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something rich and strange

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Essek has been in the city of Nicodranas for three hours. During this time, the Mighty Nein have:

  • tried to flirt on his behalf with a wizard named Yussa
  • scoured the city for salt-water taffy, once he had said he’d never had it before
  • force-fed him salt-water taffy (admittedly: with his bemused consent)
  • seranaded him with an off-key version of the song “Ruby of the Sea,” which apparently only has one (repeating) lyric
  • introduced him to the Ruby of the Sea
  • tried to flirt on his behalf with the Ruby of the Sea
  • bought him a sun hat
  • decided that the sun hat was insufficient
  • fetched him a crushed sun hat from the bottom of Yasha’s bag, where it was buried under a worrying number of swords
  • and taken him to the beach.

“Yeah, it’s big, isn’t it,” Caduceus says. Essek blinks his gaze away from the ocean – vast, yes, and endless – and back to Caduceus. Caduceus is staring back at him with the same placid, glazed expression he always wears; he blinks calmly and then smiles. “It’s okay if it makes you sad,” he says. “Typically things that big and incomprehensible tend to inspire sadness in our brains, because we don’t know how else to respond to them.”

Which: what the entire fuck.

“Ah,” Essek says bravely, and pivots back to stare at the ocean. Beau, Yasha, Fjord, and Jester are playing some game that involves taking off most of their clothing and sitting on each other’s shoulders. Jester and Beau are punching each other merrily. “Are they…” Essek says.

“Not yet,” Caduceus says. “Beau hasn’t figured out what to ask.” His ears flick up – a sort of somatic exclamation point. “Oh, wait, you were asking about – no, they’re fine. That’s just how they show affection.”

A few of Beau’s teeth fly out and she laughs, bloody-mouthed, open with joy. The glint of sunlight off of her white incisors is brighter than the entire city of Rosohna; Essek’s heart aches mutely, just to watch her laughing.

There’s some sand crunching and then the weight of Caleb is sitting almost-but-not-quite pressed up against Essek’s side. “Hallo,” Caleb says. His sleeves are rolled up; scars cut cleanly through the mess of red hair and freckles along his forearms.

“Hello, Caleb,” Essek says. “We were discussing…ah…” and there’s a thudding splash as Jester hits the water. Beau screams and beats her chest; Yasha laughs; Fjord laughs. And the glint of sun – and their mouths pulled up from laughing – and the laughter lines that are even now beginning to spread along all of their mouths, promising an old age rich with—

Behind him, there’s a clink of money changing hands. Caleb pockets a handful of silver and – like a conjuring trick – Nott appears behind him. Veth? Nott-Veth, almost invisible under the weight of her truly enormous sunhat.

“Atta boy,” she says, and holds out a hand imperiously for a few coins. Caleb hands them over and Nott plops into his lap, begins counting. Without looking at Essek: “Did you put money on Jester? You can’t ever put money on a team Fjord’s on. He will never, ever win a game because he has no upper body strength or hand-eye coordination. Even with Jester’s help. Alright?” She lifts her eyes up from her winnings and – disconcertingly – winks. Like a gold coin flipping in the air.

“I did not…I was not aware we were betting on the outcome,” Essek says. “Contests of strength are not as common in Rosohna.” In the water, Jester is squeezing Beau’s face between her hands and blessing her with a constant stream of healing magic. Beau is squawking and splashing around and looks incandescently pleased with it all.

“They are very common in the Empire,” Caleb says. “Next time our more melee-inclined friends feel the need to scratch that particular itch, you are welcome to come along with us.”

(And our friends—)

“What are we talking about?” Beau says, plopping down next to Caleb and shaking herself like a wet dog. Salt water splashes everywhere. “Augh,” Caduceus says mildly.

“We’re throwing Essek into an underground fighting pit,” Nott says.

“Dude, he’s got no muscles. He fucking floats everywhere.”

“He isn’t floating now,” Caduceus says in a reasonable tone of voice, but he’s drowned out by Nott loudly telling Beau about the amount of knives she is certain that Essek has concealed somewhere on his person.

“I do not—” Essek tries.

“He’s just not dextrous, is all I’m saying—”

“Show him some respect, Beauregard! He’s got an eye for strategy—”

“I would put money on you,” Caleb says, in a murmured aside. His cheeks are pink with smiling. “But then again I would never step into the ring myself, so perhaps I shouldn’t.”

“That would be a wiser bet, I think,” Essek says. “My position has never required me to throw a punch.”

“Those things are best left to Beauregard.”

“What? Who said my name?” Beau abruptly leaves off the fight to begin pawing at her salt-crusted hair with one of her outer robes. She still resembles a wet dog.

“Your friends are reminding me that it is always sensible to put money on you. In any circumstance.”

Beau’s cheeks scrunch up with her own quiet, pleased smile. She shrugs with exaggerated swagger. “Yeah,” she says. “Obviously.”

“And never put money on Fjord,” Nott says.

“Fuck you,” Fjord says, sitting next to Caduceus. “I could take you in a sword fight, no question.”

“I don’t even use a sword and I could still kick your scrawny ass.”

Lowly, from Beau: oooooooooh.

“Oh,” Fjord says. “It is on.” He gives a dramatic, showy flourish of one hand; his sword apparates into his grip. He stands up. “I,” he says solemnly to Caduceus, “am off to fight for my honor.”

“Bless,” Caduceus says, in the beleagured tone of someone who has done this routine many times before. A spark of green magic flips to Fjord’s arm from Caduceus’ splayed fingers.

“Wh—” Nott says. “No! That’s not fair!” Cupping her hands around her mouth, she yells across the beach: “Jessie!

What, Nott!”

“Bless me!”

“Okay!” Jester yells. She comes tromping out of the water and stops about thirty feet from where they are. “You’re blessed,” she says, and then she turns around to keep talking to Yasha.

“Not that I need it,” Nott says to Essek in a reassuring tone of voice. “En garde!” She leaps directly for Fjord’s face, shortsword already drawn.

“What – no—” and Fjord is stumbling backwards across the stand, desperately trying to keep Nott from attaching herself to his face.

“Don’t kill each other,” Caduceus yells after them. He shakes his head. “I’m just going to – they’ll be fine.” He stands up, takes his staff in hand, and wanders in the exact opposite direction. Fjord is letting out a high-pitched yodeling wail that Caduceus completely ignores.

“What—” Essek starts. Pauses. “Why—” he tries instead, but then gives up.

“Ten silver on Nott,” Beau says immediately.

“Twenty silver on Nott,” Caleb answers, and Beau says “Oh hell y—wait, no, you have to put money on Fjord.”

“Absolutely not.” Nott has somehow gotten on Fjord’s shoulders; she is yanking on his ears, sword seemingly abandoned.

“I will put ten gold on Fjord,” Essek says. He fumbles through his robes for his coin purse, reaches for – embarrassingly, only platinum. The double-edged perk of being the Shadowhand, apparently.

“Aw, don’t,” Beau says. “Now I feel bad. Fuck. I’ll put ten silver on Fjord. Goddamnit.”

“You can do it, Nott!” Caleb yells towards the brawl. Nott shrieks back something incomprehensible and bites Fjord’s forehead.

“I want to put money on Nott!” Jester says, running over to stand behind Beau. “Umm, how about…ten gold? I don’t have that much gold left, you guys.”

“Diamonds are an expensive habit,” Caleb says.

Dying is an expensive habit,” Jester says, voice wrung out with anguish. Then she visibly stops and forces herself to brighten. “And I’m going to need diamonds when Fjord dies on the beach.”

On cue, Fjord-and-Nott topple over into the sand.

“Oh shit,” Jester says.

“That looks nasty,” Beau says.

“Stop,” Caleb yells, “stop, please, he is already dead.”

“Never!” Nott yells back, and Caleb lets out a weary sigh. He stands up – brushes sand from his trousers – trots over to the tangle of limbs and teeth. Essek watches the sleek ginger shape of him retreat.

“Do you have a crush on him?” Jester says.

Jes,” Beau says.

“I’m just wondering though. Because when you met my momma you weren’t even weird about it or anything, which usually means that you aren’t attracted to—”

“Gay rights,” Beau mutters under her breath. “I mean, fuck. Jester. Come on. We can’t interrogate people about—”

“But it would be so sweet if he does, they would b—”

“I think I am going to go look at the ocean,” Essek says; as if from a great distance, he hears his voice squeak. “Up close. Closer. I am going to go close to the ocean now.” He floats away – and only realizes after a few feet that he is floating, at which point it is too late to stop floating. Mother of shit.

As if hearing his train of thought, Beau yells: “Stop floating, Essek, I swear to – I swear to gods! All of the gods!”

Essek considers his options – his years of training in decorum and etiquette and the nuanced, calculating layers of conversation within a court.

“Fuck you,” he yells back.

Every single member of the Mighty Nein immediately cheers. The sound of their hoarse chorus of voices makes a warm sun light itself up in Essek’s chest; thankfully, his back is turned to most of them. Only Yasha – still in the water – can see him smiling.

“Good one,” she says.

“Thank you,” Essek says. “I was trying not to overthink it.” He lowers himself until his toes are almost-but-not-quite brushing the waves. He keeps forgetting and remembering the fact of the ocean. Not the concept of it, but the reality of it. Impossible to hold onto. Caduceus is right: it does make him sad, only because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“It’s okay if it’s overwhelming,” Yasha says. “I really had no idea how to handle all of them at first. Molly had to—ah. Well. What I’m saying is that I still don’t think I’m used to all of this. If that is helpful at all?”

“It is,” Essek says. He means it. “There is so much…life. Here. With all of you.”

“Sometimes too much,” Yasha says. When he looks at her sideways he sees a smile pulling up the corner of her mouth. “So,” she says, “can you swim?”

Shit.

“No,” he mutters. “That is not an essential skill in Xhorhas, as you are probably aware.”

“It is an essential part of being with the Mighty Nein, though,” Yasha says. “Sometimes you’re stopping wars, sometimes you’re diving to the bottom of the ocean to help Fjord swallow balls. We can help you learn to swim if you want. Or you can stay on the sand. Nott won’t get anywhere near the water if she can help it.”

“There is…a lot to unpack there,” Essek says.

“Really?” Yasha says. “Which part.” She’s still smiling. They all have the same smile, and they pass it around – they share it – this small pleased thing, crumpled and well-worn from all the years they’ve been saving it. Yasha has it now. It looks good on her.

“Never mind,” Essek says lightly. Then: “I don’t think I will take you up on your offer just yet. I’m afraid if I take off this cloak I will get very, very terribly burned.”

“I think you should take it off,” Jester says, and if Essek wasn’t floating he would jump. As it is he just sort of bobs an inch or two in mid-air. Jester has appeared next to him – without any magic, but also without attracting his attention. She is suddenly there. She is waggling her eyebrows at him.

“You must be super hot,” she says. “All of those clothes. Essek I bet it would feel really good if you were just, like, naked on the beach. You know?”

“Um,” Essek says. Jester softens – all at once – and gives him a sincere, sweet smile.

“I’m just kidding,” she says. “You don’t have to. But you should go in the water! Just a little bit. Like up to your knees or something. Like the hot tub!”

Her eyes are full up with hope and excitement and wondering and Essek realizes, suddenly, that doing this thing for her will keep all of those things alive. The power of it. The power of knowing that you can make someone’s life better – just for a moment – just by doing small things, simple things. Yasha gives him a look over Jester’s head that says: I know, just breathe through it.

Essek leans his weight on Yasha’s shoulder to take off his cloak – there – and carefully pull off each boot and sock. He lowers himself so his feet are in the sand.

Beau steps up, light as a bird, and says: “See, there you go. Stop floating for a minute. We’ve got you.”

She walks into the water and then starts running; Jester follows after her, shrieking, and then after a moment Yasha lets out a huff of warm breath and runs after them to cannonball into the deep water. Essek lifts one foot and lets the foam wash itself against his toes. He turns around, squints and sees Caduceus and Nott sitting in a pile of discarded clothing and haphazard picnic supplies. He sees Fjord, standing just a little while along the shore, crouching down to run his palms through the water. He sees Caleb; he sees Caleb walking closer, and closer, until he arrives.

“Hello again,” Caleb says. He folds up the hems of his trousers with painstaking symmetry. This too is a gesture that says: I know. Just breathe through it.

“Hello again,” Essek says. “I think I am supposed to tell you that I don’t know how to swim.”

“That’s okay,” Caleb says. “We can just walk for a little while, if you would like to join me?”

“Yes,” Essek says. The Mighty Nein shrieks and splashes and watches and cares and breathes and holds out one freckled hand in an offering. Come along, then.

Essek follows after Caleb with both of his feet on the ground. The ocean is cold against his skin.