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Chrysanthemum

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This would be a simple mission of infiltration. With forged invitations, it was easy to dress like nobles and enter the Silken Terrace for the ball in honor of the engagement of some Veyanna something-or-other. What mattered were a select few attendants - high class contacts whom they were to meet on behalf of The Gentleman.

Shut safely up in one of their rooms, Beauregard was summarizing the mission. “So,” she said thoughtfully, “we have to meet this fancy couple who are actually part of the nobility here, but also ferry information to The Gentleman for some extra coin. Apparently they’re known for, like, extreme color coordination. As in, even other rich people call them the Gray Lord and the Green Lady instead of by their actual titles.”

“Well, that makes it easier to identify and talk to them during exchanges, I suppose,” commented Nott from her perch on the edge of the bed.

Beau shrugged in a noncommittal agreement. “So once we find these people, we just have to confirm who they are with the ‘many gifts’ blah blah blah thing and then swap letters for gold and we’re done. Seems easy enough.”

“First, you have to get into the ball and pass for nobility yourself for who knows how long before completing this exchange, though. That isn’t so easy,” said Caleb.

“That’s true,” Fjord agreed, nodding toward Caleb. “And we haven’t decided on who’s going in to do the exchange. Only two of us can go.”

“Well it won’t be me,” said Nott confidently. “But I can keep and eye out from the street if you need me to.”

“I don’t think I’m the best choice for this either,” rumbled Caduceus. He had been largely silent for the majority of the talk so far, including the walk back to the inn, and even now went right back to chopping up a small pile of shrooms he had purchased earlier.

There was a small chorus of agreements from the remaining five, as well as the quick decision that Yasha was also not a likely candidate; she could neither act the part nor did she look like she could be of the nobility. That left Caleb, Fjord, Jester, and Beau.

“Is it a fancy ball?” asked Jester. “I’ve always wondered what a fancy party in the Empire really looked like.”

“It’s very fancy,” said Caleb.

At almost the same time, Fjord cut in, “To be completely honest, I think this might be a mission best left to the Empire kids.”

Beau whipped her head around to look at Fjord like he was insane and he put his hands up defensively. “Now hear me out!” he protested. “I’ll admit, you aren’t the type to enjoy this kind of function, and you might not be able to pull off a happy party-goer the way Jester could, but you do know what the people here are like. You and Caleb both.” He looked over at Caleb now, who looked a little sick. “And we know Caleb can hold his own telling a lie if he has to.”

Beau scoffed. “I can pull off a happy party-goer just fine,” she grumbled. “Remember Tracey?”

“Tracey won’t be necessary,” Caleb said shortly, a half smile on his lips. “Nobility in the Empire, Beauregard, really? You won’t see a smile on half the ladies there.” While Beau snorted her agreement, he added with a nod to Fjord, “I have to agree, unfortunately. I don’t think we should rely on magic to disguise ourselves, either, and so two humans will be as easy as it gets to infiltrate, get in, and get out.”

Jester looked a little put out, but didn’t complain and was soon chattering at Beau about helping her do her hair and makeup and going with her to get fitted for a gown and all these things she never thought she’d get to do with her.

Caleb sat down next to Nott, twisting his hands together. “Do you have anything in that kit of yours that can dye hair?” he asked her. She looked at him quizzically for a moment.

“I like your hair just the way it is, Caleb,” she said.

He gave her a short, soft smile. “Thank you, but ginger is a, ah, memorable color. Could you help me change it for now?”

Understanding dawned in her eyes. “Oh! Uh, I don’t have any dye!” she squeaked. “But I’m sure we could go buy some dye and I can help you!”

“Oh, that isn’t necessary.” They both looked up where Caduceus was smiling warmly at them. He had finished chopping his mushrooms and was putting them back in their bag. “I have a fungus that’s actually converted in a dark brown hair dye pretty commonly. Will that work? If Nott isn’t comfortable doing it, I can help you dye it, too.”

“I’d like to learn how!” said Nott eagerly. Caduceus nodded amicably in agreement with her and she grinned her toothy grin at him.

Caleb shrugged at them both. “Ah, ja, that would be fine. Thank you.”

“We can do that the morning before the ball, then,” said Caduceus, standing and stretching. “The mixture I’ll make - and yes, I’ll show you how I mix it up, Nott - is semi-permanent, so it will wash out with some help in a couple of days after that.”

Caleb nodded his thanks. “Just let me know when you are ready.”

“No problem. I think I’m going to go have myself a nap, now. It’s been a long morning.” The firbolg waved lazily at the party and then ducked out of the room, humming absently to himself.

“Beau and Yasha and I are going to get Beau’s dress!” said Jester excitedly. “We’ll be back later!”

Fjord excused himself too to have a drink, leaving Caleb and Nott, who said she was going to catch up to the other girls in a bit. First, she stood up on the bed to look Caleb in the eye.

“Is this a good idea?” she asked.

Caleb shrugged. “I think I’ll be fine. I’m going to dye my hair, and this is a pretty nothing party, as far as parties go in Zadash.”

“So you don’t think… he’ll be there?”

“Nein, nein… but I don’t want to take any risks. I’ll keep a low profile. And I’ll take you up on that offer, please, to stay outside and keep an eye out. Whisper to me if you see anything.”

“Of course!”

Nott gave Caleb a hug and peck on a the cheek before she hopped the bed. With a short motion and some muttering, she had transformed into the halfling woman she tended to disguise herself as. She winked at Caleb and then disappeared through the doorway.

Caleb fell back onto the bed and stared upward until all he saw was the ceiling, and images of cruel mages and fire had been banished from his mind.

-   -

Preparations for the ball consisted of getting tailored clothes and retrieving the funds to be paid to their contacts. Otherwise, Caleb spent some time with Beau agreeing on their alibi should they be asked any personal questions and going back and forth with her to make sure they were both up to speed on the latest trends and customs of the Empire’s upper crust.

The morning of the ball, Caleb submitted himself to Caduceus and Nott, who sat him in a chair and thoroughly wet his hair before applying what looked like a brown jelly to his hair and beard. It was later rinsed out in the wash basin. Caduceus helped Caleb trim his beard into a very smart and geometric shape afterward and also cut one or two inches from his hair to neaten the ends.

At the end of his mini-makeover, he came out of his room looking like a man who actually took care of himself on a regular basis, albeit a tired one. His hair was dark brown, almost black, and the ends were trimmed evenly. His beard had neat and sharp lines to accentuate his jawline and cheekbones.

This was all very embarrassing to him, of course, but Nott assured him that he looked very handsome, and Caduceus absently agreed that the goblin was correct and there was nothing to be ashamed of.

As things tended to, of course, something went wrong at the last moment.

Beau was out with Caleb and Jester to get some last minute components when she was approached quite suddenly by Expositor Dairon. Only Caleb had even an idea who Dairon was, but Jester could still tell she was important to Beau by the way she snapped to attention at the sight of her.

“I need you for something. It may take a while. Can I count on you?” asked the Expositor.

Beau looked back at the two casters with a grimace and seemed torn. Jester was confused, but some sort of connection was quickly being made in her head.

“If you have other commitments, you can attend to them. But remember what we are both here for,” said Dairon.

Caleb put a hand on Beau’s shoulder so that she looked up at him. He nodded at her in understanding. “This looks important, Beauregard. We can figure something else out.”

Still slightly out of the loop, but understanding nonetheless, Jester agreed wholeheartedly. “Yeah, Beau! This looks really important. And I can always go for you! I even have a dress already!”

Beau’s face broke out in a grateful smile. “Thank you, guys. Tell the others I won’t be gone long, I hope.”

Dairon nodded to Jester and Caleb, a knowing smile dancing on her lips. She waited for Beau’s farewell before walking away into the crowd with her apprentice following quickly behind her.

Jester whirled around on Caleb. “You know something about that, don’t you?” she said, poking him firmly in the chest.

Caleb put his hands up weakly. “It isn’t exactly my place to say,” he protested.

She huffed and put her hands on her hips, staring in the direction Beau went. “Well, I hope it is important. I was following your lead, after all.” Then she looked back at Caleb, and a glint had sparked to life in her violet eyes. “Oh, Caleb! I have to get ready for tonight! We have a ball to attend! I can play the exotic bride from a foreign country!”

She feigned a swoon into Caleb’s arms and he awkwardly half caught her, though she was mostly still holding herself up. She grinned up at him and straightened. “Don’t worry, Caleb. I’ll be serious for the party. But I also want to have fun! Let’s go finish getting ready!”

He watched her flounce away down the street and sighed heavily. Jester was, of course, perfectly able to complete this mission, most likely. He simply thought it would have been so much more straightforward to have done it with Beauregard. Now… well, there might be a little more faking it involved.

Caleb sighed again and trailed after the tiefling, her blue hair and horns easy to spot down the street.

-   -

In her room in the Pillow Trove, where the Mighty Nein were staying that night to be close to the location of the Ball, Jester carefully twisted the bangle on her wrist so that the chiffon was hanging straight down. Then she checked the one on her forearm, and the one on her bicep. And then she checked them all over again. Her face was flushed a slightly darker blue and she patted her cheeks, staring at herself in the mirror. She couldn’t believe she was nervous. Her? Outrageous. There was nothing to be nervous about. She looked beautiful.

Her hair was carefully curled around her horns in a delicate bob with gold and teal jewelry hanging from her horns and ears to match her dress. The dress itself was of true Nicodranas fashion. It was lavender with shimmering teal lines swooping in beautiful geometric patterns. It was held up with a choker-like halter neckline, adorned with large topaz jewels. Three bangles clasped each arm at the wrist, forearm, and bicep, where a sheer cape fading from teal to purple in a delicate ombre fell to the floor.

The lavender and teal with her blue skin and dark blue hair was a gorgeous color pallette, in Jester’s opinion. She spun back and forth to watch the fabric flow like water around her and giggled. Yes, she could still enjoy this event. It could be fun! A true Dwendalian ball. What would it be like? Would it be just as good even if she wasn’t with a real date?

Jester smiled wistfully and imagined briefly what it would be like if she went to the ball with Fjord instead. Despite how pretty they might look together, she didn’t feel much else beyond the bubble in her throat that was followed by her giggle at the image of them. They’d be so colorful in a sea of brown and tan humans and half elves.

Looking at herself now, and thinking about this mission and being back in the Empire and doing their old thing for the Gentleman, Jester realized quite abruptly that she hadn’t felt quite the same way about Fjord ever since they had landed in Port Damali and left the sea behind them. She loved him, just like she loved everybody in the Mighty Nein, and he was still very handsome. But she didn’t fancy herself in love with him like she once had thought she was.

He had done some pretty iffy things out there on the ocean, and Jester still didn’t know how she felt about that, even with weeks to think about it. But she knew that Fjord was a handsome half-orc, but not one that she was particularly interested in kissing anymore. And she thought that was okay.

Jester looked herself in the eye and gave herself a confident, toothy smile. She flashed a little fang. She could have a good time tonight, even while she completed the mission. She would impress Caleb with her ability to be professional. She could be mature and quick-thinking. But she would also probably get at least one dance out of him.

“I’m going to be amazing!” she said to herself in a fierce whisper. She twirled around and walked over to her door and threw it open.

Stepping out into the hall, she almost walked right into Caleb, who appeared to have been pacing steadily between their rooms. He stepped back abruptly, and the two of them looked at each other for several shocked moments.

Jester had seen Caleb after his hair had been dyed and cleaned up and thought that it made him look suddenly very handsome, but she hadn’t prepared herself for the image of the usually scruffy wizard wearing formal attire combined with that sharp, cleaned up look.

He wore a navy blue frock coat with frosted buttons and accents and a waistcoat of a darker midnight blue. The shirt and cravat beneath were a contrasting white to match the accents on the coat, as well as the thin, thin lines on the pinstripe trousers he wore tucked in fashionable black riding boots.

His eyes were striking and seemed so blue that Jester couldn’t believe she had never been captivated by them before. She let out a little, “Oh,” and felt herself tilting a little backwards.

She caught herself when Caleb coughed politely and blinked. “Ah, good evening, Jester.”

Jester stared up at him in silence for a long moment. When had Caleb become so handsome? How had she never noticed he cleaned up so well? She was entranced. She found herself gravitating forward and let her bubbly nature take over to soothe her fraying nerves.

She blinked up at him with a small smile. “Hello, Caleb,” she said, distinctly pronouncing each syllable of his name, as she commonly did. "You look handsome tonight,” she teased with a small glint in her eye.

Caleb huffed and averted his gaze. It did nothing to stop the flush from crawling up his neck. “Just, ah, fancy clothes for a fancy event. That’s all. You look… very beautiful, though.”

Jester giggled and looped her arm through his, trying to ignore the somersault her stomach did at the compliment. “Just a fancy dress for a fancy event,” she echoed as she began leading them downstairs.

She thought she heard Caleb mutter, “Touche,” but chose to ignore him, focusing instead on guiding the two of them outside and down the street in the direction of the house where the ball was being hosted.

She spared him a glance on the way, appreciating the way the enchanted lamplight sharpened his cheekbones and warmed his features. She took a deep breath through the tightness in her chest that fluttered each time she looked at him and said a little breathlessly, “I have decided that blue looks very good on you, Caleb.”

His steps faltered and when they passed the next lamp, he looked a little darker. Probably blushing. He was so easily flustered, and the thought brought a small giggle to Jester’s lips. Caleb choked a short thank you, and Jester squeezed his arm reassuringly. “It brings out your eyes. You have very nice eyes.”

Caleb looked down at her as they walked for a long moment. She liked that, because she got to appreciate his eyes for a couple seconds in the orange light of the street. They could have been a brilliant green in this light. She wondered how many different shades of blue his eyes could change to depending on the light. Could they ever match her skin or hair?

Before Jester could contemplate it further, Caleb murmured something in Zemnian and looked away. Jester didn’t press, hoping he was just thanking her again or even better, muttering to himself about her in a language she wouldn’t understand. That would be scandalous and exciting. She suppressed a smile thinking about it.

As they walked, they went over the mission again, reiterating their roles and the description of this “Gray Lord” and “Emerald Lady” that they were to look out for. Jester was happy to play the part of a young new bride from a foreign country. It was uncommon to see tieflings deep in the Empire, but not uncommon for certain nobles to take an interest in “exotic women,” as Caleb had put it when he explained.

“Caleb!” gasped Jester with a sudden realization, pulling away slightly and giving him a clear up-and-down look. “What if things don’t go to plan? You don’t have any of your things!” Thoughts moving too fast for Caleb to even react, Jester giggled as the idea came to her, “Do you need me to protect you in case anything happens? I still have my symbol of the Traveler, after all.” She poked her sternum where the symbol was hidden under her dress.

Caleb quirked a rare half-smile at her. “Don’t worry about that, blueberry,” he reassured. Jester’s stomach flip-flopped again and she willed her cheeks not to heat up too noticeably. Caleb opened his coat and showed her that there were two pouches on his hip that weren’t visible when his coat was closed.

“This one,” he poked one pouch, and it chinked with the telltale sound of gold, “holds our contacts’ payment. This one,” and he touched the second one, “is special.” He was smiling more now and Jester’s heart warmed a little. The pouch in question looked a little bit nicer. It was dark green and had a gold rope tying it closed. There were symbols delicately printed into the velvet of the pouch in the same gold as the rope around the neck of the pouch.

Caleb leaned forward conspiratorially and Jester leaned in as well, curious as she was. “It is like your haversack,” he whispered. “A little pocket of my own for all of my components, and my spellbook. I got it from Pumat when we got back from the Menagerie Coast.”

Jester gasped delightedly. “Caleb, that’s amazing! Now you can be prepared no matter what and you don’t have to worry about any of it getting wet or anything ever!"

“Ja, or sneak into fancy parties without anyone knowing I’m a wizard,” Caleb added. He didn’t flinch so much this time when Jester looped her arm around his and continued to walk them down the path, still grinning happily about his new enchanted bag.

As they came upon the corner of the street they were meant to turn onto, Jester began to hear faint music from ahead. She bounced a little in excitement and sped up, dragging Caleb slightly as they rounded the corner.

On the street before them was a very handsome white manor of two stories where couples were trailing up onto the patio that was supported by smooth pillars. Jester was more curious about the people walking through the doors than she was about the house. Most of them looked human and dressed gracefully and smartly. Jester noticed that many of the men wore coats similar to Caleb’s and assumed it was fashionable in Zadash at the moment.

“Oh, I hope this is fun!” she said. “Let’s go, Caleb!” she tugged on his arm. He had stopped walking but started slightly at her pull and nodded, moving forward.

“Ah, ja, let’s go,” he said, much less enthusiastically, and let Jester lead them toward the manor.

-   -

Caleb had his invitation for him and Jester ready for the servant in the foyeur. The invitation was checked by the man who asked them to confirm their names (Valtin and Kauda Zoransky for the sake of the mission) and the city they hailed from (Rexxentrum, in this case, for which Caleb had to suppress a shudder). He scrutinized the signature of the Lord of the house they were stepping into, and then finally allowed them to pass.

He waved them beyond the foyeur where a small line of other attendees waited to pass through double glass doors that were swung wide open to reveal a wide patio lit with tiny beads of light all floating above the ground like tiny stars.

A finely dressed servant stood by these doors asking each attendee their titles and then announcing them as they stepped onto the patio and out into the garden beyond. Caleb heard Jester gasp in delight beside him, but he was too busy studying each person that he could see and committing their faces to memory.

He nodded gracefully to the servant when he and Jester approached. “Lord Valtin Zoransky and Lady Kauda Zoransky,” he said, once again showing his invitation.

The servant bowed and ushered them forward. “Lord Valtin Zoransky and the Lady Kauda Zoransky, of Rexxentrum!” called the servant.

Few heads turned toward them (their names were not familiar and therefore of little note), but those who did look stared for a good moment, focused mostly on Jester. Caleb could not blame them entirely; Jester was among the most colorful of the attendees tonight, and the only one that he could see at the moment that wasn’t a shade of brown or pale pink and tan. And he had to admit that she looked stunning tonight in the dress that her mother had gotten for her, the golden jewelry clinking off of her horns and her makeup done perfectly.

Jester seemed to drink in the attention and was smiling brightly, though regally. Caleb caught some of the looks from other guests turn sour after the initial reaction wore off, but Jester either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He hoped she didn’t notice. He didn’t want her to experience that kind of negativity tonight.

The garden was decorated with hundreds of beads of light that hovered above the heads of the guests. The grass was cut short and paths carved through it in geometric patterns that people could walk along. Just beyond the first stretch of lawn, a fountain spilled water gracefully into pools of water that trailed off into streams on either side with straight bridges over them. Beyond the streams, a small but classy orchestra was staged before the fountain playing for a dance floor laid out before them.

“It’s much… sharper than Nicodranas,” commented Jester as she took it all in. Her nose was scrunched in that way it got when she was thinking.

Caleb snorted softly. “This is much more tasteful than most noble houses of the Empire,” he said. “Much classier. We are lucky.”

He led her down one of the paths toward the where the majority of the guests appeared to be mingling. Out here on the lawn, there was more space for people to gather and chat. Servants walked among the attendees with drinks, while there was also a refreshments bar to one side of the dance floor that had been set down before the small orchestra.

Caleb retrieved a glass of champagne for himself, more for show than anything, and specifically requested a glass of water for Jester. She seemed grateful for the act and sipped at her glass as they walked along the outside of the dance floor. Caleb kept a watchful eye out and observed the features of each person who crossed his vision, searching for any familiar features.

“Is this what all noble Empire music sounds like?” asked Jester.

Caleb cocked a head toward the music, which he hadn’t been listening to, if he was honest. He grimaced faintly and turned his head to watch the dancers. “Not… especially, no,” he said tightly. The music was an interpretation to work with a dance from out west. It wasn’t very well choreographed, nor was the music the best. “This is a poor interpretation of a foreign song,” he explained. “We usually have better music. More waltzes.”

Jester brightened. “Oh! We waltzed in Hupperdook! I wonder if you’re any better sober.” She winked up at him and leaned against his arm, smiling cheekily.

Caleb smiled faintly. “I am out of practice,” he hedged.

Jester was about to respond when a voice interrupted them from behind. “I am sorry to intrude, but I must ask who designed your dress!”

They turned together to face a woman probably around Caleb’s age with pale skin and blonde hair bundled atop her head in an organized mass. She was as clearly of Empire decent as Caleb and Beauregard were, and yet she wore a dress that imitated the style of the Menagerie Coast in poor taste, with a halter top collar and cape that connected to delicate bracelets at her wrists. But the dress was fitted in the bodice and then flared slightly in the skirts like many of the Dwendalian gowns surrounding them. Having spent several weeks along the coast and seen Jester in her own personally made-to-order dress, Caleb could tell that this dress was produced as an echo, and was reminded of the music they had just been talking about.

Caleb desperately hoped Jester could read into this woman enough to know what might be ahead of them, but he took the initiative anyway to respond for her first, “Ah, a wedding gift from her mother.”

Jester looked up him, startled. She (thankfully) caught on quickly and added, “Oh, yes! Unfortunately, Mama was very secretive about who made it. I’m so sorry!”

“It would have been a designer of Nicodranas, though,” added Caleb. He adjusted his hold on Jester and wound his arm around her waist, drawing her close to him. To a noble, it said clearly that Jester was also of Nicodranas, and any comment about that area should be said with care.

As Jester leaned into his embrace, the woman pouted dramatically. “Tragic,” she said. “Your mother must have been very well off for you to have found such a fine husband.” Her eyes flickered to Caleb and gave him a quick, appreciative up-and-down. She looked back at Jester thoughtfully. “You are so young, though. We all know here that there other more unconventional means of achieving status.” The woman winked conspiratorially, but Caleb noted a stiffness to her smile and tightened his own grip around Jester’s waist.

“Are you implying something about my wife?” he asked coldly.

“Oh, nothing that anyone here wouldn’t already know, darling!” tittered the woman.

“Kauda is the daughter of a merchant of oceanside gems,” said Caleb with carefully controlled anger. “We met when I was traveling on business and fell in love, and married in Nicodranas. There is no unconventional business here. In fact,” he half turned, preparing to exit the conversation and already half-pushing Jester away, “I would reckon that our marriage is more conventional than whatever relations you may have, madam. Good evening.”

He bowed stiffly and led Jester away from the shocked and furious woman, giving her no time to respond.

-   -

Jester’s mind was full of white noise while she processed the exchange that had just taken place. She was too busy repeating Caleb’s defense in her head over and over to even be upset over the implications of the lady’s words. The static was slowly dispersed by the steady pressure on her waist and opposite side. She was still pressed to him and could feel his steady warmth through his coat. It felt nice.

“Don’t worry about what she said,” Caleb muttered when they had crossed to the other side of the dance floor. He was still frowning, still tense. “They will judge first and ask questions later. It’s all about having the upper hand.”

Jester’s tail twitched in a little sign of shy delight. His protectiveness was flattering. “It’s okay, Caleb. I’m okay!” She leaned up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, though.”

He flushed and muttered a “you’re welcome,” then slid his hand from her waist to wind back around her arm. Jester missed the snug contact but happily pulled his arm against her side. Something about Caleb’s warmth, even though she wasn’t cold herself, was comforting to her. She couldn’t explain why, but she knew that his smooth, but icy defense of her to the judgmental woman was something that had her… well, quite frankly, she had swooned a little bit. It was a side of Caleb that Jester hadn’t seen before.

She was pulled out of her thoughts when the rather crowded area cleared a little and she caught a clear view of one of the buffet tables. Oh! Food! That would always cheer her up. She could feel that Caleb was tense beside her. Perhaps she could cheer him up a little bit.

“Oh, Caleb, look!” she said, pointing. “Are those pastries?”

She guided them over to the buffet table where Jester was delighted to discover that there was a variety of little bite-sized pastries. She let out a little gasp and tugged on Caleb’s arm. “How do I choose which ones to try?” she whispered in awe.

She pouted at Caleb’s soft snort. He was smiling faintly and she allowed herself an inner cheer of victory that he was relaxing at least a little bit. “Caleb,” she whined, emphasizing each syllable, “help me choose!”

He leaned forward thoughtfully and studied the pastries for a minute. Then he pointed to four of them. The servant manning the buffet arranged them on a plate and handed them to Jester. As far as she could tell, two of them were simply puffs of dough with powdered sugar on them (maybe they had a hidden center she didn’t know about?) and the other two were tiny pinwheels, one with a berry jelly of some kind in the center and the other with a creamy center.

Caleb held up a finger and pointed to a perfect gourmet mini donut with the other hand. To the servant, he said, “You must have cinnamon sugar you can put on this, just for my wife, ja?”

“Of course, sir.” The servant bowed and placed the single donut on a napkin and disappeared toward the house. Another servant took his place at the buffet table almost instantly and Jester briefly admired their efficiency. But she was otherwise too busy giggling at Caleb and leaning against him affectionately.

“Did you remember what I said about cinnamon all the way back… where even were we?” she asked, wracking her memory.

“In the bakery before visiting the Chastity’s Nook, where you bought me my book,” said Caleb. “The baker mentioned the bearclaws in Nicodranas have lots of cinnamon and you got very excited when he said that.”

Jester laughed again. “You are so sweet, Caleb. You remember the smallest things!”

“I remember almost everything, actually,” he said, looking somewhat perplexed. “We’ve talked about this many times, ja?”

She smiled sweetly at him and just nodded. Goodness, he was nice. If she thought about it, he had always been nice, in his weird ways, but she had never really thought about it like this before. Now she was really noticing it. Or… she was noticing it in a different way. It was definitely different. She couldn’t explain it.

All Jester knew was that she just wanted to keep smiling at Caleb and that she liked it when he was being nice to her and that he looked especially handsome when he had that little almost-smile on his face and was looking down at her.

The servant appeared out of the sea of guests and expertly placed the donut on Jester’s plate without her hardly noticing before he was saying, “Here you are ma’am, sir,” and bowing deeply. He excused himself back behind the buffet table immediately afterward.

Sure enough, the donut was now dusted in a white-brown coat of cinnamon sugar. It looked just like the donuts that she loved so much from Nicodranas. She wondered if they fried the dough the same way if it was a gourmet donut. Were gourmet donuts any different than normal donuts? Jester took a delicate bite of the pastry and chewed thoughtfully.

No. Gourmet donuts were not any different from normal donuts. At least, as far as she could tell. This donut had the soft cakey texture that other donuts from the Empire had. It was sweeter than the pastries from Nicodranas to begin with, with more sweetness from the cinnamon sugar, but it still tasted good and reminded her of home.

Jester tried to ignore Caleb’s stare as she finished the donut, but she couldn’t help but notice that he appeared to be waiting for a reaction. She allowed herself to smile in happiness at the taste of it and nudged him in the side. “Thank you, Caleb. This is very good. It reminds me of home.”

The other pastries were very good choices. Jester snacked on them as the two of them slowly circled the fountain. Here and there, they were stopped by a couple or man or woman. No one was so rude as the first woman the spoke to. Most of them were curious about Jester, but more so about where she came from and what had brought her to the Empire. Jester allowed herself to be chatty and talked about her mother and Nicodranas and the Menagerie Coast, while carefully omitting her mother’s profession and other sensitive topics. Caleb smoothly stepped in for her if anyone asked any questions that she didn’t know how to answer and even defended one man’s passive aggressive comment that she must still be learning the customs of the Empire.

“Is it so bad that she prefers the customs of her own people? They are quite passionate in Nicodranas,” said Caleb. “I love her just like this.”

Jester ignored the simultaneous tightness and swelling in her chest and smiled warmly. “Caleb has been wonderful at teaching me the ways of the Empire, but I do love my home, and I have been told before that I bring such life to the room that I don’t see why I should ever stop!”

The man seemed convinced, although slightly perplexed. He wished them a goodnight and moved on, and so they continued walking as well. As they made small talk with more people, Jester noticed that Caleb seemed to relax next to her a little bit at a time. Maybe he was getting into the swing of things; she was quite sure he hadn’t actually been drinking any of the champagne that he regularly set down and then picked up a new one of, so it couldn’t be the alcohol.

It was a very nice party, though. Maybe he was finally starting to enjoy himself! Jester certainly was. Spending the evening with Caleb and talking to rich people from the Empire and seeing how many personal jokes she could sneak into her small talk with them without anyone noticing the oddities was hilarious to her. The gardens were very pretty and the pastries were very good and Caleb looked so handsome. There wasn’t much to dislike about tonight.

They had been there for quite a while by now and it appeared the majority of the guests had already arrived. Jester had been faintly aware of a toast being made near the patio some ten minutes ago, that may have been in honor of the lady being engaged, but she had been paying more attention to the laughter from Caleb during a talk with another couple. Even if it was probably fake, he had a wonderful laugh.

She figured that their contacts were probably here, though, and tried to pay a little more attention to looking for someone who looked very green and gray.

Her concentration did not last very long, though, because Caleb suddenly adjusted his grip so that he was holding her hand. He guided her through couples and other attendees until they stood before the dance floor and they were in between songs. Then he faced her, and bowed.

“May I have this dance?” he asked formally.

Jester’s heart leapt straight into her chest and started hammering. “Oh,” she said breathlessly. That was hot. And chivalrous. And he was so stunning like this, right now, and she was kind of in shock. So she just stepped forward and said, “Of course,” with a very small voice, and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor.

-   -

As Caleb placed his hand on the small of Jester’s back and lifted her hand with the other, he noted that her freckles had almost disappeared in a dark blush. Her bright eyes were wide and she hadn’t stopped staring at him in something akin to awe since he had asked her to dance.

As he awaited the first beat of the music, he asked, “Are you okay?”

She let out a soft breath and nodded vigorously. “Yes, of course!” Though she appeared to keep blushing, a cheeky smile crept up on her lips. “I wonder if you’re a better dance when you’re sober.”

Caleb shrugged noncommittally. “I hope so, for your sake.” He knew he was, of course, but he wasn’t going to just tell her that. That would ruin the fun of her own teasing. So he would just show her. After the disaster that was the last dance, he felt like he owed his blue friend at least one good waltz.

He stepped off as the music finally began with a very classic Dwendalian waltz. It was perfect for showing Jester that he could dance quite well, thank you very much, because it was often played during practice when he was learning. Sure enough, Jester appeared surprised and delighted as he guided them around the floor, and even laughed happily a couple of times. Caleb could not help but smile back at her infectious joy.

He kept an eye out on the guests not dancing as well, which he had a decent view of out here. Their contacts would definitely be here by now, so he planned on tracking them down if possible after their dance.

“You really are a good dancer,” said Jester. “Who taught you how to dance? My mother taught me, of course.”

Caleb felt like explaining why he had to learn how to dance - in order to better infiltrate spaces of nobility, like now - went along with who taught him, so he shrugged easily, and simply said, “I had lessons when I was younger. But it has been a while.”

“It’s like you never stopped,” Jester laughed as Caleb gently twirled her around and brought her back into his embrace. “I would be

rusty if I didn’t practice.”

Caleb quirked an eyebrow at her. “Are you saying you practice while we are on the road?”

Jester shrugged innocently. “Maybe? Only sometimes, though. And really only when I’m bored, really. Sometimes Nott joins me.”

Caleb laughed quietly at that. “Oh, well now I will have to ask her to dance with me,” he said.

He cast his eyes out into the attendees again and this time his eye caught something. Moving through the crowd, he spotted a figure who appeared to be dressed from head to toe in gray. “I think I just found one of our people,” he muttered to Jester.

She made a noise of curiosity and craned her neck to look, but he shook his head. “I will look.” As they came around another turn in the dance and that side of the garden came into view again, Caleb felt a tickle against his ear that was all-too-familiar.

At the same time, he spotted the figure again. This time he had a better view of him. A man, in a coat not unlike his own, but of a gray wool, with a gray silk waistcoat and gray trousers and dark gray riding boots. He wore a dark gray cravat, and had a gray hat over black hair. He was almost alarmingly pale, but it simply blended the entire gray look into one solid theme that was impossible to miss, and now Caleb understood why the Gentleman had said that they would know when they met their contacts.

The Gray Lord had his hands (clothed in gray gloves) cupped over his mouth as if coughing politely into his mouth. But as he did, Caleb heard the Whisper as if he were standing right next to him: “Mr. Caleb Widogast, I presume? It is delightful to see you at last. I bring many gifts.”

Caleb nodded to the man, and even though they danced around so he could not see him, he Whispered back, “Ja, a pleasure. Your gifts will be well rewarded. Allow us to finish this dance.”

As the dance came to an end, Caleb watched the Gray Lord move around the dance floor toward the fountain. Following the path he was taking with his gaze, Caleb finally saw the Emerald Lady.

She was wearing a gown in the classic fashion of the empire that was, of course, an emerald green, flaring out like an upturned rose at the hips. Her jewelry was either emeralds or silver. She stood out even more than the Gray Lord, though, because she was a light green tiefling with dark green hair and spiraling horns. She embraced the Gray Lord and kissed his cheek when he reached her and they stood waiting for Caleb and Jester by the fountain.

Caleb motioned to them for Jester as he led them off the dance floor. Her eyes lit up when she saw the other tiefling. “Oh my!” she gasped. “She is very pretty!” He smiled. Jester would find some solidarity with another tiefling at the party.

As they approached, the Emerald Lady let out a happy shout and hurried forward. She took Jester’s hands in her own and kissed each of her cheeks. “Kauda! Oh, my dear, it’s been too long!” She had an accent just like Jester’s, mirroring the speech of Nicodranas.

Jester caught on after a quick shock and gave the Lady a quick peck on each cheek as well with a giggle. “Hello, dear!” she said cheerfully.

The Gray Lord followed behind her and held a hand out to Caleb. He shook it politely and nodded to him with a smile. “Good evening,” said the Lord. “My dear wife is correct - it has been a long time.”

His accent, Caleb noticed now, was faintly Zemnian, but in such a way that he must have long since left any family and assimilated with the larger culture of the Empire. He nodded in agreement. “Ja, it has, indeed.”

“Darling, we must find a quiet room to catch up with our friends,” said the Emerald Lady, curling an arm around Jester’s waist.

“Of course, of course. There is a lounge inside for the guests.” The Gray Lord motioned toward the house.

“Wonderful!” trilled the Lady. “Shall we?” And without waiting for a response, she turned and started gliding up the path, arm in arm with Jester. Caleb and the Gray Lord followed closely behind, looking for all intents and purposes like two mildly exasperated husbands trailing after their overjoyed wives.

There was a parlour inside that was unoccupied. The Gray Lord stopped a servant and murmured a few words to him, and the servant nodded. They entered the parlour and closed the door behind them. “Just asking for some uninterrupted privacy,” the Lord explained.

“Please, sit,” said the Emerald Lady, gesturing to a loveseat as she let go of Jester and settled herself in a chair across from it.

Caleb sat down next to Jester and watched the two across from him carefully. He had dropped all pretenses of nobility as soon as the door to the parlour closed and now sat straight backed and tense.

In contrast, the Lord and Lady before him appeared as calm and relaxed as they had been in the gardens. The Gray Lord, still standing, placed his hand on the door and muttered something under his breath. Caleb watched him carefully and noticed the ring on his finger pulse and send a ring of light out across the door. Only then did he turn and take a seat next to the Emerald Lady.

“A lot seems to have happened since we last had contact with the Gentleman,” mused the Emerald Lady. “For you to have become so close to be sent to meet with us within a few months of joining his organization, you must have impressive skills.”

Jester wiggled a little where she sat, but Caleb placed a hand on her arm to still her. “Ah, we have some dedication to the job,” he said humbly. “We have proven ourselves, though.”

“Of course, of course,” said the Lady. She smiled at him and he didn’t like the way it looked. He felt like she was searching him for something, so he stared back as coolly as he could for a couple of moments before turning his gaze to the Gray Lord.

“Do you have the papers for our exchange?”

“Right here.” The Lord drew an envelope out of the inner pocket of his coat and set it on the table next to his chair. “You have our payment?”

Caleb patted his coat to generate the telltale clink of coin and nodded.

“Oh, please!” interrupted the Emerald Lady. “I would like to hear some more about the Gentleman, if you would. Very rarely to we get to see him in person, and I’m curious as to how things are going.”

Caleb remained tense and thanked the gods that Jester appeared insightful enough to read his body language and remain quiet. He smiled as politely as he could. “Ah, I am sorry, but we do not have much more time left to spend chatting. I would like to be done with this exchange.”

“Nothing?” pouted the Lady. “That’s tragic. We’re itching to know more, aren’t we, darling?”

“Certainly,” said the Gray Lord. He held a hand up as if in a shrug, and then flipped it fluidly. “I do apologize.” He spoke again, but the words were echoed and arcane, and Caleb recognized what was coming a split second before the spell hit him.

“Nein - !” he shouted, but he froze with his hand tightening around her arm. The Hold Person clearly caught Jester as well as her arm tensed beneath his hand. His eyes were still turned toward the Gray Lord and Emerald Lady. He watched the man lower his hand and as he did, all of the gray he wore seemed to melt off of him.

The man became a slender elf in fitted bronze robes and pants with long black hair tied away from his face and falling gracefully down his back. Next to him, the Emerald Lady slipped away to become a sharp looking half-elf with blonde hair in a tight bun wearing a red gown that hugged her body but was slit up the thigh in a way that made the dress maneuverable.

The elf bowed deeply and straightened up with a smile. “Once again, I must apologize. We haven’t been entirely truthful. Your Lord and Lady aren’t here tonight and won’t be making anymore meetings with the Gentleman. They are in the care of the Empire. My name is Alys and this is my partner, Meryn.” He motioned to the woman, who nodded smoothly to them.

Caleb tried once again to shake the hold of the spell to no avail. His heart hammered in his chest and panic rose in him. They had to break this and get out of here. He was too close. He didn’t know who they were working for. He didn’t know where they wouldn’t send him or what they would do to him. But he and Jester had to leave, now.

“Don’t worry,” continued Alys. “We’re going to make sure you have no odds and ends on you, and then take you in for some additional questioning. Having seen the Gentleman more recently, I’m sure you have more information about him than your contacts for this evening did.”

He stood up and stretched. Caleb’s breathing picked up as his panic rose and his struggle intensified, though he remained perfectly still.

“Now, let’s see what we have, shall we?” asked Alys.

Chapter Text

Jester’s chest was tight and fluttery and not in the soft, romantic way that it had been earlier. Now she felt like she might cry with frustration and anger if she could. She was scared that she would be captured by these people or tortured. She tried to break the hold but found herself still paralyzed.

Caleb’s hand remained clasped around her arm, tight and stiff and also paralyzed. She couldn’t even look at him to see if he was as frustrated as she was, if he was okay. She could only stare ahead at these horrible, horrible people who had tricked them into coming into this room with them.

“Meryn, if you would check for anything special… I’m concentrating.” Alys motioned to his partner and she drew out a short wand with small engravings on it and spoke a single word. A small pulse of arcane energy encompassed the room and surrounded the woman before disappearing. Meryn looked intrigued as she surveyed Caleb and Jester.

“Hmm… our lady here has one magical object,” said Meryn. “And our lord has two objects.” She observed them both for a moment. “I certainly hope I’m not about to lose my hand.” And she stepped toward Caleb. “Alys, please be ready in case one of those items on hand is some sort of defense.”

“Of course, dear,” replied Alys with ease.

Jester would have growled if she could. She strained and strained against the hold and screamed in her head. Let me go! Let me GO!

The hold broke.

Meryn’s hand was inches from the collar of Caleb’s coat when Jester dove and embraced him as tightly as she could. She saw nothing but the half-elf’s shocked face and the confusion on Alys’s face behind her before the Dimension Door took effect.

She and Caleb were gone from the parlour one second and a block down the street the next. As soon as they landed - gracelessly on their butts, as they had been sitting back in the parlour - Jester scrambled to her feet, shaking. She took several deep, steadying breaths to compose herself and then looked down at Caleb.

He hadn’t moved from where sat in an unceremonious heap on the cobbles. His eyes were wide and his jaw slack. Jester’s brow furrowed in sympathy as she recognized one of his episodes and knelt back down next to him. She tentatively reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.

He flinched but otherwise didn’t react to her contact. Jester rubbed small circles on his back in concern.

“Caleb?” she asked. “Caleb, are you okay? I kn- I know that we had a pretty close call there, but we’ve had- we’ve had closer calls before, haven’t we?” She tried to giggle a little, to stay her sweet, bubbly self, but it was difficult. Her heart was still pounding, and she could still see the manor in the distance. It scared her. She wanted to get out of here.

“C-come on, Caleb,” she said, pulling his shoulder. “We have to go! It’ll be okay!”

For a moment, Jester was afraid she would have to do more than just shake him, but at last he blinked and turned his head to look at Jester with wide, haunted eyes. He looked terrified. Far more terrified than even she had felt. He didn’t protest when she took his hand and helped him to his feet.

Jester wasn’t sure where Nott had posted herself, but the goblin would have been expecting them to leave the party like normal guests, so she reached beneath the collar of her dress to grasp her holy symbol and spoke shakily, “Hey, Nott? We got, uh, tricked! We’re, um… maybe a block away to the right of the house if you’re facing it? Towards the hotel!” She granted herself a small victory for fitting her message into the limit of words as she felt the magic leave her voice.

Very shortly thereafter, Nott’s scratchy voice piped up in her ear, “I’m on my way! Don’t go anywhere if you’re safe! I’ll find you.”

Jester stayed put and kept rubbing Caleb’s back. He still looked vaguely haunted but the color was returning to his face and he didn’t have the thousand-yard-stare going on anymore. He looked at her a couple of times but didn’t seem able to muster up any response when she smiled reassuringly.

At last, there was the smallest of sounds from the darkness near the walls of the house closest to them and Nott stepped into the lamplight. She was frowning intensely at Caleb but spoke to Jester: “What happened?”

“The people we were supposed to meet were caught by people working for the Empire or something,” Jester said. “I guess they interrogated them or something because two of them disguised themselves as our contacts and then they met with us tried to catch us too! And they almost got us but they didn’t think we’d be able to beat their magic and I got us out!”

Nott’s eyes widened and she rushed to Caleb’s side. She took his hand and gently started to tug him in the direction of the Pillow Trove. “Come on, Caleb,” she said softly. “It’ll be okay! We’re safe now.”

Jester was relieved that Caleb seemed to come to his senses a little as he started walking with Nott. She still didn’t know why he had reacted so strongly when they’d had closer calls, but she was glad he seemed to be feeling better.

They tried to remain stealthy as they hurried back to the hotel. They were unhindered on their way and got back to their rooms by the time Caleb seemed mostly himself again. They entered the girls’ empty room, and he sat down heavily on the bed while Nott ran to get the others, putting his head in his hands.

Jester sat down tentatively next to him. She didn’t say anything, simply sat next to him, their shoulders brushing. She could hear his breathing, a little ragged. But he didn’t shy away from her, so she stayed by his side and tried to offer some comfort with her presence.

It wasn’t too long before the others filed back into the room and Jester and Caleb were asked recount what happened at the party. They did, although Jester did most of the talking with Caleb slipping in occasionally.

“They didn’t say who they worked for, did they?” asked Fjord as Jester neared the end of their retelling.

She shook her head miserably. “No. I don’t even know if those are their real names.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Well, we do know what they really look like, at least. But it doesn’t give us much to go on, especially when we don’t know exactly who they work for. And ‘the Empire’ doesn’t really narrow it down much does it?”

“Not really,” agreed Jester. She looked at the others, feeling disappointed in herself.

Nott looked between Jester and Caleb, who had at least lowered his hands from his face to stare at the floor instead. She came forward to stand next to Caleb and faced Fjord. “Why don’t we talk about it tomorrow?” she asked. “Caleb is exhausted. They got away. We would know by now if they were being followed and Caleb has his string.”

“Oh, uh, of course,” Fjord said, stuttering a little awkwardly. “Yeah, okay. We’ll talk tomorrow.” He nodded to them, and ducked out of the room.

Nott was insistent on staying with Caleb for the night, following him to his room. Caduceus offered to stay with Jester and Yasha in their room, which they accepted. He also offered them tea, but Jester was too tired to wait for tea. Yasha had already settled down by the window and seemed to be ignoring them.

Caduceus nodded in understanding when she turned him down. “That’s alright. Get some rest. You look like you need it.”

Jester did just as he said and, despite the tightness in her chest and racing thoughts, she was asleep within minutes.

-    -

They left in the morning and made a quick retreat back out to the East Outersteads to their main rooms at the Leaky Tap. With more tricks up their sleeves than when they had last tried this, Jester, Caleb, and Nott slipped into the sewers to get back into the main city without the guards at the entrance to the Silken Terrace seeing them.

Jester used Sending to notify Beauregard that they had moved back to the Leaky Tap. She got a short affirmative back and was glad to know that Beau was okay enough to respond to her.

None of them were expecting to find Beau already there at the inn when they entered one of the small rooms. Fjord stopped short, causing Jester to walk into his back with a short oof . She peaked around him to see the monk lounging on the bed.

“Beau! You’re back!” She pushed past Fjord to fling herself onto the bed and hug her friend, who let out a surprised laugh.

“Yeah, I’ve been back, actually. Dairon didn’t need me for as long as I thought.” Beau gently moved Jester to the side and looked over to the others who had slowly filed into the room. “How’d things go?”

“Ah, we ran into some complications,” said Caleb.

Caleb and Jester proceeded to explain what happened the previous night while the others settled back into their three rooms, coming in and out as needed. When they finished, the rest of the Nein had filtered back into the room and Beauregard was leaning forward toward Jester with an oddly excited and bewildered look on her face.

“So that’s what was going on!” Jester noted that she appeared to be holding back laughter. Her suspicion proved true when Beau covered her mouth and snorted. “Oh fuck! This is fucking hilarious. I’m sorry. What happened to you guys isn’t. Its just - you guys are okay, right?”

Caleb was already frowning from telling the story, and his frown had only deepened at Beau’s odd reaction. He put his hands up with a shrug. “We were not hurt. It was just a close call.”

“Yeah!” agreed Jester. “It was really scary at first, but I’m just glad we got out of there!”

“But why were you laughing?” asked Caleb.

“Oh, yeah, this is hilarious,” Beau said again. “This morning we got a visit from this uptight elf and a couple of Crownsguard.” Jester exchanged a look with Caleb at this and Beau held up a hand. “I know, I know. So this elf, he comes up here and introduces himself as some kind of Empire operative. And he says he is here with full authority to arrest the Monk of the Cobalt Soul who has been working for the Gentleman.”

“Well, how did you get out of it?” Jester asked, suddenly nervous. She hadn’t even realized in the panic of last night that at no point had they clarified with their original contacts that Jester had taken Beau’s place in meeting with them.

“Dairon just asked if they could describe the monk in question,” said Beau with a shrug. Then the mischievous smile broke in again. “And then she goes, ‘By all means, we will cooperate with you entirely and turn over any of our monks who would work with such an individual.’ So this motherfucker says he’s looking for a blue tiefling by the name of Beauregard. Not only that, but he goes on to explain that this tiefling must be a magic user because she teleported! So Dairon explains that not only does the Cobalt Soul have no tieflings, but they also have no monks that can cast teleportation of any kind.”

At this point Jester was giggling a little bit at how badly the attempted arrest appeared to have backfired on Alys. The near miss had turned into a total miss. The feeling of relief spreading in her belly, increased her giggles into full laughter until she leaned against Caleb for support.

“So at this point this asshole Alys or whatever is kind of sputtering that he was assured that this tiefling was a monk of the Cobalt Soul, and Dairon gets Tubo who says the exact same thing, even points at me and says, ‘Actually, that’s Beauregard right there, so I’m not sure where you got your information, sir, but your contact may have been misinformed.’” Beau leaned back smugly as she continued, “I may have let him know that I definitely couldn’t teleport, and Dairon added that I’d been training with her most of the night. He left real quick after that, but I did catch him snapping at the guards something about his entire investigation being fucked.”

Beau beamed proudly around at the rest of the Mighty Nein, signalling the end of the story. Jester kept giggling against Caleb until he gently put a hand against her back and pushed her away.

“Oh, sorry, Caleb,” she said breathlessly, feeling herself blush slightly. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”

“Nein, it’s okay,” he replied. “We will just have to leave soon to speak with the Gentleman. It is important he knows what trouble we’ve run into.” He looked to the others for affirmation and received nods of agreement.

“That was a lucky moment for you,” Fjord said, looking at Beau. “I reckon it’ll help us avoid watchful eyes.”

“Jester should still wear a disguise on the streets,” added Caleb. “A blue tiefling will remain distinctive, even if the case is dropped.”

“It’ll be just like Nicodranas!” said Jester nonchalantly. To tell the truth, though, she was a little disheartened that she would have to disguise herself in Zadash too now. Would she become wanted or banned everywhere she went eventually?

She disguised herself in the room as the others briefly readied themself, transforming into the human-like version of herself with the curly black hair and brown skin before the group set out together to the Evening Nip.

-    -

Caleb did most of the retelling of the previous night’s events for the Gentleman, but Jester chimed in occasionally with some comments and Nott made the important note of about when she saw the supposed Gray Lord and Emerald Lady arrive about twenty minutes after Caleb and Jester did.

Caleb was only half listening to whatever debriefing they received in response to their rundown of the mission. He trusted Nott to tell him anything important and allowed himself to retreat into himself and try not to scratch at his hair or itch his arms.

He felt too clean and and too exposed. His hair was not his own and was too straight. His beard itched with the stubble of a new day. Where he had shaved away his beard completely, there was a faint red shadow, contrasting with the neat black of the dyed beard. He itched at his beard too. It all felt wrong and he wanted to return to the inn so he could ask Caduceus to wash it out.

He felt even more uncomfortable by the looks Jester kept trying to exchange with him whenever he would answer a question about the previous night that brought up how successful their cover was. They agreed that they felt their cover was solid, and that was that, but Jester seemed oddly excited every time it came up, and Caleb was just very confused by her entire demeanor during the meeting.

When they were finally let out back onto the streets, he summoned Frumpkin onto his shoulders, hunched down, and simply followed the hooded figure of Nott back to the Leaky Tap.

Ultimately, he learned on the way back, the Gentleman had awarded them half the gold they had originally been promised on a success, because it was not by their fault that the mission had failed. They had still completed their portion, and even brought back the gold that had been promised to his old operatives in the Silken Terrace. They had also brought the information that said operatives were no longer in service and that the key phrase to enter the true Evening Nip may be known to more than one person working for the Empire.

Caleb had fully come out of his own head by the time they got back to the inn. “Caduceus,” he called as the firbolg was starting up the stairs.

He stopped on the steps and turned to face Caleb, responding only with a friendly, “Hmm?”

“Could you, ah, wash my hair now, possibly?” Caleb asked awkwardly, gesturing pointlessly to his head.

Caduceus smiled. “Of course I can. Come on. Would you be more comfortable in your room? Of course you would.” He held a hand out in a welcoming gesture and then continued upstairs when he was sure Caleb was following. “You go ahead and just make sure you’re comfortable. I’ll get my things and be right back,” he said as he passed Caleb and Nott’s room.

Nott trailed after Caleb and hopped onto the bed. She watched him shrug off his coat and pull his boots off with big yellow eyes a mix of curiosity and concern. He stopped when he had put the second boot by the foot of the bed and looked at her.

“What is it?”

“How are you doing?”

Caleb frowned at her and shook his head. “I am fine.”

Nott shook her head back at him, more forcefully. “I saw you itching your face and arms and just letting everyone around you guide the conversation. You were somewhere else. I was just hoping you might be willing to say something about why.”

He sat down next to her and sighed heavily. “I want my own hair back. I am tired. I am exhausted, in fact. I would like to spend one day where nobody notices me or if they do, they think I am just a poor man who means nothing.”

“Would you like to go to the Pentamarket after this and just look around?” asked Nott. “Maybe we could even do Boots and Cats!”

Caleb huffed a very short laugh and ruffled her hair affectionately. “Maybe. That might be just what I need after this. We’ll see.”

Caduceus came in a couple of minutes later with an armful of herbs, some little jars and other strange things, and his tea kettle. He carefully dumped the pile on the table and then took the kettle to the hearth.

“Do you need any help with the shampoo, Mr. Clay?” asked Nott curiously.

“Oh, sure,” said Caduceus. “I could use an extra pair of hands. Come over here.”

Caleb watched fondly while Nott helped mix some creams and herbs and other components together in a bowl. Caduceus explained the quality of each ingredient to Nott who nodded along enthusiastically. Her love of alchemy and always doing things with her hands made this intriguing and fun to her.

Soon enough, Caduceus removed the tea kettle from the fire and added the boiling water to the cooler water he had already prepared in  a wash basin.

“Come on over,” he said with a motion toward the chair by the basin. Caleb obeyed and sat, letting his head fall back. “Just relax,” Caduceus said. “This will take some thorough washing, but the shampoo I’ve made will do the trick.”

Caleb relaxed as well as he could. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with someone else’s hands on him other than Nott, but it helped that Caduceus had done this just yesterday when he applied the hair dye. In fact, as the Firbolg wet and then began to lather his hair gently, Caleb decided that this felt better than when his hair was initially dyed. He felt himself relaxing further without even thinking about it.

His mind wandered a little, mulling over the past day.

What a terrible day it had been.

There was no question at all that Caleb would be doing no more infiltration missions into the Silken Terrace or any other place of high society. It was not the place for him. He could certainly act the part, but it was exhausting work and he absolutely hated it. Most of the guests there made his skin crawl or otherwise just gave him a vague feeling of discomfort or disgust. And crowds in general were never something he enjoyed. He’d much rather wait back with the rest of the party and maybe read or work on his spellbook.

Jester had helped ease the tension of the night a little, at least. Her bubbly demeanor made it difficult to be totally unhappy. There had even been a time or two when Caleb had cracked a genuine smile because of her. He was thankful that she had been there to help ease the tension for him.

But he would still never do that again.

He mused over it and wondered who could go instead. Perhaps Beauregard. She would do much better in a suit than a dress, probably even better than he had. She could be Jester’s date! Jester could just use some more advice on attending high society parties, but for the time she had to prepare, she had been quite good. Yes, that would work well, and Beauregard knew the Empire as well as Caleb did. They would make a very nice couple for that type of mission.

And then Caleb could stay on the sidelines and send Frumpkin in as something small that would blend in and keep an eye on them. Perhaps a butterfly in Jester’s hair. That would be a much better plan in the future. He would have to bring this up with the others in the event that such a mission ever came up again.

“Mr. Caleb?” Caduceus’s voice suddenly cut through his drifting thoughts. “Are you with us?”

Caleb blinked his eyes open to stare up at the firbolg. “Oh, ja. Hello,” he replied lamely.

Caduceus smiled down at him. “We’re all done with your head. Your hair looks even brighter than it was before. It’s a very pretty color, really.”

Caleb flushed a little and sat up to run his fingers through his hair, shaking it out. He glanced over at Caduceus and saw the same warm smile and averted his gaze again. “Are you able to do the same to my beard or will I have to shave?” he asked. His averted gaze found Nott, who was grinning at him from the bed. She flashed him a thumbs up.

“Oh, I have some leftover shampoo if you want,” Caduceus said happily. “That’s actually easier than your hair. Just lay back again.” Caleb obeyed and kept his mouth firmly closed while Caduceus dampened his face around his beard and then carefully massaged the strange cream into his beard.

It didn’t take as long as his hair, and soon Caleb was scrubbing a dry washcloth over his face and head to dry himself as best as he could. There were no mirrors in the Leaky Tap, so he could only go by the encouraging nods and assurances from Nott and Caduceus that the black was gone and his natural red returned to normal.

“When was the last time you truly washed your hair?” asked Caduceus.

“Does a salt wash count?” Caleb said dryly.

“Not quite,” rumbled the firbolg with a chuckle, “but it might explain why you always had a duller red than you do now. Well, that and the components I used to wash the dye out of your hair revitalized your natural color. You should take better care of your hair, Mr. Caleb. This copper color looks very good on you.”

Caleb pulled a longer lock of hair forward to peer at it out of the corner of his eye. It was still damp and therefore a darker red than it would be dry, but it was indeed a brighter copper red that, once dry, would be more akin to the true ginger red he remembered from his youth.

“Oh,” he said quietly. “Well, that is something. Ah, thank you.”

“It looks really good, Caleb,” Nott said from the bed. “I think it suits you better than the dirty red, if it helps.”

Caleb smiled softly at her and stood up to move over to the bed. He sat down next to her. “Thank you, Nott. Maybe next time, we can ask him to wash your hair, hm?”

She quite suddenly looked vaguely panicked and Caleb’s smile grew a little. “Oh, no, that’s fine!” she squeaked. “I’m fine!”

“Still not over the ocean yet, ja?” he asked.

“I’ll never be over the ocean.” Nott’s voice had a haunted quality to it that just made Caleb laugh gently.

Caduceus, finished gathering his things, lifted a hand in a short wave. “Let me know if you need anything else, Mr. Caleb.”

“Thank you, Caduceus,” Caleb replied as the firbolg ducked out of the room. He stood up and turned to Nott. “So, Boots and Cats?”

-    -

Jester was having a lot of thoughts.

She really was doing her best to organize them so she could put something that made sense into her journal for the Traveler to see as she sat in the bar of the Leaky Tap with a cup of milk. She felt like some of yesterday would be kind of cool to him, because nothing really went as expected and some crazy stuff happened.

So far she had drawn the pastries she had gotten last night with a happy cartoon version of her head smiling at them and yummy! written next to them. Her mind was wandering a lot, though, and even though the pastries had been really good and Caleb had been so kind to specifically ask for that donut with cinnamon sugar, she kept thinking about everything like a whirlwind that just wouldn’t settle. Walking into the gardens at the beginning as she and Caleb were announced under their pseudonyms, arm in arm… The twinkling lights above them casting light down on all the guests and casting little reflecting stars on every piece of jewelry at the party… The classic Dwendalian music played by the small band… talking to other couples as if she and Caleb were just recently married… Dancing with Caleb… Being captured and the panic that seized her when their captors revealed themselves, and then the relief that surged through her when she broke the hold and transported herself and Caleb to safety…

Last night had been a rollercoaster of emotions and Jester was still processing it. And so she stopped trying to think quite so hard about what she was drawing and just started doodling. She let her spiraling thoughts guide her hand.

A little sketch took form in the corner of the page. At first the two figures she drew had no distinctive features except that one stood while the other bowed. They faced one another. Then her hand swirled the lines of a dress onto the standing figure and curled a tail and horns to her. Her little face on the page was lit up in happy surprise. Jester moved to slash sharp lines onto the other figure, creating a clean and smart coat and pants, a monochrome mimicry of Caleb’s handsome attire. His hair, darker than it normally was, pulled back neatly and his face was calm and seemingly serene. In the sketch, he was holding his hand out to the sketched Jester, asking for a dance.

The real Jester felt herself blushing while she sketched. Maybe she was just being a romantic, but Caleb had been really nice to her last night, even when he didn’t necessarily have to be. It had been sweet and made her feel special and glamorous. She hadn’t felt anything like it in… well, ever, really.

And then she thought maybe Caleb had been trying to do something nice for her in a special way but also in one of those quiet and not usually very obvious ways that he did. But when he was retelling the party’s events to the Gentleman, his voice was practically monotone, and any attempt Jester made to catch any sign of a connection or hidden message was thwarted by his averted gaze.

Jester heaved a sigh and ran a hand through her hair and along one of her horns. She sat back in her chair to take a drink of her milk and in the process caught sight of Nott coming down the stairs. Following the goblin was Caleb, and Jester, already feeling a little overwhelmed by her thoughts and the sketch in her journal, felt her heart leap into her throat.

His hair was back to its usual red. Or, it was red, at least. But, even though it was still damp from recently being washed, the red was more vibrant than she had ever seen it. And for the second time in as many days, but for the first time in his ratty leather coat, fraying scarf, and travel-worn boots, Jester found herself thinking that Caleb was actually quite attractive.

She gulped her hammering heart back into her chest where it properly belonged and slammed her journal shut before she felt composed enough to wave jauntily to the pair. An entire evaluation of how her opinion for one of her friends may have drastically shifted quite literally overnight was not something she needed to conduct right here, right now, as said friend was approaching her with his overprotective mother-figure of a goblin.

“Where are you guys off to?” she asked, wiggling her tail a bit in curiosity.

“Just going to browse the Pentamarket,” Caleb said simply.

“Just the two of you?”

“Yes,” squawked Nott a bit awkwardly. “There’s something I meant to show Caleb, but with the mission and everything, it had to wait…”

Jester squinted at her, a little suspicious, but nodded. “Okay! Well be careful, Caleb.” She stood up and eyed him closely in a manner she hoped was a normal level of perky and curious for her. “Your hair is even brighter! It adds a lot of color to you, Caleb. You’re usually all brown. I like you with some color.” She nodded very confidently and sat back down. “Tell Caduceus he should use that shampoo again!”

Caleb looked flustered and simply thanked her before he was dragged away by Nott, who waved to Jester with a quick goodbye.

Jester slumped over her journal with a big sigh and wondered just what she was supposed to do with herself now. Her heart pounded on.

-    -

Jester managed to distract herself for much of the rest of the day. She decided she would finish writing in her journal later that night and instead sought out the others to see what they were doing. She ended up joining Caduceus on a trip to an herbalist and to a few other places (and found some supplies for her own medical kit) that took the majority of the afternoon. After seeing Caleb’s hair, much of their time was spent discussing herbs and creams and oils for skin and hair care.

Jester came back to the tavern with Caduceus in fairly high spirits. She enjoyed an evening meal with the others while they mulled over if they might take another job from the Gentleman immediately or wait a bit, but felt ready to retire to her room relatively early.

She wished a goodnight to her friends (and told Beau and Yasha she would see them in a bit) and walked up the stairs to her room. But Jester had only just gotten to her door when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs behind her and turned to see Caleb walking towards her.

He was wringing his hands awkwardly and not looking her in the eye, so Jester ducked her head down to try and catch his eye, smiling sweetly. “Did you need something, Caleb?”

“Nein, I didn’t, but, ah…” he trailed off and his eyes flickered to hers briefly. Her smile brightened and he promptly looked at the wall to her left. “I just wanted you to know that, ah, last night —“

Jester forced her smile not to freeze as her insides began fluttering in panic and cocked an eyebrow in curiosity. “What about last night? A lot happened last night, Caleb.” She reminded herself to breathe and rocked back and forth on her heels to appear carefree to whatever Caleb was about to say.

“Oh, ja, that is true,” he said. He finally looked towards her, but now he appeared to be intensely studying one of her horns. “Really, I just wanted you to know that you were very good last night. Things were a little easier with you there.”

Jester giggled. “Well, I do bring a lot of life to any party, don’t I?”

“You do.” This time, she caught a small upturn to his lips and rejoiced that she got even the smallest smile out of him. “And at the end of the night, when we were almost captured… you saved our lives.”

Jester wasn’t sure they would have died if they had ended up in the hands of those two weird operatives (after all, the Gentleman had to have ways of getting his people out of bad spots), but she didn’t say anything. She just blushed and ducked her head.

“I wanted to say thank you, Jester,” Caleb finished. She looked up again and found him finally actually looking at her , and he was smiling softly, almost sadly.

Jester put on her brightest smile and ignored the curl in her gut that was both nervous and sad and happy all at once. “Oh, you’re welcome, Caleb! I would never let anyone take you away.”

His smile grew by a tiny bit and Jester’s heart swelled. She smiled back at him for a couple of a moments until she realized that he didn’t appear to be planning on saying anything back to her. There was, however, a thoughtful look spreading over his features that grew in intensity with each passing second. Jester cocked her head and began rocking on her heels again, tail twitching. Caleb was strange. She could wait for him to figure out whatever he was figuring out.

His eyes darted up, toward her horn, and back to her face, and then back up, and she grew further confused, but continued to wait.

Finally, he moved. The motion registered a little delayed in Jester’s mind, because she had been happily waiting for him to speak, which was normal for Caleb. It was entirely not normal for Caleb to move anywhere within a foot of anyone else if it was avoidable and not Nott. And so Jester’s head was telling her that Caleb shouldn’t be leaning into her space almost as if he were about to give her a kiss, because that wasn’t something Caleb would do. Right?

She froze and felt what was realistically only a couple of seconds become a lifetime where she legitimately thought Caleb was going to kiss her right here in the hallway. But he seemed to wobble a little awkwardly, and he didn’t lean down all the way. Instead, he reached the top of her head and Jester felt that he had given her a kiss on the horn.

He stepped back and nodded to her where she stood, still frozen and with a blush crawling up her cheeks. “Danke schoen. I hope you have a goodnight.”

And there he left her, outside of her room questioning her own sanity and wondering just how hard and fast she had fallen for the wizard walking away from her.

Chapter Text

Some time after the rather embarrassing exchange in the hall that had left her an emotional mess, Jester sat at the table in her shared room with a candle lit to shed light on her journal. The doodles on the page had multiplied to include several question marks, an incomplete and abandoned sketch of Caleb kissing her on the horn, and a more detailed sketch of what Jester thought a proper kiss may look like between them.

She felt calm now that she could just pour herself out into her journal for no one else but the Traveler to see. In between the drawings were little words and statements like, “ I felt like a lady, ” and, “ Actually handsome? ” and, “ He’s really weird, but also really nice, so… ” Each word onto the page left her feeling a little bit lighter and relaxed. She felt like maybe she could figure this out if she just stayed cool and remembered that she always had help along the way.

“It’s only been a day,” she said slowly, dictating her own words as she wrote them down. “I should just take some time to think about this.” She paused and tapped her chin, then scribbled down with a short giggle, “but I would also totally actually kiss him if he asked.”

Jester continued to hum to herself while her writing trailed off to become more drawings. She let herself drift in the subtle flickering of the candlelight and the hypnotizing strokes of her pen and felt as if maybe she wasn’t as alone as she had thought she was. The dress she was drawing (a different one, for another party, maybe), became a dress falling to the floor instead. A kiss placed to her throat became frozen in time on the pages that she hardly remembered drawing. A shiver ran down her spine and twitched her tail to one side.

Somehow, be it the odd sense in the back of her head or the quiet in the room enhancing her hearing, Jester wasn’t surprised by a soft knock on her door.

“Come in!” she called softly, shutting her journal with a soft clap. She stood up and adjusted her shift while her tail curled and uncurled around her ankle.

Caleb stepped into the room looking like every step to get there had taken an act of courage and that he was very close to running out. His cheeks were tinged pink and his eyes downcast. He was dressed down to just his shirt, pants, and boots.

Jester let out a soft gasp. “Caleb? What are you doing here?” She fidgeted, feeling a little bare in just her shift, and tried to look her normal, bubbly self. But she still traced the lines in the floorboards with her tail in nervousness behind her.

He closed the door softly and spent a moment staring at the floor with a frown. “I… feel as if I have more to say,” he said. He leaned against the door and ran a hand over his face. “There was something else.”

Jester cocked her head and stepped closer to him. She gave Caleb a lopsided smile. “What are you talking about, Caleb?” He didn’t respond to her but rubbed at his eyes with his hand.

A couple of seconds passed. Then he opened his eyes and looked right at her. Jester felt her stomach do the swoop that it had done so many times at the party and gulped. His eyes were such a piercing blue that it was hard not to feel like she was very suddenly the only object in the universe to him.

He finally stepped away from the door so that only a couple of feet remained between them, and Jester felt her chest tighten. He was still looking at her, but he looked thoughtful and still frowned slightly. Jester leaned forward a little to make sure he was still paying attention to her.

“What else was there?”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you.” He finally looked away. His eyes flickered up, traced her horns, then fixated on something beyond Jester. She recognized that Caleb was gathering himself to say or do something, so she just waited, hearing nothing but her rapid heartbeat.

“I know that there is more to you than little pranks and jokes,” he said. “You are… an exceptional woman, Jester, and last night only proved that to me ten times over.”

Her hands fell limp by her sides as he took one more step forward. She could almost feel him now, less than a foot away, looking down at her with those bright blue eyes. “I felt like I could forget about… everything, just for the night,” he continued, “and I became immersed in your presence.” His hand reached up and, tentatively, giving her time to move away, brushed her cheek. Jester did not move, but leaned into the touch, revelling in how warm his hand was.

A smile ghosted across Caleb’s lips when she didn’t move away. “I wanted… I needed you to know, Jester, that I wanted you last night. I want you tonight.”

Jester’s eyes widened and all she could let out was a breathless, “Oh.” She found that one of her hands had come up to rest on his chest of its own accord. He was firm and warm beneath her fingers and if she concentrated for just a second, she could feel his heart beating away, as rapid as hers.

Caleb bent his head down and tilted hers up. He paused here, close enough that Jester could see the nervous tension in his eyes. “May I?”

She nodded minutely and stuttered out a soft, “Please.”

He kissed her softly at first. Hesitant, with one hand cupping her face and the other hovering just over her waist, his lips brushed hers feather soft. Jester sighed into it, relaxing into his touch and letting herself press against him.

His grip became firm, confident, and he pulled her flush against him. Jester let out a little gasp when his hand tightened at her waist. Caleb used the gasp to deepen the kiss, tilting her head back and smoothing his thumb over her cheek. She pushed back into the kiss, revelling in the feeling that shot from her heart to her belly and back, like little bolts of lightning curling around her heart and then shooting sparks into her core.

Jester could only follow Caleb’s lead with the kiss, knowing that he had more experience than her, but the low groan he let out when she copied him and licked tentatively into his mouth told her that she must be doing the right thing. She snaked a hand up his nape to tangle in his hair as he pushed her back a couple of steps.

Her back hit the wall next to her desk and Caleb broke the kiss for the first time. He pulled back and just looked at her. She stared back, lips parted.

“You are a beautiful woman, Jester,” he murmured. “You make me feel things I haven’t felt in years.”

“I feel it too, Caleb.” Jester cupped his face with both her hands. “It’s okay to act on it.”

He didn’t need telling twice. Jester was pressed up against the wall firmly and he was kissing her again, passionately, almost desperately. She responded in kind, pushing her body up against his, wanting to feel more, needing to satisfy the tightness that shot from her heart to her belly and deeper.

She let out a moan when he broke away from her lips and trailed kisses along her jaw. She tilted her head to give him access, once again tangling her fingers in his soft hair. He smelled like fresh pine and books, just like she imagined.

“Fresh pine and books? You and I both know that he smells like rot and smoke, and that ain’t a debate.”

Jester jerked upright with a squeak and smacked right into Beauregard’s chin. She slammed her journal closed while the monk swore violently and careened back, rubbing her jaw.

“Beau!” Jester screeched. “What are you doing?”

“Reading over your shoulder,” Beau replied unapologetically. “What the fuck did it look like? Did you seriously not notice me?”

Jester flushed and stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “I was busy, Beau!”

“Busy writing…” Beau waved vaguely at Jester’s journal, looking a little sick. “Writing fantasies about Caleb?”

Jester flushed even darker and didn’t respond. Instead she grabbed her journal and shoved it unceremoniously into her haversack. She stood up from the table and glanced at Beau again, still pouting.

Beau’s mild disgust faded and was replaced with concern. “Hey, did, uh… Did something else happen last night that you guys didn’t mention?”

“What?” squeaked Jester. She flopped onto the bed and waved her arms at Beau in dismissal. “No, not like that! We told you everything that happened.”

Beau didn’t look entirely convinced and moved to sit next to Jester. She looked uncomfortable and avoided looking at the tiefling. “Something must have happened, though. I thought that you… that you had a thing for Fjord.”

“Oh, yeah, well…” Jester trailed off. “I don’t really like him after what happened on the Menagerie Coast, you know?”

“Uh, sure. It was a rough couple of weeks.” Beau shrugged in agreement. “So, what, now you have the hots for Caleb all of a sudden? I get that you, like, have a romantic streak and all that, but… Why Caleb?”

Jester sighed and looked away. “Well,” she started, drawing the word out so she could think for just a second. “He’s actually kind of sweet when you get past his weirdness, you know! And he was, like, really really sweet last night and I just realized, like, a lot of things that I think have been in front of me for a while actually? And also he’s actually really handsome when he’s not covered in dirt.” That drew an amused snort out of Beau. Jester smiled sheepishly at the monk. “He really is! His hair is really pretty now that it’s been washed, and he looked so nice in his formalwear. But he’s also actually a considerate person, I think, isn’t he? He doesn’t forget things about his friends, about us. And even though I can tell that there’s something going on with him, he’s still gentle in his own way.” Jester trailed off a little bit, staring at the wall across from her. “He’s powerful, but he doesn’t use that power to abuse. I think he would use it to help. And he helps us and helps me. He’s kind to me.”

They were both quiet for a while.

“Okay,” said Beau slowly. “But it’s still only been, like, a day. And, uh… are you sure?”

Jester huffed. “Beau,” she dragged out her name dramatically. “I think he almost kissed me earlier.”

The monk’s jaw dropped dramatically. “Wait, what?”

“Well, I mean he looked like he might have been about to?” Jester said with a questioning shrug. “But then he just kissed me on the horn. Like, what is that supposed to mean?”

“Uh,” Beau replied unhelpfully.

Jester flopped back on the bed and sighed heavily. She hadn’t meant for Beau to find out so soon, but she hadn’t even heard her roommate come in because she had been so absorbed writing in her journal. But now Beau knew and that was kind of embarrassing, because Jester knew that this was kind of a rushed thing but she just couldn’t stop thinking about how sweet Caleb had been.

Beau brought her back out of her thoughts with a quiet cough. “Look,” she said awkwardly. “It’s only been, like, a fuckin’ day. Why don’t you just give it some time?” She looked at Jester pointedly. “I swear like a week ago you were still giving heart eyes to Fjord any time he complimented you. And, like… Caleb?” She grimaced and Jester smacked her on the thigh with her tail. “Seriously, just don’t tear yourself up over it until you’ve given yourself at least a fucking week to think on it, okay?”

Jester was quiet, the faint whap of her tail tapping methodically on Beau’s thigh the only sound for a minute.

“I think I really like him, Beau,” Jester said.

“We’ll talk about that in a week.” Beau got up from the bed and stretched. “Go to bed. Fjord got us another job from a patron downstairs. We need to be up early to prep for the trip.”

-     -

“Has Jester been acting, ah… funny, to you at all?”

Fjord looked up at the question from where he had been cleaning his mariner’s armor and focused on Caleb with a frown. “No, I haven’t noticed anything unusual myself. Why do you ask?’

Caleb shifted uncomfortably, staring down at his scroll. It was just him and Fjord right now. Fjord was using the back end of the cart like a worktable to clean his gear, even though the enchanted armor didn’t technically need cleaning. Old habit, he’d confessed. Caleb had been attempting to study one of his scrolls in preparation for transcribing it into his book from where he was  perched next to the half-orc’s gear, but he couldn’t focus.

They were enjoying some downtime on the way back to Zadash after the three-day escort they had provided to a man, his family, and rather impressive savings from selling wares in the Pentamarket. The family had returned to a farming community outside of Zadash, but had been made fearful of the recent news of Xhorhasian invaders. Safely deposited, the Mighty Nein were taking a little more time than necessary to travel back to the city. The open land did many in their party a lot of good. Nott and Caduceus especially appeared to be enjoying being out of the city with some downtime, which they hadn’t encountered since they came back to the mainland from the Menagerie Coast.

Caleb looked beyond Fjord to the hill they were parked by. Jester was sprinting down the hill with whoops of laughter while Nugget chased after her in sporadic blinks. He smiled faintly and shook his head.

“Perhaps I am just reading into things a bit too much,” he finally said in response to Fjord. “I was a bit worried after our close call last week.”

Fjord was also watching Jester, who had collapsed to the ground at the bottom of the hill and was being excitedly slobbered on by Nugget. “Well, that’s fair, of course. I think she’s doing okay, though. Nothing out of the ordinary there.”

“No, I suppose not,” said Caleb absently.

Perhaps he was reading into things a bit too much. He had found himself more aware of his surroundings since the party and afraid to relax his constant vigilance. There had been nothing to be on the lookout for, though; they had gone about their business unharmed. It appeared that Beau’s accidental alibi had ruined any kind of investigation into Caleb and Jester’s identities.

In the day they’d had to prepare before escorting the merchant who hired them out of the city, the Mighty Nein had kept an ear to the ground regarding the events of the war and other whispers of goings-on in the Tri-Spires. No news had reached Zadash since the attack on Felderwin, though. It seemed that, for now, the Xhorhasian forces had backed off once again.

The lull in news and action left them feeling at ease to relax slightly on their way back to the city.

He thought Jester had been friendlier than she usually was. Her teases hadn’t appeared so sharp to him. She hadn’t mentioned his need for a bath once, even though it was a running gag with her to say something even if he was freshly bathed. There had been a comment about his bedhead looking “cute,” that he had brushed off with pink cheeks and a quick excuse to walk away before he embarrassed himself. She skipped alongside him during their escort and asked him questions about how he used his components, which he had been happy to talk about. He, in turn, had asked how it felt to use a focus for her divine magic. Jester didn’t know as much about how that worked as Caleb did about his components, but he still enjoyed listening to her talk about it.

Perhaps she felt more comfortable closer to him because of what had happened at the party. He had experienced bonding of a similar kind when he had been in life-threatening situations with Nott. Or maybe Caleb was just reading into things, like Fjord was indicating. No one else seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Caleb realized he had zoned out when the sun flashed brightly off of one Jester’s horn caps. He blinked the spot away and when he focused again realized that she was looking at him with a little smile. Caleb flushed slightly and waved haltingly, hoping she didn’t think his staring was weird. She apparently didn’t, because her smile grew big and toothy and she waved happily back.

She was promptly interrupted by Nugget blinking from her side to above her and toppling them both back to the ground in a mess of shrieks and barking.

Caleb couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him and he relaxed against the side of the wagon, content to focus back on his book.

-     -

Later that night, the Mighty Nein gathered around a fire under an ancient oak tree. Orange light reflect back down on them in a shower of leaves that danced and shook with the flames. Jester was trying to stay engaged in conversation with Fjord and Caduceus, but her attention kept straying to Caleb, who seemed entranced by the sparks drifting into the branches above him. He looked peaceful sitting next to her. It was rare to see Caleb as relaxed as he was right now while his eyes flickered from one ember to the next and followed its path upward.

Jester wished she could lean up against him and bask in his warmth. She remembered how warm he had been at the party and she missed that feeling. She wondered if he would be bothered by the close contact in a relaxed setting like this. He always let Nott crawl all over him, after all, and they had danced close together just over a week ago.

She yawned and stretched her arms up above her head. Her yawn trailed off with a small squeak and she took a chance and leaned to the side, using her tiredness as an excuse to lean up against Caleb. “Traveling always makes me kind of sleepy,” she muttered.

Jester felt him tense up next to her and go very still. But she was extremely pleased to find that he was still just as warm now as he was during the party, and her tail acted completely unconsciously to wrap affectionately around Caleb’s calf, flicking at the buckles on his boots. He twitched and although she couldn’t see him from where her head rested on his shoulder, Jester felt his head turn to look at her.

“Ah, perhaps we should all retire for the evening, then, if you are so tired,” he said haltingly. Jester frowned. She didn’t actually want to sleep just yet. She was perfectly comfortable here and would be more comfortable if Caleb would relax again. But it seemed his calm demeanor had faded when she had pressed up against him. She drew back and looked up at him with a small pout on her lips.

“I could stay here for a bit, Caleb,” she protested. She watched his cheeks flush pink and couldn’t stop herself from smiling through her pout.

Unfortunately, it seemed she only reinforced his resolve, and Caleb gently untangled himself from her to stand awkwardly. “Ne-nein. I think I am tired too,” he stuttered. “I will set up the dome.”

Jester huffed as he walked away and flopped back down on her own. She caught Beauregard giving her a look and stuck her tongue out at the monk in response. She didn’t need Beau to tell her how much of a disaster that had been. Next to Beau, though, Nott was watching Jester with sharp yellow eyes narrowed in thought. Jester shrugged at Nott like what had just happened was no big deal and stood up, self-consciously brushing her dress off.

“Well, I guess I will go to bed then. I’m going to go get ready!”

She flounced away from the circle around the fire and leaned against the oak tree on its shadowed side. From here she could just glimpse Caleb to the side of the fire tracing the lines for the dome. She couldn’t read his features from here, though, and just spent a little while watching him. She could see his small, satisfied smile when the dome sprung into existence around him as the circle was completed. The soft gold that all of his magic started as faded into a solid dark green to blend in with its surroundings.

Jester just couldn’t figure out how Caleb could go from the suave figure he had been at the party to this awkward man who got excited over the successful casting of his impenetrable dome that he cast every single night. Or the awkward man who had stumbled over his words and retreated as hastily as he did in combat when she touched him without notice.

At the same time, she felt her heart swell for him. There was something about his awkwardness that drew her to him and made her want to really get to know him. She felt like there were so many things that they could do together. Things they could talk about, like when he explained to her how his components worked. Somehow, Jester found herself even more determined than she had been before to find a way to get Caleb to open up.

She knew he liked her in some way or another. He was just so shy about it! If she could just get him to open up to her a bit, then maybe he would be able to actually be honest about his feelings.

The next day, Jester noticed that any time she went near Caleb, Nott was watching her with the same narrowed eyes as last night. After she lost track of a conversation with Caleb about teleportation spells because the staring was so distracting, Jester gave up on hanging out with Caleb at all and decided to ride in the cart with Nott and Caduceus for a while. Nott squinted at her for a solid minute after Jester clambered into the cart, until the tiefling wrinkled her nose at the goblin. Nott grinned a sharp grin and then dropped off the cart to scamper up to Caleb.

Jester sighed heavily. Nott was onto her, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. Either she wasn’t hiding this as well as she thought she was, or Nott was just more observant of anyone interacting with Caleb. The others (sans Beau, who already knew) didn’t seem to be giving her any odd looks. Everything seemed to moving on as usual with Fjord, Caduceus, and Yasha.

An idea popped into her head as she was thinking about keeping Nott from getting too suspicious. What if she just told Nott what she was trying to do outright? Didn’t Nott just want Caleb to be happy? Would she support Jester if she thought it would make Caleb happy?

Jester watched the goblin trotting alongside Caleb and shrugged to herself. There was only one way to find out, and Nott really would be the best source for helping her figure out how to get Caleb out of his shell.

-     -

Nott had been staring at Jester with an unreadable expression for at least a minute now. She fidgeted slightly and hoped that she hadn’t said anything wrong during her confession.

Suddenly, the goblin exclaimed, “ That’s why he gets so awkward whenever I mention you lately!”

“Um, what?” asked Jester lamely.

Nott leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered loudly, “Every time I say something about you, like ask about the party or something, he goes red, stutters, and changes the subject as soon as he can.” She leaned back and put a hand to her chin thoughtfully. “He obviously likes you back,” she stated with all the confidence that Jester currently lacked.

“Um, are you sure, Nott?” Jester asked. Sure, she thought maybe Caleb liked her a bit, but she wasn’t sure how and she wasn’t sure if the party had just gotten to them both, and she certainly wasn’t as sure as Nott seemed right now just because Caleb was acting a bit awkward about her. “What if he’s just acting awkward because I tried to sort of kind of technically make a move on him and now he doesn’t know how to act around me?” 

“Impossible,” said Nott dismissively. She had gone full detective-mode now, and Jester could tell that she was plotting. “No one could not like you. It’s got to be the exact opposite! He’s playing hard to get!Therefore, he likes you.”

“Oh, well, thank you!” said Jester with a smile.

“So now we just have to get him to admit it and actually do something about it,” Nott continued. “He’s so quiet, so that means that you have to woo him!” She pointed a finger dramatically at Jester. “He’s too shy to ever make a move, so it’s going to be up to you!”

“Um, how do I do that if he doesn’t even like to be touched?” Jester asked incredulously.

“Easy,” said Nott. “Buy him a book.”

Jester sat back and squinted at Nott suspiciously. “That’s it? Just get him a book? I’ve gotten him books before.”

Nott shook her head. “Not just any book!” She scuttled up until she was in Jester’s face, holding up a finger. “A special book! Find him something that he would love to have but maybe doesn’t have the gold for, or doesn’t think he needs , and so he doesn’t buy it because he can buy more important things like spell components.”

“So…” Jester drew the word out thoughtfully and tried to think of a time Caleb looked particularly pained about putting a book back on the shelf. “So… like that Breakdown of the Ley Lines of Wildemount book he nearly cried about putting back last week?”

Exactly like the Breakdown of the Ley Lines of Wildemount ,” Nott confirmed.

Jester perked up. “Oh, okay! I can do that.”

“It shows that you care,” Nott explained. Her gaze softened into something a little more caring. “If you pay attention to what he likes, and express interest in those and also get him a gift related to that, it shows that you’re making an effort to connect.” She touched her hand to her heart and a small smile played across her lips. “It will touch him in the heart, and maybe he’ll open up a little.”

Jester leaned back and hummed thoughtfully. “I hope so, Nott.” She eyed the goblin for a moment. “You’re a lot more okay with this than I thought you’d be after all of the staring.”

Nott scoffed. “I want Caleb to be happy. I didn’t know what your motives were at first. If it was some kind of prank in the making, I would not have been pleased.” She grinned a sharp, toothy grin. “But I think Caleb could do with a little bit of romance maybe. It’ll loosen him up a bit. You two would be cute.”

Jester felt herself blushing and sputtered out an embarrassed, “Thank you,” to Nott.

“So, when we get back to Zadash, get him a book,” Nott said. “Give it to him unexpectedly, but where you two have a little bit of privacy. Make sure that it’s heartfelt. Don’t rush it! Be honest.”

Jester filed the advice away in her mind for later and flopped back on the grass. “Okay, I can do that.”

She imagined Caleb’s reaction to her gifting him a book he had shown interest in. She hoped that he would be flattered and touched. Maybe he would even give her another kiss. She smiled at the idea and let the silence between her and Nott stretch comfortably as she continued to daydream about Caleb.

Chapter Text

Jester disappeared into the streets of Zadash almost as soon as the Mighty Nein arrived back in the city, citing something about needing to replenish some soap and lotions. Nott was almost as quick to volunteer to keep her company and, frowning curiously, Beauregard volunteered to go with them to make sure they stayed out of trouble.

Caleb, Fjord, Caduceus and Yasha watched them go with some bemusement. Fjord was the first to shrug it off. “Well, I guess I’ll get us checked into our rooms, at least. Did y’all need to do anything so, uh… urgent?” He waved vaguely in the direction the other three members of their party had gone.

Caleb and Yasha shook their heads while Caduceus rumbled amiably that a nap would actually be nice after driving the cart all day. As they followed Fjord into the city, Caleb was quick to pull his wire out of his components pouch and whisper to Nott, “We’re going back to the Leaky Tap. Be careful, bitte.”

He received a muffled, “We’ll be alright!” in response and was glad that his friends hadn’t gone out of his range yet.

Caleb allowed himself to relax some in the trek back to their usual place of rest within Zadash. His mind kept wandering to the odd actions of both Nott and Jester. It was, of course, not unusual for Jester to need to buy more of her scented soaps or lotions that she loved so much, but she had seemed to be in quite the hurry. On top of that, she usually made at least a feeble attempt to get Caleb to come with her to pick out some soap for himself to which he usually declined. It was halfway a joke at this point, but he was still left perplexed that this time she hadn’t asked him to come along.

His thoughts wandered away from that train of thought and he found himself debating if a bath would be worth it after a couple of days on the road. He had to admit that he had become more particular to the comforts of bathing more regularly in the past several months.

He still wasn’t so into the act that he found it worth spending his gold on unnecessary soaps. The bathhouses almost always provided some complimentary soap, even if it was very basic. Caleb didn’t need anything beyond that. It wasn’t like he was trying to impress anybody with either his appearance or scent.

Back in the Leaky Tap, Caleb sat at the tiny table in his and Nott’s room and drew a small budget for himself based on his own savings. He didn’t have much, but he could still get some more inks and incense in case Frumpkin had to be used for any specialized recon later, and he just needed a couple more stacks of parchment… not much. And he’d have some left over to stash away…

Some time later, Caleb sat with Fjord, Yasha, and Caduceus in the tavern for their dinner. Fjord was halfway through wondering out loud if Caduceus should use Sending to find out where the others were when Caleb glimpsed a whirl of blue at the entrance and Beauregard strode into the tavern with Jester flouncing behind her. Nott was riding on Jester’s shoulders disguised as a halfling, looking down at the blue tiefling with a grin.

Caleb’s eyes narrowed at his little friend. Nott slid down from Jester’s shoulders and gave her a thumbs up that Jester returned happily. Caleb shook his head, wondering if the conspiratorial look he thought he saw between them was just his imagination. Any trouble they would normally get into would have been stopped in its tracks by Beauregard. Not that the monk was the most mature soul, but she had a better idea for when a prank was best left alone.

Nott and Beauregard swarmed the table at the same time, immediately launching into a combined story about a particular vendor they saw in the Pentamarket who had deftly created flowers out of the fruits they were cutting and serving for passersby.

Caleb was distracted from the story by a nudge to his shoulder. Jester was standing by him and swaying back and forth restlessly. “Hey, Caleb,” she said with a secretive glint to her eye. “Come here!” She beckoned excitedly and then bounced across the tavern to the hearth, where two more comfortable chairs for lounging were unoccupied. The others did not seem to notice them, so Caleb silently excused himself and followed Jester with a perplexed half-smile. They sat together before the hearth and Jester dragged her chair closer so that their knees almost knocked together.

Jester had a cute flush to her cheeks that left them a slightly darker shade of blue, obscuring some of her freckles. Caleb wrote it off to the cold of the night setting in and nudged her knee with his own questioningly. “Is something the matter?”

She shook her head with a small giggle. “No, of course not! Actually, everything is great, hopefully!” She twisted around to start digging through her satchel and Caleb thought her flush might have deepened. Odd, because it was warmer in here, especially by the fire. He was distracted, however, by the wrapped package that Jester had pulled out of her bag. “I got you something,” she said with a proud, hushed voice.

Caleb leaned back in surprise. “For me? What is it?”

“Well, open it and see, silly!”

He took the package gingerly and looked at Jester with flattered confusion. But he could not stop the smile tugging at his lips when the package was so obviously a book, now that he held it. He tore the paper binding it and let it fall to the side of his chair as he set the heavy tome down on his lap to admire it.

A Breakdown of the Ley Lines of Wildemount: A guide to locating, tuning into, and utilizing the magical currents of the world,” Caleb read out loud in wonder. “Jester, this is amazing.” He hadn’t had the money to spare when he saw it in the bookstore last week. And even though he could have bought it now, he had firmly told himself that he had more important things to spend his gold on. But to receive this now, as a gift, no less, lifted his heart and warmed it immensely.

He looked up at her finally, his smile wider and more genuine that he felt he had smiled in quite a while. “You must have seen me fawning over it last week, ja?”

Jester was definitely blushing because of this and not because it was cold outside, Caleb suddenly realized. She looked a little dazed as she stared at him and mirrored his smile with a big, toothy grin of her own. She nodded a bit sheepishly in answer to his question. “It was a pretty easy thing to deduce,” she chirped. “I think you even whined a little when we left the bookstore.”

He saw her grin turn a little sharp as she teased him and huffed a short laugh. He gripped the book tightly, reveling in the quality of the leather cover and crispness of the new pages. “How can I pay you back?” he asked quietly, looking back up to Jester. Surely, he had to offer something in return for such a favor.

But Jester waved her hands dramatically in front of her and squeaked, “It’s a gift, Caleb! You don’t need to do anything. I just wanted to do something nice for you.” She shifted awkwardly in her chair and averted her gaze. “We had a bit of a rough week after the- the party, and then laying low for a while. So I just wanted to do something nice, is all.”

Caleb still found himself already mentally calculating what he might be able to do for her in exchange for such a kind gift. Books were very important to him and to be gifted one that could prove so useful while also fascinating meant more than he thought even Jester realized. His heart swelled a little in his chest and he reached out without really thinking to tough Jester’s shoulder gently. She jumped in surprise and looked back at him, violet eyes wide.

Caleb smiled softly at her. “Bitte schon, Heidelbeere.”

She relaxed and leaned into his touch a little. Caleb gave her arm a brief and soft squeeze before he let go and cracked open the book to the first page. He skimmed it and then looked up at Jester, eyes bright. “Do you know much about ley lines, Jester?”

She shook her head curiously and Caleb perked up. “I can tell you a bit about them, if you would like. Then you would at least know something about what you have gifted me.”

“Of course! I’d love to learn about it,” said Jester, edging forward in her chair.

Leaning close together, Caleb launched into an excited explanation of ley lines and how they had come to be, and how they now helped all arcane casters to further boost their magic, with Jester seeming to drink in every word with breathless interest.

-     -

Caleb had to do something in return for Jester.

Jester had finally trudged up to bed after letting Caleb ramble at her for over an hour about Ley Lines and magical currents and places in the world where magic was somehow more potent. He admired her resolution to keep listening to him even though he thought this would have been very dry stuff to anyone else. But as the night wore on, Jester had slipped a little closer, a little more sideways, at some point almost dozed off into his shoulder. Caleb had gently pushed her upright again and suggested she go to bed, to which Jester didn’t have much energy left to protest.

Caleb had walked her to her room and then left her with a quiet goodnight and another heartfelt thank you that made her blush again. From there he had retired to his own room and continued to skim through the first couple of chapters of his new book.

Now, the book was set to the side and Caleb was re-evaluating the short budget he had drawn up for himself and trying to figure out what he might be able to do for Jester in return. In retrospect, he felt a little embarrassed that he hadn’t noticed how caring and observant Jester was about her friends. He had let himself continue to imagine that she was just a funny and carefree girl who liked to prank people. And maybe she had grown in the months that he had known her, too. In truth, Jester had always cared for her companions, but she had grown to become a light in their group. Caleb thought that without Jester, things would be much darker, and he found himself realizing he would miss her quite dearly if she weren’t around.

Jester couldn’t have known that information on the Ley Lines of Wildemount could be vitally important to his goals, but Caleb was grateful for the knowledge she had opened up for him. It only seemed fair that he offer her something that could help her as well. Jester always apologized for not being able to do more in battle, when Caleb felt like she did plenty, especially when she could share the burden of keeping them all alive with Caduceus.

But maybe he could do something assuage her guilt at feeling like she never had enough energy to help everyone.

-    -

Jester felt like something was simmering in her chest and belly all week after giving Caleb his new book. She had carefully watched him throughout the week and noticed that he read through the book within four days. Every spare moment that the Mighty Nein weren’t out and about, he was tucked away by the hearth in the tavern or up in his room, reading. After the first half of the week, Jester realized that he appeared to have started the book over, but this time had paper and ink to take meticulous notes.

Every time she saw him with the book her stomach did a little flip and she felt giddy and proud.

The downside to the gift, however, was that he had become almost entirely immersed in the book. The only time he hadn’t been reading, he had either been with the rest of the party or had mysteriously excused himself to go somewhere alone.

Jester couldn’t figure out where he had gone. Twice he had disappeared, the first time earlier in the week and then just yesterday. No one knew where he went, not even Nott, and Jester was frustrated. She was so happy that she had done something right by getting a cool book for Caleb, but now she had almost no time to talk to him. She wondered if he would be more open to hanging out with her once he finished reading the book for the second time. Nott assured her that she just needed to wait for him to process the text before he turned his attention back to the real world, but she still had her doubts that she had accidentally pushed him away by giving him something he could use to avoid socializing.

That was why she wasn’t really paying attention one evening as she made her way up to her room in the tavern. The door to another room opening went ignored until a hand grasped her arm and she spun around in shock. Her free hand stopped short of clocking Caleb in the face as she realized it was him. He let go of her arm at the same time and Jester clapped her hands over her mouth with a gasp.

“Oh my God, Caleb, you scared me!” she squeaked. Her face flushed with embarrassment at nearly punching the wizard in her surprise.

Caleb put his hands up in placating manner. “Ah, entschuldigung.” He lowered his hands and gestured vaguely back towards the room (his room, Jester realized now). “I wanted to show you something. I didn’t mean to run into you - I was going to go downstairs to find you, but… ah, here you are.”

Jester was finding pretty everything about Caleb cute or attractive or endearing these days and his awkwardness during conversations was just another one of those things that made her blush stay firmly in place and butterflies dance in her chest. But she perked up all the same and grinned up at the redhead with curiosity in her eyes. “Oh, what do you have to show me? Is it a secret? A new spell? Something you discovered from your book?”

Caleb was giving her that small, thoughtful smile as he shook his head and motioned for her to follow him into his and Nott’s room. The goblin wasn’t there, likely still downstairs with Beau and Fjord. Jester tried to keep the butterflies from crawling up her throat, but her breath quickened all the same and she swallowed hard against the excitement.

Caleb’s smile held contained excitement and his eyes were bright. Jester rarely saw him in such a state and she grew nervous and excited just watching him. She closed to door softly and leaned against it to watch Caleb walk over to the little table by the bed, where he picked up a simple looking box. Jester breathed in sharply when she recognized a jewelry box. Her heart began positively pounding as the wizard turned around and returned to her with the box in his hands.

“I know that you said it was a gift,” he started, sounding nervous. “But I felt that it was only appropriate to do something for you in return. The book has been a good deal of help to my studies, so I wanted to get you something that would help you, too.”

Jester was jittery and nervous and excited and her breathing had sped up again. Caleb had gotten her a gift in return for the book? She took a steadying breath and smiled shyly up at Caleb. “You didn’t have to do that, Caleb!” she said brightly. “I didn’t expect any kind of payment.”

He shook his head with a huff of a laugh. “I said the same thing when you gave me my new book. But you still insisted. Please, it is my thanks.” He held the box out and removed the lid.

A necklace was nestled on layers of white silk within. It was a silver chain with just three charms on it. Two beautiful turquoise beads framed a larger white opal. Jester was immediately entranced by the three beads and gasped in shock and delight when she realized that the opal was actually shining faintly. The cascade of rainbow light within shifted and fluctuated so minutely that she almost hadn’t noticed. On either side of it, the marble-like cracks of the turquoise beads shifted as if they held water within them.

“Caleb…” Jester breathed, tracing the opal bead with feather-light touch. “This is beautiful.”

Caleb shifted on his feet. “You like it?”

She looked up at him. He wasn’t looking at her; his eyes were cast downward and he looked unsure of himself in this moment. She breathed out a laugh, delight filling her from the heart and warming her all over. “Caleb, I love it!”

A smile broke out across Caleb’s features and he fumbled with the box for a moment as he gingerly removed the necklace from its resting place among the silk. “Here. I want you to try it on.” He made a spinning motion with his free hand and Jester’s heart leapt into her throat as she turned to face the door. She felt shivers run down her back as his hands brushed her neck as the necklace was placed delicately about her neck. She shivered again when he moved her hair out of the way to clasp the chain and jumped slightly when he touched her shoulder to indicate that she could turn around again.

Caleb was still smiling and Jester felt like she couldn’t breathe, but also like she wouldn’t ever have to breathe again as long as she could stay in this moment.

He touched the turquoise beads one at a time. “Do you feel it, now?” He touched the opal.

Jester cocked her head and was about to ask what he meant when she felt the slow and steady pulse of energy from the beads sync up with her pounding heart. Her eyes widened as she realized that the brilliant colors and faint glow of the opal were from the magic directly imbued into the beads. “Caleb, did you enchant this yourself?” she gasped.

He put his hands up apologetically. “Oh, nein, but I had it enchanted for you.” Once again, he touched the turquoise beads. “These have Cure Wounds embedded in them, and they recharge every night.” And again, he touched the opal. “This contains a spell I don’t know if you have used before, called Greater Restoration.” Caleb’s hand dropped back to his side and he looked at Jester, gauging her features. “I felt that you might feel better knowing that you have these resources, even when you are very tired from a battle. But I also made sure that the stones for the enchantment complimented you.”

Jester touched the beads reverently and was afraid for a moment that she would start crying in front of Caleb. “Oh, I love it,” she whispered.

Then, without even thinking, she surged forward and threw her arms around Caleb in an embrace. “Thank you so much, Caleb,” she said into the crook of his neck. She tried to impress as much of her love and delight for him into that thanks and hoped that he understood how much this meant to her. “I’ll never take it off, just in case. And it is so beautiful.”

She almost hummed in satisfaction when she felt Caleb slowly, tentatively raise his arms to return her embrace. After a few seconds of awkward hovering, his arms settled around her waist and tightened comfortably.

He pulled away too soon and Jester watched him with an uncontrollable smile still playing at her lips. Caleb looked awkward but pleased and Jester wondered suddenly if this was the perfect moment. They were alone in his room and both of them were happy and she had just received a gift from him and he was still thankful for her gift to him and he had actually hugged her back and -

He stepped away and looked around as if not sure what to do at this point. Jester’s heart skipped a beat as she imagined closing the space between them again and kissing him. But something held her back, whether it was the mask starting to fall back into place on Caleb’s features or the threat of Nott coming to bed at any moment.

But she still stepped forward and put a hand on his arm. Caleb twitched slightly in response, but did not pull away. Jester smiled warmly up at him. Her other hand played absently with the beads at her throat. “Really, Caleb,” she said. “Thank you.” Then she leaned up on her toes and gave him a quick, sweet kiss on the cheek. Then she was dancing away and flouncing out the door with a cheerful, “Now get some sleep. Goodnight!”

It was only when she was back in the privacy of her own room did she allow herself to squeak in shock and delighted panic, sliding down the back of the door to sit on the ground with her hand still touching the necklace absently, methodically. Beneath the necklace, her heart pounded on, in time with the faint pulse of the enchanted beads.

-     -

Jester was awake before Beau but after Yasha, who appeared to have already left the room. She had gone to bed still buzzing inside with the joy of her gift and woke up clutching the necklace to her chest with one hand. Brushing her thumb over the opal and watching a shimmer ripple across it in response, Jester knew what she had to do next.

She scrambled out of bed in a flurry of blankets and flowing night dress, ignoring the groan from Beau as she rummaged unceremoniously through her belongings to get dressed. Once she was fully dressed (with the necklace settled nicely just above the neckline of her dress), she popped open a traveling mirror and eyed herself carefully. With a careful ruffle of her hair to settle it around her horns, Jester found herself presentable and bounded out the door.

She paused long enough to yell, “Good morning, Beau! See you later Beau!” Her roommate had a tendency to use Jester and her early-morning habits as a wakeup call on days when they didn’t need to be up and about at a certain time.

Ignoring the bothered groaning behind her, Jester skipped down the hallway and stopped in front of Caleb and Nott’s door. She didn’t give herself time to think, lest she become nervous, and knocked cheerfully.

Nott answered the door a moment later, looking confused. Jester’s heart sank for a moment and then skyrocketed into her throat when she glimpsed Caleb behind the goblin, looking questionably over at her.

“Oh, hi, Nott!” said Jester happily. “I just had a question for Caleb. Can I come in?”

Nott paused for a just moment before jumping into action, sliding past Jester and into the hallway. “Of course! I was just on my way out anyway. Time to start the day, you know!” She winked mischievously at Jester before padding away.

Jester giggled quietly to herself and turned back to the open door. Caleb was lacing his boots as she stepped into the room. She scuffed the floor with her feet awkwardly. That brief interaction with Nott had brought her nervousness roaring back to the surface. She hoped she wasn’t about to make a fool out of herself.

Caleb straightened and gave her a brief wave. “Guten morgen, Jester. Is everything alright?”

Jester squeaked shortly and straightened, trying to calm her pounding heart. She opened her mouth to assure him that she was fine and that she just had a question, but instead, in a moment of frantic nervous, she blurted, “We should get lunch!”

There was a brief pause wherein Jester’s cheeks flared a deep blue in her embarrassment and Caleb just looked at her. “Ah… what?”

She flailed her hands in front of her, trying to regain some of her composure. “I mean, I found this place!” she rambled. “And it’s really cool! And I think you’d like it! It’s Zemnian! I mean, it’s a Zemnian cafe! And it sounded like something you’d like! So we should get lunch there!” Her waving hands paused as she finished talking, held before her in a presentory style as she inwardly berated herself for messing this entire thing up. Some date proposal this was.

A smile caught at Caleb’s lips and he tilted his head. “Oh, well, that sounds very nice. I think I would like to visit this restaurant.” He nodded, seemingly unaware of Jester’s inner meltdown. “Did you mean lunch today?”

“If you want!” squeaked Jester, still unable to believe that this appeared to be working. Caleb even seemed - dare she say it? - endeared by her antics.

“Ja, that would be nice,” Caleb responded. “I, ah, have some errands to run this morning, however.”

“Oh, of course!” Jester backed towards the door until she was standing in the hallway and staring at Caleb across the threshold. Her hands were tangled in her dress now and she had no idea when she had started wringing the cloth so fiercely. “We can meet back here later and I’ll show you where it is!”

Caleb stepped past her with a nod of affirmation. “I am looking forward to it, Jester. See you later.” He flashed her one last small smile as he closed and locked the door to his and Nott’s room, and then he turned and walked away down the hall.

Jester spent several minutes leaning against the wall and letting her heart rate return to normal. She couldn’t believe that had worked! She had made an utter fool of herself by practically shouting her proposal at him and he had still accepted! He still thought she was, what? Funny? Cute? Something had made him smile in that small, personal way that he did sometimes. Jester’s chest swelled and she took a deep breath.

Okay. This was great! She had a date! Everything would be fine and they would have a good time and Caleb could tell her about all of his Zemnian comfort food and she could compare it to her favorite foods from Nicodranas. It would be fun and romantic and just casual enough that Caleb wouldn’t get all weird and avoidant. Yes, that was how it would be.

Keeping the thought in her head, Jester skipped down the stairs to the main tavern with her heart light, her head held high, and a wonderful day in store.