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Banking the Coals

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This should have been an easy mission, just a quick trip across the marsh to deliver some info to one of their Avis scouts, then home again in time for dinner. They didn't even bring a healer with them, that's how easy it was supposed to be. Well, okay, that wasn't just because it was an easy mission—Crocell and Celestine had been arguing again, and when she threatened to refuse to back them up, Crocell spat back that they didn't need her anyway.

So it sort of serves them right, but Juto does really wish that he didn't have to pay for it just because Crocell's a jerk. A jerk who isn't good for much in the depths of Navyblue Marsh, where there's no fire Kan to be found anywhere and everything they run into likes water and ice.

They were late leaving Cota Mare, and had to head through the marsh as fast as they could to make it up to the rendezvous point before the scout got sick of waiting around and left. And then instead of just turning around and coming back right away, they let themselves be talked into taking on a side job for the scout.

Okay, that part was Juto's fault. Probably if Crocell had been on his own he would have just told the guy to piss off.

But they took the job, tracking this lost monster through the upper reaches of the marsh to try to retrieve a rare Kamond from it, and that took more time they didn't have to spare. They got it eventually, and they got paid, so that was good. But it was still pretty late in the day when they finally started heading home.

It's never really brightly lit in the marsh. The trees tangle together overhead, blocking out most of the sunlight. Some of the stuff growing at ground level glows a little bit, but you can't count on that to be everywhere. When the sun starts going down, it gets pretty tricky to see where they're going.

"This is stupid," Crocell complains as they finish off one of those lumbering, leafy monsters that follow them around the marsh. "We should have been back hours ago."

"Well, somebody made us late getting started this morning," Juto says.

Crocell shoots him a glare. "Hey, I wasn't the one who wanted to waste time doing favors for that stupid bird," he answers.

Juto takes a deep breath, then another one. Argo's been trying to teach him how to stay calm. "Look," he says, "just because I was trying to do something nice for—look out!"

In the dim light they've wandered right up to the edge of the trail, where level ground gives way to a ditch. Juto stops in time, but Crocell's already taking one step too many, and he goes down with a squelch in the mud.

It turns out 'curse like a wizard' is proverbial for a reason.

When Crocell pauses to take a breath, Juto holds out a hand. "Come on, get up. You can complain while we keep moving."

Crocell hisses in annoyance, but he lets Juto haul him to his feet—and then starts cursing again, swaying into Juto's side and clutching his arm way too tight.

"Ow," Juto says, "what are you doing?" And then he figures it out just fast enough: "Did you hurt yourself?"

"What does it look like?" Crocell snaps. "Damnit." He pulls away from Juto, but when he tries to put weight on his right foot he buckles and nearly falls again—Juto has to catch him and keep him on his feet, so tense he's trembling, breathing hard.

"How bad is it?" Juto asks, trying to keep his footing with Crocell leaning on him like this.

"Not sure," Crocell says, shaking his head. "Maybe sprained, maybe broken."

Juto sighs. "But it would have killed you to be nice to Celestine so she'd come with us," he says.

"Shut up!" Crocell snaps. But he's hurt, so Juto figures maybe now is a bad time to push it.

There's no way they can make it back to Cota Mare like this—in the dark, with Crocell too hurt to walk on his own. "Okay," Juto says, "I guess we need to find someplace to wait out the night, yeah?"

Crocell huffs. "I don't remember anybody putting you in charge," he says.

"If you've got better ideas, I'm listening," Juto says. "Can you walk at all, or should I carry you?"

"You are not carrying me anywhere," Crocell says. Juto thinks he's probably pretty lucky, really, that there isn't any fire Kan around here.

"Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say," Juto says. "Come on, then." He pulls Crocell's arm over his shoulders and steers them down the barely-visible path. It's awkward—he has to stoop down to be able to reach, and Crocell must hate that. But he limps along next to Juto quietly, like he's hurting too much to complain.

That's kind of an upsetting thought. Crocell's a jerk, but Juto doesn't want to see him really hurt.

Juto stops at the first halfway decent spot they come to, where a few trees have grown twined together to make a little hollow space beneath them. It's a spot they could defend if they had to, and if rain moves in later on—it's hard to tell, when the air feels so wet all the time anyway, but it might—they'll have a little bit of shelter. "Here we go," he says.

Crocell lets Juto help him get settled, but then the first thing he says is, "So what's your brilliant plan?"

Juto sighs. "You make it really tempting to just leave you here," he says. "But I thought we should wait for morning. Then, if your ankle isn't any better, I should be able to get back to Cota Mare pretty quick to get help."

"Amazing," Crocell says.

"I will leave you here if you keep that up," Juto says.

Crocell sighs irritably. "It's not a bad idea," he mumbles. "It's simple, but it's reasonable."

That's probably the best he's going to get, Juto figures. He sits down next to Crocell and tries to get comfortable. They weren't planning to be gone long, so they don't have a lot of food with them, just a little bit of sticky waybread and one canteen's worth of water. They eat it in silence—Juto can't decide whether that's a relief or another reason to worry—and when Crocell finishes his share he hunches his shoulders, curling into a ball as much as he can. There's just enough light from the glowing flowers for Juto to see him pouting.

It's not his problem. Crocell has been a jerk, and he can just deal with his own problems by himself.

Juto manages to hold onto that thought for maybe five minutes, until he looks again and realizes that Crocell is shivering. "Hey," he says, reaching out without thinking about it. "Are you okay?" He puts his hand on Crocell's shoulder. "You're burning up!"

"I'm a fire wizard," Crocell says. His tone adds the you idiot just fine. "I don't do well in cold, damp places."

"Right," Juto says. He's starting to wonder why Crocell would have agreed to go on this mission at all, but asking probably wouldn't get him anywhere. "Is there...anything I can do to help?"

Crocell mumbles the answer, which means there is. He'd be a lot louder if he were telling Juto to get lost.

Juto tries the deep breaths strategy again. "I didn't quite catch that," he says.

"Body heat," Crocell mutters irritably. "Since we can't have fire. You'll do."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Juto says.

"You were the one who said you wanted to help, cretin," Crocell says. "Are you going to come over here or not?"

"Yeah, I can't think what would make me want to hesitate," Juto says. "It'll be just like cuddling a viper." He doesn't have a substantial blanket or anything—they shouldn't have been out long enough to need one—but he has a lightweight rain slicker, at least, and he unpacks that.

"I'm not going to bite you," Crocell says as Juto comes close enough to wrap the slicker around them both. "I'd probably catch something."

Juto snorts, scooting as close to Crocell as he can. "If that's what you're worried about, shouldn't you be afraid of me biting you?"

Crocell goes tense aginst him, fever-hot and all wiry, taut muscle. Juto swallows hard. Oops.

"Or," he says, "since that came out pretty creepy, we could just...pretend I didn't say it. How's your ankle?"

"It hurts," Crocell says, but he relaxes against Juto's side. "I'd have an easier time ignoring it if you would shut up about it."

"You just don't want me to talk at all, do you?" Juto asks. "Don't answer that."

Crocell muffles a sound that might have been a laugh in somebody less obnoxious. "Figured it out by yourself?"

Juto sighs. "This is going to be a long night." He shifts, and Crocell moves with him, trying to find a position that's reasonably comfortable for both of them. Crocell feels so warm, Juto has a hard time believing he's adding anything. Trapping Crocell's own heat, maybe. He'll certainly stay plenty warm like this himself.

They settle in with Crocell's back to Juto's chest, and Crocell's head pillowed on Juto's arm. Juto tries not to think about how Crocell reacted to that crack about biting, and what that reaction meant. He's pretty sure that'll only lead to trouble.

"Hey," Crocell says after a minute, and Juto flinches, because he's afraid it's obvious he's still thinking about it. But all Crocell says is, "You're not so bad. For an idiot."

"Thanks, I guess," Juto says. "You're not so bad either, for a jerk."

Crocell's breath puffs against Juto's arm in another little silent laugh. Yeah, it's going to be a pretty long night. But it could be a lot worse.