He hadn't meant anything by the change of subject except exactly that - to change the subject.
“So…” he said, casting around and latching onto the first thing to catch his eye. Few things stood out as much as the bright pink firbolg, Yasha steadfast behind him, serenely riding his moorbounder some fifteen metres from them. “Caduceus.”
“Caduceus?” Beau repeats.
“He is quite the fellow, speaking on our behalf. We would have been in a situation without him.” As he watches, Caduceus' whole body twitches before he graps at something on his cheek. From the look he gives whatever he has caught, it's most likely some sort of insect that had hit him. The slow grin that spreads across the man's face is almost charming in its simplicity.
“Huh,” Beau says. “‘s weird.”
“You, complimenting someone. You don't usually… do that, for no reason.”
“That is untrue,” Caleb says, offended mostly because it is true. “I can compliment people at any time. Beauregard, you are… you have been very competent, at many times.”
“Pretty sure that's not actually a compliment,” Beau says. “So what's the deal with the Deuce Appreciation Hour? You like him or something?”
“Of course I like him, I like all of you,” Caleb says. It barely even phases him to say it, which is some sort of improvement that he doesn't care to dwell on. “He is a very likeable person.”
“God, don't make me say it like some fuckin’ teenager,” Beau groans.
Nott coughs delicately, in that way that conveys delicacy while also being abrasive. “I think Beau is asking if you're attracted to Mr Clay,” she says. She’s watching him over her shoulder, large eyes glancing between him and Beau and Caduceus and back to him again.
“How is this the question?” Caleb asks, mildly bewildered. His subject change has gone terribly wrong somewhere and he doesn’t know how. “Attracted to-? I simply think he has saved our bacon today and wished to talk about that, I was not aware I had to have, have ulterior motives for my compliments.”
Beau shrugs. “Hey, no need to be defensive, man. Just curious.”
“Attracted,” Caleb mutters. “You sound like Jester.”
“Well,” Nott says, “he is sort of handsome. In a… bovine sort of way.”
“His hair is pretty sick,” Beau agrees.
“And he’s a provider. He could grow all sorts of strange plants and fungi to smear on your face!” Nott adds brightly.
“You kinda do have a similar smell, most of the time,” Beau continues. “Kinda like, earthy, and musty, almost gross but not really?”
“It’s peaty!” Nott declares. Beau snaps and points at her over Caleb’s shoulder.
“That’s what it is, it’s peaty. You’re both peaty.”
Trapped between them, Caleb can only resign himself to confusion. “Thank you, yes, this is the best foundation for a relationship,” he says, “we will build on peat moss.”
“So you do want to be in a relationship with him!” Nott accuses, springing the trap. Caleb feels not unlike prey at that moment.
“This isn’t-” he tries, only to be cut off.
“Ah, leave him alone, he’s not into it,” Beau says. Cautious relief trickles through Caleb, although he still feels as if he is standing on the trigger of some trap. “Deucey is a weird dude. I wouldn’t go there.”
“You are a lesbian of the highest order,” Caleb feels compelled to remark.
“You know what I mean,” Beau snaps. “Like, if I was into that, I wouldn’t be into that , you know?”
“I do not, at all, ever,” Caleb says.
“I mean, like I said, he’s a weird dude. He’s fuckin’, what’s the word… eerie .”
“Eerie?” Caleb repeats, offended despite himself.
“Yeah, and like, mysterious in a super suspicious way. The whole thing about the kiln? Like, how does that not come up after he’s known us for how long?”
Caleb can feel his spine straightening in a way it rarely does. “It hasn’t been so long, he does not owe us his story,” he says, brows heavy as he scowls at Beau over his shoulder. “Yasha has not told us what she’s searching for, and that has not stopped your horrendous flirting.”
“Hey,” Beau starts, but Caleb continues,
“Caduceus can be unsettling at times, ja, but he is most often a very comforting fellow, and kind, too, which is something I admire. He is a better person than many of us.” What started as a heated defense softens into something almost fond by the end - the words Caduceus has spoken to him in moments of distress are never far from his mind these days. Although he’d decided that he liked the man shortly after meeting him, Caleb has found himself valuing their friendship more and more highly within the past week or so, apparently to a degree that pushes him to defend the man at any insult.
Beau seems to have finished her piece, however, and sits back with a satisfied smirk. It’s not like her to let something go so easily, and he gets the feeling--
“Well,” Nott says, sounding similarly satisfied. “If you feel that way, I will happily support your relationship.”
--that the trap has been sprung yet again. Caleb lets his spine relax back into its permanent slump and sighs heavily. “Thank you for your support,” he says in a monotone voice. Beau gives him a companionable punch on the shoulder.
“Seriously, though,” she says, “you and Caddy are pretty close these days. I think it’s good for you, y’know? He’s got that, like, guidance counselor vibe, or spiritual advisor or some shit. You probably need that.”
“I do not need spiritual advising, but I do appreciate his presence, ja,” Caleb replies. “And he has some appreciation for mine, although I couldn’t tell you why.” It isn’t so much insecurity that makes him say it as plain confusion. Twice now Caduceus has told him that he wants to help Caleb on his path, and Caleb is still none the wiser as to why that could appeal to anyone, let alone someone so…
That thought doesn’t have a coherent ending, just a tangle of emotions that he can’t easily parse. He frowns and lets it drop entirely.
“He appreciates you,” Nott says, in a tone entirely borrowed from Jester.
“Will you not let this go?” Caleb asks, genuinely curious. She looks over her shoulder at him again.
“I just think you should do whatever makes you happy,” she says. “And if doing Caduceus makes you happy--”
“If jumping off this moorbounder would not instantly knock me unconscious, I would have already done it,” Caleb says. “Please do not push me to that.”
“Alright, alright,” Nott murmurs, barely audible over the rushing wind.
“Sometimes I think of us as a truly mighty group, as great warriors and heroes,” Caleb says to no one in particular. “But then I remember that every one of us is an idiot. I will never compliment anyone again.”
“That’s fair,” Beau says. And then, “So no compliments ever again?”
“Not if this is what you will do,” Caleb says. “I don’t think I can survive an interrogation on my intentions towards Fjord.”
Nott's ears flatten against as her skull and she hisses, “Do you have intentions towards Fjord? I will not support that!”
“Hey, Caduceus!” Beau yells. Caduceus perks up - Caleb thinks his eyes might have actually been closed in meditation or sheer boredom at the monotonous scenery - and tilts his head at them, then carefully steers Clarabelle closer.
“Oh, this is a nightmare, excellent,” Caleb says.
“Everything okay over here?” Caduceus says once in hearing range. It's not exactly companionable, speaking at loud volumes on the backs of vicious beasts, but as always, Caduceus’ aura of preternatural calm makes it so.
“Yeah, it's cool,” Beau says. “Just, uh, checking in. How are you?”
“Oh, well, hi,” Caduceus says. “I'm doing well, thanks. This place is interesting, huh.”
The ghostlands stretch out before them as a barren stretch of dead flat ground, bordered not so far from them by rolling peaks of black rock.
“Super interesting,” Beau replies.
“We were just talking about you!” Nott pipes up. Caduceus’ ears flick with some mild interest.
“Nothing too bad, I hope,” he says, an easy smile appearing on his face.
Caleb briefly considers what would be worse; remaining here and suffering through what is likely some clumsy matchmaking session, and flinging himself to the ground and having to see Beau and Nott's faces once Caduceus heals him.
He remains undecided too long. “No, no, the opposite of that,” Nott says, “Caleb was, he was singing your praises! He was very impressed with what you did with the giants.”
Caleb steels his nerves with some difficulty and meets Caduceus’ eyes briefly, nodding in confirmation. All of that is true, thankfully, with minimal embellishing from Nott's apparent romantic agenda.
It doesn't stop him from flushing when Caduceus’ smile widens and he says, “That's sweet of you. It really wasn't anything, I just talked to ‘em. They're great folk. But thank you.”
“None of us thought to speak to them,” Caleb says, compelled to speak over the feeling of blood in his cheeks. “You saved us from a very difficult battle with your quick thinking.”
At this Caduceus laughs outright, a deep chuckle that Caleb barely hears over the wind. “I don't think anyone's ever said that to me,” he wonders, smile twisting into something more thoughtful now. “I've always valued slow thinking. Taking the time to see things as they really are, compared to what they might seem to be on the surface. But I guess both have their time and place, although I'm not so sure I did either in this instance.”
“Slow thinking is pretty much another name for wisdom, and you are very wise, always, and definitely so in this case,” Caleb replies. “However, no matter your thinking, you are the reason we are safe now, so, thank you.”
Caduceus tilts his head and looks at Caleb in a way that makes him feel like when he would be searched and patted down by various guards and unsavoury folk in the past. This feels safer, at least, or perhaps just nerve wracking in a very different way.
It's difficult to tell, moving at great speed as they are, but after a few long moments of this intense gaze, Caduceus’ face seems to soften somewhat.
“You have a good heart,” he says eventually. Flustered and confused, Caleb remains silent. The silence stretches until Caduceus finally nods and looks away, nudging Clarabelle's reins to steer her back to their former position out of hearing range.
As they gain distance, Yasha gives Caleb a subdued look of what is probably confusion. Caleb shrugs at her helplessly.
Even as he does, Beau punches his shoulder again, slightly harder this time. “Dude,” she says. “What the fuck .”
“He is an intense fellow,” Caleb agrees absently. Caduceus hasn't looked back, and seems engrossed in the scenery once more.
“No, what the fuck you , was that flirting? Is that how you flirt?”
His cheeks are probably apple red by the point. He sinks further into his scarf. “You are obsessed,” he replies, “and projecting. Next time I will call over Yasha and tell her how you have been admiring her muscles, then you can stumble and stutter and I will make fun of you, is that what you want?”
“You realise you just compared how I feel about Yasha directly to how you feel about Caduceus,” Beau points out.
Caleb had mostly been hoping she'd be too embarrassed by his threat to realise that. He weighs his options again and starts to lean out of the saddle, only to be immediately caught by Beau.
“No way, if I have to suffer then so do you,” Beau says.
“Be nice,” Nott chides, finally joining the conversation again, although Caleb knows better than to think she'll save him from it. Her wide eyes glance over her shoulder and she says, in a scratchy whisper still loud enough to be heard, “He likes you too. I can tell, I'm an expert.”
“No one here is an expert in anything,” Caleb says. “Beauregard, please let me throw myself to my death.”
“Hey, just be glad no one is calling Jester over and telling her,” Beau says, and a literal cold chill runs down Caleb's spine. “Are you actually sweating? Gross.”
Mercifully, the conversation moves on, but Caleb finds his eye drawn to Caduceus again and again, a bright spot of colour in a wasteland that he thinks hasn't seen such a thing in so long. He wonders if the land recognises what it has now, even if it's only for a short time.
He rubs his chest and turns his eyes forward.