“We'll get you out,” she hears, a small, wrapped candy pressed gently into her hand as its manhandled behind her. She can't see Jester, only smells the barest hint of her, stale sugar and the faintest breath of perfume, rising above the stink of liquor, smoke, blood -
And her own puke. Great. Fuck. She's never going bar-hopping with these assholes ever again.
“Hands off, you motherfucker,” she spits fuzzily at the crownsguard holding her, as her arms are finally wrenched behind her. It should hurt, probably, but she's really fucking wasted and this – this has already gone to shit in ways that right now she literally can't even remember. A lurch to the left, possibly on purpose, and she almost gets him on his instep, twists her way out of the painful grasp, but the world is fucking spinning and she lurches a hair too far. The grip tightens.
“Eyes front,” the guard hisses in her ear, too close. And there's a meaty, terrible hand at her neck, but before she can react the way she wants to (violently) she's pushed forward into the throng of people, chaotic and heaving, the air thick with confusion, trapped by the press of bodies. Encircled, she realizes, by a whole heap of crownsguard, herding them forwards. Towards the local prison, probably, but her eyes are blurry and the whole world is sour at the back of her mouth.
“Shit,” she hisses, teeth catching on the 'shhh', eyes stinging at the smoke still hanging heavy in the air. Under the roiling, drunken protest of the people around her, she can still hear the faint crackle of flames in the distance. A craned neck doesn't do her much good, and as she's pushed along with the crowd there's no sign of everyone she had to leave behind, no flash of green or blue in the crowd beyond. She feels a pang of muted, drunken alarm. “Shit!”
A hand, again, at the back of her neck. She whirls, flailing, but her fists don't find purchase. Caduceus, looming, soot-covered, catches her gently, hands wrapping around her biceps before she can stumble. Thank fuck, she doesn't say.
“Hey,” he says, frustratingly sober, ears drooping in that familiar, vaguely disappointed way that means they've fucked up again.
Like she doesn't already know that.
“Hey,” she croaks, feeling relief like a punch to the gut, despite herself. Teeters alarmingly for a second and tastes the dregs of whatever the fuck she'd been drinking at the back of her throat, but his stronger grasp holds her upright. “Wasn't - ” She swallows back liquor-singed bile and squeezes her eyes shut for a second. Exhales. “Wasn't our fault this time.”
“Yeah. I know,” he says, low and tired and still that kind of rumbly comforting warm whatever that means he's probably not that mad. He steers her carefully back around, a tall, intimidating buffer for the throng of drunken assholes around them, still being shepherded forward like a bunch of shit-faced, asshole sheep.
“I mean, it really wasn't, though,” she continues, eyes still squeezed shut, mouth rambling along without her. Even in darkness, the world tilts alarmingly, wide and sour. “We were just - ”
Wrong place, wrong time. Time and time again. Whatever fucking town this is, just on the cusp of the Empire's borders, full of shitty bars and shitty people, they'd just been passing through. Looking for a good time on their way to somewhere better, but somewhere in between the moment she'd become pleasantly buzzed and the moment she'd become completely shit-faced things had gone - horribly wrong.
Somehow. Right now the details are – escaping her. Just a bit.
“You did punch that guy in the face,” Caduceus mumbles in her ear, non-judgementally. “And then that other guy. And then a bunch of them.” He hmms something that's not quite a sigh. “And then they all started punching each other, and now we're – well. Here.”
“Huh,” she says, cracking her eyes open to no avail, the people in front of her weaving nauseatingly, torches flickering and bobbing like blurry fireflies. The fire they'd left still crackles behind her. “Yeah, okay, but I didn't punch him first.”
“Pretty sure you did.” Still no judgement. She'd be grateful, but she's pretty sure he's only saving it for later. Her head pounds sickeningly.
“Well, he must have deserved it.” She scrubs a hand under her nose, faltering as her fingers come away flaked in blood, sparks of sudden pain flashing behind her eyes. The vague recollection of being punched in the face in turn rears its head, scattered flashes of a bar-fight gone wild, the cedar-fresh horror of the building somehow being set alight. But the details – fuzzy. Fuzzy and ale-scented. “Shit. Why does this bullshit always happen to us?”
“I ask myself that a lot, actually.” Caduceus manoeuvres her around a body huddled on the ground before she can trip on it, soot-stained and grimy. Poor bastard. The herding has slowed but the press of bodies is still chaotic, cloying. She wonders if they've made it to the prison, if this is the sort of town where they actually take the time to process everybody or if they just chuck them all into the drunk tank and extort their relatives for bail money come morning.
“How'd you get swept up in this? The others get out okay?” Jester's candy is still tightly clenched in her fist. She can't quite shake the feeling like she's forgetting something important, but her thoughts are like molasses, slow, shiny. The last thing she remembers with any semblance of clarity is stumbling out of the burning bar, alone, being caught up in the crowd, encircled by the crownsguard.
“Didn't see,” he rumbles, and, yeah – there's a hint of worry under that comforting timbre. Shit. “I thought you might need some help so I waded in after you.”
Smoke still lies heavy in the air, hot cedar and ash. Guilt, heavy on her tongue. “Oh,” she says, faintly surprised. “Uh. Thanks.”
“We don't have to talk about it,” he replies, a bit grimly, still gripping her upper arms. Still a bit of a fucking mystery to her, if she's honest. A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a – in a teapot. Or some shit. Fuck, she's wasted.
“Yeah, okay,” she agrees, swallowing gingerly. There's something – niggling at the back of her throat, a kind of ash-soaked worry, still. Something she's forgetting that's probably important. A ginger tabby winds its way around her feet, yowling pitifully. Shit.
“Oh, fuck me,” she says, grinding her heels into the dirt, head spinning. Frumpkin yowls again. “Fuck, we're the worst. Turn back, turn back.” She takes a step and fumbles against the press of the crowd, swimming against a smelly, pissed-off current, Caduceus still at her back, hand a warm comfort instead of a threat.
“Sure,” Caduceus says, agreeably enough, but with enough vacancy that even hammered she can tell he hasn't clued in yet.
“Caleb,” she hisses, twisting her neck to look up at him.
He's still guiding her through the crowd, back from where they came. “Uh huh. Haven't seen him.”
“Pretty sure that's 'cause we both just almost stepped on him.”
“Oh.” He stops. Looks down at Frumpkin, still winding around her feet, nudging them in the right direction. “Oh, no.”
Against the heaving mass they finally find him again, huddled close to the ground, and in the grime and the lowlight she can almost forgive herself for not recognizing him. Almost.
“Shit,” she slurs, stumbling down to his level, Caduceus's hand around her arm the only thing that stops her from falling down beside him. One look at his face is all it takes for her to know that there's no one home. When she presses her knuckles to his clammy cheek, he's not even with it enough to flinch away. Eyes blank, breathing fast. “Hey,” she says. “You in there somewhere?”
But smoke is still heavy in the air, cedar-fresh and hot as hell, and he's nowhere to be found.
“Shit,” she swears again, knuckles falling to her side, scraping the ground. “'Duceus?”
“Don't think this is something I can fix,” he rumbles, regret colouring his tone. “Come on. We'd better keep up. They're not treating stragglers very kindly.”
She'd like to say she lends a hand as Caduceus lifts Caleb off the ground by his armpits, but the truth is she probably makes the whole affair harder than it has to be, levers herself up by clinging to Caleb's grimy coat and Caduceus's forearm, Jester's candy still digging sharply into her palm. Everything is hot and cold and upside down, nausea churning in her gut, the press and roil of the crowd suffocating. She leans into Caleb as they stumble forward, held aloft by Caduceus. He's basically dragging the both of them, and she'd feel guiltier, but he's seven fucking feet tall, and she's pretty sure he can handle it.
The last time she'd felt this shitty, they'd been getting wasted in Hupperdook, whole and alive and together. For the last time, but they hadn't known that then.
Of course, then they'd been robbed.
This is probably worse.
“Why can't we ever just get shit-faced in peace?” she wonders into Caleb's shoulder, smelling ale and smoke and the familiar musky scent of his unwashed coat. She knows exactly where it's been and probably wouldn't normally smush her face into it, but, hey. Circumstances. “Why do we always gotta – gotta fucking ruin everything?”
Caduceus palms the back of her head in comfort as they straggle onwards.
“You were just trying to do the right thing,” he says. “Not your fault it escalated.” He pauses. “Well. Maybe a little bit your fault.”
Which – yeah. Sounds like her. But before she can spit out something rude and probably a bit uncalled for in reply, the crowd comes to a raucous halt, crunched together, the torchlights encircling them bleeding together into a flood of light and smoke and sound. They're being funnelled into the drunk tank, then. Great. Fucking awesome. And still no sign of the others.
“Looks like this is our stop,” she mutters grimly, elbowing a guy in the gut when he edges just a hair too close. There's too many fucking people, unruly, pissed off, squished together. She watches a straggler, an escapee, get mowed the fuck down by a crownsguard at the edge of the crowd, blood from their nose spilling onto the packed dirt. No bullshit tolerance, then. It's that sort of town. “Think we might be trapped, big guy.”
“I figured,” Caduceus says, a bit morosely. He looks intently down at Frumpkin, still winding his way in and around their feet. “You don't usually listen to me, but this is important. Will you go find the others? Let them know we're okay? Or,” his mouth tightens. “If they're not okay, come back and let us know.”
Frumpkin seems to take a moment to think, winds his way through Caleb's legs with what looks like reluctance, but might just be her projecting.
“C'mon, man,” she says. “You know he'd want you to.”
She's met by what has to be a glare, baleful and feline in its intensity, but Frumpkin eventually gives one last headbutt to Caleb's shin and takes off into the crowd, disappearing between people's legs until she can't see him anymore.
“I think they got out okay,” she says, flashing Caduceus a glimpse of the candy in her palm. “But I only saw Jester.”
“We were all separated in the riot,” he confirms, as they're pushed along, crammed inelegantly into the prison's receiving area. It smells like piss and ale and gross fucking people and if it would bring her any relief she would cringe into Caleb's shoulder, but frankly he smells just as bad.
“Shit,” she mutters, watching, keeping out of the grasp of wandering hands and stomp-happy guards. “Yep. We're getting funnelled into the drunk tank.”
“They keep their prisoners in tanks?”
“No,” she says, keeping a tight grip on Caleb, swaying absently under Caduceus' grasp. “They can't deal with all of us at once so they'll just throw us in cells until the morning. It's not the worst. Just stick together.”
She watches Caduceus take stock of their surroundings warily, the lights around them blurry, the smell and noise overwhelming. For a moment she's almost glad that Caleb's out to lunch. She's not sure he'd fare much better here otherwise.
“No one here likes us very much,” Caduceus mutters down to her, pressing closer, sounding worried. So far his intimidating height and – well, and probably just the general weirdness of him, if she's being honest, have stopped anyone from harassing them, but their luck won't hold forever. They did play some kind of role in the whole thing, even if she can't remember it.
“Just try to be unassuming,” she hisses.
“Unassuming,” he whispers back, nodding tentatively. It's a tall order – hah, tall. But for some reason despite his towering height and the brightness of his hair, Caduceus can blend into the shadows with the rest of them. He's a good observer, she thinks, sticking close to them as they're herded roughly down a dark, dripping corridor, lined with stone. Good with body language and shit like that. As long as he keeps his mouth shut.
For once, all three of them are on their best behaviour, and in contrast to the loud crassness of some of their other rioting companions, who are far less fucking circumspect about their current situation and really not that pleased to be in it, they get processed with less scrutiny than she expects. Crammed into a leaking, damp cell barely large enough for one of them, but it could be worse.
The guards are preoccupied, absent, probably overworked, and as a result they're basically dropped off and forgotten. Left to sleep it off 'til morning.
She's slept in worse places, she thinks, leaning back into the cragged wall, head throbbing.
“This is very. Damp.” Caduceus settles Caleb against the wall, snags his armpits again when his knees buckle immediately. Lowers him to the ground, ears drooping. Lately, he's looked miserable more often than not, and she hates that she's come to expect it. It's not that he hasn't had it as hard as the rest of them – that's not it at all, but he's still – sheltered in a way that she doesn't know how to deal with. Every time he gets exposed to another aspect of life's general shittiness, she feels like an asshole.
Especially when he's done it to – to fucking protect them or some shit. Which is ridiculous. She and Caleb are scrappy as hell.
“Are you sure you two are up for this?” he asks, stepping back from Caleb's hunched figure. Still frustratingly sober, and maybe the problem here is just a lack of perspective. She's pissed off, but it's muted, dulled. Fizzy. Harder to hold onto shit when your thoughts are swimming in brain soup.
“We can handle it,” she insists, taking in a slow, deep breath and doing her fucking best not to puke all over Caduceus’s boots.
His expression doesn't change but he looks down at Caleb, hunched and shaking on the ground, reeking of smoke and liquor. Back to her, reeking of the same, fingers dug white-knuckled into the stone of the wall so that she doesn't keel forward.
Which – okay. Fair.
“Look,” she says, fuzzily, giving up finally and sliding inelegantly down the wall until she's sprawled on her ass next to Caleb, the hay-strewn stone cold against her palms. He's still out of it, and she should do something, say something, he trusts her and she nearly left him in the dirt like an asshole, but she can't quite – can't quite get her head right. “There's no easy way out of this right now. The rest of 'em, they've – they've been in enough cages. This is my fault. So we can handle it for one night. Right?”
She can't tell if the miserable bent of his mouth is due to the realization that they'll be spending the night or the realization of exactly what she's talking about, but he crouches down next to the two of them anyway.
“You're right,” he says, gravelly, solemn, and reaches out a hand to her forehead. It's warm against her skin, but the flush of healing magic she can feel flood through his touch is a little – tepid. She bats his hand away, frowning.
“Hmm,” he rumbles, frowning down at the hand. “Nearly out of spells.”
Fuck. Right. It figures.
“S'okay,” she says, muggy visions of punching a troll in the face surfacing as she leans back against the wall. That must have been this morning, but it feels like a lifetime ago. “For a better cause than this.” She assumes, at least. Everything from before about twenty minutes ago that happened today is loose in her head, jumbled together and hard to reach. She'll put it together eventually. Maybe.
“I came after you to help,” he says, still frowning.
“We don't need help,” she says before she can stop herself, and yeah, fuck, those eyes are worse than Jester's. Worse than Jester's godsdamned puppy. She puts a hand up, haphazard. “Not – I don't mean it like that.” Fuck. Fuck, she's bad at this. They're wading into territory she usually likes to pretend doesn't exist. This shit is implicit, is the thing. It doesn't need to be talked about.
She slides further down the wall, dragging a hand down her bloodied face.
“You're our friend, 'Deuce,” she says finally, from behind the shield of her own palm. “You don't gotta look after us all the time. 'S not your job.”
He looks at her intently, dim torchlight setting the edges of him vibrant. “I think it's probably somebody's job.”
“Nope. Not how friendship works.”
“I'm not well-versed in friendship, but I'm pretty sure that's exactly how it works.”
She shakes her head and regrets it. Takes another moment to herself to keep from puking down the front of her shirt. “Nope,” she says through gritted teeth. “Besides, we're fine. We would've been okay. This shit happens – this shit happens all the time.” Had happened all the time, is what she'd like to be able to say. Had. But somehow she always ends up back here, shit-faced and bruised and mired in muck, exactly the same.
As if on queue, Caleb's teeth start to chatter more loudly, a jarring reminder that he's only half with them. He's been shaking the whole time, but she thinks before his jaw was probably clenched too tightly for them to make a sound. His breaths are an audible wheeze, too fast, too sharp. Shit.
“Just – ” She holds a finger up before Caduceus can say anything, glaring. Feeling his gaze pass over her like judgement. “Just – I know, okay?” Caleb's hands are boney and trembling in her own, cold and dirt-covered. Scratched, at the knuckles. What the hell had they been up to, before this? “We fuck everything up. It's just what we do. You don't have to – you don't have to – ”
She doesn't even know what she's saying. The words fall haphazard and frantic from her lips, tasting sour.
“Here,” she breathes, avoiding Caduceus' gaze, fumbling in her belt for her sack of ball bearings. She scoops a few up in her hands, small and cold, and dumps them into Caleb's palm. “Count these.”
He won't look her in the eye, but he doesn't pull away. Lets her grip his hands in her own, pressed up against the wall like he wants it to swallow him. Breaths hissing out of his chest, high-pitched.
“Come on,” she says, too wasted to sound desperate. Her voice just sounds hollow to her own ears, muffled by the thick, insulated stone, the moans of their neighbours in the next cell over. “There's – there's at least five.” There are way more than five. “But we're not ever gonna know for sure unless you count 'em all.” Her shoulders relax as his eyes come into focus. Slowly, but surely. He always comes back.
“Eins.” The ball bearing catches the light, glinting silver as it drops into his other palm. “Zwei.” Barely a whisper, but she'll take it.
“Yeah,” she says, breath catching. She claps him gently on the shoulder and leans back against the wall. “There you go.” Sighs, deep. Flicks her eyes away from Caduceus' still penetrating gaze.
“You remember how all this started?” he asks, over the quiet mumbling of Caleb painstakingly counting out ball bearings.
“No, Caduceus,” she says stiffly, hands limp in her lap, eyes fixed to the left corner of the cell. “I don't remember fucking anything, I'm – ” Her head pounds hotly behind her eyes, cottony and dry. She swallows. “Less drunk than I was.” Unfortunately.
His boots scrape across the ground as he shifts closer, a lithe but intimidating silhouette. “Some of the other patrons of that bar we were at didn't take too kindly to Fjord and Jester. Or Nott and myself, for that matter. You took exception to that.”
“And started a riot and burnt half the town down in the process,” she mumbles.
“Doing the right thing gets a little messy sometimes,” Caduceus says, gravelly, contemplative. “Doesn't mean it's not worth doing.” When she looks up, he gives her an odd little half-smile. “I've been learning that myself, lately.”
He's right, is the thing. In her heart she knows it. They all know it, better than they know anything. It's just –
“Wouldn't mind leaving a place better than we found it, for once,” she says. “That's all.”
“This place was a racist shit-hole, though.” Caleb's voice wavers through the dimness, hand clamping down briefly on her shoulder in what she knows is gratitude. He clears his throat. “So, you know. Better than we found it is relative. There are thirty-seven of these.” He drops the ball-bearings back into her hand with shaky fingers, frowning, grey and half-hungover already, just like her. “Did I, ah. Did I start that fire?”
She shakes her head. Regrets it. Again. “Nah. I don't think so, anyway. Probably some dumbass with a torch and butterfingers. You just got caught in the middle of it.” Sorry, she doesn't say. He wouldn't blame her, and that's all the worse.
Some – not all, never all – of the tension leaks out of his spine. “Ah,” he sighs leaning back against the wall, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Our nights out never end well.”
“That's a fucking understatement. Everywhere we go, it's a disaster.” She swallows back the vitriol seeping into her voice. “But, uh. Thanks, Caduceus. For what you said. And for – making sure we don't die.”
“If you did, I'd make sure you were buried properly,” he says, so kindly that she can't even bring herself to point out the fucking creepiness of the sentiment. “Are you alright, Mister Caleb?”
“Ja, ja, don't worry about me,” Caleb mutters, eyes already heavy-lidded. He's slid a little lopsided against the wall, into her shoulder. Still pretty sloshed, then, underneath the trauma. Sober Caleb would rather gouge his own eyes out than engage in actual human contact with anyone but Nott. “Mister Clay. This is not the first time I have been traumatized and thrown in jail for the night.” He holds a finger up, as if to make a point, but after a moment he gives up, hand dropping, eyes slipping closed. His breaths even out in a matter of seconds. Out like a dancing light.
“Huh,” Caduceus says, eyebrows raising. “Resilient.”
“He's full of surprises.” But the rest aren't for her to tell. She yawns, stretching a hand above her head. “Think the others are gonna find us?”
He shrugs. “Even if Frumpkin doesn't catch them, it's not a far guess.” His face has lightened a bit, since they were thrown down here. She'd like to be able to point out exactly why, but he's still mostly a mystery. A friendly fucking mystery. “And we'll have more spells in the morning. I bet we'll be okay.”
“Optimism's a good look for you,” she tells him through another yawn. “Y'should try it more often.”
“Someone around here ought to.”
“Someone used to,” she says, half-asleep. Caleb's hair is full of ash and blood and actual fucking dirt, because he's a disgusting mess and also because she'd let him get trampled by a riot, but unfortunately that's not gonna stop her from using his head as a pillow. Circumstances.
“Huh,” is the last thing she hears, eyes slipping closed as a dimly lit halo of pink hair edges nearer. She feels a cloak being wrapped around the both of them, mossy-smelling and soft. “Yeah.” A warm, contemplative pause. “That makes sense.”
Morning brings tepid sunlight trickling in through the prison's narrow windows, a cold sweat coating the back of her neck, and a sour-faced guard that comes to collect them, keys dangling tantalizing from his gloved fingers.
“You made bail,” he tells them, face pinched with displeasure. “But don't leave town.”
Beau stretches her arms above her head and straightens out her neck, poorly rested and desperately hungover.
“Y'know,” she mutters thoughtfully into Caleb's ear, in surprisingly good spirits. Hah. Spirits. “We didn't get robbed this time.”
“The bar is so low,” he laments, wincing at the sound of his own voice. “Besides, with the amount of bail I can't believe they actually paid, we might as well have been.”
“Yeah, I was sort of expecting more of a thrilling escape sequence. Like, a real break-out, you know? Would've been sick.”
“This is far simpler, though.”
“You say that like we've ever done anything simple in our entire lives.”
“This is also true.”
Caduceus looms, looking hunched and cold.
“Can we please leave now?” he asks, ears starting to droop again. He glances towards the pinched-looking guard, who's starting to develop a twitch in his left cheek. “Before we overstay our welcome.”
Yeah. Time to go. Thank fuck, she doesn't say.
“You owe me seven-hundred gold,” Jester says, delighted, loud, as they're lead into the prison's receiving area, the rest of their scraggly, motley crew waiting in a patch of sun, looking worn out and ragged. Nott rushes past her as they enter and barrels her way into Caleb's arms, Frumpkin at her heels. Daylight is brighter out here, less-washed out, and it would be real fucking nice if she didn't feel sort of like her eyeballs were melting.
The guard leaves them with a final stink-eye and she places the wrapped candy back in Jester's hand, squinting back at her through the pounding of her skull. “Seven-hundred? Fucking extortion.”
“Yeah, it's super fucked up,” she agrees, slinging a well-built arm around her shoulders. “We should really get out of this stupid place.”
Which – huh.
“Because it's really dumb?” she ventures. “Or because we burnt half of it to the ground and pissed off literally everybody here, authority figures and the local criminal element included?” None of them have bothered disguising themselves and that's either very good or very, very bad.
“All of the above,” Fjord says tiredly, clapping Caduceus on the shoulder in belated thanks. “We may have been a little...overzealous in our attempts to track all of y'all down last night.”
“We cannot take you anywhere,” Caleb tuts, deadpan, still reeking of ash and ale.
“Uh huh.” Fjord pinches the bridge of his nose, and she can't tell if it's fond or exasperated. “Okay. C'mon. Glad you're all alive. Let's go.”
“Missed you too,” Beau calls at his back, sing-song. Grinning ear to ear. She looks up to Caduceus. “He missed us.” He nods back at her, solemnly.
“You know,” Nott points out as they follow, legs swinging happily from her perch on Caleb's shoulders, “we only really burnt half the town down. And you punched a racist in the face. And we took care of their troll problem. They should be thanking us.”
“I didn't start that fire,” Caleb protests, hands steady on Nott's knees to hold her in place. “I don't think.”
“Yeah, y'know, I really think we could make the argument that our actual involvement in the destruction of half the town was pretty minimal.” She takes a haphazard swig from the wine pouch at her side, to take the edge off the hangover. It only sort of works. “We were just. Y'know. There.”
“Sometimes you have to leave a bit of chaos to do a bit of good,” Caduceus says, echoing himself, taking the edge off her pounding head with a palm to her skull. “That being said, this sure does seem to happen to you all a lot. Have you ever considered that maybe there's some kind of causal relationship going on here? A family curse?”
“Nah,” she says, elbowing him fondly. “We're just bad at taking our own advice.”
Leave it better than you found it. She's been trying. Trying and failing, for what feels like weeks, months. But maybe Caleb's right. Maybe it's all relative.
Maybe it's the trying that counts.
“Ah,” Caleb sighs fondly as they head for the road out of town, early morning sunlight harsh on their tender eyes. “I am never going bar-hopping with you arselochs ever again.”
“Y'know, you say that every time,” she says, eyes catching a flock of ravens startled out of a tree as they approach their cart. Feeling – watched, but not in a bad way. Safe. “You better be careful.” She takes another careful swig of the wine, but it's for a different reason this time. Throws a sloppy, two-fingered salute at the watching sky.
“One day we might actually start believing you.”