Even when he first met Nott and didn’t know any better, there were little things she’d do that gave her away.
When she stubbed her toe she’d curse in Halfling, or she’d help him wash a stain out of his coat with the practiced ease of a housewife who knew the best tricks to make unsightly splotches disappear. He never examined those moments too closely, of course, for fear that in turn she’d look too closely at his own story, and find his tells. But Caleb never forgot anything, and he collected these little anomalies in the back of his mind the way Nott collected sticks.
So when she was grumbling one day that she had to abandon their pile of meager possessions while they were escaping the law, it didn’t much pique his suspicion when the thing she was angriest about losing wasn’t a favorite button or ribbon, but her spare set of underwear.
Still, he asked her:
“Were they an especial favorite?”
“No,” she said, “but now I have to wear the same pair for days until I can steal a new set, and that’s how you get yeast infections! If you think I’m cranky now, you just wait until I’m itchy, mister.”
He had never seen Nott willingly take a bath or brush her hair, but somehow this was the line in the sand?
Well, he thought to himself, if it is anything like the infection Astrid got once, she will more than earn her crankiness.
And then he lapsed into recounting all of the wonderful and terrible things about Astrid that he could remember, which is to say every single thing, and his and Nott’s conversation was all but forgotten.
All but forgotten, because the next time they were in town, he made a point of stealing a Gnomish woman’s underwear from where they fluttered on the washing line in her yard. They were probably still too big for Nott, and nothing fancier than plain white linen, but he kept them wrapped in a clean rag and stashed them away in one of the less frequently used pockets in his enormous coat. He felt a little lecherous to have stolen some poor woman’s underwear, but he locked that thought away with the rest of the things in his mind that slowed him down.
It was worth it the next time they had to go on the lam. Again, they’d had to leave everything behind and run with only the clothes on their backs and the coppers in their pockets. That night when he presented the clean pair of panties to her, her lip trembled so much he thought she’d cut herself. But then she launched herself into his arms and all he could think was, Oh. Oh, when did a simple embrace become new and familiar at the same time?
After that it became standard practice for him to keep an emergency pair on him at all times. Even if she never needed it again, this was one of the few things a wretch like him could give to someone as self-sufficient at Nott.
Then Nott was Veth, and he became Bren for a minute again, and his world tilted on its axis.
She had a son. She had a husband. She had an entire life that he never knew about.
By the time they’d reached something like an equilibrium, she’d begun to dress differently. Gone were the baggy gray trousers and stained bandages wrapped around her like a security blanket. No, now she was resplendent in a yellow dress that matched her eyes, her hair neatly plaited out of her face, adorned with enough buttons and flowers and color that it was a wonder she could sneak around unseen. She dared to take up space, she drew the eye. (She drew his eye, but then again hadn’t she always?)
One night he sat on the deck of the ship during the hours of his insomnia, seeing how many stars he could count before sleep could overtake him. He was somewhere in the high five-hundreds when he noticed her in his periphery.
“How long have you been there?” He winced when it came out more accusatory than he’d meant it to, weariness making his accent thicker and obscuring his tone. But she didn’t seem to mind; Veth had become a bit more patient with everyone now that the stress of hiding herself had gone away.
“Not too long. You looked peaceful.”
What did that look like, he wondered. He looked away from her face only to see that she was clutching something in her hands.
“Was ist das,” he asked.
Veth’s cheeks turned such a dark green that even his weak human eyes could see it in the starlight.
“Oh, I thought… I figured that it was about time for me to switch out my spare.”
Now Caleb could feel his own flush rising up his neck and overtaking his ears. Before he had time to curse his red hair and all that came with it, a pair of panties were thrust into his hands. They were still linen, but this pair had a surplice detail on each hip, and a green bow just above the slit for her tail. He knew he was being watched but almost against his will he fingered the mother-of-pearl buttons in their button-loops at the waist. It was a simple closure so she could get in and out of her underwear. It was the littlest thing.
“I, ah… these are nice.”
May the Wildmother, the Stormlord, and the Traveler all strike me down at once. He was the biggest dork this side of the Cyrios Mountains.
“Thanks,” Veth said. At least she seemed almost as flustered as he was. “You’ve been holding onto the old pair for a while now and they probably don’t fit now that we’re eating better and I don’t really have room for these in my pack so--”
“Veth,” he said. “You don’t have to justify wanting a nicer pair of spare panties. If you want to wear nice lingerie when traveling, you can. You don’t have to justify it to me.”
She didn’t make eye contact with him, but she smiled more freely than she ever used to.
“Thank you, Lebby.” She threw her arms around him and before he could react she had scampered below deck, leaving him to gently fold up the linen underwear into a neat square and put it in his pocket. When Caleb looked up at the sky again, he realized that the conversation with Veth had startled him to the point that he’d quite forgotten where he left off in his star-count.
The thing was, every month or so from then on Veth would give him a fresh pair to be her new spare, but she never actually took back the old ones. Whether it was because she felt awkward about asking or he was reticent to offer, they simply piled up in his pocket so that he now had five different pairs for her to choose from if she ever needed to. But they never had to run away from all of their possessions anymore, they had a Bag of Holding. So instead they became strange markers of the passage of time, each frillier and prettier than the last, physical reminders of the ways in which she was growing and changing while he did his best to keep up with her.
Once, just once, in the locked privacy of his rooms, he set them all out side by side on a table. Ostensibly it was so he could refold them all to fit more compactly in his pocket--the other day he realized that the ruffled edge of one pair had crept out and was on display for anyone to see when his coat flapped open in the wind or during battle. (He noticed it as they fought against the ice worm, and part of him is still convinced that it was his own embarrassment and not the worm’s cry that knocked him ass-over-teakettle)
Laid out one after the other, it was easy to see the progression of Veth’s confidence. First was the last plain pair from when she was still a goblin in dingy robes. Then the linen with the mother-of-pearl buttons and the green bow.
The next one was still a linen but this was softer, less hardy and more delicate, patterned with stripes in shades of pink and cream. The hem of each leg had a ruffle all along the edge, frills traveling up to her hips and back down to between her legs. Another bow sat above the slit for her slender goblin tail, and there were roses and leaves worked in ribbon embroidery tacked to one side of the waistband. It looked like something straight out of Tusk Love, and for all he knew that’s what she’d been thinking of when she bought it.
Next to it sat the first pair she’d handed him after she got her body back. No more linen for Veth, it was a dark navy-blue satin. By then she’d stopped wearing flowers in her hair, but he was the only one of the Nein who knew that she was still wearing them a little closer to her skin. The seams were dense with embroidered flowers: black-eyed susans, daisies, parrot tulips, daffodils and lilies of the valley. He wondered if the inside would be too scratchy with all of the knotted and loose embroidery threads, but it had been lined in cotton soft as rose petals. Even when she was fanciful, she was practical.
Or maybe not, he thought, looking at her most recent addition to his unintentional collection. In some ways it was the simplest pair she had, with no tail slit, no embroidery, no ribbons, no buttons. But every time Caleb looked at it he felt his cheeks catch fire: it was made of sheer lilac silk, broken only by a waistband made of delicate bobbin lace. He’d seen Veth naked before in the baths, he had formed her new body himself and knew every dimple and every freckle. But the idea of her wearing something like this, covered without concealment, like a gift wrapped solely to be unwrapped…
Something inside him, something atavistic and raw, slithered into the vicinity of his pelvis and he felt himself begin to stir--
“Gottsverdammt!” He shoved everything off the table and stood there, clutching the edge until his knuckles turned white, willing himself to breathe. Then he made himself kneel down and pick up each pair. He folded them one by one until he had a neat, compact package he could slip into a different pocket, this one with a button so they couldn’t sneak out when he moved.
If only he could pack up his own desires so efficiently.
The night they spent on the mountain, after the Tomb Takers had stolen so much from them… well, it was just like old times, wasn’t it? They’d been royally screwed by the universe, and left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the contents of their pockets. At least now Veth didn’t have to worry about having enough changes of underwear until they got the chance to buy her some new pairs.
He laid down waiting to fall asleep, and he began to wonder, as he sometimes did when he was too exhausted to resist temptation, if he might just buy her a pair himself. Something elegant and sensible to both their tastes. Maybe buttons of amber to fasten it closed, and made of yellow fabric like her old dress. Or maybe cream with orange ribbons, her favorite alchemical equations worked in gold thread along the hem.
And what would she do if he ever gave them to her? Would she thank him, and tell him that Yeza would appreciate his gift? Or would her adorable nose wrinkle in disgust that he should presume to be so intimate?
As he finally started to nod off, his traitorous heart imagined a future where she might look up at him from beneath her dark eyelashes, and invite him in her sultry, raspy voice:
Would you like to help me put them on?