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an aching kind of growing

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Once you’ve had five children, you think you know everything about raising them, and then the Wildmother laughs and gives you one like Caduceus. It isn’t that Constance loves him in spite of his strangeness, or because of it; the love is there and immediate in any case. It’s just that it grows into a different shape in the end, the way bushes grow to fill the space around them.

She thinks he’s going to die at first. She refuses to believe it when he’s first born, too small, so pale, his velvety skin closer to white than dark grey, even the pale fluff of his hair bleached to a delicate rose. His eyes start out winter-sky blue and though they change, they never grow dark, settling the same pink as his hair. On the windowsill sits a chunk of rose quartz, chipped out of the garden some ten years before she even married Cornelius, and those eyes are just the same color.

But he’s always, always ill. Colton was a colicky baby, and at first she thinks it’s that, but Colton’s skin never grew so cold, never looked so pale. She never coughed so hard that it seemed like her little chest would cave in.

It takes forever for Caduceus to start talking, too, and one winter her last prayer before bed is always please don’t take him before I get to hear his voice.

But he grows up. He gets a little less pale, though his hair and eyes stay that faint pink. They have a few good seasons. He watches everything with big eyes, hears everything, and when he does start talking it’s in full sentences, slow and careful. His older siblings try and keep secrets from her but they never succeed because Caduceus sees and hears everything and whispers them to her when she’s putting him to bed. Calliope is keeping six baby rabbits in the back shed and Colton broke a gravestone and is trying to fix it before you and Dad notice.

Caduceus sees and hears too much. She catches him in the front garden one day, chatting to the midwinter air.

“Who’re you talking to, baby?” she asks, nonchalantly, expecting him to say the flowers or the Wildmother.

“The man,” he says, instead.

“What man?”

“The one who’s died,” he says.

Constance kneels down in front of him and sees that his eyes are bright, too bright, partly with magic he is too young to have and partly with fever. “Oh, Caduceus. Come inside.”

“Goodbye,” he tells the nothing in front of him, and she picks him up and holds him to her. His skin is hot but he shivers and presses up against her when she pulls him close.

That is the closest she comes to losing him. He is sick for five days, insensate for three of them, and she wakes early one morning to find his bed empty. His siblings are all still asleep; Corrin, too, and Cornelius beside her, and she panics for a brief moment that the Raven Queen has come and snatched him away before she remembers that this is foolishness, that the Raven Queen would have at least left her a body.

So she prays, and the Wildmother leads her outside, out to the gravestones, past the Castellans and the Leons and the lavender and the brambles to the Clays. Winter never truly comes to the Grove, but it is still cold and Caduceus is too ill for her to like the thought of him out in this air. Her stomach flips when she catches the names on the gravestones that her footsteps are guided towards.

She sees the white wolves then, two of them, fur thick with their winter coats. She can’t think the worst because they are sleeping curled together and look so peaceful. She creeps closer and sees that Caduceus sleeps between them, shielded from even the mild winter by their fur.

The fences are high and secure around the grove; she checks them every morning. If wolves have crept inside, it is the will of the Wildmother. Their eyes open when she steps close but neither move, except to shy away from her hands as she lifts Caduceus up.

His eyes open, too, and they are sleepy but no longer filmed over with illness. “Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, baby.” She murmurs a thank you to the wolves and to the wind as she carries him back to the house. When they’re safe inside, she wraps him in a blanket at the table, puts a kettle on and makes a cup that is half hot milk and half chamomile tea, stirred with honey.

He drinks it; she’s relieved to see that his interest in even light sustenance has come back. She waits until the cup is half-empty before she asks.

“Caduceus, honey. What were you doing out there?”

“It’s where we go when we die,” he says simply. Constance has raised them to understand death, to understand what it is to grieve and mourn but also to accept. Caduceus has taken this more easily than some of the others. She didn’t think she minded it until this moment, when her chest aches with it, when she remembers that he hears everything, knows all their worry and whispers. Knows how frightened she was to lose him, enough that he too is waiting for it. “So I went. But I asked and She said it wasn’t my time yet.”

Constance doesn’t have to ask who he means. She settles in the chair beside him and strokes his hair. “Did She say anything else to you?”

“Ye-es,” he draws out the word, uncertain. “But I don’t get it. Is it okay if I don’t say?”

“You don’t have to tell me,” she assures him. “Some things are just for you to know.”

“I don’t know it, though,” he says plainly. “But maybe I will later.”

“I’m sure you will,” she promises. She is okay with that, reminds herself to be okay with that, the not-knowing. Maybe she was asking for trouble when she named a child after the staff of the ferryman to the dead in the stories of the old gods, giving tacit permission for him to walk closer to the line than most. Maybe he was marked already, pale as he is, eyes and hair like flowers, like gemstones.

But he lives through that winter and every winter after, so she thanks the Wildmother for her gifts and does not ask for more.

Time passes and winter turns to spring twenty, thirty times over, and Constance wakes from a dream in the faint light of pre-dawn. She rises carefully, though the empty space beside her means that there is no need to avoid waking Cornelius. She can hear the snoring from her sister, from those of her children who are still asleep. And she can hear the quiet movement in the kitchen of bare feet on the earth floor. “Good morning, Caduceus.”

“Good morning, Mama.” Caduceus is reliably awake with the sun, a fact that has become immensely helpful now that he is grown up and was exhausting when he was a little child who wanted to be fed at dawn. Today he is up even earlier than usual, dressed and slicing fruit at the counter. “If you wait until the end of the week to leave, the figs will be dried and you can bring some with you.”

“Maybe I will,” she says. “How did you know I was going?”

“You had the dream again last night,” he said. “And I heard you asking Her.”

Constance sighs and goes to the counter to help him. He quietly cedes part of the space to her and she picks up a knife, joining him in deftly scooping the pits from the plums. “I think it’s time, yes. But I can wait until the end of the week.” Her eyes drift to the figs drying in the sunlight. “A few days isn’t much in the turning of the world.”

She can tell he’s thinking; his knife keeps moving, a steady thunk against the wood board. “I understand.”

“Have you dreamed?” she asks, half-hoping, half-afraid.

“No,” Caduceus says. “What do you think it means?”

“What do you think?” All her children have questions. She has turned them around on the others before. It drives Clarabelle mad—“If I knew I wouldn’t ask you!” she would have said instantly—but Caduceus doesn’t mind it. If her children are completely lost—wandering, grasping, drowning in their own self-doubt—then she will guide them, always, always. But someday—sooner than she would have liked, she knows, looking at the fruit drying—they will need to find their own way. And Caduceus has always been willing to seek the path himself.

“I think…” Caduceus says, slowly, setting aside the plum slices, adding the pit to the pile to be replanted. “We do what we are called to do.” Juice drips up his hand towards his wrist; he drops the knife to lick it off. “You dam a river when you need to redirect its flow. If She does not redirect me, I am meant to be here.”

“I think you’re right,” she agrees. “Does that bother you?” Caduceus loves the Grove, she knows, and he’s good at the things it demands from him, at coaxing things to grow. A born caretaker. But that isn’t everything.

“It’s home,” Caduceus says. “We would all be here if things were right, wouldn’t we? I will go if I am called to it. But she called the Clays here first.” He picks up another plum. “I want to stay here. I wish we could all stay here. I understand,” he adds quickly, “that Dad had to go. That you have to go.”

“I wish I could stay,” she admits. “And I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” he says. “I’ll miss all of you.”

“All of us?” she laughs. “We aren’t all going. Your Aunt Corrin will still be here, and all your sisters.”

Something passes over his face, a shadow of something. “Yes,” he agrees, but it is somehow uncertain.

“What are you thinking, baby?” The term of endearment slips out. Caduceus tolerates her fretting, but she knows his sisters tease him for it still, and so she keeps a hold of her tongue usually. But in the early morning they are safe, just her and her youngest son awake to hear it.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I think… I think I am starting to understand some things. And I don’t know if I’m uncertain because I’m not meant to know yet, or because I do know and I’m afraid of it.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

“No,” he says, too quickly. “I don’t think—I don’t think it will help anything to say it. And if I’m wrong I—I don’t want to say it.”

“Are you sure you haven’t dreamed anything lately?”

“Yes,” he says. “No new dreams. An old one, maybe.”

Constance remembers Caduceus when he really was her baby, holding uncertain words close to his heart. She wonders if he remembers them now, and if whatever She said to him stills his tongue even now. But she doesn’t ask.

“If you need to tell me anything,” she says, gently. “I’ll always listen.”

The shadow across his expression doesn’t fade, but he smiles through it. “I know.”

She thinks that darkness is gone by the time she leaves a few days later, but she doesn’t know for sure and she wonders for years afterwards.

Time passes and doesn’t. She feels herself change, feels the freeze and the fracture, but nothing in between. Just fear and grief, her hand on her sister’s arm. Seeing Corrin’s usually-steadfast expression turn to fear. Helpless to do anything but watch her husband try to help her already-petrified daughter as her legs fail to respond to her commands. And then grey, and then nothing.

And now this; a hand on her cheek, the warmth of the Wildmother’s magic melting away the stone. She blinks, and again there is sunlight. Blinks, and looks into rose quartz eyes, bright and familiar in a less familiar face.

“Caduceus,” she says, the name falling from her lips. She would know him anywhere, even changed as he is. Her baby is no longer—was, truthfully, no longer a child even the last time she saw him, but the man who stands before her diverges also from the one she left behind. He is young still, she thinks, with some relief. She can see it in his eyes, in the way that no lines have settled around them or his mouth, although his skin is stretched too-close over his cheekbones. But older, too. There is white in his rose-colored hair.

“Mama,” he says, and she feels his touch on her cheek grow a little firmer, like he wants to grab hold. But he doesn’t—he’s already drawing back, grip white-knuckled on his staff. “If this doesn’t work, you have to help them, okay?”

“Help who?” Constance asks, the first of a thousand questions she can feel bubbling up. Already she is trying to re-contextualize the world. Time has passed. She has not felt it, but it has passed, and her littlest is not so little and he is here and her sister and her husband and her daughter—she glances away and finds them, standing where she last saw them.  Stone. Their lives have frozen as hers was.

“My friends,” Caduceus answers.

She wants to pull him back so she can get a better look at him, but he’s already moving. She catches colors—the rose-pink of his hair, the chunk of crystal in his staff glowing lavender, bright bioluminescent lichen shifting and gleaming up the bright fabric of his coat, blue and pink on his purple boots.

Then she sees it. The bull is there at the treeline, and she shudders involuntarily and reaches the lump of turquoise that is her focus, hanging about her throat. It isn’t as close as she expected—it had gotten all the way up to the water, what feels like moments ago, and she had been helpless to prevent it—but now it has been driven back, or otherwise never allowed too close. 

A human woman in blue robes is half-crouched a few feet from it. Flanking it from the other side is a very tall woman with a blue-painted face and two-toned dreaded hair. Her gaze flicks around—what looks like a blue tiefling girl, directing a giant lollipop in the air. A man in a long coat gripping small things in his hands. An orc—no, too small, face too human, a half-orc at most—who bears a sword from which she senses the Mother’s light.

Caduceus strides forward, eyes on the bull. He is placing himself in its path, which she hates—wants to pull him back, put him behind her but he’s already doing it himself, standing between her and still-frozen Corrin and Cornelius and Calliope and lifting the staff up high.

She remembers when he was so little he could barely carry it. It is the right size for him, now. She thinks this, and it gives her only the smallest fragment of comfort when the bull lowers its head and charges.

The tall woman takes a slash as it goes by, and though blood spills out and sparks fly up from the metal plating, it doesn’t turn. Caduceus stands firm and lifts the staff; the crystal glows and she hears him say—not shout, because Caduceus doesn’t shout, she isn’t sure he ever learned how, but say in a voice that rings out—“Flee!”

And the bull stops and turns and runs.

The crouching woman whoops. The tall woman lifts her sword again. “How long?” shouts the half-orc.

“Not long!” Caduceus says back.

“Like the golem!” shouts the tiefling, and that seems to mean something to the rest of them and they converge.

The woman in blue leaps into a flurry of punches and kicks as the monster passes while the sword bites into it from the other side. The lollipop flies forward and strikes it. The man in the coat crushes something in his fist and a huge ball of fire spills from his cupped hands; from some spot to the left where she hadn’t even seen a figure, two crossbow bolts sail and stick in its hide.

The bull rounds again after a few seconds, but it is now badly wounded, and before it can do anything else the half-orc’s sword cleaves through it with divine light.

It falls. It dies. Caduceus never stops moving forward as each person strikes, and by the time it is a corpse he can drop to his knees beside it.

The half-orc kneels with him, laying down the sword in favor of putting a hand on his arm.

Constance steps forward, small steps, slowly drawing close enough to see as Caduceus tells the body of the beast to go back into the earth.

She is shaking, a little. If his spell hadn’t worked, it would have attacked him. They all seemed to be holding off the petrifying effects of the gas, a miracle enough, but she can imagine too easily what it would look like if the horns had struck him. She still remembers when he was small enough to hold to her chest, when each rasping cough seemed like it could tear his body apart.

“Who’s hurt?” Caduceus asks, rising. The half-orc stands alongside him and doesn’t let go of his arm.

“I’m okay!” the tiefling says.

“That was fucking dope,” the woman in blue says.

“I could use it,” says the man with the fire magic. He limps over. She can get a better look at all of them now that the gas of the beast has faded, that she is no longer distracted by a thousand flashing spells and her own gripping fear. They are an odd bunch. Three humans—maybe two, she can’t tell about the tall woman with the blue paint on her face and the swords. A tiefling. A half-orc. A—goblin, that is certainly a goblin, coming out of the foliage with a crossbow. And Caduceus, who is already stretching a hand out to the wizard, who takes it with a practiced motion.

My friends, Caduceus had said.

“Thank you, Caduceus,” the man says. He has a heavy accent that she thinks is from somewhere in the Empire, but she isn’t sure.

They are all starting to talk over each other, a clatter of conversation that stills when Caduceus turns back towards her and the rest of them see her.

“This is my mother,” Caduceus says, and there’s something strange and fragile in the words. “Constance Clay. Mama, this is, uh,” he indicates them one at a time. “Caleb, and Beauregard, and Jester, and Nott, and Fjord, and Yasha.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Clay,” the half-orc—Fjord—says.

“Your son kicks ass,” Beauregard blurts.

“We have to, uh,” Caduceus’ composure is leaving him, she can tell—has watched his siblings prod at him until his typical serenity dissolves many times over the years. But it’s strange to see it happening now, in the paradox of this all-grown-up version of her child, minutes after watching him face a monster without flinching. “My dad and—Calliope—“

With a pang, Constance turns back. Her husband, her sister, her daughter, as frozen as she was. At the same time, she’s relieved to see them there. She was like them, and if she is here, time restarted, then they can be restored as well.

“Greater Restoration,” Caduceus says. “Jester, I’ve only got one left, do you think you could—“

“Of course,” the tiefling sings out and skips forward.

“If you have diamond dust,” Constance says gently, “I can help.”

Caduceus just blinks at her. She thinks she is starting to understand it now, as she studies the ways he has changed—the gore splattered on his armor, the white in his hair. How distant he must feel from the child she held in her arms, from the young man who stood in the kitchen with her at dawn. How alien it must be for this strange, independent creature to find himself among his own kind once again.

It is Jester who pours diamond dust from a pouch into her hand, unaffected by Caduceus’ paralysis. “Who should I do?”

“Corrin, please,” Constance answers, pointing. “Caduceus, can you help your sister?”

He doesn’t answer, but he kneels beside her, which is answer enough.

She watches him out of the corner of her eye as she casts on her husband. Cornelius and Calliope come back to life at almost the same time, Cornelius still trying to lift her, momentarily staggering under her stone weight and then finding himself able to pick her up. They stumble; Calliope yelps and topples into the lake. She bobs in it for a moment, sputtering, spitting clear water.

“You told me not to drink that,” Fjord says, with a slightly alarmed look at Caduceus.

“He was fucking with you,” Beauregard answers.

“Where’s the bull!” Calliope shouts from the water.

“Dead,” Constance says. Jester has completed her spell, too, and Constance catches Corrin relax when she hears it, gaze drifting across the remaining statues, Calliope paddling, Caduceus still kneeling, his friends standing about, cleaning weapons and watching.

Calliope hauls herself out of the water, taking Cornelius’ hand to get to her feet.

“What happened?” Corrin asks. Constance looks to Caduceus, but his eyes are glassy and expression distant. It reminds her of his horrible deathlike trances as a sick child and she hates it, but he doesn’t seem actually ill. She explains, as best she can.

“How long has it been?” Corrin asks, and then Constance does have to turn to Caduceus.

“Years,” Caduceus says. “I’ve been with you all—how long?”

“A year in a month and twelve days,” Caleb says.

“Clarabelle left, uh. Maybe five seasons, seven seasons before that,” Caduceus says. “Before that was…I don’t know. Since you left, maybe ten, fifteen years. Oh! The Dusts said you came through a few years back. So it can’t have been more than that.”

“You’ve been to the Kiln?” Cornelius asks.

“More than been to,” Fjord says. “You did what She asked you to do there, didn’t you? The Wildmother,” he adds, unnecessarily. She can hear in his voice when he is referring to Melora. “And the Star Razor was forged there.” He lifts the sword.

“The Star Razor,” Corrin says. “It shares a name with a very famous blade.”

“It’s the same blade,” Fjord says. “Reforged, I should have said.”

Corrin steps forward and Fjord holds it out. Constance can see her sister’s eyes light up as she examines it, and then looks Fjord up and down. “The Wildmother must think very highly of you, to have guided you to this sword.”

“Highly enough of me to guide me to Caduceus, I suppose,” Fjord says, and Constance watches his eyes move to her son. “He’s the one who found it and—gave it to me.”

“It was meant for you,” Caduceus answers, and it has the sound of an old argument.

“What did Melora ask you to do, at the Kiln?” Cornelius asks.

“The same thing you were doing, I think,” Beauregard jumps in. “Something with residuum?”

“I could never find any,” Constance says. “We came down here instead, to see—“ she breaks off as Caduceus fumbles in his bag and produces a purple crystal large as a fist that seems to have roots. He holds it out and she takes it; it feels alive somehow.

“I have five of them. Four and a smaller one. We had five pieces…” Caduceus is looking at her—the glassy directionless look is gone but now he looks uncertain. Like he’s waiting to be judged.

She hands the crystal to her husband, who takes it from her automatically, so that she can pull him into her arms.

“I’m so proud of you,” she breathes into his ear, and tightens her grip when his breath hitches. She can feel it more than see or hear it when he starts to cry.

Calliope is still hovering when she draws back, although Corrin, Cornelius, and Caduceus’ friends have drawn back to give them privacy. She shoots Calliope a sharp look when she sees her opening her mouth. She always means well with the teasing—she would be far less tolerant of the low-grade warfare amongst her children if there wasn’t love beneath it—but Caduceus doesn’t need it right now.

“What did She say to you?” she asks, quietly, when Calliope slinks away.

Caduceus knows, in the way that they have always spoken the same language, that she doesn’t mean now, at the Kiln, or in whatever dreams he had that finally lead him from the Grove all the way here. “She asked me what you did,” he says. “Why I’d done it. And I told her what I told you.”

“And what did She say?”

“That it was alright, and it wasn’t my time yet. I think I told you that. And then she asked why I’d come alone. And I said it was because if it had been my time it would have been mine and not yours, and I didn’t think you were allowed to come with me.”

Her eyes well up without permission. She blinks the tears back; it is too easy to imagine her baby, small and pale and wracked with fever, stumbling out to the graves without waking her because even so young he knew that they crossed to the other side alone.

“What did She say?” she whispers.

“She said she was glad She had found me, because it wasn’t my time, but also glad to know I was strong enough to do this because there were worse winters and darker places that She would need me to walk alone. I didn’t fully know what She meant. But I told Her I’d do whatever She asked me to do. And She told me to sleep, and everything would be fine.” Caduceus sighs, and his sigh is a soft and ragged thing. “I know what She means now. And we are not called to do things we cannot find the strength to manage.” But the way he says it aches . Whatever strength he has found, it has cost him dearly, scooped out of the soft parts of himself.

“That’s bullshit,” Fjord says. They both startle; Constance hadn’t realized the paladin had drifted close enough to hear and even ever-watchful Caduceus had apparently gotten deep enough into his memory to lose track of their surroundings. “Sorry, but that’s—don’t give me that look, you eavesdrop on all of us all the time. You know that’s bullshit. Whatever you need to do, we’re with you. We owe you, and we’re your friends. And I owe you. More than I’ll ever repay you. You don’t need to do shit alone. Whatever She needs from you—in that cave, or anywhere—I’m coming too.”

“Fjord,” Caduceus says. There’s still an odd note in his voice, but it’s less like a fracture, and more like something taking flight. “…thank you. I appreciate that.”

“You’re not alone anymore,” Fjord says. “And you won’t be alone again.”

It hurts, Constance thinks, that Caduceus has learned loneliness. The pride and the grief are all twisted up together; a mother’s joy that her son is capable of such strength, and a mother’s anguish that he has had to be. But that he has found people like this, who will follow him on such a journey, who will reach out a hand and refuse to let him push it away to spare them—the joy in that is a pure, uncomplicated thing.

Caduceus glances back at her, then looks back at Fjord for a long moment before he finally turns back towards the cave mouth. “I think it’s time to go inside.”

Fjord extends a hand and the Star Razor appears in it, beautiful, whole and unbroken. “I’m right behind you.”

“I know,” Caduceus says, and when he steps forward he does not look back to see if they follow.