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Jester has waltzed through life assuming it’s like living out a story.

 

If pressed, she’d say it was because of all the time she spent alone in her room, weaving increasingly elaborate tales to the paneled walls; painting towers that reach the clouds, acting out the moment she slays the dragon and saves the day, envisioning one of her beautiful imaginary friends dramatically professing their undying love for her. These were the things she clung to when the world felt small and she felt the most alone. When she is set free, these fantasies are the only sense of reality she has. 

 

Now she stands before a real dragon, more ancient than she can comprehend, and she knows real life is different. She’s known for a while, whether or not she’s wanted to admit it. Adventure is gruesome and terrifying and sad . These are not things she’d ever imagined nor things she’d planned for. And sometimes it is easy to ignore, when a mission is completed without a scratch or afterwards when she laughs with her friends in a tavern and recounts the battle. It feels nice to walk through her childhood fantasies, even if for a moment, even if it’s not true.

 

Nothing has felt less like a story than the moment Jester sees Beau dangling from the mouth of the dragon.

 

See, if this were a story, the moment would be in slow motion. Jester would catch the movement of the dragon, she would know (because she always knows, when it comes to Beau) what it planned to do, she would know just the spell to stop it. Beau would wink in thanks, Jester would blush, and later tonight in the darkness of their room Beau would say You saved my life, Jess, it… it means a lot . That’s how it goes in her novels. No one is hurt, the beast is slain, the night ends with riches and laughter and tentative sincerity.

 

But this is not a story, Jester’s life has never been a novel. As it is, she doesn’t see the dragon strike, only catches a flash of familiar blue swinging from it’s jaws. She spins in terror just in time to see Beau’s body dropped, crack against the ice and skid to a halt. Too still, eerily still.

 

A flash of fire from the other side of the cavern draws the dragon’s attention, and only then does Jester regain her senses enough to think: What were you doing you could have stopped this get to her now she is hurt she needs your help --

 

Beau! ” The scream tears from Jester’s throat before she realizes she’s opened her mouth and she stumbles forward, frantic. Her knees slam against the cavern floor: a solid sheet of ice that sears the scrapes criss-crossing her legs and makes shreds of her tights. 

 

Her shaking hands hover, unsure and terrified. There are horrible, gaping wounds ripping through Beau’s beautiful Xhorhasian clothes. Jester thinks blood, there should be blood , before realizing it’s all frozen over from the temperature of the dragon’s teeth, like scabs of frost stretching across her chest.

 

With a deep breath, Jester casts cure wounds. It’s enough to wake Beau up, at least. She’ll see how the rest of the party is doing with the dragon, then she’ll see if she can get her back on her feet. Scary, but nothing she hasn’t done before. It’s fine, it’s fine .

 

The magic spills from Jester’s palms and spreads across Beau’s body. One moment--two, three four--and there’s no sign of movement. Confused and losing time, Jester tries again. Expends more of her energy, more of her magic, why isn’t this working ? Instinctually and thoughtlessly Jester rests two fingers to the pulse at Beau’s neck, fully expecting a beat beneath the surface, which is why when she doesn’t find one she chokes. Unwittingly, tears spring to the corners of her eyes and she cannot believe that this is real, that this is something that is happening. She grabs at Beau’s wrist and checks there--nothing. 

 

“Beau,” she says quietly, holding her fingers and waiting. “Beau.” Nothing. “Beau, Beau, Beau, oh my god, oh my god .” The tears finally spill over as she scrambles for her pouch, clawing through for diamonds. She cries out when she can’t find them and yanks off her entire belt, sending components scattering across the icy floor, but it doesn’t matter because there they are, beautiful and glittering in the dim light.

 

Jester grasps them victoriously in her hand and frantically scatters the gems across Beau’s body. With a deep breath, she closes her eyes and calls out to the Traveler for the power to complete the spell. “Bring her back please,” she pleads over the grunting and yelling coming from deep inside the cavern.

 

His abrupt presence brings with it a wave of sweet relief. She feels him here before he even touches her, like a phantom limb. His hands curl around her shoulders and he leans in close to her ear. “I’m sorry,” he says regretfully. “I cannot.”

 

Jester pulls from his touch and spins to face him. “ Why?! It’s just like Caduceus, we did that before. We don’t need the Wildmother, you’re powerful enough on your own I know --”

 

He reaches out a cloaked arm and cups her cheek in his hand. “My sweet Jester, it’s been too long. She’s beyond my reach with that spell. I am truly sorry.” He sighs and before Jester can argue, he’s gone.

 

Fear seizes her heart as she turns back to Beau’s body. She tries to breathe (she is panicking, this she knows for certain) but the only thing that comes out is a hollowing gasp. She waited too long. She waited too long and because of that Beau is dead. Beau is dead and she can’t bring her back.

 

In the stories, good people don’t die, and this is the sealing fate on all her fantasies.

 

Somewhere behind her, the dragon dies. Jester’s violent sobs are masked by victorious cheering, and they echo in harmony down the cavern; cruel mimicry of each other. A mockingjay’s song.

 

She presses the diamonds into Beau’s chest with all the strength she has left, harder and harder and harder, until they begin to leave indents in her skin. Jester pushes outward again with the magic she used to bring life back to Caduceus. She is a healer, this is what she does, this is her job, this is her only job, this is the reason she’s here and sometimes she’s shitty at it but sometimes she’s good too and she needs to be good this time, this time and no other time if that’s what it takes, because nothing has ever mattered more than this and she’s trying so hard, she’s giving everything, but Beau is just laying there, still and cold and dead .

 

Jester grabs the diamonds in her fist, throws them against the cavern wall, and screams. 

 

Though the world around her is muffled, like someone has put their hands over her ears and started to squeeze her skull, she can tell the cheering has stopped. Now there’s a pounding of footsteps in time with her heart and they’re beating ever closer.

 

She pulls Beau’s head into her lap and grasps her face with both hands, thrusting any healing magic she has left into her. “Traveler, please !” She begs between incantations. “Please, I need you, she needs help, please, please, please Beau wake up.”

 

Jester’s hands slip further down, thumbs pressed against Beau’s jawline as her fingers curl around the back of her neck. Gently, she brushes against the pads of her fingers against the short hairs of Beau’s undercut. It’s as soft as she ever imagined, but this isn’t right, this isn’t how the stories go. This is wrong, this is all wrong. They were supposed to have more time.

 

“You promised!” Jester yells to the open cavern, tears flowing freely. “You promised and where are you?! I need you! I need you to heal her, Traveler, I’m not strong enough, but you are. You are so strong, you can fix this, you can bring her back to me. Please I’ve done everything you’ve ever wanted, just--”

 

The footfalls of her friends finally come to a skidding stop. Someone’s hands grasp her shoulders and try to pull her back, but Jester wraps her arms around Beau’s neck and cuts herself off by screaming “ No , Beau! It’s Beau I can’t heal her she’s- she’s--”

 

“Jester, Jester listen .” That’s Fjord’s voice, pulling the imaginary hands away from her ears and sharpening the world back into focus. It’s his claws digging into the skin beneath her collarbones, not enough to hurt but enough to keep her present in her own mind. “Caduceus can help her, but you have to let go.”

 

“The diamonds don’t work, I tried. I tried so hard , Fjord.” Jester’s voice is gruff and muffled against Beau’s neck. A shiver passes through her when her lips brush where there should be a pulse, but instead the blood lays still beneath the skin.

 

“I know. I know. But Caduceus has another spell that will work.” A beat. Neither of them move. “Jester, there’s not much time, let go. She’ll be fine if you just let go.”

 

He couldn’t pull her away from Beau even if he wanted to. He doesn’t have the brute strength Jester does, nor half the willpower. They both know it.

 

“I promise,” he says. His voice sounds raw.

 

She lets go.

 

There’s a flurry of motion as she sinks back on her knees. Though she’d hoped he’d stay, if only to keep her upright, Fjord pulls his hands off her shoulders and hurries to Caduceus’s side to aid in preparing the spell. The firbolg begins to pull components from his various pouches, Caleb hovering at a safe distance and providing what he can. Nott scurries over and positions Beau’s limbs closer together, less askew. She catches Jester’s eye and says, lightly, “More like she’s sleeping.”

 

Nott doesn’t know that when Beau sleeps, she takes up the entire bed. Arms spread to either side, legs kicked apart. Nott doesn’t know that when the room is small and they have to share one mattress, Beau apologizes, says she’ll take the floor, and Jester can’t tell her it’s fine fast enough. On those nights their limbs tangle together, Beau’s fingers always find themselves threaded through Jester’s hair. It’s the best she ever sleeps, curled into her best friend, flung out across the sheets. Nott doesn’t know that. She doesn’t know , she’s just trying to help, she’s just trying to make it easier. Jester bites her lip to keep the sob lodged in her throat from escaping.

 

Reani emerges from the chaos and kneels next to her, looping an arm around Jester’s shoulders and pulling her close to her chest. Jester feels horribly selfish for expecting comfort when her friends are preparing to revive Beau, but still feels a weight lifted from her chest when the aasimar whispers “She was good. Samliel doesn’t kill the good. Not before they’ve served their purpose, anyway, until they’re very old and very grey and Beau is neither, she’s in great shape, actually. Still super attractive. Pinkie will do his job and she will live. It’s okay, it really is.”

 

Through her tears, Jester gives a watery laugh. She wants to keep Reani forever; siphon some of this surety to keep for herself.

 

“Hm, okay,” Caduceus says, abruptly. “I think it’s ready now.”

 

With bated breath, they watch as he calmly cites the incantation. A handful of runes around Beau’s body flare, then go dark. Jester recognizes this, she recalls the balmy evening on the sea when the Traveler taught it to her, it’s revivify. She feels sick when she reaches inside herself and realizes she wouldn’t have had enough magic to cast this spell, even if she’d remembered it’s existence.

 

But she does remember enough, now, to know what comes next. Caduceus looks around at each of them in turn and says “Three of you need to contribute to the ritual.”

 

“Contribute?!” Nott says in a low, whispery screech, as though she could wake the dead. “What, with like our blood ?”

 

“No, no, nothin’ like that.” Caduceus sighs, wary and placating. “More like gifts. Or words, if that’s easier. Something to convince her to come back, is all.”

 

There’s another prolonged silence where they all glance at each other, tight-lipped and nervous. None of them want this burden. It’s so heavy.

 

Finally, Fjord lurches forward. “I’ll go, then.”

 

He sits awkwardly on his knees beside Beau’s body, hands clasped in his lap. He swallows once, adam’s apple bobbing, then clears his throat. “I, uh, I don’t have anything to give you. Nothing material, anyhow. And I am not entirely sure how this is supposed to work,” he breathes out in something like a laugh, “but I know that you’ve been there with me since the beginning. Through everything with Uk’otoa and my powers vanishing, our time at sea, saving me from Yasha. You’ve never left my side, no matter how rough things have gotten.”

 

Fjord pauses and takes a deep breath. He tentatively reaches out and places a hand on Beau’s shoulder, bowing his head. His voice is low, a mutter indicative of his embarrassment.  “We, uh, we had a saying, back on my ship. You’ve gotta be willing to put as much faith in your first mate as you do in the boards beneath your feet, otherwise you’re setting out to sink. And it--heh--it sounds ridiculous now, but what that means is that you can’t be expected to make any journey without someone to fall back on, to put your trust in. You’ve been that for me, keeping me in line, doing right by me no matter how much I seem to fuck things up. You… you can’t go before I get to return the favor. You and I, we promised to check each other. This is me telling you it’s not your time, first mate. There’s still work to be done.”

 

Jester’s heart constricts. She wants to touch him, but he sits across the ritual and she can’t bring herself to reach over Beau’s body, no matter how sad he sounds, how horribly lost. So she stays still and lets her tears wet the torn skirt of her dress. Reani links their arms together and whispers “That was very sweet, Fjord.”

 

Her words seem to knock him from a daze. Fjord squeezes Beau’s shoulder once before shuffling back and crossing his arms over his chest, a blush rising in his cheeks. He looks to Caduceus. “How was that?”

 

“We’ll see,” Cad replies, but he nods approvingly. “Who’s next?”

 

Jester feels the pounding of her heart in her throat. She knows Beau better than anyone else, here and maybe anywhere, she should be volunteering. All her friends are watching her, they’re waiting on her, they’re getting confused. It was Jester they found cradling her body, begging her god to bring Beau back. Jester is her best friend. Jester always has something to say. Why is she so quiet now? 

 

Here it is: she can’t speak. Even if Jester had an answer, she wouldn’t be able to say it, her chest tight and vision blurry. There are so many things she wants to tell Beau, the little moments, the small comforts, what they all meant to her. Bits of her heart she’s only ever shared with the Traveler. But she’s messed up so much these past few months, neglecting her healing and making things strange with Fjord and that stupid letter to Astrid, putting her mama in danger. Beau is something she can’t afford to ruin. She’ll never, ever forgive herself if she does.

 

Caleb kneels in the same place as Fjord and catches Jester’s downcast eyes. He bows his head, just slightly, and raises his eyebrows. She feels more tears prick at the corners of her eyes and shakes her head vehemently.

 

“I’ll go,” he announces, not breaking her gaze. 

 

Caleb sees her for who she is in this moment, broken pieces all exposed, and that is enough.

 

He grabs the two the two splintered pieces of Beau’s staff and holds them together, sad eyes darting back and forth between the monk’s slack face and his own bloodied hands. Two lodestones gathered near him, he begins to mutter something indistinguishable. After a silent minute, the wood grows back, reaching across the break and mending the staff.

 

“This won’t be enough. This will never be enough,” Caleb says with ferocity. “Not for what you’ve done for me. For listening, for caring enough to argue. Even when we are not on good terms you show me compassion. It has not been… common. In my life. To have someone who holds and refuses to let go. You have done that for nearly as long as this group has been travelling together. You are what makes us a family, ja ? All of us on our own, we are strong, but you are the one who keeps us from spiralling out of control. You are the glue .” 

 

Caleb’s voice thickens with emotion and he clasps Beau’s shoulder, both in the shadow of Fjord and the hundred other times he’d done to previously: grasping at Beau when looking through Frumpkin’s eyes, a pale hand on blue fabric, her fingers wrapping over his to keep him steady. Jester hadn’t ever thought she’d paid all that much attention, but the memories come to her in vivid clarity. 

 

Children of the Empire, realizing they may have been on the wrong side of history all along. Children of the Empire, pulled from the asylum, pulled from the monastery, set upon this path. Children of the Empire, all grating personalities and heated arguments turned vows and sibling affection. Children of the Empire, grounding posts for one another.

 

“I- ah -I owe you so much, more than a bit of wood or words. You are still needed, Beauregard. More than you know.”

 

Caleb bows his head, takes a deep, shuddering breath, and stands. With a blink of a tentative smile towards Jester, he shuffles back into the shadows, eyes darting across the scene. Even from her spot by the ritual, Jester can see his forearms are more irritated than usual. He continues to scratch at them vigorously, pale red against bright white scars. 

 

She has to remind herself that they can heal. They can heal. 

 

“I’ll go,” Jester murmurs, and her friends glance to her sharply. She looks up at each of them in turn. “I’ll be the last contribution.”

 

No one motions her forward. The air has been sucked from the cavern. This is the last chance to get their monk back. They all know it and it hangs over them, dark and heavy as storm clouds.

 

Careful not to smudge the runes, Jester pulls away from Reani’s embrace and grabs Beau’s limp hand in her own. She doesn’t know what is too intimate and what is not, she’s never had to think about before, never cared for anyone like this. It’s always come so easy but now she’s Beau’s last hope and the feeling of her best friend’s fingers intertwined with hers is at once not enough-- never enough --and so excruciatingly overwhelming that she wants to let go, scorched with want.

 

But she doesn’t, despite the whisper in her ear that says this is going to spiral out of control. Instead, she brings Beau’s hand to her lips and whispers please against the skin, barely a breath. Gathering courage.

 

Her voice an octave higher than normal, thin and close to shattering, she says: “Hi, Beau. Wish you were here. I mean, really here, all of you. Heh- what is a body without a soul, amirite? Not much it seems, uhm- I-” Jester breaks herself off with a sob. “I need you here Beau. I know I said that I would be the one to protect you and I failed and I’m sorry, I am so so sorry, but you need to come back because I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’s always protecting me and I don’t want to be without that anymore. Since we left my mama it’s you who’s made me feel the safest; every time, Beau. Even when it’s a little comfort, or even just a joke, I feel like I am home again, y’know? I mean, the Menagerie Coast is always going to be my real home, obviously, but you’re my home now, too. You’re where I am at ease.”

 

Jester gives a watery laugh, tucking herself in as close to Beau’s body as she can come. Her voice comes out in a whisper, as though this were no different than the nights they spent awake in the darkness their room, vulnerable and raw. “I’ve never had a best friend before. I’ve never had any friends before Trostenwald. Beau- Beau maybe that’s why this was so hard for me to figure out, y’know? I don’t know a lot about love, not like, romantic love. I mean, I read a lot of smut, but I feel like that’s definitely not the same thing? At least it’s not anything like the way I feel about you, which is just so much more in every way. I don’t know. I don’t know. I needed more time to figure it out, okay?! I needed you to stay here and continue to be smart and beautiful and kind and then maybe I would’ve found a good way to say it but now you’re dead and it’s all my fault and I need you to come back so I can do this right. Please, Beau. I’m just- I’m asking for this one more thing--”

 

Breathless, Jester drops Beau’s hand, grabs either side of her face, and kisses her. 

 

It’s nothing like she imagined. It’s still and cold and terrifying, but as Beau’s lips move and she sucks in a breath, Jester knows it’s enough . She pulls away, but leaves her hands, just enough to get a good look at her best friend’s--her something’s--face, renewed with life. 

 

“No way, that works?! ” Nott exclaims at the same time Caduceus says “Well that isn’t something you see every day” and Beau murmurs “What the fuck?”

 

“You’re back,” Jester whispers. She couldn’t stop the grin growing on her face if she tried. “You came back to us, just like I knew you would.”

 

Beau blinks, eyes trying to focus on Jester’s face at such close range. “Did you just kiss me?”

 

“Uh- well- y’know, we all really wanted you back--”

 

“Do it again.”

 

So Jester does. 

 

She thinks that out of all the stories she could have possibly told, reality may be the best one yet.