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call me friend, but keep me closer

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The Cobalt Soul was quiet, the air heavy like a thick winter blanket, and Veth couldn’t sleep. She’d had insomnia for some time now, but it was especially bad on the nights when she was alone. No press of a warm body against her, no deep, resonant breathing to lull her to sleep—just quiet and the occasional creak of wood as someone walked across the floor, someone who should definitely be asleep by now. Not that she had any room to judge.

She sat up in the bed and rubbed her forehead. She was exhausted. The day had been the longest she could remember, a thousand things happening, a thousand places to visit, and a metric ton of anxiety coming to a rolling boil inside her all the while. The idea of seeing Luc and Yeza for the last time, maybe, tomorrow would have been enough to keep any mother awake all night. But they weren’t the only family she stood to lose, and so her fear was horribly doubled and despite the way her eyes begged to be closed, her mind was racing far to quickly to find rest.

The floor creaked again and the barest hint of a smile curled up her lips. She could guess pretty well who else was still awake at this hour. After all, she knew his moods like the moon knew the tides’. 

Veth slid out of bed and tip-toed to the door, opening it a crack to peek out into the main chamber they’d been given. A sliver of faint light cut into her room, the glow of four floating orbs familiar as her own heart. She smiled, surprised she could even manage one now. But if felt good to see this familiar scene, Caleb sat at a table, one hand raised playing with his dancing lights as he poured over his books in silence, ignorant of the late hour or else accepting the consequences of staying up so late. He had that metal collar placed beside his books, a deep frown of frustration on his face. Veth wanted nothing more than to smooth out those lines, to see his features soften into an ever rare smile. Maybe he would, just for her. 

“You’re up late,” she said, stepping out of her room, bare feet padding lightly on the wooden floor. 

Caleb jumped, the lights faltering for a moment as he jolted out of his reverie before they returned. 

“Sorry,” She said, holding up her hands as she approached the table. “Didn’t meant to startle you.”

“Oh,” he said, rubbing his face, blinking away his own exhaustion, it looked like. He had dark circles under his eyes. She wondered if he was sleeping all right, especially after the eye rabies. She wouldn’t sleep all that well if she’d woken up with eye rabies—she could only imagine how Caleb was feeling about it. “No, no that’s all right. I should have put this down a while ago anyway.” He blinked and refocused on her. “What are you doing up, Veth? I didn’t wake you, did I?”

She shook her head and climbed into the seat next to him. “No. Just good old insomnia keeping me up.”

“Would you like some tea? I could make you something if that would help.”

She patted his hand gently and smiled. “That’s all right, Lebby. I’m fine.”

He searched her face for a long moment, as if to be sure she was telling the truth, then nodded and leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out with a deep, bone-weary sigh. “Gods, it’s late.”

“Or early,” she said. Beneath her pajama top, she could feel the chill of goosebumps on her arms and shivered. “It feels early to me.”

“That much trouble sleeping?” He asked, his eyes level on her, giving her his full attention. There was something about the way that he looked at her when he asked questions like that that left her feeling wholly open, vulnerable, seen. It had been a long time since she’d been comfortable being seen like that, but it felt easier when it was Caleb doing the looking.

“Too much to think about,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s like a hamster on a wheel in my head.”

He nodded in understanding, still watching her. “It was a busy day, lot of things happened.” He scratched his cheek, his fingers combing through the scruff of his beard for a moment before he spoke again. “And there was that whole…dagger ordeal.”

Veth shook her head, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “Yeah, yeah there was that. Can’t believe I pulled a crossbow on Jessie.” The embarrassment and shame mingled in her chest, one more flood of anxiety to keep her awake.

Caleb’s fingers tapped against the table, his eyes downcast. “You could have died,” he said. The words were uncharacteristically stiff. If he were anyone else, she’d have called them angry. Then again, maybe they were, maybe he was angry about it. “I identified that…thing. If you’d had it long enough…” he trailed off, his eyes scrunched up in thought. “I am not interested in holding your dead body ever again. And I don’t like how close it came to that.”

Veth sometimes forgot that she had died once before. It happened a while ago and only for a couple of seconds, but one look at Caleb’s face told her that he had not forgotten it so easily. “I don’t like it either,” she said. “I don’t have any interest in dying again.”

“Good,” he said firmly. He wrestled with something for a moment before saying, “Just, for me. Be more careful with what weapons you take. Let me look at them before you attune them, please.”

Her hand still rested over his and she gave it a slight squeeze. “For you?” She said, her voice gone all soft without her permission. “All right. I can do that.”

He seemed to deflate, like he released a deep breath he been holding while waiting for her answer. He grabbed her hand back, their fingers threaded ever so slightly together. “Thank you,” he said, relief making the words thin and breathy. 

“This is quite a pickle we’ve found ourselves in, isn’t it,” she said idly, trying to keep her attention away from the feel of his hand in hers. It was so comfortable and familiar, but there was a thrill to it now that was new and fresh and exciting. She’d had no idea familiar comforts could be this exhilarating.

He nodded slowly, his thumb stroking across the back of her hand, bringing all of those goosebumps right back. It didn’t seem like he even noticed he was doing it, staring vacantly off-center as he was, but she sure noticed. “It is a mess,” he said. “And I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about it all.”

“Well, yeah,” she said. “Especially since…” she tapped her bicep with her free hand. 

He grumbled low under his breath. “Ja, that.” His shoulders went tense and his grip on her hand tightened.

“It’s okay, Caleb,” she said quietly. “We’re going to protect you, like you’ve always protected us. I’m going to protect you.” Saying it filled her with confidence, undeserved though it was. But she’d protected him for so long, her boy—her man—that she couldn’t help feeling a steady, unyielding sense of purpose where he was concerned. 

She wasn’t going to let him die either. She’d study as many spells and fight as many monsters as it took to ensure he lived. 

“Well,” he said, a flush spending across his cheeks. “Don’t do anything crazy to try, like attuning cursed weapons—“

“I’m not above it,” she said matter-of-factly, only half joking.

“No, I know you’re not, that’s why I’m saying—”

“Caleb,” she said. “I will keep my promise to you. I will let you check all of my new weapons first before I attune them.”

He cocked his head to the side, studying her. “Okay, but no more cursed weapons.”

“I will let you check them before I attune them.”

No more cursed weapons.”

She sniffed primly. “Fine. No more cursed weapons. Unless they’re really cool.”

Veth,” he said, her name exhausted and aggrieved on his tongue, but there was a hint of humor in his voice that she’d been hoping to hear.

She laid her other hand over their joined ones. “It’ll be all right, Caleb. It has to be.”

When she met his gaze, something changed in his eyes. They were warm and crackled with a different kind of fire, a lightning strike that set off a blaze of its own in her belly. Delicately, he reached out and tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear, the tips of his fingers lingering on her cheek. It was all she could do not to lean in to the touch. When had she become the kind of woman who could just melt at one simple touch? And when had the wrongness of it stopped mattering quite so much?

“Caleb,” She said, his name half a question and half an answer.

He blinked, shaking himself out of yet another reverie, and leaned back slightly. She felt a pang, wondering if he was about to pull away from her, but instead he motioned her toward him, something he hadn’t done since she was still Nott.

“Come here,” he said, just as he had when she’d barely survived that fight with the blue dragon, his eyes just as sad and worried as they had been then. 

Not even having the energy to feel guilty about it, Veth slid out of her chair and climbed into Caleb’s lap. His arms encircled her, warm and comforting and strong—okay, not that strong, but strong enough for her. And besides, he didn’t need big arms and muscles to be strong. She already knew he had strength in spades where it counted. 

They breathed out a sigh together, like they’d both missed this and were relieved to be comfortable enough with each other again to return to it. Veth snuggled in closer, leaning her head back against his chest, his head resting comfortably on top of hers and wondered when she’d last been this content to just be held. 

When they were both settled, Caleb’s arms tightened around her. “I’m going to keep you safe, too,” he whispered.

She tilted her head up to look at him. “Good,” she said. She stretched up and placed a sweet kiss on his cheek. “Then maybe we’ll both be all right in the end.”

Caleb was quiet, but he held her closer than before, and it wasn’t long before Veth felt her eyelids growing heavy, lulled to sleep by the warm press of Caleb’s body and the steady sound of his breathing.

“Love you, Veth,” she thought she heard him say before she drifted off to sleep.

But maybe she only imagined it.