Standing on the glittering white sands, looking out over an endless expanse of ocean as it shifts from green to deep blue close to the horizon, it’s hard to believe that, only days ago, this island was under the thrall of an extraplanar monster.
Once Vokodo fell, the memories of the villagers had started to return. Not in a flood, all at once, like Vilya’s had; these came slow, less like a burst dam, more like a rainstorm. Fjord thinks that was probably for the best; if their revelations had all come as quick and violent as hers, killing Vokodo might’ve unleashed more chaos than it calmed.
In any case, as the villagers’ memories returned, Jester had wasted no time in reminding them of the upcoming Travellercon - now only days away - and, although some were hesitant, preparations are hastily being made in their heroes’ honour. Past the treeline, bunting is being hung, extra shelter is being constructed, and hundreds of tiny dick statuettes are being carved.
The group have taken the scant three days before the gathering as a much-needed break. Keeping to the beach (per Caduceus’s request), they’d taken up the entire first day eating, drinking, and revelling well into the starlit night, celebrating a successful mission and their continued existence on the mortal plane.
Today, however, is different.
“Come on, Cad, just hit me already!” comes Beau’s frustrated shout, from where she’s sparring with Caduceus across the beach. There’s a heavy whap of wood striking wood, and Beau groans. “No, man, you’ve gotta predict where I’m gonna be, that’s how this works.”
“I have done this before, you know,” Caduceus replies, and Fjord can imagine the petulant crease between his brows. He can’t see it, though; currently, he’s doubled over in front of Yasha, attempting to catch his breath.
Why Beau insisted on taking this morning for a full-group training session is beyond him. Fjord’s head is still pounding from that sweet coconut-based liquor the islanders gifted them last night. It’s as much Beau’s fault as his own, because she challenged him to a drinking contest, and she knows he can’t refuse doing things he shouldn’t now and then.
Unfair, really, because her Monk Shit means she’s now immune to hangovers.
“Do you want to take a break?” Yasha asks gently, and Fjord lifts his head to make eye contact with some effort. She grimaces, or, at least, he assumes she does; she’s currently a large, dark shape, outlined by the morning sun. “You look a little… green. Or, well, less green than usual.”
Huffing, Fjord straightens up, re-summoning the Star Razor with a gust of blissfully cold air. “No, no, I’m… fine. Great. Fantastic.” His stomach is inclined to disagree. Fjord tries to ignore its protests.
Yasha’s eyebrows rise in increasing increments with each word, but she shrugs good-naturedly. “If you say so,” she says, and swings again.
Sparring with Yasha is both necessary, as she’s the only other swordsperson on the team, and enjoyable, as she’s a good friend. However, sometimes she can be too forgiving, and this morning is no exception. Fjord can’t even call her out on it, because if she were putting her full strength into these blows, he’d already be on the ground. As it is, he’s sweating, suddenly glad for having shed his armour and tunic. She angles the next swipe downwards, and he barely catches it, the metal of both swords singing, his arm shaking from the strain of holding it up. Fjord takes his eyes off the opposing greatsword, looking into Yasha’s face between the crossed blades, searching for any trace of strain which might make him feel a little better.
Yasha is… not even looking at him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Fjord follows her gaze - and finds Beau, twirling her staff in a fluid one-handed motion, shifting from foot to foot in front of Caduceus.
“Do something cool already,” Jester complains from where she’s lying on a beach towel a little way away, kicking her feet beneath a big shady umbrella. Her pencil is poised over her sketchbook. “I’ve got a full schedule, you guys.”
“Yeah – alright, just -” Beau splutters, half-turning in Jester’s direction, and as soon as she lets her guard down there’s a whoosh of displaced air — and without turning back, her hand shoots out behind her and catches Caduceus’s staff mid-swing. She turns back to him, and Fjord can already picture her sharp grin. “Nice move.”
“Me and Belle used to have a whole routine like that,” Caduceus replies, nodding over at Jester. “I think that was the fight where I messed up my knee, though. Calliope was not happy.”
Fjord’s arm chooses this moment to give up, but thankfully Yasha’s blade doesn’t come down on his head. It just hangs, held in mid-air for a moment, before she blinks, lowering the sword slowly and sheepishly looking down at Fjord.
“Sorry,” Yasha mutters, cheeks flushed, “got distracted.” Fjord wonders if she’s caught the sun. Wouldn’t be hard, with her complexion.
He opens his mouth to reply, something along the lines of yeah, me too, or, do you have heatstroke?, but his thoughts are cut off by a familiar yelp of pain.
Instinctively, Fjord turns on his heel, hangover forgotten, sword in his grip and adrenaline pounding - but there’s no monster in sight. Instead, there’s Caduceus trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose, and a wincing Beau.
“Ooh, sorry, man, I thought you were ready for it,” she says, hands up and approaching gingerly. Caduceus just gives a dismissive little wave.
“It’s fine, don’t — oh, wow, this is more blood than I expected.” Caduceus sounds like he’s got a bad head cold, but he somehow also sounds pleased. “That’s pretty impressive, though. You and Calliope should’ve talked more at the Menagerie, you would’a had a lot in common. Wow, I think this might be broken.”
Beau sucks in a breath through her teeth. “Jes, can you—”
“Nah, don’t bother,” Caduceus says, as Jester heaves a dramatic sigh and puts her head down on her book.
“I’ve got it,” Fjord hears himself say, and suddenly he’s crossing the distance between them, Star Razor vanishing in a melting drift of snow. His hand finds Caduceus’ shoulder, and with a small squeeze there’s a fizz of magic in his fingertips and a soft glow of green energy.
And then Caduceus is blinking down at him in surprise, and Beau’s eyes are on the side of his face, Jester’s on the other side, and it must be immediately apparent that he was watching that whole exchange. Fjord feels his face burn.
But the blood has stopped, and Caduceus has that sparkly warm look in his eyes that sometimes happens when Fjord uses the Wildmother’s magic, and that’s well worth a little embarrassment. “Thanks,” Caduceus says, voice soft around a smile, and Fjord realises that his hand has been on Caduceus’s shoulder for entirely too long.
Pulling his hand back to rub the back of his neck — which is also burning, probably because of the sun — Fjord clears his throat. “Well, er, it’s nothing, really. Given all the healing you do for,” me, “all of us.”
In his periphery, he can see Beau’s sharp eyes flicking back and forth between the two of them. “Uh, yeah, sorry Cad. Maybe we should switch partners,” she suggests, gesturing back towards Yasha. Fjord belatedly realises he just abandoned her with no explanation, and he should probably apologise, but his throat is suddenly far too dry. “Don’t want a repeat of what happened when you went down that tunnel, y’know?”
Caduceus’ gaze finally breaks from Fjord’s face (which is a relief, it’s a relief, why does he feel disappointed?), as he turns to Beau. “I think that’s smart,” he says with a small grin, rubbing at his jaw. “My tooth’s still a little loose from that whole… fracas.”
“Catch,” comes Beau’s voice over his shoulder, and Fjord’s reflexes are quick enough to catch the staff she throws to him with just a little fumbling. “Break it, and you’re dead,” she says with a terrifyingly casual tone, before striding over toward Yasha, cracking her knuckles as she does so. Over the top of Beau’s head, Yasha gives Fjord a little wave, smiling as she tosses the Magician’s Judge into the sand.
To their left, Jester is now scribbling furiously.
“Right,” says Fjord after a moment, looking down at the staff in his hands. “I’m guessing Beau’s already been through the basics with you?” He turns back to Caduceus, finding the cleric’s eyes on him again, as if they never left. Reflexively, he pulls his shoulders back.
Caduceus takes a second to reply, eyes unfocused. That hit must’ve really done a number on him. “What? Oh - uh, yeah.” Shaking his head slightly, he widens his stance, holding his staff horizontally out in front of him. “I used to spar with my siblings quite a lot when we were younger, but I think I’ve gotten too used to not being in the thick of it.”
“Trust me, the thick of it’s never where you want to be,” says Fjord, earning a huffed-out little laugh. He allows himself a moment to examine Caduceus’ posture - stood like this, he’s even taller than normal, especially without the weight of his armour and coat. The long silken sleeve has been carefully tied up and out of the way, with his hair bundled up in a similar manner in some kind of braid-bun. Long wisps of pink and silver have spilled out of the pin and around his face; one in particular hangs right between his eyes. It’s horribly endearing. Fjord has to fight the compulsion to reach up and tuck it behind an ear.
Instead, he gestures to the streak of blood that’s still beneath his nose. “Uh, you’ve got a little -”
“Oh, right,” Caduceus chuckles, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Glances down at the blood on it. “That’s nostalgic.”
“You’re holding that a little off, though,” Fjord says once both of the cleric’s hands are back on his staff, “they should be further apart, gives you more mobility.” Lodging Beau’s staff in the sand, he reaches out, placing his hands over Caduceus’ and adjusting their position. He tries not to acknowledge how soft the fur on them is. “There.” Pulling back with some effort, he pulls Beau’s staff back out of the sand, tossing it up into the air and attempting to catch it smoothly.
He fails. It hits him in the eye, and Caduceus is suddenly doubled over laughing, and it was worth it.
They spend the next half-hour sparring at a comfortably slow pace. Caduceus either isn’t eager to get bloodied again, or is going slow for Fjord’s benefit. For the sake of his already-wounded pride, Fjord chooses to believe the former. Mercifully, both the pounding headache and the nausea brought on by last night have faded, and as they do, he starts to push back in earnest, leaving them both out of breath and off-kilter.
(He’s better with a blade, sure, but Fjord’s not terrible with a staff, either. Most of the principles are the same, so he picked it up fairly easily as part of Beau’s early-morning workout routines.)
For the duration, they can hear the quiet grunts and impacts of Beau and Yasha’s — much more energetic — sparring behind them. Occasionally a heavy impact and a spray of sand will indicate the end of a ‘round’, but neither seem to tire as the sun climbs higher in the sky.
“You mentioned sparring with your elder sister a lot,” Fjord pants, after pushing off a blow that was just a little too far to the right, “didn’t you ever get into it with — ah, what’s his name, Colin?”
“Colton?” asks Caduceus, with a sour look, but it’s not directed at Fjord. “No, he never liked to…” he chews on his words for a moment, keeping a defensive stance, eyes on Fjord’s hands. “He wasn’t a good sport.”
Fjord grins, taking a swing, which is promptly caught. “Am I a better one?”
Caduceus raises an eyebrow. “You’re nothing like Colton,” he replies, pushing Fjord off with a grunt. “Anyway, it’s… I feel weird comparing you to him.”
“You compared Beau to Calliope.”
Caduceus’s grimace deepens. “Yeah, but, she’s…” He exhales. “It’s just different.”
“Oh, sure, now it’s different. Didn’t feel so different when you blinded me,” Fjord retorts, no heat to it, punctuating the last few words with another swing. This one catches Caduceus off-guard, hitting him in the ribs, and although he stumbles there’s no sound of pain. Fjord pulls back immediately anyway, eyes wide.
But Caduceus is smiling, a mischievous glint in his eyes, and Fjord barely has time to react before he’s whispering a word in Elvish and the world is darkening around the edges.
Thankfully, the spell doesn’t take. Fjord shakes his head, a few more hairs working loose from the tie at the back of his head, falling into his face. He huffs up at Caduceus, who’s biting his lip, cheeks a distracting shade of pink.
“Oh, it’s on,” Fjord grumbles, although a grin has worked its way onto his face, and he lunges, aiming the next smack at Caduceus’s ankles – but he’s already moving away quicker than Fjord would expect with a sound that’s almost a giggle.
Not for the first time, Fjord can’t help but give chase.
The next few moments are a blur of movement - there’s adrenaline in Fjord’s blood, joining something light and bubbly beneath his skin, and the combination makes him feel like he’s eight years old and sticky-fingered, running from a market stall with Sabien. He forgets their slow pace, and goes all-out – treating this like a real fight, playing dirty, as is his strong suit. He’d resort to magic, but his hands are too busy, and Caduceus is pushing back just as hard as he is, almost tripping him up several times. There’s a light in Caduceus’ eyes which makes him look like a teenager despite the lingering shadows, hair falling out of its bun and around his shoulders as they move, grinning, and his teeth are sharp, how did Fjord never notice—
Fjord’s footing is abruptly pulled out from under him, the sand rushing up to meet him, and suddenly he’s on his back. Pain throbs at the base of his skull. He tries to lift his head, but a sickly wave of dizziness rushes over him, and he can’t stifle a groan at the feeling, head falling back into the sand. Squeezing his eyes shut to try to stop the world from spinning so quickly, Fjord watches stars dance behind his eyelids.
“Oh, no, that looks intense,” comes Caduceus’s voice from somewhere above him, warm and comforting, and there’s a big, soft hand at the back of Fjord’s head. A pulse of cool, soothing energy spreads across his scalp, turning the stars behind his eyelids into something like a cloud of butterflies. The world slows in its spinning, and when Fjord opens his eyes, a blurry Caduceus is kneeling over him, haloed against the cloudless blue sky, brows knitted and an unhappy pull to his mouth. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Fjord pushes himself up to an elbow with a grunt. Caduceus’ hand doesn’t move from the back of his neck. It feels… nice. Grounding. “Ugh. Nope, I deserved that. Let my guard down.” He grins sheepishly up at Caduceus, wincing. The last of his dignity has officially left him.
But however ridiculous he feels, Caduceus is still there, right in front of him. Eyes tracking over his face, probably searching for signs of a concussion. Fingers tracing lightly over the nape of his neck, probably feeling for a head wound. Smiling, in that fond, wondrous way he does sometimes, usually only when Fjord’s looking. “You’re definitely a better sport than my brother,” he says, so quiet that Fjord has an excuse to focus on his parted lips, on the shadow of a bruise that’s still there. Has an excuse to wonder if the Wildmother’s healing touch would work if he—
“Oh, my gosh, you guys, don’t move!” Jester trills, and both of them freeze. “This is such a good pose, stay perfectly still…”
Fjord swallows. Caduceus’ gaze has shifted to study the sand a couple of inches from his elbow, and Fjord feels a pang of disappointment, although he’s not sure why. He leans in a little, conspiratorially, and murmurs, “We should move, right?”
“We should,” hums Caduceus, although he pulls back slowly. Extends a hand down to Fjord, who takes it gratefully, although he tries to stand up with as much of his own effort as possible – which is to say, not much. Caduceus has to put his other hand on Fjord’s shoulder to steady him as they stand, and it lingers there for a long, careful moment before pulling away.
Somewhere to the left, Jester blows a raspberry.
By some stroke of luck, Beau chooses this moment to stagger over. She’s wheezing, covered in bruises, but has a grin from ear to ear as she flings an arm around Fjord and leans on him heavily.
Unfortunately, this almost makes both of them topple to the ground again.
“You guys have fun?” Beau manages, after Caduceus grabs her arm to steady her. She waggles the hand of the arm that’s still in his gentle grip, motioning for something. “D’you have my—“
From behind her, Yasha places the staff carefully in her palm, and Beau pulls it to her chest like one would a small child, exhaling in relief. Yasha pats her on the top of her head with a soft smile, sporting a new bruise across her cheekbone.
“I mean, sounds like you count concussions as fun, so, yeah,” Fjord answers. He glances up towards Caduceus, but finds nothing there - he’s now a few feet away, beneath Jester’s umbrella, leaning over with his hands on his knees. She’s pointing at something in her sketchbook, voice bubbly and inaudible, and it could be Fjord’s imagination but Caduceus seems to go a little… pink. Well. Pinker than usual.
“You’re… very good at that,” Caduceus says, fighting back a smile, Jester grinning hugely up at him.
Fjord is struck by the impulse to walk over and join them, to see exactly what is turning Caduceus’s ears that rosy shade, when he’s made it through all of Jester’s past exhibitions without batting an eyelid. But Beau’s punching his shoulder lightly, moving away to lean against Yasha.
“C’mon, it’s nap time,” she says, with a jaw-cracking yawn, and as much as Fjord’s curiosity burns, his muscles are starting to ache in earnest.
Maybe he’ll ask Jester to show him later.