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breathing's just a rhythm

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Caduceus wakes, and he listens.

It’s pitch black below deck, closed up tight against the water and the sun both. Without the sun to judge by, it could equally be midmorning or midnight, and he’s quite capable of sleeping through to either. A warm haze still clings to him, and there’s no divine spark under his skin signaling that his magic has returned after a long rest, so Caduceus concludes that something else must have roused him.

He listens. The creak of the ship. The splash of the wake. Footsteps somewhere above, soft conversation somewhere beyond the door. One set of breaths, too uneven for sleep, and the quiet rustling of restless shifting.

There had been two sets of breaths in addition to his own when he’d gone to bed.

Caduceus leans up on an elbow to peer over at the other cot in the cabin. He can’t see anything, not even a different shade of shadow, but the rustling abruptly stops. The breathing speeds up just a fraction, fast and shallow and laced with tension. “Nott?”

“Sorry,” Nott whispers back, high pitched and just a shade too loud. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I’ll keep still.” Concentrated rustling, faster and louder, and then it stops again. Caduceus can hear in Nott’s breathing that she’s holding herself still.

“That’s alright,” Caduceus says. His voice rumbles low in his chest, just enough to drift across the cabin to Nott. He lies back down and lets his eyes drift closed, one ear cocked toward her. “Can’t sleep?”

There’s a long pause, and then Nott makes a noncommittal noise. She must have shrugged first, her response lost to the dark. Caduceus considers reaching for the lantern on the floor between the cots so she doesn’t have to speak if she doesn’t want to, but she’s always seemed more comfortable in the shadows. Caduceus will just have to keep listening for the things she doesn’t say.

“Would you like something to help you sleep?” Caduceus asks. He doesn’t have the spells to hand, but he does have a nice selection of blossoms that the Wildmother has graced him with, a number of which can be very soothing. “I can make you a nice cup of tea that will put you right out.”

Another long pause - Nott shaking her head. “No thanks,” she says. Her fingernails tap a quick rhythm on metal and there’s a slosh of liquid and a swallow. “I’ll be okay once Caleb comes back.”

There’s no panic in her voice, no imminent threat - whatever is bothering her isn’t concern for Caleb’s safety. (Not his immediate safety at any rate; there’s always concern in Nott’s voice where Caleb is concerned.)

“Would you like me to check up on him?” Caduceus offers. He doubts anything but Caleb’s presence will soothe Nott, but another conversation with the reticent wizard would be far from unwelcome. Caduceus doesn’t need to know the specifics of what weighs so heavily on his friend, but guilt and determination both are wrapped around him like armor, and Caduceus can’t help his curiosity.

“I already did,” Nott says, and there’s a tinge of guilt in her tone now. Caleb no doubt assured her he was fine and not to worry. “He just needed some fresh air I guess. As fresh as air that stinks like saltwater can be anyway.” Caduceus can’t see the little wrinkle in her nose, but he can hear it in her voice. Despite his efforts to make his peace with the sea, he agrees with the sentiment. “He’ll be back.”

Caduceus thinks it over, fits together all the little pieces of Nott he knows. They’re hardly inseparable, Caleb and Nott, but they’re both far calmer when they’re together. Nott had taken a day watch aboard the Mistake with Caduceus, but she tends to take night watches with Caleb and - oh, yes, Caduceus thinks he’s found the problem. He leans up on his elbow again, peering into the dark toward where he knows Nott is and beckons her over. “C’mere.”

He can practically see her narrow her eyes suspiciously, always on guard. “Why?”

Caduceus swallows around a dull ache in the back of his throat, the sense memory of familiar fur. “Goblins aren’t the only folk who sleep in piles.” Listening to someone else breathe on the other side of the room is a poor substitute for being able to feel the rise and fall of their chest curled in close, but it’s been years by now. Caduceus is almost accustomed to sleeping alone.

He’s become accustomed to a lot of things recently.

Nott doesn’t answer for a long moment, and the ship speaks in her stead, creaking and settling. When they’d first arrived in Nicodranas and seen the ocean for the first time, Jester had shown him how to hear the sea in a conch shell. It sounds different just beyond the wall of the ship, so much more full of life than a long-vacated shell.

Finally, the other cot creaks and footsteps pad across the floor. There’s no light for Nott’s eyes to catch and no difference in the shadows, but the sound creeps nearer until Nott is close enough that Caduceus can feel her body heat.

A tiny voice asks, “Are you sure?”

Caduceus nods. “I’m sure.”

A brief hesitation and then: “Because the beds are human sized, and you’re much larger than a human, so there already isn’t enough room and -”

She’ll continue to babble if Caduceus lets her and talk herself out of it, so he slips an arm around her waist and scoops her onto the bed. The motion is well-telegraphed, his grip light enough that she could easily escape if she wanted. He sets her down in the scant space behind his bent knees, the same place he’s seen her curl up beside Caleb, and says, “See? Plenty of room.”

Nott huffs out a breath in lieu of answering and wriggles around to situate herself. She settles with her head resting on Caduceus’s thigh, but she’s holding herself still, like she’s afraid to disturb him. “I’ll try not to move too much.”

Caduceus is used to restless bedmates. One of his sisters moved so much in her sleep that she frequently ended up on the other side of the nest from where she’d started. “I won’t mind if you do,” he says, a fond smile quirking the corner of his mouth.

When she still hasn’t settled a few moments later, Caduceus reaches down to touch her back. Several of his brothers had needed a comforting hand to fall asleep, and Caduceus is happy to oblige. His hand nearly spans the length of Nott’s spine and her clothes are rough under his palm, but some of the tension starts to run out of her shoulders. He gives her another moment to adjust and then begins to stroke her back, idly counting the knobs of her spine.

The small, uncomfortable bed is a long way from the nest of blankets back at his temple, and the ship sways in a way the forest did not. The salt tang in the air is a sharp contrast to the familiar earthy scent of the cemetery. None of this feels like home, but for once, Caduceus doesn’t feel quite so alone.

Slowly, Nott relaxes against him. Her breaths even out and deepen into sleep, so Caduceus starts to withdraw his hand. She makes a little noise at the loss, like a cat’s chirp, so he resumes the motion, slowing as he drifts off as well.

She’s gone when he wakes again. The cabin is filled with a soft glow, and Caduceus turns his head to see Caleb buried in a book, one of his dancing lights hovering over the pages. Nott is once more sprawled across his legs, snoring loudly enough to wake the crew on the next ship over.

Caduceus lets sleep draw him down again, heart aching as his narrow cot feels much too empty.