They have been keeping steady pace away from Dashilla’s lair for an hour, and Caleb’s gut has been roiling since they came back above water. It is not seasickness. He has been replaying the exchange with Fjord over in his head. The image of Fjord’s eyes flickering with hunger is affixed in his mind. As is his disgust at his own opportunistic fervor in seeking a way to grab ahold of it.
Someone knocks at the door, and Caleb startles, hastily shoving his notebook aside, as he clears his throat. “Uh— Ja. Come in.”
The door does not open immediately. Caleb wonders for a moment if Jester has come to...he doesn’t even know what Jester might say. Reprimand him, perhaps. But the sad, quiet shake of her head had said enough on its own. Maybe it is Caduceus, coming to check in, in the way he does, or—
The door creaks open, and Caleb looks up to see Fjord standing in the doorway with his head ducked low, rubbing a hand along the back of his neck. He’s wearing a sheepish expression on his face. “Caleb, I—” Fjord cuts himself off, seems to switch tracks. “I just came to talk.”
“Of course, Fjord.” Caleb draws himself up. “I am at your service. What would you like to talk about?” He flexes his left hand; lets the lingering pain lance through him.
Fjord remains planted in the doorway, and his cheeks flush a shade darker. “Oh, I— Nothin’ really. Just wonderin’ how your hand was doin’, is all.”
Caleb laughs, dry and humorless. “About as good as the rest of me.” He turns to sit on the edge of the bed and faces the door, opening his body so Fjord can see him. He had not taken much physical damage during the fight, but the wear is still visible. He remembers the cold shock of fear right before his heart stopped; the world around him gone black; the pained screams calling out to him…
“I have felt better,” he equivocates. “I have also felt far worse.” He thinks of crystals buried beneath his skin; of a world gone up in flames.
“Well, I brought some bandages, figured it might be good to...y’know, tend to the wound and whatnot.” Fjord lifts his own scarred hand, now wrapped in a cloth bandage, and holding a bundle of clean fabric.
Caleb looks down at his own hand. Jester had healed them while they were still in the depths of the ocean, but while it’d closed the worst of the wound, the flesh of his palm was still raw and tender. Once they’d gotten back on deck, Jester had walked off with an uncharacteristic stony silence. (Jester. There is no way you are still friends with her. Not in the way you were. She has finally seen you for who you are.)
“Ja, that might be a good idea,” It is stupid, and indulgent, and he knows he should send Fjord away. But he is a weak man, and wants, for once, to accept this act of kindness when he cannot bring himself to face the rest of the team with this. (May as well jump head first into the fire.)
“Alright.” Fjord finally steps into the room, as though he’s only now invited in. He shuts the door behind him and crosses the room, settling on his knees between Caleb’s parted thighs without a sound. For a moment Caleb thinks his heart has stopped again, and he sucks in a sharp, startled breath as he shoves away the memory of another broad figure settling between his open legs.
“Hey, you all right?” Fjord’s voice is more steadying than it has any particular right to be.
“I...ah… Yes, of course. Why would I not be?” Caleb feels his whole face flare red. He has not been this close to another person in years—save for Nott, and his couple awkward embraces with Beauregard.
“You just seem a bit shook,” Fjord says. “Mind if I take a look?” He gestures to Caleb’s left hand, now gripping his own knee tightly.
Caleb cannot quite get his mouth to work again to respond, and instead wordlessly offers up his hand. Fjord takes it into his own, and begins to slowly unwind the bandages from Caleb’s arm. The full force of the reality of the situation suddenly slams into him, and he jerks away from Fjord’s grasp as though scalded.
Fjord immediately pulls back, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Hey, hey. Sorry. You ain’t gotta do anything you ain’t comfortable with.”
Caleb can barely contain a hysterical laugh. It sounds more like a desperate cry. As though he’s ever had the choice to avoid the things he finds uncomfortable. What is Fjord even doing here? Caleb does not deserve this…this act of service after what he has done. He saw this man—this good man—who for just a moment let slip some hint of darkness, and the very first thing he thought to do was twist it to his own ends.
But you got what you wanted.
The thought comes through with the slippery smoothness of his former mentor, and Caleb recoils further from himself. He has his favor now. He will not drag Fjord further into his own bullshit.
And that is all leaving aside the fact that none of the Nein have seen his scars. He cannot bear whatever reaction Fjord may have in the face of them—whether it be curiosity, pity, or scorn. He should kick Fjord out, tell him to go. Let him take his kindness, and what remains of his goodness, and take it far away from
Bren Aldric Ermendrud Caleb Widogast.
But there is still— Fjord must have come here for a reason. Caleb recognizes much of himself in Fjord—this cannot be a decision he made lightly, or without purpose. Does Fjord think of this as payment of favor? No, that— Caleb had been clear. He had said “return the favor.” This was not an action in kind. Which means it is something else. Caleb clenches his fist and winces as the skin around the half-healed wound tugs at the edges. Fjord had found some manner of meaning in the idea of their cut palms touching. Perhaps this is an extension of that? A way of tying some final knot between them. Caleb has finally won some understanding with him, after months of trying to regain that ground lost during their confrontation at the High Richter’s. Whatever Fjord’s motivation now, playing along is the best way to ensure this new equilibrium between them remains intact.
Caleb takes in a steadying breath, and continues to unwind the bandages on his left arm. Fjord is quiet before him as he does so, and half-averts his gaze. When he’s done, Caleb drops the scraps of fabric to the ground, and pulls his jacket down to cover the worst of the scarring. When he’s done he holds his hand back out for Fjord to take.
“Ja.” The word comes out like glass grinding over stone.
Fjord takes Caleb’s hand in his own again. His thumb sweeps in an arc over the sliver of exposed skin of Caleb’s wrist. Caleb watches Fjord’s face as he spots one of the faint white scars peeking out from the edge of his cuff, and holds his breath. The air is too thick around them.
He does not know what he expects Fjord to say, but, “I got a few like those myself,” is definitely not it. Caleb looks to Fjord’s face in surprise, then back down when Fjord leans back to extend his arm for Caleb to see. Sure enough, there are a few rows of pale green scars near the crease of his elbow. A small sound that Caleb cannot quantify escapes his throat, and he makes an abortive motion as he tries to—what? Soothe? Comfort? That is not what he was made for. This knowledge is too big for him to carry. It weighs heavy in his stomach like a stone. Fjord has entrusted him with this thing because he thinks it’s something they share. But the shape of it is all wrong and he has no right—
Caleb’s hands are shaking and he can feel his shoulders curving up around his ears. Why is he here? Why is he letting himself continue to pull at this string? He’s goading Fjord into a place he should not be, and it is sure to end in nothing but ruin.
“Sorry,” Fjord says, cutting into Caleb’s thoughts. “Shouldn’t’a brought it up. We don’t gotta talk about it.”
The stone in his gut sinks lower, and Caleb shakes his head. “You have nothing to apologize for. I simply do not feel as though I have earned such a right to your confidence.” Why this? You show so little of yourself. You will not even share with me your true voice. So why this?
Fjord shrugs. “Seems like it’s up to me to decide what you have and have not earned the right to on that front. Now c’mon. Let’s get you patched up.”
Fjord reaches down to pick up a piece of cloth and a small jar of some kind of ointment. He moves with the deliberate care of someone familiar with patching up small wounds, working in silence as he applies ointment to the cut, and dresses it in a clean bandage. When he’s finished he tucks the end of the fabric in with gentle, precise movements, and rests back on his haunches, still holding Caleb’s hand in his own. The ritual of it is soothing. And for a moment it stills the churn of Caleb’s mind.
“Caleb.” Fjord says it in that not-quite-questioning tone he sometimes adopts.
“Thank you, down there, for running with me on that.” I know it was dangerous, he seems to say, but I'm glad we did it. It fills Caleb with renewed shame. Fjord—for whatever reason—seems to trust in him. And all he has done in payment is take that trust, and twist it into something dirty—a tool to be used and manipulated. He is a piece of shit, he is filth, he—
He is not going to think about this right now. He has his favor. He will need it one day. He will focus on that.
“Ja,” he says to Fjord.”I am always happy to test the boundaries with you.” He looks up at Fjord from beneath his lashes as he says it, not wanting to look the other man head-on. But Fjord’s eyes flick up from where they're fixed on Caleb's hand, then down to his lips. And—Oh.
That was not the type of boundary Caleb meant.
Then again, he hadn’t not meant that. There was possibly there, but that was…
No, that was a non-starter. There were many depths he would let himself sink back into. But he does not think he is capable of venturing into that one.
Not with someone he—
Not with someone—
Well, not with Fjord.
Caleb pulls his hand away again and leans back. He needs… distance. He needs for the space between them to lose some of the crackle of potential energy that has been sparking since they stood with their hands bleeding over that table. He needs for the flush of heat running up his spine to settle down so that he does not glow red in front of this man whose trust he does not deserve. He is spoiled for other people. That much he has made clear today. That Fjord is too oblivious to see this—or worse, that he has somehow managed to fool Fjord into thinking he is anything but the sack of shit he is, is of no matter.
Fjord draws back and clears his throat, rubbing at the back of his neck awkwardly again. “Well then. I guess I oughta get back up to the deck. Check an’ see that the crew is doing all right.”
“Yes, you— Ah. You should do that.” Caleb waits until Fjord has reached the door, and is fully facing away from him before adding, “Have a good night, Fjord.”
Fjord stops, and rests his hand against the door frame. “Yeah. You too.” Fjord takes in a deep breath, and looks over his shoulder to fix Caleb with an intense stare. “And Caleb? Thanks. Really.”
“You do not need to thank me, Fjord.” I wish you would not.
“Yeah,” Fjord says with his light drawl. “Yeah. But I want to.” And with that, he steps through the door, and shuts it tight behind him.
As soon as Fjord is gone, Caleb pulls out his notebook again and resumes his furious scribbling.
If he also spends the night wondering what might have happened if he'd let himself take another calculated risk… If he'd leaned forwards instead of back… If Fjord had taken his face into his calloused hands, and pressed their chapped lips together…
Well, Caleb Widogast is a very weak man. And no one else has to know.