    Prison hadn’t been kind to them the first time, but it had been there that Nott had realised a very important thing about humans. They might be wary of other races, treating her with fear and disgust and sometimes worse… but they were crueller to their own race than any other, and her hands trembled as she reached for the copper wire. Caleb had borne the brunt of their jailer’s attention last time, even when she had been thrown into his cell and despite her efforts to divert attention away from him – and this time he had been alone. Alone – something she had promised him he would never be again, no matter what the rest of the Nein decided and she had broken her word. Broken her promise, and her voice quivered, still little more than a whisper as she cradled the wire close to her lips.

“Caleb, we’re here, where are you?” She murmured, feeling the others pausing behind her, waiting just as intently for a response as she was. “You can respond to this message.” It wasn’t necessary by now, but she hoped the normality would elicit a response from him if nothing else would, but only silence greeted her query. It scared her that she didn’t know if it was because he couldn’t answer, or if he was refusing to. Neither boded well and it took her a couple of attempts to put the wire away, her hands shaking worse than ever before she glanced back at Jester and the others with fierce eyes as she buried her fear as best she could. “We need to hurry.”

*

    They encountered two more patrols as they searched, each dispatched swiftly, although they were careful not to kill them. They’d already attracted enough trouble in the town, and they didn’t want more people than necessary chasing after them – although Beau had to be reminded of that fact, as they found a familiar diamond in one guard’s pouch. It was no accident that he was sporting more damage by the time they’d hauled his limp form into an empty cell with the others, Nott accepting Caleb’s diamond with careful fingers, checking it for damage before pocketing it with a whispered ‘thank you’ knowing how much it meant to him.

    They’d moved faster after that, hoping that it was a sign that they were closer to where the wizard was being kept, although Nott had made another couple of attempts to send him a message, getting no response either time.

   It was Molly who spotted him first, sharp eyes spying a flash of ginger in one of the cells and they all froze as he hissed the wizard’s name, before descending into a flurry of cursing as he was the first to reach the door of the cell, Infernal tinging his words. Nott was immediately at his side, and it took everything she had not to join him, although she couldn’t stop herself from snarling under her breath as she pressed against the bars.

“Caleb…”

     Her boy was a mess. The light from the torches in the corridor barely touched the cell, but it was enough to show the dried blood on his face, the fact that he’d been stripped down to his undergarments and that he was soaked through, hair hanging matted and limp around his face and tremors wracking his body. He wasn’t looking at them, huddled in on himself in the far corner, arms wrapped around his drawn-up knees, no doubt searching for any modicum of comfort or warmth that he could find.

It was too much like back then.

Wide blue eyes in a haunted face, cheeks sunken, skin pale and covered in bruises.

     Nott shook her head, banishing the memories. Things were different now, they were different, and they weren’t alone. It had taken her a long time to accept that they were part of a group now, but the fact that they were all here – that they hadn’t argued once about rescuing Caleb confirmed it in her mind. They were family and looking at Caleb now she knew that was exactly what he needed – just as he had back then.

“Caleb,” Fjord had moved up alongside them, and there was a note of something dark in his voice – anger? Fear? She wasn’t sure, but for the first time, she realised that Caleb hadn’t reacted to their presence or voices, not even twitching to show that he had heard them, and her snarl trailed off as fresh fear engulfed her. “Caleb, can you answer me?” It was the voice he used when they were being particularly stubborn or argumentative, a tone that always seemed to get through to them and yet there was still no response from Caleb and Nott was barely aware that she was snarling under her breath again as Fjord glanced at her. “Can you get the door open?”

“Yes.”

“Do it, Molly watch that end of the hall,” Fjord was taking command, but it didn’t subtract from the way his gaze darted back to Caleb, lingering with visible concern before he moved to give her room to work, his hand tight on the hilt of the Falchion as he covered the other end of the hallway.

“Caleb…” Nott tried again, desperate for some sign that he could hear her. Some sign that he knew that she was there, but all she got was silence, and it was only Jester’s fingers on her shoulder that had her taking a deep breath and reaching for her thieves’ tools.

     It was a simple lock, something she could open in her sleep these days and yet her fingers were unusually clumsy, refusing to listen to her commands. The tools slipped and then slipped again, and she half expected them to break, hearing them creaking in protest as she caught the mechanism wrong. Calm down. She wanted to take a swig from her flash, but Caleb needed her, and alcohol wouldn’t help and instead she tried to take a deep breath and then another before trying again, only to have one break off and clatter to the ground. “I c-can’t,” she hissed in frustration as the tools slipped again. She knew that she needed to calm down and focus, but Caleb still hadn’t acknowledged their presence, and she was scared and…

“Nott,” Jester was there, no playful lilt to be heard.  “Here, let us do it.” Jester was gentle as she eased her out of the way, hand resting on her head for a moment before she and Yasha moved to examine the door and lock. Neither of them bothered with the tools, sharing a look before grasping the metal bars and pulling. The prison was old, and the bars put up only token resistance before it gave beneath their frantic efforts, bowing with a screech of tortured metal. As soon as there was a gap big enough for her to squeeze through Nott was moving, darting between them and into the cell, firmly squashing the bubble of remembered fear as she glanced around at the dark, damp walls before focusing on the huddled form in the corner.

“Caleb!” She was barely a foot away now, but there was still no sign that he knew she was there and she faltered for a moment. I’m not brave enough for this, she shook her head, fingers dipping to her flask before darting away again.  “Caleb?” Two quick steps brought him to her, and she dropped down in front of him, crouching until she could peer at his face, something painful and unpleasant twisting in her stomach as she met empty blue. This is my fault…

It had been a moment of carelessness.

    The itch had struck her hard, and after keeping it buried for so long to make sure that it wouldn’t interfere with the string of jobs they’d been working through, Nott had been powerless to resist its pull. Her fingers had wandered – a pouch here, a few buttons there, a stick or two until her pack had been bulging and the itch had been fading away. She’d been heading back to the inn, satisfied and keen to share her hoard with Caleb when she’d heard people talking, muttering about a wizard who’d come into town days before. At first, she’d listened for fear that it was Caleb that they were talking about as it wouldn’t have been the first time that his past had brought unwelcome scrutiny down on the Nein, but it hadn’t taken her long to realise that this was someone else. A wizard who plied his magic for coin – something Caleb adamantly refused to do – and who, if the rumours were true, carried some interesting items.

Magical Items.

Items that could help Caleb.

    She’d remembered Beau’s comment about letting them in on stuff like this, but they weren’t on a job right now, having finished the last one a couple of days before. Besides, the others were either back in the inn or still searching for a bakery to buy pastries for Jester after she’d saved all their hides the other night, and Nott didn’t want to miss this opportunity. For a moment she contemplated messaging Caleb, but he had been melancholy later – the past haunting him more than usual, and she wanted to surprise him, hoping that maybe she could draw a smile from him and she was moving before she’d made a conscious decision about what she was going to do.

*

    It hadn’t been hard to find the wizard, his magic having drawn a crowd and it had been easier still to blend into the crowd around him, watching with wide eyes as he conjured shapes in the air, illustrating the story he was telling at the same time. It was impressive, and yet when she looked at him, he lacked the power that Caleb unconsciously radiated – it was forced, sweat beading on his forehead as his hands wove patterns in the air, fingers moving faster whenever a coin joined the others on a cloth laid out in front of him. For once, she’d paid the coin no mind, gaze immediately locking onto the pack leaning against the wall behind him

Magical items…

Caleb…

     Looking back, she would curse herself, remembering the glint of sunlight on dancing thread, but caught up in the moment and with the itch burning beneath her skin she’d moved. It had been easy, the crowd distracted by the performance and the wizard by the show he was giving them, and she had slipped between people, darting forward, a shadow in the light until her fingers had closed on the top strap of the bag. But her triumph had been brief, fingers barely curling around the strap before bells pealed – not the booming bells that sang out the city’s evening hour, but smaller ones screaming an alarm and she shrank back as though struck as the realisation hit her.

An alarm spell – like Caleb’s silver thread, only this one was loud and drawing all eyes in the vicinity to her.

    Hands were reaching for her now, and voices raised in alarm and anger and Nott fled. She bared her teeth at them, using their momentary alarm to slip free, breaking into a run as she darted between people, the commotion behind her telling her that she was being pursued.

 “Nott….?” It was barely a whisper of sound, the words forced between trembling lips, but it was enough to drag her back to the present. Blinking as she found that Caleb had finally moved, tilting his head up just enough to peer at her. And her heart ached at the raw fear in his eyes, even as she forced a relieved smile at being recognised.

“We’re here to rescue you.” I’m sorry we took so long, the apology was there but unspoken, because he was frowning now, confusion bleeding into the fear as blue eyes flickered up to where the others were watching. It was then that she saw it – he was surprised. Not so much by her presence, she could tell that much, but by the fact that the others were there too, and she closed her eyes as it dawned on her that he hadn’t thought they would come.

   She wasn’t getting out of this. She had led her pursuers on a merry dance through the town, but not even her small size and ability to find narrow passages to slip through had been enough to lose them. And she didn’t dare try to loop back towards the inn, because she knew this was bad and that she would be leading trouble right to the Nein…to Caleb. And it was more than that, a gnawing kernel of doubt that she hadn’t been able to silence yet.

Would they even help her even if…?

 “Nott! DOWN!” Months of listening to that voice and trusting more than she trusted her own had Nott throwing herself to the ground, hands moving instinctively to cover her head as the air above her turned hot, the familiar feel of Caleb’s magic washing over her.

“Nott come on!” Jester was there just as the sensation faded, yanking her to her feet and tugging her backwards. Nott faltered, glancing over her shoulder at where Caleb had moved to stand between them, his expression twisted by the same grief and self-loathing that always appeared when he was forced to fight humans. However, today there was something more – a resolve that she hadn’t seen before and it scared her.

“But…”

“Come on!” Jester was still tugging on her, trying to lead her away and it dawned on Nott that it was just the two of them – the rest of their group nowhere to be seen.  “It’s you they’re after, and Caleb said I had to get you out of here!” Nott’s eyes flew back to Caleb at that, startled to find him looking at them – and now she understood the resolve, seeing it reflected in the spells he was using, the way he aimed at the feet of the guards converging on them or at the walls to shower them in rock and dust.

   He wasn’t aiming to kill, or even to disarm. He was being a distraction, drawing all eyes and any unfriendly blades to himself so that they could escape.

He was risking himself for them.

Sacrificing himself for her…

“We all came,” she found herself whispering, a desperate edge to her voice as Caleb met her gaze once more. “All of us.” It was important that he knew that, and she reached for his hands, as his gaze flickered to the others and then back to her, letting her grasp his hands although he trembled at her touch. Although whether that was fear, pain or cold she couldn’t say, and her grip tightened, trying to give him something to ground himself with. “We’re all here, and we’re going to take you home.” It didn’t matter that they’d already had to abandon the inn they’d been staying at, their belongings crammed in the cart once more – because that and this strange bunch of people they’d found were home now, and finally she saw it, a flicker of relief in his eyes a moment before he pitched forwards.

“Jester!” 

****

Nott was furious.

   Two days. Those things – she refused to call them people- had Caleb in their grasp for little more than two days, the time it had taken the Nein to find a way in and out of the prison and make a plan and they’d nearly stolen him from her. When he’d pitched forwards into her arms, knocking her to the floor under his weight she had feared the worst, panic colouring her voice as she’d screamed for Jester not caring if they were caught. All that had mattered was that Caleb was lying against her, still and unmoving, just when she had finally managed to reach him.

   It had taken everything Jester had to stabilise him, finding a deep wound in his side, as though someone had taken a blade and twisted it as deep as they could, and there had been no trace of a smile on her lips when she’d sat back, panting, sweat beading on her forehead. He was alive, but more damage lay hidden beneath his sodden clothes and even with that wound healed he hadn’t roused. Not even when they’d wrapped him up in Molly’s coat and Fjord’s cloak when he had continued to shiver, and Nott knew it would take more than that, trembling fingers lingering in sodden hair as she’d brushed it from his face.

    The human was barely conscious when they’d thrown him back into the cell, and for several minutes, Nott had just huddled in the corner, staring at him with wide eyes. He was soaked, clothes included, and he looked tiny and frail against the harsh ground as he shivered and shook, whimpers escaping as he coughed and spluttered.

It happened again.

    Nott was furious, the weight of her broken promises to protect Caleb pressing ever heavier against her shoulders as they’d fled the prison, Caleb cradled against a grim-faced Yasha. And it had only grown as they’d left the town under cover of darkness, trying to put as much distance between them and the town - and their failure - as possible

****

   They’d chosen to risk a small village the next day, hoping that word hadn’t reached there before them. Caleb had woken during the night, although that had brought less comfort than they’d hoped as he’d remained silent, barely responding to any of them, his gaze distant and haunted in a way that had reduced Jester to tears and forced Molly to ride off cursing at one point. He held himself stiffly around them all, even her, and although he hadn’t pulled back when she’d taken his hand again, she wasn’t sure he was fully aware that she was there…and it scared her.

    It had been that, and the fact that he still had other injuries that needed treating that had forced them into the village. Thankfully the only interest in their arrival seemed to be the usual curiosity that their colourful group always drew.  Molly and Jester had been on top form, drawing eyes as they’d talked their way into the small inn and secured rooms for the night, leaving very few to glance at the bedraggled human sheltered protectively in the middle of their group. Nott would need to thank them for it later, but right now her focus was solely on Caleb who trembled under the attention that followed them as they headed for the steps, shrinking in on himself, withdrawing once more.

“Caleb…” Fjord began, clearly having noticed the reaction and Nott was quick to move as Caleb tensed, planting herself between him and the others.

“I’ve got him.” It was more defensive than she’d intended, but after the terror of the last two days – the fear about what was being done to her boy while they waited and the gnawing dread that grew every time she glanced at him.

“Nott…” Fjord’s voice stopped her as she turned to lead Caleb away, and for once it was soft – no longer the voice of a leader, but of someone who had come too close to losing something irreplaceable and who was only just realising that fact, and it was that which had her turning back to look at him. “Let us know if you need anything?” We needed you when Caleb was taken, they’d all been too slow, caught by surprise by the wizard’s sacrifice even though after all this time they should’ve known him as well as she did. They should have expected it. We needed you to act faster – that wasn’t fair, even Nott had been forced to admit that they needed to wait if they were going to make this work…but at what cost, she wondered as her eyes darted to Caleb and then away again, her shoulders slumping as the fight drained from her.

This was my fault…

“Some food would be good,” she replied after a moment, realising that it wasn’t just that they wanted to help, but that they needed to help, the same helplessness that had gripped her when she realised what had happened echoed in their expressions as they glanced at the silent wizard. She couldn’t refuse them that, and she knew that Caleb needed to eat, no matter how much he might argue against it. “And something to drink.” Nott hesitated, glancing up at Caleb but his gaze was elsewhere, fixed on some distant point that only he could see, and she dropped her voice as she added. “Not water.” That earned a flicker of something, understanding perhaps and Fjord’s expression darkened, lips thinning as his eyes flickered to Caleb once more. And she had a feeling that he was feeling the same temptation that she was to go back and mete out every inch of pain that had been inflicted on Caleb. However, that was a risk they couldn’t take, and he sighed before nodding.

“We’ll bring it up in a bit.” It was unspoken that it would be left at the door, and that they would be taking their own room for the night and Nott offered a terse smile, before turning back to Caleb and cautiously reaching for his hand. He hadn’t refused her touch yet, but she couldn’t shake the fear that it was coming if she couldn’t get through to him.

*

     The room was small but comfortable, and normally Nott would have been revelling in that, the memory of long days spent on the road and sleeping under what little shelter they could find. Today, she only had eyes for Caleb as she guided him into the room, closing the door firmly behind them, shutting out the world and wishing that it was as easy to shut out the thoughts and memories that were no doubt playing through his mind. Buying herself some time she took their bags and dropped that at the end of the bed, taking a deep breath as she realised that Caleb hadn’t moved from where she had left him, before turning to look at him.

“Caleb?” Nothing.  Please don’t leave me again, panic bubbled up, but she ruthlessly quashed it as she stepped forward and reached for his hand again. Too cold, she thought, used to the warmth of his skin that came from his magic and she frowned before squeezing his fingers as she raised her voice.  “Caleb?” Caleb blinked, eyes roving across the room as though he was only just realising where he was – which he probably was, momentary confusion clouding his eyes before he glanced down at her, tracing her arm to their joined hands, frown deepening, although he didn’t pull away.

“Ja…?”

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Nott explained. They had managed to wipe the worst of the blood off when they were in the cart, but it was still streaked down his face and side, and the grime of the prison still clung to him. She knew that he used the dirt and filth as a shield, his own version of the porcelain mask that she carried, but this was different – this wasn’t armour he had adopted, but something that had been done to him and she wanted it gone. Deep down she expected he did too, remembering how he had scrubbed until his skin was raw and red the first time they’d escaped prison.

  However, Caleb blinked again, the words slow to penetrate the haze that encompassed his thoughts and then he mutely shook his head, fear flickering across his face. “You can’t stay like that, and I need to look at your injuries.” She hated pushing when he was like this, terrified that one day she would find the breaking point, but at the same time, she couldn’t leave him like this.

   Ideally, they would ask Jester look at his injuries no matter how minor they appeared to be, but Caleb had barely let Jester close enough to heal the stab wound and had trembled the entire time, and Nott wasn’t willing to push him about it right now. Maybe tomorrow once he’d had some rest and hopefully started to feel safe again. For now, she would have to do, and she swallowed, pushing down the fear that this time maybe she wasn’t going to be enough. “Please Caleb, let me help.” It was the plea, something that she would rarely give voice to that got through to him, and he gave a tiny nod, finally looking at her. Her heart ached at the rawness of his gaze, the fear that hadn’t faded even though he had been surrounded by the Nein for hours – the wariness that had slowly been fading as their group grew closer now back in full force.

    However, he seemed slightly more aware as he began to fumble with the extra layers he was still bundled up with, and she caught the surprise as he realised that it was Fjord and Molly’s, clumsy movements becoming more careful as he eased them off. As he started to work on the now stiff underclothes that they’d found him in Nott took a step towards the door. “I’ll ask if they have a bath we can use in here.” There was no way he was up to a public bathhouse right now – neither of them was, and she doubted he could even be coaxed to use whatever the inn had, which probably wasn’t much.

“No!” The volume startled both, and they both flinched.  “I c-can’t.” The waver is more telling than either of them want it to be, Caleb shrinking, arms creeping around himself, while Nott snarls in the back of her throat even as her heart breaks at his reaction. It’s one she knows all too well, and for a moment all she can see was dark stone walls rising around her, metal creaking as the door opened and their guards shoved a trembling, sodden Caleb back into the cell.

I promised him it would never happen again…

Chapter Text

   It shouldn’t have surprised her to hear the broken refusal, and yet for a long moment, Nott found herself unable to move or think beyond the echoing thought that she should have stopped this from happening…again.

“All right,” she managed to say eventually, her voice far steadier than she felt, and she promised herself a strong drink once Caleb was safely in bed, holding her hands up placatingly as she realised that he looked ready to bolt at a moment’s notice even with her words. She worried at her bottom lip, for once not knowing what to say to him, before cautiously trying again. “Can I get a bowl of warm water and a cloth?” It wouldn’t be enough to erase the dirt, but it was something. It was obvious from his expression that he wanted to refuse, but although his arms tightened around himself, he didn’t say anything, and she took that as agreement, offering him a weak smile as she added with faux cheer. “I’ll be right back, then.”

    There’d been no response to her reassurance, and with a sigh she moved to the door, opening it to find Fjord on the other side, making him curse as he nearly dropped the steaming bowl he was carrying, and it took everything she had not to spring back and reach for a weapon having been caught off guard. The smell of food distracted her for a moment, and she glanced down to find a tray lying just outside, her stomach jumping and churning, hunger and upset warring for dominance and she wrenched her eyes away to look at the bowl Fjord was holding out to her. It was filled with warm water she realised, and her surprise must have been written across her face because he sighed before holding out the bowl.

“Figured you might need this too,” Fjord explained, and Nott closed her eyes briefly, not sure who she was thanking for putting these people in their life.  “How is he?” It was asked softly enough, but she still pulled the door too before shaking her head, expression grim. It was answer enough, and Fjord’s expression darkened, although his grip was steady as he passed her the bowl and settled the cloth she hadn’t noticed draped over his arm over her shoulder. “All right. Beau’s going to take first watch if you need anything.” Nott knew that she should say something more – especially as it dawned on her that they needed the watch even though they were safely inside because people might be coming after her boy, but she was too drained to think of anything more, and she settled for a simple.  

“Thank you.”

“Just take care of him.” Fjord patted her one last time on the shoulder, eyes focused on the door behind her, managing a strained half-smile before he turned and walked away, reluctance in each step and Nott waited until he had turned the corner before turning away.

    She would need to retrieve the food later, her stomach still doing unpleasant leaps, but for now, she wanted to get her boy cleaned up. Carefully balancing the bowl and cloths, she nudged the door open again and slipped inside, kicking it shut behind her, before turning her gaze to Caleb. He’d barely moved in the few minutes she’d been gone, but he had scooted along the bed a little and retrieved his bag, frowning as he held the purple pouch that had been tucked in the top of it, staring down at the incense it contained with uncomprehending eyes.

“Molly bought it,” Nott answered the unspoken question, seeing the flicker of surprise in his eyes as he glanced at her and aching at the sight of it. It was the same look he’d worn when they’d rescued him – as though he hadn’t expected them to come for him. That was too painful for either of them to deal with right now, so she hurried on, hoping that the explanation would help. “When we were waiting to be able to move. It’s enough isn’t it?” Confusion clouded his eyes again, exhaustion and the weight of what had happened clearly slowing his thoughts. “To bring Frumpkin back?”  She wished that she knew that spell, that she could bring the cat back right now because he would help. He would curl up against Caleb, purring and chirruping at him until the wizard’s fingers found their way into his fur, and then Caleb would relax a little. It had always worked, even nothing else would get through to him, but she couldn’t use that magic, and her hands clenched against the bowl, hating her inability to help in a way that really mattered.

“Ja…it’s m-more than enough,” his voice cracked and broke again, and the surprise was still there, and Nott realised that it was beyond her skills to convince him that they were all there for him. She would need to talk to the others at some point…or some of them, she frowned, knowing that they weren’t going to take Caleb’s surprise over their actions well and wincing as she imagined what some of the more outspoken ones might say.

“Fjord brought us some warm water, and there’s food outside,” she continued because she wasn’t sure how to deal with the other problems at the moment, and this at least was something she could do. Besides, her fingers were itching with the need to wash away the evidence of his imprisonment – the proof of her mistakes. Caleb’s eyes flickered to the bowl she was holding, and then to the door, his shoulders hunching as he retreated in on himself once more.

“I heard…” She waited a moment, sensing that he had more to say, but he seemed to have retreated into silence once more, and so she moved across to him, setting the bowl of water onto the bedside table and flexing her fingers as she tilted her head to study Caleb.  He’d pulled Fjord’s cloak back around his shoulders, the chill at least seeming to register with him. It wasn’t enough to stop her from glimpsing the tapestry of bruises across his chest, or the thin red lines that spoke of cuts and gashes although they seemed to be healing already, and she guessed that Jester’s magic had tried to deal with them as well before she’d exhausted herself. A curse bubbled up in the back of her throat, the longing to have a drink intensifying, but instead, she forced herself to take a cloth and dip it in the warm water, catching the way Caleb flinched at the sound of the water splashing against the side of the bowl.

Again…they did this to him again.

    Her hands were trembling as she wrung it out, and it didn’t help that Caleb was watching warily, eyes tracing the drops of water that fell from the cloth. “Is this okay?” She asked moving towards him, not sure what she would do if he said ‘no’ but needing to ask. Needing to give him that choice. He swallowed, eyes flicking to the bowl of water, to the door behind her – before settling on her face, although he was carefully avoiding her gaze, and they remained like that for a long moment, an exhausted, wounded wizard and a worried Goblin girl clutching a damp cloth in trembling fingers, and finally Caleb nodded. A tiny movement that she wouldn’t have seen if she hadn’t been looking for it, and she could see him trembling as he slowly, reluctantly shrugged off the folds of Fjord’s cloak once more.

“Tell me if you need me to stop.” It was like approaching a wild animal, and she remembered the lessons he had given her in how to approach Frumpkin in the early days when her instincts had to just be to snatch the cat up, often getting scratched in the process. Caleb traced each step with wary eyes, but he didn’t stop her, and cautiously she reached out and ran the cloth over one shoulder. She kept her touch light on the first pass, barely taking off any of the dirt and she scowled, before wiping more firmly the second time, trying not to focus on the way Caleb flinched as a drop of water trailed down his arm. Instead, her attention shifted to the cloth in her hand, fresh rage bubbling up as she pulled it back and stared at the blood and dirt staining it. “Oh, Caleb…”

How dare they?

      She wanted to go back there and show them just what a Goblin was truly capable of, for once wishing to indulge in every nightmarish iteration of her people. What made it worse, was that she knew that the others wouldn’t stop her this time...in fact, she had a feeling that several of them would be willing to join her, and it reassured and scared her in equal measure to know that they would stand beside her at her most monstrous.

“I’m all right.” The quiet murmur drew her out of her increasingly murderous thoughts, and she fumbled with the cloth that she had been in the process of rinsing in the bowl, and they both flinched as the water splashed over the side. Haunted blue met her gaze, more aware than before, but it was a small relief because there was pain and fear in his eyes, despite his attempt to comfort her, and he wasn’t the only one trembling when she began to wipe at his skin again.

“No, you’re not, and that’s okay.” He had been the first one to listen, to care, to tell her that it was okay to not be fine. The others had followed, all of them learning to slide into place to cover each other on the off days, but Caleb had been first, and her voice was soft as she turned her own words back on him. It was enough to earn the faintest twitch of his lips, and Nott gave him a toothy grin in return, proud and relieved that her words had been enough to earn that kind of reaction. “But you will be.” The last bit was little more than a whisper, although she knew that he’d heard it, the words a promise for them both and she was startled when Caleb leant into her touch as she continued to wipe away the evidence of his imprisonment.

    The next few minutes passed in comfortable silence, with only the tiniest of flinches whenever she caused the water to slop against the sides or drips landed on somewhere other than where she was wiping. Caleb’s head was beginning to slump forward, his eyes drooping as exhaustion started to settle in the wake of the realisation that he was safe here with her. Nott wanted to talk, to keep him awake, but she had never been good at small talk, at least not without alcohol to keep the words flowing, and there was too much that still needed to be said. Words that were too heavy for tonight, and so she stayed silent, seething as the water turned dirtier and dirtier, noting and memorising each mark on his skin that didn’t come away with her ministrations. There were too many…

    The peace was broken by the sound of voices in the corridor, Fjord’s familiar drawl and Molly’s lilt coming to a halt outside the room and Caleb was tense once more, all traces of sleepiness banished as he stared at the door as though waiting for it to burst open. Nott faltered, ready to snarl at them if they disturbed this moment between them, but then they heard Beau scolding the other two and telling them to get to bed because she was still going to wake them for their watch, even if they’d only just fallen asleep. That threat seemed to be enough to get them moving again, footsteps moving away until they heard another door opening and closing down the corridor, followed by even softer footsteps that seemed to be moving back and forth, never venturing too close to their door.

 “We’re in danger because of me?” Caleb asked eventually, and Nott knew that he had caught the mention of keeping watch – his mind easily connecting the dots despite everything and she turned back just in time to see the guilt that flickered across his face.

“Because of me,” Nott corrected at once, a tightness in her chest at the sight of his expression and she faltered. How could he think that any of this was his fault? Unfortunately, she knew the answer to that, but it didn’t help her now, and her ears drooped as she reached out with her free hand to grasp one of his, feeling him tremble, although he didn’t pull away.  “Caleb…I’m sorry.” It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, not after what he had been forced to endure because of her mistake… not when she had broken so many promises.

“I…”

“If I’d kept my fingers to myself none of this would have happened.” It wasn’t the first time she’d caused them trouble because of the ‘itch’ but before it had always been minor, something that could be shrugged off with a few stern words and a disappointed glower from Fjord. This was different. “It should have been me they took…”

“No!” The terror was back, but there was as fierceness behind it – the same resolve that she had seen two days ago when he had protected herself. She wasn’t stupid, she knew that if their positions had been reversed she would have received the same punishment if not far worse because she was a beast, but right now, meeting his frightened eyes and seeing the pain that had been etched into every inch of his body she couldn’t bring herself to care. She wasn’t brave, but she would have endured that pain a hundred times over if it would have spared him a single iota of pain. “No…” He repeated softer this time, turning his hand so that his fingers were now grasping her hand. “I-I would endure f-far worse than this to stop that from happening.” His voice cracked and broke, but she didn’t doubt that he meant his words – Caleb didn’t tend to waste his words, and as much as he lied and schemed, he had always been honest with her.

She didn’t know what to say.

     Thank you. I’m sorry. This is my fault. There were so many words that she could say, that she probably should say, over and over until they were both sick of them and yet none of them was enough right now. In the end, she settled for squeezing his fingers again, before pulling back and resuming her ministrations. Thankfully, it was more dirt than anything now when she rinsed the cloth the next few times, working her way lower until she faltered at his waistband.

“Can you do the rest?” She asked cautiously. Despite all the misconceptions that they had encountered about their friendship, they had always maintained a careful barrier, skirting them when an injury made it necessary. She would do it if necessary, having already vowed to herself that she would do everything…anything…to make this better, to help her boy, but she wasn’t sure that either of them was ready for that, and there was a surge of relief when Caleb reached out slowly to take the cloth from her.

“J-Ja.”

“I’ll get the food then,” she added briskly, seeing the colour that had seeped into his cheeks. It was a glimpse of normality that they both needed right now, and the toothy smile she offered him was less strained than it had been before, followed by a pointed glance towards the bowl of water as she turned away.

    She hesitated, waiting until she heard movement behind her and the sound of cloth hitting the water before heading for the door, slipping out into the corridor and closing the door behind her to give him privacy.

    Beau had been leant against the wall opposite and had startled upright at the sound of the door, and it took everything Nott had not to shriek as a throwing dart shuddered in the door frame beside her. It had been close. Biting her lip, to hold back any noise that would frighten Caleb she narrowed her eyes at Beau, the monk looking sheepish as she realised what she’d done, mouthing an apology before her expression shifted, concern evident in her gaze as her eyes flickered to the door behind Nott.

“How…?”

     Nott frantically shook her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to let them know that Caleb was… doing better than he had been, but she knew he wouldn’t want to hear them talking about him and instead she held up a finger to her lips and then shrugged. He wasn’t okay, even she wasn’t naïve enough to think that just because he seemed to be coming back to himself…to her, that this was over, and she grimaced when Beau’s expression darkened.

“I’m going to kill them.” It was barely even a whisper, but to Nott, it seemed deafening, and after a moment she bared her teeth in a snarl, finally letting herself give voice to the seething anger that had gripped her since the moment she had laid eyes on Caleb in that foul cell.

“I will join you.”

     They stared at each other for a long moment, a promise sealed in the silence before Nott was the first to glance away, turning her attention to the tray of food that the others had brought up earlier. The stew would probably be cold by now, but she didn’t think either of them would particularly mind – long days in the wild, unable to scavenge more than a mouthful or two had taught both her and Caleb to appreciate any food that was set in front of them. Although the others had been trying to get them to see food as more than a simple fact of survival, maybe she would even allow Jester to indulge in splurging on pastries for them in the hope of cheering up Caleb.

“I could get some more from downstairs,” Beau offered, having apparently realised that it was cold too, and Nott blinked, touched by the offer before shaking her head. She didn’t want to leave Caleb on his own for too long, knowing that his darker thoughts would be waiting to ambush him in the wake of what had happened, and she didn’t think he would take well to an intrusion if they waited for food to be brought up, even if it was Beau.

“This is fine,” she muttered, keeping her voice low. “I just want to get him to eat something before he sleeps.” It was true enough and didn’t reveal her real reasons or the fearful concern that gnawed at her with every second that the door to their room remained shut. From Beau’s expression, she wasn’t entirely fooled by the act, and Nott knew that if she had been facing Fjord, he would have cut straight through her words. However, this was Beau, and while she wasn’t fooled by the act, she also wasn’t sure how to challenge it, and with an exasperated sigh she nodded and slumped back against the wall.

“If you need anything…”

“I know.” And wasn’t that a surprise? Because Nott knew without a doubt that no matter what she came out and asked for tonight, this strange group would try and make it happen, even if she was demanding the blood of those who had hurt her boy. It was a heady sensation, and her hands trembled, rattling the dishes as she lifted the tray and turned back to the room, unsurprised when Beau darted forward to turn the handle for her. Slipping back inside, she began to think that as bad as this situation was, it would be easier to come back from than it had been last time because they were no longer alone.

*

     Caleb had finished washing, although she could tell that he hadn’t done as good a job as she had, clearly trying to avoid as much contact with the water as possible, not that she could blame him. He had also abandoned his clothes, piling them at the end of the bed and she made a note to try and get them cleaned before he had to wear them again. Instead, he had pulled on a spare pair of pants and wrapped himself up in Molly’s coat, with Fjord’s cloak wrapped around him like a cape, and he had moved so that he was leant back against the headboard. His head was bobbing slightly, exhaustion was written in the slumped line of his shoulders, but every time it threatened to dip too low he would blink and force his head up again.

“Here.” Carefully she carried the tray across and settled it next to him, seeing the way his eyes flickered to the food before darting away again, as though afraid to be seen looking at it. “It’s a little cold now, but you need to eat something before you sleep.” Surprise and then slow realisation swept across his face before he hesitantly reached for the bowl she was offering him, and she had to help him steady it for a moment, before slowly and deliberately releasing her grip on it. She was unsurprised but upset to see the way he yanked it closer, hunching protectively over it. It was something they’d both done when they’d first escaped from prison, and she ached to see it happening again.

    Giving him some space, she took her own bowl and moved to sit on the end of the bed. With a single-minded focus that wasn’t entirely feigned she devoured the food, startled to realise just how hungry she was. However, her focus had the intended effect because when she glanced out of the corner of her eyes, Caleb was slowly, but steadily working through the bowl of stew.

    Deliberately slowing at the end, she matched his pace, only setting aside her bowl when he lowered his. Satisfied that he’d finished she moved, reclaiming the empty bowl and setting both of them on the tray and pushing it aside, peering into the bottle that she’d been ignoring, pleased to smell ale when she sniffed it and resisting taking a swig as she passed it to Caleb with a quiet. “It’s not water.” His gaze darted to her, shame colouring his cheeks before he took it with a murmured ‘thank you’, his hands trembling as he drank deeply.

    Nott watched closely, wondering if she should invest in another bottomless flash for him too, but he didn’t like getting drunk too often, having explained once that it made it harder for him to focus on his magic. He didn’t like having his thoughts clouded, even though she had seen the longing in his eyes when he’d seen the others escaping the memories or thoughts haunting him as they got further and further into their cups. “Nott,” Caleb was holding the bottle out to her, his lips quirked into a weak imitation of a smile. “You haven’t had any all evening, have you?” Mutely she accepted it, realising that he had barely drunk half, her heart doing a complicated jig in her chest as she realised that despite everything he had paid enough attention to have noticed that.

   The words wouldn’t come, but she offered him a smile, too toothy as usual although he never seemed to mind before she drank. It wasn’t enough, not after the last few days, but it tasted sweeter than anything she’d had in a long time, and she felt calmer as she set the bottle aside. She let the comfortable quiet that had settled between them once more, linger for a few minutes, letting herself pause to savour the fact that Caleb was here. That he was still with her. That he was safe. However, eventually her eyes were drawn back to the cuts and bruises still visible even though he was bundled up, and moving slowly, feeling his eyes follow the movement, she brushed a finger against a particularly dark one, making him flinch slightly.

“Will you let Jester look at these in the morning?” Not long before she would have bet money against him agreeing, but although there was still a moment of hesitation, he finally nodded, shifting so that her finger was no longer pressing on the bruise before leaning into the touch. Welcoming it. Her smile this time was less tremulous, and still mindful of his injuries and lingering wariness she settled beside him and wrapped him up in a hug.

“T-Thank you.” Caleb’s voice cracked and broke, and she glanced up in alarm, expecting to see fear and ready to release him in an instant. Instead, there was a different emotion in his eyes, and she blinked as his arms crept around her in return, before he twisted so that he could bury his face against her hair. “Thank you for coming for me…” The last bit was so quiet that she barely heard it, and there was a lump in her throat when the quiet words registered, her grip tightened to the point where it must be painful, but he made no effort to pull away.

“Always.” Her voice was the one to break this time, but it did nothing to subtract from the fierceness of that single word or the weight of the promise it carried. Caleb didn’t reply, but she could feel him relaxing against her, melting in a way he hadn’t allowed himself to do since being rescued and it was answer enough.

  

Chapter Text

     The fight had been a lot harder and more drawn out than any of them had expected, and Jester could already hear Beau musing if they would be able to get more money for the job as the Gentleman’s information had been surprisingly lacking for once. Somehow, she doubted that was going to happen, seeing the same doubt in Fjord’s face even as he muttered something to pacify the raging monk, he was on edge after Yasha had gone down twice and all her blows seemed to have gone off course in her rage. She also had a sinking suspicion that she might have been the reason for the shortage of information, as the Gentleman couldn’t seem to get them out of there fast enough, avoiding all her attempts to approach him and continue their not-quite conversation from when she had first learnt he might be her father.

      She would try again when they got back if Beau didn’t irritate him first. For now, though, it was enough that they were alive, albeit a little worse for wear. Caduceus was clearly running on fumes as he finished working on Yasha, collapsing back with a sigh as she stirred and tilting his head up towards the drizzle that had started during the fight, turning the ground beneath their feet into a muddy mush that hadn’t helped in the slightest. She was tempted to join him, her own magic ragged around the edges, and she was just debating whether it was worth risking her clothes when she realised that Caleb was hanging back, even though Nott had already gone to join Caduceus, attempting to tempt him into taking a warming sip of alcohol.

    It wasn’t an unusual sight, even after everything they had been through together and as close as they had become, he was still wary of getting too close. However, there was something about the way he was standing, one arm pressed awkwardly against his side, while the other reached up to scratch Frumpkin’s ears as the Cat curled around his neck.

“Caleb,” she bounded over to him, summoning up energy that she didn’t quite have but knew she would need to get past his usual stubbornness. However, her good humour dissipated as her darkvision and focus allowed her to spot what she knew the others must’ve have missed – the blood staining the sleeve pressed against his side, and the pinched look around his eyes that spoke of pain. “You didn’t tell us you were hurt.” She hissed, close to infernal, even as she tried to keep her voice down so that they wouldn’t worry Nott.

“It is nothing.” The dismissive tone irritated her, and she was a little rougher than she should have been as she pulled him closer, nudging his arm away when he tried to keep the wound hidden again, and she scowled up at him.

“It isn’t nothing,” she snapped, even before she managed to wrench his arm away from it, eyes widening as she took in the nasty gash that stretched around to his back and out of sight. “Caleb…” He flinched at her tone and recoiled but didn’t speak and she sighed before gently moving her hand to rest over the wound, her other hand seeking out the Traveller’s symbol, knowing that she would need help for this with her magic already worn thin from the fight. As the warm golden glow spread from her fingers to the wound, she glanced up at him, noting that he had looked away, ducking in on himself as though hiding from her. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It didn’t seem serious.” She heard the lie, just as she had every time they had caught him trying to hide an injury no matter how serious or minor. It hadn’t always been that way she mused, remembering the early days of their journeys when he hadn’t hidden such things from them – not that he’d often had the choice, she thought with a shiver, remembering their first encounter with the bandits and how he had pulled the bolts out without hesitation. No, this was more recent – and she wasn’t sure what had happened to change it.

    At least the wound was healing easily enough, welcoming her magic, and she could feel the tickling warmth around her shoulder that told her the Traveller was close. Still, it wasn’t enough to just see the lines of pain easing from his expression, the way he breathed easier, even leaning slightly into her touch and she sighed. “You shouldn’t hide things like this, none of us likes it when you’re hurt – and there’s more than enough healing to go around now!” She made no effort to hide her relief that the full weight of healing no longer fell on her shoulders, she didn’t like seeing her friends hurt, but there was so much more she could do with her magic and Caduceus made it possible for her to explore that side of herself.

“I’m sorry.” It was sincere enough, she was learning to detect when he was lying although she still had a long way to go, but it wasn’t the promise that she wanted, and she scowled. However, she knew him well enough by now to know that he could put Beau to shame with his stubbornness and already he was pulling away as the magic trailed off, leaving reddened but healed skin behind. Reluctantly she let him go, making a mental note to talk to Nott when she was slightly calmer about his new habit of hiding injuries, and to keep an eye on him herself.

“Try not to get hurt again,” she admonished instead as she pulled back, before launching herself at him in a hug. “I like you, as smelly as you are.” He had stiffened at the hug, and she caught the muffled groan that greeted the familiar teasing – even though he had come a long way from the vagrant they had first met, aided by a fairly regular income and their moaning. Awkwardly he patted the top of her head, the gesture reassuring her more than she’d thought it would – as it meant that he wasn’t pulling away from them completely. That and he didn’t protest as she tugged him across to the others who had all collapse for a short rest before they tackled the trip back to the inn and for now that was enough.

****

    They were all late down to breakfast the next morning, the fight having taken a lot out of them even though they’d all been fully healed before crawling into bed the night before. Even Jester was quieter than usual as she munched on her pastries, although she eventually got pulled into a conversation with Caduceus who was still cautiously trying new things with each meal, laughing as he spat out a mouthful of watery porridge and looking at the pan of porridge as though it had personally betrayed him. She had a feeling he would be having a word with the cook, and she just hoped they could take criticism, as they had been chased out of several places already because of his well-meaning advice. It didn’t mean that she was about to stop him though, if only because it would be good cover for her to create some chaos, something she hadn’t had much of a chance for lately.

    Nodding to herself, and already plotting what she could do, a wicked grin tugging at her lips as she remembered the magic paint she still had stashed in the haversack, she turned back to her pastries. She had just taken a large mouthful, too large to be polite really when there was the sound of hurried feet on the stairs, and she glanced up curiously just in time to see Nott hurtle into sight. That wasn’t an unusual sight, especially on the mornings when the little Goblin thought she was going to miss out on breakfast. What was different this time was that Nott had forgotten her mask and bandages, her goblin features on display for the world to see, and the panic written across her face as she glanced around before her big eyes landed on their table.

“Jester!”

“Nott, your mask,” Beau hissed as Nott darted towards them, noting the fearful reactions of the other guests and dropping a hand to her staff in case anyone tried anything stupid. “Nott!” However, Nott seemed blind to the attention she was garnering even though she usually tried to do everything in her power to stay in the shadows, and she ignored Beau in favour of reaching Jester and latching onto her arm, tugging with all her might.

“Jester, I need your help!!”

“What is it?” Jester asked, letting herself be pulled from her seat, all thoughts of mischief forgotten for the time being as she also noticed the unwelcome attention Nott was attracting. Allowing her friend to tug her towards the stairs, in the hopes of getting her out of sight as soon as possible.

“Caleb…something is wrong with Caleb.” Nott’s voice rose with each word, and suddenly Jester remembered his injury from the day before. But I healed it… She thought with a frown, although it did little to combat the sinking feeling in her stomach. Had she missed something? Had he been hiding something else? Her magic hadn’t tried to heal anything else, but she had been tired and working on fumes, she might’ve missed something…and Caleb wouldn’t have told me. That last thought had her growling a curse in Infernal that would have made Molly proud, and now she was the one pulling Nott along because she knew that the wizard wouldn’t have told her if there had been something more to the wound.

“Caleb, you idio….” She hadn’t waited, barging into the room that he was sharing with Nott, but the tirade died on the tip of her tongue as she got a good look at the man on the bed.

    Caleb never had much colour to him, something that she knew Caduceus was trying to change with his cooking, but today he looked as though someone had bleached all the colour from his skin, apart from the two pinpricks of colour high in his cheeks. It looked a little like Nott’s first attempts at applying makeup, but she knew that wasn’t the case here. There were beads of sweat across his face, and as she watched he shifted restlessly, reaching up as though to bat at an invisible foe, making a soft noise of distress and she swallowed. “Caleb…?”

“Caleb.” There was movement behind them, and she glanced over her shoulder startled to find that the others had followed them, or maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised, because they were no longer a group of strangers pretending not to care. It was Beau that had spoken, coming to a halt in the doorway as she stared at the wizard with an unreadable expression, and Caduceus gently nudged her aside. Ducking to fit through the door before making a beeline for the bed, and as he brushed past her Jester came back to life, trailing after him, guilt pooling beneath the worry. But I healed him.

     At some point, she had forgotten how much taller he was than the rest of them, but she was reminded sharply of it now as Caduceus crouched beside the bed. Making Caleb looked even smaller, more fragile and Jester wasn’t the only one to gulp at the sight as Nott moved around to stand at the end of the bed, watching them with worried eyes. The Firbolg sniffed the air, before leaning in to inspect Caleb, gently pulling up his eyelids to offer them a glimpse of unfocused blue, that was nearly lost in the dilated pupils, and Jester knew the answer even before Caduceus sat back on his heels and glanced back at them.

“Poison.”

“B-but I healed him,” Jester’s voice cracked and broke, blurting out the words before she had even thought about what she was doing.  Healing wasn’t the same as curing poisons, she knew that, but with Caduceus’ proclamation and the alarmed whispers that had broken out behind her it had slipped out anyway, and she only realised what she’d done when silence fell around her. Realising that they were all staring at her, she coloured and ducked her head. “He was hurt in the fight yesterday,” she said in a small voice, unable to bring herself to look at them, especially when she heard Nott’s sharp intake of breath. “He was trying to hide it, but I healed him. He was fine!” The last bit was a little more defensive than she’d intended.

“Where was he injured?” Caduceus was the first to speak, and there was an urgency to his words that were at odds with his usual calm. It stopped her from arguing as she stepped forward, squeezing in beside him and reaching out for Caleb.

“Sorry about this Caleb,” she whispered, knowing that he wouldn’t approve of this, but he seemed unaware of their presence, forehead furrowed as he shifted restlessly. Still, she was cautious as she pulled back the covers, noting that they were damp to the touch and fighting back a grimace. Next, she reached for his shirt, carefully easing it up, making sure the blankets gave him some modesty as she lifted him, tilting him just enough to get a look at where the wound had been, and this time she was the one to gasp.

    What had been clean, healing skin the night before was now covered in a web of angry red lines that spread around his side and crept up his back and out of sight under the bunched shirt. Poison. It wasn’t that she had doubted Caduceus, but it was different to see it with her own eyes.

 “Fix this!” Nott was at her side now, tugging at her skirt and staring up with pleading eyes that darted between her and Caduceus. “Make him better.”

“I…” Jester couldn’t refuse, but she couldn’t forget that her magic hadn’t prevented this from happening, and her hand trembled as she moved to lay it over the afflicted area. Traveller, please let me fix this. Some part of her knew that this wasn’t her fault, but a larger part couldn’t forget that she had supposedly healed him and then this had happened. The magic came swiftly, fully restored after the night’s rest and she let it wash over Caleb, the golden light blinding, and she closed her eyes, willing it to work.    

    Nothing. She knew even before she opened her eyes, that it hadn’t worked, and sure enough, when she opened her eyes, the angry red was still there, and her hand fell away. Why? Why can’t I heal this? She would be the first to admit that she liked using her magic for other things, but her healing magic had never failed her before, and she felt adrift, lost under the watchful eyes she could feel burning into her from behind, and with Nott’s unflinching gaze meeting hers when she slowly turned around. “Caduceus?” She whispered, hoping that maybe he had something else up his sleeves, and she didn’t protest as he shooed her out of the way.

    It didn’t ease her guilt in the slightest when Caduceus wasn’t able to cure it either, and he had tried several different spells that she had only heard of, but all that mattered was that the angry marks remained and Caleb was now more restless, lashing out at the Firbolg at one point. “We’re going to have to do this the hard way,” Caduceus was unfazed by the uncoordinated blow, gently grasping Caleb’s hand and tucking it back under the covers, but he was frowning as he turned to the rest of them.

“What does that mean?” Beau demanded.

“We need to go back and find out what they used,” Caduceus explained. “If we can find the weapon itself that would be even better, and then we…” Here he paused to gesture between himself and Jester, who nodded, hands twisting into the folds of her skirt. But I failed once already… However, Caduceus didn’t seem to notice, or if he had, he chose not to say anything as he continued. “Can t…make a counter to it.” Jester caught the brief pause, and the way he corrected himself and swallowed nervously, realising that they might not be able to fix this.

“And if we can’t find it?” Fjord was the one to ask, gaze flicking to Caleb as the wizard mumbled under his breath, not recognising the words and guessing that he had slipped into Zemnian. “What happens then?”

“Then we try and make a cure, but…” Caduceus didn’t finish, but they didn’t need him to, and Fjord nodded with a sigh.

“So, we find it.”

“I’m going with you,” Nott said softly, looking torn as she glanced at Caleb, before nodding resolutely. “I’m going to make sure we find it.” No one questioned her sudden lack of faith, knowing that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t trust them anymore, but because it was Caleb lying in that bed needing their help.

“I’ll stay with Caleb,” Jester offered quietly, half expecting to be shouted down immediately after her previous failure, tail lashing behind her. “Please, I want to take care of him…” She explained in the silence that followed, and when she glanced up, she realised that the others were all watching Nott, realising that she was the one that needed to be convinced. Nott was studying her, a calculating light in her eyes that Jester hadn’t seen aimed at her since the early days when they had first met.

“If anything happens to him,” Nott said finally, and Jester had to blink back sudden tears, feeling as though she had been judged and not found as wanting as she currently believed herself to be. Sniffling slightly, she nodded, making sure to hold the Goblin’s gaze as she nodded in acknowledgement of the quiet threat.

“I know.”

****

    Not for the first time, Jester wondered if Caleb had any inclination about how important he was to the group, and how much they cared about him, as the others had immediately geared up to go and find the answers they needed. Probably not, she decided as she moved around the room once she had seen the rest of the group off, tidying for the sake of distracting herself, not that there was much to do because Caleb still hadn’t grasped the idea of unpacking everything whenever they stopped for a few days. At first, it had scared her to realise that he never unpacked, feeling as though it would be all too easy for him to just slip away from them, for both him and Nott to disappear as though they had never been there. That fear had eased with time, and now she just felt sad as she realised that even now, he didn’t feel at home with them, or feared it at least.

“One day we’re going to have somewhere that’s just ours,” she said now as she gravitated back towards the bed, settling on the edge, and studying his flushed features. This was a dream that she hadn’t mentioned to the others, one that had started in Nicodranus, when for a few precious nights they’d all been under the same roof, in a place she called home. “It’ll be our home, and then hopefully you will unpack all your things, and buy new clothes, and make the place your own.” Even sneaking in her normal comment about his appearance felt lacking today, and the smile she’d tried for shrivelled as Caleb muttered something under his breath, baulking as he brushed against her. “It’s okay Caleb, you’re going to be okay.” She wasn’t sure how much she believed it right now, but they both needed the words, and she repeated them under her breath as she reached out to catch his hand.

You’re going to be okay.

*

     Caleb, she decided lived to be contrary. It was easier to think that, than except just how serious the situation was as his condition deteriorated as the morning passed into noon, and beyond.  Guys, where are you? She thought as she ran a damp cloth over his face, doubting that it was helping, apart from the clear away the sweat the poison was generating. Although it was the only thing that seemed to draw a reaction from him, as he would lean ever so slightly into the welcome coolness, only to retreat as the fever now wracking his body warmed the cloth. It was a repetitive motion now, wipe his face, dip it back into the bowl of cool water – the only thing she’d dared to leave the room to get when it had become clear that he was getting worse.

    The rest of the time he tossed and turned, fighting the covers, fighting her, and whatever memories or thoughts were haunting him while his defences were down, and all the while he talked. Most of it she didn’t understand – whispered words in Zemnian and occasionally other languages that she didn’t recognise, although she didn’t need to understand the words to identify the sentiments behind them, her eyes stinging as it became clear that he was pleading for something. And, oh how she wished that she understood, just so that she could reassure him, or give him the words to hear, even if they were a lie, just to see him settle down. Instead, all she could do was wipe his face and grasp his hand when he would allow her, and reassure him that she was there and that he wasn’t alone. And that he was going to be okay.

     She had just checked where the wound had been again, trying once again to convince her magic to heal it, her pleas to the Traveller falling on deaf ears just as they had back with the slavers. What am I supposed to learn from this? Please…please let me help him. Her heart sinking as she realised the red lines were spreading, crawling further and further along his back, livid against too pale skin, when Caleb spoke, and it took her a moment to realise that he was talking in Common now, although his accent was stronger than usual.

“Astrid…” It sounded like a plea, and something darker and more painful rolled into one, and for a moment she was back in Hupperdook, his arms around her and his face flushed from drinking. She had never found out who this woman was, and he had never spoken of her again after that, and now she wished that she had asked. However, she hadn’t, and there was a sliver of blue now, his eyes barely open as he gazed at her, and somehow under that gaze, she couldn’t bring herself to lie to him, even if might have offered him some comfort.

“No, Caleb…” Her voice caught for a moment, and she had to swallow hard, squeezing the hand that was currently resting in hers as she gathered herself.  “It’s Jester.” The one who healed you but couldn’t stop this from happening, she thought but didn’t say, half expecting him to recoil as he blinked, gaze still unfocused, but he didn’t, instead taking a shuddering breath.

“J-Jester…Good…”

“Good?” She echoed, not understanding.

“I…” He seemed to fade again, eyes slipping shut, and she sighed. As painful as it had been to see him like that, seeing his eyes open even just a little, and hearing him speak in a language they shared had been a relief. There was a tremble in her hands again, as she moved to wet the cloth again, and she jumped when she set it against his burning forehead, and his eyes flew open. “J-Jester?” He was looking at her, but she wasn’t sure what he was seeing, as he had the look of a man who had seen a ghost or was still seeing them, as his lips quivered, and his expression seemed to crumble. “…not Astrid…?”

“No, I’m not Astrid.”

“G-good….” There was no mistaking his relief this time, but the pain didn’t abate in his expression, and she was about to press for answers. Wanting to do at least something to ease what was happening to him, when he had continued brokenly, voice cracking and trailing off into a whisper.   “I didn’t… want…her to…k-kill me too...” As his words faded away, his eyes slid shut again, missing the way that Jester’s mouth had fallen open, tears trickling down her cheek.

Caleb, what happened to you…?

 

Chapter Text

     Caleb had fallen quiet for a while after that, giving Jester precious time to try and get her thoughts in order and to swipe at the tears on her cheeks. None of them was blind to the fact that Caleb had secrets, and she knew that she wasn’t the only one trying to guess exactly what they were, especially after Caleb had slipped in the bar at Hupperdook and called her ‘Astrid’. I thought you loved her, she thought, rubbing a thumb over the back of his hand, and maybe he had, because while there had been relief and fear in his voice. It hadn’t just been relief for himself…

“I didn’t… want…her to…k-kill me too...”

     He had been relieved that this Astrid wasn’t the one behind this, that she wasn’t going to be burdened with another death. You’re not going to die, Caleb. I won’t let that happen, Jester vowed as she realised that he had thought that he was dying. That after everything he had suffered both before and after meeting the Mighty Nein, he thought that this was it, and her grip tightened. She should’ve stopped this from happening. Stopped him from thinking that this figure from his past had come back to haunt him. And who was this woman? Who else had she killed? Who is she to you Caleb? She wouldn’t ask though, not now.

    Seeing that he was resting somewhat peacefully, she gently released his hand and settled it down on the bed, rubbing at her eyes once more, before going to replenish the bowl of water and see if the others had sent any word. However, there was no sign of them in the bar, and her questions drew a blank-eyed stare from the barmaid, and with a defeated slump of her shoulders, she retreated upstairs, reluctant to leave Caleb alone for long. Please, hurry guys.

    He hadn’t moved when she returned, but the sound of the door opening and closing seemed to disturb him, his brow furrowing, as his head turned towards the sound. “Astrid…?” Hearing that name now, brought a foul taste to her mouth and her voice was sharper than she’d intended as she corrected him.

“It’s Jester.”

“Jester…” Caleb’s eyes opened, although it took him a couple of minutes to focus, by which point she had put the fresh water onto the bedside table and settled on the edge of the bed, and the proximity seemed to help as he blinked and relaxed. “Jester…” Relieved to see that her presence helped even though she was at least partly responsible for this situation, she reached out and grasped his hand, managing a tremulous smile when his fingers curled around hers. Although, it was short-lived as a tremor wracked him, making him spasm violently, his grip that had been so tentative before, now biting into her fingers as he gasped. “H-hurts.”

“Hurts? Where does it hurt Caleb?”

“E-everywhere…?” She wasn’t sure whether it was the fact that it was phrased as a question, the way his voice cracked and broke as another tremor worked its way through his body, or the idea that the poison had spread so far. “Jester?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, pulling his hand close to her chest and cradling it. “I’m sorry. I can’t heal it right now, but the others are looking for the cure as we speak, and I know they’ll find it.” She believed that just as much as she believed in the Traveller, even when he wasn’t able to answer her pleas, and she looked at Caleb, searching for some sign that he shared her faith. He hadn’t said it aloud yet, but she knew he was starting to trust them, and she smiled again as he nodded. Sure, it was a little less certain than she would’ve preferred, but it was a far cry from the wizard who had been ready to flee at a moment’s notice, and she squeezed his hand. “You just need to hold on a little while longer.” She hoped that wasn’t a lie, feeling the heat burning in the hand that she was holding, and seeing his gaze beginning to wander again. “Okay?”

“J-Ja…”

    He drifted for a while after that, Jester remaining glued to his side, one hand holding his, while the other gently ran the damp cloth over his face, and down his neck. There were moments when he would tense, and shudder, the pain breaking through the haze gripping him, and in those seconds,  she would see the fear in his eyes, the pain, and curse the fact that there was nothing she could do. She had tried the second time he’d jolted under the force of the pain, letting her magic wash over him, but it wasn’t the right spell, and she didn’t have the knowledge to craft it into what was needed. Maybe, Caduceus would have been better at this…

    Maybe, but it was her name. Her name, and not his, and Beau’s or Nott’s or even Astrid’s that he cried out nearly an hour later, tearing his hand from her grasp as he began to writhe, fighting something that she couldn’t see. “Bitte…” He was slipping again, accent bleeding through as he pleaded and wept, her heart aching at the sight of tears trickling down his cheeks as he batted at something she couldn’t see, before his hands turned towards himself. He was clawing at himself, at his arms, at any bit of skin that he could reach, striving to get towards the spreading web of red on his back. “Bitte…get it out. Get it out…”

“Caleb!” She lurched forward, shaking off her shock as she caught a flash of crimson, realising a second too late that he was drawing blood. The cloth falling forgotten to the floor as she grabbed his hands and hung on for dear life. Normally, he was no match for her strength, something she had teased him about on occasions, but today he was like a wildcat, twisting and turning, fighting against her grip. There were tears in her eyes as she hung on grimly, realising that she was causing him pain as he whimpered, trying to escape her grip. “Caleb, please you’re going to hurt yourself.” She was sobbing and pleading now. “Please.”

    Gradually his struggles began to weaken, but she wasn’t sure whether her words were getting through or if he was just too weak to fight any longer. She was leaning towards the latter, as he all but went limp beneath her, and she swallowed, hands trembling but gentle as she tried to straighten him out as best she could. This time she could help though, a soft, warm glow following the trail of her fingers as she passed over the freshly-inflicted wounds, pleased to see that those at least healed without effort. “You shouldn’t hurt yourself, Caleb,” she scolded without heat, having a feeling that was the least of the damage he had inflicted on himself. However, right now she couldn’t bear to see him hurt more than he already was, and she reached out again, trying not to feel hurt when he flinched, before leaning into her touch as she cupped his cheek. “I-I know it hurts, but it’s just going to be for a little while longer. I promise.”

   I can’t promise that. The doubt hit her immediately, but she crushed it mercilessly, knowing that Caleb would see it if she didn’t. Besides, she wouldn’t accept anything less. She couldn’t. Unaware of just how fierce she looked in that moment, tail slashing through the air behind her.

    Caleb was staring at her, wide-eyed, and for a moment he leant into the touch. Accepting the promise. Trusting her. That thought had barely registered, before Caleb seemed to recoil, pulling back and retreating in on himself, although he didn’t get very far, what little desperate strength he’d managed to drum up exhausted from his previous struggles. Jester had moved with him, gently guiding him back onto the pillows, passing her fingers over some of the scratches that she had missed. However, rather than seeming to find relief in her action, Caleb was tense, and when she leant back, intending to retrieve the cloth, he reached out, wrapping trembling fingers around her wrist. “Y-you shouldn’t waste your magic…not on someone like me.”

“Caleb…” It wasn’t the first time she’d heard him voice something along those lines, and she bared her teeth in a snarl, ready to argue with him, when he shook his head, staring at her with haunted eyes.

“If you knew…”

      There was a pause, and Jester could see the moment he reached a decision, a weight settling over him that hadn’t been there before. “Jester…” His hands were clenched against the covers, and she had a feeling that it wasn’t just pain, although she could see it in the furrowed brow and clenched jaw, tremors still wracking him. “I…you should k-know who I was…and about her…about Astrid.” Pain of a different sort flashed across his face, and she jolted as she realised what he was trying to say…what he was going to say, panic replacing her previous anger.

“No,” Jester shook her head, before realising that his eyes had closed once more and that he wasn’t watching, and she continued quickly as she saw his mouth opening to continue. “No, Caleb…you don’t need to tell me any of that.” She would be lying if she said that she wasn’t curious, especially after his earlier reaction, and when it was clear that Beau and Nott knew more about his past. While she could understand the latter, she wasn’t too sure how she felt about Beau being the one he had chosen to confide in first, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to find out the truth like this. And she knew that he would never have tried to tell her if it wasn’t for the poison…the poison that she had failed to detect, and she gripped his hand. “You don’t need to tell me.”

“But…” Caleb opened his eyes, staring at her in confusion, an expression that she would normally have giggled at seeing on his face, but not today. “Y-you deserve to know what kind of…monster I am.”

“Caleb,” it came out as a whisper, her heart aching at seeing him hurting like this, and hating the fact that it was the poison, and her blunder that had left him this vulnerable. “You’re not a monster.” That was said with all the forcefulness she could muster because she didn’t know his past. She didn’t know what he had done, or what Astrid had done. “I didn’t… want…her to…k-kill me too...” But she couldn’t look at Caleb and see a monster, not after seeing how gentle he could be with Nott, or how he was slowly opening up with the rest of them, and how he came apart at the seams whenever he was forced to use his flames against someone. “You’re not a monster, Caleb Widogast!” I will never believe that.

“I…”

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Jester knew that even as strung out, and delirious as he was right now, Caleb would remember everything that was said, and she refused to add anything else to the burden he was carrying.  “I want to know what happened to you, just so that I can understand. So that I can try and help you heal. But not like this.”

“But…”

“I am happy using my magic to help you!” She cut him off once more, glancing at where the red of the poison lay hidden by his shirt. I will learn more magic. I will learn to heal everything that I can. I won’t let this happen again, and I won’t lose anyone again. The Traveller’s emblem was burning at her waist, registering and reinforcing her silent promises, and she reached down to grip it, as she met Caleb’s gaze again. “I don’t care who you were in the past, or what you’ve done. The Caleb I know now is my friend.” My family, she wanted to say, but they weren’t quite there yet…but one day she hoped that she would be able to say the words, and see him nod in agreement. “So, I don’t want you to tell me until you are ready, even if that never happens.”

    Caleb was staring at her, and there was a dampness in his eyes that she knew had nothing to do with the fever wracking him, and she softened, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek, unsurprised when he tensed at the unexpected contact. “When you’re ready, I will listen. Until then, let me take of my friend.” It wasn’t a question, but there was a pleading note that she couldn’t keep out of her voice, and there was a pause before he nodded, and she caught the glisten of a tear on his cheek as he turned away, unable to hold her gaze any longer. “Thank you,” she whispered. She knew that he wasn’t convinced and that he still wanted to tell her – to stop her from helping, as the tension lingered, and she frowned at the sight, knowing that it wasn’t going to help him rest.

     Slowly she reached down to retrieve the cloth, shaking it out before dipping it into the bowl and wringing it out, each movement deliberately slow to give her time to gather her thoughts.  As she turned and reached out to lay the cloth over his forehead, she was struck by an old memory of her mother doing the same to her when she was little. She had rarely been ill as a child, but after a rare trip through the city, she had come down with a fever. However, she had refused to rest and had made it worse, and her mother had spent several sleepless nights looking after her, refusing to leave or take a client, and Jester made a note to tell Caleb about that at some point, knowing that he still worried about her childhood. However, that wasn’t what had caught her attention, but rather the distant memory of her mother’s voice raised in song, easing her to sleep.

    She wasn’t the ‘Ruby of the Sea’, but she could sing, and she had a feeling that it had been a long time, if ever since someone had sung to Caleb. Her fingers trembled as she smoothed back his hair, trying to remember the song her mother had used back then, the words trickling back to her as he leant ever so slightly into her touch, unable to resist the comfort being offered.

“Stars are shining bright
The wind is on the rise
Whispering words
of long-lost lullabies’

 

     Her voice was hesitant at the beginning, feeling out the half-forgotten lullaby, but it had an instant effect on Caleb who had stiffened at the first few words, before relaxing back into her touch, tilting his head to peer at her wide-eyed once more. And for a moment she was back in her old room, turning to look at her mother, warmth blossoming in her chest as she realised that this song was just for her, and she smiled at him, voice growing stronger.

 

“Oh, won't you come with me
Where the moon is made of gold
And in the morning sun
We'll be sailing


Oh, won't you come with me
Where the ocean meets the sky
And as the clouds roll by
We'll sing the song of the sea…”

 

    There were tears in her eyes now, another voice seeming to weave with her own, remembering how warm arms had enveloped her, rocking her gently to sleep as the words washed over her. Mama, please help me to help him. Caleb was settling, eyes half-lidded now, and he looked as though he was fighting sleep as he watched her, and she smiled, moving the cloth across over-heated skin. “It’s okay Caleb, you can rest now,” she paused to say, seeing the furrow that had appeared as she stopped singing. “I’ll be right here,” she added, before taking a deep breath and continuing to sing, the words coming more easily now.

**

    She had continued singing until long after he had fallen into an uneasy doze, refreshing the cloth and laying it over his forehead, as she moved to play with his hair. The song and the memories attached to it had helped ease some of the tension, but it didn’t stop her thoughts from stretching out to the rest of their group.

Guys, please hurry…

****

     She must’ve dozed off at some point, because she came awake with a start as there was a noise by the door, and radiant light glistened around her fingers before she was fully awake, as she moved to stand protectively in front of the bed. However, she immediately let the spell dissipate as the door opened to reveal Beau and Nott, both looking a little worse for wear, and she stepped aside as the latter dashed forward with a worried noise. Even as she turned to watch Nott fuss over Caleb, relieved to see that he was still sleeping relatively peacefully, although the flush in his cheeks seemed brighter than before, Jester had to ask, voice small now that it was no longer just her and Caleb.

“Did you manage to find it?” Please…

“We found it,” Beau was quick to reassure her, and when Jester looked at her, there was an understanding quirk to her lips. “Caduceus and Fjord are working on it right now, something about diluting it and a few other things that I didn’t really understand…but he said it shouldn’t take long.” Jester trembled at that, realising that some part of her had been expecting the worst – had been dreading the thought that her promise would turn out to be a lie.

    Needing something to focus on, other than watching as Nott all but hugged Caleb, trying not to wake him, she moved across to Beau. “Is everyone else okay?” She asked, already laying a hand over a particularly nasty looking gash on the monk’s arm, not realising how serious and focused she looked and sounded in that moment and missing the startled look that passed between Nott and Beau.

“Just cuts and bruises, we didn’t want to waste time healing ourselves before coming back,” Beau replied, deciding to save the questions bubbling up for later, relaxing as Jester’s magic chased away the ache from her injuries, her gaze moving to the bed. “How is he?”

“He’s more settled than he was,” Jester replied, deciding there and then not to tell them what he had said about Astrid, or how close he had come to spilling his secrets just to stop her from ‘wasting her magic’. There had been something private about that moment, and she didn’t know if what he had been about to tell her was the same thing, he had told them, and she refused to risk spilling his secrets, even if she didn’t know much. “But I’m glad you’re back.” I’m glad you can fix what I broke, she thought, her guilt still there, lurking beneath the surface and she jumped when Nott finally spoke, looking up to find golden eyes locked on her.

“Thank you for taking care of my boy.” It wasn’t exactly forgiveness, but it was what Jester needed to hear, and she nodded, sniffling as she swiped at her eyes, before she glanced at Caleb.

“Always.”

Do you hear that Caleb? You’re stuck with us…with me now.

**  

    True to Beau’s words, it wasn’t long before Fjord and Caduceus appeared, the latter carefully carrying a tankard of steaming liquid that smelt of herbs and something far less savoury that had Jester wrinkling her nose, but she didn’t care how bad it stunk as long as it worked. The Firbolg offered her a reassuring grin before moving towards the bed, Nott already scooting down to the bottom so that he would have room to work, and the movement roused Caleb, and they all caught the worrying play of sparks across his fingers before his eyes opened. His gaze blurry and unfocused, as he stared up at the Firbolg, and then around the room, seemingly without taking any of it in, and there was a hint of fear beneath the confusion as he asked uncertainly.

“J-Jester?”

“I’m here Caleb,” Jester darted forward. Even before today, she wouldn’t have been able to ignore that tone, but now it was unbearable, and she slipped past Caduceus to settle on the edge of the bed, relieved when misty blue eyes tracked the movement and seemed to focus a little more. “It’s okay, you’re going to be okay.” The reassurances that she had been so worried about giving earlier came easily now, and Caleb obviously detected the difference, because he sank further into the pillows with a relieved sigh.

“You’re here…”

“You should give it to him,” Caduceus was at her side, holding out the tankard and for a second Jester faltered because she was the one that had failed before. However, the Firbolg was relentless as he nudged her fingers with the tankard and slowly she accepted it, startled when he patted her head, and tilted his head towards the wizard who was watching the exchange without fully understanding. “He trusts you.”

He trusts you.

    The words brought tears to her eyes, and her hands trembled as she cupped the tankard, before nodding as she turned to face Caleb.  “Caleb?” She waited with a patience that she rarely showed for his gaze to focus on her once more, before explaining. “I need you to drink this, okay? It will make you feel better.” The startled glance he gave the tankard told her how out of it he had been, and she smiled encouragingly at him as she watched him sluggishly connecting the dots, before trying to push himself up as her words registered. In the end, Caduceus had to squeeze in and help him sit up, frowning as he felt the tremors wracking the wizard, and there was a fresh urgency in his gaze as he looked at Jester. “Here we go, I’ll hold it, so you just need to sip it okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer this time, sensing that it would be a wasted effort in his current condition.

     Still, she released a breath that she hadn’t been aware of holding when Caleb took a cautious sip as she held it to his lips. The wrinkle of his nose told her he didn’t like it any more than she did, but when she encouraged him to drink more, he obeyed without question. He trusts you. Caduceus’ words echoed once more, and she swallowed, voice shaky as she encouraged him to keep drinking until the tankard was empty. Unsurprised when he promptly slumped, exhausted by even that small action, feeling wrung out herself as she set the tankard down on the table and helped Caduceus ease Caleb back down, covering him up.

“It will take a little while to work,” Caduceus explained, his words for all of them, although his gaze was on her as he spoke. And there was a knowing glint in his eyes, that told her that he knew that she was still blaming herself for what had happened and that she wouldn’t be able to start feeling better until Caleb was properly on the mend. “But, he will be back to normal soon.” Jester nodded, showing that she had heard, but her gaze was on Caleb once more, watching as he fell asleep once more, the furrow back between his eyes, and without looking at the others she reached out and grasped his hand.

You’re going to be okay…

****

     It had taken two days for the poison to entirely leave Caleb’s system, and even then, he had been left weak and exhausted, with a fading web of red marks to remind them all of how close it had been. It had been another day before he had managed to stay awake for entire conversations, although there had been something endearing about watching the usually verbose wizard dozing off in the middle of a word. Still, it had been a relief when he started to spend more and more time awake, even if it was a little longer before he could get up and about under his own steam, having to rely on whoever was nearby the first few days to get him where he wanted to go. Not that there was ever any shortage of help as no one was keen to go far at the moment, and Beau and Fjord had already paid for their rooms for an extra week so that there was no pressure on him to get better.

    It was on the fifth day that they were rewarded with the sight of a shaky, pale-faced Caleb making his way down to breakfast, with Nott and Beau hovering nearby in case he tried to faceplant as he had the day before. As he allowed them to settle him in the booth that they had claimed for their own over the last few days, he was startled to see Jester and Caduceus over in a different booth. Both pouring over what seemed to be piles of herbs, with Jester scribbling notes in her sketchpad with an intensity he had never seen from her before.

“What are they doing?” He asked with a frown, blinking as the plate in front of him began to rapidly fill with food, realising that Fjord, Beau and Nott were all in the process of adding stuff and hastily covering it with his hands. His appetite was slowly returning, not that he had ever been a big eater before, and there was no way he could manage that much, although he smiled to show he appreciated their efforts before his gaze turned back to the Clerics. His memory of the last few days was hazy, although it had been growing clearer as his strength increased, apart from the first day. However, he knew that Jester had been there, could remember her voice as she sang, chasing away the memories and pain, her fingers playing with his hair.

   He could remember trying to tell her about his past, although he couldn’t remember his exact words or hers, but he knew that she had stopped him. That she hadn’t wanted to hear, realising more than he had, that he wasn’t ready to tell her and that it was only the poison that had loosened his tongue. He needed to thank her for that, but while she had been around just as much the last few days, she had seemed preoccupied, and he hadn’t wanted to intrude.

“Jester asked Caduceus to help her learn some more about healing.” Beau was the one to answer as she followed his gaze, grimacing slightly, seeming as disconcerted by the sight of a highly focused Jester as he was. “They’ve been doing this every morning since we got you the cure.”

“I see,” Caleb murmured. Unenthusiastically beginning to pick at his food as he caught the pointed looks they were giving him, but his gaze was locked on Jeste. It hadn’t taken much for him to realise that she felt guilty for what had happened to him, even though he had been the one to hide the wound in the first place, although he doubted that either of them had thought it would come to this. And it had taken him less time, to resolve to tell her that it wasn’t her fault – he just hadn’t had the chance to say the words yet, but watching her now, he knew that he needed to and soon.

**

    It was after breakfast the next day that he found his chance, the others more willing to let him move around freely now that he had spent a day proving that he wasn’t going to collapse again, although he still tired more easily than any of them liked.

“Jester…” He grabbed her elbow, glancing apologetically at Caduceus before tugging her away, having a feeling that the Firbolg knew exactly what he had in mind as he gave an approving nod and began to tidy away the evidence of their studying. “May, I speak with you for a minute?” He felt closer to her now, but still not confident enough to presume that his presence let alone this conversation would be welcome, even when she smiled, a little strained around the edges and let him guide her across to the furthest booth.

    Over here they wouldn’t be overheard, although he could tell that the others were watching, feeling their gazes even though he couldn’t see them once he had settled into the booth, casting around for the right words to start the conversation.

“I’m sorry,” Jester beat him to the punch, not looking at him, her shoulders hunched. “If…”

“This was not your fault.” He said it with all the certainty he could muster, the same certainty he had heard in her voice when she had declared that he wasn’t a monster, and he knew that he was spot on when she lifted her head to stare at him wide-eyed. “You are not responsible for this, and you were there for m-me…” His voice cracked and broke at that, because how long had it been since someone other than Nott had nursed him when he was ill and injured rather than just patching him up? Gathering his courage, he reached out and grasped her hand, squeezing lightly. “Thank you.”

“I…”

“Jester,” Caleb hesitated. He wasn’t the right one for this, even if he did feel a little closer to her after the events of the last few days, still overwhelmingly grateful that she had taken measures to stop him from spilling his secrets even though she had more right than most to know what kind of person she was travelling with. However, this was the second morning that he had watched her join Caduceus for his morning meditation and then studying, and she had spent ages yesterday pestering the other healer about the training he’d had to make healing potions. Part of him was glad to know that she was taking that side of being a Cleric more seriously, but the focus was out of character, and he knew that he wasn’t the only who was worried about her. “You know that we don’t want you to change?” That I don’t want you to change.

“I know,” Jester was quick to reply, smiling up at him. “And I’m not.” The doubt must’ve shown in his expression because she sighed, reaching out to grasp his hand in turn, delighted to feel the normal human warmth beneath her fingers.  “I still want to fight and play pranks, and only heal when I have to, but I don’t want to lose any of you.” I can’t lose any of you, she’d already known that they had come to mean a lot more than mere travelling companions to her, but it hadn’t been until she was sat there, helping him hold on, that she realised just how much more they meant to her. They might not be quite ready to be the family she hoped they would become, but they were friends and more and the thought of losing a single one of them terrified her. “Not even someone stinky like you.” That earned her a tight grin from Caleb, and she felt him squeeze her hand. “So, if sitting with Caduceus will help with that, I’m happy to do it.” And it will help me keep my promises…

“As long as you are sure?” Caleb asked quietly, and she met his gaze squarely, letting him read the sincerity in her eyes. She was more than sure, and apparently, he realised that because he relaxed, his smile more natural this time, although there was a note of something darker as he added softly. “I would not have you do something you didn’t want to do.”

“I’m not.” Perhaps it was a sign of how far they’d come that she didn’t hesitate to lean across and press a kiss to his cheek, and Caleb didn’t recoil. “Promise.”

Chapter Text

     Caduceus stirred, pink eyes blinking open as he heard movement down the corridor, the noise deafening in the silence that had descended over the cells after Caleb had been dragged away, what only seemed like minutes, but had most likely been hours. Not that it took much to disturb him at the moment, as down where they were, in the dark and damp it was hard to feel any connection with nature or the Wildmother, and it made it hard to meditate when there was no warmth waiting to embrace him. It had started to colour his dreams as well, the darkness, the disconnect, and the other darker emotions that he wasn’t ready to put a name too, seeping in when he managed to sleep, and he was starting to understand why Caleb was so reluctant to sleep.

Speaking of…

     There were footsteps moving towards him now, and Caduceus frowned as he realised that he could only make out the heavy tread of two armoured people, and no soft patter, of lightly booted feet in between. Instead, there was the swish of cloth, and the sound of something being dragged, and dread pooled in his stomach. Caleb. He was already moving, rising to his feet, as the corridor was abruptly flooded with light, and for a moment all he could see was flames, and bright spots that danced in front of his eyes, and by the time his vision had cleared they were at the door to his prison. He blinked, gaze focusing on the limp figure they had suspended between them, and his ears flickered, straining to hear the wizard’s breathing, and he automatically took a step forward, the urge to heal. To fix this almost overwhelming, and he only just pulled back in time to avoid the spear that was jabbed through the bars to ward him away.

“Stay back, or we’ll let you watch him die.” Caduceus frowned, but obeyed, his gaze locked on Caleb who still hadn’t moved as the door was unlocked and opened, both guards watching him for any sign of disobedience. However, as much as he wanted to do something. An itch that had been growing by the day, he wasn’t about to try and take on such odds alone, especially as he noticed the blade that was a little too close to the wizard’s neck for comfort as they stepped inside just enough to be able to launch Caleb at him. Now, he moved, refusing to let Caleb hit the ground. He had no idea what fresh wounds had been inflicted today, but the pre-existing damage was bad enough, and he wasn’t sure how much more Caleb could take.

“Please lift the runes,” he pleaded as he all but cradled Caleb against himself, lowering the wizard to the ground. For a moment he thought they were going to refuse, and it wouldn’t be the first time, especially since they had worked out that there was nothing worse to him than sitting there unable to help as Caleb suffered for both of them. He knew better than to rush them though, instead peering down at Caleb’s face, relieved to see slivers of blue as the wizard blinked up at him, although he still made no effort to sit up or pull free of the touch that Caduceus knew he would have flinched from not long before. “Hey, I’ve got you…” It’s not as reassuring as he would like, because he has no power here. The confidence he’s always had in his abilities to look after his companions, to heal them no matter how bad things have got, fading by the day and he can’t help but look up, a hint of desperation in his gaze now as he glances at their captors.

 Please, let me help him.

    It seems to take an eternity, but he knows that it’s a matter of seconds at most before the taller of two nods in agreement, and Caduceus is practically trembling with anticipation as they step out of the cell. Even the sound of the door closing, heavy bolts sliding back into place can’t dampen that, his gaze intense as the man moves to the glistening orb set into the far wall – out of his reach, but close enough to taunt him every day as he waits for Caleb to return. It flickers and flashes, and for a moment Caduceus can see the runes, fleeting sparks of gold on the periphery of his vision, but even before they fade from sight and he can feel the warmth of his magic once more, he’s reaching for Caleb. He knows they won’t give him long, they never do, and he has to do what he can. “This is going to hurt,” he warns gently, because it always does, their tormentors finding the most creative ways to hurt the wizard and leaving it impossible to heal him without further pain.

Humans he has come to realise, are uniquely cruel.

“It’s o-okay,” Caleb whispers, voice cracking and breaking, and reminding Caduceus painfully of the dying leaves in his grove. No, it’s worse, because in that hoarse whisper he can hear the screams and whimpers that he hadn’t heard earlier, and he finds himself hesitating before resting his hands on the wizard’s body. He casts a general healing spell first, low-powered, just to take the edge off… everything… trying to ignore the way Caleb’s body tugs at his magic, desperately pleading for more, even though the wizard himself would never ask.

    He can feel eyes on him, watching, waiting. Knows that they will stop him long before everything can be healed, and he finds himself hunkering down and curling around the wizard, a futile attempt to hide him from their gaze. His fur is on end, as he turns his attention to seeking out the worst of today’s damage.

It doesn’t take long to find.

    He’s seen too many wounds on Caleb since they were captured and healed as much as he can – burns and cuts, bruises and broken bones – but nothing like this, and there’s something close to a growl bubbling up in his throat as he reaches out to take ruined hands in his. The slender fingers, which he has seen dance with arcane energy, skitter nervously across scarred arms, and brush tenderly through ginger fur and green hair with equal care are in ruins. The bones are broken, the digits curled and lying at awkward angles, but they’re bloody too, as though someone has taken a knife to them, and as careful as he is, there’s no way to not cause Caleb pain, and he feels the tremor that wracks the wizard, hearing the whimper that can’t entirely be smothered. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, not sure whether he’s apologising for the pain he’s causing, or about to cause, or for the fact that he hadn’t been able to stop this from happening in the first place.

    Caleb doesn’t speak this time, but he replied in kind, face contorting with agony as he moves his hand as best he can, a broken attempt at squeezing his hand, and there’s something raw and dark in Caduceus’ chest as he gets to work. He starts reciting ingredients under his breath, as he painstakingly begins to move the bones back into place, trying not to listen to the way Caleb’s breath hitches, the wizard turning his lip bloody as he tries not to make a sound. It doesn’t last, the pain too much on top of everything the wizard has endured, and Caduceus flinches at the first whimper, feeling it burrowing somewhere deep inside where he doubts even the Wildmother’s touch will be able to reach. He doesn’t falter though, feeling the impatience that is practically radiating from the guards, realising that he doesn’t have long.

“That’s enough!” Sure enough one of their voice cracks out like a whip a few minutes later, and Caduceus is a little more frantic now. It’s not perfect, some of the fingers still not back in position and he can’t help but protest.

“But…”

“It’s f-fine,” Caleb is the one to interrupt him, looking up at him with pleading eyes, and Caduceus remains tense for a moment, wanting to argue. However, nothing has changed – the odds are still against them, and right now he can’t bring himself to deny Caleb anything, and so he lets his head fall the fight draining from him. It doesn’t stop him from sending a final healing spell into the wizard, just before the orb flashes again, and the runes come back to life, leaving him feeling cold and empty as his magic is sealed away again. From the way Caleb curls in his lap, he knows that the wizard feels it too, and Caduceus pulls him close, the only comfort he can offer him now as he glances down at his work. The last spell had helped, but the damage is still visible, and Caduceus can only pray that he and Jester will be able to fix it entirely when they’re rescued.

    A scraping noise draws his attention back to the door, just in time to see one of the guards slipping their daily allowance of water between the bars, carelessly nudging the tankard forward and sending some of the precious water splashing onto the floor. Then he’s rising and moving away, following the other guard back down the corridor and Caduceus can’t stop himself from asking.

“Wait, what about food? He needs to eat.” He can’t remember the last time the wizard had managed to keep down food, but he’s determined to keep trying because they have to hold out for the rest of the Mighty Nein to find them. Laughter greets his question, and it’s not the infectious giggles of Jester, the occasionally hysterical laughs of Nott, or the deeper, rarer laughter of Beau and Fjord – it’s cruel and mocking, and Caduceus doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand this need to hurt, to mock. He doesn’t know how they can be amused when Caleb is lying hurt and nearly broken in his lap, despair beginning to wrap itself like a cloak around the two of them.

“…its punishment for your hesitation.” It takes him a moment to realise they were replying, shivering at their words. I did this. The thought seeps deeper, creeping inside, in the same way, the corruption had crept into the grove, and he looks down, avoiding Caleb’s gaze, as he listens to the two guards moving away, laughter drifting back along the corridor. I don’t understand…

“Caduceus.” He can hear the amount of effort it’s taking for Caleb to speak, and he can’t ignore him, even though it’s hard to lift his head and meet the too blue gaze. “It’s not your fault.” The Zemnian accent is stronger when Caleb is being sincere, Caduceus had noticed that a long time ago, and he can hear it now, and see it reflected in the wizard’s gaze. It doesn’t make it any easier to bear, but it makes him straighten and reach behind him for the tiny bundle wrapped in material torn from his shirt.

    It had only taken them a couple of days to realise that whether they were fed or not was at the whim of their guard, and it had been Caleb who had suggested they hold onto a little on the days they were fed, just enough to tide them over during the gaps. It’s not much as he unwraps it, a small hardened chunk of bread, a shrivelled excuse for an apple and a handful of porridge now a dried-out lump against the cloth, but it’s food, and right now they need their strength. Caduceus glances longingly at the apple before holding it out, knowing that it will be a little easier for the wizard to eat, but Caleb shakes his head, still making no effort to pull away from the Firbolg’s lap.

“You need it more,” he whispers, reaching up with uncoordinated hands to push it back, pain flickering across his face as his fingers brush Caduceus’, telling the Cleric that the healing hadn’t been enough. As though he hadn’t known that, and Caleb’s voice is more strangled as he adds. “Using magic.”

“But…”

“I couldn’t keep it down even if I wanted to,” Caleb even looks queasy as he glances at the food, and there’s no hint of a lie in his gaze as their eyes meet.

“I could save it…”

“No,” Caleb shook his head. “It’ll spoil. Eat.” Caduceus can see the sense in his words, but it doesn’t make it any easier for him to eat, although it’s a relief when Caleb looks away, eyes slipping shut, although the Firbolg can tell that he’s not asleep yet.

    The food tastes like ashes in his mouth, and he misses his staff, and magic with an almost physical ache. He misses sitting around the campfire with these strange people that have come to meet so much, his magic conjuring up whatever food they need whenever they’ve run a little short, even that tasteless food, holding more flavour than this. Still, he eats, because he knows that the others will be coming from them and that at least one of them needs to be able to move, and fight when it comes down to it. Once he’s managed to choke it down, he reluctantly moves Caleb from his lap for a moment, resting the wizard’s head against his rolled-up coat that they had been using for a pillow or a blanket as necessary, before going to retrieve the water. He’s more careful than the guard, making sure not to spill a drop as he carries it across to Caleb.

“Mr Caleb.” This at least he won’t be swayed on, sliding one hand beneath Caleb’s head and lifting it until the wizard can sip the water. He can tell it’s a bad day when Caleb only manages two small mouthfuls before pulling away, and this time he doesn’t argue when Caleb gestures for him to have the rest. Gratefully sipping it, leaving some at the bottom in case it’s needed overnight and setting the tankard down a safe distance away so that it won’t be knocked over. That done, he gently manoeuvres Caleb back into his lap, knowing it’s more comfortable than the ground, pulling out the wizard’s tatty coat and draping it over him instead. The first couple of nights that he had done this Caleb had resisted, but whether he wants the comfort or just lacks the strength to fight him anymore, he comes willingly enough, making a noise that is halfway between a sigh and a groan as he attempts to get comfortable. “I wish I could’ve healed more.”

“Not your fault,” Caleb must be tired if he’s not making any effort to speak in proper sentences, not that Caduceus can blame him, and he might believe the words more if the wizard didn’t look as though he could shatter at any moment. “You wouldn’t be here, were it not for me.”

    Technically that was true, and Caduceus frowned, feeling an ache in his chest as he hears Jester’s voice in his mind at that thought. After all, it had been Caleb who had caught their captors’ attention in the marketplace, not that it was his fault, as he had moved to shield Nott when her mask had slipped, sending the townsfolk into a panic. Apparently, out here, unless you were part of the military or a Cleric having magic was frowned upon, and it had descended into a brawl, especially when they had realised that he wasn’t the only one with magic.

    He wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, still not quite grasping how people could hate others for being different or having magic, although he was learning that it was a widespread problem. But at some point, Caleb had been cut off from the rest of the group, and Nott and Yasha were down, the guards numbers and their familiarity with the layout of the market negating what advantages the Nein might have had…and then the wizard had gone down, although not before shouting at the others to get Nott to safety. To leave him behind. Caduceus had been the closest, having already been heading towards the wizard after he’d taken the first hit, and he’d ignored the desperate plea and tried to get through to the downed man.

     That had been his mistake, and his choice, because they’d become encircled and cut off, and in the end, the others had been forced to retreat. Fjord’s voice raised over the din, promising him that they would come for them, and then they had been gone, and it had just been Caduceus and Caleb, surrounded by less than friendly faces.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” he says instead, and even when Caleb makes a soft, disbelieving noise in the back of his throat, he means it. He’s still not entirely sure about this ragtag group, but they’ve become family, and he’s already lost one of those. He’s not about to lose another. Which is why after a moment’s hesitation he reaches out and gently rests his hand on Caleb’s shoulder, waiting for the wizard to look at him with eyes that are a little too shadowed. “You can’t keep going like this though, you need to let them take me.” He doesn’t relish the idea of enduring what has been done to Caleb, but it has to be better than sitting down here in the cell where he can’t connect with either his magic of Goddess, waiting to see if Caleb will come back.

“They won’t touch you,” Caleb whispered with a shake of his head. “A healer is too valuable. If you fight them, they will just take it out against m-me.” It’s what I would have done. The words are unspoken, but Caduceus has heard enough about Caleb’s past by now to know that’s what he’s thinking, and at any other time he might have addressed the issue, but they’ve got enough problems right now without Caleb getting lost in the past. “The others are coming,” Caleb’s voice dips a little. “We just have to hold on…just a little longer.” To Caduceus that ‘we’ sounded a little too much like a ‘you’, and he has a sinking feeling that Caleb thinks that they’re only coming because Caduceus is here too, still unable to see his worth, and he opens his mouth for a second before closing it without a word. He has nothing to counter that thought. Nothing to give Caleb hope, the runes keeping any attempts that their friends might have made to contact them at bay and unless they’re close or Jester tries just as he’s healing the wizard, he knows that’s not going to change. However, he is certain of one thing, and he meets Caleb’s gaze and holds it as he states firmly, and with the same utter conviction that he usually talks about the Wildmother.

“They’ll come.”

I just hope that it’s soon…

Chapter Text

It wasn’t soon.

    Although by this point hours and days are so blurred that Caduceus had no idea how long they’d been here, apart from too long. Even Caleb has lost track to some extent. He always knew what time it was even when he was drifting in a haze of pain and exhaustion that Caduceus wasn’t allowed to heal him from, and on several long, sleepless nights Caduceus has heard him counting the hours under his breath. But even Caleb’s not sure what day it is anymore when the Cleric finally dares to ask, hoping to find some kind of reference to cling to, that knowledge lost between the darkness and the daily sessions at the hands of their captors.

    He wishes that he hadn’t asked, because afterwards, Caleb is almost silent, not that he had been talkative before, although he had been making an effort, seeming to realise that Caduceus needed to hear a friendly voice. Especially, after long days of being left alone to wait to see if Caleb was returned. However, he doesn’t push, settling next to Caleb and easing the wizard across until he’s leaning against him, trying to spare him from the damp and cold of leaning against the wall. It’s a futile gesture, as their prison wasn’t built for comfort, but its all he’s got right now, and it seems to help a little as Caleb curls into him, silent, but at least he’s there.

For now.

    Because the hours and days have added up in other ways, his expression one of frustration as he glances down, gaze drifting from injury to injury, some half-healed, but none of them properly cared for. They won’t let him, and it’s got to the point where he feels as though all he’s doing is adding to Caleb’s suffering. Anchoring him here, and readying him to face whatever they will throw at him the next day, but what choice does he have? If he doesn’t heal then they could lose Caleb, and the one time he’d allowed himself to hesitate, their guards had struck the wizard in retaliation, and he knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to do so again. And so, he healed in the brief window they gave him each day, apart from on those days when they felt unusually cruel, and held on at night, offering warmth and comfort, and praying for the others to come.

And so, the days passed.

*

     The next day, or maybe it was a few days later, he no longer tried to work it out because it gave him a headache, Caleb stirred after he had been allowed to heal the nasty burns that had marred the wizard’s arms when he’d been slung back into the cell.   

“Here…”

“What is it?” Caduceus asked curiously as he took it, eyes widening, as for the first time in what like felt forever he felt a spark of the Wildmother’s presence. Glancing down, he realised that it was a chunk of moss, already browned at the edges, as though it like them struggled to exist in this place, but still wonderfully green in places, and his fingers tightened around it. “Caleb…”

“I sat it on one of the walls when they were dragging me along,” Caleb had slipped into the blank, emotionless tone he had started to adopt when talking about what was being done to him, a distant look in his eyes, and Caduceus still wasn’t sure if he was trying to protect himself…or trying to protect Caduceus from what was happening to him. “Grabbed it…I thought it might make you feel better.” His grip tightened at those words, almost enough to crush the moss, as the emotion he had been trying to ignore for days now threatens to bubble up. And he has to breathe deeply for a moment, focusing on the feel of the moss in his hands, the spark of life and magic that not even the runes holding his own magic at bay can stop before he can reply.

“Thank you.” The words are soft, almost lost in the silence, but it's enough, and for the first time in far too long he sees Caleb’s lips quirk in the faintest imitation of a smile.

“It’s just moss…”

“It’s more than that,” Caduceus doesn’t have the words to express what this means, but apparently the meaning is clear because it’s Caleb that moves. A slow, cautious shuffle that is a painful reminder of the fact that he’s still wounded, that he still needs help, but he’s moving, and Caduceus lifts an arm to welcome him as the wizard who was usually so averse to too much contact pressed into his side. He waits, not daring to move for fear of hurting Caleb as the human gets comfortable, before letting his arm settle over too thin shoulders, his attention returning to the moss as he feels Caleb’s breathing already easing out as the exhaustion pulls him under.

    Like this, he can feel the unnatural heat that has nothing to do with magic coming from Caleb, and the minute trembling that accompanies each ragged breath, and he closes his eyes, reaching for the spark of magic in his hand. It’s not enough to heal Caleb, to let him break the runes trapping them, but maybe…just maybe, it’s enough to make a plea for help.

Wildmother, please…

**

    He’s not sure if his plea was heard, but it seems to him that the next couple of days are easier on both of them, the spark lingering even as the moss turns brown, keeping him company when he is left alone. And while Caleb is still taken away each day, the damage when he returns is less, and he’s not sure if that’s divine intervention or whether they’d just realised that he was burning out. He doesn’t care. Breathing easier, especially when they still let him heal a little each night, his magic finally reaching some of the deeper damage, although it’s still not enough by far.

    Which is why he is caught by surprise when Caleb is hauled back into the cell the next evening, the wizard seemingly uninjured beyond a split lip, and bruising that covers his face, as though someone had struck him multiple times. However, this time when he steps forward ready to heal, he’s greeted with a growled order to keep back as the wizard is tossed onto the ground at his feet, before the door is locked once more, and the guards leave without a backwards glance, and without lifting the runes to let him help. Why? It’s the not the first time they’ve done, but usually, they speak, taunting them, watching Caduceus pick up the wizard, and there’s an uneasy feeling before his usual calm as he moves across to Caleb who has made no effort to move.

“Mr Caleb?” He asks, wary of causing more pain in case there are hidden injuries as he reaches for Caleb, grasping his shoulders, and feeling how badly he’s trembling. Caleb flinches at the touch, in a way that he hadn’t before and Caduceus nearly releases him, but then the wizard is lifting his head, staring up at him with wild eyes, that are seeing something beyond the cell, and he when he speaks, voice little more than a whisper there is nothing but raw fear in his voice.

“T-they took it…”

“Mr Caleb?” Caduceus frowned, not understanding what the wizard was saying, alarm growing when Caleb began to rock in place, an awful keening noise beginning to build in the back of his throat, and the uneasy feeling grew as he tightened his grip.  “Caleb?” Unfocused eyes met his for a fleeting second, the emotion in them enough to take his breath away, and it takes him a moment to find his voice again, voice deliberately gently. “What did they take?”

“He’s going to find me.” It’s not an answer that he understands, but he recognises the fear. It was the same fear that had darkened Caleb’s fear when they had learned a bit more about his past, about his old name, and Caduceus finds himself wishing that he had paid a little more attention as Caleb continues to tremble in his grip.  “He’s going to find us,” Caleb whispered, raw and terrified and Caduceus watched as his hand crept up, blunt nails began to scratch at his neck, in much the same way he used to attack his arms when stressed.

“Enough of that,” Caduceus scolded, relieved that this was something he knew how to handle, keeping one arm around Caleb, supporting him, as he reached out to grab his hands. Stopping his frantic scratching. “You’re okay, it’s going to be okay.” Words that he’s repeated countless times since they were captured, that Caleb had said multiple times even if he hadn’t fully believed them, and usually they help. Which is why he’s caught off guard when Caleb laughs, a horrible, broken sound that is a mockery of what laughter is supposed to be as he shakes his head, and he’s all too aware this time when he meets Caduceus’ gaze.

“It’s too late…”

Fear.

    It was fear Caduceus realised, finally giving a name to at least one of the unpleasant feelings that had been bubbling up in his chest for too long now. Not the slow creeping kind like he had experienced in the temple as he watched the corruption seep ever closer, which could be pushed aside as he focused on his duties, and on the search for answers. Instead, this was a deep, biting fear. One that not even his usual calm could keep at bay, and he shivered, almost more afraid of the feeling than the reason behind it. Almost, because as he glanced down at the shivering form of the wizard, he felt the fear biting deeper, sensing that there was a truth in those bleak, despairing words, and he closed his eyes, letting his head fall forward to rest against Caleb’s for once at a complete loss at what to say.

Wildmother, what am I supposed to do?

****

    He was stood back in the grove, teacup in hand as he glanced around, feeling more at ease that he had in a long time, even as his eyes fell on where the corruption had crept a little closer. More of the beautiful colours being stolen away.

Home.

    It was as that thought settled in that he frowned, something tugging at the edge of his awareness and he found himself turning and looking around, an uneasy feeling creeping up his spine. Something is wrong? It wasn’t natural. It wasn’t the corruption. Something flickered in the corner of his eye, and he turned, stone walls appearing amongst the greenery, only to disappear the moment he tried to focus on them. Something warm brushing against his side, and he turned, the teacup falling from his hand and shattering against the ground as he found himself staring into viridian eyes that he had only seen once before – on a day that he tried not to think about too much. She was smiling at him, warm and gentle, and then there were fingers against his cheek, and he closed his eyes at the sensation, feeling her power swirling around them, flowers blooming at his feet,

“Help is coming, my child…but you will need to help him first,” she murmured, and there was a note of warning amongst the reassurance, and as her lips brushed his cheek, he jolted…

    A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he woke to find himself back in the cell, Caleb sleeping uneasily against him. He shook his head, caught halfway between the reality of where he was and how vivid the dream had been, the words seeming to still echo around him when he heard footsteps and voices approaching their prison. He wasn’t sure whether it was the warning or the fact that he could still feel her – as though the Wildmother was still right by his side, even though he had never felt further away from her, but he tilted his head and closed his eyes. Feigning sleep, as he peered out from beneath thick eyelashes as their usual guards appeared in his view, thankfully making no effort to open the door. They seemed to study him and Caleb for a moment before turning to someone else, and Caduceus struggled not to react as a woman stepped between them, icy blue eyes fixated on Caleb.

    There was something almost hungry in that gaze, and he found himself wanting to move, to cover Caleb from view, but he held himself still, barely catching the whispered words that drifted through the air. “After all this time…” It was a moment of weakness he realised, as she straightened, and stepped backwards with a sharp nod as she turned back to the guards. “It’s him, I will inform my Master and make arrangements for him to be moved.”

He’s going to find me…

    Suddenly Caleb’s fear didn’t seem as unwarranted, and Caduceus forced himself to stillness as her gaze flicked back to them. She knows. He wasn’t sure how he knew, because she gave no sign of being aware that he was awake, her attention still riveted on Caleb, but when he risked a glance out of the corner of his eyes, the hunger was gone. Instead, there was an echo of the haunted pain that so often dominated Caleb’s face, and then she was turning away once more, moving away as she spoke to the guards. Her voice louder this time, carrying clearly to him. “You will need to make sure that he can’t use magic, something more than these runes because he cannot be underestimated. If he gets a single chance, he will use it, and I doubt any of your little tricks will be enough to stop him.” There was a warning and a hint in those words, and Caduceus opened his eyes, watching as the trio disappeared into the corridor only just managing to catch the last of their words.

“And the Firbolg?”

“You may keep him.” The ice was back, and Caduceus prayed that she wouldn’t return as he felt Caleb beginning to stir, shivering at her words. “We have no need for another Cleric, especially one bound to that kind of deity, and…” The voices passed out of his range, and he sighed as he sank back, glancing down at Caleb as the wizard stirred, seeing the exact moment that memory returned as Caleb’s hand crept back to his neck, before looking up at him.

“Caduceus…?”

“Help is on the way,” Caduceus murmured, voice deliberately low in case they chose to return, remembering the Wildmother’s words and frowning as he wondered what the last bit had meant. You will need to help him first… How? How was he supposed to help? He couldn’t heal him, and with the runes still in place, he couldn’t do anything about either of their magic.

The Runes…

“You heard from them?” There was hope in that question, although it wasn’t reflected in Caleb’s expression, as though it had burst out despite his best efforts not to let it. Caduceus blinked at the question, caught off guard for a moment before realising Caleb had heard the sheer certainty in his voice and misunderstood and he hesitated before shaking his head and offering a slow smile, that masked how his mind was beginning to stir as he glanced towards the runes.

“No, but it came from a very reliable source…” Confusion, and then realisation flickered across Caleb’s pale features, and he sighed before shaking his head, the hope disappearing beneath a resurgence of his earlier fear and Caduceus decided to pretend that he didn’t hear as Caleb whispered again that it was too late.

The Wildmother never lies…

    He waited for Caleb to doze off again, this sleep more uneasy than the last before he climbed to his feet and moved to the door, staring across at the wall. There was no way for him to reach it from where he was, he already knew that from previous attempts, but still, he studied it. If he gets a single chance, he will use it, and I doubt any of your little tricks will be enough to stop him, the woman’s words replayed through his mind, joining the Wildmother’s warning, until they also blended together. He didn’t trust her, remembering the ice and the way she had looked at Caleb, and yet it seemed to him, that part of her at least had wanted to help, offering him a lifeline.

A chance.

    That was all it was, and he knew that he was only going to get one chance to pull this off. Please hurry, he thought at the others, wishing that he knew for sure where they were, or that they could hear him, but they were close. He knew that almost vibrating with that knowledge. Help is coming. It was what he’d needed to hear he realised, the fear that he had been forced to acknowledge earlier was still there, but dulled, and he took a deep breath as he reached for the moss tucked protectively into his sleeve, the spark in it faded but still present.

Thank you…

****

    The night, if that was what it was passed slowly, neither of them resting easily. And more than once Caleb would start awake with a cry, haunted by nightmares that he refused to talk about, retreating further and further into himself, although he didn’t fight Caduceus when he held him close.

    When it crept past the point when the guards would usually come for the wizard, or at least they thought it had, they exchanged glances. Caduceus practically vibrating again as it felt as though everything was sliding into place, his gaze locked on the where the runes were anchored, while Caleb just paled, seeming to take no relief in the absence of his daily dose of pain. As much as he wanted to offer comforting words, Caduceus realised that his words were likely to fall on deaf ears right now and that actions would speak louder than words. So all he could do was stay close, and wait, and try not to listen to the tiny, insidious whisper of doubt that kept trying to rear its ugly head at the back of his mind.

Time crept on, and no one came.

     He was hungry, and for once he didn’t argue when Caleb insisted that he eat the last of the food they had secreted away, knowing that he would need it this time. A chance, he thought, watching the corridor as he ate, ignoring the bland taste, although he did promise himself that he would indulge in something much nicer once this was over. However, he did force Caleb to drink, the spark that had allowed the man to endure so much up to this point faded, and there was a reluctance as he swallowed the dregs of water that worried him, but he didn’t comment as he set the cup aside. That was the last of their supplies if no one came…

The Wildmother never lies…

*

    If he hadn’t lost track of time before, he certainly had now. Sleeping in snatched moments, never fully resting, and highly aware that Caleb hadn’t either… and that the ragged breathing that had been his companion for days now, had grown worse. He needed healing, now more than ever, and despite himself, Caduceus could feel the fear and doubt creeping in again. How was he supposed to help Caleb if no one came? Right now, he would almost welcome the guards coming to pull the wizard away… almost… although at least it would give him some kind of reference.

“Mr Caleb,” he began, needing something to break up the silence and the blur of time, before trailing off as he realised that Caleb’s expression had taken on a distant cast again, seeing something beyond the wall of their cell. Don’t go too far, he thought instead, turning his gaze back to the corridor and trying not to worry about how Caleb was shivering now, a flush colouring his cheeks.

Please, I just need a chance…

*

    He had finally dozed off, exhausted and stressed, adrift without any idea of what time it was or when something was going to happen. And Caduceus came close to repeating some of the words he had learned during his time at sea, as he woke to the sound of voices and footsteps, and more importantly to Caleb’s voice raised in fear.

“…Please…” Somehow he doubted that the wizard would be pleading for himself, and he half expected to find weapons at his throat when his eyes shot open. Instead, he found Caleb standing on shaking legs, leaning so heavily to one side that he half expected him to topple over at any second, and standing between Caduceus and the door as the guards went to the wall. Caduceus tracked them for a moment, tensing as he realised that this was it before he realised that Caleb’s attention was riveted on the man with them, fear in his eyes. This wasn’t the ‘he’ because the fear wasn’t as all-consuming, but the way Caleb flinched as the man stepped forward, was the only clue he needed, and he stepped forward, ignoring Caleb’s quiet protest as he moved alongside him.

“You’re one of the ones that have been hurting him?” Caduceus tilted his head to the side, voice as slow and easy as always, and it wasn’t really a question, although the choked noise from the wizard beside him was answer enough. There was something else bubbling up now, as his gaze shifted between the guards, waiting for the runes to lower, the man in front of him who was reaching into a pouch at his belt that Caduceus recognised as a component pouch much like Caleb’s. And his friend who was shrinking back with a desperate plea as he seemed to realise what the components were for.

“N-No…”  It wasn’t the first time since this nightmare began that he had heard Caleb sound like that, but this time something twisted in his chest. Maybe it was the waiting, the knowledge that there was something he had to do to protect Caleb, and that their friends were close. Or maybe it was the way Caleb’s voice broke, his hands falling to his side, defeat in every inch of his body. Or perhaps it was the tiny, shattered whisper of. “Not again, please…” The sheer desolation in those words striking him like a physical blow. He wasn’t sure what it was, but Caduceus growled low in his throat, straightening up to his full height as he stepped in front of Caleb. His eyes locked on the man in front of him, even as he saw the guards moving, as he finally gave a name to the other emotion that had been building for days as his magic washed over him as the runes were lowered.

I’m angry.

Wildmother, forgive me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

   There’s still a disconnect between him and his magic, and he misses his staff, the long hours shaping it having brought him closer to his Goddess. But the Wildmother is with him now, no longer distant, but wrapping her power around him, unflinching in the face of his fury as he rises to his full height. He’s never tried to be intimidating, much preferring to talk to people and try to get through to them with words, even if has to admit that it’s a lot harder than talking to plants, but he’s not blind either. He knows that his size and his unusual eyes can make people wary, and he draws on them now as he takes another step forward and then another.

“That was a mistake,” his voice rumbles in his chest, a dire threat in those four simple words and he sees the guards falter and hesitate as they reach for the door. Apart from the odd moment where his need to heal Caleb had made him test their patience, he’s been a calm prisoner, and he can see they’re wary of this sudden change, and there’s a kernel of satisfaction from that reaction that scares him a little. He doesn’t waver though, making sure that he’s completely between Caleb and the threat, as he stares at them, waiting for them to make the next move.

    There’s a barked order from their companion, who glances at him but dismisses him in favour of trying to seek out Caleb. That is your mistake. The door creaks as it opens, and Caduceus moves, knowing that this is their chance. The magic under his fingertip’s surges, the spell formed before the door is even halfway open, and he can see the shadows darken for a minute around them as Bane takes hold. Darkness is part of nature too, his mother had told him once, back when he was little, and his sisters’ stories about the creatures haunting the graveyard had left him fearing the dark for a while, refusing to sleep without a light. With time he’d learned not to fear the dark, and now he accepted it, and today he embraced it as he stepped forward again, a physical barricade between them and the wizard behind him.

    Apparently, the guards have realised that he’s not backing down this time because they’re drawing their weapons. But for all the cruelty that they’d shown Caleb over the last few days, and their confidence in their role while they were at their mercy, there is a tremble in their hands as they try to meet his burning gaze. He waits. He’s angry, but violence is still new to him, the thought of it leaving him cold beneath the anger, but he won’t let them lay another hand on Caleb. The guard on the left moves, charging forward with a cry, and he casts a spell that he’s never used on a living being before. Death is natural, dead bodies are meant to decompose and reunite with the earth, but this is a living person, a body that lives and breathes and bleeds.

It doesn’t stop the spell.

    There’s a pause, and Caduceus moves, lifting a hand to catch the sword that swings towards him, managing to grab it by the hilt, although the edge catches his arm, leaving a stinging line across his skin as he hauls the man in close. “I told you that this was a mistake.” Quiet, almost conversational if it weren’t for the undercurrent of fury in his words, a tinge of sorrow in his eyes, as he swept his gaze down to where the first mushrooms have started to bloom, pushing through skin and drawing a scream from the guard. He flings him back, forcing the second guard to stumble back under his wait, and he’s lifting his head, seeking out the third man – the one that had already hurt Caleb, when he hears a muffled boom in the distance, a slow vibration working its way through the prison until it rattles the bars in the door.

    In its wake he feels a breeze dance around him, caressing his fur for a minute and he could swear that he’d heard a voice in his ear, as musical as a brook dancing over pebbles. ‘Hold on a little longer, they’re coming.’ He nods, not sure if she will see it, but needing to acknowledge her words. Words that warm his heart, and shore up his resolve, especially as he hears Caleb moving to stand alongside him, fighting through his fear, although it’s still there in his voice as he whispers.

“Nott…” Caduceus nods just as a second explosion echoes down to them, dust raining down on them from above as the entire place shakes more violently this time, and it’s almost enough to stop him noticing the movement in the corner of his eye.

Almost.

    The first guard is down, moss and lichen creeping across his skin as he writhes against the ground, face twisted in agony. Caduceus hesitates for a moment, the instinct to heal, to help, still there beneath the surface even with his anger still burning bright. But he doesn’t have time, and he hasn’t forgotten or forgiven what they’ve done, and then Caleb’s frightened voice cuts through his distraction. Whatever hope and courage he’d found to speak a moment ago gone, and it doesn’t take long to realise why, a word that he’s picked up from Orly and the others as he realised that the third man had moved in his moment of direction, gaze locked on Caleb.

And something shining in his hands, the component pouch open.

“N-no,” Caleb is out in the open now, but backing away, shaking his head frantically from side to side, and hands flung up as though that will be enough to shield him from the spell. Caduceus growls low in his throat, hand moving before he’s even thought about what he’s doing. There’s no thought of nature this time, instead radiant light bursts out of him, brilliant blue that reminds him of Jester arching towards the other mage. It hits a split second before he can finish whatever it was that he was trying to cast, and his focus wavers and breaks, as the sacred flame blasts him back half a step. It’s broken his concentration, but it barely seems to faze him, and Caduceus is moving forward again as soon as he straightens, once again shifting to shield the Caleb who is frozen in place.

    Another blast of sacred flame buys him enough time to make out into the hallways outside their cell, and his fury is like a tidal wave now, rising in his chest and threatening to sweep them all away, because they’re still trying to hurt Caleb. They’re still trying to hurt them. His arm, and there’s new pain now as the mage who had dismissed him before hits him with a blast of cold magic, unable to miss at this range. It burns in a different way to the cut on his arm, but it’s nothing compared to the fire burning away his usual calm – and for a moment he’s distracted, wondering if this what Caleb feels like when he uses his flames. Then the second guard is in his face, following up the magical attack with a swing of his sword – it’s wild and uncoordinated in his fear, and Caduceus isn’t backing down this time, catching the blade, feeling it slice into his fingers as he seizes it, yanking the guard in close.

     Strength isn’t his forte, but right now, he has the size advantage, and he rips the blade away, tossing it to the side, just as he hears shouts from somewhere down the corridor, ears twitching. They’re here, he thinks, hearing a familiar bellow of rage above the other voices. Just a little longer, his magic is swelling, the breeze caressing him again, and he nods. The second guard joins the first on the floor, his body already collapsing in places as Caduceus’ spell takes hold.

“Caduceus!” He barely had a chance to register the fact that Caleb was shouting his name before something slammed into him, and he saw a firebolt, the flame seeming dimmer than usual as it slammed into the mage who had been casting again. Caduceus stumbled, caught off guard as he realised that it was Caleb who collided with him, forcing him out of the path of the spell, a good thing too, as the firebolt has left a smouldering burn on the man’s shoulder but hasn’t broken his concentration. However, the relief is short lived as Caduceus feels more than sees it slam into Caleb as he goes rigid against him, back arched and mouth open in a silent scream.

“Caleb…?”  The question has barely left his lips, before Caleb is falling, no longer silent as he screams, writhing and clawing at himself, as though someone had set a fire beneath his skin. They hurt him again. He’s unaware of the growl in his throat this time, a roaring sound filling his ears as he moves to lower Caleb to the ground. His hand shaking as he flings sacred flame at the mage again, but his minds a mess right now, because Caleb is still screaming, arching against him, while fighting his hold at the same time. The spell goes wide, radiant fire leaving a scar across the brick wall, and this time decompose refuses to take hold, even with Bane still wrapping his target with shadows, and all he can do as he sees a hand rising, ready to cast again, is curl forward over Caleb, trying to shield him from further harm.

Wildmother, protect us…

“ELDRITCH BLAST!”

      Caduceus decides there and then that he’s never heard anything as beautiful as Fjord’s drawl, darkened in that instance with anger, as it fills the corridor and he lifts his head just in time to see two blasts of vivid green slam into their assailant and fling him back into the wall. It forces a cry from the mage, and the roaring in Caduceus’ ears intensifies as for a moment all he can think is ‘good’, but there’s no time to dwell on that, because the cavalry has arrived with raised voices and a surging anger, that joins his, refusing to let it ebb.

    There’s a blur of blue, as Beau surges past them, not giving the mage time to react as she gets in his space, a sharp elbow to the temple leaving him stunned and staggering before she goes to town on him. Fjord is there too, not getting in her way, and swallowing as he glances at the two guards that Caduceus had already dealt with – the first finally still, melding with the ground, as the spell continued its task. The other was close, and Caduceus turns his gaze aside, seeing the question in Fjord’s eyes, flinching as the warlock delivers a mercy blow.

They’re here.

     It’s still sinking in, the burning anger making it hard to focus and he feels sick now. But Caleb is still twisting and turning in his grip, although his voice has dropped to a whimper now, and Caduceus has a sinking feeling that it’s not because the spell has ended. He’s gentle as he moves, no longer needed as a shield, because Beau and Fjord are there, and he knows that they won’t let anyone close to them again. “Caleb,” he shifts them, moving so that the wizard’s head is cradled in his lap, fingers moving to stroke through his hair as he had done so often during their imprisonment.  But whereas before it had soothed Caleb, now it draws a pained whine from his lips, as though even friendly touches have been turned against him, and he moves to pull back, nausea intensifying at the thought that he might be hurting Caleb too. However, his fingers have barely moved away, before Caleb’s hand, shaking more than Caduceus has ever seen it before shoots out and latches onto him, pain-bright eyes seeking him out.

“Please…” It’s a whisper, one that ends in a whimper as Caleb jerks again, but Caduceus nods, stealing his heart against the noise as he let his hand fall back to where it was. The anger is starting to fade now as everything else starts to catch up with him, and he almost misses its warmth as he shivers, because this has been a lot. Too much, a small part of him thinks as Caleb turns into him, quivering, fingers clutching at him in a way that he hadn’t allowed himself to do before. It speaks to how severe the pain must be, and Caduceus’s fingers are tingling, itching to try and heal, but he doesn’t know what the spell is, and he has a feeling that his magic won’t touch Caleb at the moment.

     Then there’s a crack, the sound of bone shattering and a gurgled cry that would usually have Caduceus at least wincing in sympathy, but right now he doesn’t even spare a glance for the mage who has just learnt the mistake of letting a monk get close and personal. Very personal. Unable to focus on anything but the fact that Caleb has gone limp against him, not unconscious but close, residual tremors wracking his body. “Caleb, are…?”

“Caleb! Caduceus!”  A shrill voice interrupts, and there’s Nott skittering towards them, golden eyes wild as she sees the state Caleb is in, and Caduceus half expects to find her crossbow pointed at him, and maybe she considers it because there’s a pause before she drops to her knees beside them. “What did they do to him?” She’s angry too, and oddly enough that makes him feel better about the anger still burning bright in his chest, although he still feels sick as he shakes his head.

They hurt him.

     He’s trembling nearly as much as Caleb as finally…finally, he’s allowed to reach out and heal. It’s not enough. He doesn’t have enough magic to ease everything that’s been done to the wizard, especially after that last spell that has left Caleb’s nerves alight, his muscles clenching even now the spell itself is gone. Still, he’s helping, Caleb’s trembling easing a little, and the wizard curls into him, eyes open but hazy, before he slowly stretches a hand out to Nott as though not entirely sure that he believes that she’s there. “Liebling…” His voice is hoarse, the word nearly lost, but Nott hears it and closes the gap, mindful of her claws as she grasps his hand.

“I’m sorry it took us so long…”

“Save that for later,” Fjord is there, crouching down beside them, and there’s something dangerous in his gaze as he takes in Caleb’s wounds, eyes flicking to the gashes that Caduceus is trying to ignore right now. “Jester and Yasha are keeping them busy upstairs, but we need to get moving.”

“But…”

“If reinforcements come, we’re going to be screwed,” Fjord grimaces, cutting across Caduceus’ protest, glancing down at where the soft glow of his healing magic is still at work and already flickering around the edge. “Besides, Jester can help heal you both.” Caduceus frowns at that, something heavy and uncomfortable settling in the pit of his stomach at that thought, and he’s not sure why because Caleb being fully healed can only be a good thing.

“We found your stuff,” Beau makes no effort to hide her fury, and her hands her bloodied and bruised as she crouches on the other side, patting Nott on the head before leaning forward to catch Caleb’s eyes which are drifting slowly between the three of them, still not quite comprehending that they’re there. “I’ve got your books and spell stuff, they’re safely in Jester’s haversack okay?” Caleb blinks at that, a furrow appearing before he seems to come to life. Or at least he tries to, as even with Caduceus’ efforts the days or weeks, Caduceus still isn’t sure, and he’s not quite sure he’s ready to ask either, of torture, have left a mark as had that last spell, and he barely makes it onto his elbows before his strength flees.

“Bitte…”

“Caleb?”

“They took something from him,” Caduceus is the one to explain, guessing what Caleb is trying to see even before the wizard turns terrified eyes towards them, and he pulls him closer, the need to protect still burning bright even now the others are there. “He said that ‘he’ is going to find him.” He still doesn’t understand, but he feels the way Caleb tenses. He also sees Beau and Nott sharing a glance before the former is leaning forward, surprisingly gentle despite the scowl on her face as she pulls down Caleb’s shirt.

“We’ll find it.”

“Beau, we don’t have…”

“We have time for this,” Beau snaps, cutting across Fjord’s protest, even as they hear more muffled shouting and screaming in the distance and she grimaces. “I’ll be quick. Caleb,” she turns back to the wizard, who is curling in on himself, realising that they hadn’t found what he needed. “Where were you when they took it?”

    Caleb is trembling again, and there’s a haziness in his eyes that suggests that he’s only just with them, but even like this, his mind is sharp and Beau’s tone – understanding but demanding an answer forces him to find his tongue. For the first time in days, grateful for his memory, as even as his voices wavers and breaks he manages to give them directions to the room where he had been tortured daily, and Caduceus’ stomach churns when Caleb glances at Nott, before looking back at Beau and warning her quietly that it’s going to be a mess. Caduceus can see the dawning understanding in Beau’s eyes, and the fury sees an echo of it Fjord’s face, the warlock catching up quickly, while Nott’s hand is trembling as it slips down to her flask. But she doesn’t drink, instead whispering with a ferocity that he’s never heard from her before.

“We won’t let him touch you.”

“H-He…”

“Nott’s right,” Beau interjects, and Caduceus isn’t sure whether Caleb believes her or if he just lacks the strength to argue, probably the latter, because the wizard is slumping against him again, fingers curling into his fur. Beau notes this, probably realises that he isn’t agreeing with her, but takes it as acceptance anyway as she looks to Fjord.  “Fjord, get them out of here. Nott, can you help me?”

“I…”

“Nott…” Caleb is shaking his head, fear written across his face. Trying to protect her from having to see what had been done to him.

“It’ll be quicker with two of us,” Beau explains with a grimace, and Nott is already nodding and scrambling to her feet, reluctantly pulling her hand out of Caleb’s. “We’ll meet you in the courtyard, and then we’d better get as far as we can. Especially if…” She seems to realise something, cutting herself off and Caduceus shares a look with a Fjord, neither liking the secrets, but knowing now is not the time to be debating this, and Fjord nods, clearly unhappy with the idea of splitting up or spending more time in this place. Beau and Nott take off at a run as soon as he nods, the latter pausing for a second to look back at Caleb, and then lift her gaze to meet Caduceus’.

“Take care of him.”

“I will.” It’s a promise, as deep and devout as the vow he’d made to the Wildmother all those years ago, and the breeze teases him again for a moment before fading away, leaving him staring at Nott, who nods in acceptance before darting after Beau. Then Fjord is there, anxious again, and reaching down as though to lift Caleb, and Caduceus’ grip tightened, the strange leaden feeling from before reappearing. “I’ve got him.” It comes out more forceful than he’d intended, and Fjord is looking at him, all golden eyes and worry, and then there’s a glint of understanding and Caduceus wonders just what he’d seen his expression. Then decides he doesn’t care as he allows his magic, already flickering to fade, so that he can slowly climb to his feet, lifting Caleb with him.

    He doesn’t like how Caleb curls against him, not even putting up a token protest. He looks small in his arms, adrift even though he’s surrounded by friends now, and the anger starts to curl again. It helps, because his stomach rolls as he glances towards the two guards he had fought before forcing his gaze away because they were dead now. And what’s dead should stay dead. Unfortunately, he didn’t think that applied to memories, and he closed his eyes before taking a deep breath and looking at Fjord, needing direction now that his moment, his chance had come and passed. Fjord, bless him didn’t question anything, glancing at Caleb once more before taking the lead as he guided Caduceus out into the corridor.

*

    The building was maze-like, and Caduceus couldn’t help but be amazed that Caleb had memorised the route even with the pain he’d been in. Luckily, they don’t need any such memory, as there is a trail of bodies and destruction and the sound of continued fighting that guides them up through several levels. Past more cells, all but the empty ones now open and when he glances at Fjord, not sure whether more felonies are a good idea at the moment, the half-orc shrugs. “We needed a distraction.” Caduceus can only nod at that, unable to argue with the logic, and considering what had been done to them, he decides he prefers it this way, although later he’s going to have to take a look at what this group have done to his moral compass. Much later he decides, glancing down at Caleb, who seems only half-aware, gazing half-lidded at the full extent of their prison.

     It’s not hard to find Yasha and Jester, when they finally emerge topside, although Caduceus takes a moment to focus on them, because finally he can feel the earth and the air. The Wildmother’s presence, surging around him, a thousand times more potent than it had been down below and he closes his eyes, swaying slightly under the force of the sensation. Thank you. It’s not enough by far, and he knows that he will need to have a proper conversation with her when they have the time, but he finally feels as though he can breathe. And while the anger is still there, and the nausea and leaden weight in his stomach, for the first time he feels that they will be okay.

    The sound of clashing metal forces him to focus on the present, turning to see that Yasha and Jester are back to back in a circle of guards, protected by darting pink and purple unicorns that adds surrealism to the scene, that isn’t helped by the fact he’s already overwhelmed by everything. They hardly seem like they need help, and the ground around their feet, littered with groaning, twitching bodies tells its own story, as does Yasha’s face when she turns and glances at them. Rage burning bright as her eyes land on Caleb, and he’s reasonably sure that her next blow has a bloodlust all of its own. Jester is looking at them too, her beaming smile dimming as she sees them, but for her, it’s not anger – not yet at least – but sorrow, and then worry as she glances behind them

“Where are Beau and Nott? We need to get out of this stinky place.” Caduceus usually enjoys her way of describing things, but right now everything is too raw and harsh for him to appreciate her humour.

“They’re coming, they needed to find something…” There’s an edge there and a sideways glance at Caleb, but the wizard is oblivious, his gaze locked on something above them and Caduceus follows his gaze, the others following suit and he stiffened as he spied the woman from the day before standing atop the wall that circled the courtyard.

“Astrid…” Caleb’s voice cracked and broke, anguish that he hadn’t shown even after everything he’d endured over the last few days bleeding through. Bist du wirklich hier?” 

“Wait that’s Astrid? But….?” Jester is whispering, only to be cut off by Nott and Beau hurtling out of the building with more guards on their tales. Beau immediately notices the threat, moving to stand in front of Caduceus and Caleb, even as Fjord moved, Falchion dripping water as he targeted the puddles of water on the ground that spoke of days of rain, raising a wall of water between them and Beau and Nott’s pursuers.

“What’s going on?” Nott was right next to Caduceus, trying to slip something into Caleb’s hand, but he was oblivious, gaze locked on Astrid.

“He knows that you’re here Bren,” Astrid called, and they can all hear the faint trace of Zemnian in her voice, and Caduceus wonders which side of her they’re seeing, as her expression is unreadable as she glances over them, lingering on him the longest before returning to the wizard he’s carrying. The wizard who is rigid in his arms, and when Caduceus cranes his head forward, he can see that the blue eyes are distant as they always are when Caleb’s mind has been pulled into the past, and he can’t even put a name to the emotion in the wizard’s face. All he can do is pull him close, trying to do what he can to shield him from the world, even as he lifts his eyes to the woman. The others are moving closer, not missing the use of Caleb’s old name, or the familiarity, and instinctively moving closer to him as she continues. “You’re lucky that his arrival was delayed…” This time, Caduceus wonders if he’s the only one that can hear the unspoken the words, the shift in her tone and posture, just like he’d seen in their cell when she had spoken to him, and he wonders if she’s the reason for the delay.

“Astrid?” Beau hisses, sharp and incredulous as she glances at Caleb connecting the dots, and that finally draws his gaze back to the present, his fingers biting into Caduceus’ arms as he nods.

“J-Ja…”

“We’re leaving,” Beau has never sounded so commanding as she did at that moment, drawing herself to her full height, even as Yasha having downed the last of her own opponents shifts to flank her, while Jester moves closer to the Caduceus, her spirit guardians moving to dance around him and his precious burden. “If you get in our way, I will kill you.” Caduceus isn’t sure what it means when none of them so much as flinch at her threat, deciding that it’s yet another thing to consider later, preferably when they’re miles away from here and fully healed.

“Beauregard…” Caleb is the only one to speak up, but it’s not exactly a protest, as he just sounds… tired, and lost. Beau glances at them, her expression softening just a little bit before she’s motioning for them to move towards, and Caduceus obeys, because as much as he wonders if this Astrid is indeed their enemy, he wants nothing more than to be far away from this place. Fjord sends the wall of water careening into the guards, forcing them to seek shelter in the building before drawing back with them, and the others fall into step with a unison they rarely manage.

“Bren,” Astrid’s voice rang out again, and as much as he wants to Caduceus can’t shield Caleb from that as the wizard lifts his head, eyes distant once more. “I… Her gaze flicks to Beau for a moment whose tense, hands clenched around her staff. “Es tut mir leid, dass es dazu gekommen ist.” “Ich auch,” Caleb’s reply was almost lost as he turned and buried his head against Caduceus so that only the Firbolg can feel the dampness that starts to soak into his fur and hear the next words. “We need to go…” There’s anguish, and pleading, in those four little words and Caduceus nods before realising that Caleb can’t see him.

“We’re going Mr Caleb,” he murmured, knowing that the others can hear him, and feeling their glances, although thankfully they’re more focused on shepherding the two of them out of there before reinforcements arrived. And he can’t help but lift his head, letting his gaze rove of them – to Yasha, still on the edge of her rage standing sentinel at their back; to Beau, smaller but fierce and protective, still focused on Astrid. To Nott whose so close on his heels that she keeps brushing his legs, and he has a feeling that Caleb will have an attachment for a while. To Fjord who’s taken the lead, falchion still in his hand, eyes constantly flickering around in search of danger; and to Jester, er spirit guardians still protecting them, as she moves to his side. The swish of her tail telling him that she’s more agitated than she’s letting on in her half-smile as she glances up at him. They’re all here, just as the Wildmother promised, and Caduceus’ voice is soft but certain as he murmurs.  “It’s over.”

   It’s not. He knows they’ve got a lot to talk about, that he still needs to deal with the emotions churning in his chest as he glances down and sees the lingering evidence of Caleb’s torture, and they need to cope with what the wizard endured. He knows that they need to talk about this Astrid, and what her presence means…and who this ‘he’ is that could terrify Caleb so badly.

That’s fine.

    Talking he can do, especially with nature stretching out around them, as they step through the gates that are hanging on their hinges. And as he pauses and glances back, seeing Astrid still on the wall, her hand raised towards them, and the building – a fort he realises with a tilt of his head that had been their prison for far too long, he felt ethereal arms wrap around him and Caleb. Warmth blossoming across his skin, and he took a deep breath.

It’s over.