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strange bedfellows

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Caleb is eleven chapters deep in a very thorough history of Kenkus when an enchanted ping! goes off in his head and startles him so badly he nearly falls out of bed.

One hand scrabbles for his materials pouch on his bedside table, the other patting around desperately for his spellbook while his anxiety goes off the rails because someone tripped his Alarm spell someone tripped his Alarm spell someone tripped his—

A knock on his door. Caleb freezes in the act of reaching, hanging half off the bed, legs cocooned hopelessly in his sheets.

Someone tripped his Alarm spell and is now, apparently, informing him of this fact.

In hindsight, the spell is a habit—a ritual to soothe his paranoia. He doesn't need to cast it. The crew has proven themselves to be loyal and reliable, and the Nein wouldn't go poking around in his things. They're all past that point of reflexive mistrust.

Caleb did not cast his Alarm spell because he is suspicious of his friends, or doubts their honesty. He cast his Alarm spell because somewhere, out in the world, Trent Ikithon is looking for him, and some nights, one thin silver wire is the only way to pacify his anxious mind.

Nott is the only person he'd thought to name when designating who the spell would not affect—his small companion has a habit of coming and going as she pleases, and he has no desire to hear a ringing in his head all night each time she decides to go investigate something.

So since it is not Nott, and it is not Trent Ikithon, it must be another member of the Nein. Caleb sighs, sitting up in bed, willing the adrenaline to drain from his body.

Another knock. Caleb curses lowly in Zemnian.

"Come in," he calls through his fingers, rubbing his face with his hands.

It's Jester. Because of course it is.

She appears in his doorway slowly, listening to the ancient wood creak as she pushes the door aside. He watches her at the edge of his vision, struck—as he always is when he sees her alone—by how small she is. The faint light from the hallway she stands in silhouettes her as she peers into his room, eyes glittering like rock crystal in the low light of his room.

"Are you awake?" she whispers in that too-loud way of hers.

Caleb exhales deeply through his nose.

"Yes, Jester, I am," he replies lowly. "What are you doing?"

She slips inside, apparently declining to answer his question, and quietly shuts the door behind her. Her pink nightgown swishes at her ankles as she spins back around, quickly crossing the room to his bed, chattering lowly about something that Caleb honestly isn't sparing a single thought towards because why is she coming towards his bed—?

One blue hand appears his blankets, and Caleb realizes her intentions—

"Jester." Caleb's whole body has snapped taut like a sprung mousetrap. He sits rigidly in his bed, hands fisted below the sheets as he watches her at the edge of his vision.

Tension hangs for a moment as they stare at each other.

"Are you…?" Jester trails off, stilling her movements as if she'd just caught a glimpse of his uneasy stiffness. "Oh. Oh. Sorry. Does this make you uncomfortable? I should have asked."

Caleb opens his mouth to say yes, this does make him uncomfortable, thank you for noticing, and would she please take herself and that unnecessarily cute pink nightgown out of his room, now.

He forces a hard swallow down a throat that hadn't been quite so dry a moment ago.

He likes Jester. That isn't exactly a groundbreaking or controversial statement, because everyone likes Jester, but it's the truth. He likes Jester quite a bit, and he is all too aware of how absolutely fucked her last few days have been—from the small annoyance of putting up with Fjord's liaisons with Avantika to the true horror of being left alone in a chamber to face a godsforsaken dragon all on her own.

She stares at him, waiting—cutting such an impossibly small figure as she's bathed in the soft glow of his dancing lights that he feels his heart constrict. Such a large, loud spirit tucked neatly into someone so slight. She clearly is seeking something from him, and even though he has no idea what it is, he has already surrendered it to her.

Swallowing hard and listening to his anxiety wail like a siren's song in his head, Caleb manages a rough pass at an affirmative nod.

"Just…above the covers, ja?"

Her answering smile shames daybreak.

"Of course," she agrees, eagerly clambering aboard. He watches as she settles herself comfortably at the edge of his bed—legs crossed daintily beneath her as the blush silk of her nightgown pools across his blankets. She's within arm's reach—his bed isn't large enough to keep her out of it—but she's as far away as she can mange, and true to her word, she's seated primly above the various layers of sheets and blankets.

Her tail swishes idly above her shoulder as her gaze passes over his quarters.

"Where's Nott?" Jester asks, head tipped curiously as her darkvision fails to unveil a little goblin girl anywhere in the room.

Caleb shrugs—action still stiff with nerves. He hasn't quite recovered from her presence—the shrill chime of his Alarm spell is still ringing faintly in his memory. "She wanders, occasionally."

Jester looks back to him, nose wrinkling in telltale confusion.

"What?" she asks. "Like, around the ship?"

"Wherever she wishes," Caleb answers. He closes his book and lets it rest in his lap, feeling the most absurd need to put on more layers of clothing. His threadbare shirt is stained and worn and rumpled, but it isn't indecent. And besides, these are his quarters. He has nothing to be embarrassed about.

He glances back, sensing Jester's dissatisfaction with his answer. "I am not her keeper."

She nods, seemingly pacified, and Caleb waits for her to explain her presence—nothing is overtly wrong the way it usually is with Jester's problems. She isn't bleeding, or yelling, or babbling about how she had absolutely nothing to do with whatever catastrophe the group was about to see. She just sits there, idly glancing around his room.

Caleb shifts, feeling senselessly exposed.

"Jester…" he begins, lifting an eyebrow, drawing her earnest gaze. "It is quite late. Was there something you needed, or…?"

Some of the spark leaves her eye, and she looks away, visibly slumping at his pointed question. Caleb kicks himself, cursing his unwieldy tongue, scrambling for something else to say—

"I don't want the Gentleman to be my dad," she confesses quietly.

Caleb tips his head in acknowledgement. Ah. "I believe that is a reasonable thing not to want," he replies diplomatically.

Her blue brow puckers with a frown as she continues. "I mean…what are the chances, right? I spend my whole life looking for my dad and like—this first guy we come across is just him?" She looks to Caleb, expression distinctly discontented. "That's a little unbelievable, isn't it?"

Caleb stares back at her for a moment, listening to the way her lilting accent weaves through the air, turning her complaints into music. He declines to inform her that everything she does—absolutely every action he has seen her partake in—leans at least a little on the side of unbelievable.

She's a whirlwind, their cleric. A riot of color and sound.

Still, he offers his best response.

"Your mother could not confirm his identity for certain, and the Gentleman denied he had seen her," he tells her. "So long as those loose ends remain, there is no way to know, and no reason to worry."

She nods, still looking troubled.

"It makes sense though," she murmurs. Caleb is drawn to her hands. Small blue fists flecked with her colorful paints—kaleidoscope fingers that tug and twist at his blankets. "Him being my dad."

Caleb arches an eyebrow. "I don't quite see the resemblance," he replies, thinking of the dangerously calm and charismatic crime lord. He had been a cold man, in Caleb's own opinion—and clever enough to give even a student of Archmage Ikithon a run for his money. "There are many water genasi in the world, Jester."

Jester just sighs—a soft, small sound. Her shoulders sag, and Caleb frowns at the sight.

"Who would you rather your father be?" he asks. He sits forward, elbows on his knees, closer into her space, trying to catch her eyes. "Forget the Gentleman—surely you've imagined what your father might be like before him."

Jester seems to consider it for a moment—he watches her features scrunch up in that thoughtful way of hers—before her expression smooths back out.

"I never really cared who my dad was," she admits with a shrug. "I just wanted him to come back to the Chateau. I just wanted Mama to be happy."

Caleb quirks an eyebrow. "So…the fact that the Gentleman is a notorious, dangerous crime boss isn't what makes you wish he wasn't your father?"

Jester shakes her head, blinking at him like this should be obvious.

"No," she tells him. "I don't care who he is, or what he does. I only ever wanted him to be with my mama."

The simplicity of her desire—such a quiet, wholesome yearning—twinges at something deep inside Caleb. He clears his throat, shifting beneath the sheets of his bed.

"Ah," he murmurs, completely at a loss. He knew Jester loved her mother but…gods. "That's…that's incredibly noble of you, Jester."

The tiefling shrugs, ducking his gaze again, smoothing her colorful fingers across her rumpled nightgown.

"I don't know about that," she murmurs, bashful suddenly—like his simple compliment had flustered her more than her brazen move to his bed.

Something about her reaction—her sudden shyness of being called out for her selflessness, like she doesn't know what to do with the words, has never been given such praise—rouses Caleb's suspicion as he watches her. He has seen Jester take kind remarks about her clothes and her hair and her eyes all in stride—hardly ever blushing at a single one. But now he points out the very obvious, and she can't look him in the eye?

He frowns. Perhaps noble wasn't quite the word he was searching for.

"You don't value yourself."

Silence follows the statement, and for a moment, Caleb blinks, feeling the urge to search the room for the source before he realizes—with a dull kind of astonishment—that it was him.

Jester's eyes seem to glow in the dark—like a pair of cursed amethysts.

"What?" she asks, frowning hard.

Caleb considers walking his words back—he really, truly hadn't meant to say that—but his resolve hardens, and he gazes back at her.

"Jester you…" Caleb's tongue—cast with silver during his time under Ikithon—tarnishes as he struggles to articulate his point. "You're…you are never your first priority. Ever."

Jester blinks at the low intensity of his tone. He isn't yelling—Caleb actually can't recall the last time he'd raised his voice out of fury, his is a much softer, darker anger—but he watches as her hand rises to gingerly rest over her heart in an act of delicate surprise that reminds him so forcefully of her mother he thinks he might have a stroke.

"I am sometimes," she argues softly. "I've healed myself first, even when other people were hurt."

Caleb frowns, his memory pinpointing the exact moment she is referring to.

"Only after we convinced you to," he reminds her.

She rolls her eyes, looking away stubbornly. The most self-sacrificing person Caleb knows, and she can't stand to hear it about herself.

"Tell me something you want," he insists. "Not something you want for someone else. Something selfish. Something that only you benefit from."

Jester's soft, round features scrunch up in concentration as she considers Caleb's request.

"I…I don't know," she manages, shrugging in that charmingly inelegant way of hers. She peers at him through mussed indigo hair. "I want pastries, I guess?"

Caleb sighs.

"I was thinking something a bit…grader, Jester," he explains. He casts his mind around before it clicks, just as the boat rocks again, like the water is reminding him. "Fjord, for example. What we've been doing these past weeks—all this time at sea—this is all for him. This is his selfish request." He holds her gaze, imploring her to understand. "And that's fine, because we're here for him. Because we want to support him, ja?"

She nods a little unsteadily. Caleb pushes on.

"And soon, when we get back to land, it will be someone else's turn to be selfish, and we will go—I don't know—to Beau's family and—and bully her father for treating her the way he did, or to Yasha's homelands and aid her in putting whatever it is that haunts her to rest." He holds her gaze, willing her to understand. "Verstehst du?"

"Well, I want to spread the word of the Traveler, then." Her tone is somewhat smart, like she's proving she can beat him at his own game. Caleb levels a dubious look at her.

"That doesn't count, Jester. You're a cleric." He gestures somewhat uselessly with his hands, trying to explain. "Doing something you are duty-bound to do isn't a selfish action."

"But making the Traveler happy makes me happy," she tells him crossly.

"It's still inherently sacrificial," Caleb insists, choosing to dissect her attitude towards her favored god another day. When he has better control over his rogue tongue. "You're still serving him. It's an unbalance of power. It isn't strictly for you." He frowns

Jester huffs, the sound edged in frustration, and they stare at each other in the dim room, unsmiling.

"Well, maybe I don't want anything, then!" Jester's accent always harshens when she's upset, and Caleb listens to it ring out in his quarters. He just gazes back at her, declining to tell her what Ikithon always told him—swallows the words of his teacher's first lesson:

Everyone wants something.

Everyone—even little blue tieflings with sweet smiles.

"You're an exceptional liar," Caleb murmurs to her.

At the edge of his vision, Jester goes still.

For a moment, Caleb fears he's gone too far, and opens his mouth to apologize—

"I'm not nearly as good as you," she replies, in that deceitfully demur way of hers.

Silence fills the room—a natural reaction to the awkward exchange, but soon it grows stifling and uncomfortable. Jester hugs her arms to her chest, looking the other way, while Caleb's stare bores a hole into the cover of his spellbook where it lies on the floor beside his bag.

"May I ask you a question?" he ventures, what feels like an eternity later, trying to break the odd tension that's settled over the room.

"Of course," she agrees easily. She plops her chin in her hand, raising her eyebrows inquisitively as she stares back at him, seemingly just as eager to dispel the strange stiffness between them.

Caleb hesitates. For months he's spent nearly every waking moment shoulder-to-shoulder with the members of their little ragtag band, and while he has learned a great deal about his found family—and has systematically stored information pertaining to their likes and dislikes away for future use—Jester's preferences elude him.

She can be difficult to read, even for him—there's layers to their cleric, he's come to realize. What he hasn't realized quite yet is what layers are really her, and what layers are merely for show.

Jester is a whole play in and of herself, slipping effortlessly between roles. She's an actress, of sorts, but all her masks are so similar it took Caleb a moment to notice—and others, he assumes, may never catch on. Each version of her is just a shade different than the last—suitable to play the part she needs without drawing attention to herself.

There's enough common ground between all of them that it's difficult to track—she's always quick with a joke, earnestly determined, and just brash and proud and sarcastic enough for flavor, but what parts aren't truly hers? Where does the acting end? When is she just Jester?

Caleb shelves these thoughts for later.

Small steps, he reminds himself. Just one fact at a time.

"Most tieflings, as far as I've read and come to understand," he begins. "They—their blood, rather—it grants them the use and protection of fire."

He watches her closely, but she continues to stare back at him. He wonders if he can see it—wonders if he studies her diligently enough, he can watch her physically take on a different side of herself and present him with the most fitting set of characteristics she has.

Her phantasmal, duplicitous twin is not the only double Jester has tucked away. Of this, Caleb is certain.

But he drops his gaze anyway, not wanting to crowd her. He's already outed her as a liar, and she'd returned the favor. They both know this room is cloaked with dishonesty—both realize they use untruthfulness as a crutch.

He's hoping something small like this—an inconsequential detail—can help lure them both into some semblance of honesty.

"Yeah, of course," she answers in that wind chime cadence of hers. He glances up to see her already looking at him, smiling faintly. She appears no different, but he knows something's changed.

He nods. "But you…you seem to be more comfortable in the cold."

She nods back, though he senses a hesitation about her this time.

"Yeah," she says again. "I…I don't do as well with fire as other tieflings do." Her gaze drops once more. "I don't really know why."

Caleb knows exactly why—it's because her father is a damned water gensai—but he says nothing. Jester is nobody's fool. She knows that well enough, he's sure.

He racks his brain for something to say—something to keep that prickly silence at bay—when she speaks.

"I tried to make myself resistant to it." Jester is aimlessly braiding the tassels dangling off the edges of his throw blanket. Caleb nearly chokes.

"You what?"

Jester shrugs, unruffled. He watches her fingers weave the strings into a neat little plait. She won't look him in the eye.

"When I was younger, back at the Chateau. My mama, she used to—a long time ago, she had an act that involved fire. It was really popular—even more popular than her singing, I think. I don't really remember." Her brow furrows gently as she picks up more pieces of fringe to braid. Caleb just watches her silently.

"Anyway, I tried to recreate it." She pauses, briefly, apparently focused on her handiwork. Caleb doesn't push her. "It didn't work so well."

He has no such memory of the event, obviously, but his mind's eye quickly presents him with that exact scenario—a small blue tiefling, horns barely poking out from her tangled curls, eyes bright as she reaches out, grasping for a flame—

"It burned you," he guesses quietly.

She nods silently.

Caleb swallows hard. Considers telling her that he has had his fair share of problems with fire—that he knows what it feels like to be burned, that she isn't alone in her fear of flames, he too has overreached whilst trying to master an element out of his control, that he is haunted by ash and embers—

"I favor my mother," Caleb offers instead, surprising even himself. Since when does he feel the need to speak unnecessarily? Why is he suddenly obliged to fill the silence?

Jester brightens immediately, though, and he realizes he has no choice but to continue. Disappoint that face? He doubts he could even if he wanted to.

"Really?" Jester asks breathlessly, eyes shining in the darkness.

Caleb nods, lips pulling up faintly. Her cheer is catching.

"Ja. We both had red hair. My father, he was…" Caleb swallows hard. He has not allowed himself to revisit those memories in so long. "He was tall, and broad. A brick wall of a man, the way farmers tend to be."

Jester blinks with surprise. "You were a farmer?"

Caleb laughs quietly. "I was, a very long time ago." He skates his fingers across the cover of the Kenku book, idly lost in thought. "I wasn't very good at it."

"What did you farm?" Jester presses. She's scooted closer since Caleb began speaking, and he looks up to see her right beside him, entranced by his story, hands on her knees as she leans into his space.

"Ah." His brain stutters for a moment—caught like a wheel in a bog—before he stumbles on. "We grew wheat, mostly. We grew everything we needed but…wheat is what we sold to make a living."

"That's so exciting!" Jester gushes. "A real farmer!"

Caleb crooks an eyebrow. "As opposed to a fake one?" he asks, but she's waving his remark away, eyes bright with excitement.

"How do you say wheat in Zemnian?" she asks urgently, and he chuckles lowly.

"Weizen," he answers dutifully, his native language rolling smoothly off his tongue as always.

"Weizen." She tries to repeat it, but the Zemnian word clashes horrifically with her lilting accent, and it comes out all wrong. She wrinkles her nose at the sound of it, like even she can't believe what just came out of her mouth, and Caleb outright laughs.

"Wheat farmers!" Jester looks truly mesmerized, and Caleb can't help but smile back. "Tell me about it! What did you do? Did you have chores? Did you—" she cuts herself off with a gasp that would make Caleb reflexively reach for his pouch if Jester hadn't already seized his hand in both of hers.

He looks at her, bewildered, as she brings his captured hand up to her chest, eyes wide, mouth agape.

"Did you have animals?" she whispers, like the fate of the known world teeters on his response.

Caleb's entire conscious awareness has been narrowed down to the feeling of her hands holding his.

"Ja," he manages, the affirmative Zemnian word unusually clumsy on his tongue. "Ah, we had, um, a cow, and two horses, and—" she's squeezed his hand tighter, eyes like absolute stars "—chickens," he manages to rattle off.

Under her starlight stare, he stammers out more stories of his youth—giving life and voice to memories he's kept locked away for ages. She's enraptured by his artless tales, and Caleb feels the most irrational flush crawling up his neck. There is absolutely nothing of interest or consequence in the life of a simple Zemnian farmer, but she hangs on to his every word like he's the most talented bard in the world.

"Can we go?" she asks he's finished showing her the small scars on his hands from being pecked by chickens. She shakes his hand where she still holds it—where she hasn't let it go, all this time. "Caleb, can we go there next? To your farm? To your parents?"

The lightness he'd felt in her presence dims, suddenly. Caleb feels reality crash back into him, and he winces on instinct.

"My parents they…" Fire erupts in his mind's eye. A scream echoes distantly in his brain. He looks away. "They are gone now, Jester."

He feels her shrink beside him—watches her close in on herself at the edge of his vision. She drops his hand, and Caleb fights the urge to grab hold of hers again.

"Oh," she whispers. "Oh, gods, Caleb, I'm so sorry, I didn't—"

"I never told you," he interrupts her gently. "It isn't your fault."

They sit quietly beside each other. Caleb traces runes on the cover of his book.

"I want to make them proud," he murmurs. The truth burns where it lies coiled in his throat—his past clawing to escape, daring him to tell her, to see how much she cares for his silly stories and foolish tricks when she knows—

Caleb looks away. "That…that is my selfish request."

They're so close to each other now, on the bed. He's still beneath the covers and she's still above them but she's leaning towards him and he's facing her and it's all so…warm.

"That doesn't sound selfish to me," Jester tells him quietly. "And…if it helps at all, Caleb, I think we're all pretty proud of you."

He lifts an eyebrow, and she hastens to continue.

"Really! You—you're smart and you know what everything is and you decoded Avantika's journal and you put up the fire wall and you counterspelled her and you saved us from falling in the jungle and you're always using Frumpkin to see ahead and you listen to people and—" she breaks off, somewhat breathless. Caleb can only stare. "And you're really good at magic, Caleb."

Her compliment—earnest and eager—warms him gently, and he smiles despite himself. "Thank you, Jester," he answers. "You're quite good yourself."

She beams, basking in the glow of his praise

"It's nothing that impressive," she murmurs back.

"Oh?" he angles his head, tossing a wry grin her way. "You can speak with the dead. That's outlawed in the Empire, you know."

Jester goes stock-still, blinking. "What?" she blurts out.

Caleb just nods, maintaining a playfully serious tone. "Ja. Necromancy has been forbidden for decades." He leans closer—dizzying himself with his own proximity—to speak in a conspiring tone. "You're a criminal, you know."

She lets out a falsely scandalized gasp. "How dare you!" She's reared back, perched on her heels, drawing herself up as tall as she can on his bed, looking down at him with her nose in the air, fighting a smile.

"I will have you know, sir, that I am a lady of the highest integrity," she informs him archly, and Caleb snorts at her antics. "I don't know what sort of…nonsense you think someone like myself would get involved with. Me? Perform necromancy?" Her fake indignation is absolutely hysterical, and Caleb coughs he's so rusty at laughing. "Why, the next thing you know, you're going to accuse me of conniving with goblins and wizards."

Caleb falls back on his pillows—laughing and coughing—chest straining in a way it hasn't for as long as he can remember. The bed bounces as Jester follows suit. A companionable silence follows, and Caleb idly decides he could spend the rest of his life right here, in this room, with this warmth in his chest and this silly little tiefling beside him.


" Ja?"

"What if Uk'Otoa tells Fjord to do something terrible?"

And just like that, the mood swings again.

Caleb breathes deep, considering her question and ignoring the voice in his head that sounds traitorously like Eodwulf's as it mocks him for having a lovely girl in his bed asking about someone else.

Jester is a lovely girl, but this bed isn't his bed—not in that way. It's merely a shared space. A shared space where they both happened to be rather underdressed. Discussing very intimate matters. In very close proximity. That's all. Nothing odd or disreputable about it.

Caleb clears his throat somewhat awkwardly.

"Well," he begins, leaning back against the headboard, jolting slightly when Jester does the same, her head right beside his as they both stare up at the ceiling. "I imagine Fjord would—on some level—be inclined to listen. It would certainly depend on the severity of the request."

Jester hums noncommittally, and Caleb begins counting cracks in the ceiling, willing himself not to push, not to pry, let her work through her thoughts on her own—

"I don't think he's evil," she confides quietly. "But I also don't think he's good at being…good."

Caleb dips his head in acknowledgment, stark blue eyes tracing a particularly long, spindly fissure in the wood above him.

"To be honest, Jester, I don't know how good any of us are at that," he tells her, and she sighs, long and hard.

"Yeah," she mutters, disheartened. There's a pause. "Well, except Caduceus."

Caleb allows this with a nod. "That is true. Caduceus is certainly the best of us."

Jester hums again, and Caleb tries not to be unnerved by her lack of answers. She's given up a lot already. The last thing he wants to do is push her to give up more.

Another lapse of silence. Caleb wonders if it's a good silence or not.

"I thought of the selfish thing I want to ask for," she tells him after a moment, and Caleb blinks, straightening up a bit.

"Oh, uh, what is it?" He hadn't expected her to mull that question over all this time, and braces himself for a request he knows is far outside his meager capabilities—

She fusses with the hem of her nightgown, averting his gaze.

"I want you to call Frumpkin," she requests softly, a gentle lilt to her voice that ruins Caleb the moment he hears it. She chances a look at him, searching for his eyes from behind her wild, ink-blue curls. "Please?"

Caleb swallows hard. She is not—he is certain—trying to present herself in any particular way. She is not flirting, or being coy, or angling for some seductive tilt. She's just a girl in a nightgown, peering at him with such delicate, cautious hope, that he feels every single wall he built in the asylum crumble to nothing.

Eodwulf's voice is back in his head—low and humored, words tilted with his signature wry grin.

" You've got it bad, Widogast."

Caleb is inclined to agree.

Not trusting himself to speak, Caleb merely gives his fingers a practiced snap, and feels the tug of conjuration magic as his familiar appears seemingly out of nowhere to drop neatly into Jester's waiting lap.

The cat looks up at her, blinks twice, and gives his best mlep.

Jester's answering smile is dazzling.

"Hello Frumpkin!" she whispers excitedly, beaming as she starts to scratch the cat under his chin.

Frumpkin purrs, pleased, and Caleb watches as his familiar arches his neck back to give her better access. Nothing really happens for a while—Caleb sits beneath his blankets, chin resting on his propped hands as he watches Jester fuss over Frumpkin, listening to her murmur sweetly in Infernal.

After a moment, she scoops the cat up in her arms, and Caleb cracks a grin as his familiar's legs dangle a bit before she wrangles him comfortably into a hug, drawing him close to kiss the top of his head, between his ears.

"I don't want to fight Fjord." Jester's voice is muffled by Frumpkin's fur as she buries her face in his coat. There's a pause, and Caleb searches for what to say, assuming it's his turn to speak—

"But I will."

Caleb stares at her, openly surprised.

Jester hugs Frumpkin closer. "If Fjord does something bad—like, really really evil—I'll fight him." She stares off to the side—into nothingness—but her gaze is steady. "I don't know what will happen to him when we leave the ocean, but I don't think Uk'Otoa—" she mocks the name of the ancient demigod, and the boat rocks in response, though Caleb convinces himself it's a coincidence "—will be happy."

"Fjord's abilities comes from Uk'Otoa," Caleb supplies. "If he disobeys him, he may lose his magic."

"Then Fjord has to decide that we mean more to him than his power," Jester mutters back, petulant even to her own ears. She glances up at Caleb suddenly, and he blinks as the intensity her expression had held a moment ago melts away to uneasiness. "Was that selfish?"

Caleb reaches out, running coarse fingers across Frumpkin's head. His familiar mewls at the recognizable touch, tail curling at the end.

"Wanting your friends to not betray you in order to appease their evil, underwater demigod patrons is not selfish, Jester," he assures her. "That's…that's a very simple request. A baseline, really."

She nods, slowly, but the resolve in her eyes hasn't shifted. She means this, he realizes, in a way she means very few things.

His memory fashions him a scene that he hates the moment he sees it—Jester, on her knees, bloodied, bruised, weaponless, no spells left, defenseless as a Fjord-shaped figure looms above her, dark as pitch with glowing, yellow eyes, falchion in hand, water everywhere—

"It will not come to that," Caleb's tone is solid—as unshakable as any verbal component to any spell. "There will be no fight, Jester, I swear to you."

"I hope not," she whispers.

The silence lulls back over them, and Caleb is just opening his mouth with no godly idea of what he's going to say when she interrupts.


He smiles to himself. "Ja?"

"Do you have a spell that can put me to sleep?"

His smile freezes, before sliding off his face completely.

"What?" he repeats stupidly. He shakes himself, marshaling his focus. "Jester, if you have trouble sleeping, you should tell Caduceus," he informs her seriously. "I'm sure he has a tea—"

She flops over in that endearingly inelegant way of hers, burying her face in one of his pillows.

"I don't wanna drink dead people," is her muffled response, and Caleb watches her, some of his unease melting away.

"Fair enough, but I can't help you, I'm afraid. Enchanted sleep—at least the kind I am capable of—only last for a few minutes." He eyes her where she's spread out beside him and is struck with the sudden and most irrational desire to brush wayward strands of hair away from her face. He snatches up his book a bit wildly, frantically occupying his hands.

He swallows. Hard.

"You could—" bad idea bad idea bad idea bad idea "—stay here, for the night."

Jester perks up immediately, pushing herself up by her arms so quickly she nearly catches Caleb in the face with one curved horn as he leans away.

"Really?" Her delighted gasp startles Frumpkin, who arches up in surprise before slinking over to his master.

Caleb shrugs, as if his anxiety isn't unraveling his entire consciousness and asking pretty girls to stay in his room is a thing he does all the time. Or has ever done.

"Sure," he replies easily. "I, uh, I was mostly going to be copying spells and reading anyway."

It isn't true, but it sounds enough like something he'd do that Jester accepts it with a nod. "I'd like that a lot," she murmurs. "Beau snores and I…I think she needs some space too."

Caleb nods. Beau had leveled an entirely unfair amount of blame at herself after the incident in the chamber. She had no idea touching the orb would whisk her away the way that it did, and he knows she would have sooner died down there—standing guard as her friends made their escape—before she'd ever take the easy way out of anything.

"She'll be alright," Caleb assures her. "Beau's tougher than all of us."

Jester nods, and Caleb watches as she turns her head, adjusting herself to rest comfortably on his spare pillow. She still isn't under his sheets, and Caleb almost laughs—they've broken so many rules of propriety he isn't entirely sure how he's going to look the Ruby in the eye the next time they meet.

Still, he lays his down as well, and they stare at each other sideways like that for a long moment, swaying with the boat, lost in their own heads. Frumpkin settles down between them, curling up neatly.

"Do you want me to turn the lights off?" he asks quietly, hardly daring to speak, not wanting to break the spell. He gestures to the dancing lights that still circle calmly around the ceiling.

Jester shakes her head, and Caleb drops his hand.

"Jester?" There's something in her expression that hasn't been there all evening—a raw piece of honesty that draws his eye. He frowns, troubled. "Jester, is everything—?"

"I don't want to be alone." Her voice cracks, and Caleb's hands curl into fists. "That's my selfish request. That's the thing I want. I just…I don't want to be left."

Gods but she is going to be the death of him.

"Jester," Caleb murmurs. He wrestles with himself—he wants to touch her, wants to brush away her hair, her tears, her melancholy, but he cannot bring himself to do it. He settles with a gaze just this side of scorching in its intensity. "This whole group—all of us, every member of the Nein—you know we care for you, ja?" He searches her expression, suddenly concerned. "No one wants to leave you behind, you mean too much to us."

She just stares at him. Words keep spilling out.

"What happened back in that…that chamber, Jester—that place where Twiggy took us. It was a mistake. An accident." He feels warmth and realizes—belatedly—he's holding her arm tightly. He doesn't remember reaching for her at all.

Jester's eyes are slightly wide.

"The whole thing was fucked from the start. We were all disorganized and confused. No one meant to leave you behind—we would never do that, would never let that happen." The raw sincerity of his voice hangs heavy in the air between them. "I would never let that happen."

He feels overheated, suddenly—like he's burning alive. The idea that Jester doubts them—that she thinks that any force in this fucking universe could take her from them—rouses something bitter and furious inside of him.

And yet—it had nearly happened. She'd been the last one out of the chamber. The last one left facing a dragon. Caleb closes his eyes because who is he—of all people—to promise safety to anyone? Who has he protected? His parents are gone, Molly is gone, Jester was so nearly—

Her hand is cold against his cheek. Caleb blinks twice to find her staring back at him evenly.

"I know, Caleb," she whispers. "It's okay. I believe you."

He reaches up to place his hand over hers where she holds his face.

"It will never happen again, Jester," he vows quietly. "Not to you, not to anyone. We are all in this together, ja?"

"Ja," she repeats, smiling as she mimics his accent, thumb brushing across his cheekbone until she's suddenly pulling away.

"I am—" she hesitates, cheeks suddenly coloring, and Caleb frowns because she hasn't blushed once this whole time and now she's—?

"It's a bit chilly in here," she confesses quietly. "Even for me. Could I—?"

He reaches across her to grasp the other corner of blankets and sheets and pulls them back, allowing her to quickly wiggle underneath. When he drops his arm, she's back on his pillow, peeking out from beneath his blanket with a grin.

"Thank you, Caleb," she sing-songs, smiling to herself like a fool.

He tips her a wink, because he's feeling particularly bold. "Of course," is his measured response, even as his heart hammers away at his chest. "Gute nacht, Jester."