Caduceus’ heart is weary. It shouldn’t be; so much good has come to pass, so much good that he has watched blossom and grow among the friends he’d never thought to ever have. How far they’ve come from the first moments he greeted them on his doorstep, from when he met the rest for the first time in that vile dungeon beneath the Sour Nest. A few straggling remnants, tattered and uncertain, sewn together into the most loving patchwork of people he has ever known. There is a warmth in being their friend that is unique to any other. No less significant to him than the love of his family, or the tender care of his goddess.
They hold their friend, restored to them hale and whole now, not exactly as he was, but none of them are that. None of them ever can be that. For them, there is no going back. There is only forward, because forward is all they have left. There is not a one of them who leaves Eiselcross unchanged.
Not even him.
Caduceus’ heart is weary, and he resigns himself to bearing that weight until such time as, over the years, the time comes when he can unburden himself, that that weariness will be a fond scar of good memories instead of the agony it spikes now when he so closely examines it. The Mother isn’t cruel, the Mother just is, and it is nature that some things – no matter how good and bright and beautiful, no matter how desired – are just not meant to be.
The wind is warm on his face, and it pushes to the North, guiding him home.
Where he belongs.
As if to spite his heart, his feet itch to be on the road, to take the path the Mother delineates. It is Her will; he is Her Clay, and She shapes him and sets him down with purpose, always, even when he cannot tell what it might be. Even when he does not want to examine it so clearly as he should. If this weight is one he is meant to bear, he will do so without complaint, and will allow her touch on his life to mold him into what she needs him to be.
He will live a great long time, after all, and there will be a great many people who will need him, whose paths will intersect with his own, who will leave their imprint on him as surely as he will leave his on theirs. This is his life, his purpose, and he’s never raged against it, never felt the desire to do so, never wanted anything other than to serve Her and Her plan for him. Even as he was slowly left, one by one, until only he remained of Her Clays in the north, he had not questioned the necessity of it. He’d learned what he needed to, in that isolation. He’d become who he needed to be. And there was never a circumstance or occasion that did not happen but for a reason.
Someday, he will understand the need for this greatest heartbreak. He trusts the Mother in all things, but in this most wholeheartedly. She led the Nein to him, and now, She is leading him away. His job is done, his time with them at an end, and it feels final. There is no doubt in his mind that when he goes home, it will be for good. No more battles, no more oceans, no more kings and queens.
Just the Grove and the Dead and his Family.
And the memories.
The pain is sharp now, but it will dull. He’s felt Her nudge more insistently than ever before, now that things have come full circle. Now that the Nein is whole again, their once lost companion standing among them once again.
So, while Caduceus doesn’t want to leave, it won’t stop him from doing what he must. And while some of them will understand, others, most assuredly, will not.
He accepts the trepidation he feels, allowing it to fill him up and flesh him out, before exhaling. Evening is near and they’ve decided on having Caleb set up his Tower – there’s a giddiness in Caleb at the prospect of unveiling Mollymauk’s room. The place is stunning – Caleb’s love for them all expressed the best way he knows how, in the act of creating, of giving. Mollymauk is enthralled, and Caduceus, in the back of their group, not crowding about them, enjoys reliving the first occasion on which he entered the miraculous palace of Caleb’s mind. Trying not to think about his own room, so very perfectly adjusted to suit him, Caduceus indulges vicariously, soaking up the excitement and joy and utter abandon that they radiate so utterly.
Peace. Contentment. Happiness.
He’s come this far with them, put it off day after day, but he cannot hope to keep from spoiling their mood forever.
Life, after all, moves on, even within the magical edifice of the place they all so easily and readily call home.
Against his will, Caduceus’ gaze finds Fjord and lingers there. His smile is broad, tusks shining in the candlelight, and Caduceus remembers a time when Fjord didn’t feel comfortable in his own skin, desperate to be something he wasn’t, someone he wasn’t. Every time he thinks about it, Caduceus’ heart breaks just a little more. That Fjord did not – does not – see himself in the same light that Caduceus does. The light of the truth: that Fjord is wonderful exactly as he is. That Fjord never needs to be someone else to be cared for, or respected.
A pulse in Caduceus’ abdomen, the fist twisting in his guts, strikes and he almost looks away. Almost. Features schooled as ever, Caduceus resists the urge, and takes his fill instead. Fjord’s laugh is the gentle rolls of waves against the hull of a ship, and the toss of his hair the breath on the wind with a song, and the bright warmth of his eyes are the ember glow of a firelit nightwatch. In Fjord, Caduceus sees reflected the simple beauty of the sunrise, the changing of the seasons, the renewing calm of a gentle rain.
In Fjord, Caduceus sees many things he never expects to see, things he’d wished – secretly, silently, deep within – to be able to see every single day. Forever.
But forever, he reminds himself time and again, is foolish.
It’s harder than ever to recall, now that he knows that the end of forever falls with the next morning’s dawn.
To look away now would be to waste what little, precious time is left. So for the first time in a long time, Caduceus chooses the selfish thing, and indulges his tender, wounded heart.
Eventually, after Molly’s had the full tour, and the cats have supplied them all with dinner, they spend a good long while chatting beside the grand fireplace in the library. If they notice at all that he’s being reticent, Caduceus can’t pick up on it. Though he’s usually fairly astute when it comes to that sort of thing, the nagging anticipation of what’s to come has him distracted. His gaze isn’t limited to Fjord, though it lingers on him quite frequently; he takes his fill of the others too, of how Caleb is no longer afraid to shine among them, how Beau is comfortable being close to others, how Veth is at ease, how Jester’s smiles don’t carry any tinge of worry, how Yasha exudes peace. They’re all haphazardly thrown together, Jester on a couch, kicking her legs in the air, Molly sitting between Yasha’s legs on the floor, leaning back into her, the others in equally strange and yet so wonderfully them conglomerations around the space.
Each and every one of them is a balm on his soul, and he thanks the Wildmother then and there for the gift of their friendship, and he thanks Mollymauk too, silently, in his head, for drawing them together, for setting them on the right path. For coming back to them as he was meant to.
Yes, they’ll be alright. The Mother knows it, so Caduceus does too.
It’s late when they finally retire to their rooms.
Caduceus spends extra time appreciating each little detail, so painstakingly crafted by the magnificent care and love Caleb has for him. The subtle callbacks to the Grove, the stunning tea set, the room full of herbs, the simple meditation mat. Such an intricate way to say I know you, I see you, I care for you. The weight of it sinks on his chest and Caduceus breathes deep the incense to filter it away.
It’s lovely, and he spends more time appreciating it than he should. But it’s also avoidance, and he’s never been one to avoid the things that needed doing, not really.
So he smooths his hand over the coverlet of the bed, takes one last glance around the room, and then walks out.
Floating up to the next floor is as strange as ever; maybe it's compounded by all the words he has to say bubbling within his chest, or maybe it's just who he’s going to say them to. One way or another, moths angrily batter against the confines of his abdomen, furious to flutter their way up and out his throat.
The anchor on Fjord’s door mocks him. Anchors tether people down, good dependable weights, the reassurance that the ship can’t be left adrift. But with his knuckles poised to rap at the immaterial wood of the door, Caduceus knows he’s holding the knife in one hand, the rope in the other, the first frayed edges already unraveling before him.
No going back now.
Muffled, from within, he hears “Just a minute-“
Suddenly, the breath is gone from him, the ability to speak stripped away, and he has to compose himself in what little time is left to him before the door swings over to reveal Fjord. He’s clearly already been in bed – the shirt he’s wearing is twisted up a bit around the shoulders, his hair is askew, and his face is contorted in the last vestiges of an intense yawn and Caduceus’ heart sticks in his throat. The few seconds more he’s granted by Fjord’s squinched shut eyes is a blessing he didn’t seek, and by the time that Fjord finally registers who is in his doorway, Caduceus knows that his expression belays nothing out of the ordinary.
It’s for the best, he reminds himself as he swallows away the emotions he cannot allow to overflow.
“’Duceus…? What is it?”
“Sorry to bother you again so late. Can we talk for a bit?”
“Of course!” Fjord says, stepping aside to let him in.
It would have been better if he could hear any uncertainty, and confusion in Fjord’s tone, but there’s nothing there but comfort and trust and all the things Caduceus had grown used to having between them. It would be so much easier if he hadn’t solidified himself as Fjord’s touchstone when the seas of his life were roiling and furious, if he wasn’t the ship to which Fjord had clung.
It would be easier, yes, but he’s chosen to be selfish, just this once. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fjord closes the door behind him and they both sit in the chairs by the fire.
“Something on your mind, Caduceus?”
Mother, give me strength.
“I wanted to talk to you first,” he begins, keeping his cadence even, but the words are enough to eradicate any trace of fatigue from Fjord’s features. He’s sitting straight up now; it’s not an instantaneous thing, but the subtle adjusting that comes with a subconscious understanding of the fact that the conversation they’re about to have is one of a serious nature.
“Has something happened? Another dream? A vision from the Mother?”
Caduceus struggles not to take an unusually deep breath. “Of a sort. She’s…nudged me once again.”
“About where we should head?” Fjord asks, and the tension in his shoulders dissipates a little as he does. Contrarily, Caduceus’ mounts.
“About where I am heading.”
There’s a pause. An entire journey unfolds over Fjord’s face in that moment. The twitch of confusion, the drawn brows of consideration, the parting lips and sharp breath of sudden understanding, the wide eyes of realization.
Caduceus purses his lips tightly as he gazes at the man he’s lucky enough to have called his friend, but he cannot cage the truth anymore than he can cage the sea or the stars.
“I’m going home, Fjord. It’s time. It’s been time now for a while…” Oh, if he thought his heart was heavy before, the look on Fjord’s eyes triples it. “She’s insistent now and I’ve ignored Her too long. I go where She leads, I do what She wills. I always have.” He waits to see if Fjord will say something, but the silence only grows and grows and grows until every crack and crevice in the space is full to bursting with it. Dead light eyes stare back at him; everything that was life and joy is drained away. All the lingering laughter about his mouth is faded. Caduceus has killed it with his words.
Inhale. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning at first light.” Exhale. “Alone.” He’d seen it clearly, more times that he can count, knows that this journey is one he must make by himself.
Fjord’s breaths – slowed so impossibly still – speed up now with a velocity that’s alarming, and the blankness of incomprehension solidifies into something hard and thorny, but still, he says nothing.
“This…my time with you has been more important to me than I could ever have imagined. I will be forever grateful to her for sending you to me. For allowing our paths to cross. Knowing you has been the greatest joy of my life, but you don’t need me anymore. My place is elsewhere, now.”
He’s so used to the chilly silence from Fjord that he very nearly keeps speaking when Fjord finally opens his mouth. “You’re wrong.”
But he’s not, and he knows it. He nearly says as much, as sad a truth as it is, but Fjord stands abruptly. For a moment, they both freeze.
“You’re wrong. I-We need you, Caduceus. You can’t leave.”
I don’t want to.
“Fjord, you are strong and capable and good, and I know that you will do incredible things. You are Her champion, and I’ve done all I can to guide you. You don’t need me anymore. You can make your own way.” Every word is true. Every word Caduceus believes with every iota of his being. It does nothing, however, to alleviate the anguish of his soul, or the devastation evident in Fjord’s. “But you will always have a place in the Blooming Grove. Always. If you need it.” He tacks on. Selfish, selfish.
When he finally looks up, too cowardly to have met Fjord’s eye as he said it, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter. If he’s heard a single word of what Caduceus has said, it's impossible to tell. His expression is thunderous, but masked from Caduceus’ natural intuition. The emptiness stretches out thin and torn. The frayed cord of their anchor rope is neatly severed away.
Caduceus stands, too. There’s nothing else to say. Not with a clear conscience at least. Blood pounds thick past his ears, heart throbs, threatens to burst with the confession that’s trapped within. He turns to go, looks back over his shoulder. There’s nothing he can do to keep the tremble from his voice. “I-I’m sorry.”
He’s halfway to the door when he hears the shudder of a breath, but nothing follows it, so he opens the door and slips out, shutting it behind him quietly.
Because of the nature of the place, the suffused candle glow never fades. Garish, the shadows pattern the walls, the parody of claws and teeth and thorny briar. In the empty space of the rotunda, every guarded expression, ever skipped heartbeat and missed breath seeps out of every pour. Sagging against the door, frail and weak, Caduceus hangs his head and holds back tears.
It wasn’t meant to be.
What time they had was a gift and he would cherish it fondly forever, glazed in the golden sheen of memory as he went on without them, and they without him, inevitably, time immemorial.
Swallowing back the tsunami, Caduceus put his hand to the door one last time and felt the shape of the anchor one last time before pulling away.
Beau only knows something’s off when she hears a crash. Considering Caleb had assured her that their rooms were fairly well sound proofed, - and if that doesn’t make her raise an eyebrow or both - she finds the noise concerning. Caleb generally knows how his magic stuff works better than he knows his own reflection. So Beau gets up, curious, takes her staff from where it is propped beside her bed and meanders out into the common area. At first glance, nothing appears to be off, but then she sees the corona of light from the open eye on the floor, and catches sight of Caduceus floating down. Another sound catches her attention - from Fjord’s room. Not a crash this time, just a rather loud thunk.
Something’s off. Something’s wrong. Really wrong.
Taking half a second to consider it, Beau strides over to Fjord’s door and raps on it just once before opening it a crack. “Hey man, you okay? Thought I heard a sound. You fall out of your hammock?”
Inside, Fjord sits on the floor, head in his hands, one leg sprawled out and the over bent at the knee. The three identical books on the side table are piled haphazardly on the ground beside him. Misery never looked so uncomfortable. The lioness within her growls.
“What the hell, dude? Are you okay!?”
“Go away, Beau.” Voice soft, quiet. The still that follows - and precedes - the hurricane. Like a gutpunch, Beau takes the force of his desolation.
“I, uh… saw Caduceus leaving.” Fjord flinches at his name and Beau’s mind flies into a fury. Never once did she think she’d be angry with Caduceus, but this, whatever this is...might be cause enough for it. Not an ordinary argument, that much is clear. Something worse. “What the hell did he say to you?”
Fjord doesn’t look her in the eye. “Just go back to your room. It doesn’t matter.”
Incensed, the lioness rares her head. “Like fuck it doesn’t! You’re…” She struggles with the words. “Upset. He did this to you. It fucking matters. You fucking matter!”
Only then does he lift his head. “If I matter so fucking much,” he says, ice cold, “ then you’d do what I asked, wouldn’t you?”
The hostility catches her so off guard, that for once, Beauregard is bereft of words. Though she backs out of his room without a word, the building anger only grows. She’s only trying to help, and usually, Fjord is pretty accommodating, even when he’s pissed. For whatever reason, it seems to be in his nature. But she knows that his ire isn’t really directed at her, no matter how much it stings. Whatever it was Caduceus said, it hurt Fjord. It cut him to the quick.
They’re family, this little, motley group. The best family Beau has ever had. She can’t let them fracture. And she won’t let any one of them get away with trying.
Down through the iris to the lower level, uncaring of who may or may not elsewise be asleep, Beau raps her staff loudly against Caduceus’ door. “Hey, Caduceus, open up. I know you’re awake, you asshole! What the hell did you-” The door swings open; Caduceus, tall as he is, takes up the entire frame, and looks down at her utterly unfazed. The seeming apathy riles her more than anything, a burning in her gut, bright and cruel. “- do to Fjord?”
“Fjord and I had a talk,” Caduceus says, as though it had been a regular, everyday sort of talk. The sort of talk that doesn’t cause a person to smash personal items and sit miserably on the floor, and snip at their friends.
Caduceus’ stance shifts. It’s barely perceptible, but Beau catches it, and clings tight. He’s uncomfortable, that much is clear, not nearly as unaffected, untouchable, as he appears - as he always appears.
“See, I don’t know many ‘talks’” she emphasizes, air quoting with her free hand, “That end with your friend so fucking upset that he won’t even look at people. What the hell, Caduceus?” Okay, maybe she’s being harsh, but the fear in her is burbling, that their one night of perfection is just too good to be true. That something, eventually, had to give.
That this is it.
For the faintest fraction of a moment, Caduceus’ eyes widen and then, it's gone, replaced with a more shadowed version of his usual bland expression.
“Tomorrow, I’ll talk with everyone. I promise. This was between Fjord and me. Tomorrow, Beau. Just wait until tomorrow. That’s all I ask. When we’re all together. At once.”
She can hear the pleading note in his voice, the sublest tint of desperation, but she finds that she doesn’t really care. It hurts more, somehow, that it’s Caduceus. Not that it would hurt any less if it had been Caleb, or even Veth. It just hurts. Because, yeah, friends argue, but this is just bullshit.
Abruptly, Beau feels like crying. Hot, furious tears burn at the corners of her eyes, but she pushes them back down hard. Everything had been wonderful an hour ago. Wonderful and warm and complete, with Molly in their company once more. And now, Caduceus has ruined it. “Yeah well, fuck you. This group has been alright for a long time. We’ve been good to each other. And for each other. Whatever you said to him…”
Even if there’s apology in the emphasis, Beau’s too incensed to care. “Tomorrow.” She jabs a finger at his chest. Firmly. It pushes him a little even, but he doesn’t wince. “And you can’t weasel out of it.”
“I don’t intend to.”
“And you better apologize to him.” The only response she receives are his large, sad eyes, boring into hers, and the nagging worry, the antithesis of the earlier fear, surges that maybe, her overzealous protectiveness has made things worse. “Fucking fine,” she barks back when he says nothing further. “I’m out. You do whatever you’re going to do.”
She turns to go. Standing in the beam of whirling dust mote light, she catches Caduceus in her peripherals, unmoved, watching her with shoulders hunched, as though his arms are weighted down. Pausing, Beau bites her lip, and throws him one last glance.
There are tears shining in his eyes.
Tears, and the most bitter of all emotions: regret.
She mutters up and floats to the next floor, stomach uneasy with all the things she doesn’t know, and all the things she’d gone ahead and said anyway.
There’s another rap at his door, but this time it is a gentle one. For some reason, Caduceus wishes it had the same sharp anger as Beau’s. He deserved it then, and he’d deserve it even more in the morning. But the sound on his door this time is so soft, he would miss it if he were any less attuned.
“Um.” Yasha’s patient voice is muffled behind the door. “Can I come in?”
Reluctantly, Caduceus opens the door for her.
Yasha is a mess of contradictions. She’s large and powerful, but soft and gentle, she’s dark fury and bright joy. She’s a beautiful, wonderful person, and Caduceus loves her just as much in this moment as he loved Beau when she barreled into his room, all fire and fury in Fjord’s defense. They all care so very much, and his heart is overfull with the muchness of it.
“I heard uh...Beau yelling. A lot.” Yasha presses her hand back through the intricate braids that Mollymauk had woven earlier that evening. “Are you okay?”
“I’m-” His first instinct is to say ‘fine’. Like always, but he doesn’t. Can’t. It’s too much of a lie this time to force it forth from his lips.
Yasha sucks in a breath and looks at him a great long while before finally stepping into the room and shutting the door behind her. “It’s okay not to be. I know that you are always the one who is taking care of the rest of us, but that does not mean that you do not also need to be, uh, taken care of. So...I am here. I guess. If you need...to talk.”
There are no words to express the gratitude he’s not entirely sure he deserves, so he simply nods and breathes for a while. It’s easy and comfortable to be quiet with Yasha. She’s naturally reticent, though he’s seen her with Molly now, seen the ease that drapes over her like a cloak made of sunshine when in his presence.
Shuffling in place, clearly looking for a way to say what she wants to, Yasha fiddles with one of the random ornaments that Caleb had imagined to adorn the space. It’s incredible how delicate those strong hands can be. Caduceus knows he will miss her kindness.
“I know what you’re doing.” She sets down the nick-nack and gives him a sympathetic glance. “I know because I remember what it was like when I used to… leave. And… well, you have the look. Is that what you and Beau were arguing about?”
There’s small relief in the fact that Yasha knows, understands, does not condemn him for it. If there was anyone who would, it would be her. Caduceus knows he doesn’t deserve her sympathy, but soaks it up anyways. “Sort of. I haven’t told her yet. She was mad because I spoke with Fjord. It upset him. She was mad because I upset him.”
Yasha sighs, smiles a tight, sad smile. “Did you tell him everything?”
His brow furrows. “What d’you mean?”
“Did you tell Fjord how you feel about him?”
Caduceus wastes no time on his surprise. She also knows the quiet, enduring love that's harboured deep down, that only comes out in fond glances; her own affection is doled out the same way on Beauregard. “No. I can’t. It wouldn’t be right.”
With all the delicacy of an artist brushing a canvas, she takes his hand and holds it in her own. “I know what you mean by that. But, take it from me? If you don’t now, you might never get the chance.”
A million possibilities flash through his mind. That he isn’t there when Fjord goes down in a battle and Jester doesn’t have the spells she needs. That he might be taken by Uk’otoa’s followers again, or lost to the sea in a storm. That he’s so alienated Fjord from him that the man will never talk to him again.
They’re all terrible, squeeze his heart like a vice.
“You should tell him. I know it’s not easy, and that it will hurt to say goodbye, but he deserves to know and you deserve to know what he would say, instead of spending forever wondering.” Lightly, she squeezes his hand. “Just a thought.”
“Thank you, Yasha. I’ll miss you.”
“I will miss you too, Caduceus. Thank you for being our friend.” She lets his hand go without warning; it swings back to his side. The weight on his shoulders is lesser than before, but the burden remains.
At the door, she smiles. “See you in the morning.”
The door shuts.
Alone again, Caduceus finally takes a moment to digest. Making tea is a process that’s such second nature it's practically a part of his meditative process. He takes out a cup, measures just the right amount of the tea that he made on the boat, the one that reminds him of the sea wind, and Fjord’s contentment with his hands on the wheel of the ship. The ever hot water pours in a steady stream over the leaves, and colour blossoms as liquid smoke a lovely soft amber. Aromatic, but subtle. Warm. Soothing.
Caduceus breathes it in, closes his eyes. Takes a sip.
Selfish, selfish, he wants to pull out all the accessories for commune, wants to ask the Wildmother for a glimpse of the future that he shouldn’t want, doesn’t deserve. Wants to know, more than anything, if their paths will ever cross again. If one day Fjord - Fjord, who is ever so clearly in love with Jester - will think of his friend Caduceus, quietly tending the graves of the Blooming Grove, will ever travel that pain and memory fraught road up to the little wrought gate, overrun with briars.
Will ever pass within, and call his name.
Will ever want the same way, the same thing, that Caduceus covets so secretly deep within.
But he leaves the incense where it is, and the rest of the ritual herbs. Tea and his own counsel will have to serve instead.
When it is gone and only the dregs remain, Caduceus cleans up, setting everything ritually back where it belongs, and then, with several deep breaths, sets out from his room for Fjord’s once more. Only, when he arrives, Fjord isn’t within. The door is slightly ajar, enough to see inside, and there’s no sign of Fjord inside, even after Caduceus gently calls his name.
There’s only one other place he would be, so Caduceus makes his way to the ground floor, and out the arching doorway onto the green grass hill where Caleb had set up the spell. Backlit by the effervescence of the moon, Caduceus can see where Fjord has settled himself easily.
He could go back in. Nothing holds Caduceus back from doing so. The door is still there, glowing amber in the night. He could turn right around, and Fjord might never notice that he’d come at all. But his heart whispers coward and Yasha’s warning rings in the back of his head. So he strides forward, padding softly through the dew, and sits down beside Fjord.
Neither of them speak. Fjord, very clearly awake, does not even move to acknowledge Caduceus’ presence and for a moment, Caduceus worries that it’s already too late, that he's ruined any chance of maintaining the mutual respect and genuine friendship that’s grown between them. In its place, is the stormcloud.
Time passes. How much, Caduceus cannot say; he’s never been particularly good with that sort of thing. But it feels like a long time, before Fjord finally shifts, stretching stiff legs as he unbends his knees.
“If you came here to say something, just say it or go.”
You’re leaving anyways.
Fjord doesn’t say it, but they both know it is implied.
Less of a sting and more of a snakebite, Caduceus accepts the abuse without complaint. It takes every iota of his willpower not to look at Fjord again. He doesn’t deserve those last looks, doesn’t deserve to be selfish. He’s never been cruel with his friends before. Stern maybe, at times, but never cruel. And this… what’s he’s about to do, even on Yasha’s advice that it’s for the best...this feels like the cruelest thing he’s ever done in his life.
So he looks at his hands instead. They’re large hands, normal, when compared relative to the rest of him, but large against Yasha’s earlier.
And against Fjord’s, if he’d ever had courage enough to try.
“More than anything, I wish She was leading down a different path.” His words sound smaller here than they had in his room in the Tower. Eaten up by the great wild world around them.
There’s a huff from beside him, and the rustling sound of clothing as Fjord shifts. “That's not good enough.” Quiet derision infuses the words. “Wishing doesn't make a thing so, Caduceus. You know that. So don't say what you don't mean. If you meant it, truly, then you'd stay anyway."
Caduceus wants to respond, but there’s no chance.
“You’re one of us!” Fjord’s voice rings out. “You’re not replaceable or expendable. It’s not up to you to decide if we need you or not. You’re our primary healer, and even if you weren’t, you’re supposed to be our friend. Why can’t you just make your own decision for once?” It’s a condemnation. A lightning crack through the sky. A sword through Caduceus’ heart, to be so thoroughly admonished, his flaws so blatantly emblazoned before him.
“You’re always relying on Her, and that’s all well and good and I’m grateful - eternally so - that you guided me to Her, that we have Her with us, but sometimes, Caduceus, you just have to make your own choices! She’s a crutch for your insecurities. You let her keep you from the world for so long. How can you go back to that?” There’s the slightest pause, a moment’s respite. “You know,” Fjord continues, coolly. “If you really loved travelling with us so much, you’d just keep doing it.”
Caduceus cannot argue, but he cannot make the decision that Fjord asks of him either. The guilt is bitter bile on his tongue.
“I’ve always thought you were the strongest of us.” He can feel Fjord’s eyes on him, now, sharp like a blade. “Not physically, but in everything else. In the things that really matter. Your convictions, your goodness, your understanding of yourself and others.” Peripherally, Caduceus can see Fjord’s head shake. He thought the anger before would hurt the most.
It doesn’t. Somehow, the weary resignation is so much worse.
“I was wrong. You’re weak. You have free will just like the rest of us. Just...forget Her?” Oh, there’s a pleading tone, now, all fiery anger and contempt washed away with the sorrow. “Forget Her for once, just once. And choose us. Just… choose us. Please.”
He takes it. All of it. Every last cutting word, every last plea. Caduceus gathers them all and looks at their imaginary gossamer forms, dying butterflies in his hands, wings only fluttering feebly in protest. He takes all of Fjord’s pain, and accepts it. Because that’s what he does, after all.
Takes pain so others don’t have to.
If yelling makes Fjord feel better, then Caduceus will gladly let him.
But there is no more yelling, no more cold whispers that chill Caduceus to the bone. No more anything. The storm between them has quieted, but the grey remains. Very slowly, he stands up, and allows himself one last look. The silver streak in Fjord’s hair shines under the moon’s glow. His head hangs, his face hidden.
There’s only one thing left to do. There are no tears now. Only Beau's righteous anger, and Yasha’s sad eyes, Fjord’s betrayed expression, and the vision in his head of the road home.
The road that he travels alone.
Caduceus takes the pieces of his broken heart from his chest and lays them at Fjord’s feet.
“If I could pick my own path,” he whispers. “I’d want all roads to lead back to you.”
He doesn’t wait for a response. There’s nothing left to say. If it’s over, it’s over.
He opens the door and enters the tower for the last time, leaving Fjord alone on the hill in the dark.
Morning comes. Nothing is better with the morning. As nice as the Tower is, it lacks all the things that Caduceus truly loves the most, namely the way the light filters past the windows, and the scent of vegetation doused in dew, and the call of birds and hum of insect life. He longs for that old familiarity, misses it more than he thought imaginable. It is right, going home. It’s what’s meant to be.
That doesn’t make it any easier to get up from his bed, to go down and face the rest of the Nein. Namely, Beau and Fjord. All the same, if he goes now, he’ll likely be the first one down. Generally, the others tend to sleep in; Caduceus has always liked to be up with the sun, naturally wakes around that time regardless, so he takes a moment to consider his spells, prays to the Mother for strength - and feels like a hypocrite.
You’re weak. He can still hear Fjord’s accusation, feels it ring true. It will haunt him, he thinks, for a long, long while to come.
It’s odd, not having to prepare breakfast for the Nein. The cats will do it for him, of course, but he asks them to bring all the favourite morning meals he can think of, something for each of his friends to enjoy before he lets them all down.
Well, all except for Yasha. At least, he’ll have that much.
Not that you deserve it.
Yasha and Molly arrive first, which Caduceus deems odd. Yasha isn’t the sort of person to sleep in, but only the night before, Mollymauk had proclaimed that he was going to sleep until three if he was allowed. Judging by his yawn and Yasha’s guiding hand, he hasn’t been.
“I wanted to be up early for you,” Yasha says as they slide onto their bench together. “I hope you do not mind, but I, uh, told Molly.”
Caduceus shakes his head. “That’s fine. I know you two are very close. I’m sorry, Mister Molly, I didn’t order you any breakfast. Wasn’t sure what you’d want.”
“That’s alright,” he replies flippantly, before beckoning a cat over and giving it his order. Simultaneously, Yasha’s arrives, and she smiles with wet eyes when she sees what he’s picked.
“You’re very sweet, Caduceus. I am going to miss you.”
They speak absently of nothing and something for another ten minutes or so, before Caleb comes down on the half hour precisely, according to the clock on the wall, which Caduceus is only fairly certain he understands how to read. Veth follows, then Jester, then Beau. She glares and says nothing, and if the other ones just think she’s grumpy that morning, so much the better. Maybe there can be a little peace, however fragile. One last final meal together in friendship.
Fjord comes last. Haggard is too kind of a word to describe how exhausted he looks. Though the group choruses a good morning, Fjord makes only a non-commital noise. They eat, a relatively subdued affair, though Jester makes fairly lively conversation with Molly, who indulges her in kind. For a good five minutes, Beau simple pushes around the bacon on her plate, disinterested. The others must just think Fjord sleepy, because he closes his eyes and rests his head in his hands.
“Rough night, Fjord?” Jester finally asks, sweetly concerned as ever.
The clattering of Beau’s fork breaks the spell. “Yeah Caduceus, how about it? Did Fjord have a rough night?”
Caduceus flushes. On any other day, he knows enough to know that her insinuation comes off… carnal, but her tone of voice belays her intention, and the other three, shocked by her vitriol, pause their enjoyment of breakfast in confusion to stare between the three. Caduceus can see Yasha’s sympathetic expression, and turns away, glancing over to Beau first, with purpose, and then the others.
“I’ve got an announcement, of a sort, to make. I told Fjord last night. The Mother’s prompted me more than once now. I’ve already put it off too long.” He thinks of his meagre belongings, packed in his room. “It’s time for me to make my way home.I’m leaving today. After breakfast.”
Four faces gape back at him in varying states of shock.
“I’m going alone.”
Stone still and silent the uninformed stare back at him. Jester’s eyes start to water, and she shakes her head furiously. “But Caduceus, can’t you just, you know, commute? Like Veth?”
Veth cringes a bit, and Caduceus notices her default expression change; a hint of worry is unveiled here, like the moon behind a cloud, and Caduceus’ heart sinks. Her time, too, may come before long.
“No, Jester,” Fjord cuts in, voice scratchy from lack of sleep. They’re the first words he’s uttered since coming down. Perhaps the first since Caduceus left him out on the hill the night before. “He can’t. Don’t bother arguing; he’s not worth it.”
Caduceus can’t help it. His chest hitches at hearing himself so summarily dismissed.
“I think that is a little unfair, Fjord,” Caleb says in a slow, considering tone. But Beau isn’t one to be outdone.
“Like hells it is. You didn’t hear them last night.” Her glare is dark now, and the anger on her face is no longer lonely. Now, it’s friend, grief, has arrived to join it. “Fjord doesn’t owe Caduceus shit and neither do we.”
Jester’s lip wobbles. “Don’t be mean, Beau! Can’t you see he doesn’t like it either!”
It takes her pointed statement for Caduceus to realize that his usually schooled expression has been forgotten, that he must look the way he feels inside for her to peer up at him so. That, for perhaps the first time since they’ve known him, he’s wearing his heart utterly on his sleeve. When it found its way back to him, he doesn’t know.
Maybe Fjord tossed it away in the night.
Whatever consolation his confession had been for himself, for Fjord, it is clearly no boon. Yasha was wrong, he thinks, to consider what he did a kindness to anyone, especially himself. Letting free his feelings has torn a ragged wound within him that Caduceus is not sure will ever completely heal.
“Yeah, well, last night he was cool as a fucking cucumber. He should feel bad.”
“Beau,” Veth speaks up, her pitchy voice fluctuating more unevenly than usual. “He hasn’t been with his family in ten years, except those couple days after we found them. He loves them! And he’s probably been missing them a lot. I know…I know I have. And…commuting is nice and all. It’s lovely, in fact! But, well…it’s just not the same as being home.”
The sound Beau’s chair makes as it screeches back across the floor is grating. Her jaw is clenched tight and her eyes are fever bright. With passion, she flies from the room. Jester is crying, and Caleb sits quietly morose.
How quickly the house they built felt apart in the sand of time and tempest. How quickly he’d managed to wreck the thing he’d found. But that wasn’t true. He wouldn’t be leaving it that were true. They don’t need him to rebuild their defenses. And he hadn’t really built the house with them anyways. No, he’s only ever been a tenant in their lives, forever destined to leave eventually. Hired help, to manage the finishing touches that they couldn’t quite complete without assistance.
And now, everything is the way it ought to be, and there’s no longer a place for him.
Caleb pats Jester on the back, Molly squeezes Fjord’s shoulder, and Yasha stands up to go after Beau. And Veth… Veth just stares up at him from her bench in commiseration, like staring into the mirror of her future. For the first time, Caduceus understands.
He had to be the one to go first, so that they can handle it later when Veth inevitably takes her permanent leave. A wave of relief goes through him at the realization. The Mother hasn’t broken his heart for naught. It was folly to ever doubt Her. But somehow, he’s positive that Fjord and Beau won’t see it from his perspective.
Jester eventually stands and wraps her arms around his middle, hugging him tightly, pressing her face into his chest. “I love you, Caduceus. Be safe, okay? And happy? And...maybe you can take Sending sometimes and talk to us, like, you know, little check ins?” She sniffles through her words. “Because we all love you. Even Beau. She’s just sad, you know?”
“Yes,” Caduceus murmurs, rubbing circles into her back. “I know.”
“And,” her voice is a whisper now. “I know that Fjord will forgive you, too. Even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
Dropping his face down towards her hair, Caduceus presses his eyes shut and lets a few stray tears fall. It’s all he can do to hope that she’s right.
“Are you sure you must go alone?” Caleb asks.
Words are hard, but he pushes them out anyways. “I am. But I appreciate the sentiment.”
“So soon?” Jester asks, drawing away briefly. Her voice is still soft. “Can’t you stay one more day? That we can do something special?”
It’s sweet. It’s very Jester. But he can’t. “It’s a little too late to enjoy a nice day of special things.”
“Yeah, I suppose. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s mine.”
Jester’s hands find his shoulders and pull him down to her level. Very tenderly, she presses a kiss to his cheek, then takes his hand and leads him out of the kitchen.
Not once, the entire time, did Fjord look at him.
Not once did he even move.
Jester helps him gather his things, asking him kind questions about his family and his plans, reminding him several times to take Sending frequently enough that he can talk to them – not that the person he wants to speak to the most would answer him back, or even want to hear from him at all.
It takes very little time, considering he was mostly packed the evening prior, and soon they’re making their way to the entryway of the tower. Everyone is gathered there, waiting. Even Beau stands beside Yasha with a deep glower, but she doesn’t glare, and Caduceus is very nearly positive that her eyes are a little glossy and red.
Fjord ignores him.
“I wanted to say…he tries, clasping his staff with both hands and taking a moment to lean on it, when he feels as though his bad knee will buckle beneath him. “I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for being my friends, and for helping me find my family and save my home. I’m glad to have met you, and I’m glad that the reason we met is no longer a cause for pain.” Molly nods to him, a farewell of mutual respect. Something tells Caduceus that Mollymauk has his head on straight when it comes to people. Well, mostly. He’ll help them where Caduceus will no longer be able to.
“We’re glad to know you to, Caduceus,” Veth says. She’s a steady even presence in this moment, if rarely in others. “But I don’t want you to worry about us once you leave. You’ve done a lot for us, and I think…maybe we even learned something along the way.”
It’s true. He knows it’s true. Kneeling, he envelopes her in a hug, whispering a soft ‘thank you’ in her ear. Yasha comes to him next, giving him an awkward but earnest pat on the shoulder. Finally teary, Caleb goes for a handshake but ends up in a hug. Molly throws him a subtle salute, and Jester gives him one last kiss on the cheek. Resigned to the fact that Beau and Fjord want nothing to do with him, Caduceus makes to open the door. But Beau has moved. Before he can blink, she’s wrapped her arms around his ribs with unmeted strength, like she wants it to be just that side of painful. Like she wants to be remembered.
When she releases him, she casts a quick glance over his shoulder at Fjord, who has yet to move, and any hope that Caduceus had left softly seeps away.
“Safe travels,” he says as he opens the door. So impersonal for something so life altering, but there’s nothing else to say. Nothing else to fill the empty gap his memory will leave behind, and the hole they have carved in his heart.
On the other side of the threshold, he hesitates just a step. Warm, loving wind rustles at his hair, a gentle, beckoning caress that whispers home, my Clay.
One step forward is all it takes to carry him away. His feet follow their own predetermined trajectory; inherited memory reminding his blood and bones of the way home. Heart pounding in his chest, he shuts his eyes and gives himself trustingly into Her hands, letting her guide him. Against his back, Caduceus can feel the warm glow of the open doorway growing farther and farther away from him until it's gone completely.
He doesn’t look back. The wind draws him further along, pleasant, comforting, reassuring. They’ll be alright without him. She’ll be with Fjord as surely as She says beside Caduceus. And somehow, someway, his heart will heal, scab and scar, and when he thinks on them – on Fjord – it won’t always sear as painfully as it does now, throbbing a little more with each step Caduceus puts between his past and his future.
Everyone leaves him alone, and for that, Fjord is grateful. Even Beau, now seemingly placated and subdued by that morning’s events, makes no further attempt to speak with him. They spend the day in the Tower, no one quite willing to pick up and go elsewhere quite yet. Nicodranas is their next destination; Mollymauk has never seen it before, and they all know how much he’ll love it. It will be good to go, to let the hot sun beat down on him, roast him to distraction so that he doesn’t spend every last waking moment thinking about the way Caduceus looked when he’d first approached Fjord the night before. Serious and thoughtful, and not at all broken up.
That was Caduceus; always so stoic, so forbearing, while the rest of them fell to pieces at the drop of a hat. What made him think that they’d be okay? What made the Mother believe that She could just rip him from them without any warning?
Except that there had been warning. Only, Caduceus hadn’t bothered to tell him in advance.
An uncomfortable niggling rises up in Fjord’s gut at the thought. It wasn’t much in advance, no, but Caduceus had afforded him that much courtesy as he hadn’t given the others. Singled him out to speak with. Perhaps there had been hope in his eyes, somewhere, that Fjord had missed. Hope that Fjord would understand because of their shared religion. But no, he hadn’t been looking for it. If it was ever there, Fjord has missed it for good.
Their paths have diverged. They’re moving in opposite directions, and Fjord envies Caduceus the ease with which he’d walked away.
He’d called Caduceus weak, and he’d meant it, thoroughly. There’s a certain release in weakness like that, in letting someone else call the shots. Fjord remembers what that was like all too well, sometimes… sometimes he sometimes still yearns for it. Knows that it’s a bad habit of his going back and back and back. Back to the orphanage, where he’d let the younger children run him over as easily as the older ones. Back to Sabian and his grand imaginings of their future. To Vandren and his cocksure ways. To Uk’otoa.
In the privacy of his chambers in the tower, settled on the straw meditation mat – the one that is identical to Caduceus’ – Fjord considers how much he has changed since the Sour Nest.
He’d denigrated Caduceus for his blind servitude, but how easily Fjord himself could have fallen into that same rut, given himself over to Caduceus’ whim. How readily he might once have allowed himself to start the cycle over. But it was Caduceus who had always encouraged Fjord to be led by his own choices, to free himself and seek solace in the Mother, protection and guidance. Servitude, yes, but not blind. And not unquestionable or unconditional.
Caduceus had never asked that of him. Not once. But Caduceus had also taught him of faith. At the moment, Fjord isn’t sure exactly what the difference is.
His faith is shaken, but not in the Wildmother.
In Caduceus. Steady, dependable Caduceus. In whom he had placed his faith anyways, unasked for, undesired.
So much for that.
Finally, Fjord berates himself, laying back on the mat and staring at the ceiling of the room. So maybe he hadn’t let Caduceus run his life – Caduceus would never have even thought to – that’s most certain – but he’d still put all his trust in the other man, something he should know better than to do by now. Oh, he’d taken Caduceus’ advice, made his own choices. The only problem was that he’d chosen Caduceus. His only consolation is that the Nein are still there with him, that he’s maybe not so much of a lost cause as he used to be. That this time, upon being abandoned, at least he’s not alone in it.
(It still feels paltry. There’s been no one who understood him quite like Caduceus had).
For a long time, he lays there, feeling stupid and hypocritical, angry and abandoned all at once, and finally, finally, wallowing in his pathetic state, Fjord allows himself to cry.
Hours later, the only thing that gets him up is his rumbling stomach. He finds Jester in the dining space, mulling over a cupcake morosely. Stray locks of her deep navy hair float down over her eyes, and Fjord is struck once again by just how acutely her presence lightens his heart. No, he hadn’t put all his trust in Caduceus, even though now that he’s had the rug ripped out from beneath him, it feels a bit like he had.
“Hi, Jester.” Even to his own ears, Fjord sounds terrible.
“Hullo Fjord.” The smile she gives him is weak, but somehow, it still warms him. “How are you holding up? You and Caduceus were…” Jester bites her lip. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Share your cupcake with me?”
Bashfully, her smile widens and she lowers her head, blushing and beautiful. “Sure.” She scoots over a bit, patting the bench next to her for him to sit. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He opens his mouth, fully intending to deny it, but he can’t stop the words when they start. “I feel like he abandoned me.”
“It probably won’t help any, but I don’t think he really wanted to go.”
“Then why did he?”
Jester shrugs. “Sometimes, people don’t do the things they want to, so people won’t know they want to do them.”
“Well,” Jester says, splitting the cupcake in half with her fingers. “He’s trying to set a good example for us. For you, you know? He wants what’s best for us, even if it makes him sad, or us. Caduceus is strong like that.” Suddenly, her eyes are teary. “I was thinking, you know, that he always was taking care of us, but I don’t know if we really took very good care of him. We were too busy needing the care.”
The rock in Fjord’s throat drops into his stomach and he swallows hard to hear her call Caduceus strong. Guilt, heavy and thick, coalesces in his stomach. “Jester?”
“Has anyone told you lately just how wise you are?”
“Fjord.” A little bit of the sadness is banished from her eyes. “Thank you.”
“No,” he shakes his head. “Thank you. You’re always there for us. Maybe you should take your own advice and let people take care of you, too.”
He lays his hand over hers. It feels right. A subtle warmth, pulses around him. Once more, Jester’s flushing, but her eyes are wide and open, staring into his. Fjord leans in - he can hear her breath quicken - and presses the lightest of kisses to her cheek.
When he pulls away, she’s staring into the distance, glazed, dazed, but she turns her head, chin lifting towards him and touches her lips to his, flutteringly light. It’s gossamer and organza, wonderfully new, and incredibly delicate. Bare seconds pass before they part; they rest their foreheads together and simply breathe, and for the first time that day, Fjord thinks that he’ll be okay.
They all will.
Around seven that evening, they all have to step out of the Tower long enough for Caleb to recast the spell. Nicodranas still feels like something for later, they’d all agreed, so they stand in the relative chill, arms crossed, while Caleb does his thing. Jester keeps shooting him glances that warm Fjord from the inside out, and he sends similar soft looks back her way until Veth kicks up a conversation with her.
Left to his own devices, Fjord’s thoughts turn to the place on the hill where he’d sat up most of the night before, where Caduceus had come to find him. He still isn’t sure why Caduceus had followed him there. Was it because Beau had gone to yell at him? Or some sense of unfulfilled duty? The conversation they’d had – could it even be rightfully called a conversation, when Fjord had spent the entire time raging at Caduceus, who’d simply sat there and taken blow after verbal blow.
It doesn’t feel good, thinking about it now.
It hadn’t felt good then either.
A hand falls on his shoulder. “Hey, Fjord. We’re going inside. Are you coming with us?” Yasha peers at him.
“What? Oh.” The hill is absent, save the two of them and the glowing outline of the door. “I think I need a minute.”
Yasha’s brow furrows. “I talked to Caduceus last night. Beau was…not subtle.” At that, Fjord cannot help but laugh. “Did he come talk to you after?”
“What do you mean?”
“I told him he should talk to you more. Did he?”
There’s something pressing, hidden in her inquiry, but Fjord doesn’t have enough energy left to care. “He did. Well. He tried. I guess I didn’t exactly let him.” Gesturing broadly at the space, Fjord clears his throat. “I yelled a lot. Terrible things. Things I-“ his voice strangles. “Some of them I’m not sorry about. Not yet. But I know I will be. Some I already regret. Deeply.”
Yasha’s lips thin and she stares at him hard. “What did he say?”
A puff of breath leaves Fjord’s mouth as he shrugs noncommittally. Runs a hand over his face. “How he wished things could be different. Stuff about wanting to come back to us. That sort of thing.”
Emphatically, Yasha shakes her head. “How did he say it?”
“About coming back.”
“Uh…” Fjord wracks his brain. “If he could pick his own path, he’d want all of them to come back to us. Something like that.”
“No, Fjord.” That same curious imperativeness is back. “Say it how he said it.”
“’If I could pick my own path, I’d-“ he tries, harder to remember. “I’d want all roads to lead back to you.’ Why? What’s that got to do with anything”
Yasha bites her lip, eyes bright. “Fjord,” she says, slowly, carefully. “He didn’t mean us. He means you. Just you.”
Beneath her hand, Fjord staggers as the implication finally, finally sinks in.
“Fjord,” she says, very deliberately, eyes serious. “Caduceus is in love with you.”
Dizzy, his knees buckle out from under him and Fjord sinks to the ground, world upended for the second time in as many days.
Fjord doesn’t know how long they stay there. Yasha guides him back to his room, lays him down on the bed instead of in his hammock. She doesn’t really need to, but he’s grateful that she does anyways. For a moment, she hovers, as if unsure whether or not she should leave him alone, but eventually, she goes anyways, and his room is once more too quiet. There’s no creaking of timber, no slosh of water, nor the occasional cry of a seagull, but the likeness is incredible regardless. At least the unnaturalness of it gives him something else to be distracted by aside from Yasha’s devastating decree.
In love with him.
Caduceus. In love with him. Fjord.
It sounds, frankly, impossible. Caduceus is Caduceus and Fjord is…well…Fjord is just Fjord. Messy and more than a little stupid (a lot stupid, actually). He makes blood pacts and swallows swords and touches little red buttons whose purposes he doesn’t know. He might be suave and charming but he’s so completely stupid most of the time. And while Jester apparently likes him enough to kiss him and hold his hand, Caduceus is…
Fjord tries to contemplate a world in which someone like Caduceus, the paragon of stoic and wise and gentle, could fall for someone like him, and fails. It certainly can’t be this world, because it simply doesn’t add up. There’s no world where that makes even the most remote sense. No world where the last plea Caduceus had uttered was meant solely for Fjord, and not all the members of the Nein.
No world where Caduceus’ choice – if he had one, Fjord recalls still slightly bitter – was a road that would lead him back to Fjord. And yet, Yasha wouldn’t lie. There’d be no reason, no purpose in lying, unless she’d misunderstood. And while he supposes that is possible, doubt eradicates the thought.
Caduceus Clay is in love with him.
It’s Melora’s honest truth and Fjord doesn’t know what to do now that he knows. Every time he thinks the thought out in full, – Caduceus Clay is in love with him – his heart pounds, heavy with blood, the same way it does around Jester. Jester, whom he had kissed - who had kissed him – for the first time only earlier that day. Pressing both hands over his face, Fjord groans.
Why do feelings have to be so confusing?
Rather than mindlessly mull it over in cyclical failure, Fjord tries instead to clear his mind. He gets up, lighting a stick of incense and breathing it in deeply, centering himself and reaching out towards that familiar warmth that he now knows is Melora. It’s with meekness that he submits himself to Her sight. Of course, Caduceus had come to him first, conflicted and hurting, looking for Fjord to understand why he had to do what he had to do. And Fjord had dismissed him, had looked selfishly inwards instead of attempting to be understanding, attacked him for his devotion to the very goddess that had sheltered Fjord.
“Mother,” Fjord breathes. “Forgive me. I’m a fool. I doubted you, I’ve hurt your Clay, and now I fear I can never make it right. He says…it sounds as though our paths are forever divided now, and I can’t bear that to be true. I don’t know if I…I don’t know what I feel for Caduceus, but I know that I care for him, and I know that I’m in love with Jester. Help me, Mother. Guide me, the way you guide him. Help me know how to make this right.”
Disembodied wind blows around him, but unlike Caduceus, Fjord can’t quite parse the meaning, doesn’t know how to make sense of the buffeting. Within the tower, there’s no direction to hearken. On his knees, Fjord keeps his eyes closed, and drops deeply into meditation, the way Caduceus had taught him, breaths even and lingering.
A knock on his door brings him out of it.
“Fjord? Hey, we’re leaving.” It’s Molly’s voice. “You better come down and get something to eat quick before Caleb shuts up shop.”
His eyes fly open. Morning. It must be, though he wouldn’t know it from the windows of his room, which look out only into the strange pocket dimension that Caleb has conjured. Whatever his meditation wrought, it’s banished by the interruption and Fjord resigns himself to another day’s worth of guilt weighing down shoulders that already are heavy with grief.
When they arrive in Nicodranas, it’s no better, not really. The sunlight is too happy and the only ones who seem truly excited to be there are Veth and Molly. Jester’s usually excitable mood is understandably muted with Caduceus’ absence; not even a visit to her renown Momma can fix that, though they do get an absolute kick out of Marion’s utter and instant desire to dote upon Molly as if he were her own child, and Molly’s utter and instant cessation of flirtation at the realization.
Veth’s gone to visit her family, taking Caleb with her, when Jester steers Fjord away from the common area where the others are all enjoying the afternoon, and brings him to a lovely little spot on the beach. She’s disguised herself as a human again – though, as always, she still looks like herself, sans the blue and the horns and tail – for the outing, taking his hand as they walk, swinging it gently.
“Fjord, what are we?”
“Yeah, are we like...together?”
“Oh, well, yes? If, uh...if you want to be.”
“Do you want to be?”
He does, of course, want to be together, but Caduceus’ sad eyes, overflowing with what Fjord now knows is love, lingers in his memory.
“Yes,” he replies firmly, because it is the truth. “I want to be with you, Jester. I love you.” Why it's suddenly so easy to say when two days ago he couldn’t have ever imagined confessing his affection, Fjord doesn’t know. “But,” Fjord catches Jester out as she’s about to reply. “Before you say anything back, I have to tell you something. And...it might change how you feel about me, but it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
The trepidation he saw rising is mitigated slightly, and Jester squeezes his hand more tightly. “You can tell me anything, Fjord. You know that.”
The deep breath fills his lungs, the exhale forcing the admission. “Caduceus told me that he’s in love with me, and I’m not sure exactly how I feel back. But I do...feel. And I don’t know what to do about it.”
Instantly, Jester envelopes him in a hug. “Oh, Fjord! I’m so sorry! No wonder you are so sad! I mean, I know we all miss Caduceus, but I can’t imagine how I would feel if you left, especially since I’m in love with you, too.”
Hearing her say it encourages a bloom of impossible warmth in his chest, and a smile broadens – he can’t stop it from happening. She’s still hugging him, so he pulls her closer, tighter against him, relishing the contact. “You have no idea how glad I am to hear it, Jester.”
“You can explain exactly how glad you are to me later. Right now we still have a problem! What are you going to do about Caduceus? What happened? How did it happen?”
“I mean,” he starts, picking the first question to start, not quite ready to spend more time reflecting on how poorly he’d handled the whole thing. “I don’t really know what to do. He’s gone home for good and now with you and I…well…” Fjord trails off, but Jester shakes her head vigorously.
“Fjord, love isn’t something that has a-a finite quantity, you know?” Her earnestness shines from her like the bright sun beating down around them. Determined. Unwavering. “Like, you have a lot of love in you!” A slender finger pokes just above his heart. “And there are all sorts of love, you know? Like, we love our friends, and we don’t just love one friend at a time, right? So, well, if you love me, that doesn’t mean you stop being in love with Caduceus, or he stops being in love with you. And if…if everyone is on the same page, well, you wouldn’t have to not express it either, right?”
Fjord blinks, slowly.
“Fjord,” she takes his face in her hands, gently, stares him down with infinite seriousness. “You can love us both. It’s okay. It’s allowed. All you have to do is talk to Caduceus, and then, you know, if he wants to figure it out, the three of us talk together.”
It takes him a second longer than it should to understand what she means. Fjord hasn’t got a lot of experience with…with love, but he’s smart enough to know that what happens in sex and what happens in love aren’t always cross conditional. He’s heard stories from old shipmates about threesomes of the sexual nature, but to find and love not one, but two people at a time – the thought hadn’t really crossed his mind. Not that it seemed impossible – clearly, it was – but the ease with which Jester suggested it startled him.
“No. I want you to be happy, not conflicted, and well, if there’s no need to be conflicted, then why go to all the trouble, you know? If I had a problem with it, I wouldn’t encourage you to go after him!”
A weight lifts from Fjord’s shoulders, but the problem remains that his own feelings are not so simple as Jester has made them out. Does he love Caduceus? He hadn’t thought so, until the possibility of Caduceus loving him had been set on the platter by Yasha. Part of him still can’t believe that it's true, that the painful goodbye on the hill, the last words they had exchanged, could possibly be tantamount to a love confession from the man Fjord has held as a paragon. He’s so far beneath what Caduceus should want in a lover. But Fjord looks down at Jester, at her hopeful expression, at the love in her eyes.
To say that Caduceus deserves better, but not Jester… Well, it simply wouldn’t be true. Love isn’t about deserve, he firmly reminds himself. Jester loves me! And I love her, and we’re founded on mutual respect and friendship.
If Caduceus does love him, Fjord’s opinion on whether or not he should really doesn’t have any bearing at all.
Chest tight again, Fjord does his best not to flush – first with pleasure and then with pain – thinking about how wonderful it always was when Caduceus would smile at him, offer a kind word. How he wishes that he could have it again. Even if it was only one last time. To go back, to redo it all, and listen when Caduceus had tried to explain the depth of his feelings, instead of fighting back, lashing out with unfair, unkind, and unacceptable words primed to hurt, to maim. And though Beau had been upset, he didn’t think she’d been quite so vicious as had he… Fjord breathes, a painful, wrenching thing. It would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much, how blind he’d been.
“Tell me what you are thinking? You look so…constipated. Like emotionally constipated.”
Fjord’s expression must crack a bit at her choice in words, because Jester giggles a little, before they both get serious again.
“I said terrible things to him, Jester. Horrible things. Things I’m so ashamed of that I can’t bear to repeat them.” Leaning into her warmth for comfort, Fjord closes his eyes, punishing himself for just a moment with the memory of Caduceus’ eyes on him in the moments before he walked out the Tower’s door. “I certainly didn’t understand that he was…that he felt that way about me. Yasha had to tell me. Apparently they…spoke about his feelings for me.”
“Then you have to go now! Like, as soon as possible!” Jester pulls away, tugging him with her. “Let’s go get Caleb and he can take us to the Blooming Grove and you can talk to Caduceus, because you totally have to do this sort of thing in person. You can’t wait!”
She’s right – when isn’t she? – and he allows her to pull him away, but it doesn’t slow the increasingly desperate pound of his heart that the thought of seeing Caduceus again, of talking to him, not only about his own feelings, but where things have gone with Jester…it’s so much, it is physically daunting.
In the blink of an eye, it seems, they arrive at the Brenatto’s place, Jester bursting in rather uncourteously, but Fjord barely has it in him to offer an apologetic look before she’s grabbed Caleb as well. Sans explanation, they leave; Jester is not to be ignored by any of their number.
“-is going on, Jester?” Caleb is asking when Fjord finally has a moment to catch his breath.
“Caleb, can you take Fjord and I to the Blooming Grove? Like now? Or how soon can you do it? Because we really need to get there now. Especially Fjord, he can’t wait. It’s really, really important, Caleb, please?”
Fjord’s halfway to interjecting that he can, actually, wait. A day. Maybe two. Maybe five. But something stops him. It’s not Jester’s babbling, or Caleb’s responses, nor even the memory of Caduceus, but instead the insistent pound of his heart in his ears. The knowledge that it won’t cease or go away if he puts it off, that the guilt will draw down more heavily with each memory. That for every moment he’s selfish and afraid, Caduceus spends another moment thinking that Fjord doesn’t-
If thinking it, for the first time, makes it feel too real, then he can’t imagine how it will be to say it to Caduceus’ face. And yet, somehow, it seems only right that they not be said aloud until he can say them with Caduceus standing before him. His terror ratchets up a degree – because telling him the truth might mean further conversations have to ensue. And while Jester might be willing and interested in the potential arrangement she’s concocted, Caduceus…Caduceus might not be.
And if that’s the case, Fjord doesn’t know what he’ll do.
And not knowing is somehow the worst thing he can imagine.
If he knows, then at least, it will be over.
Then, he can have a little peace, because right now, there’s not room for a single moment of it in his heart.
Confusedly, Caleb agrees to take them – there’s always the teleportation circles to get them back, after all – but insists on informing Veth before they leave. The rush of magic around them as they are instantaneously transported by Caleb’s force of will alone is as intoxicatingly disconcerting as it was the last twenty times they did it.
What he hasn’t anticipated is where they would end up. He’s never been to the Blooming Grove, of course. After…after, they hadn’t made the trek back to Caduceus’ beloved home. In reality, Fjord never really envisioned the place before, at least, not in any great detail. His vague imaginings had included little more than a stereotypical graveyard, but this…
It’s more beautiful than he could ever have built with his imagination alone. The leaves gradient from purple to green – some more than others, and the light is golden and pink in hue. Birds chirp here and there, and other creatures rustle through the underbrush. With the trees so thick, no sound echoes; the air is close and surprisingly warm for being so far north. Fjord simply turns in a circle, taking in the beauty for a moment, before noticing Jester doing the same.
“It’s changed,” Caleb says softly. “There wasn’t any green before. The crystals must be doing their work.”
Fjord takes a moment to imagine what it must have been like for Caduceus, how happy he must have been to arrive to a home that had already begun to heal. How soft his eyes would have been, and the tiny smile that would have caught the corners of his mouth. And the twitch of his ears, just a little. Just a little.
A squeeze on his hand brings him back.
Jester nods a little at him. “Go ahead Fjord, we’ll wait right here for you, okay?”
Sucking a breath in, he nods back not daring to speak.
It’ll be alright. It’s Caduceus, after all.
For all he’d yelled and berated, Caduceus hadn’t said one single cruel thing in retaliation. And if nothing else, Fjord will apologize. He owes Caduceus that much.
He owes Caduceus his life.
Harshly swallowing, Fjord steps beyond the little overrun wrought gate, and into the confines of Caduceus’ templeyard home. The structure itself rises not organically from the clearing. Concentric circles around it form the segmented lines of graves, family by family, moving outwards by generation. They’re overwrought with flowers, curling vines, all unfamiliar to him, but impossibly beautiful. Only one, as he nears the center circle, looks like it could potentially be the primary component of the tea Caduceus is most fond of brewing. The scent of the place is as equally overpowering as its mystical appearance. Heady with the spiced scent of vegetative decay, the wind caresses Fjord’s hair warmly. Almost...loving.
For the first time, without trying, or without Caduceus there beside him, Fjord knows that he’s feeling the Mother’s presence.
That She’s still with him after everything is some miracle to be sure. But it also means that he’s done what is right, or She wouldn’t be greeting him so readily, to be sure.
He’s almost to the center, to where a few stones line the walk to the temple, when he hears the first sounds of inhabitants. There’s laughter - raucous - and the loud groaning of unhappiness. The reminder that Caduceus has a family - siblings, parents, an aunt, people who share his blood, who love him - stalls him in his tracks. What right has he to miss Caduceus?
Every right, my Child, the wind whispers. There is more in family than blood and name.
Though he is loath to interrupt what sounds like a very joyous, prank filled reunion afternoon, Fjord stops before the door to the temple, lifting his knuckles to the wood, knotted and worn, to knock.
The soft syllable is enough to send Fjord reeling back into the person come to stand behind him. Fjord whirls. There, tall and sturdy despite his thin frame, is Caduceus.
“Oh,” Fjord mimics back. Seeing him is… Spiderwebs fill Fjord’s brain, thoughts clinging together, tangling, and twisting. “I-”
“You came to see me.”
It would have been easier to bear if Caduceus had glared at him. Somehow, it was worse, seeing the disbelief.
I did, Fjord thinks he should say. I had to. Or maybe even the romantic I couldn’t stay away.
None of what he forms in his head passes his lips.
“You’re in love with me?”
Caduceus’ penetrating gaze is unwavering, and sure. “Oh, Fjord. You didn’t know. Yes, I’m in love with you.”
Hearing it from Caduceus sends a zing of adrenaline through Fjord’s system. “I guess I needed it spelled out for me. Your artful way with words didn’t make it through my thick skull. Say it again? What you said that night?”
A hand, large and soft and tender, cups his cheek; Caduceus’ thumb rubs over his cheekbone. “I wish I could choose my path - if I could, you’d be waiting at the end of it.”
Although it’s not precisely the same wording, it strikes true. “I’m in love with you, too, he rushes out, not missing the way Caduceus’ eyes shine at his confession, but he can’t stop the flow now that it’s begun. “I didn’t...I didn’t realize, until you were gone. Until Yasha explained… I didn’t think it was possible for you to love me, I didn’t know that I felt the way I do. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was so terrible to you. I’m sorry I said such horrible things. I didn’t mean them, not really. I was hurting and upset and I took it out on you and I should never, ever have said what I did. You’re not weak. I am. I’m weak because I couldn’t imagine how I would manage without you. Because I-I don’t want to. I’m in love with you,” he says again, and Caduceus’ eyes shine ever brighter.
“Fjord, I did hurt you. Don’t absolve me of all blame. Not yet.” Oh that touch, velvety soft - it never leaves his cheek. “I should have said something about leaving beforehand. Not just to you, but to everyone. And not just the night before. Things were just… a lot. And I didn’t want to make them more a lot than they already were. You weren’t wrong. I was weak. I let my fear of losing you stop me from easing you all into it and made it worse instead. And when Yasha told me that I should tell you how I felt...I didn’t want to make it worse.”
“You didn’t.” Fjord lays his hand over the one Caduceus holds to his face. “You didn’t. It was always going to go poorly. It is what it is. As long as we can forgive one another.” Oh how he hopes they can. “Do you forgive me? For all the unspeakable things I said? For the atrocious way I treated you?”
“Yes, Fjord. I do. And do you forgive me for shaking your trust? For hiding the truth? For telling you and then…leaving anyway.”
Fjord wants to say there is no need to forgive, but his own words had begged such a thing. “I forgive you, Caduceus.”
The weight lifts, almost completely.
“There’s still...I have something else I have to tell you. Can we-?” he looks around. “Can we sit? I can’t believe we just had that conversation standing I-”
“Fjord.” As ever the soft rumble of his name on Caduceus' lips is the balm of cool water on parched lips. To think he might never have heard that again! That he had let Caduceus go without saying goodbye… Never again. Never.
“It’s alright.” Caduceus reminds him. “We’ll go sit. And then you can tell me what else is on your mind.”
Caduceus leads him to a little stone bench. It has seen better days, pockmarked and crumbling a little along the edges, but the foliage is shady and serene, though it does little to stem the anxiety that rises like a flood within Fjord.
“Alright. We’re sitting now. Better?”
“Much.” It is, for what it's worth. “I- I am in love with you…”
Caduceus cocks his head, but his expression is utterly unreadable. If he’s concerned by the inevitable ‘but’ he doesn’t show it.
“But I’m in love with Jester, too. After you left, I just...needed someone, and she was there and I finally...told her. How I felt. How I’ve known I’ve felt for a while now. Maybe it was because you left that I had the courage to do so. How ironic is that?”
“Very,” Caduceus replies seriously. If he’s joking, the humour is so dry and subtle that Fjord can’t tell. But the other man says nothing else, so, tentatively, Fjord continues on.
“I-I don’t know what you want from-from us. You and I...together. I know that you’re staying here. I know that I can’t change that and-” he looks away, towards the sound of cheerful laughter, renewed in the glen. “I wouldn’t want to. You need them and they need you. You were right. We- we’ll be alright without you. I don’t want to be, but I know that it's true. You’ve helped us so much, Caduceus...so much more than you can possibly know. And I will be grateful to you for the rest of my life. But I don’t want the rest of my life to be without you in it, somehow. I couldn’t bear it, Caduceus. One day without you, thinking that you could hate me for the way I treated you, for how unfair I was, and ungrateful...that I might never see you or hear from you again...One day like that was more than I could stand.”
Caduceus nods. “Then we feel the same. You’re right that I’m not leaving; my place is here. But my heart, Fjord, I left that with you.”
“I keep it with honour. For as long as it is gifted me. But-” he cuts off, looks at his hands. “I’m not good at this.”
“Take your time.”
“I am in love with Jester. And we are together. I want to give you my heart, and I will if you want it – hells, I already have – but I’ve given it to Jester, too. She told me that...” he struggles to recall how she’d put it. “My love is not finite. That I don’t have to pick one or the other of you, so long as everyone is comfortable and communicative and-” he’s flustered just suggesting it, but Caduceus has pity on him.
“Jester’s very wise, isn’t she, Fjord?”
“Did you bring her along, so that we might all talk together?”
Wordlessly, Fjord nods.
“Don’t worry, Fjord.” Caduceus lifts a hand to brush a strand of white and black out from where it’s fallen before Fjord’s eyes. “Everything is as it should be.”
“You won’t be…” Fjord can’t help but fidget. “I don’t know. Jealous? That Jester and I will get to spend more time together? Or something?”
A weary look shadows Caduceus’ eyes. “I’m sorry I’ve ever given you cause to doubt me. I know nothing I say can fix what I’ve broken. I promise, I’ll work to earn it back.” Bewildered, Fjord hasn’t the opportunity to ask precisely what it is Caduceus means before he starts speaking again. “No Fjord, I’m not jealous. I’m blessed to have your heart exchanged for my own, and blessed that Jester is alright with your heart seeking out all the love it desires. But there’ll be time to talk about the specifics when Jester’s here with us. Do you want to get her?”
Caduceus only shrugs.
“A moment, please. What do you mean, ‘earn it back’?”
“Oh.” Caduceus’ tone lilts in surprise. “Your trust. You trusted me to be honest and fair with you, and I wasn’t. Your trust was a precious gift and I never should have put it at risk.” He’s never seen Caduceus so…so… “It's my greatest regret, Fjord. What I did to you.”
“You said it yourself.” Fjord shifts, turning himself more completely to face Caduceus. The wind coils around them, intertwining them, and Fjord reaches out to take Caduceus’ hands in his own. It feels like fate. First Jester, and now Caduceus. Under his breath, Fjord whispers a quick prayer of thanks to the Wildmother for looking kindly on him. “We are where we’re meant to be. Here. Together, discussing the future. I forgive you, Caduceus, and I accept that you forgive me. We’ll get there together. You taught me that, I still trust what you taught me. I still trust you. Without you, I would still be floundering. We were meant to find one another. I can feel it.”
Like the sun through the trees, Caduceus’s face alights with his trademark lopsided grin, eyes sparkling. Half a second later, he ducks his head, curtain of pastel pink hair hiding the stunning, bashful flush over his cheeks. “I don’t want to presume, uh, since we still have to talk with Jester, but… can I…can I kiss you?”
Fjord smirks, softly. Lifts Caduceus’ chin with his forefinger. “I don’t…can you?”
Uncomprehendingly, Caduceus rumples his nose. “Uh…”
“Yes, Caduceus,” Fjord chuckles. “Please. Kiss me.”
The kiss with Jester had been tentative. This is no different. While Fjord’s not terribly experienced in the realm of love and all its accoutrements, Caduceus is pliant and new beneath his lips. A novice, but easily led, easily taught. It’s just as short a kiss as the first three with Jester had been, but Fjord takes the opportunity to draw Caduceus down to him, to tangle his fingers in long tresses and hold, still and close, Caduceus’s lips to his own, all butterfly wings and baby’s breath and sunshine.
“Wow.” Caduceus’s breath puffs warm on Fjord’s cheek. “That’s nice.”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
It’s better than nice. It’s perfect. Fjord and Jester and Caduceus. Maybe a little inconvenient, and a little messy, and yet to be configured and arranged, but still, somehow, it’s the most perfect thing Fjord has ever known, and he won’t give it up again.
Not for anything.