The knock comes while Caleb is sitting crosslegged in the middle of his bed, surrounded by paper, ink, his spellbook, one or two other tomes, and about a dozen crumpled, scribbled-out sketches of arcane glyphs scattered all over the covers and the floor.
"Come in," he calls absently without looking up from attempt number thirteen.
The door opens almost silently, so he is surprised when he finally glances up and sees that it's Jester. Her entrances are not usually so tame, thinks Caleb, unable to help the way he feels one corner of his mouth curve up at the sight of her.
"Hey," she greets him, hands clasped behind her back now, bouncing a little bit on her heels.
"Hey yourself," he smiles back. "I thought you were going shopping with the others."
"Oh, well, I was going to, but…"
Jester falls silent. Something is troubling her, Caleb realizes immediately — the tip of her tail is twitching anxiously back and forth like a cat's, and the casual, easy expression playing around her mouth does not reach her eyes.
There are a lot of problems in this fucked-up world that are beyond Caleb's ability to fix, but unhappiness in Jester is at least one that he can try. Hastily he gathers his books and writing materials into an unwieldy stack and moves them to the foot of the bed. "Sit down," he tells her, patting a spot on the mattress next to him.
Her shoulders slump just a fraction with barely-concealed relief, and she crosses the small room to join him, clambering onto the bed so that they're sitting side by side against the headboard. Jester draws one knee up to her chest. "Trying something new?" she asks with a nod toward the pile of crumpled papers.
"Oh, that is your spell. For the teleportation circle." Caleb runs a hand through his hair, uncomfortably aware of how many obvious failed attempts there are. "It is coming along a bit...slower than I would have hoped, but…"
Jester lunges forward and grabs one of the balled-up sketches, unfolding it carefully on the coverlet in the middle of the bed. "That's really cool, though, Caleb!" she exclaims, tracing the runes and symbols with one finger. "Man, the Traveler never gives me anything like this, it's always just prayers and stuff. I wish I could write my spells down."
"Believe me, it is more trouble than it is worth," Caleb smiles. "I am a bit jealous of you, actually."
Jester sits back against the headboard at his side again, still fiddling with the wrinkled paper on her knee. She smooths it out again and again, flattens the creases, tries to piece together the edges where one corner has torn slightly. "That's sort of what I wanted to talk to you about, actually. Kind of."
Caleb watches her hands, those delicate artist's fingers caressing and dancing across his failure of a spell inscription. "Jealousy?”
He has some thoughts about both, but he nods. “Go on."
"Well, you know…" Absently she folds the paper in half, fiddles with it some more. "The Traveler’s been teaching me new spells, of course, because I just keep getting more and more powerful, which is really nice, obviously."
"And there's one he says he can teach me, where — "
Her hands go still. Caleb tears his gaze away from them to look at her face. Gods help her, she looks frightened.
"Do you think…"
Jester hesitates, and it's like Caleb can feel her heartbeats in the air between them, transmitting doubt, transmitting fear. He wonders if she's afraid of what he will think when he hears what she has to say, or if she's afraid of how it will sound to her own ears when she voices it out loud, or if she's afraid of something else — like he is, like he has been for...some time now.
"Do you think," she repeats quietly, avoiding his eyes, "that there are some things it would be wrong to forget?"
There is a long silence after the words leave her mouth, in which they seem to float slowly down and come to rest on the coverlet between Caleb and Jester, like dust settling through a beam of sunlight.
"I think it depends," Caleb says at last, testing the thought out on his tongue, wondering whether he's lying or not. "I think that...it depends on the memory, and it depends on...why you are forgetting it."
Jester shifts uncomfortably, and the mattress creaks. The paper lies forgotten in her lap for the time being.
"We all have things that we would like to forget." Flames hiss and pop around the edges of Caleb's mind. "Some things must be...must be honored, I think. Learned from."
"Like mistakes." She tilts her gaze up at him, her violet eyes startling a place deep in his heart and sending ripples out into the rest of his body, as they have been doing so often lately. "Is that what you mean? Regrets?"
"Ja, I — " He clears his throat. "I suppose. But also…"
The moments that have replayed themselves in his nightmares all week flash past his consciousness before he is quick enough to stop them: that cavern, that dark pool, that curling sweet whisper burrowing into his skull, the deep bite of a greatsword, the blood.
"There is some...pain, sometimes, certain kinds of pain, that I believe it is...right to carry with us. It can remind us what we value. What we hold dear." A wall of fire, the sound of crackling skin. "What we cannot live without."
At his side, Jester gives a noncommittal hum and stretches her feet out, leaning back into the pillows. She is staring up at the ceiling now.
What is she seeing? asks that deep place in Caleb's heart.
"This spell," he begins after a pause, gently, "the one your god is going to teach you — it has to do with memory? With forgetting?"
Jester lets out all of her breath, slowly, before she responds with a murmured, "Yeah."
A familiar sense of concern twists almost imperceptibly in the center of Caleb's chest. For the hundredth or thousandth time he wishes he could track down this Traveler in whatever aether he wanders when he's not haunting Jester and seize him by those green-cloaked shoulders, shake him, demand that he explain himself, his motives. Mysterious ways, indeed.
If you fuck her up, he remember praying one night, not so long ago, unwilling to speak in anything more than the barest whisper for fear of waking up Nott, if you are careless with what she has given you, there will be consequences — you know that, right? You know that she is not alone?
There had been no answer from the darkness, no subtle flicker of shadow that could have been the swish of a verdant cape, but he hadn't needed one. His words had been heard. That was all that mattered.
Now, however — he cannot speak so openly to Jester now, or ever, in all likelihood, so he must measure his words carefully, choose nothing too sharp or too heavy. "I am...familiar with spells that can be used to erase, or to modify, someone's memories. It is a dangerous branch of magic, Jester."
She turns onto her side, propped up with one elbow, to look him in the eye. "You've had it done to you before."
It's not a question, or a guess. Caleb is only paralyzed and breathless for a second, because...well, it's Jester. Of course she has worked it out. She probably worked it out before she walked into this room with him. The inerrancy with which she is somehow able to pierce not only his defenses but his actual secrets is...disquieting. But it is also, little by little, ceasing to surprise him any longer.
He draws in a deep breath. "Yes," he says, throat and chest tight. "I have...experienced this."
"Someone fucked with your head when you were younger?"
"You could put it that way, ja," he says with a hollow chuckle.
"Oh, Caleb." Jester puts a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry."
He forces a quick smile onto his face for her. "Don't be," he tells her, as warmth radiates from her hand out into his body and limbs. "It was a long time ago."
"Still, that kind of shit leaves scars, yeah?" She gives his arm a squeeze, like lightning. "I mean there are scars, and there are scars, right? It's a lot easier to heal someone's body than their heart, or their soul."
"Well, you'd have to be a pretty good healer."
Jester spends another long minute gazing at him, searching his face for some sign that he doesn't know how to give her, before flopping over onto her back against the pillows once more and folding her arms across her chest. Caleb's forearm burns with the absence of her hand.
"Do you think a spell like that can be used for something good, though?" she asks, her brow furrowed and her nose wrinkling for just a moment. "Like, not for tricking someone or like implanting something in their head, but just to help them forget about something? If it's not something that's like...worth remembering, you know."
Caleb's heart aches. "What do you want to forget, Jester?"
She turns toward him with a surprised glance. "Oh — well I wasn't thinking of me, Caleb, I — "
Oh, scheisse, don't say it, he thinks wildly, but it's too late.
"I was thinking about you."
The silence that falls between them now is different from earlier. It is a wall. Unintentional, unwanted — Caleb would push it down immediately if he could think of any words — but undeniable.
Jester’s particular brand of kindness used to strike Caleb as thoughtless, or at least as less thoughtful than it sometimes ought to be, but five months (it has only been five months, he marvels still) spent in her company have disabused him of this belief. He knows now that, if anything, these gestures are overthought on her part: that she worries, that she rehearses her words in her head for moments like these. She is not a great one for rehearsing anything, of course, but this is crossing a boundary, an emotional line. A wall.
Jester is very careful with her grappling hooks around the people she loves.
“I know it’s not my place to ask,” she begins hesitantly, after the silence has stretched on for a minute —
“It is your place.” The wall crashes down more easily than he had anticipated, or perhaps Jester really has just snuck down from the ramparts to open the gate from the inside. “It is your place, you are my friend.”
She smiles. “You don’t know what I’m going to ask.”
Caleb returns the smile, not bothering to hide the pain that comes with it. “I think that you are going to ask about my parents.”
“No, Caleb, I wouldn’t.” Jester sits up again, and this time she moves so that she’s sitting opposite, both of them crosslegged, facing each other. She has begun to fiddle with the crumpled spell sheet again. “That’s nothing you have to tell me about, or any of us about, until you’re ready. And you don’t have to answer this either, obviously. I was just wondering if...you know...if you have. If you’ve talked about it with anyone.”
He drops his gaze to her hands again, folding and unfolding the paper. “I have talked about it,” he says quietly. “Once.”
“I’m glad,” she replies, quieter still. “Talking about things is...it can be good. It can help heal.”
“It would be hard without it,” he admits.
“If you ever want to talk to me — ” She nudges one of his knees with her own. “I don’t even know the spell yet, and even after the Traveler teaches it to me it’s gonna take a lot of practice before I can use it on...on really old memories. And maybe you won’t want it. I would understand if you didn’t. But if you did, and if you wanted to talk to me…”
“Du bist sehr süss,” he murmurs. How can he explain? “I cannot just...forget, Jester. I do not get that luxury.”
“You don’t think they would want you to?”
He has to laugh a little at this, though it doesn’t sound very cheerful as it leaves his mouth. “I don’t think it matters what they would have wanted. It is not what I want.”
“Oh, of course,” she says quickly, “I completely get it, I just thought I would check. I mean if I’d had someone poking around in my head before I would probably not want that again either.”
“Believe me, if I ever trusted anyone to do it, it would be you.” He notes with a distant thrum of pleasure the faint blush that appears high in her cheeks. “But that is not even — I am making a different point. This is a memory that I want to hold onto.”
“To honor it?”
“You could say that.”
Jester chews gently on her lower lip. “I’m not saying you should forget the whole thing, you know — not, like, the fact of it. That would be kind of fucked up.”
“But maybe just...parts of it.”
“Jester,” he sighs, reaching halfway to place a hand on her knee before coming to his senses, “you do not even know what happened. You have guesses. They are probably good guesses, but that is all. And I am not going to burden you with the truth.”
Her eyes flash through him like spears. “I’m not going to burden you with my truth either.”
“Which truth is that?”
“I’m not going to tell you how that dragon’s teeth felt in my side.” She’s twisting the paper in her hands now, like she’s angry at it. “Or how the air smelled like lightning when I thought I was all alone. Or what it sounded like every time Yasha stabbed you under that well and all the breath went out of your lungs. Or what you looked like covered in that much blood.”
Now he does reach for her knee. It is a useless gesture, he is sure, but he cannot do nothing. “You don’t have to — ”
“I’m just gonna say that those things sucked. And you know what? I never want to forget helping defeat a dragon, or saving your life down there. Never. But if I could forget those parts of it? How everything smelled and sounded and felt?”
“You would stop having nightmares,” Caleb murmurs, his throat tight.
Caleb draws his hand back. His mouth feels dry as ash. “Jester, liebste,” he says, the Zemnian endearment finding its way into his words before he knows it’s happened, “I do not want to stop having nightmares. I want to remember these things. Vividly. Forever. I have to.”
Her shoulders slump. This wasn’t how she expected this to go, he knows, and though she tries to mask it behind a curious tone of voice, he can hear disappointment mingled with sadness in her next words. “What would happen if you stopped?”
A dozen easy answers flood into the pause that he takes. I would have nothing to live for. I would be able to live again. I would be too afraid to do what must be done. I would have a chance. I could stop running. I could stop hoping.
I could kiss you. I would kiss you until you were sick of me.
“I would have nothing left to punish myself with,” he tells her at last.
I would be happy.
It’s not true, of course, not really. There are plenty of other moments from his past that haunt him, enough regret and misery to leave plenty leftover if the sense memories of this one day were to vanish. He has done terrible things. It is almost a comforting refrain these days — it is safe. He can rest in the certainty of his worthlessness, with no need to try, no need to confront.
He would still kiss her, though. And that would be close enough.
As if she has read his thoughts — as if she really can read his thoughts, which would explain so much — his heart is thudding wildly — Jester leans in, and she's taking his face in her hands, running a thumb over a little scar left over from shaving the other day — Caleb is too slow to stop her, or maybe he doesn't care, maybe he's just going to let her, maybe this can happen, maybe everything — maybe —
She kisses his forehead. Brushes his hair back a little bit and does it again. Then she sits back, and there are tears in her eyes.
"I'm gonna have to be really powerful before I could even use the spell like this," she says, and he's grateful, so grateful, that she's speaking right away, before he has to worry about how his throat has closed up and his mind has gone blank and his body would betray him if he tried to form any words at all — "I mean it's gonna be months, or years, even, and maybe by then…" A tear rolls down her cheek, but she's smiling. (Smiling, with lips that just kissed him.) "Maybe by then you'll feel ready to stop punishing yourself."
"Maybe," he hears himself agree, like it's the easiest thing in the world. "A lot of things can change in a few months. Or a year."
It's not so crazy, he admits to himself. After all, five months with Jester has turned his world upside-down, changed his life, shattered his heart. What sort of man will he be after a year with her?
Jester wipes the tear from her cheek, still smiling, and she holds out her hand — he takes it without a moment's hesitation. "Well, you just let me know, okay? If you ever change your mind."
"And remember — " She ducks her head, a rare moment of — shyness? Something else? "Remember that you have a really big family now, and that — you're loved."
"You are loved, too, Jester." Caleb traces his thumb across the back of her hand. "Deeply."
Scheisse, what has she done to him? He is practically on the verge of telling her everything. If one kiss on the forehead can do this, she must never be allowed to kiss him anywhere else. Where would she kiss him if he shared the story of his parents' death, if he told her more about the Academy, about that house in the country full of so much pain and fear and love? Where would she kiss him if —
There is a loud knock on the door, and Jester starts — Caleb jerks his hand away, silently cursing himself, and a voice from outside calls, "Jester, that bakery's gonna be closed in like twenty minutes, time to hustle."
Jester flashes a grin at Caleb. "I promised Fjord that if he bought me donuts I'd take him clothes shopping. Well. I threatened that if he didn't buy me donuts I would take him clothes shopping, but it's still gonna happen. I'm gonna make him get one of those cool cloaks like Shadowhand Essik."
"How did he know that you were in h—" But Jester is already clambering off the bed, crossing the room with a renewed bounce in her step, and Caleb only gets a glimpse of Fjord tapping his foot impatiently on the hallway floor before she has closed the door behind her and left him alone.
He glances around him, at the spellbook and other paraphernalia littering the bed, unsure whether to feel relieved or disappointed. Magic, or jealousy? echoes that deep place within him.
He shrugs it off. Stay on task, he tells it, only he's no longer completely certain what that task is.
It's only as he gathers his things once more, preparing to resume work on the teleportation circle spell transcription, that he sees what Jester has left for him, tucked into the coverlet just under his knee. Something akin but not identical to wonderment sparks and blazes in his chest as he picks it up. It is the crumpled failure of arcane notation that Jester was playing with so innocently before, twisting and creasing it as they spoke about matters of the heart.
That's what she has folded it into. A paper heart, marred with a few scribbled-out mistakes and some faded wrinkles and tears. But mostly smooth. Mostly symmetrical.
That dark, deep place within him shudders again, ripples on a pond, spilling over into conscious thought: ich habe eine chance, ich könnte aufhören zu rennen. Ich könnte hoffen.
Gods be damned, there are a lot of problems in this fucked-up world that are beyond Caleb's ability to fix, but beyond Jester's? Is there anything?
He takes out the journal from his left-side holster and tucks the paper heart into its pages, somewhere in the middle, before returning to his work. Xhorhassian runes and sigils are slightly different than what he is used to, even for non-dunamantic magic, and transcribing this spell into something he can copy comfortably into his own spellbook is probably going to take a few more failed attempts. But if he can concentrate — stay on task — he can probably finish it by tonight.
And if not, Jester will get some more crumpled paper to practice on. And that might not be such a bad thing.