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and i will cover you in winter

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The sky is gray, the wind is cold, and he, as is in line with his cowardly nature, does not want to be here.

 

The chill bites at his nose, cuts across his cheek. Though his clothes are of fine make (or at least the finest he’s had in several years), he can easily imagine feeling the cold creeping in, peeling back the layers one by one to curl around him and freeze him in place. A true Zemnian winter.

 

The weather is only partially to blame for his attitude. Looking to his left, he can see the temple to the Dawnfather close by. Blumenthal’s only established house of worship, its doors are propped open and the glow of many candles emanates from within, even though it’s still daylight out, and proper Barren Eve service won’t start until after dusk. 

 

They’ve just come from the temple having lit two candles of their own. The experience itself was...interesting, to say the least; his nonreligious nature and the...entirety of Jester's, had led to both of them standing there awkwardly after lighting them, unsure of what to do next. Even upon just walking into the temple, Jester had paused in the threshold for a minute, though whether it was due to her own relationship with divinity or something else, he couldn’t say. Regardless, she’d followed in when he’d given her a rare, slightly beseeching look, one that let him say please don’t leave me alone right now without having to open his mouth.

 

If he looks back to the temple and focuses hard enough, he can make out the central altar, the blazing holy light of Pelor rendered in humbly sized but beautifully stained glass. For a moment, he finds himself lost in the image. Though he is not religious, he can easily imagine that radiant light boring into him, burning him from the inside out.

 

And even though he’s working on it, has been working on it, trying to get better, trying to beat back the voices in his head that would tell him he’s worthless, nothing—some days he thinks that would be for the best.

 

Particularly on days like today, when he is so acutely aware of his cardinal sins that he can’t breathe with it, an enormous pressure on his chest and what feels like an iron cage around his heart.

 

They’re out of the temple yard by now, following the small path to the main road that will take them to their final destination. Though much is still the same about his small hometown, subtle differences do catch his eye: the butcher has added a room in the back and repainted her porch trim, the tailor has moved buildings. The children that run around are none he recognizes; in all likelihood, they are the kinder of children he grew up with. Time, it appears, has affected Blumenthal like any other place.

 

+++

 

The stones are larger than he expected. Truthfully, he hadn’t expected there to be any at all; he can’t imagine what anyone from Blumenthal made of the burning house and his disappearance, let alone what they decided to do afterwards.

 

(He finds out, magically disguised in the town’s only tavern, that it was communally decided to tear down what was left of the house, after it became clear the Ermendrud boy wouldn’t be returning. Some think he set the fire, the barkeep says, while others are adamant it was an accident. 

 

They tilt their head and glance down briefly. “Either way, it’s a damn shame. He was a bright one, and the parents were lovely. But what can you do?”

 

Caleb hesitates a moment too long before replying, “That, ah, sounds tragic. I hope things have gone better for you all in the time since.” 

 

They start to reply, but he’s already heading towards the door.)

 

Looking to his right, he can see the patch of land where his childhood home once stood. Even though it’s the middle of winter, and quite cold outside, there’s no snow on the ground, and it’s easy to notice how bare the land is compared to the surrounding grassy fields. 

 

They are standing next to a large oak tree. Though the tree is solitary now, he remembers it only taking a short run from his back door to reach the low hanging branches and use all of his strength to pull himself up.

 

When they first arrived, Jester had asked him about the tree, and he had told her about how he used to spend entire summer afternoons amongst its boughs. He’d scramble up to the highest branch he could reach, tuck himself into a natural nook between trunk and branch, and feel the sunlight dapple his cheeks through the large leaves. It wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep there, only startling awake when his mother, standing in the frame of the back door, called for his return for supper. 

 

When he had finished reminiscing, Jester had turned to him with a smile. “Huh! I can’t imagine little Caleb being into the outdoors and stuff. I just imagined, like, a mini-version of you sitting and reading at a tiny desk all day, with a tiny Frumpkin for company.”

 

“Oh, I was not a fan of the outdoors, really. I just liked to sit up there.” He had paused a moment, before turning to her with a small, begrudging smile. “And read.” 

 

She had laughed, and his heart clenched briefly as he was struck with the sensation that he’d like to spend his whole life trying to hear it again.

 

No one is laughing now as they stare at the two stones placed near the base of the oak tree, his hand gripped tight in Jester’s.

 

They’re simple stones, almost exceedingly so. Engraved in an uncomplicated script on the left stone is Leofric Sigmund Ermendrud , with 773 P.D.-820 P.D. engraved slightly smaller below it. The right bears Una Rachel Ermendrud , 776 P.D.-820 P.D. There are no gifts or surrounding plant life, save for the oak tree and the grass. Nothing to indicate that anyone beyond him has visited or even thought about this place for a long time.

 

Caleb stares at them for a while, long enough that eventually he can feel Jester squeeze his hand and ask softly, “Are you alright, Caleb?”

 

He doesn’t look at her, can’t look at her right now; the most he can do is gently squeeze her hand back in response. He can feel that pressure building in his chest, and he finds himself blinking steadily as a burning sensation builds behind his eyes.

 

Though he tries to keep his growing distress under control, something must show on his face, some sign of no, I am very much not alright and in fact, I am probably on the verge of doing something I will be embarrassed about later , as Jester just hums softly and starts to move away. He’s at once both grateful for her ability to recognize his desire for space, and desperate for her to remain as close as possible. 

 

He communicates this by reaching out for the hand that recently vacated his, lacing their fingers together in a warm, solid grip. “Please, um....please do not go.”

 

Jester, poised to keep moving away to give him a respectful amount of privacy, turns back towards him and moves in twice as close now, her front pressed to his arm and side. She returns at a speed that lets him know she didn’t quite want to leave him either. “Of course, Caleb.” She squeezes his hand again, firmer this time. Her other hand begins to move slowly up and down the arm she’s leaning against, stroking up and down the fabric of his coat, a reassuring and grounding movement. 

 

Another long moment passes before the silence is broken. “Will you tell me about them?” Jester’s voice is quiet, so unlike her usual bold presence that for a second he is pulled out of his misery and turning to her, needing to make sure Jester herself is alright. Her expression, when he sees her, is one of both sorrow and hope, mournful eyes and a small smile. His instinct, the one that was beaten and ground into him with grueling lessons and residuum shards in his arms, has him cynically searching her for any sign of an ulterior motive. This only continues for a second, however, before the rest of his brain, the parts that have methodically been working to undo the damage of that abuse, silences it. He instead chooses to focus on Jester: her hand wrapped snugly around his arm now, her breath forming a fog cloud on every exhale into the winter air, how tiny flecks of white from the just-beginning snowfall are clinging to her eyelashes.

 

No searching for any attempt at manipulation, because he knows, more than he’s ever known anything, that there isn’t any.

 

She’s still looking at him with a hopeful expectancy when he realizes he has not answered her. 

 

“Oh, well...I am not sure-”

 

“It’s okay, you don’t have to, I don’t mean to pressure-” Her hand grips his tighter in her urgency to reassure him.

 

“No, it’s quite alright, Schatz, I am just not sure what you would like to know.” 

 

She takes a thoughtful pause, gaze turning briefly inward as she thinks to herself. “How about the simple stuff? Were they nice to you? Were they nice to each other?” She looks back at him, that hopeful look returning.

 

His words catch in his throat as he takes her in, her words and what they mean. He’s well aware that it has been decades since—since—well. It’s been a long time, and if popular wisdom is correct, his wounds should have healed by now. Standing here, though, in front of two graves while the love of his life asks about the people inside them, the parents he murdered—he can feel every stitch in his broken heart rip open again all at once.

 

J-ja, ja, they were lovely. Wonderful parents.” A beat of silence. “They loved each other very much.”

 

He can tell she’s torn between wanting to ask more and not wanting to pry. In another context, he might be curious about the restraint she’s showing. Right now, though, he’s just selfishly grateful. It’s silent for a while longer before she speaks again. 

 

“Caleb...I don’t want to push too far or make you super sad but...maybe it might help if you just...talked about them some more? Or maybe even to them? I know you don’t really believe in anything, like, out there or whatever, but...it’s Barren Eve, you know? It’s a time to remember, even if it hurts.” Her hand unlaces from his as she moves to stand directly in front of him; the wool of her mitten is soft against his cheek as her hand rests on the side of his face. “I think, for good things at least, the pain is worth it, to remember.”

 

His eyes close as his hand moves to cover hers. “Jester...” He takes a deep breath, trying to steady himself against the nervous tremors that threaten to rack his body. “I don’t—you may be right, it’s just—it’s hard.” The last part is whispered, so quiet in the cold air that he’s not even sure that she heard it.

 

Apparently she did, however, because next thing he knows her strong arms are wrapped around him in a sturdy embrace. One hand begins to stroke his hair, and he realizes that his face is wet, his chest hitching a little. “That’s okay, Caleb.” Her hand in his hair is comforting. “I’d be more worried if it weren’t. It’d probably be like, super fucked up if all of...this...wasn’t difficult. It would probably mean that you weren’t a very good person, if this was easy.”

 

She says it so simply, it’s surprising how hard it punches him in the chest. He doesn’t want to argue with her; logically, he knows she has a point, but the irrational part of him thinks that would only matter if you weren’t already despicable, a creature made to look human but you’re not, you’re ruined, forever, and you’re so selfish that you’ll ruin her too—  

 

“Caleb? Please come back to me. Wherever you’ve gone...I like having you here with me better. Please.” Jester’s soft voice begins to filter in, in through the cacophony of his thoughts feedback looping in on one another. Sensation returns soon enough, and he again forces himself to find different ones to focus on. The crisp scent of fresh snowfall, the faint whistle of wind through the oak tree’s bare branches, the feeling of Jester’s arms around him—it all helps to pull him back to reality. 

 

“I’m here,” he says quietly. “I’m here.” He swallows and gently pulls away from Jester’s arms, returning to their original position of standing side-by-side, hands interlocked. 

 

Ja, okay. Um...” A deep, steadying breath. “My father’s favorite food was the stollen my mother would make every winter. I think it was less that it was delicious—although do not mistake me, it certainly was—and more the fact that she had made it, and it was a treat. We only had it in the winter, when the wind would be so cold we had to huddle around the fire, even indoors. I remember once, ah...”

 

And it’s—it’s not easy to lose himself in the memories, but the anxiety and sorrow do lessen as he goes. What begins as a melancholy recollection of his youth slowly turns into a bittersweet reminiscence of a time before—before. Before he fucked everything up he was molded and twisted into a tool to be used, something to be cast aside when it no longer served its purpose. Jester holds his hand throughout all of it, asking questions and interjecting when appropriate (and even when it’s not, he can’t find it in himself to mind).

 

At a certain point he realizes they’ve sat themselves down on the grass,  the snow kept away by his absentminded casting of magic. “And then what happened? Did Mr. Neumann catch you?” 

 

He scoffs and brings up his free hand to his chest in mock hurt. “Oh, you wound me, Schatz, you do not think I could outrun an old farmer, not even Herr Neumann? I know I’m as thin as a noodle but I had some speed-” His joking answer is cut off with a huff when Jester playfully shoves him with her shoulder, her own laughter ringing clear.

 

“Noooo, Caleb, I’m sure you were very fast! Much faster than old Mr. Neumann.” Her arm wraps around his waist, pulling him into her. Her face is turned towards his, subdued happiness written across her open face. “Thank you for sharing that story with me, and all of the other ones too.”

 

He takes a deep breath, before turning his face to hers. 

 

Ja, well, of course. You asked.” Hoarse as his voice is, the small smile on his face is genuine. 

 

Eyebrows dancing playfully, Jester’s face takes on a mild, pleasantly wry expression, as if, no matter what she says next, she knows he’s in on the joke too. “And you would do anything I asked?”

 

It’s a joke, and he knows it’s a joke. There's plenty of things he could say to keep the joke going, to start up their banter that keeps him smiling for hours and hours until his cheeks hurt,

 

That doesn’t stop him from answering honestly.

 

“Of course.”

 

He expects her to scoff. Roll her eyes, maybe dig her fingers into his side mischievously to get him to roll over into the snow. She’d say stop teasing me, caleb! and he’d say ah, but do you not love it? and they’d both laugh off the tension of the moment.

 

Instead she keeps looking at him, really looking at him, searching his face for...something, he’s not sure. Whatever it is, she finds it, because the next thing he knows her face is buried in the crook of his neck and her hold on him grows even tighter.

 

Uncertain as to what she needs in this moment, he settles on an arm around her shoulders and a hand stroking her hair. Anticipating a certain wetness on his skin, he’s surprised instead to feel Jester’s mouth working against his neck. It takes him a moment to realize that her movements are not romantic in nature (and doesn’t he flush just a little at that thought, no matter how long they’ve been together)—rather, she seems to be saying something.

 

“What was that, Schatz?” He pulls back slightly to look at her again, already missing her warmth against him. “I’m sorry, I missed it.”

 

“I said,” and her breath hitches a little, as if whatever she’s going to say next is having trouble getting itself out. She takes a steadying breath. “You know I feel the same, right?” Her eyes raise to meet his, the force of her gaze full frontal against him. “I would do anything you’d asked of me, Caleb.” 

 

A moment passes of the two of them just looking at each other, sitting with the weight of what the other has just told them. Later on, he’ll think about this moment, the way Jester looked and saw right through the core of him, and marvel at the fact that, even though both of them were completely serious, there was never any feeling of dread associated with the significance of their promises. The way he felt then, is feeling now, in this moment...he finds himself feeling lighter than he ever thought possible. Jester would never lie to him, not now, and if she said...Well, while he is in the business of doubting himself, he has never once thought to doubt her.

 

Jester returns her head to its spot against his shoulder, a puzzle piece fitting into place. The ever-present negative feedback loop, the voices in his head that would admonish him for feeling even a sliver of happiness, is blessedly silent. 

 

And for the first time in a long while, with the woman he loves in his arms, he is allowed to simply be.