Jerica forced herself to turn around and head back toward the infirmary. It wasn't fair to Kieran to run away from her emotions because, this time, it meant running away from him. He needed her to get her act together. To be strong. For his sake.
As she approached, she realized that the door was still cracked open from where she'd fled a few moments before. It let the voices from within spill out into the hall, although they were muffled. She couldn't quite tell what they were saying until she was close, though still out of sight.
“— you just scared her,” Derik’s voice said.
Jerica furrowed her brow, stopping in her tracks. What was he talking about? Surely not her. That was ridiculous. Absurd. She didn’t get scared, and certainly not by Kieran or Ryken or anyone else who might be in that room with him right now. She considered charging in to set the record straight, but somehow seemed to find herself frozen in place.
“… Sir?” Kieran asked, voice timid.
“Being a commander and being a parent are very different things, Kieran,” Derik said. “… and I’m not sure if I could say which is harder.”
“Sir?” Kieran sounded startled this time.
“It’s true,” Derik said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. My job is incredibly stressful – overseeing thousands of men, coordinating all my officers and soldiers and patrols and training. But, outside of wartime, it doesn’t involve too much emotional attachment, overall. I try to be sensitive to the needs of my men and be fair in my treatment of them--"
"You are, sir," Kieran said.
"Thank you... but the fact of the matter is that I don’t lose sleep at night when I’ve got my soldiers out on a mission. I don’t fret I’ve been too harsh when I have to discipline them or second-guess my decisions. I’ve no obligation to any of them other than humane treatment and reasonable expectations… but Jer and Rek? Whew.”
Jerica felt a prick of guilt at eavesdropping, but she was invested in the conversation now. It felt like she had a compulsive need to know what he was going to say about her and Rek.
“… It’s different, sir?” Kieran asked.
“It’s very different,” Derik agreed. “I’d burn down the world to see them safe and happy.”
Jerica smiled a little at that despite herself.
“… There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them,” Derik said after a moment. “Nothing. I’d die for them in a heartbeat; I’d kill for them. They’re constantly on my mind. Worrying about if they’re safe, if they’re happy. If I’m meeting their emotional needs, their educational needs. If they’ve got an acceptable quality of life. It’s…” He sighed. “It’s much, much harder to care about someone. To love someone. You’ve got to be sure you balance guidance with gentleness, be sure you’re building them up emotionally and spiritually, not just professionally. Preparing them for future success and happiness, in life not just a career. It’s… different.”
There was a brief silence. Jerica took a deep breath and considered walking in. Then considered turning away. She wasn’t sure whether it was better to advance or retreat at this point, but it felt wrong to continue lurking. She supposed she would –
“You and Jerica blur the line between commander and child.”
Jerica's gut clenched and her gaze flicked towards the door to be sure she hadn't happened into sight. But she hadn't. She was still safely anonymous in the hallway, with Derik and Kieran presumably alone in the infirmary. She couldn't see them and they couldn't see her.
"I... I'm sorry, sir," Kieran said after a moment.
"Why?" Derik scoffed.
"I—I didn't mean... I'll... do better, sir," Kieran assured him. "I didn't mean to... be unprofessional."
"That's not what I said," Derik said gently. "And it's also not what I meant... It's... not a bad thing, I think. Complicated, no doubt. But not inherently bad."
"No. It..." Derik was quiet for a moment, then sighed. "It makes sense, honestly. You're a kid— kids need parents. It makes sense you'd look for a mother-like figure in Jerica."
"Lieutenant Jerica isn't my mother, sir," Kieran said quietly.
"No," Derik agreed. "But she is acting as a guardian for you, no? She's been looking after you, making sure you're clothed, fed, educated, trained..."
There was another silence. Jerica wrung the hem of her tunic in her hands to keep herself from clawing her own palms as anxiety set in. She needed to get out of here. Before she got her feelings hurt by hearing what Kieran really thought of her. Or, worse, before she got caught eavesdropping. That would be humiliating.
Jerica turned to go back the way she'd come from.
"...I... I know she didn't consent to taking me on as her child, though," Kieran said. "Like you said, accepting a squire and having a child are very different things."
"Aye," Derik agreed. "... but... I don't think either of you could have anticipated the way your relationship would have grown these past two years, when you first accepted her offer of squire-ship."
That was true. She'd thought she was saving him from getting punished. She never, ever could have predicted that she'd grow to care about him as much as she did now. How had he managed to weasel his way so deep into her frozen heart? She didn't know.
"... Would you want a more formal commitment from her?"
Jerica froze again, stomach clenching as her heart threatened to beat a hole straight through it. The moment of truth. Maybe Derik was right earlier. Maybe she was scared.
What a ridiculous statement.
Of course, she was scared. She was absolutely terrified to hear his response. She couldn't quite seem to remember how to breathe. The silence was oppressive. Sweat beaded on her brow in an instant, chest tight.
"I... I would never ask her to..." Kieran stammered.
"You're not asking her anything," Derik said. "You're answering my question."
"I— I mean— I know she— that's a— big commitment— and she didn't-she wouldn't want— I—"
...That wasn't a 'no'. Why wasn't he saying no?
"I didn't ask you what she wants," Derik cut in, voice gentle. "I asked you what you want."
There was a long silence. Then, "...I mean... yeah."
Jerica felt like a rug had been ripped out from under her. She put a hand on the wall to steady herself. 'Yeah'? Yeah? He... he did want her to...? What? This was bewildering. She swallowed hard.
"Yes, sir," Kieran corrected. "Sorry."
"It's fine," Derik said. "... but... yes?"
There was another silence. Then a sheepish, "Yes."
"... Would you be able to articulate why?" Derik asked. "It's okay if not."
Kieran hesitated for a long moment. "Well... I mean... you were right about everything you said. She has been... treating me very, very well... she's... been everything a mother should be."
Jerica's throat was tight.
"She cares for you very much," Derik commented.
"She does?" Kieran's voice sounded hopeful, like there was a little smile in it.
"She does," Derik confirmed.
That was true. She did care for him. More than she should. More than was safe for her to care about him. More than was safe for him to be cared about by her. The fastest way to become a target was to be important to someone who was important.
Jerica had always subscribed to the mantra of 'proximity to power is power' that her tutor had taught her during her political lessons. There was a certain influence the families and advisors of rulers had, solely due to their proximity to the ruler himself. The more the favor, the more the influence.
But the exact inverse was true, too. The more a public figure cared for someone, the more they could be influenced to make poor choices that they viewed to be in the best interest of their loved one. Well. She supposed that wasn't unique to public figures. Extortion happened across all social classes and creeds. But the motivation was clearest when it came to rulers.
And ruler's assassins.
The more people who realized she would die for Kieran, the more people who may get stupid ideas and threaten Kieran to get to her.
Although. She supposed it wasn't as much of a secret these days that she would have otherwise hoped that it'd be, how much she cared about Kieran. The story had been shared everywhere of how she'd jumped off the City Wall to rescue him. Fighting a Chijurru, getting captured by the Nykerians, the whole bit was already public knowledge. Was it that much different to formally adopt him? Is that what he wanted? Gods.
"I... I care for her a lot, too," Kieran said after a moment. "If it's not too bold to say."
"On the contrary, I think that's a wonderful thing to say," Derik said kindly. "I'm sure she'd be flattered to know she's as important to you as you are to her. You know how hard she tends to be hard on herself."
"Yes, sir," Kieran agreed. "I... is... is there a way I could help with that, sir?"
"With... how hard she is on herself, sir?" Kieran asked. "She's... always so encouraging to me, but I never know how to... return the favor?"
Jerica wiped her sweaty palms on her trousers and turned away again. Her face burned with embarrassment at the knowledge that this was the conversation the two of them were choosing to have. And yet knowing she couldn't be angry with them, either, since she was the one eavesdropping right now.
"Mm... I don't think so," Derik said thoughtfully. "It's sweet you want to, but I don't think she'd be receptive to comfort of that sort coming from you... I think... the best thing you could do is just be honest with her."
"...Do you want a more personal relationship with her?"
Jerica hesitated again.
"... yes, sir."
"Then tell her."
That was all she needed to hear. Jerica finally pulled herself away from the temptation to continue eavesdropping and quickly strode down the hall, mind spinning with this new information.
It wasn't just the slip of the tongue, borne by a pain-filled confusion. It was genuine. He wanted her to be more personal with him. Wanted her – of all people – to pick up the maternal slack and become a mother figure to him.
And yet. She'd do anything for him. Anything. And if he needed her to be a mother? Then so be it.
She took a deep breath and started down the hall to the Records Hall. She needed to speak with the Record's Keeper. Apparently, she needed an officiant for an adoption ceremony.