Beau looks into a too-familiar face as the thing puppeting the body of a dead friend lifts her up by the throat, and when the darkness comes along with the pain, it feels as if she’s looking into the lightless abyss at the end of the world.
They reach the Vurmas outpost in either the latest hours of the night or the earliest hours of the morning; it has reached the point where it’s hard to tell. The mammoth form and the magical health boost it brings has long since dropped, and Beau knows she looks bad, she feels bad, neither cleric having a spell slot available to fix whatever damage Lucien wrecked across her body. She only manages to keep trudging through the snow with the focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and the steady, comforting pressure of Yasha’s hand at her back.
She doesn’t even have the energy to gripe about how Fjord keeps pace on her other side, both he and Yasha clearly there to catch her if she falls. The long trudge of the day, combined with the dragon, combined with the fight, combined with the long, cold flee across Eiselcross’s night terrain is enough that she nearly cries when she sees the first glint of the outpost’s gates, emerging through the darkness.
She actually does cry when she is shown to a washroom, home to a fluffy towel and a basin of hot water. She tells herself it’s from the betrayal of an exhausted body. She knows that it’s not.
Dagen had, perhaps unsurprisingly, reached the outpost before the Nein, and had shared enough with Essek that, combined with Jester’s hastily scrawled note, meant that the wizard was waiting for them when they arrived. He had taken one look at them: bloody, beaten, exhausted, and clutching the backpack containing the stolen threshold crest, and immediately called for them to be shown to rooms, and for a meal and hot drinks to be prepared. And Beau doesn’t trust Essek, not one bit, but damn, at this moment she thinks she may love him a little bit.
And this washroom may not be a steaming bathtub in her own rooms in a magical tower, but it has hot water, and that’s enough.
It stings her frozen fingertips as she dips a washcloth in, a thousand tiny needles dancing across her nerves, but it’s a good pain, and in sharp contrast to the rest of her aching, beaten body. She wrings out the towel and lifts her head to the small, clouded mirror.
She looks like a dead thing walking.
She knew she probably would; Caduceus had looked pretty rough after the fight, and Lucian had used the same spell (curse?) on him that he had on her. But she gets the feeling that Cad got hit with a lesser strike.
Blood coats her face, frozen black in her hair, in her eyelashes. It washes down her face in dark rivers, from her eyes, her ears, her nose. There’s blood crusted in the corners of her mouth, splattered across the front of her coat, smeared down her neck. Her head pounds with her heartbeat, a constant throb only a touch away from a full migraine, and she can taste blood in the back of her throat, smell it in the back of her nose. Even once she has scrubbed her face until it’s flushed and clean, the sensation is still there.
Her throat is bruised with the memory of Lucian’s palm, a cluster of dark spots showing the pattern of fingers digging in. It hurts to swallow. It hurts to move.
But Beau does move, eventually, after she has managed to get as much blood out of her hair as possible, the warm waters of the basin cooling and turning pink as she works. But even once the blood is gone she looks like she took a beating, and her own face in the mirror is enough to turn her stomach.
When she steps out of the small room, she finds Jester sitting against the wall in the hallway, knees tucked to her chest, and sketchbook balanced across them. She looks up when Beau comes out, and manages a smile.
“You’re the last one,” Jester explains, “and so we thought we’d make sure you hadn’t passed out. Yasha wanted to come, but she still kind of looks like she wants to kill someone, so I came instead.”
“Still conscious,” Beau confirms, and instead of waiting for Jester to stand up, she slides down the wall next to her, letting Jester’s shoulder keep her propped upright without outright leaning against her. For a second, Jester’s pen stills against the paper of her notebook, and then continues, and Beau watches through half-focused eyes the almost hypnotical movement.
“I thought you were going to die,” Jester admits quietly, stubbornly not looking up from her work.
“But I didn’t.” The assurance sounds hollow, even to Beau’s own ears, and Jester takes a little shuddery breath.
“I’m not scared of dying,” she says, “and I don’t want to die, but if I have to, I want it to be for this, for stopping them.” She takes another funny little breath, and Beau thinks that she’s trying very hard not to cry. “But I don’t...I don’t want to watch you guys die.”
There’s a long silence after that confession, Beau unable to dig up any reassurances. Because the longer this goes on, the closer they get to Aeor, the harder it is to see a scenario where they all make it out alive. To try and say that they will feels like giving false hope. So instead Beau stays silent, and watches Jester draw.
Tucked between doodles of the Mighty Nein as cats, Lucien with dicks for horns, and a deeply unflattering rendition of a white dragon, the image of a coastline appears. It takes Beau a second to recognize it, but when she does it’s unmistakable. It’s the view of the Nicodranas coastline at sunset, from the back balcony of the Lavish Chateau. With a few, careful movements of her pen, Jester creates the shape of the waves, the hint of a sandy beach, the way the sun reflects against the water.
“Do you ever think about after?” Jester asks, and Beau blinks, a little startled. Jester still seems wholly focused on her drawing, but there was a weight to the question that makes Beau think Jester’s been considering it for a while.
“After all this.” Jester makes a vague waving motion. “When we can go home.”
Beau shrugs, scraping at the edge of an uneven thumbnail. The consideration of there being an after is an uncomfortable grate, and so it’s one she tries not to dwell on more than necessary. But Jester takes her silence for an opportunity.
“I want a house,” Jester says, “I love the Xhorhouse, but I want a house in Nicodranas, close enough to Mama that maybe she’ll be able to visit, and if she can’t I can go see her whenever I want. And it’ll be a big house, with lots of rooms, and a view of the beach, and a giant garden for Caduceus and Yasha, and a workshop for Veth and Caleb, and maybe a private dock so Fjord can go sailing whenever he wants.” Jester’s eyes have lit up as she describes this house, setting down her sketchbook so she can gesture. “There will be a training room, and cat walkways for Frumpkin, a huge yard for Nugget, and a little weasel house for Sprinkle, and a special place for you to meditate. And maybe Veth and Yeza and Luc can come live there, too, but if they don’t want to it’s close enough that we can still see them every day. Plus there will be a library, and a kitchen so I can learn to bake, and a sunroom where you can still sit outside when it’s cold. And there will always be someone there, so I’ll never be lonely.”
Jester beams off into the distance, her eyes a little out of focus. It’s clear that she's put a lot of thought into this, has arranged an entire floor plan, the blueprints already drawn up in her head. And Beau can imagine this hypothetical house, can imagine the way the Nicodranas sun comes through the windows and the way it always smells a little like saltwater.
“That’s a nice after,” she says, and Jester smiles a little.
“I think so.” She bumps her shoulder gently against Beau’s. “Now, tell me. What do you want?”
Beau shrugs. “I dunno. I figured we’d help Caleb take down Ikithon, although I used all my drugs to poison a baby, so we’d have to figure something else out. And I was also thinking about going back to Xhorhas with Yasha, help her find Zuala’s grave, and maybe take out her old tribe while we’re at it.”
They’re both plans that Beau’s been considering for a while, but Jester is looking at her with too soft an expression considering Beau just admitted both her plans for the future heavily involve murder.
“ No, Beau,” Jester says. “What do you want to do after . After adventuring.”
Beau lets out a breath. “I don’t know,” she admits. “Continue my first mate duties and keep sailing with Fjord, maybe. Or help the Cobalt Soul set up a library on the Menagerie Coast.”
“ Yes ,” Jester says enthusiastically. “And you can come and live with me in my awesome house.”
“Only if you promise not to get tired of me.” Beau elbows Jester gently, and Jester quirks an eyebrow.
“What about Yasha?”
“What about Fjord?” Beau counters, even as she feels her face starting to burn. Jester flushes too, cheeks taking on a purple tinge.
“He’s quite nice, isn’t he?” Jester says dreamily. “But I wasn’t asking about Fjord.”
Beau can’t look at Jester, can feel her face start to burn. “She’s...she’s great. I mean, you know that, but she’s super cool and nice and I like her, and she likes me for some reason, too.”
“Of course she likes you, Beau! You’re great.”
Beau shrugs one shoulder. “I dunno. I know I’m kind of hard to be around. And she’s so… soft, and I don’t think I deserve her, sometimes.”
There’s a sharpness to Jester’s voice that startles Beau, and she looks up and meets Jester’s eyes, and is surprised at the spark of anger she finds there. She reaches forward to grab Beau’s hands, looking her straight in the face.
“Beau, if anyone ever tells you you’re not worthy of love, fuck them. I think you’re amazing, and Yasha does, too.”
The intensity in her voice, the seriousness in her gaze is too much for Beau, and a tear or two manages to leak from her eyes before she swipes them away. Jester returns to her sketchbook and begins drawing what looks suspiciously like her kicking Beau’s dad in the crotch. Beau leans over to rest her head on Jester’s shoulder, careful of the newly lengthened points of her horns, and attempts to wrestle her emotions back under her control.
It mostly works.
“Love you, Jes,” she says, and if Jester notices the thickness in the words, she doesn’t say anything.
“Love you too, Beau.”
Eventually, the two of them wrestle themselves to their feet and head in search of the rest of the group. They find them arranged around a long wooden table, along with Essek and Dagen, plates of food waiting. Beau meets Yasha’s eyes as she walks in the door, and some piece of tension relaxes in the other woman’s forehead, just a little. Jester splits off from Beau to slide onto a bench between Dagen and Fjord, and Beau sits opposite her between Yasha and Veth.
Everyone looks tired, and though everyone has done their best to clean the signs of their journey from themselves, traces still linger; a bit of blood in the shell of Caduceus’s ear, the bruise creeping up Caleb’s jaw, the deep, exhausted bags under Veth’s eyes. Food is passed down the table, and for the most part they eat silently.
Beau wouldn’t necessarily call the food good . It’s clearly a meal born of the limited supplies of Eiselcross, and the salted fish, starchy potatoes, and thick, dark beer sit heavy in her stomach. She only manages a few mouthfuls before pushing her plate away in favor of ripping a piece of sourdough bread into smaller and smaller pieces. The spellslingers, on the other hand, eat ravenously, attempting to regain the calories burned by using so much magic. But while Jester, Fjord, and Caduceus seem content to eat in silence, Caleb has upended the bag stolen from the Tomb Takers across the table.
He and Essek have their heads together, and both have that glint of pursuing knowledge in their eyes. The threshold crest sits in the middle of the table, wrapped unsurreptitiously in Fjord’s scarf, but Caleb and Essek are more focused on a small pile of other items. All of them seem like cheap little trinkets to Beau, but if she has to guess, they’re all at least faintly magical judging by the wizards’ careful handling of them. And, amongst them, is a leather bound book.
“Is that…?” She asks, and Caleb glances up long enough to shake his head.
“Nein, it’s…” he pauses, turning it over in his hands before sliding it down the table towards her. “A journal, I think?”
Beau flips it open, and sure enough, she finds a handful of handwritten entries in Undercommon. Most of them are just simple depictions of the writer’s day, with one entry simply saying “today Cree caught a rabbit for dinner”. Beau snorts, and allows the journal to fall closed. “Well, no one ever said Zoran was a stunning conversationalist.”
“It’s good it’s not the book, though,” Jester says darkly. “I don’t want it to come near either of you again. And it’s not like you guys would try and read it again.”
There’s a general murmur of agreement across the table, one that’s noticeably missing from Caleb.
“Right, Caleb?” Jester presses, and Caleb sighs.
“I am not saying I will seek it out, but it holds information that could help us,” he says, and Veth whips around, her eyes narrowed.
“Look what happened last time you read it!”
One hand comes up as Caleb seems to almost unconsciously rub at the spot where Beau knows the eye waits beneath his sweater. “But if we consider the outcomes, perhaps the benefits of the knowledge it contains outweighs the risks.”
“That’s stupid!” Veth snaps, at the same time Essek nods next to Caleb.
“Knowledge is oftentimes worth the risk it brings with it,” Essek says, and Caleb makes a gesture in his direction, as if to better showcase his agreement.
“You also almost started a war in your own quest for knowledge.” Caduceus, who has so far been sitting quietly and eating his potatoes, speaks up mildly. “So forgive me, Mr. Theyss, but perhaps your own opinion of risk versus reward in terms of knowledge is an extreme one, and should not be considered here.”
Content that his point has been made, Caduceus takes a bite of bread as silence reigns over the table.
“It is a pointless argument, in any case,” Caleb says finally. “As the book is still in possession of Lucien.” He slides a small knife across the table towards Veth. “This, I think, you will find useful.”
Then he gets up from the table, and wanders off. Essek, after a moment, follows him.
“Y’all have a lot of weird wizard friends.”
Beau had somehow totally forgotten Dagen was at the table, and her embarrassment at being startled is slightly lessened by the fact that Yasha jumps, too. Dagen has been sitting quietly, shovelling food into his mouth, listening to the entire conversation, and he looks confused but overall uncaring.
Fjord gives a long-suffering sigh. “You haven’t even heard about Yussa.”
Before bed, Beau manages to grab Caleb. He looks at her, tired, his hair starting to escape the tie. The dark, mottled bruise only seems to deepen the bags under his eyes, and the hollows of his cheeks.
“Dude, what the fuck?” She hisses, dragging him to the side. “You would read the book again?”
Even just the mention of the book makes the red eye, hidden beneath the wraps on her left hand, itch. It’s been itching a lot lately. Not the tight, stinging itch of a healing tattoo, but a bone-deep sort of itch, as if her body knows that something is there that shouldn’t be. Sometimes, she can barely prevent herself from scratching it, from digging in her nails until she bleeds, as if she can peel it up and away from herself.
Caleb looks at her, exhaustion seeming to bleed through every pore. One hand comes up, curls around his bicep where his own red eye hides. “To save you, I would.”
“ No, ” Beau repeats louder, harder. “This isn’t the time for whatever self-sacrificing bullshit you have going on. You think you’re a shitty person, or that you dying will somehow hurt us less, or something, but that’s not how it is.”
“NO.” Beau steps forward up into Caleb’s space, planting her hands on his chest and shoving him backwards. He stumbles back, looking bewildered. “I’ve done the reckless thing, Caleb, I decided long ago that if I died, I would die for all of you. But here’s the thing, I don’t want a future without the rest of you in it. So don’t you dare try to justify whatever shit you want to do with protecting us.”
And then, to her mortal embarrassment, Beau bursts into tears. Caleb steps forward, and for a second Beau thinks he’s going to hit her, but he does an even more surprising thing; he hugs her.
It’s awkward and a little uncomfortable, and features too many hesitant back-pats to really be considered soothing, but that doesn’t stop Beau from getting snot and tears all over the front of his shirt. When they pull apart, Beau wipes her nose, and Caleb gives her one more awkward pat on the shoulder.
“Fuck you, man,” Beau says, still crying a little. “This never happened.”
“I know,” Caleb says softly. For a second they both stand in this empty hallway, and Caleb heaves a sigh. “I sometimes feel as if I have been walking towards death for a long time, and if my death saves people I lo-
maybe my life would not have been such a waste.”
“Your life wasn’t...you’re not a waste , Caleb.”
Caleb gives a bitter little smile. “Depends on who you talk to. But, I promise you Beauregard, I will try my hardest not to die.”
“That’s all I ask.”
They were given multiple rooms, but none of them really want to be apart. So instead, the seven of them cram into one room, spreading blankets and pillows across the floor so there are enough places to sleep. Fjord and Jester get the bed (Jester under the covers, Fjord on top of them), Caduceus sprawls across the rug, and Caleb sleeps curled into a ball, Veth tucked into the crook of his knees like a cat, giving wheezy little snores. No one is willing to depend on the relative safety of the outpost to go without watch, and so Yasha sits up against the door, a quilt tucked across her shoulders.
She’d protested when Beau had slid down the door to settle next to her, trying to insist that Beau needed sleep. But Beau brandished a bottle of wine, and Yasha had eventually relented, unwrapping her quilt to allow Beau under it.
“Where’d you get this?” Yasha asks, accepting the bottle Beau offers.
“A little B&E,” Beau replies, giving Yasha a wink, and earning a smile in return. In reality, breaking and entering is a bit of a stretch. It had been almost disappointingly easy to slip into the kitchen and locate the small shelf of wine. But Beau had forgotten to grab glasses on her way out, so now they sit, passing the bottle back and forth like teenagers drinking liquor stolen from their parent’s cabinet. And it’s not good wine, almost syrupy in its sweetness, as if trying to hide the lack of complexity of flavor. But it’s alcoholic, and it warms her stomach and chest as she drinks, so it’s good enough.
For a while, she and Yasha sit in silence, the only sound the sloshing of the wine as they pass the bottle, and it’s Beau that breaks it.
“Sorry about the date,” she says, wrapping her fingers around the neck of the bottle but not taking a sip. “That we never had it, I mean.”
“It’s okay,” is Yasha’s gentle reply. “It would’ve been...weird, with them in the tower.”
“Still though.” Beau takes a long swallow, wiping her mouth as she passes it off. “I didn’t want you to think I forgot about it or something. I had plans, I was going to have Caleb make some changes to the tower, but then everything happened.”
“I’m fine waiting,” Yasha says. “I’d happily wait for you.”
That gets a lump in Beau’s throat. Yasha stares off into the distance, drinking the wine as if it's an afterthought.
“We should’ve done it,” Yasha says, quietly. “Gotten on the lava river and...floated away.”
“We could’ve made a good life,” Beau agrees. “Hunt snow rabbits or some shit. Cuddle for warmth at night. Only have to worry about dying, like, every other day.”
“It would’ve been nice.” Yasha picks at the label on the bottle. “We could’ve been together.”
They both know neither of them would’ve done it. They wouldn’t have left the rest of the Nein, and they’ve both come a long way from the women whose first instinct is to flee. But it’s still a nice fantasy, to imagine a life together that’s not shaped by violence and blood and almost dying.
And Beau thinks about that conversation with Jester, out in the hall, about what they want to do after, and of what she snapped at Caleb, about how she doesn’t want a future without the rest of them in it. And the truth of it rings through her, even now. She doesn’t want to be lonely again. She doesn’t want to leave these people behind. She wants a future where she can wake up in that house Jester dreamed up, and Yasha’s in the bed with her, and her biggest concern is what she’ll eat for breakfast.
It feels impossible, this want. The desire for the kind of future builds up in her chest, threatening to overflow. Sometimes, it feels like it’ll be impossible for them to end up happy, especially now, when it feels like they’re standing at the lip of the end of the world, Aoer yawning ancient and awful before them.
But fuck, if there’s happiness here, Beau will try and take it.
She presses closer to Yasha’s side, tucking herself under her shoulder. After a brief hesitation, Yasha shifts so that she can wrap an arm around Beau.
“How are you? About...him?”
Beau can feel Yasha’s breath hitch, for just a second.
“I want to save him,” Yasha admits. “Still. Even though...even though I’m not sure if there’s any part of him anymore.” Carefully, she shifts so that she can trace the faintest ghost of a touch across the bruises that mottle Beau’s throat. “He would’ve killed you. And I would’ve killed him.”
Neither of them mention Molly’s name. Neither of them have to. Knowing that Lucien is still out there, alive and scheming, feels like some terrible mockery, a ghost brought back specifically to haunt them. Beau misses him, the asshole, and the thought of Lucien piloting the body that should be Mollymauk’s is enough to churn her stomach.
“If there’s a way to get him back, we’ll find it,” Beau promises. “I’ll find it.”
“I know you will.”
They spend the rest of the watch in silence, until Caduceus unfolds his long limbs from the floor and pats Yasha’s shoulder, signaling it’s his turn to take over. Yasha begins rolling out her bedroll, and Beau glances at the bed, considering evicting Fjord so she can crawl under the covers with Jester. But then she notices that the two of them are holding hands in sleep, and whatever dumb, soft part of her doesn’t want to intrupt them.
“Beau?” Yasha says softly, and Beau glances over at her. Yasha hesitates for a second, then shifts aside and holds back a blanket in a clear offering.
“Moving a bit fast, Yasha. We haven’t even had our first date yet,” Beau quips, even as she slides in next to her. It’s a little tight, but they make it work, even if at the end their shoulders and hips are smashed together. But the blankets are warm and smell like Yasha; like fur and leather and the moments before a storm. And before Beau can talk herself out of it, she seeks out Yasha’s hand under the blankets.
Yasha’s fingers curl around hers, warm and callused, and although Beau’s aware that Caduceus is awake and probably listening, she breathes a confession out into the darkness of the room.
“I don’t want a future that doesn’t have you in it.”
There’s a long, long silence, and for a second Beau is afraid that she went too hard, too far, too fast. But then there’s a hand on her jaw, and Yasha carefully tilts her face until they’re nose to nose.
“Do you want this?” Yasha asks, soft as a sigh, and Beau does barely more than nod.
Yasha’s lips are sticky and taste of wine, and Beau clings to her, wrapping herself around Yasha’s shoulders and hips, pressing forward until she can’t get any closer, chasing out that warmth, that safety she feels with Yasha.
“I don’t want a future without you, either,” Yasha whispers, and they curl together, not kissing, just seeking out the comfort and the warmth of the other.
In the morning, they’ll have to get up, and they’ll have to conspire and plan, figure out how to prevent a monstrous, sentient city from crashing through into their plane of existence. And Beau’s still more than a little scared to sleep, afraid of dreams of red eyes and distant voices, of waking up to find more unwanted tattoos maring her body.
But right now, she’s curled up with Yasha, gripping her hand like a lifeline, and maybe, maybe she can just see a way out of this.
Walking towards Aeor feels like walking towards the darkness at the end of the world, but Beau clings to Yasha’s hand, and dares to the universe to try and take these people away from her. She will fight tooth and nail to protect them, to allow them to have the a fters that are so hard to consider, and maybe, maybe that will be enough.