Soft humming from down the hall. Yasha, in her room, running through a handful of notes. The same handful she’s been running through, with very little variation, for the past three days.
Nott closes her eyes and tries not to scowl.
The humming gets louder, then stops.
Nott’s shoulders slump.
The humming begins anew, overtop the unmistakeable sounds of a massive greatsword being sharpened. Again.
Nott’s shoulders wind back tight.
The humming turns to quiet song, below the metallic scaping—but above the half-muffled thud of Jester’s footsteps, far off in the house, and the rumble of Caduceus’s voice filtering in from the garden, through the open window, as he talks to the plants. Mingles with the drone of a fly in the next room.
Nott clicks her teeth together, inhales sharply through them, and contemplates murder. An arrow to the ribs, a shortsword to the leg, horror-sharp goblin-claws to the face. Or poison. She could do poison. Or just an awful lot of screeching. Anything to make Yasha—to make everyone—be quiet.
It has been, to put it politely, a very long day. (Nott is well past the point of putting it politely. It has been, in fact, a very shitty day.)
Nothing’s actually happened, of course. She woke up at the usual time, with Yeza beside her, and had the usual breakfast with the usual crowd, and said hello to Caleb, and encouraged Yeza to go with him to buy spell components, because the two of them need a little bonding time, and sent Beau with them, because they’re very smart, but they need a little muscle or else they’ll both die—and sent Fjord, too, because Beau has the muscle covered but they need credibility and she’s human and round here that doesn’t get you anywhere. And she’s made a couple vials of acid, while she’s been waiting for them to get back, and she’s wandered the house, and nothing’s happened. It’s been fine, really.
She just—is shitty, herself. Skin too tight, teeth too large, hands too empty, too still, too hot. Prickly, tetchy, biting her tongue to keep from snapping at everyone for everything. (Yeza for shuffling his feet, Caduceus for his stupid gravel-voice, Jester for her swishing skirts, Beau for standing too close, Fjord for his general existence, Caleb for staring, Yasha for humming so much, the neighbors for slamming their doors, the bees in the garden for buzzing, the windows for showing the world outside so damn dark.)
She’s shitty. Woke up shitty, woke up wrong. Wrong side of the bed, or whatever the saying is.
There’s an idea, she thinks. Bed. Just fucking—go to bed, sleep, get this awful shitty day over with. Wake up—not better, but less. (Not less shitty, just—less. Less.)
But she can’t do that, of course. There’s no way she can do that, for—a whole host of reasons.
It’s midafternoon, for one thing, and dark as it may be outside she’s still far too awake for sleeping. And more importantly, for another, even if she does somehow manage to fall asleep in the middle of the godsdamn afternoon, the odds of someone seeing her—incredibly high. And if someone sees her, they’re likely to question her about it, because she doesn’t usually crash in the middle of the day. (Not unless it’s been a horribly long week, and certainly never by herself even then. And it hasn’t been a long week, and she is by herself.) And so they’ll think something is wrong, maybe, and they’ll worry.
And she can’t make them worry. She can’t. Especially since nothing is really actually wrong, and she’s just—pissed for no reason.
So—so no. Going to bed early—not an option. Not for her. Not now. Not today.
But she can’t be here, either, can’t let herself be around everyone (or anyone at all really, any people). Because she loves them, she does, really, honest, she loves them, loves them so much—but she’s done, and if they try to talk to her (or even just breathe the same air) she’ll bite them. She will.
So she has to find somewhere to hole up until it passes.
It can’t be in her room. It can’t be in the labrary. It can’t be out on the streets, in the crowds. (There’ll be people all those places, if not immediately then before too long, when they come looking for her. There’ll be people all those places, and she isn’t kidding about the biting.)
Somewhere else. Somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, dark, alone.
Nott finds a cupboard.
In the kitchen, under one of the counters, low to the ground. Unshelved, small, empty save for a few washrags (old, not particularly fancy, but clean, freshly laundered), easily pushed aside.
So she pushes them aside and climbs in and shuts the door.
And sits there, for a while.
She fumes, a little, gnashing her teeth and picking at the hem of her sleeve for something to do with her horrible buzzing fingers. (Even hours later too empty, too still, too hot.)
The hem rips, because of course it does, of course it does, it’s that kind of day. (Of course it does, of course it does, that’s all her hands are good for—ruining things.)
She scowls and tugs at her awful ears. (Rip them too, she thinks, rip them off. Rip—)
She tugs sharp enough to smart, to ache, to satisfy the horrible buzzing in her fingers that want so badly to strangle something—but not sharp enough to do any actual damage. (Of course not. Think of the mess, and in the cupboard. All these corners—a real bastard to clean properly. And think of the pain. Nott’s too much a coward to want to deal with that. And think of the others, the looks in their eyes, the worry. She can’t be the cause of that, can’t make them worry, that’s—the whole point.)
She keeps pulling, but she’s careful. (Ish.)
Slow, measured, soft, and she freezes in place, hands tight on the ends of her ears, pulse rabbit-fast in her fingertips. But, also, alongside the footsteps—a quiet sigh. (Relieved?) A soft hum. (Content?) A bit of murmuring. (Distracted? Distracted.) A smell like dry moss and dirt. (And flowers.)
Nott relaxes her grip on her ears.
He enters the kitchen and pauses a few steps in, a few feet from her cupboard.
She holds her breath. Any moment now, any moment, he’ll squat down in the funny way he does and tap gently on the door and ask her what she’s doing down here, ask if she needs something, if she wants to help with dinner, if she can please pass him one of the washrags—
But he doesn’t. He just pauses, for a beat, and keeps walking, humming a little as he goes.
She has just enough time to be annoyed by the sound, to squeeze her ears again, before he stops. Then she has a few moments to let go of them and be annoyed at (unnerved by) annoyed at the abrupt silence—
And then he starts moving around, pulling out pots and pans and utensils and spices and things one after another after another, and the clack and shuffle and scrape and tap and clink of things being pulled out of cupboards and set on counters and arranged in that precisely haphazard way he likes has her sitting on her hands so she doesn’t tug her ears and biting her lip so she doesn’t growl. (She really, really wants to, but Caduceus is like—some kind of bat. He’ll definitely hear.)
The clatter continues, for a while, intermixed with soft humming and the brush of his tail on the floor, and she sorts through her coin collection in her head to drown it out. (It doesn’t work as well as she hopes. It rarely does.)
The kitchen quiets as time goes on, as Caduceus settles into his task, settles into a familiar-unfamiliar rhythm. (Familiar because she has watched him cook before and knows the general pattern of his movements, the irregular sidestepping, the quiet pauses to stir and taste, the occasional noise when he’s distracted and forgets to duck and knocks his skull into the big pot hanging from the hook on the upper cupboards. Familiar again because she knows the feeling of it, the back-and-forth almost-dance of preparing a dozen things at once for a big family meal. And unfamiliar at the same time because the languid ease of Caduceus’s dinnertime routine is so different from her own tiptoed skittering and helter-skelter avoidance of clutter on the floor.)
Caduceus knocks into the pot again and the dull tone echoes in her stupid ears. She scowls at it and wraps her arms around her knees. Why doesn’t he just take the stupid thing down? (Why doesn’t he just leave? It was so quiet before he blundered in. It was—)
But he doesn’t take the pot down, and he doesn’t leave, either. Just keeps cooking, taking his time, as always, and only occasionally remembering to dodge the stupid cookware.
And, slowly, the kitchen fills with the smell of cooking vegetables, and spices, and—
Something else. Something familiar.
Something very, very familiar, though she’s positive Caduceus has never made it before—at least, not for the group. Definitely not for the group. She’d remember. Because it’s familiar, because she’s made it herself, many, many times—
It’s a stew. Hartling’s stew, they called it, back home. No meat, just vegetables. Potatoes. Carrots. A handful of other things. Some spices. She thinks she remembers which ones. She isn’t sure. She hasn’t made it in—
She wraps her arms tighter round her bony knees, hates that there’s no give, not an ounce of softness.
—so long. She hasn’t made it in so long.
She hasn’t made it in—
—Yeza, after a long day in the lab, eyes glassier than the bottle shards Veth’s been making into wind chimes. Lines under them thick, lines round his mouth tight. Shoulders drawn closer than the shutters, ears flat, fingers reaching for the hem of his sweater. Yeza, pausing midstep, tilting his head. Taking a deep breath. Unpausing, moving to the table, taking a seat, gaze clearer, ears a little less stiff. Yeza, pulling a bowl towards himself with the edge of a smile. Yeza—
The smell is—stronger than she remembers. (Maybe it’s the new nose.)
She breathes through her mouth instead, for a moment, but then she can taste it, and it’s too savory in a way nothing has been since she gained so many extra teeth, so she clicks her mouth shut and goes back to breathing through her nose.
It’s—fine. An annoyance, but fine.
She’ll just go outside when it’s finished. As soon as it’s finished.
(But—if this really is what she thinks it is, that won’t be for another couple of hours at least. She’s stuck here for hours with an unpredictably noisy firbolg and clattering dishes and an overpowering smell and, soon, inevitably, as the smell filters through the rest of the house—people.)
She grinds her teeth and tries not to growl.
“Oh,” Caduceus says.
She flinches, freezes.
She holds her breath. He knows, he knows, he knows—
But he just sets something down with a gentle click (his stirring spoon, she thinks), and turns around and wanders out of the kitchen, muttering, “Still need….”
She waits a few moments, but he doesn’t come back.
The longer she waits, though, she knows, the more likely it is that he will. So she turns herself invisible and slips out of the cupboard and slinks out of the kitchen and creeps into the tower, keeping one eye and both ears out for Caduceus. She presses herself flat to the wall and considers. Considers.
Then scurries up the steps and up the big tree, heading not for the little treehouse but for one of the upper branches—high enough to be away from everyone else but not so high as to be unsteady.
Caduceus will be heading back to the kitchen, once he finds whatever ingredient he’s missing, and he’ll be there for at least an hour, tending to the stew and preparing whatever weirder vegetarian sides he wants to go with it, so it should be safe up here.
No interruptions. Just the outdoors, and the fresh breeze to clear the smell from her nose, and some quiet.
She tucks herself on a high-up branch, leans back against the trunk, and sighs. Perfect.
And for a while, it is.
But then the bugs find her. Crawling ants, fluttering beetles, dozens of pesky moths, drawn to the daylight. And the bark begins to dig into her skin. And the stew-smell drifts up and over from the house (someone’s opened a window, because of course they have).
And it’s dark out, but not dark enough, with the daylight spell, and everything’s in half-grays, and it’s still too early to sleep, and it’s quiet but it’s too quiet and there’s nothing to do and the wind keeps blowing her hair in her face and—
It’s shitty and she hates it.
Hates the whole stupid day and the stupid ringing quiet and the stupid wind and her stupid hair, all in in her eyes and wrong and shitty.
She yanks on it.
Over and over, one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two. Sharper. Sharper. Stops with the one-two and just pulls, and her claws catch, because of course they do, and she rips them out and some of her hair comes with.
Green, greasy, awful.
She shakes it off of her fingers and makes her hands into knobbly fists and tries not to cry.
Cries anyway, just a little. (Angry tears, at first, raging and quiet, and then—)
She stops, eventually, and just sits there, and waits for the day to be over.
Registers vaguely that she’s dropped invisibility, somewhere along the way. Wonders if Yeza is back yet from his shopping with Beau and Caleb and Fjord yet. If maybe he’s—
She doesn’t know.
(It doesn’t matter. The others aren’t back, and she knows that, at least. They’re so loud, there’s no way she can possibly have missed their return. No, she’ll know the second it happens. And, for now—)
She almost falls off the branch. Rights herself, claws digging into the wood, and then detaches one hand long enough to wipe her wet cheeks (she’s started crying again, at some point—when?), and then squints down at Jester, a blue-gray smudge on the ground in the half-light. “What?”
“I was—” Jester continues speaking, and Nott knows because she can hear the words, but they’re just noise.
Nott squints, but can’t make out enough of Jester’s face to read her lips. She might as well be speaking Infernal. “I don’t know what you’re—”
More noise, and Jester begins making her way up the tree.
She likes Jester, she likes Jester a lot, but she came up here for a reason, and—
But too late, Jester’s already scooting along the branch beside her and talking all about the really cool prank she pulled on Yasha and her plans for the rest of the day.
Nott nods and listens and smiles in all the right places and pretends that there’s no burn below the base of her throat, no thrumming in the spindly goblin hands picking at the bark beside her, no anything-at-all except for delight at her friend’s shenanigans, because that is what Jester expects and what she needs and what she deserves, and Nott can give it to her and so she will.
And so she does.
And it works. Jester smiles back and keeps talking and talking, over-loud and cheerful, like nothing is wrong, like Nott isn’t seconds from slamming her face into the tree.
And it’s—okay. It’s fine, it’s good, Nott doesn’t want to be here and doesn’t want to talk and doesn’t want to listen but she’s making Jester happy and that’s good. That’s important, that’s something. One high note in this trashfire of a day.
Except—not actually at all, it turns out, because after a while Jester’s chatter peters out and she asks Nott what she’s doing up here, and there’s a funny note in her voice when she does, like when she talked about her first kiss, except Nott’s pretty sure she’s put it there and not bastard-Fjord, and she doesn’t like that. That’s not right. That’s—
“Wanted the fresh air,” Nott says. “Might climb down soon, though.” She gestures vaguely, scowls. “There’s air, and then there’s this wind.”
“Are you cold?” Jester sounds—worried? (No, Nott thinks, no. Just confused. She’s awful at telling when it’s chilly. Not much better at telling when it’s hot. Temperatures in general are just weird for her, Nott’s found.)
“No,” she says, all reassurance, making a silly-annoyed face for good measure. “It just keeps blowing my hair in my eyes.”
“Oh!” Jester nods sympathetically. “Yeah, I wasn’t going to say anything, but your hair is kind of a mess.”
“I mean, it’s always—”
“I can fix it if you want!”
“I’m really good at braiding. I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“With your mom?”
Jester nods. “And Bluude. So can I do yours?”
Nott hesitates. Sitting still, up in this tree, longer, with Jester that close—but she nods, and Jester beams sunbeam-bright and it’s not fake because her tail does that thing too, and Nott relaxes because there.
There, now she’s done it right. Now Jester’s happy. (Of course she is. She likes to help people, likes to cheer them up, that’s her whole thing. Nott knows this.)
(Nott can relate, a little.)
(She’s not cheered by Jester braiding her hair, exactly—or at all, really, doesn’t like the feeling of someone so close at her back, of nails scraping at her scalp, of hands in her hair, especially not when they’re all so cold—but the smile audible in Jester’s voice is nice.)
It’s nice, and good, and as-it-should-be, so Nott keeps her mouth shut and her buzzy traitor hands still in her lap, locked together so they can’t twitch or scratch or stab, and pretends.
She pretends, and pretends, and pretends, all the way up until Jester says ta-da! and lets go with a flourish, and then she pretends some more.
(Half-pretends, really. The braid is very nice, very artfully done, she isn’t lying about that, and on Veth it really would be lovely. It’s not Jester’s fault it looks silly-at-best on Nott. And she doesn’t want Jester to feel bad, so she just—doesn’t say anything about the second part.)
She grins, hugs Jester, thanks her, and says she loves it. Then, to distract her and because she wants to do something nice, she asks if she can braid Jester’s hair.
Jester’s eyes light up. “Wellll,” she says. “Okay! But just a little braid, just on the side. It’s too short for a big one, and a whole bunch of tinies would take too long, you know?”
Nott nods, and flexes her hands once, quietly tells them to shut up for a moment, and gives Jester just one little braid, just on the side. (Just like she used to give Yeza, sometimes, when he let his hair grow just a little longer.) She tucks a little wilted flower from her pocket into the end of it. (Just like she used to do to Yeza’s. Just like she’s done with Caleb’s, before, a time or two.) And then she lets go.
Jester admires the little braid and the little flower and thanks her and hugs her tight. Nott returns the gesture and tries not to feel every sharp line of her own bony arms as she does.
And then lets go, and chatters a little more for a little while.
And then, when she can’t stand talking a minute longer, makes an apologetic excuse about wanting to tidy up her room before Yeza gets back.
Jester goes nudges her shoulder and goes, “Ooooo! Tidying up your room for tonight, huh?”
Nott laughs, jittery, and only half-meets her winking eyes, and hopes it looks like embarrassment rather than—whatever it really is. Which is maybe embarrassment anyway, but of a different sort. (Because she’s not actually going to do anything with Yeza tonight, but if Jester thinks so—well. No need to correct her. She’s already lying, and she’s lucky it’s working as well as it is. And it’s not like it’s anyone’s business anyway.)
And then they both climb down the tree and Jester moves toward the treehouse and waves as Nott scurries back down the steps into the Xhorhouse proper. Nott waves until she’s out of sight, grinning, and then slinks away and goes and finds a room.
Not hers and Yeza’s.
She cracks open the door and and pauses, peering through, searching not for Caleb—still off shopping—but for Frumpkin. (Caleb had him round his shoulders when he left this morning, but it’s entirely possible that he ordered Frumpkin to head back and keep an eye on the place at some point afterward. Not likely, but possible.)
But he’s nowhere in sight, so Nott lets her shoulders unwind a little, slips inside, and shuts the door.
She looks at the chair (no), the desk (no), the bookshelf (no), the floor (no), the corner (no), the bed—
It’s still too early for sleeping (five o’clock? six? later? earlier? hard to tell without the sun, without Caleb), but—
She looks at the bed and at the door and thinks of a cupboard and a tree and a roadside.
And she walks over to the bed.
And she crawls not in it but under it, curled up small in the back, in the space where bed-corner meets wall-corner.
She presses further into that space, back against the wall, squinting at the door, and uses her arms for a shitty pillow. (No warmth, no squish, not even bandages for a cushion—just rough skin.)
After a few moments, she closes her eyes, but doesn’t try to sleep. Just closes them, and lays there, and stays.
And then—voices, towards the front of the house. Voices, and footsteps, and general clamor.
The others, back. (Nott groans internally.)
She can uncurl, she knows. Should. Slip out, go greet them, check on Yeza and Caleb and see if Mission: Bonding Time worked at all. Pester Beau. Glare at Fjord. Smile and be friendly and kind and—
She doesn’t. She just stays.
Unhurried, unquiet, half-stumbling over the flooring in the usual place, the uneven spot in the labrary.
Part of her wants to hiss, wants to grind her teeth, wants to skitter out and go find a new place to hole up, because because because—
But the wanting dissolves quickly because that’s stupid, Caleb isn’t intruding, this is his room. (If anything, she’s intruding, technically, being here without permission like this when he’s been gone. Not that she thinks he cares—she’s been a pre-written exception to his Alarm spell for over a year now. If he really wants to protect his space from her, he’ll just cut her out of it. But in principle—she’s the one intruding, not him, it’s his room.)
And anyway, it’s Caleb.
So she relaxes, and shoves it out of mind as best she can, and relaxes a little more as Caleb steps in the room and shuts the door with a quiet sigh.
She doesn’t bother crawling out to greet him or even opening her eyes, just keeps still and listens as he walks over to his desk, sits down in his chair. A second, quieter sigh tells her he’s put his head in his hands. A slight rustle-scritch says he’s messing with his hair, sratching at his scalp.
Worn out, then, from all the shopping. He’s never been the biggest fan. Likes the rewards, but not the process. (And who can blame him—all those people.)
A slight grumble, as though he’s read her mind and agrees, and then nothing for a while, just quiet, steady breathing.
Then shuffling—familiar, soft, only a little obnoxious. Caleb, going through his coat pockets. Reorganizing his components, maybe. (Not that he ever actually reorganizes them, of course, not in the sense of rearranging them or even neatening them up—he sticks to the same system, always, and never strays from it if he can help it. He just takes everything out and puts it right back where it was before, sometimes, just because. Just to do it. Usually after particularly bad days. Is this one?)
(But no, he’s done too quickly for that, and there’s a few moments of silence, and then—)
Pulling out a book. Snapping his fingers. (She winces at the sound, but doesn’t flinch, and doesn’t scowl. It’s Caleb.)
He settles in to read. Nott settles in to listen.
Frumpkin begins to purr. Caleb begins to turn pages, slowly at first, then more rapidly. The purring is nice. The swish of page on page only slightly irritating.
She lets herself drift a little, back into gray. (Like up in the tree, but quiet now instead of loud.)
—Jolts out of it as the purring draws nearer. (And nearer, and nearer, and—)
Opens her eyes and there is Frumpkin, right in front of her, blocking most of her field of vision, brushing her face with his side, and then crawling on top of her and digging his claws into her side, in-out, in-out, making biscuits, and then settling, heavy and warm.
Nott has been very still for half an hour at least, but she goes even stiller now.
Caleb knows she’s here.
It’s possible Frumpkin wandered over of his own accord, sure, certainly—but unlikely. And even less likely given that Frumpkin’s now a solid weight on her back.
No, this has Caleb’s influence written all over it. This is Caleb’s doing, Caleb’s orders. So—
He knows she’s here.
He knows and he’s not saying anything.
He’s not saying anything, but he’s also not—
Nott closes her eyes again.
(They’re hot, and they ache, and she’s—)
She lays there a while longer.
Shakes, a little. Frumpkin shuffles, a little, and resettles, and doesn’t move away. Purrs, after a moment, and it’s almost too much, and she almost shoves him off—but doesn’t, mindful of the itch in her fingers, the crawling spiders under her palms, the thrum in her arms and chest.
Frumpkin chirps, once, and purrs softer, and then not at all.
She shakes a little more, but eventually stops. Slips an arm out from under her head and carefully nudges Frumpkin down in front of her and pets him slow, mindful of her still-buzzing fingers.
Caleb is still reading, she registers after a while. He knows she’s here, he sent her Frumpkin, and he’s still reading.
He hasn’t left.
He yawns, after a while, and she shifts, quietly, onto her stomach, and creeps forward to peer at him from under the bed.
He looks tired. Worn out, as expected—shoulders drooping, face a bit pale, eyes heavy and lined.
He also looks a little worried, though. A little anxious. Chewing on his bottom lip, tracing the edge of the book with two fingers, back and forth, back and forth. Keeping very still, breathing carefully even.
Nott shrinks back a little. This is—her fault, probably.
She’s got Frumpkin, after all, and he clearly needs him. (And of course he does, of course, of course, he always needs him, every day—but after today, especially—obviously. Such a long shopping trip, and she sent Yeza with him, added making friends and looking out for her husband to his list of worries. And that’s on top of the usual—all those crowds, all those people.)
She should’ve known better. Should’ve—
Nott pets Frumpkin one more time, guiltily, and nudges him out from under the bed. And then, after a moment’s deliberation, she crawls out after him, quietly, and scoops him up. Then she walks over and drops him on Caleb’s lap.
“Hey,” she says, with a little wave.
Caleb blinks down at Frumpkin. Looks up, turns to her. Smiles, small, with warmth in his eyes, and maybe, maybe relief. “Hallo.”
She hesitates, frozen to the spot. Thanks—she should say thanks. Should ask him how he’s doing, make an excuse for why she was hiding under his bed, should ask how the shopping went, if he got all the components he’s been needing, if—
“I should go check on Yeza,” she blurts.
Caleb looks back down at Frumpkin and nods.
“Let, uh. Let him know where I’m at. He might be—or maybe he’s not, um—I just don’t want him to worry?”
“Ah,” Caleb says, and his shoulders do a thing. A guilty thing.
She tries not to squint suspiciously, and suspects she fails spectacularly. “What?”
“It, er. Well, it is just. He knows. Where you are.”
His shoulders do the thing more. “I sent him a Message. Through the ceiling.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Did you tell him he could respond to it?”
Caleb’s face twitches, like he wants to smile but isn’t sure if he should. “I did. He, ah. He said to tell you hello, and he is home safe, when you—” Caleb gestures vaguely to the bed and then to her.
“And that he loves you,” Caleb says, with a little smile. His eyes are a little funny, but there’s the little creases and the head tilt that means it’s real, and Nott has no idea what both of those things mean together.
“...Cool,” she says, pushing aside the weird smile for later, and pretending there’s no weird twist in her gut.
“I hope you do not mind…?”
“No, no, I—” She pauses. Does she mind? She isn’t sure. She didn’t—she didn’t want anyone to know where she was, is the thing. She didn’t want any people bothering her.
But Yeza didn’t bother her.
...But Yeza isn’t people.
(...And, she thinks. That should be and Yeza isn’t people. Shouldn’t it?)
…Caleb isn’t people either.
And Caleb also didn’t bother her, technically. Frumpkin did. (Technicalities. Intentional ones, she knows, and the knowing makes her eyes ache again, makes her lungs buzz instead of her fingers, makes something warm bloom in her ribs.)
“...Well,” she says. “No. No, I don’t mind. I’m glad you two are, you know—” She hesitates. “Talking.”
“Ah,” Caleb says. “Yes. Well, uh. Good.”
She nods. “I…” She looks at Frumpkin instead of meeting his eyes. “Thank you.” She means more things by it than she can be bothered to sort out.
But maybe Caleb knows, because he just gives her another funny smile and says, “Of course.” He lifts one hand, half a motion—and pulls it back, buries it Frumpkin’s fur, halting. Meets her eyes for half a second, gives her a softer smile.
She smiles back, and nods, and thinks about leaving him to his book and going to thank Yeza next, for understanding, for going with Caleb today, for answering his Message. Maybe reassuring him that she’s fine, in case he’s worrying (but maybe he’s not)—
But Frumpkin makes biscuits in Caleb’s lap and the fingers of Caleb’s free hand tremble on top of the bookpages and she stays put.
“Can I…?” She raises her arms a little.
“...Mm?” Caleb blinks. And again. Looks from over her shoulder to her hands to her face and back to her hands. “...Oh. Oh, ja.”
He snaps his fingers once, twice, so that Frumpkin disappears and reappears on his shoulders.
And Nott climbs into his lap and he wraps his arms round her—both of them, not just the one like she expects (he still has his book open, after all, and needs a hand to turn the pages).
(He doesn’t turn the pages.)
She buries her face in his chest, after a moment, and he places a cautious hand in her hair, not stroking, just resting, just holding.
And they stay, for a while.
Nott’s stomach rumbles quietly, some time later, but she ignores it. This is—nice. The hugging. Holding. Being close, and quiet. They haven’t in—
She doesn’t know. A while, she supposes.
She thinks Caleb’s needed it. (She thinks maybe they both—)
Everything else fades out—the shitty morning, the shitty afternoon, the shitty early evening. Fades out and goes soft, the edges worn down and warm.
She hums, soft. Caleb hums back.
They settle into silence again.
Her stomach rumbles and breaks it. She’s prepared to ignore it again, but—
“You do not have to be sorry.” A pause. “But you should eat something, ja?”
“I will if you do.” She’s fully prepared for an excuse about how he isn’t hungry, how he has to finish this chapter first, how he’s been meaning to work on this new spell—
“Oh,” she says. “All right. C’mon then.”
She slips off his lap and to the floor. Holds out her hand, palm up.
He blinks at it for a moment, expression unreadable. Then stands, takes it in his own, and squeezes once, soft, his thumb sliding over the back of her hand.
She squeezes back, with a smile soft as she can manage, and tugs him out of the room.
The rest of the Nein is already in the kitchen as they approach, scattered round the floor and on countertops, no one in a chair at all, though they have several more than they need, and Nott tenses all over again, thinks of turning right back around and hiding under the bed, or maybe on top of a bookshelf this time—
Caleb squeezes her hand.
She unwinds and squeezes back.
They keep walking and don’t let go.
They do a little later, of course, to grab food, because it’s easier with hands free—and she thinks, vaguely, that Caleb detaches a bit quick, and looks maybe a bit odd, but doesn’t think much about it because she’s too busy staring down at dinner in the big black pot.
It is—somehow, impossibly—Hartling stew.
“What do you think?” Caduceus asks. “Does it look all right?”
She nods, mute.
“Oh good. I wasn’t sure, I’m not too good with recipes. I usually just kinda—” He splays a hand. “—go with what seems right. But I gave it a shot.” He pauses. “Great phrase. Gave it a shot. Gave it a shot.” He shakes his head. “And I had a little help, of course.”
She blinks at him.
He waves a hand at Yeza, who waves from his cross-legged spot a few feet away, a bowl in his lap.
Nott blinks at him, next, and tries not to frown, or glare accusingly, or swallow too obviously past the sudden—thing in her throat.
“I,” he says, adjusting his glasses. “Well, I, um. I was thinking, this morning, you seemed—? And I suggested that maybe Mister Caduceus—and told him what goes in it, and how to—and then when I got back, I—the finishing touches…?”
Half the sentence is missing, but she understands, and she nods. Blinks again, and a few more times, rapidly.
“I know it’s not exactly like yours,” he rushes on, twisting one of his curls, “and it’s not as good and you don’t have to try it of course? I just, I thought you might like it? So—” He gestures a little vaguely, a small circle indicating the pot, Caduceus, and himself.
She nods again. Tries for a smile, and then ducks her head and makes herself a bowl. Nudges Caleb so he’ll make himself one too, and watches as he does, and then goes over to sit beside Yeza.
Caleb tries to slip the other way. She frowns and grabs the edge of his coat. Tugs on it until he turns around, stumbles back over, settles gingerly beside her. She hums approvingly, and he flushes and stares at his bowl.
She stares at her own for a long, long moment. The steam rises up to meet her face, and the smell washes over her in a steady wave. The bowl is warm in her hand. The spoon is cold.
She takes a small bite.
And—well. Yeza’s right, of course (like Caleb, he’s very rarely wrong). It’s not like hers, it’s not the same.
But it’s close, and it’s still.
It’s still good.
She scrapes the bowl clean and wipes her mouth and closes her eyes and carefully kisses the side of Yeza’s head.
“Thank you,” she says.
“Of course.” And he smiles and rests his head on her shoulder, just for a moment.
“And, uh, and you, Mister Clay,” Nott says, not bothering to raise her voice at all because she can pretend maybe he won’t hear her that way over the others’ noise, even though of course he will because he hears everything.
And he does, and smiles his slow smile, and he says, “Of course, Miss Nott. Maybe someday you can help me with it.”
“Maybe someday you can show me one of yours,” Nott says, neither yes nor no.
“That sounds nice,” Caduceus says, neither yes nor no.
They look at each other for a moment, and then they both nod, still neither yes nor no but—understanding, of a kind. And then Caduceus smiles and turns to talk to Fjord.
Nott exhales, quietly, and takes Yeza’s hand, and Caleb’s, and sits back.
Listens as the others talk, Caduceus to Fjord, Fjord to Beau, Beau to Jester, Jester to Yasha, Yasha to Caduceus, and around and around in intermixing circles, loud, nonstop. Listens, slightly more attentively, as Yeza and Caleb talk, just to each other, haltingly, in quiet tones, including her in little asides, providing context for references to their little shopping trip.
Something eases round her spine, her ribs.
She thinks of joining the conversation, asking questions—settles for humming, now and then, ears twitching. Listening is enough, for now.
Jester drops in front of them a few minutes later, holding a bunch of little flowers from the garden—tiny blossoms, yellow streaked with orange. She tucks some behind Nott’s ears, some behind Caleb’s, and some behind Yeza’s.
“There!” she says. “Now you all match, and have super good luck!”
Nott fiddles with the hem of her sleeve and smiles. Opens her mouth to joke (half-joke, nervous, maybe with awkward fingerguns if she can make it into a pun about dunamancy) that she hopes they won’t be needing it here in Rosohna—
“Oh!” Jester says, eyes fixed on Nott’s hands. “Do you want me to fix that for you?”
For a bizarre and strangely awful moment Nott thinks she means—the skin, the bones, the skin-and-bones. And then she realizes—no. Jester’s looking at her sleeve. The torn hem. (Of course, of course.) “Oh, uh—”
“I mean if you want to stitch it up yourself that is cool too! I know you’re very good at it because you fix Caleb’s stuff all the time, and you gave Yeza those really nice flowers on his cuffs? But like I have that really cool spell so I thought, you know.”
Nott flushes. She—the flowers were an impulse. Not good luck, just—something pretty, when she fixed his clothes, the day after his rescue. “I—sure, go ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okie!” Jester places one hand on her Traveler’s symbol and another on Nott’s sleeve and— “Ta-da! All fixed!”
Nott runs her fingers over the fixed hem and smiles through a rush of fondness. “Thank you,” she says, quietly.
Jester smiles so wide her eyes crinkle shut and her dimples spawn more dimples. “Of course!”
She stays a little longer, to talk, and then she wanders off to pester Beau.
Nott closes her eyes. A few minutes later, opens them again. It isn’t like she can sleep here, after all.
The kitchen is crowded, the kitchen is noisy, the kitchen is—quite frankly—a disaster zone.
She laces her fingers through Caleb’s and through Yeza’s and they’re warm and solid and they don’t buzz at all.
Not one bit.