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Battle Strategies

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They take Caleb out of the cell again.

 

Beau swears and spits and tries to punch one of them, while Caleb gives her this Look - one that says stop making yourself a target as clear as if he’d used a spell to whisper it in her ear - and doesn’t resist. It’s not fair. It’s the fourth time they’ve come for him, and he can hardly walk, covered in bruises and burns and pink, healed scars where their cleric kept him from bleeding out too soon. Beau hasn’t been touched, and she doesn’t know if Caleb will make it back this time. It’s not fair.

 

She sits in the corner of her cell and listens for any hint of what’s going on in the room down the corridor, or for any sign that their friends might have arrived. Nothing. She thinks about what she’d like to do to each and every one of the assholes who’ve got the two of them prisoner. She tries to think of a way to escape, tries to accept for the hundredth time that there’s just too many of them, that they’ve got to wait for the others to get here.

 

She waits for them to bring Caleb back. It takes far too long.

 

Finally, she hears a door open, hears footsteps. They’re steady, not the pained shuffle of an injured Caleb. Have they left him in that room for a moment, or is he…? Beau gets to her feet as they come closer, hands curling into fists even though she knows it’s futile to attack. Through the bars she sees one guard approach; he sneers at her as he opens the door, and behind him are two others with a limp body between them. For a second she fears - but then they toss Caleb into the cell, and he makes a noise of pain as he hits the floor, though his eyes don’t open.

 

Beau crouches beside him, glowering at the guards as they lock the cell again and stalk away. Bastards. ‘Caleb?’ she says, low and fierce. ‘Caleb, wake up.’ His head moves but he doesn’t open his eyes until she rests a hand on the side of his neck; the only part of him she can see that doesn’t look injured. His right eye slides open; the left is swollen with a bruise that’s been there since the second time they took him.

 

‘Hello, Beauregard,’ he says, the words harsh as they escape his throat. ‘I don’t suppose they left us any water…?’

 

She shakes her head. ‘Sorry,’ she says. Her head aches from thirst; she gave him as much of the water as she could, last time they had any. But that’s been gone for hours.

 

‘I do not think much of their hospitality,’ he muttered, eye sliding closed again. She’d ask how he could joke about things like that, except she already knows. Dark humour. Gets you through a lot.

 

‘Me neither,’ she says, and when he doesn’t say anything else, she carefully prods him near the collarbone again. ‘Hey. No going to sleep yet. You got any injuries I can do anything about?’

 

His head shakes, slowly. ‘Nein. Their cleric took care of all the open wounds. I’m not going to die in my sleep just yet.’

 

‘You can’t keep doing this,’ she tells him, and - when he doesn’t answer, just lies there with his stupid face all blank and smeared with dried blood - she nudges him again. ‘I mean it. Caleb. When they threw us in here, they were talking like they were going to work on both of us. Then they put all the attention on you and don’t lay a finger on me. I know you’ve said something to make them think I’m not worth it. You have to make them take me, next time.’

 

‘Worried about me?’

 

‘Yes.’ No point denying it, even if makes her flush. Caleb raises one hand, makes vague gestures in the air like he’s trying to find part of her to pat reassuringly; she catches hold of it and settles his arm back by his side.

 

‘You don’t need to be, I am fine. It looks worse than it is - or I assume it does, I will admit I haven’t looked - but it’s nothing our friends can’t easily heal. This is something that’s for me to handle, not you.’

 

‘Bullshit,’ she snaps. ‘What does that even mean? Something for you to handle - why the fuck is this on you? Are you trying to protect me? Because I don’t need it. And if this some kind of fucked-up self-hatred thing where you think you deserve it, you can shove that kind of thinking up your ass with the rest of your shit.’

 

His lips twitch in what looks like genuine amusement, and his eye cracks open again. ‘That’s not why I’m doing this,’ he says.

 

‘Then why?’

 

‘Because… when we are in battle, you are always right up close to our enemies attacking them with your fists and your staff and getting hurt, and I am usually hiding around a corner like a coward, throwing spells in where I can.’ He pauses for a moment, breathing carefully. How much is it hurting him to speak right now? ‘And we do that because you are strong and can take that damage, while I am very much not. So if I insisted on getting up close and personal, that would be stupid, yes?’

 

‘Pretty much,’ Beau says. ‘Which is why you shouldn’t be letting yourself get tortured.’

 

He shakes his head. ‘No, it’s exactly why I should. It’s the same situation, only swapped round.’

 

‘Did they hit you over the head in there? Because you’re not making any sense.’

 

‘My head is fine. What I mean is, close combat is what you know, it’s what you’ve been trained for. And I have been trained for…’ He waves a hand lazily at the corridor, at what happens out there, and her stomach goes cold. ‘Well. You have never been tortured before.’

 

‘Yeah. Kind of feel like that means it’s my turn. Like, you’ve probably used up your lifetime supply. Having been hurt in the past is the shittiest reason for letting yourself get hurt now, Caleb.’

 

He levels a very flat look at her, and there’s a darkness in his eyes that isn’t just his pupils dilating in the dim light. ‘I know what I am doing in that room. On both sides of the equation. I know what they’re trying to do, and how their tactics work, and I know how to resist them while still letting them think they’re getting somewhere. Which means this is my fight.’

 

‘I’m tough, Caleb. I can take a bit of torture, okay? I’ve had worse injuries a dozen times in battle, I’m not going to crack.’

 

‘Yes, you would. Anyone would. Even I can only resist, and only for so long. This... It’s not like getting hurt in a battle, where everything is quick and vicious and clean. You are alone, and you are helpless, and it is drawn out, and more about what is going on in your head than what is going on in your body. They would break you, and then they’d have all the information they want, and our friends would have a much harder time rescuing us. I know you’re not weak. You’re very strong, in several ways, but listen to me when I tell you that this is not where your strength and your skills lie. This is mine.’

 

There’s a horrible undercurrent to his voice, the one that was there when he told her why he was afraid of fire, the one that shows up sometimes when he says something offhand about Soltryce or learning magic or his childhood and Beau hears a chasm waiting under his words ready to swallow him. ‘Yeah, well,’ she says, trying to make light of it. ‘I’ve been through some shit. If the squishy scared wizard’s coping with it, I’d be fine. Besides, if Nott finds out I sat back and let you get tortured, she’ll murder me. Slowly. What could they do to me that’s worse than that?’

 

He gives her a very odd, considering look. ‘Do you actually want me to answer that question? Because I could tell you what I think they’d do to you, but I’d have to extrapolate from what I would do in the same situation, and… I don’t think telling your friends how you’d theoretically torture them is generally considered a good thing.’

 

‘Fuck. Uh, no. That’s something you should probably keep to yourself. You’re really messed up, you know that?’

 

‘I was aware, ja.’

 

She knows she’s already poked way too much around the edges of Caleb’s past, but she’s never been good at subtlety or restraint. ‘Is that the kind of thing you used to do back when you were… training? Sit around and tell each other how you’d…?’

 

‘Well, usually we’d do it first, then give each other feedback. Warning each other beforehand would spoil the lesson.’

 

Oh fuck. He can’t be serious, can he? His eyes are closed again, expression guarded, she can’t get a read on him. ‘… please tell me that was a really fucked up attempt at a joke?’ He shakes his head, just a little. ‘Shit. He made you…’

 

‘It was a long time ago.’ Like that makes it any better. All she can think of is Caleb, young, being twisted and brainwashed and practising torture on his friends. Letting them practice on him. Like it was nothing more significant than a sparring session in the Cobalt Soul’s training grounds. She wraps her arms around herself and leans back against the wall.

 

‘I want to help you kill him.’

 

‘What?’

 

He looks up at her, his one good eye widening. ‘Trent,’ she clarifies. ‘I mean, I assume that’s on your agenda at some point, yeah? He’s probably still taking students. Victims. Someone needs to stop him.’

 

‘It is… something I would like to do,’ he says, carefully. ‘But he’s powerful. Dangerous. I wouldn’t ask you to risk yourself-’

 

‘Yeah, but I want to. So shut up.’

 

‘Alright,’ he says. The others would want to do the same, she thinks. If they knew, which they don’t, and Caleb isn’t going to tell them just yet. That’s okay. Going after Trent isn’t something that’s going to be done in a week, or a month, or even a year; it’s going to be a long time before they can think about doing that, and that’s plenty of time for Caleb to realise he can trust their friends with everything. ‘So,’ Caleb goes on. ‘Are you going to stop insisting you should take a turn at being tortured?’

 

‘Yeah, sure,’ she says. It feels like giving in, and it galls her, but… She trusts Caleb to deal with all the magic and stuff she knows nothing about. He’s right; this is another thing where he’s the expert, and she should let him handle it. She hates it. But he probably doesn’t like it when someone else gets hurt protecting his skinny wizard ass. Beau can deal.

 

‘Thank you. Think of it this way: when our friends get here, you’ll be on your feet and ready to take these assholes down’

 

‘And keep you safe while you’re hiding round the corner? With Jester or Caduceus. Or both. You’re gonna take a lot of healing, you’re a mess.’ She shifts uncomfortably for a moment. ‘These people could actually kill you, you know.’

 

‘Hmm? Oh, no, they wouldn’t. They’re professionals.’

 

‘You say that like it’s supposed to be reassuring.’

 

‘It is? It’s amateurs you need to worry about, with things like this. Humans - most species - are fragile, it’s very easy to accidentally kill someone you don’t want dead yet if you don’t know what you’re doing. These people do. Odd as it seems, I’m far safer with them than in the middle of our average battle.’

 

It should probably be weird that she’s friends with a man who can calmly and confidently talk about the ins and outs of torture. And weirder still that she actually does feel reassured by it. ‘Good. Because if you die, Nott will definitely kill me.’

 

‘Probably.’

 

His eyes are still closed; have been for a while. She was thinking he was avoiding looking at her, but now she’s wondering if he’s just exhausted. ‘You want to get some sleep?’ she asks. ‘I can stay up a bit. Keep watch.’

 

‘I think that would probably be a good idea.’

 

‘Yeah. Torture must take a lot out of you, huh?’ she asks, then shakes her head. ‘Night, Caleb.’

 

‘It’s almost dawn.’

 

She rolls her eyes. ‘Morning, then. Shut up and go to sleep, okay?’

 

He does. Beau leans back against the wall, watching him. She wishes they had something to put under his head for a pillow at least, but the cell is bare and all their outer layers had been taken. She’d let him use her leg to sleep on but that would probably just be awkward for both of them, and not much more comfortable then the floor. Caleb’s slept on worse.

 

Beau sits back and lets him sleep, and tomorrow - today? - she’ll let them take him away again, even if she hates it. And when the others finally get here, when Beau’s free to fight? Every single one of these bastards will be dead.