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Something Like Armor

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Cel shivers as they climb on deck, the chill air of high altitudes a stark difference to the close heat below-decks where they've been working for a while now. The safe room is-- it's still not good but maybe it's better and-- and they need to clear their head. It's evening, and the fading light casts the deck in an eerie purple, and the way the air stings their face and lungs is the sort of relief where it's obvious going in that it's going to become a different problem soon, but until then it's really quite lovely. 

Most of the crew are inside somewhere, but Sassraa and Siggif are at their posts, and Zolf is leaning on the railing looking off into the distance. Cel joins him, pushing their goggles up their forehead and looking out at the clouds and the bear corpses. Zolf gives them a nod, a greeting and an acknowledgement that company is welcome, and then turns back to the sky.

It's good. It's nice. Except Cel can see the aurora rippling in the distance and it sends a pit right down through their stomach. They turn away and give Zolf a quick once-over to see if he's unknowingly hiding the fang, but unless it's buried in his beard there's not many places it could be. Zolf's left his coat somewhere, as well as whatever clothes would've gone between that and his undershirt. His broad shoulders and arms are fully exposed, and Cel shivers more and huddles deeper into their coat just from thinking about it. At least he's wearing pants. Maybe to insulate the socket in his legs? Cel isn't sure how they react to cold.

"Mr. Smithzolf," they say. Zolf snorts at the name, which is how Cel knows they're successfully onto the friendly banter part of their relationship. "How do you feel about using potions while you're out in the wild magic storm?"

Zolf gives them a look . "Hamid's the mage," he says gruffly. "Not me."

"I'm not asking about the theory," Cel says. "Although, if you want to consult Hamid I would completely understand. See, in my experience, potions still function fine in wild magic zones provided they were brewed somewhere a little more stable, but that was in an entirely different part of the world and really, it's a risk you'd have to feel comfortable with yourself."

"What's a risk?"

Cel has several vials strapped to their adventuring alchemy bandolier, and they tuck one hand into their coat to run their fingers over the stoppers. "I've made you some potions," they say. "I-- I've been brewing them for a while and I was hoping to have kind of a quiet moment to give them to you, like the lull right before we land or something? But we're coming up to this aurora and I-- I-- I have confidence in your abilities, of course, but I also want you to be comfortable."

Zolf sighs. "Cel, what-- what kind of potions are these?"

Bottles clink inside their coat as Cel's fingers fly nervously. "You don't like wearing clothes much, do you Mr. Smith?" 

Zolf rolls his eyes and turns back to the scenery. It's getting darker, and if this is going to be a long conversation, Cel should probably have chugged a potion or grabbed some goggles that'd boost their darkvision. Ah well. They've done conversations in the dark before.

"I'm not going to fly through a wild magic storm naked, if that's what you're asking," Zolf says.

Cel grins. "That's not exactly what I had in mind-- though I imagine in the right circumstances it could be quite stimulating--" 

Zolf snorts again.

"-- but it sort of is because-- y'see I don't know if you're aware, but you lose a lot of clothes in very obvious places. And I'm not judging! No judgement here, just a decent amount of noticing, and what I've noticed is that I don't think you like clothes very much." They can list the data points if Zolf wants: the nonchalance about having his clothes fried by lightning, the insistence that Hamid not sew him anything for cold weather, the various states of undress Cel had found him in when their paths crossed by the inn kitchen late at night, this, right here, the way Zolf's standing now, with only a single layer of fabric between his chest and belly and the chill wind.

They're surprised that he isn't shivering. He clasps and unclasps his hands just off the side of the ship, but his body is still. Still and solid. "Are you gonna try and tell me why?" he says. "Talk about how I'm trying to, I dunno, reject responsibility, or I don't think I deserve armor, or some bullshit like that?"

Cel shakes their head. " Do you think that?" 

"I mean. No?" Zolf shrugs. Cel can see the shifting muscle of his shoulders, can hear his frustrated gestures. "I don't know. For all I know there's something there, but I don't... I'm not trying to make myself vulnerable. Clothes are just. Too much, sometimes. Y'know?" 

Cel nods. "Yeah, I get it. I mean, I can't exactly relate, like there's a whole complicated gender-body thing going on over here-- and also you do not want to try naked alchemy or naked engineering, believe me-- and in my opinion clothes are remarkably useful if for nothing else than facilitation of pockets. But…" they shrug. "Sometimes things just feel bad. I mean, I know sometimes I feel like my skin is all put on wrong, and I need to get out of it immediately, and then I usually turn into a dolphin or an octopus or something. Which isn't the same at all, but--"

"But it just feels bad," Zolf finishes. 

Cel beams at him. "Yeah!"

"Yeah," Zolf says. The two stand for a few moments, silent. Thinking. Zolf's clothes aren't very fancy, just practical, which is good, but Cel can't help but wonder if different fabrics or levels of ornamentation might make a difference...

"Right, but what does any of that have to do with your potions?" Zolf asks.

"Oh! Oh, yeah." Cel pulls two vials out of their coat and holds them out for Zolf to see. The first is a shimmering yellow that reveals a surprising depth of color as Cel swirls the vial.

"I brewed these special. This one it's-- so you know how Hamid does a spell that kind of covers him with scales and protects him from harm?" 

"Yeah. Mage Armor or something."

"So I couldn't get the scale effect to work, that might just be a Hamid thing, but I did know someone once who'd created a potion that worked very similarly, and I was able to find some of her notes and remember or puzzle out the rest, and I did a few batches and it works! I've tested it. It's not, like, impenetrable and it's not going to, to, to protect you from everything, but uh…" But they wish it could. They wish it could and they need to make the limitations clear because if it doesn't protect him enough then, then... 

"It's magic armor," Zolf finishes, and Cel snaps back into the conversation.

"Very magic armor," Cel says. "No clothes involved."

Zolf reaches for the potions and Cel passes them over gently. His fingertips are chilled to the touch, or, or maybe those are Cel's. "What's the other one?" he asks. It's too dark for Cel to see detail, but the potion in question is a pale, sharp blue, so clear it almost has no color at all.

"Endure Elements," Cel says. "It's-- I had the urge to brew it when we were talking about maybe crossing the Arctic, and then I did, and that's one of the things that got me thinking, actually. About you. And like how, the analysis I did on you suggested that you have quite a large amount of health percentages-- a frankly staggering amount compared to most of the people I've been spending time with recently-- but that doesn't necessarily mean you're comfortable let alone safe. And I thought maybe a little alchemical problem solving could, y'know, help find some kind of balance there."

"Right," Zolf says. "Uh. Thanks?"

Cel gives him a grin that feels askew on their face. "Of course, Mr. Smithzolf."

He gives them a returning lopsided smile and moves to tuck the potions away. Of course, he hasn't got a coat and the vials are too bulky to easily go in his pants pockets, so he ends up just holding them, passing the potions between his hands. "When did you find the time for these?" he asks. "You've been so busy with the ship, and now the saferoom."

"Well." Cel leans back against the railing and looks up at the dark sky. "You're not the only one who emotionally regulates through the mixing and heating of different ingredients, you know."

"Fair point."

The sky is so wide and so cold and so vast. They're on an airship, above the clouds and there's still more of it. Everyone here could explode in a horrible magical accident and the sky wouldn't even notice, or recognize its part in the disaster.

"Are you okay, Cel?"

Cel swallows. "It's just-- you forget-- well, you don't forget, but you kind of let yourself misremember?-- what it's like. This," they gesture at the ship, the sky, the aurora, "and the pressure and the risk and the-- the trust it takes to do this kind of work with somebody."

Zolf hums, nods. Gives them the space to keep talking if they want."And you?" they ask instead.

He takes a long breath. "I'm… okay?" he says. He sounds like he means it. 

"Cold?" they tease.

He smirks. "Yeah, maybe a little."

"I hope so because I'm freezing ," they say. "There's got to be a better means of thermal regulation on this--" Their eyes catch on the wild magic aurora again; bright, unregulated, ribbons of color twist over themselves, and Cel suddenly can't look away. It's so close now and it can do-- it will do just about anything and there's no way to predict it and no way to stop it, and they're not doing enough and--

Then there's a strong hand resting over theirs, and Cel suddenly becomes aware that they're gripping the railing, that they're shaking slightly, that Zolf is gently holding onto them.

"Hey," he says. "Take off the coat for a second."

Cel blinks at him. "I don't think the coat's the problem?"

"Nah, just--" he gestures vaguely, and Cel is too surprised to protest further. They shrug off the thick furs and immediately the wind bites through the rest of their clothes. Then Zolf throws something weighty over their shoulders. It's awkward, given the height difference, but he gets close enough.

"Keep an eye on this for me," he says, smiling. "Wouldn't want it to get lost up here."

"It's your coat," Cel says, tugging at the lapels. It sits heavy on their back, grounding and coarse and protective. It feels like the sort of coat Zolf would have. 

"Your coat now," Zolf says. "At least until we're past all this." He gestures vaguely ahead of them.

The coat is too broad in the shoulders and too short in the arms, but Cel could wear it comfortably-- if they accept. "A-are you sure? I mean, I know you're not wearing it currently, but it's a very practical thing and if you're going to be out for a long--"

"I've got these," Zolf says, rattling the potions. "I'll be fine."

Cel wriggles their arms into the sleeves and pulls the coat tight around their chest. At Zolf's direction, they pull the furs over it. It feels good, feels… it feels safe. It would be nice to wear during the-- while they wait.

"Well," they say. "If you like the potions I've-- I've got the rest of both batches and I can always make more. Well, I say always, it does depend on the ingredients and the presence of several large beakers and a strong electrical current, but, we'll say I can effectively almost always make more."

"Right," says Zolf. "Good then." He turns back to the railing, and in a moment of boldness or maybe fear, Cel places their hand on top of his.

"The coat really is warmer," they say. "Truly, ah, remarkably effective."

"Sure is," says Zolf, smiling. "If you like that sorta thing."