“Where’s Veth,” Beau asked.
It was the last night before they reached Aeor. Even Lucien couldn’t get them lost enough to delay their arrival any further than it already had been--tomorrow by noon at the latest they’d reach their destination and find out just what he had in store for them all. Everyone was gathered in Yasha’s room for a repeat of last night’s cuddle piles, (hopefully without any more surprise eyes).
But as Caleb looked around the room, he realized that Beau was right and Veth was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll go get her,” he said.
“If you’re not back soon…” Fjord trailed off.
“If I’m not back in thirty minutes I fully expect you to tear this place apart until you find us,” Caleb replied. Fjord nodded, visibly relaxing but still alert as he opened the door for Caleb to exit.
She wasn’t in any of the common areas, nor was she in the laboratory. Caleb was beginning to suspect she was sneaking around their enemies in a desperate attempt to glean any last clues when he saw the door to his room ever so slightly ajar.
A note lay on top of one of his many open books.
C: In 8 on 8. -V
Caleb took the note and tucked it into one of his pockets as he made his way up the tower. He pretended that he was not a sentimental man, that he wouldn’t use the scrap of paper as a bookmark later in defiance of a keen memory that remembered where he had last left off in any book he had ever read.
(Her handwriting was never the spiky chicken-scratch scrawl of a goblin who had little to no education. It was round and smooth and beautiful. No matter how fast she wrote, each letter was formed clearly and exactly before moving on to the next one. He’d never had many opportunities to see it, but he still should have known she wasn’t really a goblin the moment she wrote a fake letter for one of their scams. She’d always had the penmanship of a halfling girl who was too smart for her farming town’s one-room schoolhouse, and so took to perfecting and over-perfecting every lesson she ever learned with the same dedication she used to find and organize her collections.)
“Fort, doch nicht vergessen.”
Up he floated to his hall of memories. She’d also left the eighth door slightly ajar. Something in his heart fluttered a little, seeing all the breadcrumbs she’d left for him to find, her implicit trust that he would follow them to her. Of course he followed; he would alway follow her wherever she went. Then his heart shivered and retreated, the way it always did whenever he felt a little too seen, just a little too understood. He pushed the door further open.
And there she was.
He’s thrown into a filthy cell none-too-gently. The door is slammed and locked behind him before he can even feel the sting where his hands had hit the floor to break his fall.
He doesn’t notice the tiny heap of gray and green crouched in a corner of the cell. He might never have noticed but she suddenly sneezes. She startles herself more than him.
“Excuse me”, she says in her thin, scratchy voice at the same time he says, “Gesundheit”. The moon shifts out from beneath the clouds and glints off of her needle-sharp teeth and her pupils contract, revealing huge golden irises.
“You, you are goblin,” he says before he can stop himself.
His confusion shows on his face and she stumbles on.
“I mean, I am a goblin. I’m Nott. That’s my name, Nott.”
Veth was standing in the same corner of the same cell, but there was no missing her now. She stood straight instead of crouched in the corner, and the moonlight caught on her pale yellow nightgown.
“You got the moon right,” she said. No preamble, no, she just started the conversation right in the middle, she cut straight to the heart of things.
“Why is this the only window in the tower where you put in the sky? I mean, there’s the ninth level, but that’s not really…”
“Nein, I understand what you mean,” he said. He felt a flash of pride that she even noticed such a small detail. He walked over and leaned against the wall beside her, looking out at the quarter moon in the sky.
He couldn’t say the truth, that this was the only room where getting the sky right mattered, that he first saw her in silvery moonlight and he couldn’t recreate this place, this terrible and yet terribly special place without it. So he said the next truest thing.
“I am surprised you remember what the moon looked like that night; it was such a long time ago.”
She turned around and stuck her tongue out at him.
“You’re not the only one who remembers important things, Caleb Widogast.”
“Of course not, Veth, entschuldigung, I would never imply you didn’t.” Veth shrugged and sat down, patting the floor next to her. Caleb folded himself down on the damp stone beside her. They sat shoulder to shoulder, like they had sat so very many times before.
“How long do we have before they start worrying where I am?”
“We have seventeen minutes until our friends come looking for us.”
“That’s not much time to do this…” she trailed off and Caleb felt his brow wrinkle in confusion.
“Time to do what?”
Veth ignored his question in favor of pleating her nightgown between her fingers. After thirty-seven seconds she let go of her skirt and put her hand right over the red eye on his shoulder, even though it was concealed by his shirt. After a moment he put his hand over hers.
Celeb is standing there, shirt crumpled on the ground, the red eye warm beneath his hand. Everyone is awake now, but the first person his eyes seek out is Veth. Alway Veth.
Her eyes have a haunted, hunted look to them that he hasn’t seen since she was a goblin, and a wave of self-loathing washes over him.
She says nothing to him as the group speaks about what happened and what to do, how this changes things. But when he settles back down at his spot on the floor to try and get whatever rest he can still get before morning, he finds she is already there. They still say nothing as they arrange themselves in a familiar position, her tucked up against his rib cage, his arm slung around her back, his shoulder pillowing her head and her leg thrown over his own. He’s no longer malnourished and she has her body back, so it’s nowhere near as bony as it used to be. It’s almost...
They don’t sleep, but his heartbeat races just a little less as he feels her breathing in and breathing out beside him.
He didn’t say anything but let her move at her own pace. He wasn’t sure what she meant to do or felt she had to do, but he refused to rush her. Eventually she let out a gusty sigh and spoke:
“Do you...do you remember the way we met? I mean, of course you do, you turned it into one of your rooms.”
“I think I understand what you mean,” he said. It was one thing to know something but entirely different to hear it said. Veth needed to hear it.
“I do, I remember.”
Veth looked at him, her hand still on his shoulder. “What do you remember?”
“Mmm… I remember that your voice was higher than I’d expected. I remember that I saw how you were cleaner than I was and felt a little ashamed.”
“Well, it was hardly a feat to be cleaner than you were back then, you would rub dirt into your hair if it started looking too red and shiny.”
Caleb smiled and nodded. She looked down and bit her lip before looking back up at him with more than little steel in her eyes.
“I fell a little bit in love with you in this room.”
She said it matter-of-fact. He used to rub dirt in his hair. There was a half moon in the sky that night. She had fallen a little bit in love with him.
The smile melted off of Caleb’s face like butter in a hot skillet. Veth moved to take her hand off his shoulder, but his traitorous hand had frozen and wouldn’t let her go. If this is where this conversation was going, he wouldn’t let go until he had to, not if this was the last time he would have the chance to hold her hand.
“Do you remember that part,” she asked him. “Did you notice?”
“I…” He could not speak, his words trapped inside his throat.
When he uses his magic to conjure fire, her eyes grow as big as saucers. He assumes she must have never seen magic before in her little goblin tribe.
“Where did you learn that,” she asks, her voice spilling over with awe.
“I learnt it a long time ago,” he replies. He sees her eyes narrow slightly and her ears twitch; she’s not so in awe that she hasn’t noticed that he didn’t answer her question. Luckily, he’s just created a perfect distraction.
“Well, now that I have set this place on fire, do you have a way to get us out of here?”
The smoke is faint but distinct as the fire down the hall starts to blaze and the guards run out. He pours all of his focus on her, lest memories threaten to drown him.
“Please,” she says, and pulls what looks to be two hairpins out of the tangle of seaweed that is her hair. “This is the easy part.”
She picks the lock in sixteen seconds, and he realizes that if she had stayed quiet and hid in the shadows, she could have escaped at any time before he entered the cell. She could have escaped without him once he had fallen asleep.
But she hadn’t.
“I...saw that you were impressed with me. I did not agree with the sentiment but I knew you were sincere.”
“That’s not a ‘no’,” she replied.
It wasn’t a “no”. He didn’t refute what she’d said, but she didn’t need him to.
“I thought you’d noticed. I mean, I’m sure I was obvious.” Caleb ached to tell her that she wasn’t obvious so much as open, and endearingly so. He’d spent years amongst people who lied as easily as breathing and he much preferred her authenticity. It felt fresh and clean after so long training to be a shadow. He wanted to say all of it and more but there were reasons not to, not the least of which was that his black heart was found wanting when weighed against Yeza’s pure one.
They sat there, looking at each other in the silence until Veth shifted to kneeling across from him. Even as she shuffled around his knees, she kept her hand on his shoulder, warm and strong beneath his own.
“Look. We both know what I’m about to say. And you don’t have to say anything back. But I need to say it instead of you just noticing it, Caleb, okay?”
He didn’t say anything. Then he put his other hand on Veth’s shoulder and nodded.
“Okay…” Veth took a sharp breath and then another.
“I love you, Caleb. I’ve loved you for almost as long as I’ve known you. And I’ve been in love with you for almost as long as that. When my curse was gone I told you how I was terrified that when I was me again I wouldn’t want to stay with the Mighty Nein. But I was just as terrified that I wouldn’t love you like that anymore.
“And then I was myself again, and didn’t cut my tongue on my teeth all the time and I didn’t need to drink like a fish and my fingers were never compulsively itchy but I still...loved you. I still do.”
There was a time when Caleb would have heard her confession and refused to believe it. Or else he would have tried to convince her that she didn’t mean it, that it wasn’t her fault that she missed her husband and had imprinted on him out of lonely proximity. He would have taken her guilt and made it his own, saying that it was his fault that he dragged her out to a foreign, frozen wasteland.
But when he looked up he saw that she didn’t look like she felt guilty. Veth looked relieved, and nervous, and radiant.
“So… that’s all, I just wanted to say it out loud. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to say it after tomorrow, so I thought--” Maybe her bravery was rubbing off on him, but if she was going to open her heart to him then he was going to stop hiding.
Caleb leaned forward and slanted his mouth over hers.
For a second and a half Veth did nothing. But then she was kissing him back and he very nearly lost track of time. They’d technically done this before by a bathtub and surrounded by others, but it was so much sweeter this time. Now he could slip his tongue into her mouth without being afraid of needle-sharp teeth. Now he was confident enough to take a break from kissing her mouth to place feather-light kisses all over her tattooed cheeks before returning to scrape her bottom lip between his teeth. And Veth gave as good as she got, gently tugging his hair to angle him as she wanted, tracing the roof of his mouth with her clever tongue.
Eventually they slowed down and stopped. Caleb leaned his forehead against her own and said:
“I love you.”
Veth smiled until her eyes crinkled.
“No, I mean I am in love with you, Veth the Brave.”
Veth giggled and said, “I know.”
“You know,” Caleb asked. It took quite a bit of willpower but he pulled his head back so he could look at her face a bit better. She didn’t look even remotely surprised, although she did look delighted and very well-kissed.
Veth rolled her eyes and brushed some stray hair out of Caleb’s eyes.
“I may not notice some things, Lebby, but I notice everything that has to do with you.”
Caleb felt a flush creep up his neck from below his shirt.
“Have I been very obvious?”
“Probably less obvious than I’ve been,” she replied. “But yeah.”
Even as she told him so, Caleb could feel all of the evidence of the past year stacking up to prove her point.
Frumpkin’s eyes are brown but after he meets Nott Caleb gives him golden eyes in every incarnation thereafter.
Her skin in the moonlight is the same green as a new leaf in spring and he feels the impulse to reach out and touch to see if it was just as soft.
Her fingers are like nimble little spiders as she picks the lock of their cell, and he almost wants to cast Detect Magic just to see if she’s really real.
When they sleep in the rare bed in a dirt-cheap inn, he still pulls them together until their concave bodies are touching, even though they have woolen blankets to keep themselves warm in the night.
Nott’s collections are always something beautiful to behold. She notices the smallest, most precious of details in everything, and he feels undeservedly blessed to be the only thing worthy of her collection of friends, a collection consisting of him and only him.
She says the name ‘Yeza’ out loud with such tenderness that his first instinct is to be jealous.
Her voice is raspy in a way that reminds him of crackling flames. But the association brings only gentle memories of cooking in a humble kitchen in the Zemni Fields. It’s a voice that sounds like a home without ghosts.
She kisses his invisible nose and he feels the phantom touch of it weeks after the fact.
Caleb puts the flower she’d tucked into his hair (“for luck”) in one of his spellbooks sandwiched between two sheets of acid-free paper he borrowed from Yasha. When she is cagey and anxious about whether she should stay or go, he pulls it out well after she is asleep and lets the dried petals brush against his cheek and his nose.
She kisses his mouth and he feels the phantom touch of it even now.
Her collection of friends has grown like a weed but somehow he is still the dearest addition, her first and best friendship regardless of how many more she has now. He holds this fact close to him when he remembers that she has a collection of family, too.
She calls him the second love of her life and he feels exalted. No man could receive a higher honor than being loved by Veth.
As he forms her new body beneath the clay he leaves the calluses on her hands but makes the rest of her skin as soft as a new leaf in spring.
When she becomes Veth again, Frumpkin’s eyes also return to brown.
He puts her room next to his, and gives her more rooms beside so she can bring her family along. He’ll give her the world, so long as she doesn’t leave him, no matter how much he believes he doesn’t deserve it.
He’d never been much one for subtlety, he supposed.
Veth interrupted his thoughts with a kiss on his forehead, right between his eyebrows where a stress wrinkle was forming.
“What are you thinking, Lebby? You’ve gone somewhere else.” Caleb gave her half a smile. She was right; she did notice everything about him, even before he could notice his shift in mood.
“I’m sorry. Not for loving you, I mean,” he said. “But for making things difficult. I’ve put us in quite a bit of a pickle, here.”
Now it was Veth’s turn to frown until a wrinkle appeared on her brow, even as she cupped his face between her hands.
“What pickle? Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re blaming yourself for something we both feel, by the way.”
“Of course you noticed, I can never hide anything from you, liebling. I mean with your marriage, with Yeza…”
Caleb didn’t know what he expected her reaction to be, but he wasn’t expecting her smiling sigh of relief.
“Oh, that’s nothing to worry about.”
“He already knows?”
“Well he knows how I feel and that I was pretty sure you felt the same way. We should tell him before we do anything else--of course, that’s assuming that we actually survive this place--”
“But how, I mean, why did he…?”
He couldn’t organize his thoughts into words, there were just too many of them in his brain at once. But with Veth, as ever, he didn’t need to.
“You thought that Yeza would be upset that I was breaking our vows?”
Caleb felt guilty for casting aspersions against him now that he knew better, but confirmed her question with a helpless shrug. Veth pulled him into a hug and held him for a moment while he wrapped his arms around her.
“Well first off, halfling marriages aren’t traditionally monogamous, lots of us have partners besides our spouses. Ours was monogamous because neither of us ever met someone we loved as much as each other. But even if I did promise to only ever love him and no one else, Yeza married the town freak and started his own business from the ground up, and he didn’t flinch when his wife came back from the dead as a goblin. Of course he understood when I told him that you’re the second love of my life.”
“But if I have been just as obvious about my feelings and Yeza does not object, then why--”
“You didn’t seem like you were ready.”
He pulled back to look at her again, (Gods, how he loved to look at her), and saw the plain, loving expression on her face.
“At first I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t ready. When I was myself again I thought I might want to say something. But you were always so… skittish, so guarded when it came to your feelings. And of course, I learned about all the things that had happened to you and thought you probably needed more time to heal before we started anything. So I decided to hold off on telling you until you were ready. And then, you know, we started hunting another cult and they tried to hurt you,” she put her hand back on his shoulder, as if the eye there was a bit dirt she could wipe away, “and I realized I might not have time to tell you before you were in a good place for any of this.”
“That is true,” he said after a small pause. “If you had told me any earlier I might have reacted differently.”
“And now,” Veth asked.
He still wasn’t sure if he was ready to do anything about it like talking with Yeza or doing anything with Veth beyond trading sweet kisses. But just the idea that it was possible felt enormous. He was allowed to have good things. He was allowed to have this good thing, if he wanted, when he was ready.
“Now,” Caleb said, “we have four minutes and forty-nine seconds to return or else the others will start a battle inside the tower. Which means we have approximately one minute to keep kissing each other until we have to return to Yasha’s room.” Veth didn’t even bother to let him finish talking before she leapt into his embrace.
They made it back to the room with just over a minute to spare. When he laid down to sleep, Veth was already there, and they cuddled beneath a blanket as easily as breathing. Except now he could lean to kiss his darling behind her ear and feel her smile against his chest.
Yes, he could learn to get used to this.