Actions

Work Header

Whumptober 2019 Collection

Chapter Text

His hands won’t stop shaking.

Molly tries clenching them at his sides, gripping the fingers of one hand with the other, but it does nothing to stop the fine tremble. He looks up again, towards the mouth of the pit he’s stuck in, knowing he won’t see more than the faintest hint of a circle at the top. It’s a long way up-well, a relatively far way up. The fact that he can see it means it’s not so far, but it may as well be miles for all that he can get to it, that he can get out.

He tried, when he first fell in, but the sides of the pit had crumbled under his hands, dropping dirt on his head and arms, and it had taken all the inner fortitude he had to keep his panic at bay until Caleb had left, assuring him he’d be back soon with help, that they’d get him out.

No sooner had Caleb disappeared away from the lip of the pit than the ceaseless panic that had been hovering descended. The pressure of it on his chest, flashes of memory, of darkness so deep he doesn’t know what light is, the taste of grave dirt in his mouth, pushing, pressing, crushing him with the weight of destiny, of fate, of his past self’s choices.

He’s sitting now, his back pressed up against the dirt wall, legs pulled up to his chest and arms wrapped around, tail pulled close. He rocks gently, hands still clasped together, still trembling.

He tells himself it’s not the same- it isn’t, he knows it isn’t- but that does nothing to assuage the utter conviction that it’s happening again, that he’s been buried, left, forgotten, and he’ll die here a second time. He wonders if he’ll rise again, as someone else. If he remains stuck if he’ll go through an endless progression of lives, to live in starvation and loneliness and madness, over and over and over and-

No. It won’t come to that. Caleb’s gone for help, and he knows the wizard wouldn’t leave him here, not like this. He’ll be back soon, with Beau, or Fjord, or even Jester, and they’ll help get him out, lickety-split.

He looks up again, the circle at the top still blank, empty, a void.

Just like he was.

He shudders, grips his arms tighter around himself, resting his forehead on his knees and forces himself to breathe, to suck in air even as his mind tells him there’s not enough, that the air grows thin, stale. It’s a lie, a horrible fiction his mind is telling him, and only the pinprick pain of his claws on his arms is keeping him grounded.

Breathe. He just needs to breathe.

He doesn’t let himself look back up again. Continuing to look won’t make someone appear. When the others return they’ll call to him, he knows they will. Looking up again won’t change anything.

He keeps his forehead pressed to his knees, eyes closed. If his eyes are closed he can pretend it’s a normal darkness, not the deep dimness of the grave. He sings to himself, every bawdy drinking song he knows. There’s no song in the stillness of a grave. If he’s singing it means he’s alive. He’ll be okay. He just needs to wait.

Chapter Text

The burn of the whiskey is soothing as it slides down Nott’s throat. She’s long ago learned to ignore the flavor, or at best find it’s familiarity a comfort. The gentle haze of drunkenness that settles over her mind calms her nerves, as it’s meant to, letting her act instead of freeze, letting her do her job instead of hiding in the back, useless.

She takes one more swig then tucks her flask away, dragging the back of her hand across her lips before moving forward.

“I got this!”

She digs her tools out from the pouch at her side, and investigates the lock. Her vision is slightly blurred, but she blinks a couple of times and it clears enough for her to see what she’s doing. There’s a trap, but it’s the work of a moment to disarm it, and then she’s working at the lock itself. It’s almost surprisingly easy, considering where they are- an ancient stronghold, filled with wonders unknown- but she has been improving in her lock picking, so maybe it isn't that it’s easy, but that she’s just gotten that much better.

The lock gives a satisfying click and pops open, and Nott grins as she pulls her tools free and stands. A hand lands on her shoulder and gives a squeeze.

“Alright, Nott?”

“Yeah, Caleb, looks fine. Nothin’ to worry about.”

He smiles down at her, hand reaching for the latch on the door. “Thank you, Nott. Well done. Let’s have look, ja?”

She’s already nodding as he turns the handle, and barely hears the soft extra click that doesn’t match the sound of the latch opening. She tries to warn him, but there’s not enough time; she dives out of the way, skidding across the room as she lands and rolls, throwing her arms up in front of her face. She can still see the brilliant flash of light even through her closed eyelids, and the blast of heat from the explosion is blistering. The silence after is ringing, and as she lowers her arms, Nott isn’t sure she’s hearing correctly. The ringing continues, and when she tries to call for Caleb, her words sound muffled. ‘Too close’, she thinks picking herself up and dusting off. She doesn’t seem worse for wear, only a couple singed spots on her clothes, nothing worse that what she’s done to herself before while fiddling with chemicals. The dust in the air is still settling, and Nott waves a hand in front of her face, trying to move it away.

“Caleb?”

If there’s an answer she doesn’t hear it over the ringing in her ears. It’s improving, she thinks, but a small lump of worry forms in the pit of her stomach the longer she calls and doesn’t get a response. Another moment passes, and suddenly she sees why. The smoke has cleared enough to more easily see the room they’re in, and there on the floor, off to the side of the door she’d been trying to open, is Caleb.

She scrambles over, falling to her knees and skidding the last few inches, hands fluttering over him as she tries to take him in all at once, to see where he’s hurt. At first she thinks he’s just stunned; he’s covered in what looks like a fine layer of soot, and she thinks he was thrown aside, but the longer she looks, the more she realizes something is very wrong.

Under the layer of ash his skin is an angry red and black, cracked and blistered in places and glistening in others with something she doesn’t want to think about. She glances up to his face and his eyes are wide, the whites stark and the blue brilliant against the ashy gray coating his skin.

“Caleb! Caleb, are you okay?” It’s a stupid question, and she hates it the moment it leaves her mouth, but she’s helpless to not ask it. She doesn’t know what to do, can’t think, past the faint ringing in her ears and realizing what’s happened.

What she’s let happen.

“Oh- oh no, no no no, Caleb, can you hear me?” She reaches for his hand, to grip it, see if he’s at all responsive, and that’s when she sees it, her stomach diving in a dread-filled swoop. There’s something, a piece of the door, she thinks, sticking out of his side like the world’s largest splinter, blood starting to darken the fabric of his shirt around it. She’s still trying to decide what to do when there’s a quiet wheeze and when she looks Caleb’s face has screwed up in pain, eyes squeezed shut. He tries to move and his whole body stiffens, a high whine of pain eeking out of him and Nott’s in a near panic.

“Oh gods, no, don’t try to move, just- stay where you are! I’ll-” She looks frantically around, trying to get her thoughts to cooperate. They’re still slow and hazed, though some of her buzz has been pushed back by the wash of adrenaline. Cupping her hands around her mouth, Nott yells towards the door, calling for Jester, for Caduceus, anyone, but there’s no response. She grabs for her wire, and it takes her a few tries to wind it correctly as she cups her hands near her mouth, trying a few times in a few directions, but again, there’s no response. Everyone must be out of range, or the thick walls of the fortress are blocking the magic. She shoves the wire back into the pouch and looks down at Caleb as she tries to calm her breathing. He doesn’t look as stunned as before, which is both a blessing and not; his face has gone tight at the eyes, and she can see his jaw clench even as his chest rises and falls quickly in shallow breaths. He seems to bolster himself, though, because between one second and the next he’s trying to sit up, even as his breathes come faster and harsher, escaping on whimpers or gasps almost every time.

“Caleb, no, you have to be careful, you’re terribly hurt, please-”

Nnng, Nott, I- I heard you calling, nobody is coming, or they would have already.”

She darts behind him to help him finish sitting up, and he collapses to rest against her, chest heaving as he sucks in breaths. The blood around the piece of wood in his torso is spreading, the fabric wet with it as it soaks through, but she knows removing the shrapnel would be worse. She has a healing potion, but she doesn’t know if it will be enough, doesn’t know if it will keep him from bleeding out if she removes the wood from his side.

“Nott?” Caleb’s voice is thin, breathy, and she reaches for him as his hand pats around, searching. She takes his hand in hers and squeezes, concern flaring again at how cool and clammy his hand feels in hers.

“Yeah?”

“We need to find the others. No -” he cuts Nott off as she starts to interrupt. “I know it looks bad but,” he pauses looks down and pales slightly before meeting her eye with a tremulous smile. “Well, it is a bit bad, ja, but nothing to be done about it until we reach assistance. Needs must.”

Nott’s voice fails her as she tries to find something to say to forestall him, but Caleb is already making to stand, and she leaps up to help, to give him a steadying hand. Small, bitten off sounds keep making it past his clenched jaw, but his face is oddly smooth and devoid of expression. She’s seen him do it before, when he’s trying not to frighten her, and she thinks it almost makes things worse, because he only does it when things are really bad.

Caleb stumbles on his first step, his legs threatening to buckle, but she helps to steady him, and slowly they make their way in search of help.

Chapter Text

He can’t even say he didn’t mean to do it, because he did.

Not only that, but Fjord would go so far as to say he’d do it again.

It had been a split-second decision, made in the heat of battle; something flashed out of the corner of his eye and with no time to shout a warning he’d jumped in the way.

Despite everything, he can’t quite bring himself to regret the decision. Caduceus is still safe, up and supporting the rest of the team, and that's the important part. Fjord's pretty sure the way the world is starting to blur and gently spin from his perspective is also important, but one thing at a time.

First things first is to get up off the ground.

Fjord gets a hand under himself and is halfway upright when a spike of pain goes through him, flaring in his shoulder like he’s been struck by lightening. He screams- or he thinks he does, it’s hard to tell- and when he looks he’s surprised to see something so innocuous-looking. Sticking out of the gap in his armor where the chest piece meets the shoulder guard is...something. Without thinking he reaches and pulls it out, and in his hand is a small stinger, though he supposes ‘small’ is relative. It’s not quite so long as his hand, but it’s wickedly sharp, the point hollow-tipped and dripping with something viscous and dark, the whole thing tinged red with his blood. 

Well. That can’t be good.

His shoulder hurts less than he thinks it should, but the battle is still raging and he doesn’t have time to worry about it. He drops the stinger and dives back in, sword once again in-hand.

The rest of the fight is furious and quick, and by the end Fjord’s panting for breath, sweat pouring off him. It doesn’t occur to him there’s something wrong until he’s been still a few minutes and realizes he’s still sweating, still flushed and overheating, and there doesn’t feel like there’s enough air no matter how he tries to calm himself.

Shit.

He looks around, hoping to see Jester or Caduceus nearby, and is surprised to realize he can’t see any of his friends at all. The battlefield looks as he remembers, mud and scarred earth, a few patches steaming and cracked from where some of Caleb’s fire must have hit it. There are bodies laying around, but they don’t look right. He tries to focus on them, to really see them, and finds to his mounting unease that he can’t. They’re bodies, he’s sure of that, but they’re vague, formless other than looking definitively humanoid. He can’t discern hair color, body type, even faces. It’s as if the ground is littered with a number of life-sized dolls and the harder he tries to make them make sense, the less real they look.

There’s a bit of movement, just barely in his peripheral vision, but when he turns to look there’s nothing there. Or rather, there’s only one of the figures, laying still as death a few feet away. He’s backing away when he catches movement again, from his right, and again, when he turns to look the only thing there is another figure, sprawled on its back on the ground, featureless face turned to the sky, equally motionless.

His pulse is racing, hamming in his chest and in his throat, and Fjord doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t want to run, his friends might be nearby, but everything about this situation feels wrong, the dread in his belly growing heavier as each moment passes. He wants to call out, to yell for them, but he can’t shake the unutterable certainty that if he does the beings on the ground will rise and come for him, that only his silence is keeping him safe.

At a loss for what else to do, Fjord starts walking.

It’s only after a few minutes he realizes he doesn’t know why he picked the direction he did; when he turns to go back and try again, the path he’s been following is gone, a dense wall of trees behind him. Fjord whirls, looking forward again only go come face-to-face with more trees. He spins, looking for a way forward, a path to follow, but all he sees are trees, densely packed, enormous. Trees this big shouldn’t be able to be so close together but they are, blocking his way, and he realizes he’s trapped, penned in with nowhere to go. The branches sway in a breeze he can’t feel, moving more freely than tree branches should, moving like something made flesh, like snakes, like tentacles, reaching for him even as he falls to his knees, curling forward.

“No, please, I was supposed to be safe-

He tries to pull back, to hide, but there’s nowhere to go, no way to escape, and the tentacles slither forth from the trees, caressing him, plucking at his armor, at his hair, his arms, pulling and tugging, and there’s words, almost, in the sound of moving vegetation, in the soft susurrus of noise as the appendages grip and wrap around him. He thinks they’re calling his name, but it’s quiet, distorted.

They enfold him, almost cradling, and if he didn’t know better he’s almost say they were trying to be gentle. Everything stills, and he waits, tense, on-edge, knowing they’ll tighten to a crushing force at any moment-

Fjord?”

It’s faint, and still doesn’t sound right, but it’s the first thing that’s sounded remotely real since the fight.

“Hello?”

Fjord, if you can hear me, open your eyes?

Open his eyes? But they are-

Fjord opens his eyes and the world around him is blurred, out-of-focus, but somehow more real than he’s been experiencing. Something touches his face, and he jumps, though he doesn’t get far. His muscles feel like jelly, and it’s a struggle to get his mouth to cooperate enough to ask, “Wha-?”

Something blue swings into his immediate line of sight and he yelps, toppling backwards before he can stop himself. There are hands on his shoulders, steadying, and even that small movement makes him dizzy.

“Fjord?” Jester, that’s Jester, he realizes, her voice hesitant and worried, and he doesn’t like it, not one bit.

“Jessie?”

He can almost feel her joy at his response, radiating off her, though that might be the magic sparking from her fingertips as she carefully cradles his face in her hands.

“You gave us all a scare, you know. Getting stung by that...that thing, and then wandering off in the middle of a fight, Fjord, what were you thinking?”

He lets her talk, sinking back against the tree Jester’s propped him against and lets himself drift as she talks, words like ‘toxins’ and ’delirious’ making it through the haze his mind has sunk into.

“I’m going to go check that Caduceus has everything under control. Will you be alright?”

Fjord hums an affirmative, eyes sliding shut before Jester’s even fully standing, letting himself sink into an exhausted doze.

Chapter Text

“Motherfucker!”

Beau dodges to the side, ducking and rolling under the large orcish woman she’s facing off against. The other fighter has reach, but isn’t as fast as Beau, and so Beau’s able to keep just out of range.

Darting back in behind the other woman, Beau lets loose with a flurry of punches, aiming for anything vulnerable, her mind providing helpful places to target- kidneys, spine, maybe the ribs if she can get a good shot in from the side- and manages to land a solid kidney punch before having to dance out of reach again.

“Any time would be great, Widogast!” She can see him, running to catch up from the other side of the treeline to get a clear shot; all she has to do is keep the woman occupied in the meantime.

Easy.

Caleb’s hands are already in-motion, magic sparking and gathering around his fingers; his mouth is moving, and she knows it’ll only be a matter of seconds before he lets fly. Turning to step away, she’s pulled up short as something catches at her shirt and yanks back. Before she can do anything about it Beau finds her feet leaving the ground as she’s hauled around the front of the other fighter- just in time for Caleb’s spell to go off.

There’s a split second where their eyes meet, Caleb’s going wide and horrified before the streaks of fire slam into her, driving the air from her lungs in a pained shout.

She’s vaguely aware of being dropped, hitting the ground hard on her knees and then her elbow as she falls sideways. She knows it must hurt, but it’s difficult to focus on anything other than the washes of fire where the rays have hit. Caleb shot more rays than had actually hit her, and Beau can only be thankful that they didn’t all land as she struggles to her feet, flares of pain sparking along her ribs, shoulder, the side of her hip. They feel raw, throbbing and hot and she doesn’t let herself look down; she has other things to worry about.

Caleb’s still at the edge of the treeline, eyes wide and frozen, his hands raised, and dammit, they do not have time for this.

She’s about to yell for him, to snap him out of it when a meaty fist slams into the side of her head, knocking her dizzily back to the ground. Beau’s forcing herself back up to her hands and knees when a boot catches her in the ribs, sending her back down.

The world’s spinning above her and she realizes she’s on her back staring at the sky. This is bad, this is really bad, but her body isn’t obeying her commands to move, gods dammit, and she can already hear Dairon’s voice in her head, berating her for getting killed like an idiot when above her a wave of fire impacts the other woman square in the chest, blasting her back and off her feet where she falls, and doesn’t get back up.

She needs to get up, should check on Caleb, make sure he’s okay. Beau steels herself, rolls over and up to her hands and knees, and with a groan gets back to her feet, swaying before managing to steady herself.

“Beauregard?”

It’s Caleb; he looks pale, eyes still too-wide, but he’s moving, and present, and that’s about all Beau could ask for in the moment.

“Yeah, I’m- I’m good. Totally fine.” She takes a step towards him and lists sideways, though he catches her and helps keep her upright.

“I think perhaps Jester or Caduceus will be the judge of that. Let’s go find them, ja ?”

He slides an arm around her waist, careful of the burns, and she pretends not to see him eyeing them with a haunted look as he helps her head back towards their friends.

Chapter Text

It says something about his life of late, Jon thinks, that having the muzzle of a gun pressed against his back has become a familiar-enough sensation as to be easily recognizable.

He doesn’t fight as he’s pulled off the sidewalk and into an alley, doing his best not to sigh in annoyance as he’s shoved hard to the wall of one of the nearby buildings; the level of manhandling is unnecessary, and to be perfectly frank it’s rude.

“What do you want?” He doesn’t intend for his words to be so cross, nor does he intend the thread of compulsion to slip in, but it’s been a bit of a day- bit of a year, really- and he’s been looking forward to going home and having a smoke before falling into bed. This turn of events is complicating that, and he'd run out of patience with the day hours ago.

“Your wallet, anything valuable.”

That gives Jon a moment of pause. “I’m sorry, what?”

The man in front of him is a beast of a man, though not so large as some of the creatures Jon’s encountered in the last few years. He’s a sizable obstacle to escape, and the gun he’s holding, pointed in Jon’s direction, is a definite cause for concern. The man blinks, shakes his head, scowl growing as his grip on the gun tightens.

“Give me your wallet, anything valuable. C’mon, do you think I’m fuckin’ around?” The gun jabs forward, and an icy slither of fear goes down his spine. This isn’t one of the others, someone sent to fuck with him, it’s just a mundane mugging, and somehow he’s having difficulty wrapping his mind around it.

“I- wh- no. Look, I have had a very trying day, and I’m not about to get- to get mugged of all things.” Jon sighs. “Why don’t you just go home, and-”

“I don’t think you get it.” The man jams the gun into Jon’s ribs, hard enough to bruise, and Jon squeaks, the reality that he’s arguing with a man with a gun finally hitting home.

“I- yes, no, I- here, just, hold on.”

He shoves his hands into his pockets, feeling around, and realizes that aside from the tape recorder sitting dormant, a packet of cigarettes, the spider lighter, and his keys, there’s nothing else; his wallet isn’t there.

“Well, uh, funny thing, you see, I seem to have left my wallet somewhere.”

The other man snarls. “Do you think this is some kind of joke? That I’m actually gonna believe that shit?”

“I, n-no, of course not, I don’t think you’re joking,  except that it’s true. Believe me,” Jon squirms against the press of the gun. “I am taking you very seriously, and if I had my wallet on me, it would already be in your possession.”

The gun disappears temporarily from Jon’s ribs, and he barely has the chance to breathe a sigh of relief before the man’s forearm is being pressed against his throat, pinning him to the building behind him. It’s hard to breathe this way, and his hands immediately go to the other man’s arm, trying to pull it away, but the other man must have at least three stone on him, and Jon has no doubt it’s all muscle. He’s so preoccupied by the arm pressed to his throat that he doesn’t realize for a moment that his assailant has his free hand in Jon’s pockets, rifling through.

“Hey!” Jon tries to bat the man’s hand away, but the mugger just leans in, and it’s suddenly much harder to breath. If nothing else, Jon has to give it to his assailant that at least he’s quick. The man snarls again when he finds nothing, though he does pull the spider-webbed lighter from Jon’s pocket and holds it up.

“I’m taking this for my trouble. What kind of idiot doesn’t even carry a fucking wallet-” The man pulls back, still muttering, and Jon slides down the wall on shaky legs, coughing and sputtering as he’s suddenly able to suck in lungfuls of air. He doesn’t bother watching as the man leaves the alley, and it hits him all at once how very close he came to dying very stupidly. Other than that first time it hadn’t occurred to him to compel the man to leave, and then it was too late and he couldn't. He can only imagine Elias would be torn between delighted bemusement and irritation at having to train a new Archivist.

He gives himself a few minutes to let his legs stop shaking; just as he’s annoyed at how familiar he is with the feeling of a gun on him, he’s distinctly irritated at how accustomed he’s grown to the progression of adrenaline through his system.

Pushing up to his feet, Jon goes to the end of the alley and after scrubbing trembling fingers through his hair turns himself back towards the Institute. Best to retrieve his wallet before anything else happens to him.

Chapter Text

They’ve been in Ikithon’s custody for seven hours when they take Nott away.

It’s unsurprising; she’s a goblin, and likely considered the most expendable of the group. This is a thought of Caleb’s rational mind, the part of his mind that isn’t swallowed whole by the realization that his deepest nightmare seems to have come true. The rest of his mind is screaming, railing against the fact that any of this is happening, that they’re in Rexentruum, that they’re likely going to die here.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to tell Yeza and Luc.

Beau is next, though that doesn’t happen until the next day. She’s still a mess from the initial battle where they were taken, but that doesn’t stop her from fighting now, even shackled as she is. To Caleb’s amazement she’s almost successful, but a well-placed Dominate Person stops her resistance. It’s unnerving to see her face slacken, her muscles untense as her arms drop to her sides. It’s worse, somehow, to see her compliantly step out of the cell and follow the guards until she’s out of sight.

He and Caduceus hold Jester tight as Fjord is taken two days later. Fjord tries to say something, probably to tell Jester it will be alright, but he doesn’t quite get the words out before he’s hauled off. Jester is sobbing quietly, like her heart is breaking, and Caleb thinks it probably is. None of the others have been brought back, and he can make an educated guess as to what’s happened to them all so far.

Caduceus is serene as ever as he’s taken. HIs smile never wavers, and his ears are soft, relaxed. He’d told them the night before that if he was next, it was alright. ‘Everyone owes the Matron a debt. I’ve lived a good life, and I’m glad to have known all of you.’ Caleb hopes his faith remains strong, that the Wildmother stays with him until the end. It’s the least he deserves.

They come for Jester, and she tries to be brave, and this is where he finally breaks.

He begs them to leave her, to not take them all from him. He begs to be spared this, but deep inside, in his heart-of-hearts, he knows Ikithon would never be so forgiving, never be so merciful. He’s teaching Caleb a lesson, about who’s in control, who’s in charge, and it’s certainly not Caleb.

She holds her chin up, holy symbol clutched tightly in her hands even though it’s done nothing for days, tears shining in her eyes as she’s pulled away, and Caleb hopes he lives to see the retribution Marion will rain down upon Ikithon’s head, because he has no doubt it will be spectacular.

Caleb has been in Ikithon’s custody for three months, two weeks, 5 days, and 8 hours when they come to take him away.

He’s had time to think, to plan, to turn ideas over and over in his mind. He has no expectation of success, no expectation he’ll come out on top. His goal is that Ikithon will die at his hand no matter the cost. Everything is gone, all his friends taken, and he wonders, as they walk him down the cold stone corridors, whether Ikithon realizes what a mistake that was, how much of a folly.

His friends helped keep him in check, gave him a conscience, and now they’re not here.

As the door to Ikithon’s study comes into view, Caleb smiles.

He’s going to enjoy this.

Chapter Text

The thing is, he wasn’t sick when they started out, he doesn’t think. Caleb’s gotten a great deal better at telling the group when things are wrong- especially when it will impact the whole group- and if he’d known as they set out from the inn a couple of days ago that he was going to get this ill, there’s no way he’d have put everyone else at risk, no way he’d have gone with them.

As it is, they’re two days from civilization, from any apothecary, but only a day or so from their objective. Therefore, it’s rational, at least to his mind, that they leave him here, in this cave, so they can go do what needs doing, and then come get him on the way back. If he went with them, he doesn’t think it would be long before he’d be slowing them down, getting in the way, and that’s entirely beside the fact that he’d be useless. As it is, it had taken a very gentle handling of the situation to ride the line between ‘well enough to be left alone’ and ‘too sick to continue’, but in the end, he’d managed it, not wanting them to be any further depleted than they would be already. Jester and Caduceus had both been chagrined at their inability to help, but there was no wound to fix, no poison to counteract. Their magic wasn’t very helpful against mundane illness, as they’d found, and so after settling Caleb in a cave determined to be relatively safe, loaded down with supplies, the others had left, leaving Frumpkin with strict instructions not to let anything happen to Caleb in their absence.

Beau had glowered the entire way out of the cave, until Caleb lost sight of her, and he had no doubt that it continued long after they were on their way. Of all of them, she was the only one with an idea of how oddly fragile humans could be, and yet stubbornly resilient as well. If this didn’t kill him, he’d be fine, and it was unlikely it would kill him. He’d survived so much already that it would take more than a cold with ideas of grandeur to take him out.

He hoped.

He’d promised that he would stick the dome up at night, to keep himself safe, so that he could rest, and so around nightfall of the first day he forced himself up to sitting and got his book out, and began to cast.

It took more effort than it should to focus, to keep his mind on the ritual and not letting it wander off to how awful he felt, how much his head throbbed, how sore his throat was. Soon enough the bubble popped into being, though it was almost more than he could manage to put the book away and to get out a trail ration. He’d promised that if left alone he’d do his best to care for himself, and he intended to keep that promise, even if all he really wanted was to curl up and sleep. He finished eating, made sure to have some water from one of the skins they’d left with him, and finally let himself nestle into his bedroll for some rest.

The next morning he woke as the bubble dispersed and came to the horrible realization that he felt even worse. He’d been hoping some rest and quiet would help, but the ache in his muscles and the throbbing in his head made it very clear that wasn’t to be the case. He sighed, which turned into a cough; he initially went to suppress it, but then realized there was no reason to expend the effort. Who was going to hear it?

Frumpkin chirruped from where he was curled against Caleb’s hip, and Caleb reached down to give his head a pat.

“I’m fine. Just a cold. I’ll be okay until their return.”

Frumpkin looked up at him, face neutral, but Caleb could feel the sense of disbelief over their connection. Caleb chose to ignore it, digging out the small packet of bark Caduceus had given him to steep into tea. ‘Good for pain and fever reduction. Can’t say much for the taste, unfortunately, but it’ll help if you’re in a bad way.’ While he didn’t want to focus on how bad he felt, he thought maybe something warm to drink would help. 

He built a small fire using wood and kindling Nott had gathered for him before they left, and set the small teapot over it to heat. It was quiet in the cave, far quieter than he was accustomed to, now. He was far enough back in the cave that he’d be protected from the elements and direct wind, as well as from the prying eyes of passers by. But it also meant that other than the crackle of the small fire, he wasn’t able to really hear anything, and it started to really hit him that he was as alone as he had been in months. Actually, now that he thought about it it had been over a year, if he included the months with Nott prior to meeting the others, since he’d been this alone. It was odd, considering how much contact used to grate on him, how keenly he felt the absence now. There were a number of times in the early days where he’d considered just walking away, leaving all of them behind, but squishy as he might be now he was more so then, and it was frankly a miracle he’d lasted the five years prior to meeting Nott.

The water started to boil, and he carefully took it with a padded cloth over the handle to pour water over the bark in one of the cups Caduceus had left. He set the pot aside and waited for the tea to steep.

The tea ended up being as awful as Caduceus had intimated- bitter and acrid on the back of his tongue- but he did his best to finish the cupful, figuring Caduceus wouldn’t have left it if he didn’t think it would help. When he was finished, he decided to get up, stretch his legs a bit. He was surprised to discover he had to keep a hand on the side of the cave in order to keep his balance, and was glad there was nobody to see it. He made it outside, enjoying the fresh air even if the chill did make his lungs seize momentarily. He took a moment to relieve himself, then headed back inside. By the time he made it to where his supplies were laid out, he was exhausted, and settled back to the floor with a bitten off groan. Everything hurt, his muscles, his joints, and his head throbbed in time with his heart. While he desperately wanted to get the dome back up, he wasn’t sure he would have the actual focus to do it. He had to try, though; it wasn’t safe to stay here unguarded. Though his hands shook, Caleb pulled out his spellbook and got to work.

It ended up taking him a few tries before he managed it; a coughing fit disrupted one casting, and his mind wandering from the task at hand disrupted another. He finally managed to get it cast, and didn’t manage to get his spellbook put away before he was collapsing into his pile of blankets and falling asleep again.

When next he woke, it was because he was freezing. He tried wrapping his blankets tighter, but it persisted. It wasn’t until he felt his hair ruffle lightly in a breeze that he made himself crack his eyes open.

The bubble was gone.

It took a moment to sink in, but once it had Caleb was pushing himself upright in a panic, trying desperately to figure out what had happened. He was still in the space where the dome would have sat, and it didn’t appear that there was anyone else around to have dispelled it. Frumpkin was still sitting next to him, sleeping peacefully. Breathing through the panic, Caleb forced himself to think. He tried to think of the time, but realized with a slither of discomfort that he couldn’t easily tell. His thoughts were still muddy from sleep, from the illness, but it appeared the time on the dome had run out. He didn’t think he’d intended to sleep that long, but even now the pull of laying back down was strong. He wanted to recast the dome, but the thought of it was exhausting; in fact just sitting up was draining his limited energy reserves. The others had said they’d be back within a day, a day and a half at most, and surely he was already hitting near that first mark? The others would be back soon, and it would be a waste of his limited energy to cast the dome.

He laid back down, wrapping the blankets tightly around him and reached out to Frumpkin via their connection.

Please keep an eye out for me- wake me if there’s trouble, or if the others return.

There was a quiet mrrp from Frumpkin, and Caleb was asleep even as his eyes were closing.

Everything hurt.

That was his first thought as he came awake again. His muscles ached, and his joints felt as if there were shards of glass in them. His throat was dry, so very, very dry. The waterskin was only a few feet away, but it might as well have been leagues away with how he felt. He felt tears prick at the corners of his eyes as he desperately wished the others were here. It was miserable being sick, and even more to be so while alone. So out of it was he that it took him a moment to realize he was not entirely alone.

Katzchen-’ 

Frumpkin trotted over from where he’d been laying near the cave wall and gently bumped his head against Caleb’s own, purring quietly.

Please, if- can you push or drag the water here? I don’t think I can stand-

Frumpkin took another second to affectionately rub his face along Caleb’s head before going to the waterskin. It’s almost the same size as the small cat, so it took a few minutes for Frumpkin to get it to him. Caleb managed to raise a trembling hand to pat Frumpkin, who gave another quiet chirrup before pressing close and settling in a purring bun near his chest. Caleb eyed the waterskin and forced himself up onto his elbows so it was easier to drink. He got the stopper out and the opening to his lips and managed a few good swallows before being overcome with a coughing fit that made him dizzy with its ferocity. It was hard to think, to breathe, and by the time he got himself settled, got himself able to carefully suck in shallow breaths, he realized the floor under him was wet, Frumpkin having darted off to the side; he’d dropped the waterskin, the contents spilling out over the cave floor and soaking into the blankets he’d been laying on. He just laid there a moment, stunned and confused before his breath hitched, and suddenly he was on the verge of tears again. He was cold, and wet, and miserable and alone. Frumpkin was there, of course he was, but somewhere in the past year or so Caleb had gotten accustomed to having the others around, to having their warmth and support even when he didn’t think he deserved it, which to be honest was most of the time. He’d always thought he preferred being alone, and he did enjoy solitude from time to time, but-

There was a very distinct difference between being alone because it was your preference, and being lonely, and right now, he felt very lonely.

He wanted to get up and move, to get away from the chill of the soaked blankets that were making him shiver, but that left just the bare stone floor of the cave to lay on and his very bones ached at the thought. It was unfair, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it. He eyed the small circle of stones set up as a fire pit; if he could get it lit it could help dry the blankets faster. It took a few attempts, but he finally got the bit of wood and kindling in it going and soon had a small crackling fire. The warmth felt good, soothing, and it was a fight not to immediately fall asleep again.

He forced himself to stay awake for a few hours, though eventually not even his force of will was enough and he drifted off again.

Hands- there were- fingers in his hair, petting lightly. It felt nice, but there shouldn’t- who-

Caleb fought his way through the haze in his head, though when he tried to sit up a hand on his shoulder gently pressed him back down.

“Hey, stay down, okay? Frumpkin came out and found us when we were on our way back.” Beau, it was Beau. “I was fastest and they sent me ahead. The others aren’t that far behind, though. How’re you doing, cause you kind of look like shit.”

Caleb choked on a laugh that turned to a sob partway through and curled in toward her.

She didn’t comment, just pushed his hair out of his face again. “Don’t worry, Caleb, I’ve got you. And the others will be here soon. It’s okay.”

There was a quiet mrrp from behind him before he felt a small furry body pressing in against his back.

“Good cat. Best cat.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t really think this is necessary, Martin.”

“Jon.” Martin levels a look at him over his shoulder that makes his feelings on the matter quite clear. “You’re bleeding out of a hole in your shoulder. I’d say that necessitates some level of care.”

Jon sighs. “Martin, I told you, it was an accident. I was making a sandwich-”

“Jon, I’d appreciate it if you’d please not insult either of us further by honestly thinking I’m going to believe you did your shoulder grievous harm with a butter knife by accident while making a sandwich. Even you aren’t that incompetent in the kitchen. Aha!” Martin stands, first aid kit from under the break room sink in-hand, and makes his way over to the table he’d had Jon sit at.

“You don’t have to tell me what really happened, if you don’t want to,” Martin says, opening the kit and pulling out a packet containing a set of nitrile gloves. “But you do know that if there’s anything...well, wrong, you can talk to me about it? Or- or not just me, I mean-” Martin finishes pulling the gloves on and reaches for a small bottle of distilled water and sterile gauze pads. “If you’re in trouble, there are people who can help. People who care about you.”

“I appreciate the- ah!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Martin wipes at the blood around the wound more gently, looking sheepish.

“As I was saying,” Jon said, voice clipped. “I appreciate the concern, but I’m fine-” At a look from Martin, Jon amends, “-shoulder hole aside. It was an accident. One I don’t intend to allow to happen again. It’s nothing to fuss over.”

“I think you could likely do with a bit more fuss in your life, Jon.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

It was Martin’s turn to sigh as he set a clump of bloodied gauze aside. “It’s just, well the last few weeks have been a bit, um, trying? What with the- the worms and all, and Prentiss, and just- maybe taking a bit of a break now and then wouldn’t hurt? It would be a lot for anyone, you know, and from what Rosey upstairs tells me, you didn’t really take much time off to recover. You’re only human, Jon. Even the great Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute needs time to process, to recover. You’ll burn yourself out at this rate, and then where’ll you be?”

Jon watches as Martin carefully pinches the edges of the wound together and holds it together with steristrips. “You seem a deft hand at this, Martin. Do you have training?”

Martin’s face pinks slightly, but he shakes his head. “Nah. I learned a lot from having to help watch after my mom. You’ll likely want to go get this looked at by an actual medical professional, though. This is mostly to keep it from bleeding all over. You’ll need to check if it needs stitches, or- or possibly a tetanus shot or something?”

“I believe they gave me one along with a number of other preventive measures after the Prentiss incident, but I will be sure to check in with someone with an actual medical degree to be certain.”

Martin nods, and places a clean piece of gauze over the line of steristrips before taping it gently in place. “There you are, good as new! Or, er, well- good as can be expected?” He collects the wrappers and bits of bloodied gauze in a small plastic baggy before stripping off the gloves and tucking them inside the bag as well for disposal.

Martin drops the bundle into the garbage bin and puts the first aid kit back under the sink while Jon gets up, heading towards the door. He pauses a moment, watching Martin start the electric kettle to get water going for tea.

“Martin?”

“Hm?” 

“Thank you, for your help. I’ll- take your suggestions under advisement.”

Martin smiles, his whole face brightening. “You’re very welcome, Jon.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t remember a lot from his time in the asylum. 

His time there was notable mostly by the fact he can’t remember much of it at all, a rarity for him, and not one he’s terribly comfortable with. He finds on occasion small bits will surface, that pieces that are connected with especially strong emotions will rise when he’s in the odd space between waking and sleep. Mostly, what he remembers are sensations.

He remembers the feel of cold, wet sheets on his skin, goosebumps rising in their wake. He remembers the dryness of the air sometimes, making his throat catch and cough. One of the more recurrent memories though, is of cold metal, chilling tender skin and rubbing at the knobs of his wrists until they’re chafed and sore. He doesn’t think he wore them all the time- probably just when he was being especially annoying or agitated- but he does remember it.

He was lucky, he thinks, in a small town a few years later, that they were just normal shackles in the asylum. The local constabulary has him restrained in a set of anti-caster cuffs; he’s seen them, of course he has. Hell, he knows for a fact he’d put them on people, in the time Before, though until now he’s never worn them himself. It’s possible that at the asylum they figured he wasn’t enough of a danger, that he was in no state to be a threat, and they were right- up until they weren’t.

As it is, the cuffs on his wrists are tighter than he’s used to, the sharp points of metal on the inside a definite dissuasion to any attempts to cast. He wakes up the next morning in his cell, wrists scratched and sore just from the small movements while he was sleeping. He has no doubt that if he were to attempt anything more strenuous he would cause himself serious damage. He has too much planned to let something like this stop him, so he’s patient, waits out the short sentence- three days for vagrancy- content to sit somewhere relatively protected from the elements and getting two meals a day. At the end of the three days the cuffs come off and he’s shoved back outside and told to leave town and not come back. He meekly follows the orders, but refuses to rub his wrists until he’s over the first rise out of town.

He manages to stay out of trouble for the most part over the next few years. His focus is on survival, getting through each day as best he can, and while he’s been caught a few times, whipped and beaten more than a few, he’s somehow managed to stay out of jail. His luck runs out eventually, as he knew it would, and he’s nabbed by the Crownsguard in a severe and very unforgiving small town along the south-western reaches of the Empire. He’s not even sure exactly what the name of the town is, but it doesn’t really matter; knowing what it is wouldn’t change anything.

He’s dragged to a jail in the center of town, and he has to admire on some strange twisted level that despite how small the town is, they’ve somehow managed to build a jail suitable to a town twice its size. The interior is dim, chilled despite the warmer air of the early spring day outside, and it’s no surprise that the heavy irons they put on him are cold as well, pulling a shiver from him as they’re locked into place. They’re heavier than he’s really worn before, and honestly a bit of overkill for a small-town jail like this, but considering what the rest of the town is like, it doesn’t feel out-of-place; this feels like the sort of town that would make it’s prisoners even more uncomfortable than necessary out of spite.

He’s still wearing them, wrists rubbed raw and bloody, a week later when they drag in a small figure who’s hissing and cursing in an impressive display of vocabulary. They open the cell door and toss her in, not bothering to restrain her; her hands are small enough the cuffs would likely slide off easily anyway.

The cell door slams behind her, and she keeps yelling until the guard is out of sight before she turns in a huff and stalks over to the wall opposite him, settling down, arms crossed over her thin chest.

He shifts a few minutes later and she jumps in surprise at the sound of the chains rattling, not having realized he was there.

“Stay back!” The girl- a goblin, of all things- has jumps to her feet and presses her back against the wall, as if she isn’t the biggest threat in the room. He hasn’t been much of a threat to anybody for a long time, not that she would know. He lifts trembling hands, the chains shifting and clinking as he does to show the cuffs keeping him tethered to the wall.

“I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

She doesn’t move for a moment, but then eventually sits again, tailor style, still watching him warily.

“I’m Nott. Who’re you?”

“You’re not what?”

“No, no, that’s-” She sighs, aggravated. “That’s my name. ‘Nott’. Nott the Brave, no comma.”

“Oh.” This interaction isn’t going at all how he might have expected. “Pleasure to meet you?”

She looks at him, expectant. “And you are-?”

“Ah, yes, I’m-” He flounders for a moment. It’s been awhile since he’s had to give a name to anyone, a long while since anyone had cared to ask. “Caleb. Caleb Widogast.”

He hears her mutter it over to herself once before- “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you too, Caleb Widogast.” She eyes his wrists. “I’d shake your hand, but-”

He huffs a laugh. “Ja, these do get in the way.”

“What are you in for?”

“Does it matter?”

“Well yeah, I don’t want you to try to murder me while I sleep.”

He doesn’t quite suppress his wince, but he hopes it blends into the general grimace he wears.

“I do not think that will be an issue.” he murmurs.

Things are mostly okay, or as well as could be expected given the circumstances. The guards aren’t the most cheerful bunch, and they forget to feed the prisoners on occasion, but for the most part, it’s livable.

Caleb would still prefer to have the chains off, though.

The raw patches have mostly healed over, leaving toughened scarring behind, and he knows that if he survives this place, he’ll carry the marks of them the rest of his life. It does have the benefit of covering up the scarring from the anti-caster cuffs he’s worn in the past; it makes him less noticeable as a caster, if not as a convict. That’s something, he supposes.

Against all possible odds, he and Nott manage to escape. Over the next few days they steal supplies, and as the bandages go on around his arms, over his wrists, he tries not to think about how much better he feels, that it’s easier to breathe with them out of sight, covered up. As he covers the scars from his time with Ikithon, he spares a moment’s thought that not all the shackles he’s worn have been physical, and that he may never be free of them all.

But that’s a worry for a different day.

Chapter Text

Caleb wouldn’t wake up.

They’d hit a rough patch a week or so back, the rain hitting quick and drenching, and the both of them had been soaked through before there was anything to be done. Not that there had been anything to be done; neither Nott nor Caleb had been able to steal an oiled cloak yet, and there certainly wasn’t the money for it. The weather had been holding, and they’d hoped to have more time before it turned, but well, this was just their sort of luck, really.

It hadn’t been more than another day before the sniffles started, the both of them slogging through the muddied road and wiping runny noses on their sleeves, but while she had rallied after another day or so, Caleb had only gotten worse, his sniffles turning to a roughened voice, and a deep, wet-sounding cough settling in his chest. He’d grown paler over the course of the week, gasping for breath even on flat stretches of road at an easy pace, but every time he’d caught her worried looks he’d given her a wan smile and told her it was alright, that he’d be on the mend in no time.

She wanted to believe him, but if she’d learned anything in the course of her life, it was that hoping wasn’t enough. You could hope and pray, but at the end of the day you only really had yourself. When they made camp that last evening Caleb had been swaying on his feet, and had only barely managed to get a fire going in the small pit she’d dug. He had laid down quickly after that, and the fact that she hadn’t had to urge him to do it only worried her further. She’d already decided to let him sleep, to not wake him for a watch; he needed all the rest he could get.

But when morning came, the sun rising, bringing watery light to burn off the morning fog, Caleb didn’t wake up.

After another hour, she’d tried shaking him awake, to no avail. He’d muttered under his breath in Zemnian, words she didn’t understand, and now she was starting to panic, because what was she supposed to do? He was the brains of the two of them, she was just- well, she wasn’t enough, was what. 

The hours trickled by, the sun rising in the sky, and she kept hoping that he’d wake up, that he’d save her from having to decide what to do, but he didn’t. She’d put a hand to his forehead and was appalled at the heat pouring off of him. His face was flushed with fever even as he shivered, his coat wrapped tightly around his thin frame, and gods above, she was going to have to figure something out.

Okay. Okay, she could do this. Caleb might be the brains of the operation, but she wasn’t completely useless. There were some things she could try, some herbs that might help, if she could find them. The only issue was that would require leaving him alone. They didn’t have Frumpkin with them, Caleb hadn’t wanted his familiar to worry about getting wet. She had tried to tell him that was stupid, Frumpkin wasn’t even a real cat, but Caleb had gotten irritated, informing her that Frumpkin was most definitely a real cat, and he’d thank her not to insult his cat again.

The point was, if she went off to search for the plants that might help, she’d be leaving him alone, defenseless, and that sent a spike of dread down into her stomach. They hadn’t seen anyone for a couple of days now, but there were all sorts of animals in the woods, and who knew what might happen upon him in her absence and decide he was an easy meal?

Time was running out, though. If he was running a fever and was already at the point where he wasn’t waking up, it wouldn’t be long before he succumbed to whatever it was that was making him sick. She tried one more time to wake him up, but only succeeded in pulling a quiet whine of discomfort from him, his face scrunching in pain, but not managing to rouse him.

Okay, nothing for it then. She dug around in her pack and pulled out a couple of flowers, quickly braiding them into his hair before placing a hesitant kiss to the top of his head and darting off into the brush in search of what she needed.

She couldn’t have been gone more than an hour, but she was keenly aware of every minute as it passed, knowing that every moment she was gone was a moment he was being beset by bandits, or eaten by wild animals, or some other even more grisly fate she couldn’t even conceive of. In the end, she was able to find some of the herbs she needed, and made it back to the clearing to find Caleb right where she’d left him, still unconscious and apparently no worse for wear for having been left alone. She pulled out a small battered kettle from her pack and got water heating on a rock next to the fire pit while she crushed up the herbs and got them in a cup. Once the water was hot as it would get she poured it over the herbs and let them steep. She knew she wouldn’t be able to get him to drink while unconscious, but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve. Once the tisane was done, she took out a mostly-clean rag and soaked it in the liquid, then got Caleb’s mouth open and stuck the soaked rag inside, hoping he’d maybe suck on it and swallow the liquid.

It takes hours, and she can’t imagine it tastes at all good, especially towards the end, but she gets half the cup into him, which is better than nothing. She gives herself a brief break, slipping into a half-doze, but every noise sends her startling upright, and after awhile she gives up, and works to get the other half of the cup of liquid into him.

It’s nearing dawn of the next day, and she’s not sure how much longer she can stay awake when next to her, finally, Caleb stirs.

“Nott?”

“Hey! Yeah, I’m here- how’re you feeling?”

Instead of answering, Caleb makes a face, licking at his lips with a grimace. “Like something perished in my mouth, and like my head is full of tar. What happened?”

“You’ve been very sick, and you should relax a bit more, you’re still not well.”

Caleb’s face softens, and he looks up at her fondly. “Thank you for taking care of me, Nott. You’re a good friend.”

She could feel the flush sweep up over her face and hoped the light was still low enough that he couldn’t see it. “Well, I didn’t really do much, you know? Mostly kept things from eating you. I’m pretty scary-looking, you know.”

He didn’t look like he entirely believed her, but he didn't call her on it, instead laying back down, but holding an arm out for her. She hesitated a moment, but then crawled forward and tucked herself close. Extra body heat would only help him, right now. “Don’t scare me like that again.”

He gave her a slight squeeze. “I’ll try not to, spatz.

Chapter Text

“Would you just leave it the fuck alone?” Beau swats at Molly who deftly ducks out of the way before coming at her with an alcohol soaked rag. It’s the fact that she doesn’t so much as graze him with her fingers that tells him she needs this.

“I can tell you as a confirmed expert on the subject, your blood belongs on the inside, unpleasant one. And the sooner you let me stitch that closed, the sooner it will stop escaping. So sit your ass down and let me help you.”

Beau scowls at him a moment, but he doesn’t back down; he’s dealt with surly circus patrons twice her size and three times as mean. She doesn’t scare him.

Huffing out a breath of air she finds a log near the fire and sits, probably harder than she meant to going by the grunt of pain. She may look like she’s given in, but he still approaches carefully, holding out the bottle of cheap alcohol he’d soaked the rag in as a peace offering. “I’m not sure it’s going to feel much better inside than out, but after a few swallows you likely won’t care.”

She takes the bottle without another word and takes a swig, which turns into a cough and a sputter. “Molly, fuck, this is- this is terrible, where did you even get it?”

“Uh...two towns back, what was it called? The tiny one with the terrible pancakes?”

“Oh gods, I should have known- yeah I know the place, but like, how do you fuck up pancakes?”

He uses her moment of distraction to grab her arm and take a swipe at the cut with the rag. She hisses, though stays put.

“This could wait til morning, you know, Jester can fix it then.”

He doesn’t bother to dignify that with a response, just raises his eyebrow at her and keeps cleaning the blood from around the wound until it’s as clean as it’s going to get.

“Okay. I’m almost ready to stitch it, but I’ve still got to try to flush it out. How much of that have you had to drink?”

Beau looks up at him, her eyes taking a moment to focus on him.

“Almost. Take one more gulp and then we’ll get this show on the road, yeah?”

Beau takes two, but he’s not going to call her on it.

“Feel free to give a yell if it helps.”

He takes the bottle from her and proceeds to pour a healthy amount of the booze directly over the wound; she doesn’t so much shout as grit her teeth and then let loose with an impressive string of invective.

He sets the bottle down, and reaches for the clean cloth holding the needle and thread from Jester’s healing kit.

“Do you ev’n know what you’re doing?”

“Pfft, of course I do. You’ve seen my coat; who do you think did all that needlework?” Molly sits next to her, tugging her until she shifts so her arm is facing the firelight. “Do you need anything to bite on? This is going to suck no matter how careful I am.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. And even if you fuck it up, chicks dig scars, right?”

Molly snorts, and gets to work.

He gets through the first couple of stitches, and is thankful the cut will only need another three at most. Beau is staying still and mostly quiet, though he can still hear the occasional hiss and sudden intake of breath as he pierces her skin and draws the thread through. He’s familiar with the sensation, and is impressed that she’s not giving more of a reaction, not that he'll ever tell her that. The first time he’d needed stitches it had made him sick, though he hadn’t been anywhere near as drunk at the time. A real pity, that.

He finishes the last stitch, tying off the knot and clipping it with his thread nips. 

“There we are. Let me get a bandage on, and you’ll be all set to go.”

She hums in response, swaying gently on the log like a young tree in a strong breeze, and he knows she’s not going be awake much longer between the fight and the alcohol all catching up with her. He gets a coiled bandage from the kit and winds it around her arm, making sure it’s tight enough to hold, but not so tight it’ll cause harm. When he’s done he carefully pats her shoulder.

“There you are, dear. Good as- well. Maybe not good as new, you're still a mess, but close enough, I think.”

“Mm. Thanks, Molly.” She tries to pat him back but misses, listing sideways. He catches her before she falls off the log.

“How about we get you to your bedroll, and get you settled for the night, hm?”

“Sounds good.”

“Marvelous.”

Chapter Text

It isn’t that he’s not paying attention, because he is. He has his mind thrown forward into Frumpkin, while he stays settled in his chair by the door, and he’s as safe as he can be while his mind isn’t attached to his body. He really should have asked one of the others- Fjord, or Molly perhaps- to stay with him and keep guard, but this is a party. Ostensibly it’s safe, and if he’s sitting quietly in a chair, hopefully people will only think he’s rude if he doesn’t answer an inquiry.

Frumpkin winds his way around legs, narrowly avoiding the feet of passersby, and Caleb closes his eyes and lets the hum of voices from the crowd around his familiar wash over him.

As Frumpkin moves closer, he picks out the familiar gruff sounds of Beau’s voice, and the almost stone-like rumblings of the man just now coming into view on her other side, Oremid Hass. Darting out from behind a party-goer’s legs, Frumpkin catches sight of Hass gesturing to his side, introducing his companion.

“...and this is my compatriot, Master Trent Ikithon.”

Caleb can’t breathe.

The panic is immediate and overwhelming, and nothing he’s told himself over the past days, months, years could have prepared him. Ikithon is older, of course he is, and his skin gone more yellow than Caleb remembers, but the barely-concealed disdain in his eyes is the same, the coolness of expression, the calculating gaze as he takes in both Beau and Yasha. He barely hears the conversation for the rush of blood in his ears, his heartbeat thundering. He’ll have to ask Frumpkin later what was said, because he’s not registering any of it right now.

A few minutes later and Haas spots Frumpkin, scooping the cat up in glee, and oh, oh gods, even if it’s not Caleb himself right there, he can see Ikithon, he’s so close, and he can’t, he can’t-

He pulls back into himself and tries to get his breathing under control, but he’s near the door, and the two men are leaving and gods above, Ikithon is going to walk right by him.

He leans forward, but that’s all he can make himself do, convinced that if he does anything else, even with everything he’s done to disguise himself, even with the years gone by to make him look different, somehow Ikithon will know.

He hears them approach, Hass happily chattering and cooing at Frumpkin, and the whole while his heart is beating wildly in his chest, so loud that surely anyone nearby can hear. The closer the men get, the more time seems to slow, and all Caleb can hear in his mind is a steady thrum of, 'Don’t move. Don’t move. If you move he’ll see you he’ll know oh gods don’t move don’t move don’t move…’, but somehow, miraculously, the men move past him, seeming not to notice him at all.

It takes a few minutes for his muscles to unlock, for the absolute blood-freezing panic to subside enough for him to be able to move again, to be able to think past the need to run, or to freeze, or to hide. He can’t make a scene now, it would only draw attention, and that sort of attention right now would likely get him killed or worse.

Likely much much worse.

He forces himself to breathe, his hands to unclench where they’ve gripped his coat hard enough to wrinkle, and makes himself stand as the others gather, laughing and bickering lightheartedly with each other, drunk on good wine and victory. He follows along in their wake, not trusting himself to speak just yet.

It’s alright, he tells himself, scooping Frumpkin up and hugging him close. He’s safe as can be expected while sharing a city with the man who helps haunt his dreams.

It isn’t fine, but it’s okay. It will have to be okay; and if anything, it firms his resolve.

He will get into that library, no matter what it takes.

Chapter Text

It’s quiet, here.

Caleb wants it to be soothing, wants to let himself believe that it means they’re safe, that there’s nothing here but them, but he hasn’t survived this long by being trusting, by believing the best about situations.

He knows the rest of the Nein are around somewhere, though where precisely is the big question at the moment. This isn’t the first time they’ve gone somewhere they likely shouldn’t, poked their collective noses into someone’s business, someone so far beyond them that they might as well be ants in comparison. His protests had been considered and determined to be a product of his constant worry, and he’d done what he always does- he’d gone along with it, figuring if they were going to get themselves into trouble- really, what were the odds they wouldn’t ?- that at least he’d be there to help when things inevitably went wrong.

As he carefully makes his way through the empty stone corridors, he feels it should have been easier to convince them that going into an abandoned wizard’s tower was a bad idea, but here they are. They weren’t inside more than five minutes when the walls had begun to shift and move, separating them from each other, and no amount of yelling made it stop. He’s been on edge since, pulse thrumming through him, and he’s at least thankful that Frumpkin had been near Jester when it started, and was presumably still with her. He tries every few minutes to see through Frumpkin’s eyes, but so far hasn’t had any luck, something- either distance or some property of the building- getting in the way.

He’s coming around another corner in the corridor, the next of many he’s gone around, and only a slight shift of the light tells him this is different, that he hasn’t just been going in circles this whole time; he quickens his steps, hoping it will take him somewhere useful, preferably with one or more of his companions nearby. For a little while there’s nothing, just the echoing sounds of his boots on stone, and the hiss and whisper of the torches evenly spaced up and down the hallway. He’s still walking when a voice suddenly bursts into his head, threaded with panic.

“- if you can hear me Caleb, I’d really like you to answer, please because this is getting really kind of-”  Jester’s voice cuts off, and he can only imagine she’d been speaking before her voice was able to reach him.

“Jester-” His mind spins, counting words quickly before speaking. “Where are you? Are you safe? What’s happening? What’s around you? How can I find you?”

As soon as he’s done speaking he tries looking through Frumpkin again, and for the first time since this started, he’s successful. He’s thrown into a maelstrom of activity, and Caleb almost stumbles out of reflex, despite it not being his body in danger. Frumpkin manages to dance away from some sort of creature, and out of the corner of his eye he sees a flash of blue and green- Jester.

The figure is going after her, now, and she already looks worse for wear, her clothing ripped and bloodied, her small ax gripped so tight in her fist that her knuckles have gone a pale blue. She’s still moving, still on her feet, but from the look of things, she might not be for long.

Her free hand twists in the air, the glint of copper wire around her fingers almost lost in the chaos of everything else going on. 

“I’m-” He sees her look around wildly, and he wishes he could tell her not to waste the words now, to ask her something else, but he can’t. “It’s a big room, a workroom, maybe? There’s a- a thing, I don’t know how to get here, to give you directions to the-”

Her voice cuts off again, but he thinks he can follow the blip of Frumpkin’s presence, tries to focus on it even as he’s starting to run, pulling back out of Frumpkin’s senses so he can see where he’s going. “I’m coming, I promise I’m coming, just hold on a little while longer.”

After that he doesn’t have the breath to speak, is using all his adrenaline-fueled energy to go just a bit faster, to get to her before it’s too late, following the ever-stronger feeling of his connection to his familiar getting closer.

After all the endless hallways he comes to an arched doorway and skids to stop, looking inside. It’s the same room he’d seen through Frumpkin’s eyes, though it’s quieter now. It takes him a moment to figure out why, and when he does, the world grinds to a halt. Jester is on the ground, unmoving, with Frumpkin between her and the creature, hissing and ears pressed back flat. The creature takes a step forward, and Caleb must make some kind of noise because it pauses, head turning to look at him. It looks like the stuffymen his parents used to put up in the fields to keep the birds away, straw poking out of the end of its sleeves and up through the collar of its ragged shirt. It’s face is horrifying, the mouth an angry slash in the fabric of what should be a mask, the eyes a dark, seemingly-endless depth, and despite there being no visible pupils, Caleb is filled with the utter certainty that it’s seeing him.

It takes a stumbling step towards him, and while there’s fear, there’s also an unimaginable haze of fury building in him beyond anything he’s ever felt before, because Frumpkin is right there next to Jester, and Frumpkin tells Caleb what the thing has done.

Caleb drops to his knees, hand pulling his cat’s cradle out of his pouch as he goes. He doesn’t feel his knees hit the ground, and barely feels the jolt as he slams his palms to the stone in front of him, pressing the phosphorous-laced string down, arcane power lighting up around him. This thing, this creature, hurt Jester, and by the gods above, he is going to make it pay.

He pours power into the spell, the fire leaping from his hands and flashing forward, far faster than any mundane fire could go, five streaks snaking forward to the advancing figure.

The flame leaps up, engulfing the creature, and there’s a wordless shriek as it’s overtaken. It’s a matter of seconds before the fire dissipates, and when it does there’s nothing left, barely a smudge of ash where the thing had stood.

He’s breathing hard as he crawls over to drop down next to Frumpkin, next to Jester.

Next to Jester’s body.

 

Chapter Text

She’s so still, is the first thing Caleb thinks.

He’s used to seeing her so full of life and movement; even while sleeping, she has a vitality to her that seems to stay around her like an aura, like he could reach out and touch it.

That’s all gone, now.

Her eyes are open, staring blankly up at the ceiling, her mouth partly open, but she’s utterly still, no breath making her chest move, no laughter shaking her body, her tail limp. She may as well be made of the stone she lays upon.

Caleb brushes hair from her face, tucking it behind one delicately-pointed ear, and it’s not fair. Of all of them, she’s the one who death shouldn’t have touched, who deserved it the least. He’s well-aware that death doesn’t care about fair, or right and wrong, or anything. It just is.

That doesn’t make this any easier, though.

His breath hitches in his chest; it’s loud in the room, grown quiet now that the fighting is done, but he doesn’t realize he’s crying until he sees the drops of moisture hit her clothes, spreading small spots of darkness as they land.

He can’t imagine a world without her, can’t imagine the Nein going on with such another catastrophic loss; he thinks that while it would hurt, they could lose almost anyone and keep on. But Jester? Jester is too much.

He takes a minute to cry, to get it out of his system while Frumpkin presses close, front paws up on Caleb's thighs, headbumping under Caleb’s chin with a concerned-sounding chirrup.

“It’s-” Caleb laughs, and it’s watery. He scritches Frumpkin between the ears and down the cat’s back, and laughs again as he’s rewarded with a quick lick from the cat’s sandpapery tongue. “It will be alright. I just...just need a moment.”

Reaching into his pocket, he comes out with his stone, the lucky one Nott helped him find all the way back in Berleben. He rubs a thumb over it’s smooth surface, over the line that encircles it, and then takes it in both hands, holding it to his chest as he lets his eyes slip closed, not bothering to wipe his face.

“I know I have not always believed in you,” he says, voice rough and unsteady. “Even now that I know you are real, I sometimes wonder if you have Jester’s best interests at heart. What I do know is that she love-” He pauses, stumbling over the past-tense. “She loves you, more than pastries, more than, than cupcakes-” The tears are falling again, but he ignores them, needing to get the words out; to help, for once, instead of causing destruction. “Perhaps not so much as she loves her mama, but she loves you, ja? More importantly, she trusts you, and it would be a very shitty thing to do to abandon her now, so…” Caleb swallows, his face crumpling with emotion. “So help me bring her back? She doesn’t deserve this, she deserves-” He takes a shaking breath. “She deserves the world, and the chance to see more of it. She deserves to enjoy it and bring mischief and light into the lives of so many others before her time comes.”

He takes the stone, warm now from his touch and pulsing with power, and sets it gently down on Jester’s chest, making sure it sits just-so before pulling his hands back and clasping them again in front of him.

“So come on, you tricky Arschloch, give me a hand, ja?”

For the briefest second, Caleb doesn’t think it’s going to work, but then a light breeze ruffles his hair, and there’s the weight of a hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t turn around, terrified of what he might see, but the presence behind him leans forward, pressing closer to reach a hand around to wrap around Caleb’s own.

“Well-” The voice isn’t what Caleb is expecting, though he honestly can’t say what he thinks it should sound like; it’s smooth, and quiet, and somehow both sad and amused all at once. “How can I ignore a plea so impassioned as that? And for the friend of my favorite follower, as well.” The hand covering Caleb's gives a squeeze, and the stone on Jester’s chest floats a few inches into the air, glowing a bright, sparkling green before bursting into a cloud of glinting specks. The pieces hold in the air for a split second before dropping gently back down and disappearing into Jester. Caleb can’t help but be reminded of Hupperdook, of the way the fireworks had looked as they burst, colored embers and sparks floating gently back down towards the earth before vanishing.

“By the way,” The hand on Caleb’s hands and the one on his shoulder have pulled away, but the voice is perfectly clear in his ear, though fading. “She loves you too, you know.”

Was?” Caleb whirls to look behind himself, but there’s nobody there.

“Caleb?”

He twists back around to see possibly the loveliest sight he’s ever seen. Jester is still laying down, but she’s breathing, and she’s looking up at him, confused.

“Jester-” He reaches for her hand, taking it before he can talk himself out of it. “Are you- how do you feel?”

“Tired? Kind of terrible, really, I-” She stops, brow wrinkling in further confusion. “I don’t remember you getting here.”

It’s like a stab to the heart. “I am so sorry, Jester, I tried to get here, but I wasn’t fast enough.”

The wrinkle between her brows only grows. “But-” She tries to sit up and groans, not quite making it, but Caleb gets an arm under her shoulders and helps her to sit up. She ends up leaning against him, her body a blessedly warm weight against his side.

“Did- did I die?”

“Uh, ja. Ja you did.”

She looks around, taking in the room, how it’s just them and Frumpkin, and the blackened smudge where the creature had been. “But...how did you bring me back?” She tilts her head up at him, a playful, if tired, suspicion on her face. “You’re not secretly a cleric too, are you, Caleb?”

“Ah, no.” He leans in, like he’s sharing a secret. “Though I did have some help from a special friend of yours.”

He sees it the moment it registers what he means, and her smile is incandescent.

“I told you, Caleb! I told you the Traveler is the best!”

Ja,” Caleb says, pulling her close into a hug. “Ja, I suppose he is.”

Chapter Text

Molly loves days like this.

It’s winter now, but the day is crisp and bright, the skies a brilliant, clear blue. The Nein aren’t in a hurry, unpressed for time and able to travel at their own pace. At the end of the day, they pick a spot to stop for the night and Caleb sets up the Mansion, everyone trooping inside to the cozy warmth that never fails to make them smile.

There’s a filling dinner- prepared by Caduceus- before everyone splits off for the night. It’s a quiet night, calm, and it doesn’t take much convincing on his part to get Caleb naked on a pile of cushions in front of the fireplace in their room.

He’s not looking for sex, not precisely. He just wants to be near, to be able to smooth his hands over Caleb’s skin and know he’s there, be able to hold him close. Caleb, for his part, is near-boneless on the nest of pillows, content to let Molly touch him, to pet him much like Frumpkin, and near to purring like him as well.

This isn’t the first time Molly’s seen Caleb naked, not by a long shot, but usually when they’re naked they’re much more occupied. Now, though, Molly lets his gaze and touch linger, and realizes that there’s so much he doesn’t know about Caleb, how little he knows about Caleb’s stories. Only one way to find out, really.

“Caleb?”

“Hmm?” Caleb’s eyes are closed as he drowses and basks in the warmth of the fireplace, and Molly’s filled with delight, knowing that Caleb feels safe like this, with him. He hopes he isn’t about to ruin it.

“I was wondering, if you’re willing, if you might tell me some stories tonight.”

Eyes blinking open, Caleb looks over at him, confused. “What sort of stories, liebling? Would you like me to read to you?”

“No,” Molly says quietly, stretching over to give Caleb a kiss. It’s gentle, chaste, and they’re both left smiling after. “I was wondering if you might tell me where some of your scars come from.”

Caleb stills under his hand, suddenly looking much more awake. “I- but why? They’re not-” Caleb looks down the length of his body, brow wrinkling in a frown. “They’re hardly pretty, Mollymauk.”

“Oh darling,” Molly says, catching Caleb’s chin and turning his head to press a kiss to his lips again. “Not everything needs to be pretty, first off. And besides that, it’s not the point of a scar to be pretty.” Caleb raises an eyebrow at him, questioning, and Molly knows his responding smile is utterly besotted. “These marks,” Molly slides a hand down Caleb’s arm, rubbing his thumb lightly over Caleb’s wrist, over some of the raised skin there. “All of these are something you survived, something you lived through. I see them and I see perseverance, determination, and the will to survive. These are badges of strength, love, and if you’re willing, I’d like to know their stories. Your stories.”

It’s difficult to read Caleb’s expression, with it falling somewhere between confusion and stupefied affection. “I suppose if you really want, schatz, then yes.”

They end up laying down, Caleb stretched out with Molly propped up on an elbow next to him, fingers trailing lightly over Caleb’s skin. He starts with a mark on the front of Caleb’s shoulder, just where it meets his chest. It looks like a brand, a line with another line perpendicular on top.

“It was after I’d left the asylum, but before I met Nott. Things were...not great.” Caleb huffs a laugh. “I tried to steal meat from a spit at a camp site, and it turns out it was not as abandoned as I thought. They decided I needed to learn that thieving was wrong. I was lucky to escape with just the brand.”

Molly leans down, pressing a kiss to the mark before reaching down to trail light fingertips over a mass of scarring on Caleb’s thigh. “What about this one?”

“Ah, that. I think I told you that my time sense was trained into me in my youth. I was attacked by a young wild boar during that exercise. I won in the end and ate some of it. It was the first proper thing I’d eaten in days and it’s still some of the best meat I think I’ve ever had.”

Molly moves on, going from scar-to-scar and kissing each in turn as he gets the stories from the gentle man laid out under him- the marks at his wrists from his encounters with anti-caster cuffs, the shiny smooth patches at his neck that match the ones on Molly’s from their time spent captive with a thief of arcane potential. He does his best to kiss each bit of raised skin on Caleb’s forearms, remnants of Ikithon’s mad quest for power, and smooths his palms over the raised lash marks on Caleb’s back, fingers twitching as he recalls the screams that accompanied their creation. Caleb tells him, recounting the tale of each scar with the comfort gained by distance and time, filling in gaps and only strengthening Molly’s impression of Caleb, of who he is, of his inner strength. By the time Molly reaches Caleb’s hands, Caleb is visibly sleepy, smiling softly up at Molly as he kisses the small nicks and burns that mar Caleb’s fingers, hallmarks of a working wizard.

“I hope you do not expect me to tell where all of those came from, specifically.” Caleb stifles a yawn with the hand Molly isn’t holding, then goes back to watching, bemused. “Aside from my not paying attention to when they happened, I’m afraid we would be here a very long time indeed.”

Molly hums against Caleb’s fingers, placing a last kiss to his knuckles before sliding up to lay next to Caleb, nuzzling at his shoulder. “And what a cruel fate that would be, spending so much time with you, alone and naked, skin-to-skin. Truly, I don’t know how I would ever bear it.”

Snorting a laugh, Caleb shoves lightly at Molly’s shoulder before settling into the nest of cushions, winding an arm around Molly’s waist to pull him closer. In response, Molly loops his tail around one of Caleb’s ankles, giving it a gentle squeeze as he snuggles close, and they both fall asleep entwined in each other’s arms, content and warm in the firelight.

Chapter Text

In the next room over, Fjord is screaming.

Caleb doesn’t know what’s happening to him, not specifically. His imagination is unfortunately very adept at coming up with all sorts of things it could be, and Astrid was always very goal-oriented. He can’t imagine that’s changed much.

There’s an especially loud yell and Caleb tries to stand, to run again for the door to the next room in the small cabin they’re in, but as with every time before, strong hands grab him by the shoulders and shove him hard back down into the seat. The grip doesn’t loosen, tightening to bruising force, and there’s a puff of warm air by his ear.

“We’ve talked about this, liebchen. You have to stay here while Astrid works.” Wulf pulls back, but keeps his hands on Caleb’s shoulders, keeping him pinned to the chair, tightening his grip as Caleb goes tense at the sound of another scream. “You know what you need to do. You can stop this at any time, could make his suffering end.”

Caleb can’t help the bitterness that coats his words. “And how permanently would his suffering end?” He swears he can hear Wulf smile behind him.

“As you well know, traitors to the Empire can’t be suffered to live, Bren. It’s our duty to wipe them out where we find them, and really- the people you travel with…” Wulf tuts at him, in a mockery of disappointment. “Barely a one among you who isn’t a traitor, who isn’t guilty of blasphemy or heresy. Did you really think you could all just traipse about the countryside and nobody would notice? That nobody would say anything? Honestly, you used to be smarter than that.”

Both of them tense- Caleb in distress and Wulf in readiness- as there’s another scream, and then the sound of words; Caleb can’t tell what Fjord is saying, but his stomach drops in despair as he recognizes the tone. It’s one he’d heard many times, decades ago, now. It’s the sound of pleading, of begging; begging for it to end, for respite, for mercy. Caleb knows well-enough that Fjord won’t be granted any of those at Astrid’s hand.

“Ah, sounds like our Astrid is making some progress. Are you sure you don’t have anything to say? You know she’s gotten very good at dragging things out the last few years. She’s been pioneering some interesting techniques using toxins found in some animal or other from along the Menagerie Coast. Keeps her victims paralyzed yet completely able to feel everything she does. I imagine she’ll be starting that part of things soon.” Wulf lifts a hand from Caleb’s shoulder and brushes his fingers through Caleb’s hair, pulling it back from his face to tuck it behind one of Caleb’s ears, and Caleb has to work very hard not to be ill. “You could spare him that. Grant him a merciful death. We would even let you do it yourself, so you’d know it would be quick, no complications. No surprises. All you have to do is tell us about the Beacons.”

Caleb’s shaking, drops of cold sweat rolling down his spine despite how warm the small cabin is. In the other room it’s gone quiet, no screaming, no begging; the stillness is somehow worse.

“It’s a simple choice. Will you make him continue to suffer for no reason other than your stubbornness? Or will you show mercy and grant him peace? Will you lovingly send him into the waiting arms of his goddess? You had better choose quickly, spatz. Her toxins don’t take too long to work.”

He desperately wants to believe the others are coming, that at any moment the door will crash open and they’ll be saved from this predicament they find themselves in. But there’s no way to know, no way to guarantee that, and in all the time he’s known Fjord, he’s never heard him scream like that, has never heard him beg. He knows whatever Astrid was doing before, it will only get worse, and he can’t fathom it, can’t fathom Fjord coming back from that, even if rescue does eventually come. That kind of pain changes a person, breaks them down into their component parts, as Caleb is well aware; he used to do it to people, too, after all. Can he ask Fjord to suffer that, to endure the unendurable, to protect another nation as willing to destroy the Empire as the Empire is to destroy them? Does he have the right to ask that of him?

But how can he choose death for his friend?

And so he waits, just a little while longer.

For now.

Chapter Text

“Stay with me.”

The words come out small, young, for all that Keyleth is neither. She doesn’t mean for it to slip out, but right now she can’t be bothered to care. She’ll probably feel bad about it later- she’s likely going to feel a lot of things later, she always feels so much- but right now all she can think is that she’s losing the last of them.

Pike, for her part, looks as she often does; she’s smiling, laugh lines crinkling near her eyes and smile lines deep near her mouth. She doesn’t look scared or worried, and that’s what’s helping Keyleth hold herself together at all. Pike squeezes Keyleth’s hand, though it’s not as strong as it used to be; her strength has been waning for some time now, though Pike’s grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) are quick to assure her she’s still their favorite grand-monstah.

“Keyleth, you know I can’t do that,” she says softly, though no-less kind than she always is. Sure as the seasons change, no life lasts forever. Keyleth knows that’s not the way of things, perhaps better than most.

“I know.” She’s trying so hard not to cry, had told herself she wouldn’t. That she’d be here for Pike, to sit with her to wait for the end, fast approaching now; that she’d help celebrate the joyous life Pike had led. Pike Trickfoot, Champion of the Everlight, wife, mother-

Keyleth’s friend.

She’s trying to smile, but she can’t hold the tears back no matter what she’s promised herself.

“Oh Keyleth...come here.” There’s a gentle tug on her hand and she goes to lie on the small bed next to Pike, curled up to fit. Pike’s hand isn’t steady, but it’s still comforting to feel the weight of it running over her hair. Keyleth’s left her antlers to the side on the windowsill. Here she isn’t the Tempest, or a leader, or anything like that; she’s only herself.

It occurs to her that’s maybe one of the reasons this hurts so much. Pike is one of her best friends, so of course losing her is going to hurt. But Pike is one of the last people who know her as just Keyleth, who’s seen her at her worst, who’s seen her at her goofiest and most ridiculous, who doesn’t expect anything from her. She never had to be anyone other than herself with Vox Machina, and when Pike goes, the last of those people she was so close to goes with her. In a way, Keyleth knows a part of herself will go with Pike as well. Keyleth accepted her responsibility to the Air Ashari decades, centuries ago, knew that this day would come eventually.

That doesn’t make it hurt any less.

“It’ll be alright, Keyleth, you know that, right? We’re still your friends, and we’ll be waiting for you. That’s not gonna change.” Pike rubs Keyleth’s cheeks with her thumbs, wiping some of the tears away. “Just remember that we love you, all of us. If you ever need us, we’re not far. We’ll live on in your memory, in the memory of our family and friends, in the good works we’ve done.” Pike smiles down at her, framing Keyleth’s face in both hands and tugging her up to kiss Keyleth’s forehead. “I’ve lived a good life, Keyleth. I have amazing friends and family that love me, had incredible adventures and helped so many people. I have some regrets, same as most people, I guess, but for the most part I’m happy. I’m content.” She looks to the window, her smile growing brighter as she catches sight of the sunlight beaming in through the glass, highlighting motes of dust in glowing gold and amber. “It’s a beautiful day, Keyleth. What better time to go than now?”

Keyleth laughs, even through the tears. Of course Pike couldn’t be anyone but herself, comforting Keyleth even as she herself is dying.

Dying, but never fading.

Pike’s breathing slows, longer and longer spaces between each inhale. Even now, it just looks like Pike is falling asleep, radiant and utterly at peace.

“Say hi to Vax for me,” Keyleth murmurs, and Pike goes still, a soft smile on her face.

Chapter Text

Molly remembers blessedly little about waking up this time.

There’s a sudden overwhelming awareness of being, of being a person, being alive, being-

There’s a mad scramble, which he’s thankfully not very aware of, and the next thing he knows he’s shivering on a pile of dirtied snow, upturned earth scattered around him in clumps. It’s hard to move, and he realizes after a moment it’s because he’s tangled up in a tapestry- his tapestry- now smeared with mud and gods know what else.

He tries to remember what happened, to piece together the events that have led him to waking up in a grave again, but there’s nothing, just the sense that he’s missing something, but every time he tries to remember it only makes his head throb. There’s a stain on the front of his shirt, split by a torn hole, but when he looks underneath, the scar there looks as if it’s years-old. Even so, he can tell that whatever wound caused it was likely what landed him in the ground again.

On a stick shoved into the ground behind him is his coat, bright and colorful against the starkness of the landscape, and it’s only then he realizes that mixed in with the mud and snow around him are flowers. They’re all shapes and colors and sizes, and have absolutely no business growing this time of year out of frozen ground, but here they are.

And here he is.

There’s a small piece of paper in his hand, and while he can pick out a few letters, the handwriting is much more familiar to him than the words. Caleb wrote this, whatever it says, though he does recognize a word at the top- ‘Molly’- and he’s grateful that he’s still him, that he still knows who he is, that even if his body died, at least his spirit stayed the same this time. He still has no idea why, but that’s not his top priority right now. He gets to his feet, swaying slightly but managing to remain upright, and grabs the coat, pulling it on and tugging it closed around himself. He’s still cold, but it’s a start.

He doesn’t quite remember what was happening, but he thinks he remembers the direction they were heading in when whatever happened happened; he points himself in that direction, and starts walking.

~~

This was a mistake.

He’s running fast as he can, but as it turns out, coming back from the dead takes it out of a person. A slightly hysterical giggle works its way up and out of him as he runs, air burning in his lungs as he goes. The forest he’s running through is thick, the trees tall and menacing. It was nearing sundown when he entered the treeline, a number of very unhappy men on his literal and figurative tail. A stab wound in his side aches and stings as he runs, a blow from one of the irritable gents. Living in a place like Shady Creek Run, you’d think a person would be familiar with getting pick-pocketed, but apparently the guy was inclined to take it personally. Thankfully Molly is quick, even if it doesn’t feel like he’ll be able to stay moving for much longer, and the sounds of pursuit fade back in to the quickly-approaching night.

He slows to a stop, placing a hand on a nearby tree for balance as he struggles to breathe, his other hand clutching at the wound in his side. He should keep moving, try to find somewhere more sheltered, hidden from the things that likely prowl the forest at night, but as he goes to take a step his legs make the decision for him, buckling and dropping him down to the ground.

“Well...fine then. Here’s a good a place as any, I suppose.”

He sits with his back to the tree and pulls his coat aside, grimacing at the spreading wash of crimson on his shirt. At this point he doesn’t think it’s going to make the shirt look worse, but it’s the principle of the thing. He digs around in the pockets of the coat and comes up with a needle and a spool of thread. He knows it’s not the sort he should be using for this, but he doesn’t have many options at the moment; he needs to stop the bleeding, and the wound is too deep to easily close on its own. 

He didn’t come back only to bleed out in the first twenty-four hours.

Again.

He sighs, making sure he has his thread nips balanced on his thigh. He’s lucky the wound is relatively clean, and doesn’t seem to have hit anything immediately vital. If it were too far back he wouldn’t be able to easily reach, and it’s still going to be awkward, but it’s not far enough around to be insurmountable. He uses the little water he has left in the canteen he’d also stolen to rinse the wound out. It’s not perfect, but he’ll have to hope for the best.

Threaded needle in one hand, he twists, biting back a whine of pain, and pinches the edges of skin together with the other. He takes a deep breath, tells himself he can do this, that it’s no worse than the tattoos, and pushes the needle through his skin.

He barely muffles a scream, somehow making sure the needle gets all the way through, and isn’t ashamed of the whimper at the sensation of the thread pulling through. He makes himself tie off the first knot and nips the thread, falling back against the tree, panting for breath.

It takes six stitches to get the wound closed to the point where he doesn’t think he’s going to bleed out. It could likely do with more, but he’s not in any sort of state to be doing it himself right now. With shaking hands he tucks the bloodied supplies back into his pocket and forces himself to his feet. There’s something in the distance, a change in the scenery, perhaps something lighter, and not wanting to head back to town, he points himself in that direction and stumbles off, hoping to find some help.

Chapter Text

The Iron Shepherds had been bad.

At the time, it had been one of the worst experiences of Fjord's life- they knew what they were about, what they were doing, had the process of breaking a person through pain and humiliation down to a science, their goal to get a nice compliant shell as quickly as possible to sell off. So yeah, they knew what they were doing.

He still thinks this woman could have taught them a few things.

He’s pretty sure this is Astrid, Caleb’s Astrid, though she hasn’t exactly introduced herself. One of the worst parts, he thinks, as he lays strapped down to a table in a remote cabin, is that she hasn't asked him anything. Her main goal seems to be making him scream, and while he’d resisted in the beginning, she’s far too good at what she does for him to have had any hope of lasting for long. His throat hurts, just one hurt among many, but it’s the one he’s choosing to focus on, the way it burns and rasps when he tries to speak, tries to beg , and he’d be more ashamed about it if he didn’t want her to stop so desperately.

He thinks it’s even worse when she actually does.

He’s shaking, or at least he thinks he is. It’s like half of him has gone numb, and the half that hasn’t is in varying states of agony, and he can’t tell which he prefers, which bothers him more. He’s so confused by the sudden cessation of directed pain that he almost misses it, her hand small and chilled on the fever-warm skin of his arm, holding it still even though he’s not in much position to move. What he can’t miss is the feel of a needle sliding home into his arm, the faint sound of the squelching squeak of a plunger depressing as she injects something into him.

He tries to protest, to pull away, but the words catch like sandpaper in his throat, and her oddly gentle touch combined with the straps is enough to hold him in place.

She slides the needle out, walks away to set it down with a quiet clink.

He expects his thoughts to go hazy, to feel the burn of some kind of truth serum or similar to loosen his tongue.

What he isn’t expecting is the numbness that flows out from the injection site; he swears he can feel it through each vein and capillary as it progresses further through his system. In its wake it leaves deadness of nerve and immobility of muscle. His pulse climbs, terrified what will happen when it reaches his heart, but it doesn’t seem to affect the large muscle. Eventually the feeling encompasses him like a shroud, and he thinks it wouldn’t matter if she removed every last strap right now. He’s completely incapable of voluntary movement, not even to twitch a finger; even blinking feels labored.

“There we are.” The woman’s voice is softly accented, similar to Caleb’s, though a little stronger. She walks to the head of the table, a small smile on her face as she looks down at him. “How are we feeling?”

He tries to respond, if only to tell her to fuck off, but only barely manages an unintelligible sound deep in his throat. His mouth doesn’t move at all, and icy dread follows in the path of the numbing stillness. He’s utterly helpless, even more so than before. Sweet Mother, he can’t even struggle.

Wunderbar,” she murmurs, smile evident in her voice. He can’t see her, she’s out of his limited visual range, and that only ratchets his anxiety higher, the only indication of his distress the heightening pace of his heart and the shallowness of his breaths.

Through his panic, he feels her hand again, cool fingertips coming to rest lightly on his throat, pressing ever-so-slightly.

“I am going to ask you some questions, ja? Don’t worry too much about answering, I know that would be difficult for you right now. All I ask is that you consider each question carefully. I understand you’re probably, eh, reluctant to want to answer, given your previous disposition, but I hope we might come to some sort of agreement later, so perhaps just think on them, ja?”

He gurgles back at her, hoping it conveys a small fraction of his feelings on the matter. All it does it draw a quiet laugh from her.

The first few questions are idle, almost trivial- his name, how old he is, where he’s from. After each one is a brief pause, as if she’s giving him a chance to think, but most of what he’s thinking wouldn’t be repeatable in polite company.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she says, voice genial as if they were at a society function. “But I don’t believe you’re taking this with the correct amount of seriousness. I asked you, politely, to give my questions some thought. Perhaps I didn’t make my request clear enough.” The fingertips on his throat are no longer light, most of her hand flattening out and pressing until it’s difficult to breath, each drag of air into his lungs hard-fought. He still can’t move, can’t try to dislodge her hand, and the panic that had begun to wane flares again.

“What is your name?” The volume of her voice doesn’t change, but there’s a minute increase in pressure on his throat. “How old are you?” Again, her hand feels heavier, compressing, and he can’t breathe at all, there’s not enough air, oh gods-

His throat works- she must feel it- wanting desperately to beg, to do something to get her to let go, and his mind skips over the answers he can’t give her, like a stone over water. After a moment her hand lifts, and she sounds pleased when she says, “Very good; that wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Her fingers slide over the skin of his neck in a petting motion and his breath catches as he chokes on the unanswerable desire to shudder. “Just a few more, and I will give you a few moments to collect yourself.”

He hates the flood of relief, though it’s short-lived as once again her hand finds his throat, pressing down.

“How long have you all been working with the Dynasty?” She presses again, and he wants to rail, to yell at her that it’s not necessary, that he hadn’t had the chance to think about it or not, but he can’t. “Do you know how the Beacons work?” A mental image of the inside of the Beacon- the endless expanse, the infinite possibilities- flashes across his mind, quickly chased by the increasing need to draw breath as she presses harder. “Are you a spy?” He doesn’t have time to be concerned with what his face is doing, whether it can move enough to give anything away; she’s completely constricting his airway, and tears form in his eyes, dribbling uselessly down the sides of his face.

She holds another moment, leaning down just a little heavier on him, and his vision is tunneling, going gray at the edges when she lifts her hand up and away. It’s the oddest sensation to gasp and cough and choke on air when he can’t move, when his body can’t convey the distress it’s in. He lays there, throat and lungs burning, even as the air is refreshing and cool and sweet. He breathes, panic still sizzling gently at the edges of his mind.

Ja, I think that is good for now.” Caressing his face, tilting his head to the side her face comes into view, and she’s smiling; it almost reaches her eyes. “Rest, recover your strength. I think you are going to need it.”

She lets go and walks away, presumably towards a door. His suspicions are confirmed a moment later when he hears it open, and in the few seconds before it shuts Caleb’s voice comes through, tense, filled with concern and worry and fear. Caleb is calling for him, and gods, he wishes he could answer, but he can’t. All he can do is lay here and hope that next time the woman returns, he’ll be ready.

Chapter Text

“You’re getting sloppy, Ermendrud. Again.”

It’s late afternoon, the shadows in the yard lengthening, the sun dipping down behind the trees and making the leaves glow a honey-gold. It’s a lovely fall day, and Bren would be enjoying it a great deal more if he didn’t feel as if he were about to pass out. He nods in acknowledgement and resets, focusing through the tiredness and forcing the trembling in his hands to still long enough to get his somatic gestures right. There’s no room for exhaustion in what he’s being trained to do, no room for sloppiness, for failure.

He knows what happens to those who fail, and he has no intention in joining those ignoble ranks.

His hands move through the practiced motions, the words coming smoothly as he works not to drop his diamond as he casts. A sphere of fire forms in front of him, and as he completes the movements of his fingers and flicks them outward, the sphere hurtles forward towards the practice dummy at the far end of the training pitch. It hits solidly, scorching the edges of the dampened burlap it wears.

Bren’s vision goes a bit watery, but he locks his knees, refusing to give in to the bone-deep weariness even as the trembling returns, shaking his whole body instead of just his hands, now. A moment later Ikithon comes to stand next to him, eyeing the singed dummy. 

“I suppose it will do for now. You must get stronger, Bren, such weakness is unseemly even in the lowest warmage of the Empire. If I expect you to lead some day, you must find a way to overcome your innate faults and rise above. You have a lot going against you, and of course you can’t control where you came from, but it is up to you to work hard. Don’t make me regret choosing you, Bren. You know how I dislike being disappointed.”

“Of course, sir.”

Tomorrow he will try harder.

He will make Ikithon proud.

Chapter Text

It isn’t that Jon dislikes going out, per se.

He understands the need for social interaction, understands the desire to be around people. Sometimes just being in a crowd, even if you don’t know anyone in it, is enough.

And so, of a Friday evening, he finds himself in a bar. It’s some distance from the Institute, though not too far. It’s been a trying day, between reading a Statement and attempting to do the follow-up research on it. Georgie wasn’t wrong when she got on his case about being woefully unqualified to be an actual Head Archivist, and he wonders sometimes if it would be worth it to take a class or two on the subject.

Then reason reasserts itself, and he decides that he’s probably okay considering what it is his job actually entails most of the time.

This time of night the bar is still relatively quiet, though Jon knows as the hours progress that it will fill up. In the meantime, he’s sat at a small side table quietly enjoying his drink, mind blissfully blank for once, when the sound of a familiar voice fades into his perception, rattling on cheerfully nearby. He sighs, glancing over. There at the bar is Martin, engaged in conversation with- well Jon doesn’t really know or care who. The man is tall, or at least taller than Martin, and broad in the way that speaks to either hours on the rugby pitch or a case of especially kind genetics. The man is watching Martin talk and gesticulate, and there’s something about it that sits wrong in Jon’s mind, something that seems off to him. He focuses in, trying to discern what it is, which is why he catches it.

Martin turns to the side to get the bartender’s attention for something, and in the few seconds Martin’s not paying attention, Jon watches the man slip something into Martin’s drink.

It’s fast, accomplished so quick and smooth that Jon realizes with a sickening twist of his gut that it’s practiced. The man has clearly done this before, probably a number of times, and Jon realizes with dawning horror that Martin still has no idea. Martin turns back, a bright smile on his face and the other man’s expression doesn’t change, still alight with polite interest, and good lord, Martin’s taking a drink-

Jon’s on his feet and moving before he quite realizes it, making a beeline for the bar. The man- who is now leaning far too close to Martin for Jon’s liking- is even bigger close-up, but Jon really doesn’t give a damn. Martin’s lifting his glass to take another sip, but he must spot Jon out of the corner of his eye because he pauses, eyes going wide in surprise.

“Jon! I- I really didn’t expect to see you here, is everything alri-”

Jon cuts him off by grabbing Martin’s wrist, forcing the tainted glass back down to the bar’s surface, liquid sloshing over the side. Jon turns to face the other man.

“Jon, what are you-”

“He put something in your drink, Martin.”

Martin freezes, color draining from his face as he glances down to his glass. “He what?”

The other man smiles, though it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I think there's a misunderstanding, here-”

“Oh, I don’t doubt you’d like us to think so, but I saw you. There was no mistaking that. So, what did you put in his drink?” 

“GHB.” The man’s eyebrows climb in surprise and now, Jon notes, a hint of fear clear in his expression. “What the fuck did you-”

Shut up.” The compulsion comes easily, the man’s mouth snapping shut, and he looks more confused and concerned and scared by the minute.

Good.

You are going to sit, right here, and wait while the bartender calls the police. When they arrive, you will tell them exactly what you’ve done, and confess to anything else illegal as well, do you understand?”

The man sits on his stool, nods mutely, though sweat has started to bead at his hairline and there’s far too much white showing around his eyes. Jon nods, calls the bartender over and explains what’s happened, and before they can be asked to stay Jon is getting an arm around an increasingly pale Martin and helping him up.

Jon-” Martin’s voice has gone high and reedy with fear, but unlike with the man, it doesn’t give Jon a thrill. It only makes him want to go back and...well, he’s not quite sure what, but it likely wouldn’t be good for the man’s health, and would likely do nothing for the reputation of the Institute.

“Yes, Martin?”

“Am- am I going to be alright?”

Jon pulls himself out of his own head and looks over at Martin as they head outside, the cool evening air feeling nice after the warmth of the bar. Martin is still pale, breath coming in nervous pants, and Jon feels his ire lessen, replaced by protective fondness.

“Yes. You didn’t drink a lot of it, but it may still affect you. You live close, right? We should have time to get you home before it takes effect, though I can call 999 for you if you’d like?”

“No, no, I- I think I’d rather be home, really, but-” Amazingly, twin spots of color appear high on Martin’s face, and it takes a second for Jon to realize he’s blushing. “I would, I mean, if it’s not too much of an imposition, could you, er, stay? With me? I mean, you don’t have to like, stay in the same room, or anything, but well, I’d feel better if I weren’t alone?”

Martin sounds so unsure, which isn’t a surprise, he’s not really the most confident person Jon knows, but Jon is a bit hurt that Martin thinks he would just leave him alone after something like this. Even he knows better than that.

“Of course I’ll stay with you, Martin.”

With a sigh of relief, Martin sags against him, and they hurry off into the night.

Chapter Text

Gods she wants a drink.

She’s fine, totally fine. Really. It’s just- things haven’t been great recently, and her and Caleb were both run out of the last town before she could score any booze, and now reality is creeping it’s unfortunate way back in.

Or at least she thinks it’s reality.

She’s pretty sure the small goblin-shaped shadows she sees creeping out of the corner of her eye aren’t real, but there’s no way to know, is there? The first time she sees them, she maybe overreacts a bit, grabbing Caleb’s wrist and yanking him to the ground, pulling her crossbow and shooting into the darkness. There wasn’t anything there, just a tree with a new hole in it, but Caleb pats her shoulder and thanks her all the same.

“An honest mistake,” he says. “Thank you for watching out for me, Nott.”

She nods, tucking her crossbow away again, but the longer she goes without a drink, the worse it gets. She stops asking Caleb if he can see the figures when he starts giving her concerned looks, and she knows he knows that she’s seeing something, can feel her tense next to him even if she doesn’t say anything.

All of that she can deal with.

What she can’t deal with is hearing snatches of Luc’s voice, calling for her from the dark. She’s supposed to be keeping watch as Caleb sleeps, but she knows she’s distracted, shivering and sweating at the same time from her anxious seat near the fire. Her hands are shaking, and she tries to ignore it. It’s just an owl, or- or a squirrel, or something-

Mama-”

It’s not real. It can’t be real. They’re nowhere near Felderwin, there’s no reason for Luc to be here, not in this random bit of forest so far from home. She grabs her ears and pulls them down, trying to block out the sound.

She closes her eyes, even knowing she’s supposed to be on watch. If her eyes are closed she can’t see the shadows, can’t see the goblins she knows aren’t there closing in to get her, to drag her back, to put her back under again. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real-

A hand lands on her shoulder and she startles badly, unable to stop a scream and tumbling backwards off the log she’d been perched on. Her crossbow is in her hands, she doesn’t remember drawing it, but it’s not a goblin or Luc standing over her when she focuses. It’s Caleb, eyes wide, face pale in the low light of the dying fire. His hands are up, trying to look non-threatening.

“Nott,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry for scaring you, but would you mind terribly pointing that somewhere that isn’t at me?”

It takes her a second to get her muscles to move, but she drops the weapon to the ground, apologizing. Again, Caleb takes it in stride, sitting next to her on the ground after getting their small fire blazing again. He pulls her close, giving her a gentle squeeze, tells her they’ll be at a new town soon, and they’ll get her something. Everything will be fine.

She’ll be fine.

Chapter Text

It should be disturbing how peaceful it is.

There’s still the sound of fighting nearby, though it’s oddly muffled. The sky above is a vivid blue, white puffy clouds floating along. Overhead a bird wheels by, unconcerned with the tragedy occurring below.

Caleb thinks it should hurt more. This isn’t the first time he’s been in such a position, far from it, but he’s always amazed at how quickly the body responds, sending him into shock, numbing him from the initial agony of traumatic injury. He doesn’t look down the length of his body, doesn’t need, or want, to look; he knows how bad it is. He’s familiar with the signs, his extremities numb and chilled, his lips tingling with blood loss. His heart’s beating fast, at a rabbit’s pace, desperately trying to keep his blood circulating, but ironically it’s only making him bleed out faster. Just his luck, really.

Everything is soft, distant, like being held in a giant wad of cotton batting. His vision is starting to gray at the edges, his breathing more labored, and of all the ways he could go, he doesn’t think this is so bad, really. It could have been so much worse. He does wish it weren't quite so cold, though.

He doesn’t realize his eyes have slid closed until there’s a shout nearby and suddenly there’s hands on him, and his eyes fly open in surprise. The pain follows a split second later as pressure is applied to the injury, and he gives a breathless cry.

“Yeah, dude, I know, but I need to keep your blood on the inside ‘til Jes or Cad can get over here.”

Beau, Caleb thinks hazily, the pain dropping back to a dull throb. It takes him a moment to realize he’s grabbed her wrists, though he doesn’t know whether he meant to pull her hands away, or if he was just looking for something to hold on to. Either way, his fingers slide free, slick with his own blood, and his hands fall back to the ground. Her efforts are well-intentioned, but it seems they may be too late. The world fades again, colors draining out. Is he seeing the sky? Seeing the clouds? Or is his vision clouding over, going dull?

“Gods damnit, no, you wake the fuck up, I am not doing this again, do you hear me?” There’s a spike of agony as Beau presses harder, and Caleb wheezes, body shuddering, though he can’t gather the wherewithal to do anything else.

“Someone with healing get their asses over here now or we’re going to be down a wizard!” Her words are edged with panic, but he’s having trouble focusing. 

It’s quiet now. He can’t feel her hands on him anymore. He knows that’s bad, but the lack of pain is a relief. His muscles relax, and he’s hit with how tired he is, utterly drained. All he wants is to rest, just for a little while. Even breathing is exhausting, the constant need to fill his lungs, dragging air in and out an unimaginable effort. In and out and in and-

-out and-

-and-

-

Chapter Text

Left foot.

Right foot.

Left foot.

Right foot.

Fjord focuses on keeping his legs moving, on making sure they actually lift properly so he doesn’t stumble. He’s exhausted- they all are- but they’re not safe, not yet; they can’t stop.

Caleb tried to warn them, to tell them going into the abandoned wizard’s tower was a bad idea, but they hadn’t listened. Jester died, though Caleb of all people, thank the gods, was in a position to bring her back. Cad is driving the cart while Caleb and Beau tend to Jester in the back. Nott’s scouting ahead, which leaves him bringing up the rear. When they’d come back out the other horses had been missing, only the one hitched to the cart not run off. Jes needs Caleb and Beau, needs them close, to keep her safe, but more importantly to let her feel safe, and with all of them in the packed cart there isn’t room for him as well, and so he walks.

He’s glad to be in the back where the others can’t easily see him. The clerics are both tapped, and they used the last healing potion to get Beau back up and moving again. Walking in the back it’s easy to hide the way he’s holding his ribs, easy to hide how his breathes are shallow and pained as he walks. If he gets a little lightheaded now and again, well, that’s alright. Not the first time. Unlikely to be the last. Nothing to really be done about it til they’ve gotten in a good rest anyway.

Soon they’ll be far enough away that Caleb will feel safe casting his Mansion, and then it won’t be an issue. Fjord will be able to slip away and send one of the invisible servants for ice, maybe some bandages, and he can lick his wounds in the privacy of his own room, no muss, no fuss.

He’s so focused on putting one foot in front of the other, of not faltering, that he doesn’t notice the cart has stopped and walks right into the back of it.

It’s more a startle than anything else, but the sudden tensing of muscle and intake of breath at the surprise hurts, and he viciously bites down on the pained whine that wants to slip out of him. Putting a hand on the edge of the cart to steady himself, Fjord glances up.

“We stopping for the night?”

Beau is watching him, eyes slightly narrowed in that cuttingly-perceptive way she has sometimes.

“Yeah, Caleb thinks we should be safe to stop here. You didn’t hear us calling to you?”

Pulling a smile on, Fjord waves the concern aside. “Just tired, you know? Deep in thought.”

Beau snorts, turning to help Caleb get Jester sitting up. “Dude, I’ve seen puddles deeper than your thoughts.”

Fjord huffs a laugh, barely keeping a grimace off his face as he tightens the hold of his arm around his ribs, thankfully hidden by the lip of the cart. “You know how it is, long day and all.”

She flicks a quick glance up to him, speculative, but then everyone is caught up in getting Jester off the cart, Caleb swaying in place as he concentrates to use the last of his magic to make his Mansion. Everyone limps inside, and Fjord can breathe a little easier knowing everyone is safe inside, figuratively if not literally. Dinner is a quiet affair, which he’s thankful for. He’s being very careful, but it helps that everyone seems to be inside their own heads. Even Caduceus seems distracted, which is a rarity, and Fjord is taking full advantage.

He slips up to his room after, and nobody stops him. He doesn’t expect them to; they know he likes his space, sometimes, and especially after a hard fight he’s been known to hole up for some peace and quiet, so this is nothing new. He does take a moment to summon one of the servants, requesting ice and bandages, and he’s in the process of wrestling his shirt off when there’s a soft knock at the door.

“Well that was very quick, wasn’t-” He stops when he sees it’s not the spectral servant bearing supplies, but rather Beauregard, arms crossed over her chest and a scowl fixed firmly on her face. Fjord is suddenly very aware of the fact that his shirt is most of the way off, but before he can try to tug it back into place, her scowl deepens.

“How stupid do you think I am?”

She pushes into the room, and he’s in no state to try to stop her, just steps back out of the way, not wanting her to shove.

“I don’t think you’re stupid at all. We both know you’re quite intelligent.”

She eyes him, gaze narrowing in on his midsection, and he swears he can feel his broken ribs shift under the weight of it.

“How bad is it?”

“How bad is what?” It’s a token protest at this point, but his privacy is hard-won, and he has to try.

“Look, you do a good job of telling me when I’m being an idiot, so let me return the favor. You’re being an idiot.” She advances on him, hands reaching for the hem of his shirt, and this time he doesn’t try to stop her. There’s a hiss of sympathy as she gets a look at the swathes of dark bruising along his ribs.

Her fingers are cool, which feels nice against the heat of his bruised skin, but his vision grays and he staggers when she presses gently and he thinks he feels something shift in a way that rib cages aren’t meant to.

“Easy,” she murmurs, steadying him. “Why didn’t you say anything? We’d have let you up into the cart. You shouldn’t have been walking like that.”

He wants to sigh, but he knows it will only hurt. “Jes needed you two, and there wouldn’t have been room. I wasn’t going to toss you out.”

She helps him over to sit on the edge of his bed, and gives him a look. “You could have sat up with Deuces. There’s more than enough room for two on the driver’s seat.”

“Oh." He blinks. "That- well I’ll admit I didn’t think of that.”

Rolling her eyes, Beau goes back to the door to answer the quiet knock of the servant returning with the requested supplies. She comes back to the bed and sets them down. “That’s why you should have said something, dumbass. You weren’t in a position to be making the best decisions. We could have helped.” She holds out the ice pack to him and he takes it, feeling only a little sheepish. “Let us help you.”

Fjord takes the pack and holds it carefully against his side, breathing a quiet sigh of relief as the cold starts to numb the bruising. “Yeah. I- I will, thank you, Beau.”

He catches her barely restrain herself from clapping him on the shoulder, which he greatly appreciates, and then she nods, decisively. “If you need anything, just, you know, send one of the weird ghosty guys to come get me, okay? And we’ll have Cad or Jes take a look at you tomorrow.”

“Sounds good, Beau.” He watches her move towards the door, and calls after her, “Thank you.”

She tosses a smile over her shoulder as she slips through the door. “Anytime.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Beauregard, what have I said about your language?” Mrs. Lionett sighs, sweeping past in a rustle of skirts. “You agreed to attend the gala, and you can’t have expected I’d let you go wearing,” her mother gestures at Beau, a clear look of disdain on her face. “-that.”

“And what’s wrong with it?” Beau’s wearing a neatly-tailored pair of trousers, a new pair of soft black boots. Her buttoned shirt is a stark white against the deep sapphire blue of her waistcoat, and she knows that her jacket, still hung up nearby, looks impeccable over it all.

Barely suppressing a look of disappointment, her mother approaches and starts undoing the buttons on Beau’s waistcoat.

“I wasn’t thrilled when you did this when you were a child, but it was easy to brush it aside as the quirks of youth. You’re older now, though, and you should know better. Time to put these silly things aside. If you think I was going to let you embarrass our family by wearing such- such mannish attire, then I don’t know what was in your head, but you were mistaken. You know I had a dress made for you. I told you as much.”

Beau bristles, but doesn’t stop her mother from undoing the last buttons on the waistcoat; the woman starts in on the buttons of the shirt, and Beau can feel her face heat in frustrated humiliation.

She hates dresses. She hates wearing them, hates that she’s expected to wear them. What she hates most though is that she’s going to acquiesce to her mother’s wishes, even if she ends up feeling miserable and awkward about it all evening. She likes her other outfit, and she knows she looks good in it. She’s never understood what the point of having all this wealth and influence in society means if it doesn’t mean she can live her life how she wants to.

Stepping back, her mother gives her another look before heading for the door. “You wasted quite a bit of time with this nonsense, Beauregard. You had best change quickly, we have to leave soon.”

Twenty minutes later sees Beau exiting her room in a frothy yellow dress, cut to show off a figure she doesn’t possess. It’s restrictive, confining, and she knows if she were to try to throw a punch at anyone, one of the delicately-stitched sleeves would probably rip.

She really hopes someone gives her an excuse to throw a punch tonight.

“Well now. That isn’t so bad, is it?” Her mother bustles up to her, adjusts the lay of a ruffle and smiles. It’s not an approving smile, not quite, more of a resigned look than anything. “I suppose it’s the best we can expect. Let’s go, your father is already outside in the carriage. You know how he hates to be kept waiting.”

Beau follows, face flushed again with irritated embarrassment. ‘...the best we can expect… As if she isn’t good enough the way she is, as if she’s a disappointment. It’s not a huge surprise, she knows she isn’t good enough, will never be for having not been the son they wanted. She’ll always be a disappointment no matter how hard she tries.

As she follows her mother out, wearing a dress that makes her want to scream and shoes that pinch, Beau reminds herself that it isn’t forever. Someday she’ll be away from all this shit. Someday she’ll be able to be who she is, unapologetically and without restraint.

Someday she’ll be free.

Chapter Text

Vandren is alive.

When he finds out, Fjord is overcome with relief and wonder. It’s nothing short of a miracle, far as he’s concerned. Though if Vandren is like him, touched by Uk’otoa, then ‘miracle’ might be stretching it.

He’s still glad his mentor is alive; Vandren’s done so much for him, especially when he was growing up- teaching him how to act, giving him a place and a chance when both of those things were in very short supply for him. He supposes that he’ll always be thankful to the man, grateful for his generosity. He’d seen a skinny little half-orc, only barely old-enough to be called a man, and said yes to the quiet request for work. Fjord still isn’t sure what exactly Vandren saw in him, whether he saw some great promise- potential, his mind whispers- or was merely paying forward some previous good turn done to him.

It hurts, though.

It hurts that Vandren has been alive this whole time, and hasn’t once tried to seek him out. Hurt that he doesn’t seemed interested in seeing him again now that he knows Fjord is alive. Fjord wonders if things would have been different if Vandren had wanted to see him, if he’d still have dropped the accent, the mannerisms. In a way, Vandren’s dismissiveness makes the decision to come clean easier. That doesn’t make it easy, not remotely, but it alleviates some of the burden, knowing that he isn’t held in the same sort of esteem as he’s felt for Vandren all these years. That cuts deeper, wounds in a way few other things haven’t recently; knowing that the one person from his past he really cared for, the one person from his past who he felt so much respect for that he’d taken to emulating the man just hadn’t cared. Not enough to see if Fjord had lived, not enough to want to know more about his life once he knew he did. It’s a sort of hurt Fjord isn’t accustomed to, hasn’t had the opportunity to learn to shield himself from yet, but everything is a learning opportunity, if one chooses to look at it that way. Fjord’s always been a quick study.

He just wishes the lesson wasn’t quite so bitter.

Chapter Text

Running an organization like the Magnus Institute is a lot of work. The days are full of all sorts of things, some expected, some not. So it isn’t like he doesn’t have other things he could be doing; Elias is a busy man, after all. All the small fiddly bits that make up the running of such a prestigious establishment- budgets, meetings, handling personnel issues, chatting up donors on the phone- the list is near endless. He doesn’t mind it overmuch, it’s a way to pass the time, and he does enjoy all the little tidbits of information he gleans from everyone he interacts with throughout the day.

Which is to say it’s a bit of a disruption to his routine when a courier arrives with an envelope slightly singed at the edge and smelling faintly of smoke.

He quickly discerns that the courier doesn’t know anything other than it was handed to him by his boss to deliver, so a dead end there. Best to just open it and see what trouble there is this time.

The smell of smoke and singed paper is strong when he neatly slices the envelope open with his letter opener. He pulls the sheet out to find what, for all intents and purposes, seems to be a ransom note. The words on the sheet appear to have been burned in rather than inked, which is the reason for the smell, and as his eyes flick over the page, taking them in, Elias sighs.

This is going to put a crimp in his schedule for the day.

Reaching over, he taps the button that opens the line directly to his secretary.

“Rosie, if you would please clear my schedule the rest of the afternoon, I’m afraid some important business has come up that I must attend to. Reschedule what you can, and if anyone gives you trouble, tell them I’ll get back to them directly.”

“Of course, Mr. Bouchard.”

He disconnects the line and reads over the page again.

        Eye-

          We have your Archivist. If you don’t want him to Burn, you will hand over control of the Archives for Purification.

In place of a signature is a smudge of ash.

He supposes it could be worse; they could have taken the time to cut out little magazine letters like in the movies.

He sits back in his chair, elbows resting comfortably in the padded arms, fingers steepled in front of him, and lets his eyes close as his Eyes flick open. He focuses, and for a moment there’s nothing.

Information slowly filters in.

There’s an echo of pain, the deep inescapable sort that comes from burns, as well as less intense throb of bruises, the lesser burn of rough rope tied too tightly around delicate wrists and ankles. He Looks through Jon’s eyes, sees a nondescript room in what seems to be an office of some sort. The room is drab, unfurnished other than the chair Jon is sat in. It’s dim, though there’s pale light filtering in through the large window across the room from where Jon’s seated. And there, just out the window, is the Shard, in all it’s towering glinting glory.

Perfect.

Elias blinks out of Jon, content in the knowledge that his Archivist isn’t too badly injured, though probably none-too-keen on being gagged.

“You should have blindfolded him,” he mutters to himself as he grabs his coat, and heads out to collect his Archivist.

Chapter Text

It’s been two days, nine hours, and twenty-seven minutes since their capture when Wulf arrives at the fortress.

Caleb doesn’t immediately know that it’s him; despite what the others tend to think, he doesn’t actually know everything. It’s easy to tell that something’s changed, though. Fjord is still sleeping in the other cell, curled on his side, head pillowed on his arms, comfortable as possible on a bare stone floor and wearing heavy irons. Caleb’s been up for almost an hour, his nerves not allowing him the further respite of rest.

He’s awake, and so he hears it in the near-ringing silence of the cell block- the almost imperceptible sound of activity above them, carried in faint echoes across the stones of the hallways. Raised voices, but not in alarm, booted feet rushing, as if to something important. If they’re not raising an alarm, the next best guess is that someone has arrived. By his reckoning, that can only mean one thing.

The interrogator from the capital has arrived.

His skin prickles and his stomach churns for all that he doesn’t let his expression change. He’s known this was coming since the moment he they clapped him the anti-caster cuffs. It’s inevitable, the only natural conclusion to the series of events that began with his arrest. Somehow they know who he is, somehow he’s been spotted despite the necklace, and so it only makes sense that they would send someone to talk to him.

He huffs an almost silent laugh to himself.

Talk.

Well, maybe there will be some talk; they don’t always jump straight into things. Or at least they didn’t used to. He can admit that he may not be as up-to-date on technique as whoever they’re sending. He wonders vaguely who it might be, whether they’ll send someone new, some fresh-faced young thing desperate to prove themselves. He wonders if maybe it will be one of his former classmates. He wonders for a split second whether it will be the old man himself, and he has to veer his mind away from that. Even after all this time, even having resigned himself to an ignoble fate, his mind shies away from having to face the Archmage directly. If it’s him, all hope of any sort of positive resolution is lost.

But no.

As he listens, straining to hear, some of the sound begins to grow, to get closer- the sound of quiet footsteps. After a few moments his stomach drops, realizing he recognizes the tread, the cadence of boot against stone. When the figure comes into view a few moments later, he’s holding onto his composure by his fingertips. The figure is tall, broad, and as they reach up to flip their hood back, the torchlight gleams against short dark hair and twinkling eyes.

“Well, well, look what they’ve caught for us. Hallo, Mäuschen.”

He has no idea what his face is showing. He’s aiming for stoic detachment, for no reaction, but his face and hands went numb from anxious dread the second he placed the footfalls, and he has no idea what his expression is. He’s glad he’d decided not to say anything until absolutely necessary because he doesn’t know if he’s capable of speech right now, and trying and failing would be a terrible way to begin what’s about to happen.

Wulf watches him for another moment, eyes intent, and as Caleb watches Wulf’s smile grows slightly, and gods, Caleb knows that look-

He’s just never seen it directed at himself.

Wulf sighs, pleased, and turns back the way he came, gesturing almost absently. “Bring him.” he says, then turns and winks at Caleb before continuing on down the hallway without looking back, expecting his orders to be followed.

And of course they are. The guards he was talking to come into view and open Caleb's cell. He doesn’t want to go, would rather be almost anywhere else in all the planes but where they’re about to take him, but he also knows, realistically, that a fight isn’t going to end with him winning. He has no magic, hasn’t had more than water in two days, and is exhausted; there’s very little left in him to fight with, and that’s by design. It’s only the knowledge that Fjord is right there in the cell next to his, a vulnerable target, that keeps him from trying anyway. It might be better to go out fighting in the short term, but that would leave Fjord here on his own. While Caleb thinks it’s one of the stupidest things he’s ever seen Fjord do to follow him here, now that he is here, he can’t very well leave him alone. He might deserve this fate, but Fjord doesn’t.

And so, when they open the cell door, he doesn’t fight. He doesn’t struggle as they grab his arms with bruising force and haul him out. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look back as he hears the clank of chains as Fjord starts to rouse at the noise.

He’ll do what he was trained to do. He’ll do as Trent taught him.

He’ll do what he needs to.

There are two rooms at the end of this corridor; the first is the one they brought him to a few days prior to affix the anti-magic collar that still weighs heavily at his throat. This time, though, it’s the other room they take him to.

It’s a relatively innocuous room, all things considered. It’s mostly empty, containing a regular wooden chair, which Wulf is in the process of draping his cloak over, a small wooden table off to one side with a pitcher and cup. It’s the other chair in the room that has Caleb’s knees turning to water despite his best attempts otherwise. It’s of a heavy wood, solid, and may well weigh more than he does. It’s been bolted to the floor, secure against any thrashing it’s occupant might do in the course of a day’s work. There are restraints on it, and Caleb’s mind flashes back in time, and he can almost hear Ikithon’s voice, sliding through his brain like an eel.

‘It’s for the best to restrain you at the start, my boy. It isn’t that I don’t trust you; I am sure your intentions are good. But you’re young yet, and untested, and considering the delicate nature of this procedure, it’s safer for you that I make sure you don’t move.’

He snaps out of it as he’s shoved into the chair, and he grunts as his head impacts on the tall back of the chair. It’s not enough to really hurt, more of a stun, really, but it’s enough to distract him while the guards strap his wrists and forearms to the arms of the chair, and strap his ankles to the legs. The wrist straps catch and rub against the barely closed gashes from the restraints they’d brought him in wearing, but the small hurt is quickly subsumed by his growing dread. One last heavy strap goes across his upper arms and chest, fastening in the back, and the guards salute Wulf before stepping out of the room, leaving them alone for the first time in more than fifteen years.

Wulf pulls his chair closer, turning it so he can straddle it, arms folded along the back as he leans forward to regard his captive. Caleb can feel Wulf’s gaze as an almost physical thing, and it’s taking an enormous amount of effort not to squirm.

“So,” Wulf says, the small smile still in place on his face, and sounding pleasant, as if they’re still old friends, as if nothing’s changed. “It has certainly been a long time, Mäuschen. I would say it is a pleasure to see you, but it’s disappointing to see how far you’ve fallen. Look at you-” Wulf says, gesturing at Caleb. “Keeping company with common rabble, colluding with the Dynasty of all things, traipsing around as if you’re a person when we both know better.” Wulf sighs and smiles, fond, and Caleb can almost imagine it’s like old times, Wulf shaking his head as he pulls him away from his work-

‘Live a little, Bren, you can’t learn everything from books-

-but then the illusion shatters, and Caleb is once again in the small stone room, strapped to a chair, with Wulf sitting across from him, smiling. Caleb blinks, shakes his head. That...that wasn’t a memory, not quite, that was something else, something-

“We used to be such good friends, Bren, what happened? I know you were ill, Master Ikithon told us that much, but then what? You kill an orderly and run? What did you think you’d accomplish on your own that you couldn’t manage with us? With the power of the Empire at your beck and call? What possibly possessed you? Help me understand. Perhaps this encounter doesn’t need to be as terrible as you think.”

It’s a lie. Caleb knows it’s a lie. But that doesn’t stop him from considering that maybe there’s a way out of this, maybe it doesn’t have to end with one of them dead, maybe Wulf will let them go for some unfathomable reason, maybe-

“And we are Friends, aren’t we, Bren?”

-and he almost misses it. Almost misses the subtle movement of Wulf’s hand near his face, smudging something onto his cheek. Almost falls prey to what Wulf’s trying to do. But he doesn't miss it, and the spell breaks over him, like water spilling off an oiled surface.

Es tut mir Leid, but no, I don’t think we are, anymore.”

“Ah well,” Wulf says as he stands, expression still kind, but now taking on an apologetic twist. “Then I’m afraid this is going to be an unpleasant experience for you.” He moves to the door and knocks, and a second later the door cracks open to show a guard on the other side. Wulf murmurs something to him and the guard nods, taking off. Shutting the door, Wulf turns back and moves until he’s right next to Caleb, reaching up to brush a loose piece of hair out of Caleb’s face, tucking it behind his ear.

Caleb shudders, unable to help it, but does manage not to jerk his head away.

Ja,” Caleb chokes out. “I suppose it is.”

A moment later there’s another knock at the door and Wulf goes to answer it. Caleb takes the scant few seconds he’s allotted to try to pull himself together, to bolster himself. He’s seen Wulf at work before, knows- at least a little- the shape this is going to take. He’s no stranger to pain, and while he doesn’t enjoy it, he can endure it. If nothing else, he supposes he can be thankful to Ikithon for that bit of tutelage.

Wulf comes back far too soon, and sets down a small club, barely the length of Caleb’s forearm. From the thunk it makes on the chair in front of him though, it’s made of something heavy and dense. Wulf calmly unbuttons the dark vest he’s been wearing and shrugs it off, setting it aside before unbuttoning and rolling up the cuffs of the grey linen shirt underneath.

It’s almost performative, part ritual, and this Caleb also recognizes- setting the stage, getting into the mindset to do what must be done. He used to do the same, though slightly different. This part, at least, hasn’t changed.

When he’s done, Wulf reaches over the side of the chair and lifts the club, hefting it consideringly in his hand, checking his grip before turning to face Caleb again.

“I’m sure you remember this part, Bren. I’m going to ask you some questions, and probably hurt you as well-” Wulf pauses, tilting his head as if in thought. “Well, no ‘probably’ about it. I am going to hurt you. How badly and for how long is up to you.”

Caleb holds his gaze for a moment, takes one last deep breath, and lets it out as he closes his eyes, and waits.

“What were you doing in the Dynasty, Bren?”

He doesn’t answer, focusing himself inward, and tries to brace. The faint swoosh of air that precedes the baton is the only warning he gets before it impacts his shoulder. After that the questions and blows flow freely. He doesn’t bother to open his eyes- seeing the blows coming won’t make them hurt less.

It’s only a few hours later when Wulf comes to a stop, breathing heavier than when he started. When nothing happens for a few moments, Caleb opens his eyes. Wulf is flushed, hair tousled with the effort he’s been expending to beat him. There are small spots and flecks of blood on him, his shirt darkened in places where he’s sweated through it.

Caleb has the thought that Wulf’s learned a bit more control in the past decade and a half; used to be, once upon a time, that it was unusual for Wulf to not leave any broken bones in the wake of his interrogations. He hurts everywhere, one of his eyes is mostly swollen shut, and breathing is painful, but from his cursory evaluation, he doesn’t think anything’s actually broken. 

That doesn’t mean Wulf’s learned control in everything.

"Have you learned nothing in the past decade, Wulf?" Caleb looks him up and down with his good eye, and doesn’t let the fact he's strapped to a chair change the look of derision he pulls on. "I expected you'd have done something with yourself by now." He shifts in place as much as the straps allow, wincing at the pull of blossoming bruises. “I was in a mad house for a decade and look where I am. What have you been doing? Still trying to bludgeon out answers with the end of a heavy stick."

He expects anger.

He expects temper, and violence, and for the heavy club to once again meet soft yielding flesh as Wulf expresses his displeasure.

He’s not expecting delighted laughter.

Who hasn’t learned anything in the past decade?” Wulf sets the bloodied cudgel down on the table and picks up the cup, draining whatever liquid is inside before setting it back down with a soft thump. He walks back over, gets a hold of Caleb’s chin and forces his head up. Wulf is smiling, just as calm and easy as at the beginning, and for the first time since the beating started, Caleb feels a slither of cold fear go through his gut.

He’s misstepped, let what he thought he knew cloud his judgement instead of waiting and taking in actual fact. It’s sloppy, unforgivable- he could toss it up to the lack of food, the exhaustion; he knows he’s not at his best, but this was a stupid mistake. He should have known better.

“I think you’ll find that I may have learned a bit more than you think since we last saw each other, schatz.” Wulf lets go of Caleb’s chin and pats him roughly on the cheek before heading to the door and rapping on it. When it opens he speaks to the guards and then steps back to let them enter.

Without a word they begin to free Caleb from the chair, and he’s glad for their strong grip on his arms even as it presses painfully into the new bruising; he’s reasonably certain he can’t stand on his own right now and isn’t keen on the idea of falling face-first onto the stone floor.

They move to pull him out of the room, and Wulf calls after him as they pass.

“See you tomorrow, Mäuschen.”

Chapter Text

-

--

-and in-

-and out and in-

Noise filters through, though it fails to coalesce into anything that makes sense. For the briefest of seconds there’s a perfect, utter peace, a moment where he doesn’t know- or care- who he is, or what’s happened. The connection to his body feels oddly tenuous, as if he’s floating in deep water, his mind adrift on the raft of his body.

Then the weight of knowledge drops onto him, dragging him back down into his senses, back to his body, and he knows. He remembers-

He is Bren Aldric Ermendrud.

He was a son, is a murderer.

He has a lot to make up for.

He is Caleb Widogast.

He is trying.

Caleb groans, tries to move, fails. He can’t feel his limbs, and the parts of himself he can feel all hurt in some vague, indescribable way. He remembers pain, and blood, and Beauregard yelling, then-

-nothing.

He’s passed out before, but this is different. He doesn’t know if he doesn’t remember what it was like because he isn’t meant to know yet, or because there was nothing to know. A philosophical crisis for later.

He’s brought back to the present by a low rumble of sound that soon resolves into a voice.

“Ah, there you are. Welcome back, Mr. Caleb.”

There’s a warm weight and pressure on his arm, sudden and shocking amidst the lingering numbness, and he gasps at the sensation.

“Careful, there, coming back from the other side is a bit of a thing. Just take it easy. Your body will catch up when it’s ready. No need to rush.”

There’s still a feeling of distance, a layer of static between him and the world. Feeling begins to return slowly, like waking up, even though Caleb knows he’s already awake. A part of him longs for the numbness, the lack of knowing. Ignorance was bliss, and he craves it, wants it in a way he’s not entirely comfortable with.

Unfortunately, it’s not his lot in life to be ignorant. He did that once, and it brought nothing but suffering and pain. It’s his duty now to know, to be aware of exactly who and what he is, and to do his best to fix it, to make reparations.

He sighs, pushing himself up to sitting, ignoring a disapproving noise from Caduceus. He doesn’t have time to lay about.

There’s work to be done.

Chapter Text

They stumble out of the mist and into the Archives, and for a moment, they just breathe.

Martin’s hand is still cool in his, though quickly warming, and Jon doesn’t need his powers to feel the way Martin’s hand trembles in his, to know that merely pulling Martin out of the shifting fog of the Lonely isn’t going to be enough to fix this.

Martin makes as if to pull away, to step back, but Jon doesn’t let him, tightening his grip on Martin’s hand. He’s not good at this, not as well-versed in human interaction as he’d sometimes like, but this is different. Martin needs him, and for Martin Jon is willing to try to do any number of impossible things.

“I think-” Jon coughs, clearing his throat. “I think we should take the rest of the day. It’s-” Jon pauses again, realizing he has no idea what time it is, how long they’ve been gone, if it’s even the same day.

“Alright.” Martin’s quiet, more succinct than Jon’s accustomed to, and he thinks it will be awhile before he stops hearing the echo of the Lonely limning Martin’s words.

They stop briefly to gather their things, and the Institute is quiet as they make their way out. Jon would worry that it was more of Peter’s influence except for the subtle staining on some parts of the floors, the swathes of police tape they find across the main exit. Martin pales, and Jon realizes Martin probably doesn’t know what happened, isn’t aware of what was going on once he entered the Lonely.

“Oh. Oh god, Jon, what, what happened?”

Jon doesn’t slow down, just tugs at Martin’s hand, ducking under the police tapes and continuing on down the walk to the Tube station. “There was an incident with some hunters, but I believe they and the not-Sasha may have dealt with each other.”

Martin still looks concerned, features drawn and worried, and Jon gives Martin’s hand a squeeze.

“There will be time to deal with it later; for now I think we need to take care of ourselves.”

Looking lost, Martin just nods, and follows along in Jon’s wake.

There’s a comfortable silence the rest of the trip to Jon’s apartment, and he’s glad to see the tiniest spark of curiosity in Martin’s eyes when they walk through the door. He wants to settle Martin on the couch, somewhere soft, but quickly realizes that he can’t stand to have Martin out of eye-shot just yet. He leads them both to the kitchen, settling Martin at one of the chairs at the little kitchenette table off to the side, out of the way, but still visible. It’s the matter of a few minutes to have a steaming mug of tea in Martin’s hands, but Jon decides that’s not enough. Tea cures many ills, but this is going to take something a bit stronger.

The press of Martin’s gaze is an almost physical thing on his back as he moves around the small kitchen, pulling rarely-used kitchenware out of cupboards. One upon a time it would have been uncomfortable knowing he was being watched, but he’s gotten used to it, more or less, over the last few years. All that aside, this is different.

This is Martin.

Jon makes a pleased sound when he finds the milk in his fridge hasn’t gone off yet, and grabs that and the small knob of butter hidden behind the eggs. He sets them on the counter near the oven, and digs in a nearby cupboard until he finds the rice and vanilla he’s looking for.

“Jon?”

“Hm?” He doesn’t pause what he’s doing, measuring out the milk into a pan on the hob while making sure the oven is preheating.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m cooking, I thought that would be fairly obvious.” The words don’t have the sharpness they might have once held, burnished down to a soft teasing edge, instead.

“I didn’t know you cooked.” 

“You know, normally the most I do is a quick sandwich, or a fry up if I’m feeling especially ambitious.” Jon huffs a self-deprecating laugh.”But I thought the situation called for something a bit more comforting than that.”

There’s a soft hum from Martin, and a gentle quiet overtakes the room as Jon finishes preparing things. He butters the baking dish with quick, efficient movements, pouring the contents of the cookpot in before sticking the last of the butter on top and sliding the whole thing into the oven. He sets a timer on his phone, then turns back to look at Martin. Martin is watching him, eyes still too wide, face still too pale, but he looks more real, more solid, than he has in weeks, in those fleeting glimpses Jon was allowed. He moves carefully, oh-so-slowly, to Martin’s side, not wanting him to startle. He doesn’t know which of them closes the final distance, but suddenly Martin is wrapping his arms around Jon’s middle, face pressed into Jon’s stomach. Jon hesitates a moment, unsure where to put his hands, and settles on letting them fall to Martin’s back, his shoulders. Under his touch, Martin is shaking, whether with tears, relief, or something else; Jon doesn’t know. He could Look, could See, but he doesn’t want to, even if it would be easier. It feels like cheating, and Martin deserves- well he deserves a great many things, but right now he deserves Jon’s effort, and the thing is, he’s worth it. He’s worth all the fumbling embarrassment Jon knows will eventually follow when he tries to be an adult about this, tries to articulate anything even remotely related to his feelings.

He doesn’t tell Martin it will be alright, even though he wants to. With the lives they lead, nothing is assured, and knowing their luck something awful will happen in the morning. For now, though, it’s calm, the two of them held in the gentle quiet of Jon’s kitchen as the warm scent of sweet vanilla pervades the space.

He gives Martin another moment, smoothing his palm up and down over the subtle bumps of Martin’s spine. Once Martin’s hitching breaths have calmed, his shaking subsided, Jon gives him an extra squeeze and leans back a bit, trying for a look at Martin’s face. He’s flushed, eyelashes damp and clumped with tears, and something in Jon’s heart twists.

“That’s going to take a little while to finish cooking.” Jon keeps his voice low and soft, gentle as he tugs at Martin’s arms, pulling him up to his feet. “How about we go get cleaned up, and I’ll make us some more tea?”

Martin nods, tears still slipping quietly down his face, but he’s smiling, a fragile thing Jon can’t help but answer with one of his own.

It’s a start.

Chapter Text

It’s over.

It takes time to sink in, and Caleb thinks it will take more time for it really sink in, but it’s a beginning. He’s covered in blood, only some of it his own, quickly cooling and growing tacky against his skin, on the clothes he wears. He’s still in shock, partially numb except for the flares of pain when he moves. He doesn’t think his left leg will ever be the same again, even if he were able to find a healer willing to help, but that’s not important right now.

Ikithon is dead, at his hand.

He’d always expected to have some sort of grand confrontation, his friends by his side, against Ikithon and his army, spells flying. In comparison, the reality is much more anticlimactic, almost mundane. In the end, he didn’t have access to the magic he’s spent years amassing, accumulating. Instead, he’d faced Ikithon with rags on his body and an anti-casting collar on his throat. It turns out that when you have nothing to lose and you’re facing one of the greatest casters of a generation, nothing beats a can-do attitude and something pointy.

Trent had always insisted they needed to know how to fight without their magic; who knew he was right?

Caleb snorts a small semi-hysterical laugh to himself, hand coming up to cover his mouth, to try to hold the sound in.

It’s surreal to see Ikithon so still, unmoving. His eyes are wide in shock, face slack, and his limbs are a jumble where he lays crumpled on the floor of his private study. He looks smaller somehow like this, robbed of his voice and charisma and life. He’s been on Caleb’s mind for years now, dominating his nightmares, trailing dread through his waking hours for so long that Caleb can’t help another giddy laugh at the sudden overwhelming relief. It quickly devolves into breathless sobs, and Caleb drops back down to his knees, hands over his face.

He doesn’t know what to do now. It’s only a matter of time before he’s found out; the guards will come back, or one of Ikithon’s Vollstrecker will need something, and that will be the end of him.

But.

But he’s not dead yet.

He’s wounded, yes, and indescribably tired, but he’s not finished. He hasn’t made it this far to roll over and die now. He didn’t survive this out of all of them to just let himself fall under the executioner’s blade now. If nothing else, he has to live if only to tell Yasha what happened, so she doesn’t go on not knowing. He owes her that at the very least. He’ll worry about the rest after.

In the meantime, there’s work to do.

He searches Ikithon’s body takes the ring of keys he finds before forcing himself up to his feet. His leg protests, but he bites down a groan and stumbles over to Ikithon’s desk. He methodically goes through the drawers, checking for traps as Nott taught him, and searches for anything helpful.

He locates a key for the collar and removes it with a shuddering sigh. It’s been on for months, and he feels weightless without the constant press of it on his neck. He finds a number of items he thinks are magic, but until he has the proper materials he won’t know for certain.

Leaving the items of interest on the desktop, Caleb begins to search the room. He has no doubt that Ikithon hid things here; it’s just a matter of whether he can find them.

He’s on to the last wall when he finds it.

Behind an armchair, obscured by a draped wall hanging, is a door.

It doesn’t appear to be trapped, the edges of it glowing with a dull, arcane light. The door itself isn’t remarkable except for the fact that it almost looks to be made of ivory. The handle is made of silver, subtle filigree around the knob and plate. Part of him wants to just turn and go, take the items he’s found and count himself lucky he’s made it this far when so many haven’t.

The longer he looks at the door, though, the more certain he becomes that if he turns and leaves, the mystery of what lays behind it will haunt him the remainder of his days. He raises a shaking hand; he hasn’t cast anything in months, and even now, without the press of the collar to his throat, he expects to feel the sharp electric jolt when he lightly taps his knuckles on the door and utters the word he needs.

There’s a loud echoing knock, and the glow around the door flares momentarily before dimming and the door clicks open when he tries the handle.

Taking a deep breath, Caleb limps through the door.

He doesn’t know what he expects; a private library, storage perhaps, or even a laboratory. What he finds instead is a hallway made of forbidding dark stone, Everburning torches in sconces dotted along the corridor, lighting the way. It’s quiet, just the occasional quiet snap or crackle from the magic torches. There are dark smudges down at the far end of the hallway along the walls, and as he quietly pads forward they resolve into doors.

Prison doors. Small barred portals at the top of each break the flat planes of heavy wood, the whole of each banded in black iron. It’s still near-silent in the corridor, but if he listens very closely he picks up the subtle rustle of fabric, the gentle clink of chain.

There are people in here, gods above.

Caleb has to take a moment to gather himself, to stuff down the sudden surge of retroactive anxiety. He stumbles back, hitting a blank space of wall and slides down, leaning over on his knees until his forehead presses to the cool stone. What if he hadn’t searched the room? What if he hadn’t found the door? What if he had chosen not to come in? These people, whoever they are, would likely have been trapped here, wasting away in the dark on their own until death came for them on silent feet.

Gods-

Whoever these people are, if Ikithon had them locked away, then it’s no stretch of the mind for him to know what must come next- he has to release them. Whatever they’ve done, whatever the crime Ikithon accused them of in a pretense of twisted justice, nobody deserves this. Nobody deserves to stay locked away in a hidden magic corridor. It’s not even a question.

Taking a deep breath, Caleb pushes back to his feet and unsteadily moves to the first door.

The doors don’t appear to be locked with anything more than a number of bolts on the outside; impossible for the person inside to open, but easy to open from out here. With trembling hands he slides the first of three bolts open. The resounding thunk that echoes down the hall makes him jump, but he doesn’t let it stop him. The other two are thrown back in quick succession, and he swings the door inward. It’s dark inside, and he wishes he’d grabbed one of the torches from the hallway. Some of the light spills in, just enough to illuminate the first few feet inside the door and only dimly past that. There’s the smell of unwashed person inside, a scent he’s fairly familiar with. He imagines he likely doesn’t smell much better himself at the moment, especially with all the blood. He knows better than to let that deter him, in any case.

Hallo?”

There’s a louder rustle, the sound no longer dampened by the door, and the drag and rattle of chain from the far corner as a figure he hadn’t noticed moves, their shape separating from the shadow as it turns to face him.

“Caleb?”

The voice is quiet, incredulous, shaking, but he’d know it anywhere, and he’s already stumbling forward before he realizes it.

“Jester-”

Caleb!”

She moves closer to the meager light and he catches a flash of blue and wide eyes before there are arms around him, squeezing. The grip isn’t as strong as he remembers, and Jester is trembling almost as badly as he is, but gods, it’s her, she’s here, she’s not-

“I thought- I thought you were dead.” He sucks in a breath, tears starting to slide hot down his face. “I thought- they took you away and I didn’t- I thought you were dead.” She pulls him closer and for a moment he buries his face into her shoulder and cries. He thinks she’s crying too, though it’s hard to tell. They end up crumpled down to the floor, and when he’s calmed, he starts to take in the scattering of straw under them, the feel of her arms around him still. He’s hugged her before, and there’s a distinct different now; she’s definitely thinner than she was the last time he saw her. He doesn’t know what to say, where to even start. Every few seconds the knowledge that she’s alive and here threatens to overwhelm him anew.

After a few minutes they push apart, but don’t stray more than half a foot, Caleb’s hand still held tightly in Jester’s grasp.

“Have you- have you been here the whole time?”

“Well, pretty much, yeah. There were a couple of days before that, after they took me from where you were that-” She pauses, and then shakes her head. “Well,” she says with a small broken smile, “Those few days weren’t very much fun, you know? Not that it’s been fun in here, either, do you know how boring it’s been? I don’t have any pencils or paper or-”

“Jester-” He clasps her hands in his. “Are- are the others-?” He almost doesn’t dare to hope, that it’s too much to ask, too greedy to want, but that doesn’t stop the small flicker of hope buried deep inside, rekindled by finding her.

“Oh my gosh!” Her eyes go comically wide, and before he can stop her she’s staggering up to her feet. She heads towards the door but gets pulled up short by the chain he now sees, connected at one end to the thick stone wall and on the other to a cuff locked around her ankle. She grumbles but stops, then puts her hands up to her mouth.

“Guys! Guys! You’ll never guess what!”

There’s a brief moment of quiet, and Caleb starts to cry again when Beau answers her.

“If you try to tell me the weird ghosty guys look like mice again, we’ve been over this, Jes.”

“No!” Caleb can hear the grin in Jester’s voice even as it waves slightly with emotion. “Caleb’s here!”

There’s the tiniest moment of quiet before there’s a cacophony of yelling from out in the corridor. Caleb can’t process it all, too overwhelmed at hearing the voices of the people he thought were dead. After a moment it dies down until it’s just Fjord’s voice.

“Jes,” Fjord’s voice is exceedingly gentle, and Caleb’s heart twists. “Are you sure he’s really there? We’ve all- well we’ve all seen some things that weren’t there, and it’s okay, we’re not going to judge-”

Jester huffs in indignation. “He hugged, me, hallucinations can’t hug me, Fjord.” She then turns and gestures to Caleb. “Go to the door over there and wave so they don’t think I'm making you up.”

Caleb stands and limps out the door and across the hall and after a moment’s pause just opens the door instead of trying to look through the window. Inside is Fjord, looking ragged and thinner like Jester, but here and real and blessedly, wonderfully alive. They stare at each other a moment before Fjord breathes, “Holy shit,” and is lunging forward to grab Caleb and pull him into a hug. Caleb readily returns it, squeezing tight.

“This is starting to be a trend,” he laughs, giving an extra squeeze. “Do you know which cell Nott might be in? I can try to free her, and she can help get the rest of you loose?”

Fjord directs him further down the hall, though he apologizes that he doesn’t know precisely which cell she’s in.

“That’s alright, my friend.” Caleb gives Fjord’s arm a squeeze. “I will find her. Sit tight, we will be back.”

It doesn’t take long to find her, and the process repeats- door open, and then he has an armful of Nott. He holds her close, nose pressed to the top of her head, thinking of how close he came to losing this, and decides to think about that later; he doesn’t have time to fall apart yet.

Schatz, I am going to need your help to get the others free, do you think you can do it?”

She’s already nodding as he kneels, knocking gently on the cuff around her ankle and muttering the same words that got him here in the first place. The cuff falls loose, and he catches the quiet sigh of relief from her as it does. Giving her one last squeeze he stands again and heads to the door.

“Let’s get our friends free, ja?”

It takes time, going cell-to-cell, unlocking the chains holding their friends captive. While Nott works with some bits she scavenges from Ikithon’s study, Caleb goes to each cell, throwing the doors open. Even if he can’t help free them all, he can make it easier to see each other, so it’s easier for them to know they’re not alone. He’s grateful Nott doesn’t mention yet what she’s found in the study; she’s not stupid, she has to know what happened. If nothing else that fact that he’s covered in blood might be a bit of a give-away.

One-by-one, they’re all freed, stepping hesitantly out into the hallway, blinking in the torchlight. They’re here, all of them, and it makes Caleb dizzy with relief; he hasn’t lost anyone else.

“Whoa, careful there,” Fjord says, steadying him with a hand on his shoulder, and Caleb reevaluates.

The dizziness might also be blood loss.

“We should go, there’s no telling when someone might arrive, and we need to be gone.”

They all head down to the end of the hallway and back out into Ikithon’s study. It’s still empty other than them and the body, but Caleb knows every moment they stay is a step closer to disaster. None of them are in a state to fight right now. The best thing they can do is run.

“Holy fuck, dude.”

He turns to see Beau eyeing Ikithon’s body, taking in the pool of blood around him, the metal-tipped quill from the desk jammed in his throat.

“Well.” Caleb coughs as they all turn to look at him, suddenly feeling very awkward. “It was what was handy at the time.”

Nott moves forward to gather the things Caleb’s amassed on the desktop while Beau does a final sweep of the room, and Caleb notices Fjord is watching him contemplatively.

“How much of that blood is his, and how much is yours?”

“A lot of it is his,” Caleb hedges. He doesn’t say that Ikithon had taken pleasure in using fire against him, that cauterized wounds don't bleed so freely. The gash Ikithon had opened across his leg with a dagger at the last moment, that might be more of a problem, though.

Fjord narrows his eyes at him, but before Caleb can reassure him the two clerics have moved up on either side of him.

“You know, Caleb,” Jester starts, fingers wiggling in front of him, magic starting to spark and glow at her fingertips. “You could have just said something. We’re all okay, you know? Let us help you.”

He knows it’s useless to argue, and in any case being able to move easier will only help them get out of here faster. He nods, and gasps as both clerics release healing magic into him at once. The relief is instant, the flare of burns lessening substantially, and the screaming agony in his leg dropping to a dull throb. He can see them both preparing to unleash more, but he stops them, voice gentle.

“We don’t know what we will encounter on the way out. I think it best you preserve what you’ve got, just in case. I’ll keep, I promise.”

Soon enough they’re all ready to leave, having found as much as they could expect to. All they have left to do is to open the door and go.

Caleb stops and looks back at them, all these wonderful people he thought he’d lost, that somehow, miraculously, he hasn’t. They’re all a little worse for wear, perhaps, himself included, but they’re here, and they’re alive, and it’s more than he could have possibly hoped for.

He looks at his family, temporarily overwhelmed, then smiles, nods, and opens the door.