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even darkness must pass

Chapter Text

“Nicodranas is closest,” Fjord shouted over the sound of the rain. “We could make it in four hours, if we’re lucky.”

“They won’t let us in after sundown,” Beau reminded him, eyeing the rapidly sinking sun. “I don’t think we’ll make it, not in this rain.”

Caduceus shifted, trying not to disturb Caleb, who lay half on his lap. “I think it would be best to try; Mr. Caleb here needs more help than Jester and I can offer him right now, and the rest of us could certainly use some rest in real beds.” He had to crane to make eye contact with Fjord, his usually tranquil expression threaded with worry and pain, the left side of his jaw down to his shoulder coated in slowly drying blood and the partially-healed slash along his neck into the crevasse where armor met shoulder threatening to re-open. Caleb coughed, wet and long, and everyone winced.

“We could see my mama,” Jester added, but the cheer in her voice was weighed down by exhaustion. “And… if they don’t let us in, it’ll be safer by the city walls, anyway.”

“Caleb needs help,” Nott said firmly. “We need to get going.” She pried herself off of Caleb’s legs, her face set against the downpour drenching them all.

“Beau, help ‘Deuces,” Fjord directed. “Nott, Jester, you’re with me.” He limped through the thick mud to the wagon and started poking at the shattered spokes inside the back left wheel, Jester and Nott checking the horses and shifting around their various belongings to make way for everyone in the rear of the wagon.

Beau crouched down slowly next to Caduceus, careful not to jostle her left side; the shape of her shoulder was all wrong, distended from the joint popped out of the socket. “How do you want to do this?” she asked. Caleb was dwarfed by the firbolg’s height, his shoulders sitting low against Caduceus’ sternum so that the cleric, half hunched over, could keep him from thrashing as shivers wracked his body.

“If you can just support him for a second, I can slide out,” Caduceus replied. Beau leaned in, kneeling outside Caleb’s legs but inside Caduceus’ and pulled the wizard forward with her good arm. Caleb’s head lolled onto her shoulder and she could just make out a few muttered words in Zemnian.

“It’s gonna be fine, dude, just hang on a little longer,” she said into his ear and wished, not for the first time that day, that Yasha was with them.

Having another fighter, another very strong body, another person able to do some healing might have meant that one event after another would not have spiraled into a series of disasters, leaving them half-frozen, soaked to the bone, many of them injured, with a partially broken cart and a very sick wizard. But Yasha had gone, nearly a week before, and now that was the circumstance they found themselves in.

Caduceus unfolded himself and slid out from behind Caleb, standing before leaning down to pick him up. “Careful,” Beau cautioned.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got him.”

“Good, but that’s not what I meant,” Beau clarified with a gesture at Caduceus’ injury, which was threatening to reopen.

Caduceus didn’t try to deny his injury, just nodded and carried Caleb over to the cart, Beau steadying him at his elbow as they slopped through the mud.

A light flashed to the side as Jester, looking absolutely filthy, staggered off her knees and back to her feet, a few of the spokes of the wagon wheel now mended. “That’s all I can do,” she panted. “The rest are too big, and I don’t have any slots left.”

“Good enough,” Nott said. “Give me a hand, Fjord?”

Fjord reached down, minding her broken fingers, and pulled Nott up out of the mud and water, which was nearly up to her knees, and took a few steps to deposit her in the back of the cart with Caleb. He waited as everyone else finished clambering in and Beau settled herself towards the rear, goggles on, and hauled himself up onto the front of their small cart. Taking the reins in hand and trying to ignore the cold rain still washing down his back, the horses strained and began to pull them towards Nicodranas, time slipping away with every passing hoof fall.

 

Fjord’s heart sank faster than the sun as they finally, finally, came over the last hill and saw the full sprawl of Nicodranas before them; the last light of day was fading fast, faster than usual with the heavy clouds above them. He urged the horses on faster.

Jester leaned forwards through the front of the cart at the change of pace, eyeing the horizon, the distant gates. “We’re not going to make it, are we?” The once-white, dirt stained bandage on her forehead stood in stark contrast to her blue skin.

Fjord shook his head but was noncommittal. “We might, yet. But it’s gonna be close.”

Jester hesitated. “Caleb’s worse.”

He nodded. “I’ll get us in. We’ll get in. Can you let your mom know we’re coming?”

Jester looked on the verge of tears. “I asked the Traveler for help but I’m all out of magic and I don’t think Mama can hear me.”

Fjord spared a hand from the reins to pat her shoulder. “We’ll make it,” he said. “We’ll get in and get to the Chateau and it’ll be fine.”

“Yeah,” Jester said, but she didn’t look like she believed it.

“Can you tell everyone we’re almost there?”

 

The light was dim, hardly present, by the time they approached the gates. The two Zolezzo looked almost bored as the cart creaked to a halt. The shielded torch burning next to the already-closed city gate threw their features into sharp relief. The younger of the two stepped up towards Fjord, seemingly oblivious to the pouring rain. “Gate’s closed,”

“Please,” Fjord said, in his most mild voice. “It’s desperately important we get in. We were attacked on the road, several of us are injured, and our friend is ill-- he needs a healer.”

Fjord was already so tense, he didn’t flinch when Nott’s voice tickled in the back of his brain. “I’m your daughter, Uncle Caleb is ill, and we need help. Youcanreplytothismessage.”

Fjord let his shoulders slump and a tinge of their very real desperation creep into his tone. “Please,” he repeated, knowing Nott would hear it both magically and physically. “We need to get in. My girl--”

Nott’s voice drifted out of the cart, pitched much higher than usual and as smooth as she could make it. “Papa?” A moment later, Fjord’s lap was full of goblin, her ears tucked under her hood and her face tucked into his shoulder so only occasional flashes of green skin almost matching his could be seen. “Uncle Caleb’s getting worse.” As if on cue, another round of weak, painful coughing, came from the back and Nott burrowed deeper into his arms, mindful of her own badly bruised foot and broken fingers.

Fjord risked a glance-- the lines around the older of the guard’s mouth were deepening, lips pressing together in indecision-- as he tucked his face down towards hers, like he’d been distracted from the guards. She smelled strongly like alcohol. “I know, Toya, darling, I know. We’ll get him some help, I promise. He rubbed Nott’s shoulders as she began to loudly cry, projecting a little more that Fjord thought was necessary, but certainly loud enough the guards could hear. Speaking of… Fjord let his shoulders tense again and he looked back at the guards. He tried for apologetic, but all he could muster was exhausted. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s been a rough couple of days for all of us and, well. We lost some folks not too long ago, and if we lose another one…”

Fjord watched the younger guard frown, but the older one set a hand on his compatriot’s shoulder and pressed. When he spoke, his voice was softer than Fjord had anticipated. “We will let you in. Do not make us regret this.”

Relief, both real and theatrical, flooded through Fjord and he let himself sag on the seat. “Thank you. Thank you both.” He dug quickly in his bag and flipped a couple gold to each of them. “Toya, tell Miss Jester that we’ll be somewhere safe soon, and that she needs to make sure we can move Uncle Caleb.”

Nott vanished back into the back as the guards hauled open the huge gates and Fjord snapped the horses into motion before they could change their minds.

“We’re in,” Fjord called quietly into the back as soon as they were out of earshot of the gate. “Nice work back there, Nott.”

In the corner of his eye, he could see Nott lean forward and flash him a strained, toothy grin and pulled her flask from her cloak, taking a long drink before climbing further into the back.

After the worry of the last four hours of travel and the concern they wouldn’t make it through the gate, the twenty minutes it took them to reach the Lavish Chateau seemed like nothing. Fjord could hear voices rising and falling in the back but couldn’t make out words; it felt like the cold rain was pouring into his brain and washing away his thoughts. They must have been making a plan, though, because the moment Fjord convinced his numb fingers to stop the cart in front of the Chateau, a figure splashed out the rear of the cart and Jester was running through the muck into the building.

It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably only a few minutes before Jester returned, followed by a small group of people carrying lanterns. Fjord blinked and the reins were out of his hands in in Tydal’s, again and most of the party was out of the back of the cart. He winced as he forced his stiff muscles to move, dropping off the side of the cart. His injured leg buckled as it hit the ground and for a moment, Fjord was sure he was going to end up in the mud. Then a heavy hand steadied him and he looked up into the face of Blude. The minotaur nodded at him and removed his hand once Fjord was stable. Fjord gritted his teeth and stepped forward, only to find Jester there, sliding under his arm and taking part of his weight.

The cart clattered away behind him, presumably off towards the stables. Jester and Fjord followed the lanterns, Nott in Beau’s good arm, Caduceus having been unwilling to let relatively unknown hands on Caleb, they staggered towards the light of the Chateau.

It took some time to get upstairs; Caduceus had stopped at the bottom of the flight as if it were a mountain before him and had to relinquish Caleb to Blude. Fjord had needed Jester’s support more than he had thought. At the top, Marion Lavorre was commanding what seemed like a small army of people, spine straight and shoulders square, a long, creamy silk dressing gown broken only by the soft shoes she wore and the sapphire necklace at her throat.

She turned and gasped loudly. Fjord could only imagine what they looked like. Six people, all soaking wet and absolutely filthy, worn down to the bone and littered with bruises and cuts, half of them relying on the others to walk or move, Caleb in a haze of half-consciousness in the minotaur’s arms. “Hi, Mama,” Jester said, quietly, from under Fjord’s arm. It seemed like time stood still for a moment, although everything around them certainly didn’t; Blude kept moving, whisking Caleb down the hall towards a bedroom and Nott protesting loudly behind him, although she didn’t struggle out of Beau’s arms and Beau herself didn’t move, eyes fixed on the Ruby of the Sea. She was beautiful, and clean, and everything they currently weren’t.

“Jester,” Marion whispered, some of the steel leaving her shoulders as her eyes ran over every inch of her daughter, looking for serious injury. “Jester, are you all right?” She approached the group cautiously, like they were a pack of wild beasts, and Fjord supposed that was fair.

“I’m fine, Mama,” Jester said. She didn’t move, but Fjord could feel the restraint running through her and gingerly pulled his arm off her shoulder. He swayed once and Jester made a soft sound of rebuke, looking at his leg, but then a different warm hand steadied his elbow and Jester’s face softened and she turned to hug her mother. Marion swept her daughter up despite the filth transferring from Jester’s clothing to hers, and Fjord turned to see that the hand on his arm belonged to Caduceus.

After a long few seconds, Marion released Jester and turned to the rest of them. “I am sorry. I forget myself. Come, I have asked for rooms to be arranged for you for the night, at least, and food to be made. A healer will be brought as well,” she said. “However, it may be... difficult. It is late at night, but also it is becoming harder and harder to find a cleric who has not been pressed to aid in the coming war.”

“Mighty kind of you, Ma’am,” Fjord said. “But we don’t mean to intrude, if you can just look after Caleb, the rest of--”

“Nonsense,” she brushed off his declination. “Right this way.” And she turned and began to gesture them down the hall towards the sound of running water.

Fjord wanted to argue, he really did, but the idea of a hot bath and some food latched onto a primal part of his brain and he couldn’t make a coherent statement. He’d only taken a few limping steps after her when Jester detached herself from her mother’s side and slid back under his arms. “Jester, you don’t have to--”

“Nonsense,” she said, pitching her voice so it sounded just like her mother’s. “Come on, everyone, there’s baths!”

It was fortunate the trip down the hall was short; it seemed like with each passing step, they were a bit closer to any one of the party sitting down and not standing back up. The room was large, with several massive bathing tubs that had clawed feet and smoothed interiors. Steam drifted from the surface of the water and filled the air, sliding out into the hallway as they trooped through the door.

Caduceus looked around and made eye contact with Fjord, who nodded quiet approval, and turned to Beau. “Why don’t you let Miss Nott down; she can clean up a little and I can take care of your shoulder?”

Beau’s eyes were half glassy and she was looking at the water like she hadn’t ever seen anything so beautiful. A brief bolt of worry flashed through Caduceus; perhaps she was susceptible to whatever illness had Caleb and it had begun to take her. But no; a moment later she began to move, gently setting Nott on the floor and watching as the goblin limped around the room as if the tubs were full of acid instead of water, her injured hand tucked close to her chest.

“‘Deuces, you’re bleeding again,” Beau’s voice brought Caduceus’ eyes back to her.

“Your shoulder isn’t in the socket,” Caduceus retaliated mildly.

Beau made a ‘eh’ gesture with her good hand, but didn’t resist when Caduceus reached out to carefully probe the edges of the distended joint.

“It might be easier to cut the shirt off,” A small voice spoke up from his side and Caduceus had to look considerably far down to find Nadine, he thought was her name, just behind him and timidly holding a pair of silver shears. “I can mend it, afterwards, but it might be better not to lift your arm, for now.”

Beau frowned at the dark haired maidservant for a moment and then nodded. “Not the sash, though. It was… a gift.”

If Nadine heard the hesitation in Beau’s voice, she didn’t comment. “Of course. If I may?” Beau nodded her consent and Caduceus helped her manipulate her bad arm so Nadine could untie the sash, then slide the scissors along the fabric at Beau’s ribs.

The room was slowly filling with the sound of moving water and low voices as the present party members, too tired to be body shy and not generally big on modesty anyway, stripped carefully down and climbed into the low tubs, aided by Marion and Nadine. Caduceus removed his own beetle-green armor as Beau disrobed, piling the plates neatly next to the door. He cast about until he found a small healer’s kit, which must have been gathered when Jester came in for help, by the door. It wouldn’t have his usual remedies-- the things he had collected to aid with healing and all of his teas were still in the cart-- but it would do, for now. “Beauregard,” he said, just as Nadine pulled away the last scraps of Beau’s sleeveless shirt, leaving nothing to hide the bruises on her ribs.

“Yeah?” she asked, clearly eying the dried blood coating his soft undershirt now that the armor was off.

“I can put your shoulder back in and make you a sling. Enough to hold you over until Ms Lavorre finds a healer, or Jester and I have rested.”

“Fine, sure,” Beau said impatiently.

“It’ll hurt,” Caduceus warned, before letting his hands lightly run over her shoulder one last time, checking the placement of the bones. “On four...”

“Wait, on wha--”

Fjord winced in sympathy from across the room as Caduceus slid Beau’s shoulder back into joint, Beau’s confusion interrupted by a fast string of expletives. His wince turned into a full blown frown as Caduceus prodded at his own shoulder, pulling away the fabric and trying to reach threads stuck in the wound.

“Caduceus, stop trying to fix that yourself and let Jester look at it,” Fjord called over.

The firbolg didn’t argue, just surrendered his shirt to Nadine’s shears before stripping off his trousers and going to join Jester in the second tub even as Beau slid into Fjord’s bathtub.

Fjord’s eye wandered until he found Nott again. Perhaps due to Marion’s quiet insistence that she would need to be clean to see Caleb, Nott had stripped off her outer layer of muddy clothing and acquiesced to dipping her hands into the tub from a nearby stool and cleaning the worst of the dirt and blood off her arms, face, and legs with a damp rag, peeling off bandages black with mud as she went. Jester had, while Fjord had been trying to get into the tub without further injuring his leg or drawing attention to himself, managed to get Nott to sit still long enough to tightly wrap the goblin’s two broken fingers. Fjord could see her getting twitchy, though, eyes darting from the group to the door.

“Nott,” Fjord said, and her ears swiveled towards him. “Go see how he is. They might need help,” and she was out of the room and down the hall in a blink.

Jester’s voice got louder again. “-- so we cleared out the troll’s nest and it was really cool but we got all covered in mud; Nott climbed one’s leg and shot it in the nose, and I summoned an army of unicorns and Caduceus turned one to dirt afterwards and then -- Caduceus! Stop moving!” The firbolg did as she said, sliding deeper into the water so his shoulder was closer to level with her face as Jester talked to her mother, who had changed into a clean dressing gown and was on a stool next to their tub. “And then we tried to take a rest, but the storm was getting worse, and we tried to make a camp but Caleb was out of spells and he wasn’t doing very good, so we couldn’t set up the bubble--it’s really neat, we sleep in it and nothing can get in, and he makes an alarm spell-- and then we got attacked by bandits! We fought them off and it didn’t take very long but a lot of us got hurt and Caduceus and I were out of healing and it was still raining so we came right here.”

“And what about Caleb?” Marion asked.

Jester’s nose wrinkled; Caduceus’ did the same. “He was just a little sick, at first, and he said it was a cold and wouldn’t let us heal him, but then he had gotten louder when he coughed and his breathing got worse. When we got attacked, Caleb used a lot of magic and I think got very tired, and his fever went up and he wasn’t very awake and…”

Jester trailed off and looked sadly at Caduceus’ shoulder for a moment, the half-healed wound now clean and considerably less frightening looking. “Caduceus and I didn’t have any magic left. Earlier, before the trolls, we wanted to heal him but he had said no, and we didn’t, but he would be better now if we did anyway.”

“It would have made him angry? Or uncomfortable?”

Jester looked over at Fjord and Beau, who shook her head, then back at Marion. “I can’t tell you, but he’s very sad, Mama, all the time. People have done bad things to him, with magic and with… other things, and it makes him sad and scared.”

“And you didn’t want to make him more scared, by doing magic on him without his permission or consent?”

“Mama, you’re very wise,” Jester said. “And even though he doesn’t make sense sometimes, he’s right a lot, so we listened and didn’t heal him and he’s very sick now.”

Fjord closed his eyes and let the soft burble of Jester’s voice wash across the warm water, his clean skin. Jester watched Beau do the same, Caduceus poking at the sponge floating by with as Jester’s hands drifted off his shoulder. She scooped up a handful of water just to let it slide through her fingers.

Her mama’s eyes skimmed over the four of them and she stood, clapping her hands lightly. “Come, let’s get you all some food.” Jester started scrambling out of the tub, Caduceus following suit. The floor was slippery, but Marion lent a hand and passed her a robe from a stack that had reappeared with Nadine.

“Jessie, help out here?” Beau called-- she was out of the tub and wearing a robe of her own, steadying Fjord with her good arm as he tried to step out of the water without slipping or putting too much weight on his bad leg.

“Hmmm,” Caduceus ran his fingers over the robe enthusiastically, figuring out the tie and slipping it on. “Different clothing.”

He crossed the room behind Jester, offering Fjord an arm while Jester took his weight on the other side. “Have you never worn a bathrobe, Caduceus?” Jester asked.

“No,” Caduceus said, “and I was a little surprised there’s one for someone my size. That’s nice.”

“In this place, we are prepared for visitors of all shapes and sizes,” Marion said, handing another robe to Fjord. “I have not met someone of your particular… being, but we have of course seen visitors of your height, or taller.” She led them out of the room, Jester’s hand in her own and Caduceus acting as an aid for Fjord, down to the sitting room they had seen before.

The room had been slightly augmented with several soft chairs and a small table covered in plates and bowls of breads and cheeses, dried fruits and some fresher food as well. In the small hearth, a lidded cauldron hung and Beau could see Caduceus’ face light up as he saw the tea kettle near it. Marion picked up a stack of bowls and moved to the fire, uncovering the pot to reveal a thick stew and a cloud of aromatic steam. “I apologize,” she said, starting to ladle it into bowls and hand it out. “It’s from dinner downstairs earlier, so it’s several hours old now.”

Beau took a bowl gladly and inhaled-- meat and vegetables, a little red wine. “Trust me, we’ve eaten much worse.” She took a second bowl, juggling two spoons as well. “Be back,” she said, and left the warm room for the drafty hall and then the room where Blude had taken Caleb. To her surprise, the minotaur was no longer there. It was dim in the room, a half shuttered lantern near the door and moonlight through a large window creating the only light. Caleb was in a bed too big for one along the far wall of the small room, blankets pulled up his chest. His arms were lying on top of the blankets, unbandaged, as they had been since not long after he had told them what happened to them, and the scars were purple and silver in the light. His hair was damp looking, and while not completely clean, it was no longer caked in muck. Despite several months of relatively stable eating, Caleb was still thin as a rake and despite his state of general cleanliness, Caleb looked terrible. His chest heaved as he drew in unsteady, wet breaths, making Beau’s own chest ache in sympathy. His face was beaded with sweat and his brow creased; as Beau approached, she could see chills running through him.

Nott sat on the edge of the bed, one leg folded under her and the badly bruised foot-- stomped on roughly by a bandit-- in front of her. She was holding Caleb’s hand.

“Brought you some food,” Beau held out the bowl. Nott grabbed it, but the moment her hand left Caleb’s the crease in his forehead deepened, and a reedy whine pulled itself from his lips. Nott bobbled the bowl, trying to manage it and Caleb’s hand with her broken fingers. “I got it,” said Beau, and settled herself on the edge of the bed, taking Caleb’s hand. Nott fell on her own bowl with gusto and finished before Beau was half done. She stood, eyed Beau’s hand over Caleb’s and went to find the others.

The four all looked up when she entered. Marion and Jester were sitting together on a loveseat; Caduceus finishing wrapping a splint and long sturdy bandages around Fjord’s lower thigh, his own shoulder already neatly bandaged.

“How’s he doing?” Fjord asked as Nott made a beeline to get more food.

“Not good,” Nott replied curtly, loading a plate with bread. “His breathing is worse.”

Jester and Caduceus frowned in unison. “Someone will have to stay up with him tonight,” Caduceus said. “And Jester and I should probably look at him more closely before we go to bed.”

“I’ll sit with him,” Nott said immediately.

“I can, or Nadine?” Marion offered.

Nott managed to hold back a scoff, but Fjord could tell it was a near thing, tempered only by their affection for Jester and the kindness Marion had shown them. “I can do it, he’s mine to keep safe.”

“He’ll be safe here, of course, you all are,” Marion tried.

They weren’t budging. “All due respect, Ms. Lavorre, but there are other things to watch for besides thieves in the night,” Fjord tried. He was trying to avoid saying “He might have a fever induced trauma nightmare and try to burn you with magic fire,” but if he had to…

Fortunately, Marion didn’t need any more convincing. “Very well, if you wish. I can procure a more comfortable chair for the room, at least.”

She and Jester bumped around the dressing room for a moment, emerging with a high backed and somewhat squashy chair. Caleb didn’t stir, even as they accidentally knocked it loudly into the doorframe, trying to find an angle where it would fit, his loud breathing almost drowning out the sound. They slid it next to Caleb’s bed and before Nott could so much as move for it, Jester had sat down.

“I’ll keep an eye on him, Nott,” she said simply. “You should sleep.”

It was a testament to how long the last few days had been and how tired Nott was that she didn’t argue, despite her insistence not long before that she should watch Caleb. “Wake one of us later for a second watch,” she conceded. “You need to rest, too.”

“Of course,” Jester patted Nott’s shoulder gently. “Good night.”

Caduceus had been running hands down Caleb’s torso, gently feeling around his ribs, listening to him breathe and checking for any missed injuries. Caleb began to cough again, a harsh, wet sound that made both Jester and Caduceus frown. Jester reached over to pull down the blankets slightly and put her ear to the center of Caleb’s chest, tapping slightly around her head and listening. She looked at Caduceus, hesitantly. “I’m no expert in diseases, especially the ones humans can get…” she started.

Caduceus’ shoulders slumped, although she couldn’t tell if it was from disappointment or relief that he wasn’t alone in this. “Neither am I,” he admitted. “But he’s running very warm and that coughing sounds bad.”

“Do you think Beau should stay away from him?” Jester asked, knowing keeping Beau away from something could be like asking a bird not to fly.

“It’s probably too late for that,” Caduceus said. “She’s probably been exposed to whatever it is. Although there’s also the possibility this can travel beyond humans and the rest of us can get it, too.”

“Hm, so there’s no worrying about us.” Jester drummed her fingers on the bedspread and settled back into the chair. “But it might be worth keeping Nadine out of here.”

“And hopefully, this can all be cleared up with a lesser restoration spell in the morning, when we’re both not tapped out,” Caduceus said. He stood. “I’ll ask Miss Nadine to keep her distance, if she can. Goodnight, Jester.”

His voice swelled again in the hallway, the low rumble punctuated by the sound of Nadine’s lighter responses and then slowly, at long last, a hush fell over them all for the first time in many days.

 

Fjord was jolted out of sleep by a clamor of voices and footsteps and by a low, guttural moaning, loud even through halls and doors. His heart dropped and he was out of bed as fast as his bad leg could take him. Caduceus was already gone. Swearing steadily, Fjord limped out the door, almost colliding with Beau, Nadine, and Marion.

Caleb’s room was full of people, but even the persistent questions of Marion and Nadine couldn’t drown out the sound Caleb was making. His breathing was still fast, wet and loud, and each exhale was now joined by a low keen. Fjord couldn’t quite see through the crush at the door, but he could see Caleb’s face and head, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, the gingery strands almost black in the poor light.

He was half sitting, eyes open but blank. It was different than when he looked through Frumpkin’s eyes; Caleb’s eyes flicked from side to side, watching something only he could see. He whined, high in his throat again. Fjord shifted through the door a little further and inhaled sharply.

Nott was kneeling in front of him on the bed and held Caleb’s hands firmly in her own, twisted gently so his palms were face up in her small green hands. The bandages on her dexterous fingers were soaked in red blood, trails of which ran down Caleb’s hands from the deep tracks clawed into his forearms.

“‘Scuse me, everyone,” Caduceus’ low voice, silver in the dim room, drifted through the group, as did the firbolg himself as he entered the room, his own healer’s kit in hand. His feet were dirty from his quick trip to find their cart but his short grey fur seemed to glow in the moonlight. Fjord could feel his shoulders relaxing almost involuntarily as Caduceus pulled open the drawstring of the small green bag and the scent of linen and tea filled the room.

Caduceus sat onto the bed next to Nott, leaning forward to slide a pillow behind Caleb so the human didn’t have to strain to remain propped up. “Hello, Mr. Caleb,” he reached out and lightly touched Caleb’s cheek. Caleb didn’t respond, but Caduceus kept talking softly anyway. “Seems like we’ve got a bit of a mess here.” He took one of Caleb’s arms and this time Caleb reacted, a full body shudder shaking up his arm and into his chest, the keening louder for a moment. Caduceus didn’t touch further, just sat for a moment, letting Caleb slowly relax into the touch. “Do you have-- that’s nice,” Caduceus started to ask a question but Jester was already on it. Fjord had missed her coming and going, but there was suddenly a bowl of water and a small pile of clean rags sliding past his elbow and into the room in her hands. Caduceus took the bowl and nodded, looking over at Nadine, who had stumbled back in after Jester and the water and was now staring at Caleb’s bloody arms and heaving chest in shock. “Miss Nadine, you shouldn’t be-- well. Too late for that, now. Could we get a kettle, for tea?”

Nadine nodded mutely and disappeared.

“Fjord,” Beau touched his elbow. She pointed towards a couple chairs around a table off to the side. “Get off that leg.”

He complied, and she took the other, the pair sitting in silence as the two clerics danced around each other, Nott watching from the end of the bed and Marion still in the doorway. They conferred quietly, cleaning the wizard’s broken skin one inch at a time. Every once in a while a shudder would run through Caleb and he would grow louder and then softer again and the pair would stop, Jester running fingers through his hair and Caduceus keeping up an eternal stream of soft chit chat. Marion left and returned with a small platter of fruit and several more chairs, passing the food to Beau and Fjord before settling between them and the door. Slowly, the harsh whines stopped working their way out of Caleb’s chest, although his breathing was still labored.

Nadine reentered and Caduceus passed off the task of holding bandages as Jester wrapped them to Nott. He rummaged through his bag, pulling out several teas and eyeing them over before selecting one and beginning the delicate brewing process. “Eight of us?” he counted Nadine’s teacups, “That’s good. Plenty of cups. That’s nice, it’s nice to have enough.”

Jester finished and turned to Nott’s hands, rewrapping the fingers with clean bandages before packing away Caduceus’ kit. Caduceus waved Nadine back into the seat she had taken near Marion as she made a move to serve the tea, pouring it himself into teacups and delivering them around the room. Jester took hers and reached up to pat Caduceus on the shoulder before going to take the last chair. Caduceus went to sit on the edge of the bed, steam curing around his face as he took a drink of his own tea before setting it aside and reaching for the eighth cup.

Caleb took another ragged breath, this one louder than the others, and his eyelids fluttered. Caduceus’ smile grew, the corners of his lips moving from gently benevolent to a full pleased smile. “Hello, Mr. Caleb,” he repeated. “Good to see you.”

“...ja,” Caleb mumbled. His head rolled slightly and he continued to look like death warmed over, but a modicum of light returned to his eyes and they ran over the inhabitants of the room, sliding right over Nadine and Marion before sliding back to Nott. “Nott, hello, Nott.”

“Caleb, how are you feeling?” Nott asked. She had set aside her own teacup and was making her way gingerly towards Caleb’s head from the end of the bed, reaching out to gently touch his cheek.

He let his head loll against her hand for a moment, as if taking a brief internal audit, before taking another loud, painful breath. “…very bad.”

“That’s not surprising,” Caduceus said mildly, “you’re very ill.”

“Hm?” Caleb said, disinterested. He had found one end of the fresh bandages and was prodding at it with shaky fingers.

“Leave that, Caleb,” Nott said, re-enveloping his hand with her own.

“Here, drink some of this,” Caduceus lifted the teacup towards Caleb. “We’ve done a poor job of making sure you’ve had enough liquids. It’ll make you feel better.”

Caleb’s forehead creased and he looked at the teacup like it might bite him. “It hurts to swallow,” he said, a hint of petulance and worry in his voice, simultaneously a small child who wanted to know just what he had done to deserve this illness and a hurt young man who was afraid he would be punished for admitting the weakness.

“This should help with that,” Caduceus promised, pushing the little cup just a little closer. “And I’m told it’s very good.”

Caleb must have obediently taken a sip, because some of the tension in Nott’s shoulders relaxed. Around the room, as if triggered by the sight of Caleb drinking, various others took first sips from tea cups as well.

“He makes it from dead people,” Jester stage whispered to her mother and Nadine, who did an admirable job of not spitting it back out.

Beau leaned forward to explain more accurately as Caduceus gave Caleb another sip of tea, apparently content to sit quietly and help him drink for as long as was needed.

Caleb leaned back against the pillow and raised the tension in the room again by coughing, long and harsh enough that when the fit passed, he had to struggle to take in deep gasping breaths of air. “Ow,” he managed, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as if trying to hold his ribs inside his own body.

“Hm,” Caduceus said. He took a moment to set the teacup aside, rearranging the pillows again so that even if Caleb leaned to the side, he would remain upright. Then he picked back up the teacup and raised it again to Caleb’s lips. His nonchalance-- and the apparent reassurance they didn’t need to be worried about Caleb’s imminent death-- spread through the room and everyone began to slowly relax again. Jester had propped her head on her hand, elbow on the table, and was precariously close to falling asleep sitting right there. Caleb didn’t seem particularly interested in the tea, but obediently sipped whenever Caduceus lifted the cup to his lips. Slowly, his head dropped back down to the pillows, his breathing loud and sweat beading on his temples, but asleep.

Finally, Fjord stood. “Cad, Jes, Nott, you should rest. I’ll keep watch next.”

Caduceus nodded and Jester handed her mother her cup before helping Caduceus rearrange Caleb’s blankets. The firbolg topped off Fjord’s teacup and puttered around with the rest of the settings, letting Jester lead a train of exhausted adventurers and their hosts from the room, Nott last and most reluctant. Caduceus sat on the edge of the bed, turning luminous eyes to their leaving friends before letting his fingers rest briefly on Caleb’s forehead. “Keep an eye on his temperature,” he rumbled. He looked at Fjord and a frisson of fear ran through the half-orc at the worry present in Caduceus' eyes-- for anyone but the firbolg, that was a declaration of outright panic. “There’s very little we can do about it right now, and I didn’t want to worry anyone, but Mister Caleb is still very ill. If he gets warmer, wake me.”

“Caduceus, you need to sleep--”

“And Caleb needs help. But,” Caduceus nodded, assenting slightly to Fjord’s protests. “You can get some cool water and rags, try to bring the temperature down. If he wakes up again, get him to drink as much water as you can. It’ll help. If we rest well, Jester and I can try to prepare a restoration spell, try and heal him up. If not, well. We can hope Ms Lavorre finds a cleric who has it and is willing to help.”

All Fjord could do was nod, the concern squeezing his throat making it impossible for him to try and speak. He swallowed hard and placed his own hand on Caleb’s forehead. Caduceus was right; the skin there was damp and hot, much warmer than it should have been. “Okay. Okay. I can do that.”

“Good,” Caduceus patted Fjord on the shoulder and stood. “Please wake someone for the last watch and let them know what we have discussed here.”

Fjord nodded and Caduceus left.

Usually, Fjord had very little trouble staying up for watches. They were generally somewhere dangerous and the constant threat of monsters or magic or even of highway bandits kept him on his toes. Tonight, though, he was far past watchful-- it seemed that every jolt of Caleb’s chest and twitch of his fingers rang through his body with a stream of hot adrenaline. He was no healer and couldn’t do more than wrap a wound or sooth a sore joint, skills learned from days at sea where weather-worn skin and injuries from defending a pirate-beset ship were common. But this he had no experience with.

Time seemed to slip and crawl; Fjord looked out the window to see the stars shifting and found they had barely moved from last time. He looked again and they had skidded across the sky, although he would have sworn it had been less time than before. He reached out to touch Caleb’s forehead again; his blazing temperature had risen, Fjord thought, and he was less sweaty than before. Fjord scowled. That recalled days at sea as well, a new hire fresh on the boat who hadn’t had nearly the water they should have and found themselves panting and dizzy, skin dry. The ship’s doc-- such as they had-- had to spend long days tending the man before he was well enough to stand again, much less haul on rigging lines or move cargo.

Fjord stood and padded gently to the bowl of water and cloths Jester had left behind and reached out to poke the water’s surface; it was now cool to the touch. He took the whole pile back to the bed and started soaking them, wringing out the excess and then hesitating for only a moment before laying the first over Caleb’s forehead. The second went around the sides of his neck, the third and fourth under his arms, and then the last wrapped around his upper thighs.

Caleb didn’t stir through the process and Fjord’s heart sank. What else had Caduceus said? Help him drink if he wakes? Well. Caleb seemed far from waking. Fjord pulled his next to last cloth from the pile and soaked it in water, trying to minimize the mess he made as he held it over Caleb’s mouth and let a trickle slide past Caleb’s lips. “God, I hope this works,” he muttered.

But two hours later, when Beau slid quietly into the room, bringing with her a thin strip of light from the hallway, Caleb was still asleep.

“He’s been out for a while, now,” Fjord muttered to Beau. “You sure you should be in here?”

Beau shrugged with her good shoulder. “Deuces seemed to think it was too late to matter. Plus I feel fine and I think I would have gotten it by now if I was gonna. How’re things otherwise.”

“I don’t know,” Fjord admitted. “I’ve been trying to get some water in him, but he’s asleep or unconscious or whatever. Mostly, we’re trying to keep him cool.”

He moved the rag and ran an almost automatic hand across Caleb’s forehead. “He’s been real hot for a while, now. I’ll get more water before I go. Wake Caduceus if you need anything.”

Fjord stood and limped out, his injured leg aching as he put weight on it for the first time in many hours. Beau slid into his vacated seat, taking up Caleb’s hand. Their friend didn’t move during the exchange.

The hallway was dimly lit, a few candles set in the braziers along the wall. Fjord crept down the hall as softly as he could, trying not to wake anyone as he attempted to remember where the regular washroom had been last time they had visited the Chateau. To his relief, the first door he opened turned out to be said room, and not the bedroom of a sleeping worker or friend. He refilled the basin and limped back down the hallway, careful not to spill. When he reentered the room, Beau was frowning so hard it seemed it would permanently crease her face.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t wake Caduceus? This is hot, even for a fever, Fjord. What if it’s, like, cooking his brain?”

A frisson of greater concern ran through Fjord. “I don’t actually know that much about sick humans, outside dehydration and injuries from combat and stuff,” he admitted. “But if you think it’s that bad, too…” He came over and set down the bowl of water on the small bedside table before dropping, gracelessly, off his bad leg and onto the bed next to her.

“I don’t know,” Beau capitulated. “But… no, I just don’t know.” She sighed, and grimaced. “This sucks.”

Fjord reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Yeah, it does. Listen, I’ll wake up Caduceus and send him in, just have him check quick. Just based on how he was when he left for bed, it’ll probably make him feel better, too.”

“Okay,” Beau blew out a long breath. “Sleep good.”

“I’ll send in Caduceus.”

Fjord reentered his and Caduceus’ shared room and only hesitated a moment before crossing to the firbolg’s bed. Caduceus had opened the shutters and moonlight dressed the room with dim light. The blankets were pulled up almost over Caduceus’ head, only his delicate ears and long pink hair spilling out of the top. “Cad,” Fjord reached out and touched the general vicinity of Caduceus’ shoulder. “Caduceus, wake up.”

Caduceus’ next breath was shorter, sharper, as Fjord gently shook him. “Fjord?” he rumbled, and wiggled a hand around until it was free of the blankets and he could shove them down to reveal his face, large eyes blinking open at Fjord in hazy awareness. “What--” he started, slightly louder.

“Hey,” Fjord interjected. “It’s good. No emergency, or anything.”

“Oh,” Caduceus said, relaxing slightly, but continuing to untangle himself from blankets and push his hair out of his face. Those bright eyes roved over Fjord, giving him the feeling, as Caduceus often did, that he was scanning Fjord’s face and learning his every trouble without asking a single question. “But it’s not good,” he said.

“Caleb’s still real hot,” Fjord said. “I don’t think he got worse, but it’s hard for me to tell. Beau’s there now, and he’s warm enough that it’s making her nervous.”

“I’ll go check on them, then,” Caduceus said easily.

“Thanks,” Fjord replied. “I-- sorry for waking you up, but I think it would make both of us feel better.”

“Oh, no problem,” Caduceus unfolded his long form, the flow of the silken borrowed sleep shirt and trousers making him look even taller. He gestured across the room to Fjord’s own bed, still messy from Fjord’s rapid exit many hours earlier. “You should get some sleep, too.”

“I will. Thanks, ‘Deuces.” At the sight of his bed, Fjord felt suddenly more tired than he had ever been. He crossed in a few painful, final steps and dropped onto it, telling himself just stay awake until Caduceus gets back, once you know Caleb’s okay then you can sleep, just a few minutes but before he could even finish the thought, he was asleep.

When he woke many long hours later, sunlight had replaced moonlight, the blankets were tangled around his feet, his leg throbbed harshly, and Caduceus still had not returned to his bed.

Chapter Text

Nott woke before the sun. She sat up and frowned, something hard-earned from travel-- if she woke, quickly, and was ready, something was wrong.

She looked around the room. It was emptier than it had been. When she had reluctantly followed Jester from Caleb’s room earlier, Beau had come with them, the limited rooms available in the Chateau mean that, as they so often did, they would have to share quarters. Of course, Jester’s room was much nicer than most of the rooms they shared; the one large bed was itself larger than several beds in other places they’d stayed put together. However, it seemed even larger at this moment because Beau wasn’t in it, splayed out and taking up half the space.

Nott slid out of bed quietly, pulling on the clean and perfectly fitted bathrobe Marion had given her over her clothing. It was soft and almost uncomfortably smooth, the light blue a sharp contrast against her green, scaly skin. She padded out of the room, feet bare except for the bandages around the injured one, trying not to wake Jester, who lay flopped in the middle of the bed.

There was a low rumble of muttering voices and the sound of moving water down the hall and she moved that way, the voices growing louder and resolving into Beau and Caduceus as she entered the room. It was the room where they had bathed earlier, most of the tubs empty now, with one exception.

The tub closest to the wall spigot was half full of water and human. Beau was in it, fully dressed in her sleep clothes, her chest to Caleb’s back and her bad arm tucked between them. Caduceus was kneeling at the side of the tub. Caleb was still in his smalls and bandages but mostly bare, except for the rags Caduceus was soaking and draping over Caleb’s still exposed forehead, clavicle, and neck. Both of them were keeping up a running stream of chatter toward Caleb that Nott assumed was supposed to be soothing except it kept being broken by Caleb’s harsh breaths and low reedy whines.

The soothing words didn’t seem to be working anyway; Caleb’s eyes were closed but as she approached, she could see the eyes moving under the eyelids. His hands were unrestrained, most of Beau’s efforts going into keeping his chest and head upright, and they flailed towards the edges of the tub, occasionally moving in the beginning of an arcane motion before sliding into confusion. There were puddles of water surrounding them on the floor and even as she watched, Caleb jolted as far to the side as he could before Beau gently pulled him back to her and water spilled out onto the floor.

“What happened?” Nott asked, voice rising as she picked her way across the puddles to find a stool and tote it to the tub.

“He’s too hot,” Caduceus rumbled. “The fever won’t break.”

She set the stool down, braced herself to get wet-- this was Caleb, he needed help, she could do this-- and stood on it, reaching in to fish out one of Caleb’s hands. Caleb’s low noises of panic subsided, somewhat, at the increased contact but his thrashing didn’t, especially as Caduceus laid a new rag along the side of his neck. The water wasn’t cold or even cool; it was nearer to room temperature. But against the heat of Caleb’s skin, it was practically frigid.

And so they sat, all four of them miserable, for nearly thirty minutes. Time dribbled by, slower than the drops of water sliding down Caleb’s skin as his struggles slowed and they no longer had to dodge waves of water as often. Slowly, slowly, though, Nott thought she could see Caleb improving, the soft skin under her hands less likely to catch fire.

Finally, Caduceus ran long fingers across Caleb’s damp forehead and nodded, sighing louder than Nott thought was strictly necessary for the most experienced healer in the room. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

“Is he gonna be okay?” Nott asked, leaning forward and placing her own hand across Caleb’s forehead for a moment, green skin and white bandages contrasting with his now-flushed skin.

“He should be,” Caduceus reassured her. “He’s cooler now and when Jester’s finished resting she can heal him up. And the rest of us, too.”

For the first time since she came in, Nott spared more than a cursory glance at Caduceus. He was in his sleep clothes, the shirt soaked from Caleb’s splashing, and looked very tired. “You should have been sleeping, too, Caduceus.”

Caduceus shrugged easily, moving to dig around in a basket of soft towels off to the side. “It’s really okay,” he said. “You all needed me awake more. I’ll sleep later. Unless we’re leaving today?”

Nott thought about the state they had trudged in the previous evening, about how Jester and her mother had lit up when they saw each other, at Caleb still unconscious and breathing loud in front of her. “I don’t think so, Deuceus.”

“Well.” He nodded, as if that solved all their problems and bent at the waist to hand her a stack of towels. “Then all is well.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

Jester had dressed and was rummaging around to find her sketchbook before she’d woken up enough to realize that there were more pressing issues than drawing her Mama, happy to see them. She squinted at the smooth pink leather of the haversack, trying to shake her half-awake memories into focus-- Beau sliding quietly from their shared bed in the early hours of the morning, reluctantly leaving Caleb’s bedroom with Nott as Fjord sat on the edge of Caleb’s bed--

Caleb.

Jester snatched the sketchbook and her inks from the bag and was down the hall in a moment, pushing breathlessly into the room where Caleb was sleeping, the door bouncing open so hard it banged off the wall. The tableau that met her, at first glance, seemed much less harried than the night before, and she took a moment to catch her breath.

Nott sitting on the pillows at Caleb’s head, the green hand with the unbroken fingers running through his hair and lit by the grey light of pre-dawn. His other hand was monopolized by an exhausted looking Caduceus, who was finishing unwrapping the bandages around his forearm and laying them aside. Most of the rest of Caleb was blocked by Beau, who was standing at the foot of the bed with her shoulders drawn up so tightly she looked ready to snap. It took Jester a moment to realize the odd fit of Beau’s sleep shirt, trousers, and shoulder sling was because they were more than a little wet, an unused towel slung over her shoulder, and that Caduceus' garments and the bandages he was setting aside were dripping as well.

Caleb coughed, loudly, and Jester could hear Nott respond with a long string of quiet prattle, so soft she couldn’t catch the words. She pushed forward, until she was standing next to Beau.

“Hey,” she said. “How’s it--” her breath caught. Caleb was awake. The sunlight starting to trickle into the room revealed eyes half open, and despite the fact that he had spent large portions of the previous evening presumably unconscious, he seemed exhausted. There was a towel underneath him on the bed and his hair was wet, although most of his skin and the light shirt and smalls he was wearing were dry. He also looked absolutely miserable. “What happened?”

“Hey,” Beau said quietly. “Rough night. Doing better, now.”

“Why are you all wet?”

“Mr Caleb’s fever was very high,” Caduceus rumbled. His voice was as even as ever, but the words seemed to be even more measured than usual. “We had to bring it down.”

Beau grimaced. “He was kinda freaked, for some of it,” she said. “But he didn’t really wake up. I think this is the first time we’ve seen him kinda aware in a while.”

“Is he better, now?” Jester asked. “Only, I was going to talk to the Traveler a little this morning and get a restoration spell ready--”

“That would still be good,” Caduceus said. “A major one, if you can. And some healing. I’d do it, but I’m tapped--”

“That’s my fault, I made Fjord wake you up--”

“It’s no problem, it just means--”

“It’s fine,” Jester interrupted them both. “Beau, you took good care of Caleb and it sounds like it was a good thing you had Fjord get Caduceus and Caduceus came and helped Caleb so it’s all good! I’ll go talk to the Traveler and then come back and everything will be fine!”

Beau took a slow breath and nodded, pulling the towel from her shoulder and actually starting to use it to dry off. Caduceus smiled softly at Jester and turned back to carefully cleaning Caleb’s scarred and injured arms with something from a jar.

“Sounds good, Jester,” Nott said. “Do you know how long it’ll take to be ready?”

“Noooo,” Jester said cheerfully, “but the Traveler knows when we need to be quick so I don’t think it’ll be long. And it’s sunrise, so that means we’ll have breakfast soon!”

There were twin, loud rumbles from the stomachs of Nott and Beau. “Breakfast sounds amazing,” Beau admitted. “But let’s get Caleb sorted first.”

Jester rolled her eyes. “I know that,” she said. “Okayberightback!”

She dashed back down the hall to her room and settled with her sketchbook in the middle of the floor, flipping through the pages until she found her notes and sketches about restoratives she had learned many weeks ago. She took a deep breath. “Hi, Traveler, it’s me, Jesterrrr…”

Ten minutes later, she bounced back down the hall and burst once back into the room. This time, the door was caught by Nadine before it could hit the wall. Marian was next to her, holding a cup of tea out towards Beau, incongruous in that she and Nadine were the only ones wearing proper clothing. “Good morning, Jester,” she said, turning to give her daughter a fond smile. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

“That would be great, Mama, but I’m gonna help Caleb first,” Jester said, weaving through Beau, Nadine, and Marian to get to the bed. Caduceus had finished cleaning Caleb’s arms but hadn’t rebandaged them, leaving the arms open to the air in preparation for Jester. Caleb was under the blankets to his lap and his hair had been toweled drier. Caduceus had retreated to one of the small chairs by the table, ears flipping up as he sipped his own cup of tea.

Jester bounced onto the bed, sliding up next to Nott at Caleb’s side. He already seemed a little better than he had been before, but the less hazy eyes also came with the sharp creases in pain around their edges. “Hello, Cayyyyleb,” she said quietly. “Can I heal you now so you feel better?”

Caleb rolled his head slightly and his eyes met her, that brilliant blue peeking out from under half closed eyelids. “Ja, hi, hi Jester,” he said, barely more than a mumble.

That was good enough for Jester. She reached out, laying one hand gently on Caleb’s (too hot) forehead and the other in the center of his (too thin) chest. Jester took a deep breath. “Okay, Traveler, Caleb needs some help, so I’m gonna try to heal him, and if you’re not busy and you could help, that would be great!” Marion’s eyes widened at the end of her bed as her daughter’s hands glowed with a faint blue light and it spread across Caleb’s body, sinking with little sparks of blue into the cuts on his arms, reducing the heavy rattle in his chest until it was no longer audible, pulling the wrinkled lines of pain from around his eyes.

Everyone waited, silent for a moment, as Caleb hauled in one long, clear breath. He didn’t cough.

Beau’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Thanks, Jester.”

Caleb’s head dipped slightly again and Nott lurched forward, her hands reaching out and patting his cheeks. “Caleb? Caleb?”

“‘S fine,” Caduceus said. “He’s still gonna need some proper sleep. Let’s get him up for a bit and get some food into him and then he can go back to sleep. Sit down, Fjord,” he added, and Jester glanced over her shoulder to see Fjord leaning on the doorframe, worry fading slowly from his eyes as he watched Caleb breathe and performed a quick once over around the room.

“Caleb,” Nott said again, gently shaking Caleb’s head. “Wake up, Caleb.”

Caleb cracked his eyes open, more awake than he had been maybe been in days, still not really awake, but not really asleep either. “Hello, Nott.” He reached up and rubbed his face, looking very much like a young child who wasn’t sure why he was awake.

“Hi, Caleb,” Nott smiled, all sharp teeth and crinkled eyes. “Let us help you eat something quick and then you can go to sleep properly, okay? Jester healed you up.”

At the mention of ‘us’, Caleb’s eyes skimmed the room, sharper than they had been when he did the same thing the previous night. They lingered on the opulent bedspread and the bandages poking out from under Caduceus’ shirt, Beau’s sling, and around Fjord’s leg, the sun rising out the window but everyone still in sleep clothing, finally landing on Nadine and the Ruby of the Sea, pouring cups of tea and setting out small plates of food. “Madame Lavorre,” he said. “Hello, sorry.” He looked around again. “We are in your house.”

The muddled phrase was almost more of a question than a statement, but somehow, Marion knew what he meant. She handed the teacup she was holding to Fjord. “And you are most welcome to be here,” she said. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Um,” Caleb said, and seemed to take some sort of internal audit. “Yes?”

Nott slid down from where she sat above his head to help him sit up and balance the teacup Marion passed him. It didn’t smell familiar, most likely tea from the Chateau’s own kitchens rather than one of the blends Caduceus favored, but Caleb sipped it without complaint and by the time he had drained it down to the sugary dregs, he seemed a little more aware. He picked up grapes and small pieces of bread with shaky hands but had only eaten a few before letting his arms drop back to his lap.

His hands twitched on the bedspread in a way they were slowly becoming familiar with; it mostly happened when Caleb was anxious or uncomfortable. Caleb rubbed at the scars littering his arms and looked around at their opulent surroundings again, gaze still hovering on Marion Lavorre

Marion paused in clearing up a tray of food, stacking a dish on another before following her daughter’s earlier path to sit on the edge of the bed. “Nadine,” she said quietly, “perhaps you could take Jester and her friends to get their clean clothing?”

Nott looked sharply at Marion but after a moment of studying her face started to disentangle herself from the blankets around Caleb. She reached out and touched Marion’s elbow, lightly, and nodded. The group quietly tramped after Nadine until only Caleb and Marion remained, Jester quietly closing the door behind her.

Caleb found it impossible to make look at Marion anymore, now that they were in such close proximity, choosing instead to reach out and start to dig his nails into his forearm, which was suddenly tingling with half-remembered pain and a deep seated itch. Before he could draw blood his hand was stopped by warm red fingers, pressing lightly down on his.

“Mr. Widogast. Caleb,” she began, almost unbearably softly, and the part of Caleb that wasn’t trying to squash some terrible mixture of guilt and anxiety and exhaustion noticed that she said his name the same way Jester did, sneaking in a “y” after the “a” and making it sound like a smooth stone in a river. “It is no burden to me, to have you in my home. It is no difficulty at all.”

He wanted to object, he really did; after all, he was sick and they had called upon her resources, taking what was hers and Jesters, preventing her from performing or entertaining and doing her job, intruding in her home, an allowance he, of all of them, certainly did not deserve. “But--”

“No,” she said softly. “There is no ‘but’ here.” She reached out with her other hand, not releasing his questing fingers, and cupped his cheek, tilting it towards her, and Caleb had to close his eyes against the warmth in her face. She looked at him in a way that reminded him of Caduceus; like she was leafing through the pages of his soul, reading both the good and the bad of his past, and finding him not just adequate but as brilliant as the sun. “I don’t know everything you do, what you are looking for and fighting or where you are going, but you have taken care of my Jester, and that is enough for me. She speaks fondly of all of you and was so worried last night when the others were injured and you were ill; it is the least of the services I can offer in return to shelter you until you are all fit to travel.”

“Danke,” Caleb managed, eyes still tightly closed just as much against the tears that were threatening to spill than anything else. “But--”

“No ‘but’,” Marion repeated softly, then hesitated. She rubbed her thumb across the back of Caleb’s hand sandwiched between her own hand and his arm.

“I will understand if you say no; you do not know me well after all. But may I give you a hug, Caleb?”

It was Caleb’s turn to hesitate. This seemed too far, a bridge he shouldn’t cross; they didn’t know her well, she was famous and respected and he was naught but a damaged, dangerous wizard. But he was also tired and nothing hurt anymore, at least on the outside. He nodded, without opening his eyes.

A sound of shifting fabric and a moment later, the tears that had been threatening to fall for the last few minutes finally made their appearance as warm arms wrapped around Caleb’s shoulders and long hair fell across his neck. Caleb let out a long, shaky breath as Marion hummed gently against the top of his head, resting her cheek lightly on his hair. “Sorry,” he managed to choke out, “your dress-- I’m--”

“Hush,” Marion said, gently. “The dress will keep.” She swept one long-fingered hand up and down his back, running over the knobbly bumps of his spine barely hidden under the light shirt and down past all the scars and burns and marks and back up. “Oh, Caleb, life has not been kind to you.”

Caleb’s breath hitched and he tried to force his breathing to smooth. It had been a long time, close to two decades, since he had been hugged like this, by a parent. On the second shuddering breath, Marion’s other hand came up and ran through his still-damp hair and he broke.

Marion felt him hitch again before dissolving into a silent shake, the kind of cry that Jester had never learned. Jester, her beautiful Sapphire, had grown up and lived her whole life with kindness and teasing and yes, more hiding than Marion would like, but she had always been free to cry openly, loudly. Caleb, this sad, scared man who had let himself be tied so closely to her daughter and her friends, cried like he was worried he would be seen and punished. Who, even as he sobbed, made sure to keep at least one of those scarred arms free to used, ready to protect himself if he needed to. Who, as he finally twitched and pulled back a few minutes later, still wouldn’t make more than the most fleeting of eye contact with those brilliant blue eyes.

“You should drink something more before you sleep, if you can,” she suggested pragmatically. She stood and turned away, letting him quietly rub at his eyes with the bedsheet in private before handing him another cup of tea. The storm of strong emotion had clearly left him even more exhausted than before and Marion watched him like a hawk as he gingerly handled the teacup in shaky fingers.

They sat quietly for a few moments, both of them drinking tea. Sunlight slid further into the room as the sun finished its rise over the horizon and the slow noise of a waking city began to build softly through the window. Marion rescued Caleb’s cup the second time his eyelids drooped, pulling the cup with its last dregs from his hands and pulling the blanket up towards his chest.

She stood, the room much quieter than it had been the previous night as Caleb’s soft, slow breaths evened out. She had stacked the rest of the cups and plates together when there was a light tap at the door and her little Sapphire poked her head in, dressed and clean.

“Hi, Mama,” Jester came across the room and let Marion pull her into a hug less sad but no less heartfelt than the one she had given Caleb.

“Hello, lovely daughter,” Marion said, giving Jester a squeeze but not letting go. “How is everyone else?”

“Better,” Jester said over her mother’s shoulder. “The Traveler and I healed Caduceus, Fjord, Nott, and Beau, so nobody’s hurt anymore. Caduceus and Beau went to take naps and I think Fjord and Nott went to go through our cart.”

“And you?”

“Better,” Jester repeated, looking over at Caleb.

He was still asleep, face slack in a way that made him seem young. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that Caleb was barely a decade older than her; he carried so much weight around with him. Not always; when he laughed at her jokes, or cuddled with Frumpkin, or held Nott’s hand, or gently teased Beau, that weight would vanish. But it was rare to see him as young as he looked now, face unlined and lips relaxed from his habitual frown.

“Better.”

______________________________________________________________________________

 

Caleb blinked.

He was comfortable and well rested. There was sunlight around him and a soft bed and nothing hurt. He could breathe. He was hungry and needed to use the bathroom, but compared to how things had been, he’d take it.

He blinked again and looked around. Beau was sitting in a chair and leaning back on two legs, eating a bunch of grapes by dint of tossing them as high as she could and trying to catch them in her mouth without knocking over the chair. She was wearing her regular clothes again, the blue sash around her waist, but both woman and clothing were cleaner than they had been in some time.

“Fuck,” she swore quietly but with feeling as one of the grapes bounced off her chin.

“Missed that one,” Caleb said, voice rough from disuse and harsh breathing and earlier tears.

“Fuck!” she said, considerably louder as she let the chair drop back onto all four legs. “You’re awake!”

“Hi, Beauregard,” Caleb said. He started pulling himself into an upright position and towards the edge of the bed.

“Woah, easy there.” Beauregard abandoned the chair and the grapes to cross and grab his upper arm as he slid feet towards the floor. “You’ve had a rough couple of days.”

Caleb wanted to make a smart comment, but found he couldn’t; everything was very fuzzy but he had lots of memories of hands and arms holding onto him, many of them Beau’s.

“Yeah,” he said instead. His legs were wobbly, but with Beau’s support, they held. She kept a hand on his arm as they moved towards the hall, a reversal of the way they moved when Caleb was watching through Frumpkin’s eyes.

When he came back out of the bathroom, Beau had apparently run an errand because she was holding a pile of clothing. It was clean enough that it took him a moment to recognize as his own.

Caleb started pulling pieces on, taking off the shirt he was wearing-- Fjord’s?-- and swapping it for his own. “Shoes?” he asked.

“I think they’re still in the boy’s room,” she said. “With your coat and books.”

They shuffled down the hall and into the room, void of people. Caleb dropped the shirt on the bed and scooped up his books from where they sat on a chair, savoring the feel of parchment and leather under his fingers before sliding the harness on and letting their weight drop to his sides. Something he didn’t know he was worried about lifted from his shoulders. He sat and laced his boots, leaving his coat after rifling through the pockets.

“Where is everyone?” he finally had the wherewithal to ask.

“Downstairs,” Beau said. “The Ruby is practicing and I think Caduceus is in the kitchen.”

“Shall we go?” He reached out and crooked an arm, letting Beau slide hers into his. He was glad for her support as they stepped carefully down the stairs to the lower level of the Lavish Chateau; it felt like his knees were made of water. As they descended he could, in fact, hear the Ruby of the Sea singing, something light and low that reminded Caleb of the wind in the trees.

“Caylebbb!” Jester called from across the room. She was out of her chair in a flash, dropping something on the table and sprinting over to pull him into a very tight hug. “We missed you! You were so sick and it was really scary! You’re not,” she pulled back to shake a blue finger very close to his nose, “allowed to do that again.”

He couldn’t help the small smile that pulled out of him. “Okay, Jester. If you say so, I will do my best.”

Jester hovered as he and Beau walked over to the table where everyone else sat. He slid onto a chair next to Nott, glad not to stand anymore, and frowned. For just a walk downstairs, he was awfully tired.

Caduceus slid a plate of light food and two cups his way, apparently already prepared for his arrival. “One’s water, the other’s more tea,” he explained. “You still need to make sure you’re drinking enough. I’m sure you feel pretty wobbly, but that’ll pass.”

“Thank you, Caduceus,” Caleb said. He reached out under the table to grip Nott’s hand and squeeze gently. “And all of you. I don’t remember very much, but…” he trailed off as his eyes drifted towards Marion Lavore, who waved gently at him without stopping her song. “I know you were there. Thank you. I am much better.”

Caleb realized at the end of this short speech that all eyes were on him, some of them full of emotions that made him feel like too much sharing of feelings was imminent. He pulled the plate towards him and began to slowly eat before anyone could say anything too heartfelt.

Conversation broke out again around him; where they would go next, how cool Jester had been in their last fight, places they wanted to stop as long as they were in Nicodranas.

Under the table, Nott squeezed Caleb’s hand back. “You’re sure you’re alright?” she asked, quietly.

 

“I’m sure, Nott.” Caleb replied as quietly as he could, trying not to catch the attention of the rowdy bunch of adventurers who had become so near to his heart. “I’m much better.”