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When Caleb woke, it was sudden.

But it was like that every morning, wasn’t it? Eyes wide and darting, blue piercing his surroundings with ice that mirrored the early morning frost of his homeland. Brow creased into sculpted lines on his forehead. His mind was already ruminating. Perhaps even before he had woken. A ritual not cast in pious foundry but rather paranoia of now-inherent nature.

One window facing southeast, the frame rattling by the newfound wind. Fourteen panels of ceiling wood, which had previously been shaking from the movements above the night before, were still in the early morning. Coiled wire wrapped around the interior surface area of the room’s foundation. The broken oil lamp on the wall was dripping occasionally. With what Caleb did not know.

He blinked.

The ice was not allowed to melt just yet.

Not when his arms itched more than prior. That’s when Caleb realized the blanket wrapped around his frame was rougher. Bearded, woolen blanket pulling at his arms, creating static much like the magic below the wizard’s fingertips. His toes reached beyond its moth-eaten threshold. His feet numb. Then again, when wasn’t some part of him numb?

That was the first clue. Oh, the ruse his mind had played on him. A phantom limb of a ritual. His goblin companion was missing from his room and, instead, a figure with ink-blue skin stirred beside him. There was more static from the slow friction and he found he couldn’t breathe. The echoes of last night reverberated suddenly in the shallow room. A cacophony so loud, Caleb thought himself going deaf. If that were his punishment, he deserved it. What a selfish man he had been…

The panic he felt was not yet external, though he didn’t dare look to the woman beside him, for he knew there would blistering marks of deep blue and purple bruising under her ears. Nebulas of collapsing stars tainting her plush neck. Bite marks made by a man no longer able to restrain once her lips had made his sore. That man differed to the one who lay in his place now. Were these remnants of fervor sparked on his own accord or hers? The wounded lips, trembling bare bodies, and whispers in Zemnian that had made a laugh tumble from her ribcage? For someone who could recall the exact quarter turn of the doorknob under his hand, this was a memory he didn’t dare dig to its root. His lungs were weighted with the reality that now suffocated him, a reality that intoxicated his respiration with the looming smell of lilies, morning dew, and sex. The glass of the window continued to shake.

Caleb couldn’t stand it. His nerves on pin-ends pushed against his veins, fumbling and relentless. Tormenting him with indecision that dampened his hair with sweat. Do something. Anything other than remaining pathetic and limp on his back, one blue arm strewn across his abdomen as if this were easy. Oh gods, if only this were easy. This warmth was not meant for him, yet he had been greedy enough to take it. Claimed it in the shadows of a new moon sky. Once to lick his lips and again between her legs, much to her mischievous delight. A coward to not push her away.

Ah, yes—he was a coward.

That thought lifted him from the cot. He was careful, despite his shaking hands. Quivering as their deft work layered the fabric of his clothes with tedious reminiscing. His fingers upon the buttons played a memory of a time before. They traced the steps of a young farm boy fastening his shirt before his mother, whose twitching hands held clasp to refrain from aide. And later of a young mage with silver buttons and a different purpose beneath his palms. Now, Caleb habitually slept in the same clothes he sheltered himself inside. These clothes sought to contain his panic this morning.

He left the coil of silver wire. It circled around the perimeter, encasing his mistake. Was the woman he was leaving behind a mistake? Nein, he thought. For mistake implied impurity. Of the two in the room, only he carried that burden. Nonetheless, the coil served to contain the verity, albeit temporarily.

Caleb didn’t even dare grant himself another glance at her as the door shut in his absence. He would know if there was a disturbance. Those bells of uncertainty were louder than his internal condemnation. Even so, some very pertinent part of him ached to exchange that warmth for the frigidity of this northern inn.

Each step carried it. A reason not to be in that particular room. The stillness of the early morning still refused to grant him the space to breathe. His vision clouded over. He was surprised it hadn’t already. He pressed two of his fingers almost violently below his jaw, letting his pulse thump into his consciousness. Then he dropped them. Paled knuckles gripped the basin, feebly reaching for the water it held.

Her honey still clung to his copper whiskers. That’s why he couldn’t breathe. How could he when all the air around his nose smelled of her?

Caleb carved a path from his temporary hovel to the dusted blue-grey sky. Each step joined hands with a mumbled tune of old Zemnian Fields. This mantra, so rare to cascade from his cracked lips. How low it hung as he traveled down each stair. A soft, disjointed tale from the farm now held in cataclysm.

One step.

Es gab einen Mann, der so weise war, dass er in einen Brombeerstrauch sprang und ihm beide Augen auskratzte.

Nine steps.

Und als er sah, dass seine Augen aus waren, und Grund sich zu beklagen,

Thirty seven…

Er sprang in eine andere Hecke und kratzte sie wieder ein.

The final word shoved the door to the inn aside. The cold of northern Wildemount blistered his fingers through their wraps; however, it took moments of heaving, hands on knees and head hung low in shame, for his nerves to fully take their effect. The wind nipped his cheeks and the tip of his nose a red devoid of life. His feet sunk deeper into the grass. A thin layer of snowflakes atop those blades melted into his boots.

Caleb spit and bile seared from his mouth onto the frost below him. He had taken too much happiness. Stolen it; grasped for it; ravaged it; shoulder biting, whimpering crying, hungered for it. One moment the candlelight warmth had illuminated her face. The next her lips were on his. He had snapped. Now he was incarcerated for it with brackish venom curdling up his esophagus. Fighting to breathe.

Scheiße,” he swore. His breath was visible before his lips.

Wiping his mouth, he stood tall once more to look out over the sparse Zemnian countryside, the watering at each corner of his eyes threatening to freeze. That’s how it had been every morning from autumn to mid-spring on the farm. He remembered at times the frosted tips of his mother’s eyelashes during the winter months. This morning he didn’t dare recall. He no longer had that privilege. He had taken enough warmth, and without much consequence—oh, he deserved much worse for his sacred damage, he figured. He wasn’t even brave enough to throw up properly.

“Are you alright there, Caleb?”

The drawl had cut through the wind precisely thirty-two seconds after Caleb had noticed the crunch of its master’s footsteps had stopped. The judgment’s swing had arrived, this time wielded by strong arms of green with a cut down the eye.

Caleb exhaled shakily. His expression contrite, as usual.

Ja,” A pause. Unsure. Non-disclosing.

“Weren’t about to wander off, now—were you?”

Caleb grimaced. He would be lying if the thought hadn’t come to him during his descent from the stair. He had quickly discarded it. Panicked as he may be, he knew well enough how much that would crack the woman in his bed into too many irreplaceable pieces, especially after what had transpired mere hours before sunrise.

Nein, Fjord,” Caleb gently insisted. “I was just getting some air.”

Green entered his periphery and clamored down onto his shoulder. For the half-orc, the intended force had been gentle; however, Caleb’s limbs held memories of asylum and forest shadows. Anything more would have knocked his already feeble balance from him with a face-full of snow to greet.

“Is that about Xhorhas?” Fjord asked, gesturing toward the tainted snow at Caleb’s feet. “I’ve been thinking about it, and they never really said if they wanted to help us or kill us, did they?”

Caleb’s eyes remained trained on the mountains in the background.

“I mean, they did chase us out of there and into the mountains, come to think of it,” Fjord continued.

“There is nothing to think about. They did not want us there.”

Caleb’s words were strewn with lies and truths. He had thought about it. Pondered it through conversation and while counting the leaves on certain passing branches. He had spent the second half of the day they had arrived at here with his back against the cold floor of his room just thinking about it. Nothing had come of it quite yet. Well, despite his blue interruption.

“You’re not curious at all about all that…shit they were saying about the Empire?” Fjord pressed on, genuinely concerned.

Caleb almost scoffed. His companion might be interested in investigating the aspects of his life he didn’t know, but Caleb had no interest. No, he had a vision. Anything else regarding his past gave him tremors. At this thought, his fingernails dug into his forearms with a further vigor. He needed to stop shaking.

“It is not up to me to be curious about that.” Caleb’s eyes tracked the movement of the wind in the leaves. If he found a pattern with each gust, that could distract him enough. He continued, “Nott needs to find her husband.”

Fjord sighed heavily, “I know, and I want to help her. We all do. I just thought you might have some kind of idea about it all.”

That was the predicament: Caleb didn’t want to have any ideas. Pondering such foul intricacies of the Empire made his head hurt. With the state of the hammering he was currently undergoing due to a completely unrelated situation, discussing these affairs once more was undesired. Interrogation had been upon him after the words exchanged with the Xhorhasians had caused them to flee into the mountains of the north; Caleb was being twisted and squeezed for every drop of information he could manage.

It was no wonder he had retained little restraint when Jester had entered his room late bearing a toothy grin and earnest eyes. A lighthearted conversation not surrounding what he did or didn’t know. Blue hands gently caressing his inner forearms. One tiptoed kiss to the corner of his mouth—his resolve had ruptured. The shattered glass of his restraint now lay around the room of the inn. His stomach threatened to overturn even more at the thought, cutting his throat until he bled out from the interior. It had been some days that this pressure had been building beneath him. Lethal shards were to be expected.

Fjord dropped his hand from Caleb’s shoulder. The air around them altered to fit the adjustment. It was thicker around the two suddenly, the silence heavy and coagulated.

“So...uh, you and Jester, huh?”

Ah, so this was the real reason the half-orc had struck the chords of conversation this early. Reeling from his own prior processing, Caleb turned to finally look at Fjord.

“Uh, ja.” Caleb’s response was simple, devoid of emotion.

“That’s good. Good job.”

Good job?

The immediate regret of that statement was apparent on Fjord’s face. Caleb physically cringed, looking down at his fingers. They had resumed their anxious scratching.

“I saw Jester go into your room last night. I hadn’t been sleeping much and thought I just needed some water or something,” Fjord continued, as if his acquiring this information needed justification. Caleb wished he could claw out his eardrums. “Nobody else knows, in case you’re worrying about that.”

“I was not.”

That thought was one he had been actively avoiding.

“Well...apart from Nott, who came into my room last night when she realized yours was, uh, occupied.”

Fjord started on his list and Caleb found with every word his chest sunk deeper inward while more nausea rendered his knees weak.

“…She tried to sleep in our room but ended up with Beau and Yasha, I think, who know because Nott told them and, well, Jester never came back. And Caduceus sort of, just…knew. That guy’s fucking magic or something. Took one look at my face and just smiled. I don’t know what’s in that tea, man, but I don’t like it.”

“It is just tea, Fjord,” Caleb managed as a response, not trusting himself with anything more.

That,” Fjord continued, pointing to nowhere in particular, “still remains to be seen.”

“I have had some and I was perfectly fine.”

Fjord arched an eyebrow dubiously. “You don’t…look fine. Actually, if I’m being real honest with you, you look like shit.”

Caleb could detect the humor in Fjord’s voice, grasping at something to lighten the situation. Anything to ease the tension. What he got in response was the wizard’s miffed scowl into the landscape.

“I did not have the tea this morning,” Caleb insisted after a pause. “But thank you for reminding me of how I look like shit. I am so glad to hear that.” Sarcasm and slight irritation coated his Zemnian accent.

“I just don’t like the idea of drinking dead people—or mushrooms, too, for that matter.”

“Caduceus is trustworthy, ja? So we do not have to worry.”

Caleb looked at his companion once more. He was still wary of intentions, but perhaps there was no malice behind Fjord’s current façade. The half-orc seemed to be less burdened with this situation than Caleb was, at least. In fact, concern riddled the creases of his visage more than rage—a concern for the wizard.

Fjord cleared his throat. “Caduceus actually said some pretty wise things to me last night.”

“I do not doubt it.” Interest peaked for curiosity’s sake. “He is very perceptive.”

“He asked me if I noticed the change in Jester’s demeanor lately. How she’s been acting and all that,” Fjord continued, the awkwardness inside of him diffusing to be replaced with purpose, of which to Caleb was still unknown.

The wizard said nothing.

Jester’s idiosyncrasies were of upmost importance for him. To note those fluctuations aided in maintaining her happiness. He had caught himself being more cognizant of her tendencies – where she was located, the emotion that flickered in her eyes, the alterations in her vocal tone – since before Hupperdook.

“I think you’ve noticed how she’s been giving me a lot less…” Fjord cleared his throat, the remains of his awkwardness tumbling out with this final word, “…attention recently. Ever since we got back on land.”

“And what did you tell Caduceus, then?”

“Well, obviously that I had, but I think he already knew that. I could just sort of tell that he could tell.”

Caleb paused, weighing his words. “Do you wish for her attention now?” His companion narrowed his eyes slightly as if he was dissecting Caleb’s motive.

“…Not any more than anyone else,” the words came out slow and suspicious, but with slight jealousy laced in between the syllables, “I mean, it was nice at times, but also annoying. Do you understand that?”

Ja, I suppose so.”

Caleb was not lying completely, for he did not find Jester to be annoying in the slightest, but he could see how the void of her attention would leave Fjord suddenly wondering where it had gone. Much like a child in awe with the world. Believing it would last forever.

“You know Jester, she gets so dead-set infatuated with these things sometimes and it’s hard for her to see anything, well, beyond that.” Fjord was searching for words. Treading carefully, as if he knew exactly the terrain he was in. “Now she has, and I just want her to be happy.”

“You are not alone in that.” Caleb looked out to the mountainous expanse that reached the tips of the northern Empire. He wouldn’t allow what had been festering inside him to be revealed in his expression. Not now. Not when speaking of Jester’s happiness, the same happiness he had taken advantage of. He had clawed at it without forethought. For his own selfish purposes. Because he had wanted to—wanted her. He had wanted her under him, writhing in pleasure with his name spilling from her. That orchestra of her sounds still resonated inside him, though he didn’t dare entertain that memory.

He had wanted to taste her. All for himself; also to make her happy. Ah, the irony of the greed he had acted upon.

I cannot let her stay in my bed. She deserves more than that.

“You can’t decide her happiness for her, you know that,” Fjord pressed, caution imminent as he searched Caleb’s face for self-destructive thoughts he knew were ever-present. “No matter what you think, Jester gets to choose what – or who – makes her happy. It’s not fair for you to make the final judgment, per say.”

“Life is not fair, Fjord,” Caleb hissed through gritted teeth, scowling. “She is a very capable woman. But there are some things she does not understand.”

“Then give her the chance to understand, and then she can decide for herself.” Fjord remained calm, steady, and concerned. While decidedly confident on different measures, this presence was unbeknownst to Caleb. It detained the self-deprecating aggression and exchanged it for a sigh of defeat. Beams of golden sunlight cast across the land from his right, glittering the frosted landscape. The grasses and trees were luminescent by the droplets that clung to them. Breath had returned prominently to his lungs. His shoulders slouched heavy with resolution.

“You are not wrong.” Though Caleb did not like it—not because he did not believe Jester deserved to choose her happiness, but more because it was plainly clear to him that he was the misguided option. Hadn’t he been trying to avoid this circumstance?

There was a pause – a moment suspended – then Fjord chuckled, shaking his head.

“I, uh, can’t actually take credit for any of that,” He continued, “That’s mainly what Caduceus told me last night. All that stuff about Jester choosing her own happiness.”

“Did it help you at all?”

“I mean, yeah it was nice to hear and it helped me…process the situation, I suppose, but I don’t think it was entirely for me.” Fjord’s brows furrowed, as if he had come to this conclusion a moment prior to saying it.

“He must have known you were going to tell me, then.” Not by any magical or divine ability, Caleb was sure; Caduceus just had a certain way of anticipating people’s behaviors and understanding the motivations underlying them.

“It still kinda creeps me out when he does that, if I’m being real honest with you.”

“Aren’t you always?” Forthright, yes, the half-orc was.

Fjord eyed his friend briefly, but the subject was dropped.

“You like her, then?” It was small. The drawl stagnated the words, carrying their weight. If Caleb had not already exhausted his nervous system, currently coming down from that torturous adrenaline, he would have lost his breath from the collision.

“Jester?” Caleb coughed out, still surprised despite his fatigue. “Of course, but I am not the only one. Everyone she meets likes her.”

“You know what I mean, Caleb,” Fjord pressed on. Caleb steeled internally. “Are you sweet on her and all that?”

The wind picked up once more. Caleb merely stared at his compatriot on this grass in the early morning. The answer was an easy one, though its effortless quality was not transcribed into verbal admission. It had been muttered breathlessly in Zemnian last night. Schatz. Liebling. Süsse. Schnucki. All soft, all safe in that moment, scattered among her moans like raindrop kisses on her skin.

“It is getting cold.” Caleb’s words curt but they held his reply. “I am going back inside.” He turned, walking away from the scene.

Fjord’s smile coated his intonation. “Good to hear.”

Caleb was grateful he did not hear Fjord following. His feet had pushed him from his room and now they led him back— any reason to divert could’ve changed his direction. Panic had diminished, but his own verdict had not been concluded. There was time for that yet. This was not the time, Caleb knew that. For his hands still trembled under the weight of used adrenaline. His head was heavy, as were his shoulders, as he rescinded his footsteps from before. Oh, how he was tired. Too tired to fight truth spoken with truth he carried.

Fjord—well, Caduceus—was right: Jester deserved to make her own decisions upon happiness. Whether they aligned with his were up to question. Never would Caleb have thought that the half-orc would be the one to convince him to be with Jester. Well, at least coax him back into the room where she lay.

When Caleb entered the room once more, the silver wire still encased the perimeter. The window still faced southeast. The wind still rattled the wooden panels. And Jester was still entangled in his bed, one arm propping her on her side. Her hair tousled, soft eyes full of sleep greeting him. Her lips were plump. Pouting. Horns tilted to the side with her head. Freckled nose and cheeks flushed from her heat, her breasts spilling from the blanket’s edge. Caleb resisted the urge to pepper her with kisses.

Ah, she was divine. Delicious.

“It’s not very nice to leave a girl the next morning, you know,” Jester began, her accent staccato from her tongue.

Caleb started forward into the room, apology already etched into his face. He closed the door behind.

“It was starting to worry that you, maybe…I don’t know…didn’t like what we did last night.” As she continued, Caleb noticed Jester glancing more and more at the floor. Demure with her romance, as always. Afraid of being rejected—alone. “Or maybe it wasn’t even that, and I just wasn’t as good as people from your past, you know? You have more experience and everything. Maybe you don’t even like me like that, which is totally fine but it would’ve been good to know, at least.”

Jester rambled to avoid and to distract, unsure of his reaction, Caleb was sure. The confusion she must have harbored upon waking, without him beside her. Each of Jester’s words, however, were soft and earnest amid her display. Her fingers tugged the blanket upward, suddenly timid albeit her expression struggled to remain jubilant. It was clear to Caleb she had made her choice before it all. Before appearing at his door last night. Like always, her actions held purpose beyond what he had initially seen. To leave now would be to strip her of joy.

It was his turn, so Caleb made his choice. It was a small one: only for this moment. He did not know what he would do after this moment expired, he just knew he couldn’t bear to break her heart where she lay before him. With that, he strode to the bed.

“I am sorry, liebling.” He sat on it’s edge and placed his hand on hers, stilling their movements. “I only needed a little air.”

Jester’s face immediately brightened. Elation spread a deeper blue to her cheeks and a certain luminescence behind her eyes. The corners of her mouth twitched, a coy smile erupting as she leaned forward conspiratorially. Caleb selfishly welcomed the warmth that spread from his chest at her delight.

“Did you meet anyone super special? Maybe the Traveler? He likes to take walks in the morning, too, you know. Like, really early and everything.” Jester wiggled her eyebrows.

“I did not meet anyone of real importance,” Caleb replied. Jester’s face fell a little, disappointed at her God’s absence. Caleb hurriedly thought of a feasible excuse. “I think it is a little too cold for the Traveler’s tastes right now. The sun is only just up. He must be used to better weather.”

“You are probably right,” Jester mused fondly. “Nicodranas is so much warmer than it is around here, so that’s probably why you didn’t see him. I know technically he can go wherever he wants to and all that – being a God, you know – but I can tell he like Nicodranas the most.”

“He would be a fool not to.”

Jester paused, eyeing Caleb mischievously. To him, she looked as if she was putting together a puzzle and suddenly two of the pieces fit.

“You called me that last night, you know.” Jester’s tongue balanced momentarily on one of her more sharpened teeth.

“A fool?”

Caleb blinked dumbfounded when she laughed at the absurdity. When had Caleb ever called her such?

Liebling.”

She tested the word a few more times like it was honeycomb chewed in her mouth. Caleb ached to kiss it from her lips.

“What does it mean?”

“What do you think it means?” Caleb leaned forward to mirror her. He smiled at her softly.

“You really want to know?”

It was a dangerous game—reckless. Jester relished in it, Caleb could tell. How, when she reached forward beneath his layers to find his bare abdomen, he shuddered under her gentle touch. And he was in too deep to stop playing. There would be time later to discuss what had transpired.

Ja, take your best guess.”

Jester climbed onto his lap, each leg straddling the sides of him. Her blue tail curled like a vine around the two of them. She tugged upward at his shirt, her other hand gently holding one side of his rough, bearded face.

“I think it means you should come back to bed. You’ve got too many clothes on, anyway.”

Caleb simply nodded in agreement as he began to shrug off his coat.