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burn up the courage

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“Um… Mr. Clay?”

The sun is high overhead, endless blue in every direction, and Caduceus is leaning over the side of the ship. His feet are hooked into the drainage ports, but he’s tall enough that he can bend at the waist, all but disappearing over the edge. For a moment, Nott considers panicking, a little shiver in her stomach that threatens to spread. The ship is moving too fast; if he tips over the railing, they won’t be able to retrieve him, and they really do need a second cleric, for her boy’s sake if anything. Instead, she opts for a hefty swig from her flask and a sharp tug to Caduceus’s sleeve.

Caduceus unbends himself from the railing, and his long pink hair nearly catches Nott in the face. She skitters back a step as he rights himself, and then his gaze finally lands on her. “Oh, hello, Miss Nott.” It comes out a little nasally, no doubt from being nearly upside down.

Nott peers up at him, something between curiosity and suspicion raising her brow. “What are you doing?”

“I’m talking to the fish,” Caduceus says, as if this should be obvious.

That actually does make sense for Caduceus, Nott decides. She glances out at the water rushing past the ship. She can’t see any fish, but she’s not about to take a closer look. “They must be very deep conversations,” she says, turning a wide grin up to Caduceus.

He doesn’t laugh.

“You know, like the deep sea?” she tries.

“Oh,” says Caduceus. His expression doesn’t change. “That’s very funny.”

Nott just blinks at him for a long moment, unable to determine if he is humoring her (sweet, but unnecessary) or just doesn’t get it (entirely possible; for all his insightfulness, he’s not terribly clever). “Aren’t you afraid you’ll fall in?”

Caduceus shrugs. “Not particularly.”

Nott gives another wary glance at the expanse of sea. “I would be.”

“Are you?”

“Yes.” She swings her gaze back to Caduceus so his tall, colorful form can distract her from the water all around them. “The ship would pull away too fast, and I’d be stranded in the ocean until I drowned and I wouldn’t be there for Caleb and -” The shiver in her stomach starts a tremor in her hands that she covers with a swig from her flask. The mystery liquor burns, but it gives her something else to focus on.

When she looks up again, Caduceus is peering at her with the calm, knowing expression Nott has come to recognize as his mind reading look. (It’s not actually mind reading, of course. At least she’s pretty sure. If Caduceus really could read minds, then he’d already know about Caleb and fire and he might not understand how it wasn’t Caleb’s fault, and then she and Caleb would have to leave again, and she loves these people so much, all of them, and -)

Nott takes another drink.

“You seem a bit anxious,” Caduceus says, which is very possibly the greatest understatement Nott’s ever heard in her life. “I have something that might help if you’d like.”

“Like a tea?” She doesn’t mind tea, but she usually prefers it with a little whiskey.

“Not quite,” Caduceus says, “though I do also have that if you’re interested. This is magic. A spell I know called Calm Emotions. It only lasts for a minute, but sometimes that’s all you need - just enough to reset things a little bit.”

Nott wiggles her flask at him. “I’ve got that right here, and it lasts way longer than a minute.” She takes another drink because it’s already in her hand, and things finally start to go a bit fuzzy, like as long as she doesn’t look at it, she can pretend the ocean’s not there.

Caduceus wrinkles up his nose and leans back from the flask. “Are you sure? It really can help.” She nods, and then Caduceus is studying her again, something unreadable in his eyes. Nott’s shoulders draw up automatically, her first instinct to hide, but she makes herself relax. The liquor makes it easier.

“Well, if you change your mind,” Caduceus says, “you know where to find me.”

--

Nott is dreaming.

She knows she’s dreaming because the battle in the sluice weave is long over, and they’re somewhere else now, far from Nicodranas, but here she is, wading through cold seawater and watching Caleb drown. He’s facedown in the water, far too still, and she casts mage hand to send a potion of healing into his mouth. Any moment now, he’ll sit up, draw a breath, give her a tired thumbs up, anything to let her know he’s alive.

He doesn’t move.

She runs to him, yanks at his shoulder to roll him out of the water, heedless of the battle ensuing around her. Caleb flops unmoving onto his back, and he’s still not breathing, too still and gone an ashy grey color. She pats down his pockets frantically for his own healing potion, for the necklace that’s supposed to keep him alive, and there’s nothing, just molasses and silver thread, soot and salt and waterlogged incense, all of it useless.

She looks up, opens her mouth to scream for help, and a water elemental is before her, Jester and Caduceus both caught in the swirling mass. They float limply, limbs battered by the rushing currents, too pale, too still. Beyond the elemental, the Marid aims a torrent of water at Beau and Yasha, knocking them both to the ground. They don’t get back up. Somewhere behind Nott, there’s a guttural cry, and she twists around to watch as Fjord drops to his knees, blood blossoming around the blade in his chest. The sword is pulled swiftly backwards, and Fjord slumps to the ground and does not rise.

The creatures all converge on her, and suddenly, Nott is choking on seawater as the Marid aims a jet at her and the elemental moves to sweep her into its form. This isn’t how it happened - they survived; they all survived, and Nott wasn’t even injured - but Nott still can’t breathe, can only cough through the burn of salt water in her nose and her lungs and -

Nott wakes up.

It takes a moment to reorient herself in the dark. She’s sprawled across Caleb’s legs in a cot that’s only barely big enough for the both of them, and the rest of her friends and the crew not on watch are asleep around her. The ship is rocking faintly as it cuts through the sea, and Nott swallows down a wave of nausea, but they’re all safe. Safe and dry and alive. She can hear Caleb breathing, slow and deep.

Even as the dream fades, the fear remains, and Nott still can’t breathe or maybe she’s breathing too much. She leans over the side of the cot to reach for her flask with trembling hands.

Caleb’s legs shift slightly beneath her, and then a voice rough with sleep says, “Nott?” She looks up to see Caleb leaning up on one elbow and squinting at her even though she knows he can’t see her.

“I’m okay,” Nott says, and her voice shakes in time with her hands. She clears her throat and tries again as she swipes her flask from the floor. “I’m okay, go back to sleep.”

“Did you have a nightmare?” He sits up, careful not to dislodge her, and tugs the flask from her grip. His steady hands make quick work of the top, and then he hands it back.

She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t have to - this isn’t the first time they’ve had this particular middle of the night interaction, even if it is usually the other way around.

“I’m okay,” Nott says instead, even though she can still taste salt water in the back of her throat. Adrenaline jangles through her veins, and lying still and trying to sleep is suddenly intolerable. She climbs out of the cot and resettles the light blanket over Caleb. “I’ll be back in a little bit. Go back to sleep.”

“Ja, okay,” Caleb murmurs, and Nott can hear in his voice that he’s already most of the way there. She leans down to press a kiss against his forehead and then pulls her cloak more tightly around her, moving nimbly through the dark toward the stairs.

She makes her way up to the main deck. A couple of their hired crew are on watch, but Nott ignores them. Her fingers are twitchy, unsteady, and the tremor crawls up her arms and fans out across her body. What she really needs is something to steal, but she’s already been through everything on the ship twice over.

The sliver of moon overhead doesn’t offer much light, but Nott can still see the white crests of the waves churning in every direction around the ship through the gaps in the railing that runs around the deck. The wind creaks through the sales and kicks up a fine mist, cold and wet and stinking of salt, and Nott scarpers up the rigging and into the crow’s nest to escape it.

From up here, the water seems to go on forever. She can no longer see the distant lights of Nicodranas, just miles and miles of roiling ocean, endless, and for a moment Nott is choking on it. The rocking speeds up, no longer a gentle lull, but an angry pitch that threatens to tear her out of the crow’s nest and toss her into the endless sea.

Nott fumbles with her flask, manages to get it open, and gulps down the liquor, familiar burn trailing down into her stomach. After a moment, the ship seems to settle, and Nott can breathe again. She can still feel the ocean pressing in on all sides, can still feel the movement of the ship, but it’s a little less urgent, like knowing there’s still 23 minutes until the next guard rotation.

She leans out over the edge of the crow’s nest to watch the two humans below. They’re not bad guys, their hired crew. Maybe a bit grumpy, but most of them don’t look at her any differently than the rest of the Nein. It’s more than Nott expects, more than she deserves, probably. She forgets sometimes, that she’s not like the others. She takes for granted that they don’t see her as a monster (even though she is, teeth like knives and nightmare eyes), mistakenly thinks others might accept her too.

She fiddles with the ends of the bandages wrapped around her arms. It’s too dark to see the color, but it’s burned behind Nott’s eyelids like a brand, green, green, green, sickly and ashen, so unlike Fjord’s handsome shade.

The hired crew isn’t family. Nott knows she won’t be able to settle down until she gives into the itch, and given the choice between getting caught on the wrong end of Beau’s stunning strike and stretching the definition of ‘grumpy’, Nott will gladly take the latter.

It’s not like they need all their buttons anyway.

The two humans are just in range of her magic, and Nott casts an invisible mage hand near the unused collar button of one of them. She times the pull with a particularly strong gust of wind and then draws the hand back up to her.

The hand drops her prize into her outstretched palm. It’s a simple affair, rough hewn and sturdy, and Nott turns it over in her hand a few times to inspect it before tucking it away with the rest of her collection. She turns her attention to the other deckhand and recasts the cantrip down below. She’s just waiting for another gust of wind when the sound of heavy footfalls intrudes from below deck.

The spell fizzles out without her concentration, and Nott instead watches as Caduceus comes up the stairs, blanket wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He exchanges a nod with the deckhands and casts an idle look around the ship. Firbolgs can’t see in the dark, not the way goblins can, but the just slightly longer than passing glance he gives the crow’s nest makes Nott think maybe he’s spotted her up there anyway.

The deckhands turn back to their watch and their conversation at the bow of the ship, and Caduceus leans against the railing, keeping his distance. Nott watches him for a little while, the itchy need to steal briefly subsumed by curiosity. He just stands there for several long moments, gazing out at the water, but Nott can’t see his face.

Silently, Nott slips out of the crow’s nest and down the rigging so she can get a closer look. She creeps up beside Caduceus, keeping to the shadows. She manages to get within ten feet of him, fairly certain she’s escaped his notice, when he says in a soft voice that only just carries, “Trouble sleeping, Nott the Brave?” He doesn’t move, just keeps staring out at the ocean, a wrinkle in his forehead belying his calm, even tone.

“Just thought I’d go for a stroll,” Nott says casually as she closes the distance between them. It’s a little bit too high to actually be casual, a bit too strained, so she pulls out her flask for another drink.

“Not quite enough room for a good, long walk,” Caduceus says. He does look at her now, a wry half-smile on his mouth. “Though I suppose you might have more success with it than I.”

Nott hums noncommittally. The ship is rather unpleasantly confined, people crammed below decks like sardines, but she’s used to close quarters. Goblin clans sleep all piled up on one another, after all - it’s a little bit too much for Nott, but she likes knowing someone she trusts is close at hand.

Caduceus turns back to the ocean, and they lapse into silence. It’s not awkward, not exactly, but Nott still feels like she should say something. Caduceus has a good four feet on her in size and had spent who knew how many years living by himself out in the woods besides; the ship probably feels extra claustrophobic to him.

She toys with her flask and considers going back to bed. She’s got enough alcohol in her now to make everything sort of pleasantly fuzzy, and the adrenaline from the nightmare is receding, leaving her heavy-limbed with exhaustion.

“Do you ever regret it?”

Nott’s head jerks up, and Caduceus makes an expansive gesture, eyes still fixed on the sea. “All of… this?”

No, Nott thinks but does not say, remembering the final swing of Fjord’s falchion in the sluice weave, the impact of Jester’s axe in a fleeing foe. Nott’s done her fair share of things she’s not proud of, things she wishes she could take back, has seen her friends do the same, but despite all that, she knows she’s better for having met them.

“Whatever comes next has to be better than what came before,” Nott says. “It has to.”

“What if it’s not?”

Nott tilts her head up to study Caduceus’s expression. She’s not good with faces that aren’t goblin (and she’s not especially good with goblin faces either, but goblins always want the same thing). The furrow in his forehead deepens as he draws his brows together, and she can just pick out his breathing over the rush of water and wind, fast and shallow and familiar.

“I think...” Nott says slowly, feeling out the words as she goes, “I think maybe it’s okay to be scared sometimes, Mr. Clay.” She twists her fingers together and then fiddles with the ends of her bandages, unwrapping and rewrapping her wrists. “It doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice.”

Caduceus glances down at her, the wrinkle in his forehead abruptly smooth. “You continue to surprise me, Miss Nott,” he says, and then he turns back to the sea, letting silence linger between them again. After several long minutes, he lets out a long, slow breath and says, “How do you stand it?”

“Being scared?” Caduceus nods, and Nott shrugs. “I don’t know. You just do I guess.” She holds up her flask. “Drinking helps.”

“Does it?”

The automatic yes is on the tip of her tongue, but she holds in back in favor of something a little closer to the truth. “It’s hard to be Nott the Brave when I’m sober,” she says, and then takes another swig while she’s got it out. She offers it to Caduceus, but Caduceus shakes his head sharply, jerking away from it.

“But it’s not -” Caduceus starts and then breaks off, searching for the words. His usual veneer of patient calm has all but disappeared, and he reaches up to tug on his ears, as agitated as Nott’s ever seen him. “It’s not real,” he says finally. “Bravery is supposed to come from you, isn’t it? Not from a bottle or…”

“Or a spell?” Nott reaches up to squeeze Caduceus’s hand and offers him a reassuring smile - or an attempt at one, anyway. “I’m scared pretty much all the time,” she says. “I don’t know how not to be scared. But protecting my friends is more important, so I do what I have to.”

Caduceus stares down at their hands on the railing, dirty green on grey. In a soft voice, far too small for the large firbolg, he says, “I think I’m scared too.”

“Well,” Nott says reasonably, “we’re constantly surrounded by stuff that wants to kill us, most of the people we meet want to kill us, and whatever Fjord’s got in his stomach probably wants to kill us too. You should be scared! You’d have to be crazy not to be scared!” Caduceus does not look especially reassured by this, but there’s no good way to soften it. “The world is a scary place, Mr. Clay.”

Caduceus's gaze goes distant again, but he turns his hand over to grip hers. His large palm nearly swallows Nott’s small hand, and all she can see is his own hand and her off-white bandages. “It’s not all scary,” Caduceus says, and Nott can’t quite decipher if it’s a question or a statement.

She thinks of dirty prison cells, of red hair and the crackle of magic, of paint and pamphlets and a pile of friends crowded into a tiny bubble, finally reunited.

“No,” Nott says. “Not all of it.”