Slate usually didn’t join Caliban on his demon-slaying expeditions. She had her work in the city, and his quests usually involved riding on horseback to some distant town, an activity she had precisely zero interest in. But this latest request was only about a day’s walk from the city, and Slate had just wrapped up a very profitable job cooking the books for a merchant house. Normally even that wouldn’t be enough to motivate her to tag along, but he’d given her that hopeful earnest look that she found herself increasingly unable to say no to.
Especially when he was naked in bed with her. Very difficult to say no to him like that.
So they’d left the city and made their way out to the village, then passed a very pleasant night in the village’s small inn. Slate hadn’t exactly planned on joining him at the farm, but the village was small and quaint and mind-numbingly boring, and if nothing else she could chat with the farmers and take down notes for Caliban’s personal demonology records. He couldn’t log anything officially with the Church, but it made him feel better to keep track. In case there were patterns, other warning signs like in Anuket.
The farmers were a quiet, anxious couple, having sought out Caliban because they’d heard he was discreet. Slate had laughed for a solid hour the first time someone had called him that, but in comparison to a full investigation by the Church of the Dreaming God, he was practically invisible. And demonic possession, even of a single farm animal, could ruin someone’s livelihood. You had to do something wrong to draw the attention of a demon, after all, and who wanted to buy their potatoes or carrots from someone like that?
He talked to them for a bit, used the paladin voice to calm them down, then strolled outside to deal with an apparently possessed goose. Slate didn’t envy him that in the slightest. Geese were mean enough without a demon. She stayed inside and asked some questions, took notes, willfully ignored the muffled chanting she could hear from across the yard. She’d forgiven Caliban for killing Brenner, and she’d forgiven Brenner for being so goddamn stupid and selfish as to let himself be possessed in the first place. But that didn’t mean she had any particular desire to relive that day, even in part.
Talking to the farmers before and after took longer than the actual demon slaying, especially because the farmers insisted on feeding them lunch before they left. Slate made sure to collect the payment--another good reason for her to tag along, as Caliban had a truly depressing tendency to refuse coin for his services. The reward money they’d gotten from the Dowager and her own work kept them quite comfortable, but still. Slate was a firm believer in payment for a job well done, and someday she’d bring him around to her point of view.
Not today, though. He grumbled about it as they began their walk back, she teased him in return, and as they reached the covered bridge leading back to town, Slate found herself grinning like a lovestruck teenager. She was happy--simply, purely happy, with no complications or caveats.
Of course, that was when the bandits emerged from their hiding places and ambushed them.
There were five bandits and two of them, so the thieves must have estimated they had pretty good odds. Caliban did little to dispel that notion by leaving his sword sheathed, trying to knock them out rather than kill them. Slate, who’d had a knife in her hand as soon the first bandit had dropped from the rafters, grumpily changed her strategy from stabbing people in the gut to slashing at their legs. Stupid paladin and his stupid good influence.
She didn’t really keep a close eye on Caliban--he was the trained fighter, and she assumed he could handle himself. Instead she circled the one bandit who’d stuck on her, trying to get close enough to hamstring him. “This was awfully rude of you,” she pointed out conversationally. “I was having a--” She dodged backwards to avoid the slashing blade and lunged in with a strike of her own. “--really lovely day.”
The bandit actually looked a little chagrined, and Slate took advantage of his distraction to dive for his knees. A moment later, he was on the ground howling and clutching at his bleeding calf. Slate scrambled to her feet and spun around just in time to see the bandit leader kick Caliban square in the chest, sending him toppling over the side of the bridge and into the river below.
She didn’t actually feel herself move--she was simply beside the leader a moment later, her knife buried in his ribcage. He gurgled in a way that reminded her, briefly, of jobs with Brenner at her back. That was enough to tell her she didn’t need to stick around to watch him fall, and instead dove off the bridge and into the freezing water below.
Caliban had just enough time, as he was sailing through the air, to realize what was coming and how utterly, completely doomed he was. Then he hit the water, the ice cold water of a river in early spring, and panic took him.
He thrashed wildly, water already in his mouth and threatening to fill his lungs, and there were manacles on his wrists and hands on his shoulders and head, forcing him down, the demon laughing with his voice as they went under again and again and again--
Something grabbed his collar, and he swung towards it wildly, trying to fight it off. The first blow missed, the second connected with something solid, then his head broke the water and he gasped, trying to suck in lungfuls of air before they put him under again.
Instead, he found himself being dragged through the water towards… something, his vision was still too blurred to see. Panicked instinct drove him to keep fighting, to get away, until someone kicked him in the ribs. “Dammit, Caliban, quit fighting me,” Slate snapped, and the small part of his mind that was still clinging to rationality grabbed onto her voice like a lifeline. He forced himself to go still, to let her tow him along until his feet hit the riverbank. Then he broke free as he scrambled onto dry land, on his hands and knees as he coughed up water. He was cold, so, so cold, hadn’t been this cold since he died--
Slate’s arms folded around him, and he collapsed against her, shaking so hard it made his bones ache. Every gasping, sobbing breath felt like it was being ripped out of him, and he couldn’t seem to get enough air into his lungs.
“You’re okay,” she murmured, her breath warm against his ear. “You’re okay, you’re okay. Just breathe, okay? Just try to breathe.”
Easier said than done. She kept holding him, though, murmuring reassurances, her own breathing steady and even. He tried to focus on that, tried to match his breathing to hers, and while he wasn’t entirely successful, he didn’t quite feel like he was choking anymore.
“Think you can walk?” Slate asked, some indeterminate amount of time later. Caliban considered the question for a few moments, then nodded, shame beginning to creep in. The great demon-slaying paladin, savior of two cities, one of the destroyers of the Clocktaur Engine, completely wrecked by a dip in a river.
He knew it wasn’t fair. He knew that to anyone else who’d been through what he had, he’d show kindness and understanding. But his literally damnable pride held him to a higher standard.
Slate helped him to his feet and kept her hand wrapped around his as they returned to the road. They were not, as a general rule, a hand-holding couple, at least not outside their bedroom. Too many potential threats, too many reasons for them both to want to keep their hands free. But for now, he clutched her hand like he was afraid one of them would vanish if he let go.
As Slate led them on a wide loop around the village, avoiding the stares of everyone in the market square, she found herself wishing she could kill that bandit leader again. More slowly. With more knives. It had been ten minutes, at least, since she’d dragged Caliban out of the river, and he was still shaking. She was too, a bit, but that was just from the cold. They’d spent the winter together, she knew how he reacted to cold, and this wasn’t it.
The back door of the inn was unlocked, for which Slate was both deeply grateful and profoundly irritated. She would have had to let go of Caliban to pick the lock, and she was pretty sure he’d collapse on the spot if she did that. But there were also bandits picking off travelers just outside of town. This place was asking for a break-in.
She’d mention it to the innkeeper on their way out. For now, she guided Caliban up the stairs and down the hall to their room. Once the door was closed, she pulled her hand free--or tried to, anyway. After a couple fruitless attempts, she sighed and tapped the back of his hand. “Caliban.”
He blinked at her, swallowed hard, and slowly unclenched his fingers from around hers. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” She surreptitiously flexed her fingers to get some feeling back, then reached up to unhook his waterlogged cloak. It fell to the floor with a splat, the sound enough to make him flinch. Slate frowned as she led him to the fire. It reminded her of how skittish he’d been when they first met, after she’d pulled him out of that cell. All his stoic paladin coping mechanisms seemed to have been left behind in the river, leaving him a shivering, damp mess.
Slate deposited him in the chair, then turned her attention to stoking the fire. Once it was suitably blazing, she turned back to him… then paused, looking down at herself. She was soaked to the skin as well, and staying in her wet clothes wasn’t going to do either of them any favors.
“Back in a minute,” she said, leaning over to kiss his forehead.
He grabbed her wrist before she could move more than half a step. God help him, he was still shaking. “Where…?”
“Just changing clothes. I’m not leaving.”
“Oh.” He nodded and released her, sagging back into the chair. Slate kissed him again, because he looked so miserable, then darted for her bag. Her wet clothes landed on top of his cloak, and she couldn’t help a sigh of relief as she pulled on a clean, dry shift. She layered a sweater on top of that for good measure, then went back to the chair to start dealing with Caliban’s armor.
At first, she’d liked watching him strip out of it on his own. Right up until the night he decided to torment her by dragging the process out, laughing at her frustration and dodging the pillow she’d thrown at him. After that, figuring out all the buckles and straps had become a personal challenge. For both of them, really: Slate to get him out of his armor, Caliban to distract her with his lips and fingers.
She’d more or less gotten the hang of it by now, but that was under ideal circumstances. This was not ideal. All the leather bits were soaked through, making everything ten times harder to work with. “I’m this close to just cutting you out of it,” Slate muttered as she tugged at one particularly stubborn buckle.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Caliban replied faintly, picking at the straps on his gauntlet.
She managed to get the armor off eventually, then coaxed him into standing up so he could peel off his wet clothes while she grabbed a few blankets from the bed. There were new bruises forming on his chest and ribs, probably including one from when she’d kicked him.
With a sigh, she tossed a blanket at him, then sank down on the floor and spread the other one out in front of the fire and across her legs. “C’mere.”
He blinked at her, still holding the blanket in his arms, then heaved a sigh and joined her on the floor. Slate helped him get the blanket settled, then shifted over so he could rest his head on her leg. “Better?” she asked quietly.
Caliban nodded and glanced up at her. “I’m sor--”
“Don’t you dare.” Slate lightly tapped the back of her hand against his shoulder in reprimand. “You have nothing to be sorry for, you giant martyr.”
He frowned, brow furrowing. “I should’ve--you could have been--”
“But I wasn’t. I’m fine.” Slate let out a sharp breath and did her best to look stern. “I know I can’t stop you from beating yourself up, but can you at least stick to things you actually did wrong, instead of whatever hypotheticals you’ve cooked up?”
More blinking, then something almost like a smile flickered across his face. “I’ll do my best.”
“Good.” That settled, Slate flipped her braid over her shoulder and undid the band, raking her fingers through her hair. It’d dry faster if it was loose, and hopefully would stop dripping water down the back of her sweater. She’d grown it out again since they left Anuket--not as long as it had been before, though she wasn’t sure she’d let it grow out that much again. Much easier to take care of when it was just down to her shoulder blades instead of her waist.
With that taken care of, she turned her attention to his hair. She picked the tie loose, then ran her fingers through his hair, smiling a bit when he practically melted into the floor.
He considered the question for a few moments. The shaking had finally stopped, and he was warm, mostly dry, with his head in the lap of the love of his life who was doing very lovely things with his hair. But he could still taste river water in his mouth, and there was a cold knot of dread lodged in his chest that the roaring fire couldn’t touch.
“Better, yes,” he agreed quietly. “But not… not all right, I don’t think.”
Slate scoffed. “Of course not. You just had to relive one of the more traumatic experiences of your life, you shouldn’t be okay yet.”
He shrugged. Part of him knew she was right. Part of him was still ashamed and thought he should be stronger than this. But all of him was too tired to let the two halves of his mind war it out right now.
Instead, he turned his head to look up at her properly and raised one hand to brush his fingers against her cheek. “Thank you,” he said when she looked down at him. “If you hadn’t been there…”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “I told you to stop with the hypotheticals,” she said. She wrapped her hand around his and squeezed briefly before pulling him away. “And put your arm back under the blanket, you’re still freezing.”
“As my liege wishes,” he intoned solemnly. Slate let out a groan that landed perfectly on the knife’s edge between annoyed and fond. It was a familiar sound, and it made him smile briefly, before the cold knot in his chest reasserted itself.
“I think that I… I may need to find a way to deal with this,” he said, returning his gaze to the fire. “You don’t join me on most of my excursions, nor can I expect you to. But I also cannot expect that something like this won’t happen again.”
“Maybe just avoid bridges from now on?” Slate said, in a tone that said she knew it wasn’t a reasonable suggestion. He shot her a sideways glance, and she sighed. “I know. You’re probably right.” She sighed heavily, her hand stilling in his hair as she thought. “What do they do at the temple for people who survive exorcisms?”
He shook his head a little. “I don’t know the specifics,” he said. “They don’t… it’s unwise, and unkind, for the one who performs the exorcism to be involved in the treatment of the aftermath. The paladins didn’t spend much time among the recovering. I know what… what damages are done that would need healing. I do not know how the healing itself occurs.”
And it wasn’t like he could ask them. The Church could tell that the favor of the Dreaming God had returned to him, but that didn’t mean they had to welcome him back, or even agree with His decision. Caliban kept his distance, his faith a quieter, personal thing now. And the Church steadfastly ignored his presence in the city at all.
“I could ask them,” Slate said. He glanced at her in surprise, and she shrugged, twisting a strand of his hair around her fingers. “What? It’s not like they have a problem with me.”
“No, but you have quite the problem with them.” After the first few theological debates had concluded with Slate cursing the name of his God and Caliban wearily defending Him, they’d mutually agreed to drop the subject. So long as Slate didn’t take action against the Dreaming God or His mission, her disdain for Him wouldn’t cause any problems. And it still was rather touching that she was willing to hold such anger on his behalf. She would tell Him off personally, were she ever afforded the chance, and Caliban was torn between twin desires to witness such a thing and to ensure that it never happened.
“I can set aside my eternal grudge with your former church for an afternoon if it means helping you,” she said simply.
He smiled up at her again. God, but he loved her, with everything in him. He took a breath to tell her exactly that, only to be cut off as Slate continued. “And besides, I’m sure they have some interesting documents lying around, I could just--”
Caliban groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. “Please don’t.” Still loved her with every fiber of his being, but by the gods she seemed singularly designed to frustrate him sometimes.
Slate giggled. “How about I promise not to tell you if I do anything you would disapprove of?”
“That sounds like it helps you more than me. Or the Church.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” She patted his shoulder. “Come on. I think we’re both dry enough that we can get in bed.”
“It’s the middle of the day,” he replied, even as he sat up enough to let her slide her legs out from under him.
“It’s called a nap, Caliban.” Slate held her hands out to him. “You sleep for a bit in the middle of the day and feel better when you wake up. Did they not teach you about them in paladin school?”
He took her hands and let her help him to his feet. “We began our training at sunrise and continued through until sunset. Our only breaks were for meals and midday prayers.”
“So… that’s a no.”
He chuckled as he scooped up the blankets from the floor. “I am familiar with the concept.”
“Good. Then get over here, it’s been a long morning.” Slate paused to yank the sweater off over her head, a motion that instantly caused her hair to fluff out from her head. Caliban snickered in spite of himself, and Slate swatted at him. “Shut up.”
He leaned past her to set the blankets down, then took her face in his hands and kissed her with every ounce of gratitude and love he possessed behind it. Slate made a pleased sound and molded herself against him, which served as a stark reminder that she was wearing a thin nightshirt and he was wearing nothing at all.
“How committed to this nap are you?” he murmured when they finally parted.
Slate gave him a familiar, wicked grin. “Oh, we’ll sleep,” she said. “Eventually.”