“Do you ever wonder…” Veth trailed off. Caleb turned his head away from his book until he could see her. She was leaning against the wall and sitting up in her nest of blankets, looking out the window and the spill of stars in the sky over Rexxentrum.
He waited a moment before prompting, “do I ever wonder…?”
Veth took in a breath and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She sighed.
“Nevermind, it was stupid. Besides, we should try to sleep.”
At that moment Caduceus let loose a particularly loud snore. Veth and Caleb’s eyes met and then there was no stopping it: giggles started to pour out of their mouths until Caleb could feel tears forming at the corners of his eyes.
“Easier said than done with this symphony,” he managed to say.
“It’s a miracle Jester hasn’t woken up yet between Fjord and Cad,” Veth said.
Caleb shrugged and looked over at where Fjord and Jester laid together beneath a blanket on the bed. It was too small for a firbolg, and he and Veth had demurred, citing their many months of sleeping in alleys and roadsides together, and insisted that they would be perfectly fine on the floor. Even then, it was a tight squeeze for her and Fjord; Jester was wrapped around him like a vine of ivy, and Fjord had one arm around her shoulders while his feet stuck out over the bottom edge of the bed.
“You snore, you know,” he said. He started to laugh again when Veth’s full, pouty mouth made the most indignant scowl.
“I do not, you take that back, you slanderer!”
“Forgive me, I should not have said it, it was not quite right.”
“It’s not right at all!” Now Veth had twin spots of color high on her cheeks and it was all Caleb could do not to reach out and touch her. His capricious friend…
“You used to, though! When you were a goblin, I mean.”
“Ugh, well there’s one more thing to make me appreciate being a halfling again. I wasn’t as bad as them, was I?”
Caleb shook his head.
“You were a very quiet snorer. It was almost like a purr, really. It was…it was--”
“Spit it out already!”
“It was cute.”
Veth’s mouth made a round o-shape, her eyes huge and unblinking. It was times like this that he wished he could draw like Jester. Even though her eyes no longer glowed in the dark, there was something arresting about Veth in this silvery moonlight. She became a study in chiaroscuro, her piercings glinting out from the shadows and her tattoos half-real and half-illusion.
They sat there in awkward silence before Caleb closed his book altogether and said, “what were you going to ask me earlier?”
“You said, ‘do you ever wonder’, but you didn’t finish. What were you going to ask me?”
Veth’s breath caught in her throat before she let out a gusty sigh and shook her head.
“And I told you, it was stupid.”
“Even if it was, which I doubt because you are very smart, better that we talk nonsense than just sit here.”
Veth narrowed her eyes at him.
“It’s not like we’ll be getting to sleep anytime soon,” he continued and gestured at their friends. At that Veth gave a small snort.
“Okay, I’ll give you that.” She sat there for a minute, worrying at a loose hangnail.
“I was just thinking that… what do you think our lives would have been like if we’d met differently? Earlier, I mean?”
Caleb wasn’t sure what question he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that one. Veth saw Caleb’s confusion plainly written across his face and started babbling:
“I told you it was stupid, and it doesn’t matter--”
Caleb lunged forward and put his hand on Veth’s arm, cradling her elbow. She stopped talking but looked up at him with worry lines around her eyes.
“I don’t think it’s stupid Veth. I just don’t know how it would have happened. I grew up in Blumenthal, miles and miles away from Felderwin. And then I was at the academy, and if I had met you while I was there…” At best, he would’ve discounted her without a second thought. At worst, he would have made her hurt.
“Well, what if before Trent came along you had to go to Felderwin for some reason? Like… like what if there was a blight on the wheat in Blumenthal that was native to Felderwin? And so you and others from your village traveled to Felderwin to learn how to combat it?”
“Why must there be a blight on my wheat? Why couldn’t you have traveled to the Zemni Fields to learn how to combat the blight on your own wheat?”
Veth blushed. “You left for Soltryce when you were fifteen; I wouldn’t have been older than seven at the time. No one would’ve brought a little girl traveling that far.”
“Ah,” Caleb said. For all that he had an excellent memory, sometimes he forgot that Veth was eight years younger than him. Even when she was Nott and lied and said she was no older than nine, he always saw her as an adult. Maybe it was because she had married and became a mother so early in life--she’d had to grow up so fast.
“So, I went to learn about wheat blights in Felderwin Tillage. How would we have met?”
“Maybe…” Veth said. “Maybe I met you when I helped bring supper to the field workers with the other women in the village. I would’ve noticed you right away. A handsome boy among all the visitors, with red hair and an exotic accent. I probably would’ve had a crush on you.” Veth shrugged. “And then you would’ve looked at me and seen an awkward little halfling girl with mismatched socks who couldn’t stop staring at you. Yeah, you’re right, it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Caleb wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want their story to end there. They were in dangerous territory if they continued. But suddenly Caleb looked at the Veth in front of him and he could see the Veth she would have been back then, shy and odd and uncherished. He couldn’t let this be the end of it.
“I would have seen that you were more than unmatched socks,” he said, the words rushing out of him before she could try and belittle herself again. “You would have caught my eye with your flowers and your buttons and your colors. And you would have done something, made a daisy chain or sewn a patch on someone’s shirt and I would have noticed your clever hands. I would have started a conversation and when we started talking I would have seen how brilliant you are. And I would have been too polite to mention your crush. After all,” he said, and lifted his chin in a silly show of haughtiness, “I was a very handsome youth, with my plentiful acne and my skinny ankles.”
Veth smiled and the world was right again. He shifted his bedroll until it abutted hers, the blankets starting to tangle together near their feet.
“I was an insufferable child, you know,” he said. “Smarter than everyone I met, and I knew it.”
“Well if you pulled any snootiness with me, I’d’ve really let you have it.”
“Would you,” he asked. Veth nodded until her hair became a mass of dark, rippling waves.
“I was the town weirdo, but I never let anyone say that to my face. If people wanted to mess with me, they had to get creative about it.”
“Of course they did. You would have put me in my place and I would have been so impressed with you for it. You are too strong for anyone to insult you and get away with it.”
“I don’t know if I’d say I’m strong. More like stubborn.” Before Caleb could say anything to the contrary, she went on to say:
“I’d probably teach you things, like how to catch the best fish from the river, or how to darn socks. Oh---and I’d teach you how to make chicken-fried steak for Da’leysen suppers.”
“Veth, I cannot say I’ve ever heard meat used as an adjective before.”
“It’s a tough cut of beef,” Veth explained, “but you stab it with skewers until it’s full of holes and then dredge it in flour and fry it like chicken. It’s really good with white gravy and fresh-ground pepper.”
“There’s a Zemnian dish I know that’s like that, we call it Jägerschnitzel and eat it for the harvest. But we use pork, and the gravy is made with mushrooms.”
“I’d love to learn how to make that. It’s been years since I’ve had anything even close to chicken-fried steak. It used to be my favorite meal.”
Caleb wished he could see Veth cook. These days they either ate in the tower, or in town. On the rare occasions they had no shelter, Caduceus took over the cooking duties. He’d never really seen her in a domestic situation before. She was always moving. Always running.
“Eventually you’d have to leave for Blumenthal again,” she said. “But we would stay in touch. When Zander Felling stole my rock collection and threw it in the river I would have written to you about it and I wouldn’t have felt so alone.”
“I would have told you some very mean tricks you could play on him, he sounds like a little shit.”
“Oh, he was,” she said. “But I got my revenge: I smeared pine sap in his hair and his mother had to cut it out. He had a bald patch for weeks.” Caleb laughed. He wished he could have seen that, a young Veth triumphant while her bully had a bare pate like an old man.
After a moment: “I would have written to you about how I missed Astrid and Eodwulf. I wouldn’t have known how lucky I was, to be away from home when the Assembly came to investigate the magical children there. I would only have been jealous that my friends went to a fine school to learn magic. Jealous that they left me behind.”
Veth leaned her head against his shoulder and linked their arms together.
“Well maybe we could have gone to school together. You would have waited a few years to try and save some money for food and rent and books and so would I, and by the time I was old enough to go we could have had enough to make our way to a university.”
“Not in Rexxentrum, though. Maybe Zadash.”
“Zadash,” Veth agreed. “We would spend our spring breaks at the Tillage, and the autumn breaks in the Zemni Fields.”
“Sowing the fields in Felderwin and harvesting them in Blumenthal?”
“Exactly! And that way I could eat Jägerschnitzel with you.” Caleb smiled and nodded, turning over the image in his mind: Veth sitting at his parents’ table, legs swinging off of the edge of a chair made for humans, while she and his mother traded recipes.
“I wish you could have met my parents. They would have adored you.”
Veth gave a wan smile as she looked up at him.
“You really think so?”
“I know so. My parents never met a beau of mine they didn’t like, and you would be going to university with me and helping with our field work and--”
“Hold up!” Veth was nearly shouting and Caleb put his hand over her mouth in an attempt to quiet her.
“Shh, they are going to hear you and wake up!”
Don’t think about how soft her mouth is under your palm, don’t think about how striking your slender fingers look against her beautiful warm brown skin…
Veth licked his hand.
“Ach du grüne Neune!” He yanked his hand back in shock, wiping it off on a corner of his blanket. “Veth, warum--”
“Shh, they’re gonna hear you and wake up.”
Caleb glared at her before turning his head to look at the others. One firbolg, one tiefling, and one half-orc were still fast asleep. Fjord let out an extra-long snore.
He looked back over at Veth. Gods, but if she didn’t look like a vision, mischievous and sly with a shit-eating grin.
“That was not very nice,” he said. He knew his reproachful scowl didn’t reach his eyes as Veth tilted her head and smiled even wider.
“Then don’t shush me,” she said. “I hate when people shush me.”
“I… you are right, that was wrong of me. Say what you were going to say, although I will request that you do so quietly this time.”
Her cheeks flushed but she maintained eye-contact as she said, “you said that your parents never met a beau of yours they didn’t like. Just how many sweethearts did you bring home to meet your parents?”
Caleb sputtered and opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water.
“I didn’t, that’s not-- what I meant was--”
“I’m Calep Vidoghast,” Veth said in a deep, sing-song voice, “and I vas an insufferable, pimply, gangly yoout vith GAME comingk out off my earss!”
“That was not the worst Zemnian impression I’ve ever heard, you know. Good job, kleiner Schieter.”
“Did you just call me a little shit?”
“Yes, but I used an endearing diminutive.”
Veth wrinkled her nose, but Caleb could see her smiling even as she turned her face to hide it.
They sat there in a pleasant lull, listening to their friends’ snores and the nightlife of a metropolis that never really sleeps, listening to the sound of their own breaths syncing together.
“What would you have studied at university,” he asked.
“Hmm… probably a bit of magic, because you make it look so cool.”
“You make magic look cool.” Veth rolled her eyes and butted her shoulder against his.
“I think I’d want to study math.”
“I was always good with numbers. I wanted to learn more when I was younger, but I never got the chance because the Felderwin schoolhouse was so limited. So yeah, math. Maybe some economics or business management if I had the time.”
Caleb weighed this against what he already knew, turned over Veth’s careful watch over her money and the way she always had plenty of it to give to him, (never loan, with him she was generous). Remembered that for years she kept the books for a successful alchemy shop, and how they made a tidy profit with her at the helm.
“I could see you doing something with mathematics.”
Veth nodded and looked up at him with a smile.
“And you? What would you do, if you had a do-over?”
“Hmm....” That was the question of a lifetime, wasn’t it? Caleb circled around it in his mind while Veth sat next to him quietly, patiently. She could be hasty with the others sometimes, but she always had infinite patience with him, and she let him take his time thinking while she leaned her head against his shoulder.
“I think… I think I would like to be a teacher.”
“A teacher?” Caleb hadn’t looked back down at Veth yet, but he could still hear the smile in her voice.
“Ja, a teacher. I--” and he leaned down as Veth leaned up to hear him whisper, “I was thinking lately, that maybe when all of this is over-- Aeor, the Somnovum, even Uko’toa and Archivist Zeenoth and whatever we do about the Assembly-- once it’s over and we don’t have any adventures left… I think I’d like to teach. Be a mentor for insufferable young children who are too smart for their own good. Do a bit of good in this world, be the person I never…” There were too many ways to end that sentence. Caleb slowly turned his head until he could see Veth’s face from underneath his eyelashes.
He had never seen Veth cry before. Not once, not when she was in pain and not when she found her home razed to the ground. But her eyes were so luminous and gleaming in the moonlight, the edges of her darks lashes looked almost wet--
“That sounds perfect,” she said on a rush of breath. “You would be an amazing teacher, Lebby.”
Caleb swallowed and nodded.
“So: you would study math and I would learn how to teach. Eventually we would graduate. What then?”
“Well,” Veth said as she gave a big sniff and cleared her throat, “when we graduated we would move back to Blumenthal while we decided what to do next.”
“Nope,” she said, popping the p between her lips. “My brothers would’ve been married by then; my parents would have been up to their ears in daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Too busy and tired to have two unmarried twenty-somethings living with them rent-free.”
Caleb’s heart did a funny thump in his chest as Veth said “unmarried”.
“It wouldn’t have been all honey and roses in Blumenthal, if we went there. My parents would be happy to have us live with them so long as we helped around the house and in the fields from time to time. But they would start asking why I hadn’t proposed to you yet. They were a bit old-fashioned that way, and they would wonder why I was living with a pretty woman and not pursuing anything.”
“You could tell them you hadn’t proposed yet because you’d been waiting for the right time.”
“And what would the right time have been?”
“Once we found a place to settle down, found you a good teaching position, and I’d be an accountant or maybe I’d tutor kids in math at the same school as you. After we were secure, then we’d get married.”
How did they get here? Skipping right past the debate on whether or not they would have ever married and straight to when and how? Then again, this conversation was already so convoluted, at turns twisting through impossible possibilities and revealing precious childhood memories.
Oh, in for a penny, in for a pound:
“But the wedding would be in Blumenthal, before we moved to wherever we found work.”
“Absolutely,” she agreed. “We probably wouldn’t have enough money to spare for a wedding dress, I’d have to get married in my Da’leysen best.”
“Nein,” he said. “My mother would have given you her own wedding dress for you to wear.” Veth turned to look up at him, her mouth open and eyes wide. Caleb smiled and shrugged.
“She never had any daughters to give it to; she would be happy to give it to her daughter-in-law, she herself would have tailored it to fit you.”
“...but I wouldn’t let her do all of the sewing herself. I’d help her with as much as she’d let me,” Veth said. “Do you think she would mind if I sewed flowers along the hem?”
“She would be delighted,” he said. “Of course you would need flowers on your dress to match the flowers in your hair.”
“And the flowers in your hair,” she added.
“And the flowers in my hair,” he agreed. “We would be a very handsome couple.”
“The prettiest damn couple the empire ever saw.”
“So pretty that our Hochzeitstanz would look like something from a music box.”
“Our what now?”
Caleb laughed and looked over at his friend to check they were still asleep before he started to explain:
“It’s a traditional Zemnian wedding dance. Every couple takes to the dance floor with wired garlands of vines and greenery and we dance in a circle and make different patterns. As the man and woman of the hour, der Gatte und die Gattin, you and I would lead everyone in the dance, with a small promenade on and off the dancefloor.”
“Shit,” Veth said, “I’d have to practice for fucking weeks not to make a fool of myself.”
Caleb gave her a stern look and said, “you are very graceful Veth, you would learn it in no time. But we would absolutely use it as an excuse when you got too bogged down in wedding planning. I would say, ‘Veth and I need to practice our Hochzeitstanz’ and I would whisk you away somewhere for a few hours while we did whatever we wanted to do instead.”
Neither of them mentioned that everyone would have seen right through that ruse, or what any normal couple would be doing in their free time away from prying eyes.
“Our home,” Veth said, and was her voice wavering slightly or was that just his imagination, “wouldn’t be very big, but I don’t take up much space anyway.”
“You don’t, but your collections would. I would make sure we had plenty of shelves to put them on display, make sure they had pride of place in the parlor.”
“But everything would have to be too high up for the cats to reach, I’d be furious if they broke anything.”
“The cats,” Caleb asked. Veth gave him a fond, indulgent kind of look, the kind that made her eyes narrow and glitter.
“Do you really think you wouldn’t take in every stray cat for a twenty-mile radius?”
“... we would never have to worry about mice in the house.”
She laughed and laughed.
“A set of shelves for my collections,” she said, “and even more shelves for your books. A dozen or so cats to keep us on our toes. Fresh flowers at our bedside table each week. I’d make us a quilt for each season from my favorite fabric scraps and you’d knit us new socks for Winter’s Crest each year. Jägerschnitzel every autumn, lesson planning every evening. Sounds like a good life to me.”
The silence overtook them, but whereas before it had been warm and pleasant, this was suddenly cold and oppressive. As she’d spoken, outlining the idyll this imaginary Veth and imaginary Caleb would live in, he couldn’t help but see the gaping chasm between it and reality. He felt a slow, twisting sort of pain in his heart. Yes, it was a good life, but what good did it do them now? What was the point of planning out how they would play house, the number of cats they’d have, their children’s names and their retirement plans, if they could never have those things?
“Veth,” he said, his voice low and tight. She kept her head forward for so long he thought she mustn’t have heard him. But eventually she shifted until he could see her face.
Oh gods, but he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to yell at her for dangling such a future in front of him, he wanted to comfort her for dangling it in front of herself. But all he could do was stare as one tear, then another and a third made their way down her plump cheeks.
“There was a time,” she said, her voice much steadier than he expected, “when you wanted to turn back the clock and change everything. Is that still the plan?”
Caleb opened his mouth, but no sound would come out. It had been the plan, hadn’t it? It still was the plan, wasn’t it, in the secret places of his heart where the last dregs of hope had hidden themselves away? The parts that refused to believe that he would never see his parents again, that his last memory of them would be screams--
But the closer he got to his goal, the less sure he was of what that goal even was. How could he destroy one life just to resurrect another? How could he leave everyone he loved behind? And what made it all worse was that there was no escaping this choice. He could have his childhood family, his parents, and Astrid and Eodwulf the way they used to be, or he could have his found family, have the Nein, have Beau and Fjord and--
Caleb felt his vision come back into focus again and saw Veth looking up at him..
“You don’t need to tell me what you’re going to do,” she said, “but promise me…just promise me that you’ll find me in Felderwin, if you get the chance to do things over. Promise me we’ll live in that house with the books and the collections and our cats.”
“I’ll find you,” he said, “I’ll find you again.”
“Please,” she said, and oh, now he could hear the hitch of tears in her voice, “don’t leave me behind, don’t let me live a life without you in it.”
Caleb didn’t speak but scooped her up into his arms. He held her there as what must have been months and maybe years of fears and worries and trauma came pouring out of her in wet, sticky sobs.
“Oh, meine Freundin,” he said into her hair, “I promise, I promise I’ll find you again. I won’t go where you can’t follow. You will never have to live without me…”
Time felt endless as he rocked her back and forth in his arms, letting her muffle her weeping into his chest, letting her keep whatever privacy she still could in this tiny room. He knew she had been conflicted about the different directions her life pulled her in, but he hadn’t known how heavy these thoughts had been for her. How long had Veth had carried these fears with her without asking anyone to help share her burden? Their guilt would keep them company, indeed.
Eventually Veth’s tears slowed to a trickle and she pulled back enough that he could see her damp face, her eyes looking especially red in contrast to her tattoos.
“I got snot all over your shirt,” she said. Her voice was waterlogged and rough, but steadier than it had been before.
“I have gotten much worse things on my shirt before. This was worth it. You are worth it.”
He saw her face crumple a little bit, saw how she had to swallow her protests that she wasn’t worth ruining his shirt over, but after a second or two she gave a short, tight nod. She fidgeted with her hands in her lap, By now she was somewhat recovered from having her walls cracked open and letting her vulnerabilities spool out and around them, but it had left her brittle and stiff as she sat next to him on the floor.
“Here,” Caleb said. He gathered both of their blankets and spread them out again, but he arranged them so they shared each and every one, pushing his legs against hers to make them fit.
“We will share tonight.” He was careful to phrase it neither as a request nor a demand. Just a statement, no need for her to feel guilty about accepting or let her pride sway her into refusing.
Even so, she murmured, “you don’t have to coddle me, I’m okay now.” Even as she said it, Veth laid down next to him and put her head on his chest, and as soon as she did Caleb knew she could hear his heartbeat pick up its pace, ever so slightly.
“No, but I missed this. Indulge me?” She said nothing in response, but wrapped her arms around him, the blankets gripped in one hand to make sure they stayed in place over his shoulders. Caleb brought his own arm around her back, his free hand combing through her thick hair. Only then did she speak, so quietly and muffled into his chest that he couldn’t quite hear what she said. It was either:
“I missed this, too.”
“I miss you.”
In any case, she had fallen asleep within minutes, and Caleb was left awake and alone.
He was almost asleep himself when he thought he heard a new noise join the chorus of snores from the other side of the room. But this sound was closer and quieter and… He looked down at Veth as best he could. On each exhale a small sigh left her parted lips. On each inhale he could hear the littlest, gentlest snore, lighter than Frumpkin’s purrs.
Caleb smiled, and kissed the top of Veth’s head before he tucked it back beneath his chin, safe and sound. Her secret was safe with him.