I know I have many WIPs but I also have a condition called I Can Write What I Want and what I want to write now is "traumatised wizard getting tea and validation from maker of fine graves"
Caduceus' right ear turned first, toward the source of the sound, then the rest of him all at once. Caleb took a moment to try and remember a time, outside of combat, where the firbolg had addressed anyone with less than 100% of his attention, facing toward them with his entire huge self and tilting his head just so as to allow for continuous, somewhat uneasy eye-contact.
He came up empty, which sort of answered his unspoken question as to why speaking to the cleric often felt similar to being stared at through a magnifying glass.
"Ah, Mr Caleb," Caduceus offered a small smile, the tone of his voice open and welcoming in spite of Caleb's instinctive regression in the addressing. "What can I do for you?"
The Tower was meant for safety. Caleb had slaved hours away on the spell under the simple, driving need to have a space that could never be breached, in a dimension so removed from reality that not even the ghosts of his sins could reach. The hut had given him direction on what the prickly feeling at the back of his neck had meant, but its see-through walls had soon started to feel not enough.
Now, in Caduceus' room, the feeling of safety was slowly blanketing him again, quieting the voices in his head one by one as the minutes passed. Somewhat, the process seemed to be faster in the cleric's presence.
He seemed to be working on a sorting system for his teas, Caleb guessed, eyeing the small mounds of dried leaves in so many satchels on the floor in front of Caduceus' criss-cross sitting form. He had changed out of his dinner clothes and into a simpler, softer tunic for the night, but there was new wood in the fireplace, which meant he had at least some intention to stay up for a while still.
Caleb closed the door gently behind, mostly to give himself something to do, but when the lock clicked in place he found that his legs felt glued to the floor and his lips sealed closed.
He'd been under many silencing spells in his youth. This felt utterly insurmountable.
"I have a new blend of chamomile and melissa tea," Caduceus offered. "I have not put a kettle on yet, but I'm sure with your help it would be a matter of seconds." His eyes searched Caleb for one more second, and his smile softened even more. "Or we can wait for the fire to warm it up on its own time."
The invitation was clear enough. Caleb's feet moved of their own volition, seemingly relieved to have a purpose that reasonably drove them away from the confrontation.
He fetched the kettle from the table and filled it with water from the jug, then moved it to the hook in the fireplace. It didn't occur to him until he felt Caduceus' strong hands clamp around his wrists, that the fire was too strong now to simply reach in.
"Ah, pardon me," the gentle voice came with free wrists, but also with the disappearance of the kettle's weight from his hands. "I wouldn't want you to get burned. Allow me."
Caleb did. He took half a step aside and watched Caduceus expertly wrapping a wet cloth around the kettle's handle before placing it over the fire. A few of the voices in his head picked up volume again.
"I hope I didn't make things worse for you." Once again, before speaking Caduceus turned to him, chest and legs and all. "I guess I'm... Uh. This is complicated to put into words." The firbolg ears flicked up and down once as he stroked his chin in thought. "I don't mean to apologize for what I said to that man - I fully believe every word and that someone ought to let him know since no one around him would - but I do understand that his anger is...not something you would feel comfortable around. For that, I am sorry. Your comfort and well-being are very important to me, I hope you know."
"He always felt bigger than any rooms we would be in," Caleb heard himself say, voice thin and see-through. "His whole...precence, his demands and expectations. It felt like, wherever he went there was hardly any space left for air, and so it was hard to breath."
Caduceus nodded. "That must have been difficult. Personally, I quite enjoy breathing."
Something that ought to have been a surprised laughter but sounded more like a cough slipped out of his lips. "In the past few months, with the Neins, I had almost convinced myself that it was my youth that had built such an impression. I was even scrawnier as a teenager than I am now, if you could believe it."
"But that day in the Cathedral-," the stench of blood and death, the pulsing pain all over him, the terror still shaking his muscles, "-when he said my name-" Bren, Bren, Bren, "-there was no air. He'd sucked it all away. Just like back then."
It had been a familiar sight, all considered. Powerful, untouchable, pristine Trent standing over a quivering bleeding Bren.
Caduceus nod was serious and agreeable, matter-of-fact as if Caleb's words had just affirmed something he'd always suspected. "I did not like him very much that day either."
"You called him a fool. To his face." Caleb couldn't help the breathless and disbelieving tone in which the words tumbled into the room. Just thinking back to that moment felt like reliving a dream, something so outrageously impossible that simply could not belong to reality. And yet. "When you did, it was like...he shrunk. I could breathe."
For a moment, Caduceus seemed to take the words in, graciously but carefully, exhamining each with utmost interest. "I am happy to hear that. You should get to breathe. It is a wonderful excercise of life."
More than that, at times it felt like breathing alone was an act of rebellion.
"I think I'm running in circles in my head." The warmth of the fireplace was getting uncomfortably hot against his left arm now, but Caleb couldn't fathom the idea of stopping now, moving away and then somewhat gathering once again the courage to put his tumultuous thoughts into words. "Everything it mixed up and I cannot sort it through."
"Ah, I seem to be having similar difficulties." For a brief moment, Caleb suspected Caduceus of mind-reading, for ever so gently the firbolg pointed to his assortment of teas on the floor and placed his other hand on Caleb's shoulder to make him turn and take a couple steps away from the fireplace. "I wouldn't mind helping each other, if you have the time. You are almost as great an archivist as Beau, after all."
That was not a great compliment, when Beau's archiving systems - for things and notes and, heck, even her pockets - were privy to her alone and utterly out of grasp of anyone else. Caleb accepted it nonetheless.
He fell on his knees more than sitting down, but Caduceus was kind enough not to mention. Instead, he mirrored Caleb's position as he took seat by his side, and started explaining the macrocategories in which he meant the blends to be sorted.
For sleeping, for keeping awake, for vigor, for relaxation, for digestion, for constipation, for healing, for-
Caleb blinked. "Poisoning?"
Caduceus shrugged. "That too is part of nature. Plants are excellent assassins, if for self-defense."
There was a gentle prod in the words that was hardly very gentle, to be honest. Caleb touched the Deadly Nightshade's etiquette with a single finger. "I cannot tell the difference-" he whispered, "-between who I am and what he made."
The fire cracked behind them. Caleb watched his shadow tremble and flickered, stained of orange reflections, over the little pouches.
Suddenly and with seemingly no reason, he felt a sense of urgency creep up his spine. "I showed you the tower," he said, hurriedly, cutting off Caduceus' attemtp at a reply. "He locked us there at times, in underclothing and with nothing to keep warm, to sleep on the stone floor with the windows all open. And I thought it wasn't that bad, because it didn't hurt as much and we were together and we would sleep close and huddled together to keep warm and I would think-," of the expanse of Eodwulf's chest under his head, of Astrid's softer frame curled against his side, "-I would think that we were getting away with some big secret, with something good and precious and ours that would bloom and become this great, majestic thing to lead the Empire to the highest peaks."
Caduceus' hand found Caleb's thigh, the weight of his palm both grounding and a gentle dam to the river of his words. "You were young and in love," he put in simple words all the complex thoughts in Caleb's mind. "Neither is a fault to be ashamed of."
"Was I?" There, in the desperation painting his words, had opened a new crooked alley at the intersecting lines of his life. On any and all gods, he couldn't tell where the truth lied. "Was I in love, or-" he shook so hard some of the contents of the dandelion pouch in his hand fell out, "-did he plan that too?"
Trent had known everything. He had eyes on the three of them at any moment in time, and he was many thing but never an idiot. They had thought themselves sneaky and smart, but the longer time passed, the harder it was to truly believe the man had not known of their relationship. He must have known, must, but that also meant that he'd either seen it happen and allowed it or, and that scared Caleb the most of all, he had orchestrated it all.
"It all seems so convenient now," he scoffed bitterly at his younger self's naivety. "Three students so fucking entertwined with each other, with a loyalty that went beyond that of brothers in arms and a willingness to die with or for each other, all the reasons in the world to keep quiet under torture and to risk life on the battlefield for the others. The perfect triangular system to keep one in check via the other two."
The fact that Trent had never split them apart, not even in punishment, when he'd made it clear to Bren more than once that he thought him better than Astrid and Eodwulf, thought the two of them barely worth of his tutelage and had only accepted them for Bren's own sake. It all took a terrible meaning in the darker lights of the evening.
Silence befell them for a second. A small shard of Caleb's mind observed that it must have been the first time he'd mentioned Eodwulf as part of his love, just as important as Astrid, and wondered if maybe Caduceus, in his new-born observation of the world outside the Groove, was any confused about it.
But Caduceus only hummed, as he moved two different types of black teas closer together, before turning his head to him. "If you put a steel rod through a young bud, you will get one of two things-" he said in the same bass tone he'd used to tell Ikithon he would die alone and forgotten, as he offered caleb a pouch of foxglove's dried flowers to place near the other poisons. "The stem will either whiter and die, or it will keep on growing around it until the rod is so deeply inglobed in the plant that it no longer has any relevance left."
Caleb's head snapped to the side, wide-eyed and mouth-slacked at the easy impudence of referring to Master Ikithon's hard work on his pupils as irrelevant, if not in his presence.
Caduceus smiled brightly, the turn of his shoulders still repeating its unfailing mantra. I see you, I care, I'm here, you're here, you matter. "Does it really matter what he hoped to accomplish, when you think that he could not have forced that love to blossom? When you consider that a delusion born of pain and loneliness could hardly last through so many of the winters the three of you spent apart? You grew out of his shadow quite some time ago, Mr Caleb. I would hardly think what you feel now is still the work of that man." A sparkle of mischief shone in his eyes. "I mean, you are the arcanist, of course, so you would know better than me... How long could an illusion spell last, after all?"
The joke both seem to lift the heavy, suffocating blanket that had befallen Caleb's shoulders, and it hit dead center on one of the few things he was actually, truly and unshakably certain of: that he was a damn good wizard.
"I don't think he'd stick to illusion spells, if he ever decided to cast something at me," he admitted. Terribly enough, it wasn't even the thought of the most painful spells - the fire, gods above, the burning fire - that scared him the most. His mind was his greatest asset, but Trent had taken it over and made of it what he wanted once already.
"Mr Caleb-," Caduceus gently coaxed him back to the present, away from the flames, "-you are here. You lived through his training, the sanatorium, your escape, every adventure we have been on together - and let me tell you, that was not easy -." He tapped his finger on Caleb's thigh as if counting. "And you lived through that night in the Cathedral. And you lived through tonight's dinner. Mind you, I have no doubt that he meant to hurt you any way he could, but that is...good news, in my opinion."
Caleb blinked twice. "Good?"
"How to say..." Caduceus thought for a moment, eyes raised to the ceiling and - for a brief second - tongue peeking out of his lips. "See, you cannot plant the wisteria close to a wall, because its roots are strong and determined and they will crack their way through, no matter how much you cut the branches." He looked back down. "You are the wisteria, Mr Caleb, and it was Ikithon's mistake to think of you as a mere decoration for his palace. When you bring the whole thing down in debris, he won't have anyone to blame but himself."
Caleb's skin prickled uncomfortably with goosebumps, as if stabbed a thousand times by invisible minuscule thorns. The words echoed with blasphemy in his ears. "I- I haven't done-"
"He only used his words, I think, because those are all he has against you now." Caduceus gently rebuked his pathetic attempt, with a very self-assured nod. "He casted nothing, didn't raise a hand on you. I believe that was because he thought he couldn't."
Slowly, the cogs started to move in Caleb's head. The notion of something being impossible for Trent seemed risible, especially if involving his students, but coming from the lips of the creature who stood tall in front of him and read his life as a death sentence, they almost seemed in reach of his begging hand. "Because of the Bright Queen and the King?" he asked, feeling the weight of the medallion in his pocket.
"That-, " Caduceus almost waved the names away, as if random people he once met in a tavern whose paths he would never cross again, "-and because you're not a child anymore. You are no longer blind to the faults of the Empire, nor you are as dependant on him as you were back then. In many a matter - dunamancy practice among others - you are so much ahead of him. He's a lonely old man with more enemies than grey hair, Mr Caleb, whilst you are an adult with powerful friends and allies. The scales are tipped, yes, but not in his favor. At least, I don't believe so."
Jester's tales of hamster-unicorns and flying dicks seemed more believable than any of that, at the moment. "You are-" crazy, absurd, foolish, wrong, wrong, wrong, "-very optimistic about this."
Caduceus laughed gently. "I mean. Regardless, how many years might he have left? Five, ten at most? Eh. They pass quickly, even if we decide to do nothing about him and let nature have its course."
Caleb took in the size difference between himself and the firbolg, and wondered whether at such height he too would be able to see things with such a long and clear perspective. The shape of a talk they had had more than once alreadty settled as a mold on his tongue to shape his next words. "And nothing is more natural than death, is that what you mean?"
"I mean," Caduceus eyed the small group of pouches closest to his right knee. Hemlock, aconite, oleander. "I know nature is occasionally okay with speeding up the process."
Decompose, Caleb remembered, was one of the spells Caduceus practiced most often.
He pictured its effect on Trent, imagined mushrooms growing on his body and moss submerging him 'till out of sight.
Behind them, the kettle begun muttering with bubbles. "Ah," Caduceus brightened up as he moved to stand. "Here we are. Give me one second."
Caleb made a point to turn to orient his entire body toward the working firebolg. He watched the expert motions of those hands as he went through the motions of steeping the infuse and preparing the cups. The easiness in each gesture reminded him of his own when casting spells.
"Here we are." A few minutes later, Caduceus passed him a cup. "Let me know what you think, later. I'm hoping to offer it to Fjord, for a better sleep. And by the way, unless you have any objection to it, I would prefer to keep on calling you Caleb, rather than Bren."
The drink smelled delicious, and its warmth seeped into Caleb, from his fingertips to his very core. "Thank you," he said quietly.
"Thank you as well," Caduceus retorted. "It cannot have been easy, but I am so very grateful that you made your path all the way to us. This group needed you as much as you needed us."
The warmth had moved to his face. Caleb suspected it had hardly anything to do with the hot beverage now.
In hope to escape it, he turned to the now well divided groups of teas. "How do you recognise the poisonous ones?" he asked, hoping for a distraction.
There would be time for more talking, he was sure. There would be time for Astrid and Eodwulf to show wether they loved him back, or fell into the steps their master had painted for them and into the motions their friend had started. And there would be a time, eventually, for Trent to die. A time for the world and the Empire to be rid of his suffocating presence.
For now, just the idea of all of these events as unescapable was somewhat comforting enough to get him through the next few days and their mission with Vess De Rogna.
Caduceus followed his gaze on the plants with a somewhat surprised look on his face. "Oh, you know what I believe. I keep them all together and go by memory, and for now I haven't been wrong yet." To Caleb's whipped-around, shocked expression, he merely shrugged. "After all, there are no accidents, just delightful mistakes."