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Grave Propositions

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The thing is, Beau is fully aware that Caleb can take care of himself. That’s what makes playing the older/wiser sibling so fucking funny. That and the fact that they both know she has no idea what the fuck she’s doing at any given point – but neither does he, so. It all works out.

 

The thing about the idea of having A Talk with Essek Thelyss is that Beau’s not sure where the joke ends and real concern begins. And that’s new, because she’s been pretty fucking sure up til now.

 

“Why are you staring at Essek and trying to crush your cup?”

 

Beau blinks and focuses on Jester, releasing the tankard – ow, she really was clenching it, huh – sitting next to her with her chin on her fists and looking like the cat that just ate the canary. She’s breathing a little harder than normal and trying to hide it, so Beau’s guessing there’s a new dick drawn somewhere people tend to object to have dicks drawn. Beau’s journal is still pressed reassuringly against her ribs on the inside pocket of her tunic, though, so it’s somebody else’s problem.

 

“Just thinking,” she says. They’re good enough friends that Jester knows when a reply is a stall for time to gather more thoughts, and she waits without complaint. Conversation carries on around them; Fjord making unwise boasts about his ability to drink Yasha and Veth under the table (that would be a sight – Beau’s money is on Veth) and Caduceus quizzing Essek on a trivial detail of Rosohna plant life while Caleb pushes food around his plate with his eyes down and his ears up, taking everything in.

 

“You think Caleb’s realized Essek’s crushing on him yet?”

 

Jester blinks, the speaks slowly. “You mean you haven’t heard them at night?”

 

Beau waves a hand. “Not that, that’s just blackmail material for Caleb when he’s being a little shit. I mean Essek’s got feelings.”

 

“Ohhh,” Jester says, and her gaze follows Beau’s thoughtfully to the two of them. “I mean, probably,” Jester continues after a moment. “He’s definitely Essek’s favorite – even he knows that.”

 

Beau frowns a little. “Sure, but they’re both wizards with fuckin…tragic gifted kid backstories. I mean, Caleb and I have less in common and it was still enough to bond us eventually. Those two? A matched set.” She takes a gulp of her drink as Caleb’s gaze lifts and does a lap around the room. You could run a clock with that coiled spring up his ass. Has Essek figured him out too? What would he even do with that information? “Just wonder what Caleb’s thinking about it all,” Beau finishes, running a finger around the rim of her tankard.

 

“You could ask him.” Jester suggests.

 

Beau snorts. Jester shrugs, a “that’s fair” roll of her shoulders. Beau’s almost positive Caleb can’t know that Essek likes him, is the thing, and this is because he’s still walking and breathing and she’s pretty sure that any affection untampered by a snarky one-liner or a punch in the arm would petrify him on the spot.

 

It would at least send him screaming over the horizon, probably to find the deepest cave possible to self-flagellate until he recovered. Which, relatable.

 

“I think I gotta talk to Essek,” Beau says. “He’s not stupid. I wanna know what his plans are with Caleb.”

 

Jester cocks her head. “You think he’s planning something?”

 

“I think he’s affected more than he thought he would be by being our friend, but that doesn’t override the kind of position he’s in and the work he’s responsible for.” She doesn’t say it out loud, the suspicion that he could be working against them. It’s essentially baseless, a conclusion drawn from a lack of information rather than the acquisition of it. It’s fairly simple, if completely irrational: she doesn’t want Essek to turn out to be an enemy. In her experience, that makes him a greater suspect.

 

She thinks, perhaps, Caleb is thinking something similar.

 

“You want me to make a distraction so you can get Essek alone?”

 

Beau grins at her. “You haven’t made your quota of trouble for the evening?”

 

“Oh more than,” Jester says sincerely. “But tomorrow is going to be busy, so I have to stock up now.” She flashes her teeth in a return grin, and Beau nudges her with her foot and takes another drink. She’s not properly drunk yet, but alcohol always seems to have double its effect when Jester is around. It works out well, usually – this way Beau does all the same things she’d do if she’d had too much, but she gets to remember them in the morning. It’s nice that with these guys, forgetting isn’t the goal.

 

She considers, adds in the fact that she’s had enough that consideration probably won’t get her very far, and lets the effort pop like a soap bubble. That’s Caleb Essek’s messing with, and while she’d rather die than admit to Herr Scruffnuts that she cares about him – which is fine because they’re on the same page and he would rather die than…well, a frankly concerning number of things, really – affection expressed in the form of threats is like, her calling. She’s basically contractually obligated to do this.

 

She whispers back to Jester and spots Caleb watching them from the side with that face he makes when he’s being observant and pretending not to be. That’s alright – if she was born to make threats on behalf of other people, Jester was born for misdirection.

 

Jester gives a last wink to Beau and scrambles to her feet to balance with only a slight wobble on her chair, tankard in hand. “Hey everybody,” she calls, a little redundantly. She’s hard to ignore when she wants to be. “Did you all know today is Fjord’s birthday?”

 

Everyone looks surprised but for Essek, who (probably) doesn’t know any of their birthdays – none more so than Fjord himself.

 

He blinks at the attention suddenly turned to him. “Uhhhh,” he makes eye contact with Jester searching and coming up short. “It is?”

 

Jester puts her hands on her hips and grins. “Don’t tell me you forgot, Fjord! We haven’t been that busy. How much have you had to drink?” Fjord’s eyes flick to Beau, who flips her hand in a “just roll with it” gesture. His face clears.

 

“Oh!” he booms. “Right. I can’t believe – is it the 15th already?”

 

“17th,” Jester corrects smoothly, “and yes! How do you forget your own birthday!”

 

Fjord begins to stammer about losing track of time, but Beau slams her drink on the table hard enough to shift everyone’s sights and declares, “We gotta throw a party!”

 

Caduceus is looking from Beau to Jester with a kind of slow smile that suggests he has no idea what’s going on but he supports it entirely. Veth slaps both hands on the table and yells “This means more alcohol!”

 

“You have a bottomless flask,” Yasha points out bemusedly.

 

“That’s my scary mission coping alcohol,” Veth says patiently. “And all of this is dinner alcohol. We need party alcohol. Yeza, can you do a thing –”

 

“That’s a great idea,” Beau cuts in quickly. “but if we hurry, we can make the little specialty shop across town before it closes. You know, the one with Fjord’s favorite alcohol that he never buys for himself because it’s so expensive.”

 

“Aw, uh…no need to trouble yourselves for me,” Fjord stammers. He flinches at Beau’s glare. “Uhhh unless you want to. I won’t say no to a good bottle of uh…whatever that was I saw when we were there.”

 

“When did you go to a store without us?” Yasha asks. Beau groans inwardly. The woman is hot for days but absolutely a liability when it comes to picking up cues. She just has to hope she’s better at it than Caleb. It’s anyone’s guess depending on the day.

 

“We couldn’t sleep,” Jester says helpfully. “Me and Beau and Fjord. So we went shopping.”

 

Caleb frowns. “If it’s closing soon, when did you –”

 

“Window shopping, genius,” Beau says. “you know, where you look but don’t buy?”

 

“Oh we’re very familiar with that,” Veth agrees. “Next time bring me, and we can just steal it.” Yeza looks at her with his usual mixture of adoration and mild concern, and Beau pushes back from the table.

 

“I need some fresh air anyway, I uh. Got the alcohol sweats. Real fun, could use the walk. Hey Essek,” she says. Yeah that’s right. Smooth. “Wanna join me?”

 

Now Caleb definitely knows something’s up, and clearly Essek does too, but he merely studies Beau for a moment and nods in cool acceptance. “I would not say no to a brief reprieve from this delightful chaos myself.”

 

“Cool,” Beau says, floundering a little. She thought she was gonna have to fight harder. Might as well sell it anyway. “Cuz it kinda seems like…I dunno everyone else has had a bonding adventure with the new friend, and I want a turn.”

 

Essek gets up in that annoyingly graceful way – like Caleb, he’s not had anything alcoholic to drink. Unlike Caleb, Beau doubts it’s because Essek is worried about wanton destruction. The worry about sharing secrets though – they probably have that in common. Drunk Essek. Now there’s a thought.

 

Caleb grabs Beau’s hand as she turns to follow Essek, just like she figured he would. He studies her face when she turns, releasing her when she tugs from his grip. “God you’re so clingy,” she says in mock exasperation. When his expression doesn’t change, she adds, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna steal your boyfriend,” and winks.

 

Caleb looks predictably like he’s been smacked between the eyes, and Beau reaches out and tousels his hair while he ducks and grumbles indignantly and swats at her. Yeah, she’s got this sibling shit on lock. She motions two fingers from her eyes to his scowl and slips out the door, catching a last glimpse of Jester giving her a beaming thumbs up before it slides shut and she’s standing on the walkup with a very sober and politely expectant drow.

 

Oh right. She has to say shit now.

 

Essek gestures in a way that might belie awkwardness if it weren’t so overshadowed by Beau’s audibly racing brain. “Lead the way.”

 

Fuck. “Uhhh,” Beau says intelligently as she falls into step with his strange gait. “About that. There’s not a shop.”

 

“Oh?” Essek says pleasantly. “That will make things awkward when we return.”

 

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck he’s onto her – she had known what to say five minutes ago! Or at least she’d known the tone she was going for. Probably. Had she even thought about how this was going to go, realistically?

 

She can practically feel the switch in her brain flip from Self-Preservation to Fuck It mode, but hey. She’s done some of her best work this way.

 

“Look, we all know you and Caleb are –” she stops short of saying boning, which is frankly goddamn miracle of discipline even for sober Beau – “knocking staffs,” she finishes lamely. Nailed it.

 

“I’m sorry?” Now there’s definitely an edge of dismay creeping into that controlled, smooth voice. Feels good. She digs in just a little.

 

“Cave diving,” she elaborates. “The no-pants dance.” What was it Jester had said once? “Banging like a loose cartwheel on a mountain path.”

 

He’s not looking at her, but she can feel his full attention on her. “Let us move away from the door,” he says stiffly, gliding away without waiting for a response. His pace is quicker than usual, and Beau takes large steps to keep up out of flat refusal to jog after him. Is she smirking? She might be smirking.

 

“It’s not any big deal or anything,” she says as she finally draws level with him a few moments later.

 

His gaze slides to her, but he doesn’t slow down. “No?”

 

Beau’s surprised to find she’s ready to be serious with him. “No,” she says simply. “It’s just that he’s – okay I think we’re far enough away from the door, so can you slow the fuck down?” Belatedly, “Please?” Essek’s glide slows just slightly, but he’s still not looking at her. It occurs to Beau for the first time that she would have no way of knowing if he’s blushing. She’d teased him exactly like she’d teased Caleb a hundred times, but maybe she shouldn’t have assumed that Essek would take it the same way. Hopefully she didn’t just slam the door on his willingness to talk. “Caleb’s just…been through a lot,” she tries. “Like a lot a lot. He’s really bad at talking about himself and I don’t wanna tell you anything he hasn’t –”

 

“He has told me plenty,” Essek says mildly.

 

Beau blinks, feels something swirling up at the thought of Caleb opening up to someone who wasn’t one of them. Annoyance, certainly, and something else.

 

“Have I said something off-putting?” Essek asks politely. He’s calm again, and treating the conversation with respect. Beau appreciates him for it.

 

“Not at all,” she replies. “It’s just. It took me like three months and threatening to withhold books to get anything out of him.”

 

Essek tilts his head. “Perhaps his friendship with your group has made him more readily able to discuss such matters,” he suggests.

 

She hadn’t thought about that. “Yeah,” she says absently. “Maybe you’re right. But my point is that…” she trails off. She hadn’t planned on Essek knowing stuff. If Essek knows stuff, What upper hand does she have for an older sibling talk? More importantly, does he know more about Caleb than she does? Should it matter?

 

With no particular discussion, they’ve both stopped walking now. He’s watching her when she glances at him, and there’s a kindness in his knowing expression that throws her off-balance. His voice is quiet above the night breeze rustling the trees. “Caleb gave up much about himself when he believed that it might save me.”

 

This, a barter of shame in exchange for the soul of someone Caleb considers worth saving – yeah. That’s something Beau can believe. This is solid ground, and it also means that Caleb has his wits about him and his own suspicions. She meets Essek’s gaze steadily, not unkindly. “Did it?”

 

If he notices how much is behind Beau’s question – and it’s hard to tell, but he probably does – Essek doesn’t let on. He just smiles, also not unkindly. “Such things are never so cut and dry, Beauregard, as I am sure you know. But I would wager that his idea of redemption through friendship was itself born of personal experience. I believe him that it was the company of you all that gave him any hope at all – and while I do not as of yet have plans to follow the same path, I admit that I am more than slightly drawn to the prospect.”

 

She nods. “Yeah, that’s fair. I guess I’m asking if we can trust you.”

 

Essek’s eyebrows raise slightly. “In general, or with Caleb?”

 

“Just Caleb for now,” Beau replies, because Essek is right – these things take time. Hell, a month after meeting the Mighty Nein, she probably still would have sold them out for nothing much. It’s unthinkable to her now, but she can remember being in his position.

 

“I have no intention of harming him,” Essek says.

 

Beau holds her ground. “That’s not the same thing as actively avoiding harm.”

 

Essek considers for a moment. “A wise observation,” he acknowledges. “I do very much value my life above all, and mine are by design not the type of bonds that would provoke me to jeopardize it. But,” he adds at Beau’s unwavering eyes on him, “there is nothing about the role I have chosen to play that I cannot or will not continue to manipulate to keep him from harm.” He doesn’t include the rest of them in that statement. She expected as much. What’s surprising is that she’s pretty sure he meant to imply it.

 

The moonlight is bright enough that she can see his eyes, shadowed as they are beneath those white brows. She stares a moment longer. “I guess that’ll have to be enough,” she says. “I know that’s still sticking your neck out pretty far for someone important like you, and I appreciate your saying that.”

 

Essek nods assent, and a moment later his lip quirks so slightly that Beau could have almost imagined it if not for spending so much time learning to spot Caleb’s split-second expressions.

 

She frowns. “What?”

 

“It’s nothing,” Essek says airily. “Just that when Veth cornered me for this conversation, there were a lot more threats involved. And weapons.”

 

She’s surprised – why is she surprised. Obviously Veth had gotten here first. If Caleb is like her brother, he is Veth’s…she's not actually sure but it feels like it's more somehow. “Let me guess, she corner you the first time we all met?”

 

“The third, I believe. I will honestly be somewhat surprised if I do not have some version of this conversation with most of your friends eventually.” Essek reaches into his sleeve and pulls out a large bottle of something dark. “This will do for Ford, yes?”

 

It takes Beau half a second to remember the tumbleweed of lies that had gotten them here in the first place, to transition back from seriousness to ease. “Depends. S’got strawberry in it?”

 

She’s fucking with him, and he knows it. “We’ll find out.”

 

Beau shrugs. “Guess so. Not like he remembers what he looked at anyway, since you know – he didn’t.”

 

She accepts the cool glass container from Essek and blinks into a somewhat awkward silence that stretches between them. “You…think we’ve been out here long enough?”

 

“To have visited a fictional store across town and made the journey back? Perhaps not,” Essek replies. Shit, they did say that. Why did they say that? “But,” he continues, “I am willing to let them believe we traveled by arcane means.”

 

Beau grins at him. “Not any worse than using your sacred magic to summon a bottle of wine to sell a half-assed lie.”

 

He smiles back. “Indeed.”

 

God she really fucking hopes he's on their side.

 

They make the short walk back to the bright-windowed house in a companionable silence that breaks just as Essek’s hand grasps the door. “Staves,” he says conversationally, like that’s a perfectly reasonable word to throw out of nowhere. 

 

“Huh?”

 

“The plural of staffs in common is ‘staves,’” he elaborates. “I only mention because it puzzled me for a moment to hear you say the Krynn word for ‘taxes.’”

 

He steps inside the light now flooding across the sparse grass and holds the door open expectantly as Beau stares at him stupidly for a second before recovering.

 

“Yeah well,” she sputters. “If anyone was going to talk about taxes for foreplay it’d be you two.” He’s got that private smile when she intentionally shoulders past him about an inch closer than she figures he would like to shout from the main room, “Hey, we’re back and look what we got!” holding the bottle high amid the resulting hoots and cheers of her friends.

 

That drow’s got enough bastard in him to fit right in, that’s for damn sure. She watches Essek composedly resumes his seated position next to Caleb. If he is playing them, Beau hopes to gods he figures out he can trust them before it’s him or them.

 

Now just to figure out how to explain away Fjord’s actual birthday – next month.