Caleb wakes abruptly to sullen, unfamiliar darkness. The sounds of others breathing, soft, familiar. The reassuring warmth of a presence wedged beside him. Sitting up. Of Nott, tucked into his side, breathing slowly. Frumpkin at his head, rumbling quietly. A mattress underneath him and a blanket overtop. Safe. Secure. Not on the road, which is a bit strange, but perhaps there's a reason for all of it. He catches a whiff of delicate perfume and stale sugar.
“Jester,” he whispers, confused, as his eyes adjust slowly to the dark. Her eyes catch the weak winter moonlight struggling in through the window, gleam wetly in the dimness as she looks down at him. The jewelry in her horns chimes gently with the movement.
“You're awake,” she whispers in turn, relief soaking her voice. A blue hand that blends into the shadows around them palms his face gently. “Are you okay?”
“I, uh. Ja? Ja. Yes.” He frowns, a hand tangling absently in Nott's hair, recognizing at last the sort of ragged, sewn-together tightness in his chest that comes from too many healing potions. But why - “Ah,” he whispers, remembering in bits and pieces. Days of slow, dreary travel on the long road to the Menagerie Coast. “Bandits.” They've had such a share of worse foes by now that it's almost embarrassing, to have half your party felled by some arselochs with crossbows, but unfortunately that is what he remembers with a blurry kind of clarity. Beau and Nott, first, and he'd tasted ash in his mouth. Caduceus, taken out from behind, straw hat abandoned in the dirt. And himself, he supposes, but that part is less clear. They'd been surprised. And their attackers had been desperate. “And some bad luck.”
“It will only get worse the closer we get to the Coast,” she says darkly, confirming. “We should have been paying better attention.”
“Did they take anything?”
“No,” she says, tone still quiet. It doesn't suit her. “No, we killed them really good.”
No triumph in her voice. But then, there wouldn't be. For all their collective flaws, none of them are the type to kill indiscriminately, however much certain members of their group might enjoy a scuffle. If the bandits are dead, it must be because there was no other option. No colourful tiefling to show them the error of their ways – but he shreds the thought before it can become something solid. Things are different now.
“What happened?” he asks, taking in the small, cramped room, the exhausted, sleeping breaths he can hear beyond them in the darkness. Quiet snoring that can only be Fjord. A few sparse embers left glowing in the fireplace, engulfed by a terrifying shadow that he thinks must be Caduceus and Beau, slumped together, sharing heat. “I do not – I don't remember very well.”
“They were waiting in the bushes for us when we turned a corner,” Jester says quietly, leftover frustration burning through her bubbly facade. There's a blanket tucked around her, draped over her shoulders, but she's still wearing her day clothes. Even in the darkness, he can see the white parts of her blouse are splotchy with dried blood. He can fix that, in the morning. “They – they got Beau and Nott first. Beau caught a few of them – the crossbow bolts, you remember that – but the last one got her in the throat and I had to – and then they got Caduceus too and it was all a big mess and there were so many of them - ” Her face twists unhappily. “And then you set one on fire and his friend hit you in the back a bunch of times.”
Ah. He remembers that part, now.
“And then we killed them,” she says, lips pressing together. “Fjord and me. It was – it was super hot, probably.” A hissed, snuffled breath. “But I had to use a lot of spells to kill them super dead and then there was a lot of throat-bleeding that looked super bad and by the time I got to you it was almost - ” The rest of the sentence gets bitten off. A thin, fraught silence follows. “Why weren't you further back?” she asks plaintively, voice cracking. The edge of something sharp has crept into her voice, made it jagged with fear. “You always – you always used to stay so far away, why didn't you - ”
He doesn't know what to say. Thirty feet back doesn't always cut it anymore, maybe, but that is far too close to things he thinks they'd both rather avoid speaking about. He has half a thought to reach for the hand at her side, knows it would be warm and soft and comforting, but his arms are pinned against him, Frumpkin a warm weight at his shoulder, Nott wedged into his side so tightly it almost hurts. He won't disturb her. Even though her elbows are digging into his ribs, all sharp edges, whitened knuckles wound into his shirt. Frumpkin's tail flicks the end of his nose.
“Where are we?” he asks instead. Diverting, poorly.
Jester breathes a ragged half-breath. “Some shitty village along the main road. I don't know what it's called. Nothing very funny. There's a bigger town, fifty miles from here,” she tells him, voice cracking. He waits. “We thought about trying to reach it but – but everyone was really tired and you wouldn't wake up. We thought it was better to - ”
She doesn't finish, but he's not an idiot. Better to die under a roof, he thinks, and doesn't disagree. In a warm bed, with a warm fire, instead of out in the rain on the open road. But Nott is not the only weight against his chest now, as his eyes slowly adjust to the darkness.
“It seemed like probably you were going to be okay but I thought someone should be awake,” Jester spits out in that harsh whisper, still half-terrified. “And I was the cleric first and it is my job to keep all of us safe, and so - ”
And so they let you keep a death watch, he thinks, feeling suddenly, viciously, furious. Unfairly so. The fury leaks out quickly. He exhales it like breath. He is far too tired, and he has never been very good at being angry.
“It is not your job,” he says, firmly, but his voice is still a rasp and the effect is not very convincing. “It is not anybody's job.”
“It is definitely somebody's job,” she insists, still sounding alarmingly close to tears, though her voice remains hushed.
“Well, I am alright now. Nobody's job.”
“My job,” she hisses down at him. “My job, and you are not alright, I think you almost died, just like Molly, and if you had it would have been terrible and it would have been my fault - ” Her voice stutters horribly. Wilts into something sharp and raw and alien. “ - just like Molly.”
He frees his hand from Nott's clutch and grabs her knee, almost without thought, words sticking in his throat. His fingers are shaking, a little bit. The muscles in his arm feel tired, worn out, but he makes sure his grasp is firm, even if his lips are silent.
“Nein,” he says after a moment, a whisper. Quietly horrified, and by the look on her face, even in shadow, so is she, at this unexpected admission. Her mouth has clamped shut. But she has to understand and he is the last person on this verdammt continent who is capable of making her but it is so important that he try. “It would not have been your fault,” he insists carefully. “It was not your fault, the last time.”
The jewelry wound through her horns chimes again as she shakes her head. He catches the glint of it moving in the corner of his eye, gleaming very dimly in the sallow patch of moonlight coming in from the window, struggling in through the spit of clouds and freezing rain. “You don't understand,” she says. She settles back against the ancient headboard, the wood creaking as she shifts. Even in the shadowy gloom, out of the corner of his eye, her silhouette is slumped. “It is my job to keep all of you alive,” she says. “I didn't – I didn't think it would be so hard. I never used to worry so much, you know. I thought, you know, okay, so maybe we get shot at by crossbows a lot, and then sometimes there are trolls and gnolls and things, but mostly that stuff is easy to fix.” Second-hand embarrassment, or possibly shame, or guilt, or – or something that's maybe a combination of all three, he has trouble differentiating them, makes his cheeks glow hot as she begins to cry in earnest, quiet and horrible. He never wants to hear it again. He doesn't want to be hearing it now. He definitely doesn't want to ever be the cause of it. He pats her knee awkwardly, gut twisting.
“When people get stabbed, I know what to do,” she says, sniffling. “Or impaled, or speared, or punched in the face. I can deal with that stuff. But not - ” She scrubs an arm across her face, mouth twisting over the words. “And I might have some diamonds now, but I – but I don't really know what to do with them, not really, and we have Caduceus now too and he is so wonderful but I - ” Her eyes gleam wetly in the dark, quietly shaken. “I can't bring anyone back to life,” she whispers. “I couldn't do it then, and I can't do it now. So what about the next time? The next thing I'm not prepared for? What if -?”
“Jester.” He would haul himself more upright, but he still can't bring himself to disturb Nott, and has a sneaking suspicion that meaningful eye contact might be beyond him right now. He settles for awkwardly dumping Frumpkin into Jester's lap, one-armed. Frumpkin squawks once, indignantly, at his inelegant grasp before getting with the program and settling down into a loaf, paws kneading in the fabric of her skirt, purring softly. A blue hand, muted by the gloom, settles gently in the scruff of Frumpkin's neck. He imagines the tension he can't see sliding from her neck. Message received, he thinks. Maybe, at least. He'll keep trying. “I, ah. We are – a bunch of idiots. Ja?”
“Yes,” she says, darkly.
“The sort of trouble a bunch of idiots might get themselves into is – hard to say. But it is usually our own fault. And even when it is not, it is – certainly not yours. And if it is ever, ah - trouble you cannot fix, well.” He grimaces, frowning up at the ceiling. He is terrible at this. He doesn't deserve to have friends at all, let alone ones that actually care about whether he lives or dies. But he carries on, a feathery rasp. Keep trying. “It is still not your fault. Mollymauk – was not your fault. Of course it was not.” They walked into that all on their own, desperate, outmatched. They would do it again, he is sure. Even knowing what they know now. “We are lucky to have you at all.”
“Lucky.” She sighs, fingers sliding rhythmically through Frumpkin's fur. He feels her gaze on him, but keeps his eyes on the ceiling. He gave her Frumpkin. She must understand, by now. “We are lucky to have you too, you know,” she says after a moment, still quiet.
And that is simply not the truth at all, but he's learned to keep thoughts like that to himself a bit more, lately. They seem to do more harm than good, somehow, when he says them out loud, and he's tired of hurting people. Even if he can't always understand exactly how they hurt, it doesn't matter, really. If it makes his friends feel better to pretend like he is not a garbage person, well.
It is probably wrong, to let them help him live out that lie. But he has done so many terrible things, there are some days that a part deep inside of him says – what is one more?
“I mean it,” Jester says, though he's kept his thoughts to himself. Her breath is shaky, consonants uncharacteristically delicate on the tip of her tongue. The tears have retreated, but they haven't lost the battle. “I think I liked it better when you were a coward. You are my friend. I don't want you to die.”
“Jester.” His own voice is a rasp. “I am still a coward.”
“You are trying to reassure me,” she says. “It's not working.”
“I will be more careful,” he promises, but it sounds like a lie, even to his practiced ears. They are all – different now. Shaped and molded like soft dirt by everything that has happened. And he knows all too well that – for now, at least – the past is the past. They cannot go back to who they were before. Everything they are now, everything they have become, is something they all will have to live with.
Chimes again, as she shakes her head. “I don't believe you.” Silence for a moment, thick and sallow like the moonlight. The tinny sound of rain hissing against the roof fills the air. Even this far south, it's become too warm for snow. When she speaks again, her voice is back to that hissing whisper, fragile, afraid. “Caleb,” she says. “Who is Astrid?”
He had been chilled before. Cold with leftover shock, numb around his feet and the tips of his fingers, but now the past comes roaring to meet him, phantom flames licking at his face. Ashes and sparks biting at his cheeks.
Once, he might not have answered her. He could close his eyes, still. Feign exhaustion that doesn't really need to be feigned. Roll over to face the wall and retreat into himself like he would like to, away from the flames. He could.
“An old friend,” he answers thinly, the description woefully inadequate, the words dredged from the back of his throat. “Or – she was, once. I am not so sure we are friends anymore.”
He can feel the why bludgeoning its way up her throat, but she swallows it back, to his surprise. Shifts, and the bed creaks with the movement. Never still, their Jester. Even like this, shadowed by the moon, terrifyingly contemplative.
“You,” she starts, tentative, some emotion he doesn't recognize pulling her mouth down, darkening her eyes. Regret. Chagrin. He can't tell. He hasn't seen it on her face before. It doesn't suit her. “You don't want to see her again?”
His lips press together, heart pounding sickly in his chest at the thought, a terrible kind of want mingling grossly with the numbing fear that lives in the back of his throat. I don't know what I want, but he strangles the words before they can escape his lips.
“We,” he tries, confused by the distress building in her face. “We did not part on the best of terms. She is – from a part of my life that I – that I do not - ” The words don't quite make it. The rest of them die on his tongue. For a moment, he fights viciously to keep himself tethered to the present, the past snatching, tearing at his ankles. “She is an old friend. You are – I have – I have new friends now,” he says, as gently as possible, fingers ground white-knuckled into the mattress, like it might anchor him to what's real.
Jester looks down at him, distress still carving lines into her face, tear-stained. “You do,” she says, forcefully, probably a bit too loud. Behind her, he hears the shift and rustle of someone nearly rousing. “Of course you do. It's just – some of the things you say, sometimes, Caleb – some of the things you said, when you were really out of it, I can't - ”
Against him, Nott shifts, fingers winding tighter through the fabric of his shirt, her tiny, pointy goblin nose pressing into his sternum. He moves his hand from Jester's knee to pat her head absently.
“The past has sharp teeth,” he says, hoping it's enough.
“The past is in the past,” she counters, but gently. “It can't hurt you.”
“You sound like Mollymauk.” Lying to yourself. He knows her dreams are just as terrible as his are, now, sometimes. The past is inescapable. The past can always hurt.
“He says – said,” her face shutters, horribly, “silly things too, sometimes,” she allows, shifting again, jewelry tinkling softly. “Just as silly as you. But I think – I think probably he was right a lot of the time, you know.” She pauses. “Whatever happened to you – you know it doesn't matter to us, right?”
'Happened to'. A phrase for victims, and not for murderers. Not for him. If he was less of a coward, he would tell them everything. Watch the gentleness fade from Jester's eyes, the cautious goodwill between all of them evaporate like morning dew. It would matter, if you knew, he thinks. Every breath he takes, in their good company, enjoying their friendship, is a coward's way out.
He is not brave enough, yet. Not tonight.
“If that's true,” he breathes, trying, trying. It's not quite an escape. More like a diversion. “Then it is the same for you, you know. What happened to you doesn't make you any lesser in our eyes. We like you for you, and not just for your diamonds.” He swipes a shaky finger upwards to tap her on the nose and he's granted a watery, tentative grin. It falls, too quickly.
“I wish it hadn't happened,” she whispers down at him. Confessing. Guilt, almost too quick to see, flashes across her face. “All of it. I wish I could go back to before. I don't – know how to do this, now. Everything is different. Beau is nice, and you are brave, and Nott doesn't steal from me anymore, and – and Molly is gone.” She sniffs. “And I didn't think anything like that could ever happen before. I thought - ” She shakes her head. Glances briefly behind her, up at the watery, cloud-covered moon. “I don't know what I thought,” she says dimly.
Before, he thinks. When that tentative grin had been something more than a mask. Her tears are a gift and a burden, that way. Something that neither of them will ever discuss once the sun comes up. Once the mask is back in place.
“I wish that too,” he says quietly, tiredly. But he knows, better than most. “And – and it is not for me to say whether or not it is a bad thing, to wish for something like that. But the past has sharp teeth. Sometimes the only thing to do is to keep – trucking until you outrun it.”
Her watery gaze narrows thoughtfully. “I am not sure that is very good advice.”
“Well. If it's any consolation, you are definitely asking the wrong person.”
“The wrongest,” she agrees, settling back against the headboard again. “You have a lot of secrets, Caleb.” The barest hint of a smile. “But you are very sweet, even when you're being a shady fuck.”
He smiles back, exhaustion stealing his words.
“Caleb,” she starts, the words already blurry around the edges. “You won't – you won't tell anyone, right? That I – about – I don't want them to be worried also.”
They already know, he doesn't say.
“Don't worry,” he mumbles, patting her gently on the hand, eyes slipping closed. “A few secrets between friends is nothing.”
“That's also terrible advice,” she whispers, and he feels the blanket covering him and Nott being tugged more securely around them. Soft lips ghost over his forehead. “Goodnight, you stinky wizard,” she says quietly. “Thank you.”
Morning brings sunlight as limp and tepid as the sallow moon from last night, but the room is cozy and small, and the close quarters have kept them comfortable and warm.
“Well, damn, if that ain't – if that ain't kind of cute,” he hears before he opens his eyes, a mumbled, sleep-roughened drawl that's unmistakeably Fjord's. “Makes up for the lack of accommodation, maybe.”
“Whossat,” Nott rasps, lifting her head from his chest, and he finally blinks awake, hemmed in on all sides by a combination of cat, goblin and tiefling. Someone's drool is in his hair.
“Hallo,” he croaks.
Fjord, clearly only just awake himself, hauls himself upright with a groan, hand bracing on the bedpost of the room's only other bed, barely a foot apart. He claps Caleb's shoulder once, and the knuckles of his hand are pale. His eyes skirt over Caleb's face. “Glad you're awake,” he says quietly. Over Caleb's head, his eyes settle on Jester, who straightens with an exaggerated yawn. Something passes between them, but Caleb can't quite figure out what. Fjord's face is hard to read at the best of times. But he thinks it might be apology of a sort that furrows his brow. Some brand of contrition, anyway.
“Y'all right?” he asks her, sallow light throwing yellow at the green of his skin. The drawl of his voice is always thicker in the morning, the vowels made sweeter and longer by exhaustion.
“Get me some pastries,” Jester says, deadly serious, voice thick with sleep. “And maybe I will be.”
Fjord matches her tone. “All the pastries you'd like,” he promises, sincerely. “You both coming down, or should I bring some up?”
Standing sounds like it could be an interesting adventure, given that his limbs still feel like jelly, but the room in the murky daylight is gloomy, and – and, he realizes, feeling oddly unlike himself, he would much rather be with his – his friends right now than by himself.
“We will follow you,” he says softly. “Ja?”
“Okay.” Fjord heads for the door, nudging Beau with his foot on the way out, curled up against Caduceus by the fireplace. “See you in a few.”
Beau rouses, but it takes a moment. She's usually a lighter sleeper than the rest of them, but not when she's been drinking, and Nott's flask leans tellingly against the wall nearby. He watches her come to reluctantly, wedged into Caduceus' side, an extra blanket draped over them both. She blinks at him groggily for a few seconds. The gloom makes the blue of her eyes look washed out and dreary.
“Oh, thank fuck,” she says, not bothering with the subtlety of her predecessors. She hauls herself to her feet, waking Caduceus, who comes to with a startled blink, dislodging the blanket. She strides towards the bed, punches him in the arm, hard, squats so that she's at his eye-level and peers at him critically. He can smell liquor on her breath, sour and hot on his face. A calloused hand darts out and catches his chin before he can look away. She turns his face to the left, and then the right. Peels back one of his eyelids with a grimy set of fingers, too quickly for him to escape and looks at that critically, too. Eventually she lets go of his chin and his eyelid and nods, once. “Yeah, okay, you look a little less shitty.”
“As always, you are very kind.” She, herself, has also looked better, but he knows better than to say anything, even as she straightens with a wince. Strung out and barely healed, just like the rest of them. Her face is still pinched with exhaustion and what might be worry, buried under layers and layers of bravado and violence. He doesn't quite know what to make of it.
“Damn right,” she says, rough. He watches her swallow. She is relieved and he is grateful and neither of them knows exactly how to say it. They are both – not especially good at this, still. Two people who are bad with people, stumbling blindly, awkwardly into friendship. Sometimes it is irritating, but today it feels oddly like a comfort. Something that is almost familiar.
He should say something, but doesn't. He hesitates. Looks back toward Jester, and when she doesn't complain, he scoops Frumpkin off her lap and hands him to Beau. She takes him reflexively. Holds him out with both hands, away from her body like a limp dishrag, and it is always so painfully obvious that Beau is not a cat person. Frumpkin looks back at him, resigned.
“Uh. Yeah, okay,” Beau says. “Sure. Thanks?”
“If you put him on your shoulder and feed him bits of bacon, he will like that.”
Her face softens, marginally. “I can do that,” she says. She punches him on the arm again as she passes. “I'm glad you're not dead,” she says, roughly, quietly, and leaves before he can answer.
“Ugh,” Jester groans once she's out of earshot, bouncing once in irritation. The bed's ancient springs squeak with the motion. “You're right, Caleb. We are all a bunch of idiots. A bunch of idiots that don't know how to be friends with each other.”
“But we are friends nonetheless,” he points out.
“Ridiculous,” she mutters, bouncing again, but it's fond. Last night's melancholy has been banished with the sun and he's not sure what to make of that, either. “Caduceus!” Their newest friend has straightened in the meantime, blinking serenely in their direction. “We're all alive! Do you want breakfast?”
The serene blink narrows into something more suspicious. “Is it going to be milk?”
“No milk,” she promises, but pauses with a gasp, hitting Caleb excitedly on the shoulder. “We never tried any pastries in Zadash!” She vaults off the bed, blanket trailing behind her like a cape, grabbing Caduceus by the wrist and dragging him towards the stairs. “Now is our moment! Let's go! You are going to like them so much, I absolutely promise - ”
And just like that. Normalcy – or whatever passes for it, these days – is restored.
“Well?” He looks down at Nott, still burrowed in his arms. “Shall we?”
“I'm staying right here,” she mumbles firmly, voice muffled into his armpit. He blinks. Scrubs a hand tiredly down the side of his face.
“Well, okay,” he says, never really in the mood to refuse her anything. He stands with considerable effort, legs shaky underneath him, Nott bundled in his arms like a child. As they leave the room, a questionable bacon-like smell wafts up the crooked stairwell. He can hear Beau arguing with the innkeeper over its possible origins, the rumble of Fjord's voice as he intervenes diplomatically.
“You called us all friends,” Nott points out as they stumble down the stairs, the smug tone muffled by her face pressed against his shoulder.
His hand tangles in her hair, Frumpkin leaping towards them as they reach the bottom step to wind around his feet. The tepid winter sun beckons through the inn's front windows. The road south lies in wait. More danger, knowing their luck. More lies, more secrets, more near-death experiences.
But a few secrets between friends is nothing.
“Hmm,” is all he says.